Some Things Gone By
Remembering what Silver City was really like at mid-century —
the good, the bad and the dusty.
I'm afraid that I didn't see it coming. I really didn't. At one moment, there I was, sweltering through another day of excruciating Texas heat, standing before a class at Sam Houston State, attempting against impossible odds to interest glazed-eyed students in Homer and Virgil while looking forward, myself, to temperate Silver City weather. And then, in the next second, I found myself retired, sitting amidst new friends at the Yankie Creek Coffee House. So it was at the coffeehouse, over an espresso, that I first heard — from others — that I had morphed from a burned-out husk into "a veritable fountain of historical lore."
Old postcards, from the author’s youth in Silver City as well as before and after, show the different looks of the town and its surroundings over the years.
Try to imagine my surprise, for I had not arrived at this new station in life through anything like long training, nor as the result of careful study and research, and certainly not by intention. Rather, I had achieved this absurd eminence solely by gross and utter default: Having grown up along the banks of the Big Ditch, I'd merely had the good fortune to survive long enough to remember what the town was really like during the middle of the 20th century.
The friends of my youth, many of whom remain here and remember things with more precision than I will ever be able to muster, should be consulted. They are loaded with wonderful facts and great stories and do not need my help, save for what one or another may have temporarily forgotten during a senior moment.
Instead, I find myself writing largely for those new friends, the newcomers to Silver City, who seem to be flabbergasted when they learn that someone living happened to have been born and raised in Grant County. I hadn't realized that those of us who grew up here had become so rare, but alas, on more than one occasion across the past few months, I have started to feel kinship with a line of dinosaurs or, perhaps, the entire species of dodo — categories into which my students consigned me as early as 1975 and into which my grandchildren threw me the moment they learned to count on their fingers. So, for the newcomers, then, some things gone by, none of them ever likely to pass this way again.
Some of the things to be remembered about "the good old days" in Silver City were not so good at all. Take the dust, for example. During the Forties and well into the Fifties, paving in this town remained in short supply: College Avenue, Bullard, 6th Street, Market Street (then US 180), Broadway and — here and there — a block or two of Yankee, Texas, Black, Santa Rita, Grant and 10th Streets had genuine cement laid down. But elsewhere, and without curbs and gutters, about the best that one could hope for was a thin, deteriorating strip of asphalt in the middle of 12th Street, Pope Street, West Street and Alabama. Some of the historic district and a few blocks of Silver Heights had a little of the same asphalt, but a majority of the streets in town were dirt. Most of the shoulders on both sides of the asphalt were dirt. When those dirt streets joined together with the many empty lots still within the city limits, winds of no more than 15 miles an hour could hurl clouds that persistently stung the face and dust devils with the strength of cyclones.
The “Kneeling Nun,” Santa Rita’s famous volcanic monolith.
The problem, as I remember it, was that the wind usually blew well in excess of 15 miles an hour, and it seemed to go on for months, particularly during the spring and early summer. As a result, everyone walked with a perpetual squint so as to prevent being blinded by the grit in the air. Flying objects — cardboard boxes, sheets of tin and occasional planks — were an attendant hazard, and the passage of each and every car only added to the misery.
In 1948, when my father finally built the family home on the northeast corner of West and 13th Streets, neither street was paved, so my mother absolutely and wisely refused to have a carpet anywhere in the house. What she demanded and got was asphalt tile, which she knew that she could dry mop three or four times each day. I can still remember my sister and me standing in front of the tightly closed windows, unable to see the houses across the street while being enchanted by the little fountains of dust that were rising like geysers and filtering into the house from beneath those same well-weather-stripped windows.
Eventually, in the Fifties, the Town of Silver City paved the streets, installing curbs and gutters in the process, and the dust — or at least most of it — died. Oh my, what a difference that paving made!
Curbs, gutters, and paving made an additional difference as well.
Newcomers to Silver City may think that flooding ended here when the two monsters gouged out the Big Ditch at the turn of the century. As a word of advice, let me recall a useful Silver City rule: When rain threatens, never let Yankie Street stand between you and your car. Please be advised that anyone who disregards this rule should be prepared to take long-term shelter away from home or, possibly, carry swim fins and a snorkel.
Regarding floods, after major storms, we still have our share of run-off, but drainage conduits in the form of curbs, gutters, paving and not a few culverts have vastly improved things since the middle of the last century. During the late Forties and early Fifties, however, before the paving was put down, I can remember the center of 13th Street between Virginia and the Big Ditch being washed out down to a depth of six or eight feet as many as 10 different times. The Town then made a move that, in retrospect, proved to have been ill conceived: They paved West Street first, leaving 13th Street temporarily unpaved — with the result that the next flood down 13th Street quickly threw up a dirt ramp against the new curbs on West, flooded right around houses, and buried grass, flower beds, shrubs and vegetable gardens beneath six full inches of new wet silt. Equipped with rubber boots, my sister and I had the time of our lives sloshing around in that muck; my parents, having seen years of careful gardening go to ruin in minutes, turned to indoor pursuits for life. Damage in other parts of town was similar.
The serious danger, however, was not out the front door, looking west up 13th Street, but out the back, coming straight down the Big Ditch from the north. Following the great floods at the turn of the century, after Main Street and so many buildings had been washed south out of town, the CCC or the WPA, or a combination of both, had built the retaining walls that still line the lower reaches of the Ditch from south of the Broadway Bridge all the way up to 12th Street. North of 12th Street, the walls of the Ditch remain in a state of nature. Across the past 20 or 30 years, occasionally a flood of five or six feet has rushed down the Ditch, entertaining observers with its destructive potential. But during the Forties and Fifties and even with the check dams that the CCC had built in the surrounding watershed, that watershed had not yet fully recovered from the time when all of the surrounding trees had been cut for firewood, fence posts and mine supports.
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