Understanding the World of Horton Foote Part 2: Texas in the 1920s

This is a continuation of a 3-part series written by Chris Baker, the dramaturg for the Primary Stages production of The Roads to Home by Horton Foote. The dramaturg is responsible, in part, for researching the world of the play and providing background and historical context for the creative team. We’ve asked Chris Baker to share some of his fascinating research here on our blog. If you missed Part 1: Performance History, click here. Keep an eye out for Part 3! 

HOUSTON, TEXAS in the 1920s

streetcar-houson-1920s

Streetcar in Downtown Houston, 1920s

“My grandmother Cleveland lived in a two-story green frame house on McGowen Street in Houston.  Streetcar tracks ran in front of her house and on the corner was a drugstore.  Across the street was St Paul’s Methodist Church and next to that, a large brick mansion where my grandmother Cleveland said lived a distant relative of my grandmother Brooks….My grandmother often took me downtown on the street car, where we would have lunch or go to  the picture show.”

Horton Foote, Farewell

A Growing City

Houston in the 1920s was a fast-growing city, drawing more and more people to its mix of corporate headquarters, fancy hotels, new asphalt, old dirt roads, housing developments, flooding bayous, politicians, cotton traders, speculators, oilmen and con men.  Department stores such as Munn’s drew shoppers from across Texas and Louisiana. Houstonians got around the city on 25 different streetcar lines.  By 1930, Houston was the 26th largest city in the U.S. with a population of 292,000, and the 3rd largest Southern city after New Orleans and Louisville.

Economics

A loaf of bread cost about 9 cents and pound of butter about 55 cents.  Appliances were fairly inexpensive, but electronics fairly pricey.  Automobiles—which could be purchased for anywhere between $250 for a Ford Roundabout to $1800 for a luxury car—were in high demand. While the country was restricting immigration of Arabs, Asians, and some Europeans, no limits were set for Latin American immigration, in large part because Texas relied on immigrants to farm the cotton, sugar and other crops vital to its economy.

downtown-houston-1927

Downtown Houston, 1927. Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.

Politics

In 1928, Houston hosted the Democratic convention, eager to take its place as an important political center.  New York Governor Al Smith was nominated, much to the dismay of the Texas delegation, which, partly influenced by the Klan, could not brook a Catholic nominee. (Smith lost the election to Herbert Hoover.)  After WWI, the size and influence of the Klan grew in Texas, reaching its peak in the mid-1920s, but falling off by the end of the decade.

HARRISON, TEXAS

The fictional setting for many of Horton Foote’s plays, Harrison is based on Wharton, the town where Foote was born.  It is 45 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, and 59 miles southeast of Houston.

“I suppose it is oversimplification that you write about what you know. I’ve never really analyzed it. It’s a very mysterious process, this finding what you want to write about and how it appears and how it urges you to finish it and to go through all the pain. But I think essentially I’ve always known that the search will always take me back here to Wharton, Texas, at least for the place. I’ve just never had a desire to write about any place else. I’ve tried to write about New York, where I’ve spent a great deal of my time, and the work just doesn’t have the same ring of authenticity as when I write about here. Of course, I call my town Harrison, not Wharton. But you know it’s based on my experiences here, things I’ve observed and grown up with.”

Horton Foote, Conversations with Texas Writers, edited by Frances Leonard and Ramona Cearley, The University of Texas Press

“I left my home in Wharton at sixteen, but no matter how poor, and I was often very poor, I always managed to return for a visit at least once a year, and whenever I met with friends or relatives on those visits we inevitably got around to: “Do you remember when,” or “I wonder whatever happened to…”

Horton Foote, Farewell

THE RAILWAY

train-depot-wharton

Southern Pacific Train Depot, Wharton

The railroad was the harbinger of the new industrial age. Until 1881, no railroad passed through the town [Wharton]. After its arrival, the growth in population proceeded apace.  In that year, the New York, Texas, and Mexican Railway laid a line from Richmond to Victoria, with a station in Wharton and many stops along the way.  The Southern Pacific Railroad, after buying many smaller lines in Texas, had a depot in Wharton by 1905. Railroad employees were envied in Wharton, not least because they received coveted free passes on the trains.  The railroad line permitted Whartonians to reach Houston easily.

Charles Watson. Horton Foote: A Literary Biography

“We got up a four in the morning to catch the five o’clock train to Houston. We arrived in Houston at seven-thirty, had breakfast and went to the morning show at the Kirby, had dinner, went to the Metropolitan in the afternoon, had supper and went to the Majestic that night, getting out at nine o’clock and catching the night train back to Wharton.”

Horton Foote, Farewell

 

The Primary Stages production of The Roads to Home runs through November 6, 2016 at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Visit the Primary Stages website for tickets and more info.

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