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Houstowne, Texas

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.

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.

The inability to produce such lists, not to mention the Christmas-season coffee-table books tied to them, is damning evidence indeed of the backwardness of Houston in those dark days.

Things failed to get much better in the years 1100 to 1200. Or maybe they did. We don't know. Historians are pretty sure that, as one doctoral thesis has noted, "stuff was going on," but the particulars are distressingly lost. The second century of Houston's Millennium could have been a golden age where literacy was widespread, massive buildings were erected, peace and love reigned, and The Man wasn't harshing your vibe by laying down a bunch of arbitrary rules.

More likely, though, residents of this period spent their time swatting mosquitoes. And constantly waiting, sadly Doppler-deprived, for a cold front to arrive.

Much the same can be said for the years 1200 to 1300. Not to mention 1300 to 1400. And 1400 to 1500 wasn't exactly swinging, either.

The black hole that was the years 1100 to 1500 gave way to what is undoubtedly the most intriguing episode in Houston's ancient past: the Visit of the First Lost Tribe.

The story of the First Lost Tribe, and the other lost tribes that followed, teases and entices scholars, offering only quick glimpses and half-hidden facts. But a recent scientific discovery has begun to shed more light on the tantalizing tale.

As part of a 1998 retirement party for a particularly zany librarian, staffers at the downtown branch of the Houston Public Library were sent on a "treasure hunt." While searching deep in the bowels of the facility for the legendary never-opened copy of Congressman Steve Stockman's campaign biography Why Not a Nut, the staffers stumbled across a dusty stack of documents that seemed to date back to the year 1510.

"Our Dam'd Visit to Houstowne," the cover read.

Inside, a narrative written by an apparently highly annoyed author spoke of a land infested by mosquitoes and "heat that cometh from Hades itself," a place with no light-rail system, a nearly uninhabitable area so backward and uncivilized that "the very roofs of the sporting arenas do not retract, but stay as still and unmoving as the dead."

"What's more, the traffic is vexing," he added.

Did these documents reveal a visit to the Gulf Coast by Europeans? Scholars continue to debate whether or not the papers are a clever fake. Modern-day experts who denounce the documents as forgeries -- experts employed by local government agencies and the Houston Chronicle -- say that the traffic wasn't that bad, and a lot of steps were being taken to alleviate it, and that Houston was and is a really, really great place to live, so obviously the papers are fake.

Those who think the papers are real point to more solid evidence. They note that just around this time in history, the first white baby was born in Houston. That young child, of course, grew up to be Channel 13's Marvin Zindler.

The discovery of the papers in the library basement has done little to settle the argument over whether a lost tribe visited the Houston area in the early 16th century, vowing never to return until "the air can be conditioned," as the documents say.

Relatively more is known about the Second Lost Tribe, however. Its members came to Houston later in the century and stayed for a number of years before they, too, left in a huff.

The leader of the group was a man named, according to the historical record, Budd Addams. He apparently was known for the "lacke of goode taste as concerneth his clothing and haire," and he lorded over a rugged group of men who would put on some type of sporting events for the public.

Little is known about what sport was played by these men, although their performance seems to have generated much comment. One player, known as Sir Warren of Moon, apparently specialized in an athletic endeavor known as "choking," if the extant documents are to be believed.  

One scribe, who signed his pieces as Dale Robertsonne, was vehement in his criticism of Sir Warren: "Why doth this man plague us so?" he wrote. "As sure as the Sun revolves around the Earth, 'tis so that with Sir Warren on the field, we shall never knoweth the joy of victory."

A vocal minority of scholars note, however, that this so-called Robertsonne had written just weeks before in praise of Warren of Moon. Rice University professor Richard Carey, in his book Before the Loop: Houston in the 16th Century, cites the following passage, allegedly written by the same Robertsonne after a game just two weeks earlier: "Never hath God's blessings been bestowed so bountifully upon man as they have been upon Sir Warren. As surely as the Fountain of Youth is waiting to be discovered, so shall Sir Warren nobly lead us to triumph."

