'Schizophrenic Situation' in 6 States : Panhandle People: A Difference of Geography

Associated Press

With eyes atwinkle and a smile on her lips, Betty Biggs says the folks of the Texas Panhandle need not fret over the ills and injustice of state government.

"I think," says she, "the panhandle of Texas ought to secede and form a state of its own."

She jokes with the country wit of a weekly newspaper editor who has seen the best and worst, including a rain and dust storm that dumped mud balls on this hamlet northeast of Amarillo.

But residents of the farms and ranches and wide-open spaces of the panhandle have long called this isolated chunk of Texas the 51st state. And not always in good humor.

Though fiercely independent, the people of the panhandle are separated physically from the rest of Texas and often feel neglected and ignored by their high-rolling brethren in Dallas, Houston, Austin and elsewhere.

"We have a greater kinship geographically, environmentally, economically and recreationally with Eastern New Mexico," said Byron Price, director of the Panhandle-Plains Museum in Canyon. "We're five hours closer to Santa Fe than we are to Austin."

Indeed, parts of the Texas Panhandle are closer to five state capitals than their own in Austin, which is 500 miles away.

Share Similar Problems

The panhandle people of Oklahoma, Nebraska, Idaho, Florida and West Virginia have similar complaints. They share problems stemming in part from isolation, economic imbalances, philosophic differences or geographic quirks.

Idaho is famous for its potatoes, but its panhandle residents can't find Idaho potatoes in their restaurants and supermarkets. Their potatoes come from Washington.

Pensacola, on the western tip of the Florida Panhandle, is 620 miles from Miami and 550 miles from Orlando. That means it is closer to Houston, Memphis, Atlanta and Cairo, Ill., than it is to Miami.

Some wags refer to the Florida Panhandle as L.A.--Lower Alabama. The governor of Alabama even offered to buy part of the panhandle a few years back.

The former publisher of a newspaper in a tiny slice of northwestern Oklahoma cavalierly dismisses the non-panhandle bulk of the state as "southeastern Oklahoma." And he put up a billboard announcing to travelers from the West that they were entering Guymon:

"Home of the most lied-about weather in the United States."

West Virginia claims two panhandles. People in the eastern panhandle are closer to the nation's capital than their own. In the northern finger, residents are squeezed between Ohio and Pennsylvania and can travel to Pittsburgh, Cleveland or Columbus much faster than to Charleston.

'Schizophrenic Situation'

"A schizophrenic situation," contends a West Virginia broadcaster who lives in Wheeling.

In 1982, the Star-Herald of Scottsbluff, Neb., asked its readers if they favored the 11 counties of the Nebraska Panhandle breaking away to join Wyoming.

Eighty-five percent of the 2,004 people who replied said yes.

At the time, Keith Kemper, publisher of the Alliance, Neb., Times-Herald, dismissed the issue as a winter diversion, a joke, and tossed out a suggestion of his own. Said he:

"What we ought to do is go into Colorado instead of Wyoming. Then we'd have the mountains and they'd have a football team."

Here are some often common experiences of the nation's panhandle people as reported by Associated Press correspondents in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Idaho, Florida and West Virginia.

Idaho:

Residents of western Montana, northern Idaho and eastern Washington have joked for years of forming a 51st state because those areas have more in common with each other than with eastern Montana, southern Idaho and western Washington.

They call the state Columbia or Washidamont (Wash-Ida-Mont).

Folks in the timber and mining industries of northern Idaho contend that they are misunderstood and neglected by Boise, the state capital. They can't see why their lush forests and rushing waters were patched together with Southern Idaho's farmers, fields and deserts.

Several southern counties are among the state's driest. Areas in the north receive more than 60 inches of rainfall annually.

Geography adds to the problem, since northern Idaho is cut off from the south by major mountain ranges such as Bitterroot and Sawtooth and White Cloud Peaks.

The major link between north and south is Highway 95, but motorists sometimes can't make the drive in winter. When they can, it's an eight-hour trip from Coeur d'Alene south to Boise.

This obviously could discourage commercial trade between north and south and explains why the panhandle gets its potatoes from Washington.

Idaho is served by three communications and business centers and two are out of the state. Southeast Idaho is served by Salt Lake City, southern Idaho by Boise, and northern Idaho by Spokane, Wash.

Secession Attempt Failed

Northern Idaho's last serious secession movement came in the 1950s after a temperance group sought repeal of a 1947 law allowing slot machines and purchase of liquor by the drink.

The Idaho Supreme Court eventually rid the state of the machines. But you can still buy a drink.

Regional tensions heat up each year when the Legislature convenes, and a current issue is a state lottery. Northern Idahoans want it. Southerners, many of them members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, oppose it.

