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Texas history: People and places that no longer exist

Austin American-Statesman logo Austin American-Statesman 5/22/2020 Michael Barnes
an old house on a farm: Jim Alvis grouped photos of lonely farmhouses under the rubric, "The Melancholy of Abandoned Places." [Contributed by ©Sharon Alvis] © None Jim Alvis grouped photos of lonely farmhouses under the rubric, "The Melancholy of Abandoned Places." [Contributed by ©Sharon Alvis]

Jim Alvis sensed that 1970 had reached a turning point for Texas.

The late historian and photographer noted that the state, once overwhelmingly rural, had become, with each decade, compellingly urban and suburban. And while Texans celebrated the state's rural past in music, food, dance, movies, fashion, folk tales and other cultural sensibilities, the remnants of that rural life — actual people, places, things — were vanishing by the day.

Alvis, who died in 2018 at age 75, was a protégé of a University of Texas history heavyweight, Joe Franz. Back in 1970, Franz encouraged Alvis to apply for a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to document with black and white photography the rapid disappearance of rural Texas.

Austin native Alvis — who also worked as an independent, short-term trader in world financial markets — took thousands of photographs of abandoned farms, schools and railcars, sun-creased ranchers, folks at county fairs, ghost towns and cotton fields worked by exhausted laborers.

Alvis' images, which could double as fine-art photography as well a crucial documents of a passing era, were turned into two durable products, "Timepiece: A Recollection of Rural Faces," a film made for the Texas State Historical Association, and "Texas Passing: A Fading Rural Heritage," an art edition of a proposed volume that his widow, Sharon Alvis, wants to turn into widely distributed book.

Only two copies of the book mock-up were printed in 2018. Backers and publishers, however, have expressed acute interest in the project.

To say it plain, "Texas Passing" is exceptional.

a couple of people posing for the camera: Jim and Sharon Alvis. In 1970, Jim took documentary photos of rural Texas. His widow, Sharon, looks to turning an art book of those photos into a broadly published picture book. [Contributed by © Sharon Alvis] © None Jim and Sharon Alvis. In 1970, Jim took documentary photos of rural Texas. His widow, Sharon, looks to turning an art book of those photos into a broadly published picture book. [Contributed by © Sharon Alvis]

Despite the paucity of text, it stays with the reader long after the last page is turned.

Jim — working closely with Sharon — divided up the images into evocative chapters with titles such as "The Steel Spine," "Hammer and Forge," "A Promise Lost" and "The Melancholy of Abandoned Places."

"For more than 150 years Texans fought to achieve independence and the freedom to selectively settle and cultivate the diverse agrarian lands that comprise our expansive state," Jim writes in the book's introduction. "But in the early to middle decades of the 20th century, economic conditions abruptly and profoundly changed Texas from a region of predominantly rural development to one of the most rapidly growing urban states in America."

Those adverse conditions rolled up on top of each other.

"Shifting economic trends — including the decline of the railroads, decreased cotton production, and the depressions of 1921 and 1932 — contributed to the wane of rural prosperity," Jim continues. "In many parts of the state, severe drought conditions in the 1930s and again in the 1950s, not to mention major infestations of insect pests such as boll weevil and screwworm often proved an overwhelming challenge for small farmers and ranchers."

Luckily, the Alvis photographic collection has been gifted to the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas for research purposes. Sharon Alvis retains all copyrights to the images.

Although a general-circulation version of "Texas Passing" is not available at this point, I trust that one will be. The subjects are just too important and the images are just too valuable.

"Bypassed and many abandoned, the subjects of these photographs, made in 1970, were scattered remnants of our rural heritage that survived beyond the culture they represent and the era of which they are a part," Jim wrote in 2018. "Today, most of these people and some of these places no longer exist."

a close up of a hand: Photographer Jim Alvis liked to get up close with those doing hard labor, such as vaqueros mending a fence. [Contributed by © Sharon Alvis]

Photographer Jim Alvis liked to get up close with those doing hard labor, such as vaqueros mending a fence. [Contributed by © Sharon Alvis]
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