Houstowne, Texas

Shrouded by mists and unrecovered documents, the history of Houston is still worth a probe

By almost any measure you can name, whether it's the increase in population, industrial production or construction of single-family homes, the current millennium has been one of the best in Houston's history.

And that's not even taking into account Fort Bend County, which had itself a pretty good millennium, too.

Unlike any of the other millennia, the past thousand years have seen substantial progress in the Bayou City. Sure, it took us 999 years to get our second NFL team, but we did it. We created an independent school district second to none in this state, in terms of how many students are in it. We have watched proudly as 1,000 years of progress and improvements in political systems and self-governance culminated in the dynamic administration of Mayor Lee P. Brown.

In the 16th century, Sir Budd Addams demanded that a palace be built and skyboxes invented.
In the 16th century, Sir Budd Addams demanded that a palace be built and skyboxes invented.

A millennium that began in darkness, with a total lack of Doppler radar systems giving residents six-minute warnings of drizzles headed their way, is now ending in the crowning glory of ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd appearing at Compaq Center New Year's Eve.

Go ahead. Call it Houston's Millennium. For Harris County residents, it has been a thousand years jam-packed with passion, enlightenment and history.

Some people would tell you that Houston doesn't have much of a history, that the idea of our looking at the last millennium is laughable. But these are likely the same sneering elitists who scoff that our city has never made a single important cultural contribution, conveniently ignoring the fact that Kenny Rogers was born and raised here.

No, Houston has a rich, vibrant and -- yes -- long history. For some, the storied history of Houston goes as far back as January 31, 1947, when Nolan Ryan was born. Serious scholars dismiss that suggestion, of course, arguing persuasively that the city as a viable entity can be traced back only to September 11, 1966, when Ryan made his major-league debut.

But the passion with which such disputes are argued in the halls of academia can sometimes obscure the admittedly minority notion that the story of Houston began long, long ago.

A thousand years ago, as a new millennium dawned, Houston and the surrounding areas were filled with various societies whose members worked, laughed, rejoiced in grandchildren, wept at death too soon, engaged in political intrigues and argued over who was best at various athletic endeavors; they constantly made technological improvements to their industrial tools and their weapons of war; they fought fierce battles against rival societies; they suffered at the hands of Mother Nature.

Of course, none of these people were white males, so their history need not concern us much.

Still, they should not be totally ignored. Common sense would tell us that there was a Storm of the Century sometime between the years 1000 and 1100; just because we don't have cave-dweller pictographs of worried residents buying plywood at an ancient Home Depot, does that mean the storm never happened? Isn't it possible that tribesmen in the year 1034, for instance, were chosen -- like today, on the basis of who had the best hair -- to stand outside and report to others just how windy it was?

Similarly, it seems reasonable to assume -- biological urges being timeless -- that male members of the tribe might enjoy seeing females dance in a sexually alluring manner. Probably their spouses might frown on such activity. So would it not also be safe to assume that a money-hungry tribesman might seek to draw crowds -- perhaps during some native house-cleaning celebration called "Sweeps Week" -- by soberly reporting on what goes on in such clubs, including how they violate the 1000 A.D. equivalent of fire codes? With lots of women demonstrating the sordidness?

Probably. Unfortunately almost all of those records are lost in the mists of time. Luckily, though, some small scraps have been saved, enough to piece together a look at Houston's past.

The first century of Houston's Millennium was, as far as we can tell, mostly peaceful. The economy was largely agricultural, although there was much hunting.

A sizable portion of the tribe seems to have made its living, strangely enough, by producing studies on the feasibility of a light-rail system. While such systems had, technically speaking, not yet been invented, the Gulf Coast area was almost uniquely suited for the job of studying the possibilities of rail. Generations of Houstonians would earn a very good living by declaring that rail would be a boon to the city.

Only a few of the thousands of pages devoted to the subject of rail in the year 1000 survive. The report, prepared by a close associate of the then-chief, who also had a side business devoted to inventing railroads, said that a light-rail system would significantly cut down on horse emissions, the problem of getting rid of manure apparently being an onerous one.

It would take 1,000 years before civic leaders would learn how to build a light-rail system without having a referendum, but these ancient texts illuminate just how long they were attempting to tackle the problem of not requiring a vote.

Unfortunately little else of note has survived from the first century of this millennium. As amazing as it might be to consider, the year 1099 passed without extensive lists being made of who was the century's Greatest Entertainer, or its Top 50 Sports Moments, or its Most Influential Rail Consultant.

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