Professor Carey argues that no person of sound mind could change his mind so dramatically so quickly. Others note that Robertsonne also predicted the French would beat Henry V at Agincourt, before writing after the battle that "We few, we happy few, always knew thou had it in thou, Hank."

Whether Robertsonne's writings were his or those of a committee is irrelevant, though. The documents of the time are filled with criticism of the men led by Addams, who seemed always to perform admirably until late in the year.

It is perhaps indicative of something in Addams's character that he announced in mid-century, amid his men's dismal performance, that he and his men would leave the Houston area forever unless residents "build me a palace unmatched in all the land." Addams spoke of another, nearby land that was anxious to receive him, a land of minstrels and musicians whose sartorial style matched his.

"Thinkest thou that we shall not go? Test me not," Addams thundered.

In response, Houstonians invented the doorknob. "Be thou warned, Sir Budd," they told him. "Take care that this new contraption not hitteth you in thy hind parts as thou taketh thy leave."

With that, Addams stormed off, taking the Second Lost Tribe with him. Little was heard of him or them again.

There was a strange epilogue to the Second Lost Tribe story. A new leader, called Alexander the Less, came on the scene having learned everything he knew from Addams. Alexander the Less, through an unlikely series of contrivances and coincidences, actually brought victory to Houston twice. But demonstrating the prowess he learned from his master, he did not bother to demand his palace until a) his players were no longer winning, and b) residents were utterly tired of building other palaces. Alexander eventually left also.

The dawn of the 17th century saw the last of the lost tribes, the one known as the Clowns. The Clowns came ashore early in the century, and like their predecessors, they took note of the stifling heat, the featureless geography, the lack of anything interesting for visitors and the smothering humidity.

They decided the area would be a perfect place to conduct an athletic competition featuring contestants from all over the world. Such an event, they said, would be called an "Olympics."

"We shall wait until the doggest days of summer, then shall we welcome outsiders," they proclaimed. "All will happily bask in the wondrous marvel that is Houstowne in August. It will work, we're telling thou."

A huge dome could be built over just about the entire city, they said. "It will be as if the weather will not exist," they said.

Light rail would move people around, they claimed. "True, 'tis not here yet, but we have heard it is a marvelous thing," they announced.

Residents were beguiled by their presentation, until a little dog scampered up and pulled aside a drapery. Despite thunderous orders to "Payeth no attention to the man behind the curtain!" the locals quickly saw the light of day. The Clowns, like the visiting tribes before them, left town, saving residents untold fortunes in money not wasted.

And so, as the century closed, the area stood poised on the brink of unimagined expansion.

Residents, surprisingly enough, decided to stay on that brink for a long time. "What's a 'brink,' anyway?" they asked. "Better to just stay here. These 'brinks' might be dangerous."

With that, things remained quiet for a long time. Little is known of the 1700s, and the early 1800s were "a blur, dude" to most Houstonians after the introduction of what was called Mexican Tobacco.

Soon enough, though, came the Modern Era.

Compared to other epochs in Houston's history, the Modern Era isn't much different: full of wars, elections, scandals, growth, etc. The difference now was that it was white men who were doing all this stuff, so it all became incredibly, incredibly important.  

The Allen brothers, two siblings named Allen, came to the area in 1836, apparently having read the writings of the Clowns. They, too, ignored the weather and the bugs and the traffic and decided to build a city. As a cost-cutting measure they shortened the name of the place to Houston from the ancient Houstowne; the local calligrapher was, according to a letter one Allen brother wrote, "a real pain in the ass when it comes to doing W's, charging twice what he asks for a simple U."

Events moved quickly from there. A ragtag army, led by Sam Houston, fought the Mexican general Santa Anna in a dispute over where the San Jacinto Monument should be built.

Crushed by their defeat, the Mexicans straggled back to their native land, vowing never to return unless it would really annoy Pat Buchanan.

With their victory, Houstonians began a frenzy of development, opening a series of chic, overpriced downtown restaurants. (Until the restaurant business "picked up," the buildings were used as general stores, haberdasheries and saddle shops; with the collapse of the haberdashery industry, many buildings were converted for a lengthy period to bathrooms for the homeless.)

