Where “Where the West Begins” Began

Fort Worth has had several nicknames, from the well-known “Cowtown” and “Panther City” to the less-known “Queen City of the Prairies,” “City of Heights,” and “Young Giant.”

But for almost a century now Fort Worth has had only one motto:

“Where the West begins.”

What is the origin of that motto?

Americans have debated the question of where the West begins from the git-go.

Of course, since the county’s founding what was considered to be “the West” shifted farther west as the country was settled from the east.

In 1845, as Congress debated the annexation of the Republic of Texas, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Alabama, and Missouri were considered to be “western states.”

Closer to home, in 1849 the line of the western frontier in Texas passed through Tarrant County, so the Army built a fort here. By 1851 the line of the frontier had moved westward, so the Army built Fort Belknap eighty miles west of Fort Worth and two years later vacated Fort Worth.

In 1869 a reader of a Michigan newspaper pointed out that the West had shifted still more, that states—such as Michigan—that were once considered to be part of the West were now part of the country’s interior.

In 1887 the Boston Transcript, quoted in the Buffalo Commercial, said the West begins at Batavia, New York.

Say what?

Batavia is only two hundred miles west of—all together now, with wrinkled noses—New York City!

Three years later some newspapers debated where the West begins with these results:
Boston Traveler: middle of Ohio
Salt Lake Tribune: Mississippi River, possibly even the Missouri River
Kansas City Star: the former Northwest Territory (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota)

In 1905 essayist Samuel Crothers ignored the geography of the question and instead wrote of the “psychological West,” contending that the West is not a matter of states but rather of state of mind:

“‘The West’ is not merely a geographical expression, it is a state of mind which is most distinctive of the national consciousness. It is a feeling, an irresistible impulse. It is the sense of undeveloped resources and limitless opportunities. It is associated with the verb ‘to go.’ To the American the West is the natural place to go to, as the East is the place to come from. It is synonymous with freedom from restraint. It is always ‘out West.’

“Just where the West begins it is not necessary to indicate. The psychological West begins at the point where the center of interest suddenly shifts from the day before yesterday to the day after tomorrow. Great expectations are treated with the respect that elsewhere had been reserved for accomplished facts.”

In 1911 some western governors on a tour of the East fell back upon geography as they debated where the West begins. Here are the votes:
Said Governor Hawley of Idaho: Pittsburgh
Burke of North Dakota: Mississippi River
Carey of Wyoming: Kansas City
Former Governor Brady of Idaho: Kansas City
Governor West of Oregon: Denver

Arthur Chapman, a writer for the Denver Republican newspaper, read that news story about the governors. Like Crothers in 1905, Chapman answered the question in psychological, not geographical, terms. He hastily wrote a poem, “Out Where the West Begins,” that romanticized the West, wherever it might be located:

Out where the handclasp’s a little stronger,
Out where the smile dwells a little longer,
That’s where the west begins.
Out where the skies are a trifle bluer,
Out where the friendship’s a little truer,
That’s where the west begins.

The poem was popular for years, reprinted in newspapers, included in an anthology, set to music in 1917 and recorded.
In 1919, 1928, and 1938 movies entitled Where the West Begins were filmed. Chapman came to be regarded as one of the early cowboy poets.

Meanwhile, as newspapers, governors, essayists, and poets have debated where the West begins, Texans have debated their own version of that question: Where does west Texas begin?

Again people have usually answered in terms of geography. For example, Texas writer A. C. Greene said west Texas begins at the Brazos River.

In 1878 geologist and explorer John Wesley Powell said the one hundredth meridian (blue line) separates the East (which is humid) from the West (which is arid). In Texas that meridian separates east and west Texas as it runs from Childress south through Merkel to Carrizo Springs and corresponds with a marked decrease in precipitation from east to west. For example, Dallas gets thirty-six inches of rain per year. Thirty miles west, Fort Worth (yellow dot) gets thirty-four inches. And 150 miles west of Fort Worth, Abilene gets only twenty-six inches of rain.

The area between the one hundredth meridian and the Rocky Mountains was sometimes called the “Great American Desert.” There was a time when farmers west of that meridian had a hard time getting insurance and loans because the farms were considered poor risks because of the lack of precipitation.

