- From Rural South to Metropolitan Sunbelt: Creating a Cowboy Identity in the Shadow of Houston
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The Conroe Courier covered the story. Rumors of an execution on the courthouse square spread from this small East Texas town like wildfire. Seven disgraceful men would face the gallows. Justice demanded it. Citizens from across Montgomery County would see it done. Even some residents of the county’s newly opened suburbs planned to attend. On a Saturday morning in February, the sheriff and his posse confronted the men, subdued them, and strung them up to the cheers of the crowd—just as they had the year before. The “despicable seven” then came back to life, did a short dance routine, and handed out candy to kids in the audience.1
This event was the most popular part of Montgomery County’s yearly Go Texan celebration during the late 1960s and 1970s. The shootout, as it came to be known, reveals how the residents of a Texas county used western trappings to define their Sunbelt community. Yet the violence, the crowd, the location, and the rhetoric were all deeply rooted in lynching practices and traditions historically tied to the South. The event repackaged local fears and cultural beliefs to make them acceptable to both metropolitan Houston, into whose orbit the county was being drawn, and a nationally ascendant Sunbelt political culture, which the county increasingly adopted. Locally, the annual shootout united small-town and rural residents with suburban and exurban newcomers around a celebration of [End Page 1] a particular western-themed, metropolitan fringe lifestyle. Like suburban expansion itself, the public event was ostensibly colorblind. Like the conservative politics that dominated Sunbelt suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s, the event promoted law and order and reaffirmed the strength of white masculinity. Conroe’s Go Texan spectacle was part of a wider embrace of western and cowboy cultural images, symbols, and identity across the Sunbelt. Because of its deep southern cultural roots and its rapid adoption of a western identity in the period, Montgomery County provides an excellent case study of the cultural transformation from South to Sunbelt, from rural to metropolitan, and from cotton to cowboys.
For Southeast Texas counties, the national popularity of cowboy symbolism and mythology during the Cold War was a godsend—a locally useful heritage that could cloak the area’s southern historical roots, social structures, and power relations under a veil of western nostalgia. In the era of the civil rights movement, national popular opinion associated white southerners with bigotry, ignorance, and social backwardness. In contrast, the western cowboy symbolized American individualism, personal freedom, and martial strength. The first was a liability to a nation positioning itself as a global champion of freedom and democracy. The second became a powerful national myth and the symbolic foundation of an ascendant Sunbelt conservatism. At stake was more than simply the question of where exactly the west begins or who gets to wear cowboy hats. Texans’ concerted efforts to rebrand their state as part of the West was, as historian Randolph Campbell has argued, a way to escape the “burden of southern history.”2
Western style and culture reached its cultural zenith across the nation during the 1950s and early 1960s. Western storylines dominated radio and television, dime store novels, and Sunday matinees. John Wayne became a national icon. Cowboy singers climbed the billboard charts. Dude ranching, rodeos, theme parks, and western fashion all exploded in popularity. The cowboy image also had strong political currency. Its popularity fueled the rise of national figures like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan and suffused the dynamic conservative political culture [End Page 2] that these men inspired. This collective American myth reaffirmed masculinity, conquest, and white privilege during a time of Cold War uncertainty and racial tension.3 Texas historians have explored the ways these myths and images, and the historical memory that accompanied...