Those southern Mormons are trying to dictate to the rest of the state how to live, insists Cy Chase, a member of the Democratic National Committee, chairman of the Idaho Racing Commission and a former state senator from St. Maries in the panhandle.

"The northern people in the state have a whole different way of thinking," he said.

State Rep. James Stoicheff of Standpoint agreed.

"We're more used to having bars up here," he said. "We're used to taking more chances. We're freer, not necessarily morally. But we don't take life quite so seriously.

"It's OK to have a little fun."

Nebraska:

The Nebraska Panhandle is range country, like Wyoming, and the rest of Nebraska is mostly farm country, which explains in part the brittle relationship between certain factions of the Cornhusker state.

Secession is a recurring topic and occasionally a serious one.

Just four years ago, the Star-Herald of Scottsbluff conducted a poll that showed that 85.2% of the respondents favored the 11 counties of the panhandle leaving Nebraska and becoming part of Wyoming.

Nebraska historian Frederick C. Luebke said at the time that he didn't blame panhandle residents for wanting the state's boundaries redrawn because they never made any sense in the first place.

"The boundaries in the West were not really done for the logic of the situation--who was there and that sort of thing," Luebke said. "They were pretty arbitrary."

He said officials who through the years carved up the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 "simply drew the lines and let the line fall where it may. And in a lot of instances, they didn't have any idea what the topography was like."

Calls Attitude Predictable

When he was editor of the Star-Herald, Daryl Hall said:

"I know what the attitude of people in the eastern part of the state is going to be. They're going to roll their eyes, and they're going to chuckle, and it's going to be one big joke to them. 'Those radicals out in western Nebraska, they've got an inferiority complex.'

"But it's not that. We don't feel inferior to anybody. We know what we're made of, what we contribute to the state--beauty, historical significance, a tremendous climate.

"But our climate, our terrain, our philosophy and our culture--our entire way of life--is more in tune to Wyoming than it is to Nebraska."

State Sen. Sam Cullan, who grew up on a panhandle farm in Box Butte County, said: "If we weren't the descendants of a people who would do the bold, the daring, the different, we wouldn't be talking about merging with Wyoming.

"We would be living in Philadelphia and Boston."

Oklahoma:

Talk of secession in Oklahoma is mostly tongue-in-cheek, but the 30,000 or so residents of the three panhandle counties have long contended that they are treated like stepchildren by the state's other 74 counties.

There was a time when panhandle residents figured that Congress ought to make it a state all its own.

It all started when Congress, laying out states like tiles west of the Mississippi River, established the southern boundary of the Territory of Kansas at the 37th parallel in 1854.

When Texas came into the union as a slave state, it would not extend its sovereignty over any territory north of a certain line because that territory would be free as specified by the Missouri Compromise.

That left a narrow strip of land 34 miles wide between Kansas and Texas, and extending a total of 168 miles. The Territory of New Mexico was at the western end and the Cherokee Strip was at the east.

'No Man's Land'

The area, claimed by no state, soon became known as "No Man's Land."

In the mid-1800s, "squatters" from western Kansas began moving into the panhandle and establishing tiny townships. In 1887, delegates to a territorial council decided to ask Congress to make the rectangular strip a territory.

Instead, Congress attached it to Oklahoma Territory and the panhandle was born.

If nothing else, panhandle residents can at least look down on the rest of Oklahoma. The nearly mile-high Black Mesa in the northwest corner of the panhandle is the state's highest point.

Florida:

In 1869, Alabama proposed to annex the western portion of the Florida Panhandle and pay Florida $1 million in compensation. Voters in the affected area west of the Apalachicola and Chattahoochee rivers approved the plan and it was submitted to the Legislature in 1870.

But legislators failed to act and the annexation issue was forgotten until 1982 when then-Alabama Gov. Fob James said he was willing to pay $500 million for the western half of the panhandle.

Rejecting the offer, Florida Gov. Bob Graham declared:

"None of it is for sale at any price!"

Still, few deny that a feeling of isolation exists because the panhandle is so far from such major population areas as Miami and Orlando.

"You can talk to anybody who's down south," said state Rep. Tom Tobiassen of Pensacola. "They never think of this as Florida."

A different climate and a sparse population contribute to the feeling of separation between northern and southern Florida. That feeling is stronger in the western part of the panhandle than in the eastern section, which includes the state capital, Tallahassee.

Different Time Zones

The western panhandle, still called West Florida or Northwest Florida to differentiate it from the eastern panhandle, known as the Big Bend, isn't even in the same time zone as the remainder of the state.

Direct airline flights between West Florida and other parts of the state--even Tallahassee, which is 200 miles from Pensacola--are few. It often is faster to fly to Atlanta and switch planes when traveling to other cities in Florida.

And then there are the economic differences.

Tourism and agriculture are the major industries in semitropical South Florida, but government is the mainstay in the panhandle, with the exception of some beach areas.

