When a Town Dies

by | January 28, 2014

By Bill Hanna

When Debbie Wells purchased the Megargel High School campus in 2009, she didn't realize she was becoming the caretaker for so much of the town's history.

Still inside the school that opened in 1927 are desks, yearbooks and old photos of students. Near the front entrance, the Megargel school board's last agenda is still posted from June 2006; it includes the item to consolidate with the Olney school district. Next door, the gymnasium that opened in 1950 still has its scoreboard and a few basketballs strewn across the dusty hardwood court. Outside, the goal posts to the old six-man football field are in still place, surrounded by weeds.

"It was like there was a fire drill and everybody left and never came back," said Wells, who lives with her family in the former agriculture building behind the school.

For Megargel, population 203 _ on Texas 114, about 110 miles northwest of Fort Worth _ the former high school campus may be the most visible sign of a town fading away, but it's far from the only one.

Downtown is virtually empty, littered with crumbling and abandoned buildings and outdated gas stations. Many houses are vacant and of the town's 200 water meters, only 130 are active.

And like many small Texas towns hit by the prolonged drought, Megargel is struggling with its water supply.

Since last March, Megargel has been in Stage 3 water restrictions, which includes a ban on outdoor watering. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality considers it to have a 90-day supply of water, but city officials say the town lake _ the sole of source of water _ has held steady in recent months.

Town officials have had discussions with Baylor Water Supply Corp in Seymour about building an emergency water line to supply the town in case its lake runs dry.

Even if the water situation improves, city leaders worry about the town's survival.

"Unless something changes, I can't see any reason it won't completely disappear," said Jerry Goodwin, who has been a city councilman since 2009. "We've talked about it and most of the people are like me, they just don't see anything that could keep us going for very much longer."

Despite Goodwin's fears of Megargel's demise, it is rare for small Texas towns to vanish, said Rice University professor Steve Murdock, a former director of the U.S. Census Bureau and the former state demographer for the state of Texas.

"Not very many places totally disappear off the map, but that part of Texas has struggled with population growth for decades," Murdock said.

Despite the booming population gains in Texas, 96 Texas counties lost population from 2000 to 2012.

"It is a concern but it is a concern they share with the Great Plains, which has been experiencing these issues for 100 years," Murdock said. "Many have lost population. Many have struggled. They may be a shadow of their former selves, but they are still there."

Murdock, who is a rural sociologist, said residents are right to worry about the loss of the school district. Any time a town loses its school system, it can be a crippling blow.

"I would be worried about viability," Murdock said. "I think for rural areas losing schools is a big thing. It's where a community often gets its identity. If you look at the history of the Great Plains, the areas that lost schools had an even more difficult time."

Megargel's identity was linked to high school basketball, which was treated as a year-round sport. Its boys team advanced to the Class B final four during the 1974-75 season before losing in the state semifinals.

Schools, along with retail businesses and access to health care, are essential to having a viable rural town, said Billy Phillips, director of Texas Tech's F. Marie Hall Institute for Rural and Community Health, which works with 108 West Texas counties, including Archer County.

"It is very hard to attract businesses without some kind of health care facilities," Phillips said. "A lot of industries have insurance requirements that won't let them set up shop a certain number of miles from a hospital or health care facility."

Many West Texas hospitals are surviving on "razor-thin margins" that put other towns in peril if they close, Phillips said. In Megargel, the closest hospital is in Olney, 11 miles away.

___ For most of its existence, Megargel has been a small town. It began as a railroad town in 1910, named after Roy C. Megargel, president of the Gulf and Western Railroad. By 1927, Megargel had grown to a population of more than 1,200 and boasted that it had one of the first high school bands in Texas. Since then, the town's population has been on a steady decline.

The railroad was abandoned in 1943. The population decreased to 347 by 1950. Forty years later, it was down to 244, according to the Handbook of Texas. From to 2000 to 2010, its population dropped further from 248 to 203, according to the U.S. Census.

Losing 40 residents in a decade may not seem like much, but it is a concern to Megargel residents. Some believe the consolidation of the school district had led to some of those losses.

"There's just not much here for people under the age of 20 anymore or for new families," said Mayor Kelly DeSautel. "When we lost the school, there was nothing really here for the children. It's kind of hard to attract families when you've got to bus your kids 10 or 20 miles for school. And it's harder for parents to go to their kid's events if they're all in another town."

DeSautel knows firsthand; he has a 16-year-old daughter who goes to Olney High School. Most of her friends are in Olney and that's where most of her activities take place.

In order to turn the town around, DeSautel said the city must find a way to address its water problems and attract new businesses. "We need to start cleaning up the town, but right now water is our biggest issue," DeSautel said.

There is also the concern that the town's other piece of identity, the post office, will become a diminished presence. Sometime this year, it is expected to have its hours reduced from eight to four hours a day. When the reduced hours will take effect isn't clear. All of these factors have led to sense of pessimism.

Though its downtown has been bypassed Texas 114, Megargel still has a few businesses. Team Pride, an aluminum manufacturing company, is located on the edge of town. There's still a feed store, McCarson Feed and Grain, a convenience store and the Megargel Cafe.

"We're trying to pull traffic from surrounding towns," said the cafe's manager, Tracey Knezek. "If we can do that, we'll survive." But, Knezek said, the number of customers during the week is often dictated by events nearby, like hunters passing through town or cowboys working on a nearby ranch. She was expecting to be busy one day last week because a funeral was scheduled in town.

"You would be surprised by what a funeral can do for business," Knezek said.

(c)2014 Fort Worth Star-Telegram