The History of Killeen, TX
Tumbleweeds rolling down dusty streets, saloon doors swinging as a cowboy stumps up to the bar for a drink, his boot spurs clinking at every step – these are the sights and sounds many have in mind when they think of old, rural Texas.
Thanks to Western films, these images are practically idolized by many Americans and have been broadcasted all over the world. But such scenes aren’t only fictions.
Many old towns, like Killeen, TX, resembled these images once upon a time, and are what gave those famous Westerns inspiration. While not too well known by name, Killeen’s fascinating history reveals it to be the absolute epitome of an old town of the West.
The Origins of Killeen, TX
In the 1870’s, the area was nothing but newly begun, small farming communities. “Communities” might be a stretch, as they were mostly comprised of large families living independently on small farms.
Their whole lives were spent on the farm, raising, hunting, growing and making all that they needed to live on. They were true, self-sustaining farms.
But in 1882, all of that changed. On May 15th, 1882 the rail road arrived. It was much anticipated by the people of the surrounding area, and was cause for celebration. The day the steam engine pulled in, a young man even roped the smoke stack – these independent and lonely farmers had just roped themselves a new way of life.
The area that the train rolled into that day became the city of Killeen, TX, and it immediately changed the landscape and way of life for those small communities. Soon, a saloon, general stores, trading posts, craftsman, and even a hotel moved in and settled down. The city became a trading center serving the outlying agricultural communities, and became a major shipping center for cotton, grain, and wool.
As the town grew to contain more people and amenities, more people from the surrounding farm communities started moving in to make a new life for themselves as store owners, craftsmen, and traders.
The business and life brought in by the train made a permanent change to the area, and created a thriving city. So indebted to the railroad is the community, that May 15th 1882 is still celebrated by residents as an annual festival.
Education Comes to Killeen, TX
The first school was not opened until 1902, but only lasted 20 years, when in 1923, a fire consumed it. A new school was not completed until 1924, which remained the town’s only school until the 1940s.
In true rural fashion, the school was responsible for educating all ages and grades of children. As the years passed, the school changed, eventually becoming a racially integrated school in the mid 1950’s.
The school building eventually came to house City Hall, and was nominated for and awarded a place in the National Register of Historic Places.
Killeen, TX Refashioned by World War II
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Killeen, TX became the government’s top choice for a new military training camp, Camp Hood. The purpose for the camp was training soldiers in tank destroyer tactics. Unfortunately, this required many in Killeen, over 300 families, to give up their homes to provide the land necessary for the training.
To build the base, thousands of new workers had to be brought in. Almost overnight, the town grew from 1200 people to over 30,000. The city had to make room for the new workers, and ended up housing them in tents under bridges, chicken coops, attics, sheds – all to help get the base built as fast as possible.
The camp was officially opened on September 18th, 1942 and housed over 38,000 troops. In 1950, the camp was re-designated as a permanent military installation and earned the title Fort Hood. The most famous recruit to pass through Camp Hood was the King of Rock & Roll, Elvis Presley himself.
Not surprisingly, the development and use of the camp brought a revolutionary shift to the predominantly agricultural and still rural community. Killeen’s economy and demographics would be forever changed by the camp’s arrival, much as it had been by the train over 50 years earlier.
Today, Fort Hood is still a very active and well-known military base, housing over 65,000 soldiers and their families, and the economy now depends heavily on the soldiers and their families who live there.
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