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Physical Features, Communities, and Counties

Three of the major categories of articles in the New Handbook of Texas are physical features, communities, and counties. The 4,200 physical features, 7,200 communities, and 254 counties make up almost half of the articles in the book, but, because of the brevity of many of these articles, considerably less than half its pages. Although many excellent community and county articles were written by volunteers during the course of the project, it became clear fairly early that the great bulk of the towns, counties, and physical features would have to be done by staff members or by student volunteers working under supervision. In order to research and write the large number of short articles on creeks and rural communities before the projected publication date, while ensuring the accuracy of the articles and the most efficient use of the sources available, our advisory editor for local history and the project staff developed what became known internally as the "county writing system." A staff writer, given a list of all topics pertaining to a given county, went to a series of standard sources, supplemented by county and community histories, and revised the list of communities and physical features for the county before writing the articles. The system worked particularly well for towns; the editors identified thousands of small school, church, and store communities missed in the first edition of the Handbook.

Most of the physical features described by articles in the original Handbook are included in the present volumes. For the most part, coverage of summits, physical regions, and miscellaneous features is derived from the first edition. In order to ensure comprehensive and systematic coverage of watercourses, however, the editors chose to supplement previous coverage with articles on streams and reservoirs listed on the 1:500,000 United States Geological Survey maps. Physical feature articles locate features by their coordinates and by their distance from communities readily identifiable on county highway maps. The source of the feature's name and evidence of historical usage of the site is included when available. Guideline information includes the length and direction of flow of all watercourses, as well as the topography and vegetation of the terrain through which they flow. The length of all streams was measured on topographical maps from the United States Department of the Interior Geological Survey. For mountains the New Handbook provides elevation, often in comparison to the surrounding terrain. Articles about lakes include the purpose of the reservoir and a description of the dam, as well as its construction history.

Because communities are central to the historical development of Texas the New Handbook includes an article on every community in the state's history about which the editors and researchers were able to find significant information. The defining criterion was the presence of two focuses of community life, such as a church, school, store, cemetery, or post office. The editors attempted, however, to be as inclusive as possible, adding any community that was identified as such in local-history sources, regardless of the focus. Community articles generally locate the town in its county by distance from the county seat or another readily identifiable community, and in relation to roads, railroads, and prominent physical features. The rest of the article is a chronological historical narrative, often beginning with site usage prior to the establishment of the community, and ending with either the community's demise or the most recent population figures. Most articles focus on the development of town institutions and businesses, the growth and decline of population, the impact of transportation developments on a community's fortunes, the role of the town in the surrounding rural area, and dramatic events in the history of the community. Population figures, taken from the Texas Almanac, were based when possible upon census data. Recent developments have underscored the fact that no population count is completely accurate.

In county articles, the name of the county is followed by a locator code, such as (C-8), which corresponds to the county's place on the 1988 Official Highway Travel Map of Texas. The physical descriptions of counties are based on standard cartographic sources, not on, for instance, historical narratives. County history, for the most part, is heavily weighted toward economic and demographic developments, since such emphasis seemed to be the most efficient way to discuss the inhabitants and what they were doing most of the time without producing hopelessly lengthy articles. Because of the variations in coverage, accuracy, and availability of published county histories, the New Handbook of Texas depends fairly heavily on the United States population, agricultural, and manufacturing censuses in county articles. As a result, most county articles will take the reader through the flow of immigration into the county, the racial makeup of its population at different times, and the relative importance of cotton, wheat, sharecropping, ranching, cattle, sheep, oil, and the other main features of county economy and society. The county articles also supplement the book's coverage of ethnic minority topics by discussing demographics and the impact of race on economics, education, and politics at the county level.