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Saving A Small Town

by Published on
photo by Abby Rapoport
Hale Center's Dairy Queen may be closed down, but the building still stands as a testament to better times.

Hale Center was once a seat of power. The last Democratic speaker of the Texas House, Pete Laney, brought governors and lawmakers, including George W. Bush, to this farming community he’s always called home. Laney’s family first came to Hale Center in 1905. In addition to his farm, Laney has owned the town’s only used-car dealership for years, and he identifies neighbors by the cars they drive. (If you’re looking for the mayor, “wherever that blue Buick is, is where he is.”) He fondly remembers the town’s heyday. “We had two stoplights,” he says a  bit wistfully. There were once four grocery stores. Eight filling stations. Three laundries. He pauses to smile and continues. Three blacksmith shops. Three car dealers. A hospital.

These days a blinking stop sign and the skeleton of the old Dairy Queen are all that remain of Hale Center’s past glory. Businesses and jobs are in short supply in the 2,100-person town. Even the hospital closed in 2001. There’s still an ambulance service—funded partly by recycled cans collected in a large bin in the center of town—that can rush Hale Center residents to nearby Plainview. In the past decade, the town’s population has barely held steady while the rest of the state grew almost 20 percent. As in many small towns, when farm jobs disappeared, young people began leaving Hale Center for bigger cities. Poverty in the town hovers at 19 percent, compared with 16 percent statewide. Median household income is 30 percent less than the state median.

But somehow, most people here believe Hale Center will survive—through innovation, creativity and sometimes sheer force of will. Residents hope the town can attract some high-paying jobs by training a 21st-century workforce. They eagerly show off murals local artists painted on downtown buildings—bucolic, pastel scenes of old West pioneers, livestock and steam trains. The small library will soon be renovated. Most of all, the town has invested in education, building a new high school and hoping this generation of Hale Center residents will stay.

That ideal future feels far away in Laney’s old used-car garage, where friends gather each morning to gossip and recount stories about the town. The garage is filled with relics. There are Packards, Studebakers and old, retractable hardtops. Old license plates, dealer’s plaques and discarded keys line the walls. As the men—once farmers, blacksmiths and business owners—smoke and sip watery coffee from Styrofoam cups, Herman Cozart eagerly talks about the day he was supposedly mayor. He never quite seems to finish the tale. “The story changes every time you tell it,” cuts in Ronald Farmer. Cozart, in his 80s, proclaims he has no worries about the town. (“He’s not worried about anything, old as he is!” shouts one of the others at the table.) But when the conversation turns to farming machinery, Cozart shakes his head.

“That’s what ruined this town is those cotton-picking machines,” Farmer shrugs. “We’re not that different from the rest of the world,” he says. “Technology always loses jobs.”

 

Hale Center’s decline has been particularly hard on the town’s black population, many of whom worked in agriculture. Across Highway 27 and on the other side of the railroad tracks, the east side of Hale Center once was home to a sizable black community. Now five African-Americans sit in lawn chairs outside one home, surrounded by fields and crumbling roads and two younger children. In the 2000 census, Hale Center reported 114 black residents—down from 140 in 1990—and the population has likely declined further in the last 10 years. “Basically, this is all the black you see,” explains  Jimmy Roberts, gesturing to the others. Sitting next to Roberts, Bobby Ross agrees: “We’re probably one of the last generations that’s going to be here.” At 55, both men remember a segregated Hale Center before they left for better jobs—Ross went to the railroad, while Johnson drove trucks across the country. They came back to care for elderly family members and have stayed to watch the town’s black population wither as children and grandchildren head to Lubbock and beyond. “In another five more years, you can’t just walk up and see just an African-American like me,” says Roberts. “Us older guys, you can see us fading away.”

As a police cruiser passes for the second time in a little over an hour, everyone in the circle says the police can be a frustration. “They just hassle us by the little stuff,” says Ross. Kiszzy Estrada, at 33 the youngest adult in the yard, complains that her children haven’t been taught about Juneteenth. “They don’t even teach black history,” she says. Bobby Ross laughs—he wasn’t taught black history in schools, but then, he says, “We knew it all along.”

No one here has much hope that blacks will return. But if the black community of Hale Center is disappearing, the growing Hispanic community has gradually taken a larger role in town affairs.