Texas historian Walter Prescott Webb echoed Powell, arguing that the Great Plains—which includes west Texas—begins at the ninety-eighth meridian (red line). He said the Great Plains has three main characteristics: level, treeless, and semi-arid.

That pretty much describes west Texas.

For reference, Mineral Wells, forty-five miles west of Fort Worth, is located at the ninety-eighth meridian (line of longitude).

And Michael Marks of Texas Standard radio program offers a related dividing line between east and west Texas: West Texas starts where the oak trees stop.

Marks, after talking with historians and forestry folks, concluded that oak trees need more precipitation than dry west Texas can provide.

Marks says of the oak tree line: “It starts just east of Wichita Falls, then down to the outskirts of Abilene and San Angelo, then bulging a little further west as you move south.”

That line is about 120 miles west of Fort Worth (yellow dot).

(Bud Kennedy has more on Marks’s research.)

Meanwhile in Fort Worth, in early 1921 Arthur Chapman passed through town and addressed a group. He no doubt read his famous poem.

At some point the poem came to the attention of Amon Carter, vice president and general manager of the Star-Telegram and Fort Worth’s head cheerleader.

Amon Carter, when it came to defining both west Texas and the larger the West, didn’t give two hoots in Houston for meridians or precipitation or some high-falutin’ oak tree line (notwithstanding the fact that his farm was aptly named “Shady Oak”).

But Carter could relate to Chapman’s poem: The West is defined by psychology, not geography.

So, why couldn’t Fort Worth be “where the West begins”?

Sure, Fort Worth is six hundred miles from El Paso to the west but only two hundred miles from Texarkana to the east, putting Fort Worth solidly in the eastern half of the state—geographically.

But the West was to Carter, as it was to Chapman, a place of the mind more than of the map.

Carter saw the atmosphere and values of Fort Worth—its free spirit, its generosity, its friendliness—reflected in Chapman’s poem. Fort Worth was a “hats off and ‘howdy’” sort of place, especially in contrast to its rival city thirty miles to the east.

So, Amon Carter, much as he would later procure the bomber plant for Fort Worth, much as he would lure American Airlines from Dallas and Bell Aircraft from Buffalo, appropriated Chapman’s phrase for Fort Worth to serve as the city’s motto.

And with that appropriation, Fort Worth’s Main Street became a meridian—the meridian that marked “where the West begins.”

Jerry Flemmons in Amon: The Life of Amon Carter, Sr. of Texas writes: “The Chamber of Commerce quickly accepted the phrase as the city’s civic slogan, partially because the philosophy was attractive but mostly because Amon demanded it be done.”

Amon Carter was, at heart, a salesman. As a boy he had sold sandwiches to railroad passengers. Now he had a bigger product to sell: Fort Worth. And he knew that a product sells better when it has a tagline. (Think “Wheaties: the breakfast of champions.” “Lucky Strike: it’s toasted.” “RCA Victor: his master’s voice.”)

Now Amon’s product had a tagline, and Amon was ready to sell Fort Worth to the world.

Soon after Arthur Chapman passed through town, the first references to Fort Worth as “where the West begins” began to appear in the Star-Telegram. At a conference of Texas mayors, Joe Davis of Munday in Knox County said the people of his town considered Fort Worth “to be the point ‘where the West begins.’”

The next month the Hotel Texas used the motto in an ad for its New Year’s Eve celebration.

The motto caught on and soon appeared in other advertisements.

At a convention of bankers in 1922 one of the speakers praised Fort Worth’s “nationally known spirit of hospitality as the city ‘where the West begins.’”

Fort Worth was the biggest city in west Texas and the most prominent member of the West Texas Chamber of Commerce. Fort Worth’s civic and commerce leaders routinely went on trade excursions through west Texas to drum up business.

Like Crusaders of the Middle Ages marching into battle carrying Christian flags, when Fort Worth’s crusaders of commerce toured towns of west Texas they marched in parades carrying a banner reading “Fort Worth Where the West Begins.”

And Fort Worth had a submotto: “If west Texas wants it, Fort Worth is for it.”