West Florida has the military, including Eglin Air Force Base, the nation's largest, Tyndall Air Force Base and the Pensacola Naval Air Station. In the Big Bend, it's state government, including the capital, prisons and a mental hospital.

West Virginia:

History and geography have distanced if not divorced West Virginia's panhandle residents socially and emotionally from the rest of the state.

The northern West Virginia Panhandle juts sharply upward forming a jagged horn between two giant states, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

It was Jim Forsythe of WWVA radio in Wheeling who called it a "schizophrenic situation," explaining:

"You have a small state wedged between two big states and large lurking bulks of cities on either side. It's a most interesting and most unusual geographic quirk.

"Many people here are West Virginians in name only. Emotionally, they are closer to Ohio and Pennsylvania. They pay taxes to West Virginia, but culturally and socially they belong to other states."

The lottery, horse racing and casino gambling received strong support from northern panhandle residents, while downstate those issues have been called the "devil's work."

Wheeling got itself a well-earned reputation as a "hotbed of prostitution" some years ago and it's an image that can persist today in other parts of the state.

Police Chief Arrested

According to one historian, a police chief in 1914 took it upon himself to rid Wheeling of prostitution, but the sprited campaign faltered when the police chief was busted on a morals charge.

Despite its uniqueness, the northern panhandle is still more closely linked physically to the state capital than its eastern panhandle neighbors.

The Ohio River, which forms the state's western boundary, and two fairly accessible interstate highways provide the important links between northern panhandle cities and Charleston in a state where remote, rugged terrain still mounts major obstacles to physical movement.

Those two interstate highways require travel through two other states to reach Charleston.

Eastern panhandle residents shop in Maryland, seek medical care in Virginia and attend the theater in Washington. Per capita, they are better educated and have a higher income than their fellow West Virginians.

"It's easier to get the Washington Post delivered to your doorstep than to get the Charleston Gazette," said Dr. George Parkinson, curator at West Virginia University.

State of Contrasts

A state of contrasts, West Virginia has some of the nation's highest and lowest unemployment rates.

The West Virginia coal-miner image is nowhere to be found in the eastern panhandle, where the federal government, agriculture and manufacturing are the biggest employers.

According to historian John Stealey, eastern panhandle residents feel a strong sense of loyalty to West Virginia, but the loyalty is more to the West Virginia they "perceive" historically, not the West Virginia that exists today.

Stealey, chairman of the Department of Social Sciences at Shepherd College, says he moved to the eastern panhandle to teach after leaving West Virginia University "because it's as far away as I could get from the rest of the state and still be in West Virginia."

Texas:

In an office high atop an Amarillo bank building, former County Judge Hugh Russell looked out across the endlessly flat farm and ranch country below and said:

"You can actually photograph other parts of the country, but it's terribly hard to photograph the Texas Panhandle. It just keeps on going.

"There's nothing to frame it in."

In Panhandle, the town, Richard Robinson said much the same thing.

"You can get out here and stretch your eyeballs. I like trees and all that, but I also like to see where I'm going."

In Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, San Antonio and other large cities, high school football teams can play a 10-game schedule and rarely if ever leave town. Perryton, a small town to the north, once crossed two state lines to play a team its own size in Liberal, Kan.

"When you live this far from Austin, you always have in the back of your mind that they don't know you exist," said Panhandle City Manager Larry Gilley. "But I don't really have a feeling of isolation."

Hugh Russell noted that two previous panhandle legislators have been convicted of theft.

"I think because of that the state manages to run itself more or less in an able fashion without our help," he said with a wry smile. "And we continue to run our part of the state as any person living in Jackass Flats is deigned to do."

'The Last Frontier'

Byron Price, the Canyon museum director, contends that the panhandle is "literally the last frontier," not only in Texas but America, and that a "frontier mentality" exists even today.

Price described the people as conservative, independent and very creative and "really ahead of our times in so many ways."

He called them plungers, risk takers and entrepreneurs and very much in the pioneering spirit of those who settled what once was called the Great American Desert and set about establishing the cattle business.

It is cruelly ironic that the panhandle's three basic economic forces--oil, cattle and agriculture--are all suffering at the same time.

"The people came out here to conquer the land but only made an uneasy peace with it," Price said. "It's a hard land. But our people are a strong, hardy bunch and they have a lot of staying power.

"Historically, in Austin we have not fared well, and it's particularly aggravating since this area out here has provided so much revenue for the state with its oil and gas and public lands."

Broadcasting entrepreneur and devout Amarillo eccentric Stanley Marsh contends that the region's political clout is less now than a generation ago but that being a "backwater" has its rewards.

"Being out in the backwater, the politicians visit us less, and I think that's nice," he said.

"I didn't like all those politicians coming in here. Basically, they're glad-handers, ingratiating and professional liars."

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