Legacy of a Madman. The Traveler’s Story.
July 9, 2013
A VG Serial: Other Voices, Other Towns
The Scene: Downtown Post, perched upon the Caprock escarpment of the Llano Estacado, is a Historical District where you can spend a day or a lifetime. The Algerita Arts Center is housed in the gracious old Algerita Hotel. The stage of the Garza Theatre, located in an original 1919 vintage picture show, comes alive each year with popular Broadway-style productions. And the Garza County Historical Museum displays Indian, ranch, cowboy, and pioneer artifacts, along with the memorabilia of C. W. Post in the sanitarium built by the Post Toasties entrepreneur in 1912.
The Sights: The Tabana Yuane is a traditional Native American ritual held every year on March 22 during the first hours of spring to determine whether the coming year will be good or bad to the crops that lie in Post’s fields. According to legend, the wind must be touched at sunrise on the day after the sun reaches the halfway point in its journey from south to north. The Native Americans always knew that if the wind blew out of the east, they would have a good year. If the wind came drifting out of the north, the year would be average. A gently western wind prophesied a poor season. And they always feared the aftermath of a southern wind, which meant the worst year of all.
For the native Americans, the ritual was as ancient as the breath of life itself. Garza County pioneers began the ceremony in 1906 when they first began turning ranch lands under the plow. Their descendants don’t let a March 22 pass without gathering in a ceremonial ring at sunrise to watch as the wind blows away the smoke that curls up from a small fire in a patch of prairie grass. It is pagan, perhaps. But records kept since those early farmers crawled out of bed at sunrise to first check the wind in 1906 reveal that Tabana Yuane had been accurate ninety-two percent of the time.
The Story: C. W. was crazy. There was no doubt about it. Maybe the sun had baked his brain as he drove that buggy across the wind-blistered plains of West Texas, chasing a dream that no man in his right mind would ever dare to dream. He stared out across a land as flat as a tortilla and just about as dry, and C. W. saw buildings rising up out of the sandstorms that swept far beyond the ragged rim of the Caprock. He heard the grunt and groan of a railroad as it cut down across caliche arroyos and through a thicket of gnarled mesquite. No one else could see what C. W. saw. No one else could hear the whistle of a locomotive as it echoed upon a prairie where no tracks had ever been nailed to the hard earth.
So they laughed at him, and they humored him, and the word that C. W. had lost his way and his mind was passed around like beans at a boarding house meal. Many heard him, but no one listened, and they walked one way through town as he walked another, and they wondered silently and aloud why he had even bothered to come to a land where he obviously did not belong.
C. W. was a drummer, trying to squeeze out a meager living in a vast country where coyotes outnumbered the people. He spent most of his hours alone, adrift in his buggy out among the cactus and prairie dog towns that seemed to sprawl forever in an unfenced world. He carried a few goods, and he sold them where he could, usually to ranchers whose spreads were as scattered and disorganized as the cattle that kept searching for grass and water and generally wound up munching on mesquite beans to keep from starving to death.
The ranchers did not understand C. W., not at all. He was an outsider, maybe even an outcast. He was ignorant of the tribulations that fell like hailstorms around the weary shoulders of the cattleman too poor to stay in business and too broke to get out.
“You’re wasting your time with cattle out here,” C. W. would tell them.
The ranchers frowned.
“There ain’t no future in it.”
He had a point.
“This ought to be farming country.”
To the ranchers, C. W.’s words were damn near blasphemous. They might have run him off, but nobody ever took C. W. that seriously. They simply let him rant and rave like the crazy man he was, and some felt pity, and others bought his goods just to get rid of him. All knew that cattlemen and farmers just couldn’t survive together upon the same patch of God-forsaken soil. The ranchers had staked their claim, and they weren’t about to let a bunch of grangers come along and take it away from them. Besides, as the cowboys had always told the nesters about the land that spread unbroken before them, “The best side’s up. Don’t plow it under.”
A few had tried. But the crops had not grown. There had been no rains to nourish them, and the creeks had run dry because the rains had run off, and the northern winds had raged down off the Panhandle to blow away the dust and bitter seeds from barren fields. A prairie where great herds had grazed lay ashen and worthless, as worthless as C. W.’s empty prophecies, as useless as his visions of buildings rising up out of those cursed sandstorms. The farmer couldn’t afford the sun-bleached soil. It tempted him, then broke him. The farmer came but seldom stayed for very long.
On the splintered door of one abandoned wooden shack, a nester nailed a note that read:
One hundred miles to water,
twenty miles to wood,
six inches to hell.
God bless our home.
Gone to live with the wife’s folks.
Dreams died hard on the prairie and were buried in the alkali dust that hid the footprints of farmers who came one year and were gone the next, who were neither missed nor remembered by the cattlemen as they pushed their rangy herds across ground scarred but never tamed by the plow.
C. W. only shook his head in disappointment and bewilderment. “This shouldn’t be cattle country,” he said.
The ranchers frowned.
“Cattle will break you.”
He had a point.
“You ought to raise cotton on this land.
There was that blasted blasphemy again.
C. W. talked loudly about the towns that would grow from the tracks of the longhorns. He envisioned settlers trekking west to tame the forgotten territory, then nail down cities upon it.
“I just might build one myself,” he said.
The ranchers laughed at him and humored him and pitied a good man whose brain must have been baked by the severity of the summer drought. As one told him, “I got the finest grazin’ land in the world, and nary a neighbor within twenty miles. Stranger, I don’t want improvements spillin’ on my range.”
One morning, C. W. just up and left. He turned his horse-drawn wagon around and headed north. Few knew where he was going or if he was gone for good. Even fewer cared that he had left at all, except on those days when they found their barrels empty of supplies and searched the prairie for the crazy drummer whose visions of buildings were as fleeting as the sandstorms that swept away the tracks he had left behind.
“I hear he’s got bad stomach trouble,” one rancher said.
“This country too rough for him?”
“I guess so. He told me he was goin’ up to one of them sanitariums in Michigan.”
“What do you do in one of them places?”
“Get well or die,” I guess.
West Texas soon forgot C. W. But he never lost sight of the dream he had staked down on the high plains far behind him. In 1906, he returned, and nobody recognized him. C. W. wasn’t what you would call a drummer anymore. At least he certainly didn’t act like one. He simply reined to a stop in Garza County and quietly began to layout out a town. He sold six hundred farms to those with guts enough to travel to a dry land that offered little more than a handful of promises.
The town didn’t have a bank, so C. W. financed the loans himself. He had money. Plenty of money. And nobody thought he was a crazy man anymore. The ranchers tolerated him. The grangers believed in him, and they held firmly to their farms even when the drought of 1917 covered their crops and livestock like a plague of locusts. Everything withered away but the dream for a town.
C. W. had gone to the Michigan sanitarium all right, the one run by Dr. Kellogg up in Battle Creek. He had studied food and nutrition, even creating a few products that he hoped would ease the pain in his bad stomach. He called them “Postum,” “Grapenuts,” and “Post Toasties.” Then C. W. Post took part of his millions and came back to the wind-blistered plains of West Texas to build the town that would forever bear his name. His financial empire grew larger than Post, Texas, but nothing, near or far, was ever quite as important to him as the little farming community conceived in the sun-baked brain of a mad man.
Chapters of Other Voices, Other Towns: The Traveler’s Story, are published daily.
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