Other Views from 1890

Where is Decatur?

Above: Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler (1842–1922). Decatur, Texas, 1890, 1890. Toned lithograph, 11 x 18.7 in., by A. E. Downs. Star of the Republic Museum, Washington, Texas.

Decatur in 1890

The Fort Worth and Denver City Railroad, linking Fort Worth with West Texas and finally with Denver, provided Thaddeus Fowler the opportunity to document the massive movement of population into West Texas during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. The use of barbed wire and windmills had rendered semi-arid West Texas somewhat less formidable, and farmers using relatively new dry-land techniques had brought cotton to the Panhandle. In addition to boosters and land agents, the railroad engaged in a systematic advertising campaign to induce settlers to move to the area.[1] One of the most prolific of all the bird’s-eye-view artists, Fowler first arrived in Texas in 1890. Following the route of the FW&DC, he documented the relatively new communities of Alvord, Sunset, Wichita Falls, Seymour, Quanah, Childress, and Clarendon, along with older ones like Decatur.

Decatur is the county seat of Wise County, established in 1856. Its original name was Taylorsville, named after President Zachary Taylor, but because one of the town’s founders was offended by Taylor’s Whig politics, the name was changed to Decatur in honor of naval hero Stephen Decatur. Located about forty miles northwest of Fort Worth, the community was on the Butterfield Overland Mail line and prospered modestly until the Civil War, when the settlement line retreated and it was inadequately protected. After the war, Decatur served as a supplier and market for local ranchers and for the drovers on the eastern fork of the Chisholm Trail, which passed within a few miles of town. A measure of prosperity returned when the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway began construction on a rail line through the Texas Panhandle and reached the city in 1882. The railroad provided round-trip excursion tickets to encourage investors to be present for the sale of town lots.[2] The town’s name was enshrined in gambler’s lingo when, according to local legend, a railway construction worker coined the phrase “eighter from Decatur.”[3] When Fowler visited the city in 1890, the population had reached 1,746.

Fowler provided a view of the city from the southeast, with the county’s third courthouse (1 on map), an imposing structure with a central clock tower in front, located northwest of the public square. The other dominant structures are the Baptist Church (F), with its spire taller than the courthouse tower, the public school building (2) in the center foreground, and the Waggoner mansion at the east end of Main Street. All are disproportionately larger than surrounding structures, as was common in bird’s-eye views, although foreshortening may account for some of the size of the Waggoner house. Fowler’s street grid accurately reflects that not all the blocks in town were the same size, with some being more rectangular and larger than others that were square, but the Decatur and Bridgeport Railroad, shown in the lower left-hand corner, apparently was never built.

Fowler greatly enhanced the print by adding drawings of businesses, public buildings, and one residence to the margins of the view. This was a common procedure among bird’s-eye-view artists, and Fowler proved successful in recruiting sponsors for such details in several of his views. He also included idyllic wooded areas behind the marginal images.

Although he illustrated the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway in the lower right-hand corner of the image, Fowler did not call attention to it or identify the structures.