At Owl’s Cafe, Tejano music plays in the background. Among strings of chili-pepper lights and flags, the walls have posters advertising bands. There’s an autographed picture of Grupo Sueño, the 2009 Tejano Music Award winner, and a larger sign for Cuatro Vientos, a mariachi band out of Lubbock. There’s also a series of certificates honoring the restaurant and its owner, Melchor Gomez—Mel to anyone around here. Gomez came from Houston 16 years ago to lead the town’s now-shuttered Jerusalem Baptist Church. He soon became a prominent leader in Hale Center and the first Latino member of the Hale Center City Council. Now two of the five city council members are Latinos.

Gomez has continued to work in churches, all primarily Latino. As he’s moved from one church to another, Gomez has worked to forge relationships between white and Hispanic residents, holding joint services at white churches and making his restaurant a popular spot for politicians of any party. “Of course,” he laughs, “the Hispanics sit on one side, the whites sit on the other.” Still, Gomez has seen the town change dramatically. He’s been a Chamber of Commerce member for 12 years, and he’s seeing other Hispanics join.

“The new generation of Hispanics are getting with whites,” he says. “It’s the old generation that feel [uncomfortable], and I guess they grew up like that.” Gomez’s only concern about integration is the loss of Spanish. He estimates that two in 10 Hispanic kids in Hale Center are fluent.

Gomez raised his son Rudy in the town, only to see him leave to join the Navy. Now, years later, Rudy has returned to West Texas with his family. That’s a trend Hale Center has to count on; many kids leave after high school but come back to raise families or take care of elderly relatives. Rudy lives in Plainview, and while he expects to stay in Hale County, he doubts he’ll move back to Hale Center anytime soon. Rudy says that pattern—leaving and returning to a place nearby—will likely continue. “I see my kids leaving the area due to the fact that they don’t want to get stuck,” Rudy says. “That was my reason. I didn’t want to get stuck here after high school.”

 

Rick Teran has hope for his adopted hometown. A serious man, earnest to a fault, the local school superintendent beams with pride for Hale Center’s tiny school system. He drives a white Suburban emblazoned with a Hale Center Owls insignia. He points to improvements since he arrived seven years ago: a remodeled middle school and a new high school. He was integral to both. When the middle school needed new heating and cooling systems, he and the maintenance crew installed the units themselves to save money. He even helped salvage the middle school’s mural by flipping a painted wall rather than knocking it down. “I watch too much HGTV,” he chuckles.

The middle school is nothing compared with the new high school, a state-of-the-art building that’s become the talk of the area, despite only having 168 students. Thirty percent of this county is under 18, and like most towns in West Texas, the school is in many ways the epicenter of the community. Many in town hope the school, with its shiny floors and classrooms equipped with computerized whiteboards, will produce a tech-savvy work force and attract better employers. “Technology is the way that education is going to go,” says Teran. “That’s how these kids learn.”

Teran believes the schools will attract new people, maybe because he himself adores small-town living. Whenever someone says or does something especially kind, Teran grins and says, “That’s just West Texas.” He shakes his head at the problems evident in larger school districts. Teran says the schools here are too small for students to get away with much. “I just think that if there was a way to divide the state into so many [small schools] … I’m not saying we’re perfect, but there’d be a lot more schools like this,” he says.

Inside the high school, songs by Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus blare through a high-tech sound system, turning the gym into a sort of well-lit dance club. With 160 or so kids corralled in a gym that seats 700, it’s not clear why administrators are using the P.A. system, but everyone eagerly waits for the announcements. The building oozes the smell of new wood and new chemicals, and everyone is grinning ear-to-ear. It’s not the football team they’re waiting to hear about. It’s the new laptops the school has purchased, one for each student.

Teran and his faculty hope that between the laptops, bought with grant money, and the new school, businesses will relocate to this small and faraway town, and give the kids more reasons to stay in Hale Center. With a well-trained work force, people believe industries will consider Hale Center because of the Internet and the low cost of doing business. Technology, which killed off so many farming jobs, may now be the only way to save the community.

The present and future Hale Center may not be the town of Laney’s memory, but he and his family remain committed. Long after his daughter moved away to Lubbock to practice law, she still reads the town’s weekly paper. She and her law partner bought it when it was on the brink of closure. Even from afar, Laney says, “she couldn’t stand to see it go away.”