Two weeks past this Wednesday I was having breakfast with Lennie and his old buddies at George’s Restaurant, a local diner on the corner of South Broadway & Highway 380 in the small west Texas town of Post.
I’d driven into town the day before headed for Lubbock, 40 miles up the road but something about Post caught my eye so I kicked my heels around town for a couple days.
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Post, population 3,700 and small change, is the eponymous creation of C. W. Post, who made his substantial fortune in breakfast cereal. Think Post’s Grape Nuts, Post’s Corn Flakes and more. Soon after arriving in Post something told me that it was very different from the other small towns, many of them derelict and near deserted, scattered along the hard-scrabble country that is those parts of west Texas traversed by Route 380.
C. W. Post liked putting his name on his products and that didn’t stop in 1907 when he established a town in his particular utopian vision in the heart of the 200,000 west Texan high plains acres that he owned.
But for all C. W’s vision and business acumen he was a troubled man. This Footnote in Texas History records that:
Post’s genius was clouded by mental problems. Before the psychological terms manic-depressive and bipolar disorder were tossed about in everyday conversation, Post was merely considered peculiar, a gentleman with mood swings that rivaled the peaks and valleys of the Rockies. From the crests of his psychological highs, Post’s inventive mind conjured up new products that made him a household name and launched wildly ambitious projects that might normally be considered the province of Mother Nature. His low points often terminated in a visit to a sanitarium, from which he would emerge many months later rejuvenated and begin anew.
I’d run into Lennie the day before at the Santa Fe Railroad offices, now a base for the local Chamber of Commerce, and we’d yarned about trains, dogs and the fascinating history of the town.
Lennie had moved to Post a few years earlier from Chicago and his northern bark was tempered with more than a bit of that west Texan drawl that sometimes sounds pretty and sing-songish and other times needs subtitles and seems like your interlocutor has a mouthful of rocks.
At George’s diner the next morning Lennie pulled me over to his table and I ate my huevos rancheros listening to he and his buddies talking about rain, specifically the general lack of it (the country was deep in drought) and the cock-eyed-bob that dropped an inch of high wind-blown rain the night before in 15 minutes; who got-or-didn’t-get-what, or did-what, why, with whom and when.
We also talked dogs – Lennie runs the local dog shelter – and hogs (haaawwggs) and who was getting a good crop of sorghum, the local grain crop of choice that still uses varieties bought into that country a hundred years ago by C. W. Post.
At times the mutual unintelligibility at the table stumped us all and our discussions were interrupted by nods-and-polite-smiles or repeated calls for clarification. I’m sure my Australian accent was at times as difficult for these men as theirs were for me.
We also talked about oil. The fact of oil in and around town at Post is impossible to ignore.
“Pumpjack” well-head machines are ubiquitous in west Texas and also within and outside the Post city limits. Oil gives the biggest bang to the local economy’s buck and the nodding-donkey pumpjacks litter and dominate the town and surrounding landscapes. Sometimes, with their signs warning of “Poison Gas”, you can find them in backyards in the poor (read black) part of town.
Long before the country around Post had been identified as sitting on a motherlode of “Texas Light Sweet”, C. W. had a hunch of hidden underground treasures and ordered drilling for gas, oil or minerals.
In 1911 the drill bits stripped their threads at 1,394 feet and the pipe was abandoned inside the well. A second well reached 1,712 feet and again the drill rod was lost in the hole and the well abandoned.
If C. W. had ordered that another attempt be made – and gone another 300 feet – he would have found his motherlode and his already substantial riches would have increased almost beyond measure.
The still morning air in Post has a soft hydro-carbonated sulphuration. Not offensive but just enough to rankle the nostrils but that may be the price people pay for living here. Today Post is far from the verdant desert-bound utopia that C. W. dreamt of 100 and more years ago. Away from the many uptown churches and the proud civic piles that C. W. built much of the town just looks shabby and windblown.
Worst of all for mine the local lake, (“No Swimming, No Fishing”) on the southern edge of town sandwiched between Highway 84 and the 46 Loop, was a pestilent reeking soup. I cannot help but think that C. W. Post would rail with his uncommon fury at the sights and smells of his town today.
For all his dreams – flawed and visionary both – perhaps the greatest of C.W.’s folly’s were his attempts at pluviculture, or rainmaking. As C. D Eaves & C. A. Hutchison write in their book “Post City, Texas” a somewhat rose-coloured history of the town :
The 1890’s were the heydays of rainmakers and Texas was then the scene of the most calamitous cannonadings in behalf of pluviculture, as it was sometimes called, that the world has probably ever witnessed. The art of rain making, of course, is as old as man, and it should stand an excellent chance of being at least the runner-up in the final decision as to which was the first profession. The recrudenscence of the art in the 1890’s, equipped with the latest improvements, was due to the settlement of the arid lands by farmers who had not yet come to terms with a reluctant nature and who were ready to try anything in their struggle for moisture.
And try to control the forces of nature C. W. did. In 1910 he wrote to the board a managers of Post City, instructing them:
… to have you at once and without further delay [he said] perfect a suitable kite to carry up the two pounds of dynamite I want to use. Get this kite perfected and make fifteen or twenty of them and order 150 pieces of dynamite containing two pounds each with a five minute fuse. Get all this matter necessary with cords, etc., ready for me to make some experiments when I get there in May.
Thus commenced, over three years, twenty three magnificently orchestrated “battles” that saw “armies” of men posted along the edge of the caprock – the escarpment that marks the transition point between the level high plains of the Llano Estacado and the surrounding rolling country.
These battles cost C. W. over fifty thousand dollars, and, despite that cost and the lack of meaningful results, he persisted in them until shortly before his death in the spring of 1914.
The remaining stockpile of dynamite – bought in late 1913, was not disposed if until April 1917, when the residents of Post, fearing that german agents might blow up the town with their own explosives, set fire to the remaining twenty-four thousand pounds of dynamite resulting in an enormous explosion that was the last to rock Post City.
And C. W’s vision of his town was flawed on other ways. One early advertisement boasted “No Negroes in the Country.” And while C.W. was no particular fan of organised labour and big capital he reserved his especial dislike for his bête noire, socialists, noting that:
I am enlisted to demonstrate that a city and country made up of individual owners can, so far as practical results, wealth comfort, peace and content are concerned, “rope and hogtie” and outfit of socialists and rainbow chasers that ever existed or will ever exist in our day and generation.
So, if you find yourself on the wonderful driving country scattered along Route 380, drop into Post for a couple days. have yarn with Lennie and his buddies at Georges diner, wander around the fascinating local museum and soak up a little of what C.W. tried so hard to do but, on balance, failed to achieve.
Maybe it was those socialists and rainbow chasers that did for him?