Texas: More than just big numbers

From extraordinary history to famous exports, Patrick Cornish discovers what makes Texas such a big deal. 

After decades of spraying superlatives, Texans could lay claim to giving the world’s most spectacular moan on the day their Lone Star State was ousted as the biggest in the union.

This was in January 1959, when Alaska — once a Russian colony — became the 49th State. Hawaii would join later in the year, bringing the total to the current 50.

The arrival of Alaska, much more than twice the land area of Texas, brought forth derision from the southern State. One Texan riposte dismissed the new kid and new block as “largely a wasteland ... if the snow and ice were melted, Alaska would be the size of Rhode Island”. Which is tiny.

I offer such statistical background as possibly helpful if you’re looking forward to getting on well with Texans. Maybe you’d care to garner goodwill by mentioning the importance of oil, cotton and beef ... praising the late Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly and Janis Joplin for massive contributions to music ... and assuring your hosts that Eisenhower and LBJ were such good chiefs in the White House through being born in the State. On the issue of presidential destiny, however, I’d suggest holding off for a while on a reference to John Kennedy’s death in Dallas.

West Australians may likewise consider pressing the pause button before puffing out chests and pointing out that their State is nearly four times as big as Texas. At least get your plateful of tasty Tex-Mex first.

So why visit the second-largest of all those United States? Mountain scenery is pedestrian compared with Utah, Colorado, California and half a dozen others. The Texan coast on the Gulf of Mexico is not famous for pristine beaches. (If these were your travel priority, however, you might as well as stay in Australia.)

What does distinguish the 600km stretch of Texas shore are the series of long, thin islands surrounding bayous that lie parallel to the coast that borders Mexico to the south-west and Louisiana to the east. The islands are like a semi-barrier of “beads” that are a haven for birdlife.

What Texas can boast is extraordinary history of political upheaval. Simply put, six flags have flown over this territory: Spain and France were colonial rulers, then in 1825 Mexico took over. Next came the Republic of Texas, which flew the Lone Star, and in 1845 Texas became the 28th United State.

Joining the Confederate cause during the Civil War brought a fifth flag; today the Stars and Stripes underlines Texas’ rock-solid position in the US family of 50 States plus Washington DC (the District of Columbia).

For the visitor, this series of landmark episodes is accessible thanks to the consummate American skill in respecting and displaying heritage. Each of Texas’ three major cities — Houston, Dallas and San Antonio — has good reason to showcase the past. The latter has the Alamo, a garrison made famous in film and history books. The battles within and outside its walls were turning points in the long territorial disputes between Mexico and Texas.

Houston is home to the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Centre. If rockets and astronautical exploration are your thing, this is where you can reach for the sky.

Dallas has the Sixth Floor Museum commemorating the biggest shock the US suffered between Pearl Harbor and 9/11. President Kennedy’s visit to Texas in November 1963 was cut short by bullets in circumstances that still cause controversy. The exhibits cover not only that day’s events but also the Kennedy family’s legacy. I emerged from its doors feeling sad but grateful for the human capacity to pay homage amid confusion.

My recent stay included a full day at the State Fair of Texas, a grander version of Perth’s Royal Show. A particular delight was a display of material about the contribution of Texans during World War I. Whereas the 17m-tall statue of Big Tex in Fair Park is Dallas’ loud and garish face, a quieter corner of Dallas is the Katy Trail, just west of downtown.

Walkers, joggers and cyclists can thank the city fathers and mothers who saved this former industrial and railway site, and rubbish dump, from high-rise development. Katy is a joy.

Although big cities have much to offer, my preference — as I age gracefully while trying hard not to grumble — is for places with few traffic lights. 

Georgetown, just north of the State capital, Austin, has just under 70,000 people. That’s small by Texas standards, yet it’s about to make a big statement environmentally.

This year a solar-and-wind farm will supply 100 per cent of local power needs. In another green initiative, a public bus service, was launched in August.

I asked Carole, the driver on my trip, about her travel likes and dislikes. She loved England but had two disappointments: “The trash lying in the streets behind those lovely palaces ... and it was so difficult to get ice for your drinks.”

The town square through which she drove me is proclaimed to be the prettiest in Texas. Understatement is banned in the US, you understand. It might be a felony in Texas. 

At this spot an extraordinary event happened in 1923. The Ku Klux Klan white supremacist organisation suffered its first major defeat anywhere in the nation. 

One of its gangs had tarred and feathered a white man of whom it disapproved. Georgetown’s district attorney prosecuted the Klansmen in a packed courthouse that made room for newspaper reporters from as far away as New York.

The jury took 20 minutes to return verdicts of guilty and recommend maximum terms of imprisonment. It was a victory over white-hooded bullies that brought the town lasting tribute, and the Klan never recovered its prominence.

Texas is mainly about big numbers but there is one cute exception. In the far west, up against the border of the State of New Mexico, is Loving County. It’s surprising, with such a name, that it has only 67 residents, the least populous county in the entire nation.

(Picture at top: Houston, by Getty Images/EyeEm.)


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