Fort Worth lobbied for better roads, more colleges and parks and hospitals and dams, more businesses big and small for all of west Texas, not just Fort Worth.

Despite Fort Worth’s geographic distance from the far reaches of west Texas, the city was connected to that vastness by several highways. Chief of these was the Bankhead Highway, which connected Fort Worth to Abilene, Midland, Van Horn, El Paso. The Jacksboro Highway and U.S Highways 287 and 377 also connected Fort Worth to west Texas.

Those highways made Fort Worth the supply city (both equipment and money) for the oil fields of west Texas. Those highways also brought west Texans to Fort Worth to attend our annual stock show and our athletic events and to spend money at our department stores, especially Leonard’s and Montgomery Ward.

On August 15, 1923 the city of Fort Worth and the phrase “Where the West begins” were formally wed when the Star-Telegram added the phrase to its nameplate.

Flemmons writes of the phrase: “Amon . . . nailed it to the paper’s [nameplate] with the imperiality of Luther issuing his theses.”

Now the Star-Telegram, like the city, was officially committed to west Texas. As the newspaper of the city “where the West begins,” the Star-Telegram claimed west Texas—every farmer and rancher, every jackrabbit and jackpump—as its own. The Dallas newspapers were welcome to east Texas.

Each day the first edition of the Star-Telegram was distributed to a vast area of west Texas and even into New Mexico.

West Texas had other newspapers but none as influential as the Star-Telegram. It was to the Star-Telegram that the farmers and ranchers and roughnecks and feedstore clerks and homemakers of west Texas turned for not only news about west Texas and the outside world but also for recipes and comics and advice on planting and worming and the latest trends in fashion and automobiles.

The Star-Telegram kept a small squad of reporters roaming west Texas to cover schools, politics, droughts, crops, cattle.

George Dolan’s column for its first thirteen years was entitled “This Is West Texas.”

After Amon Carter decreed that Fort Worth is “where the West begins,” he stepped into the persona that befit the unofficial mayor of the gateway city to the West: He began to play cowboy. He dressed in a multigallon cowboy hat, fancy western boots, tailored western-cut trousers, two pearl-handled pistols in hand-tooled holsters, chaps, spurs, and a bandanna. Thus attired, he was prone to shout “Yippie!” and “Whoopee for Fort Worth!” in public settings.

For the next thirty years Carter was Fort Worth’s ventriloquist, coaxing the words “Fort Worth: where the West begins” out of the mouths of his friends Franklin D. Roosevelt and Will Rogers and even Bob Hope.

Flemmons writes: “Amon . . . hammered [the motto] into the nation’s brain until it was accepted as gospel. Wherever he went, the words were rolled out, polished and spoken with great conviction for the ignorant and unknowing: ‘Fort Worth: Where the West begins.’ . . . The phrase was his war whoop, his aphoristic article of faith, a mantra he chanted in all available ears. . . . It became . . . the nation’s best known, most lasting municipal epigram. Mention Fort Worth in the opening half of the 20th century and the audience responded by rote ‘Where the West Begins.’ . . . ‘Where the West Begins’ appeared on crude signs beside GI foxholes in the South Pacific and on the breast of a B-24 bombing Nazis. . . . Even schoolboys wrote Amon Carter in care of ‘. . . Where the West Begins’ and their letters were forwarded promptly to his Fort Worth office.”

By 1949 Amon Carter was wealthy, influential, and nationally known. That year International News Service distributed a feature about Carter in which his quotation “Fort Worth is where the West begins” (and his ancillary “and Dallas is where the East peters out”) was read from coast to coast.

Amon Carter died in 1955. But today Fort Worth is still where the West begins—in minds if not on maps. Fort Worth is more heifers than Heifetz, more pickups than Porsches, more barbecue and Levis, less sushi and Gucci.

The brand that Amon Carter had put on Cowtown in 1921 still appears on the official city of Fort Worth website.

And on Fort Worth’s police cars.

And today, ninety-seven years after “Where the West begins” first appeared on the Star-Telegram nameplate, it’s still there, now alongside a Cowtown icon.

 

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