Nothing, it seemed, could stop the "can do" spirit of Houstonians. When they discovered that the "port" they were building was in fact 45 miles from the sea (because of a "printing error" on a map, an Allen brother claimed), they dug a ship channel. That same ship channel now is proudly pointed to by residents as "a disaster waiting to happen."

To be sure, there were missteps along the way as the city grew. There was some kind of race riot back in the early 1900s, but to be honest, we've never heard too much about it. Sounds interesting, though.

Other notable setbacks included the Great Depression and the election of Lloyd Kelley as city controller. Houston shrugged such things off, however, always with an eye to the future.

The single most important event in modern Houston history was the emergence of Jesse Jones, at least according to those media outlets with long-standing ties to the Jesse Jones Foundation.

But many other, lesser events played a role in shaping the city. Oil was discovered in East Texas, for instance; the resulting influx to Houston of instant millionaires with nouveau riche tastes had a lasting role in the cultural life of our city, leading to the many pleasant hours we spend today enjoying the road shows of Cats and Phantom of the Opera.

Air-conditioning was invented and made cheap enough to be put in widespread use, eventually allowing police officers to automatically target as suspicious anyone seen walking downtown during the day outside of the tunnel system.

The 610 Loop was built, forever allowing those who live inside it to sneer at those outside. A music scene never really developed, meaning that many youngsters would get to practice their literacy skills by writing letters demanding that local papers support the local bands, man.

And of course, the space program came to town. Thanks to the political pull of Lyndon Johnson, Houston would be known worldwide as the city that is just north of the city where the space center is.

If there was a crowning moment in the latter half of this millennium, it would have to be Neil Armstrong's historic announcement from the moon: "Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed."

Forevermore, Houstonians would badger relative strangers by asking what was the first word said on the moon. After telling the baffled strangers "It was 'Houston'!" the response was inevitably something along the lines of "Uhhh, yeah, I guess you're right," but decades of engaging in this dialogue have convinced local boosters that the person they're talking to is only feigning disinterest to hide his hurt.

It's part of what makes us Houstonians.

As the entire city tingles with New Year's Eve anticipation for ZZ Top, not to mention Lynyrd Skynyrd (You think they'll do Free Bird?), it's easy to forget just how far we've come in the previous 1,000 years.

When this millennium began, Houston was a largely uninhabited scrap of near-swampland. It remained much that way for the ensuing 950 years, until air-conditioning came along.

But ever since we got the a/c problem licked, this city has boomed. Shopping malls have sprouted, from the ultrachic Galleria to the thousand points of light that are the Blockbuster-based strip malls around town.

We have gone from a city that always dreamed in vain of a World Series victory to a city that no longer is fooled by such dreams, because the baseball team's owner assures us he doesn't make enough money to ever win a World Series.  

We have grown into an International City. Many of us are not sure what an International City is or how we qualify as one, but our beloved elected officials have assured us that every expensive project they build is designed to attain such a status for Houston, so surely we must be International by now. If not, perhaps the latest expansion of Intercontinental Airport will nail the honor down.

There are, to be sure, other cities that might lay claim to having had more of a millennium than Houston. London, for instance, can brag about how old it is; Paris and Beijing can whine on about their supposed "histories."

Here in Houston we know better. For the past thousand years, this city has been at the cutting edge of development along the Texas Gulf Coast, excepting those few years when Galveston was more important.

No, fair Houstonian, be not cowed by the specious claims of other cities. Be not ashamed if they dare to question just what the hell 90 percent of the past 1,000 years have had to do with Houston.

Instead, revel in our smog (the most of any city in the U.S.!). Rejoice in our traffic (among the worst in the country!). Brag about our featureless sprawl (wherever you are, there's a strip mall nearby that's just like the one in your neighborhood!).

Don't give an inch to those other cities, or bend to the whims of elitist academicians. We don't care what they say.

The last 1,000 years have been Houston's Millennium.

E-mail Richard Connelly at rich.connelly@houstonpress.com.


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