Cities can be severely affected, too. Water reservoirs are low and could go dry, and that could mean a slow death for communities in South Texas despite the water conservation measures taken over the years.
A good example of a town that died because of drought is Wentz, once located at the end of Farm-to-Market Road 99, south of state Highway 72, in McMullen County.
No reservoirs existed for Wentz back then.
Today, hardly a trace of Wentz can be found, but once back in the early 20th century, the town had grown to a population of 200 people.
According to Victoria Doyle, who wrote a short history of Wentz in January 1983 for the Progress, Wentz was established in 1914 with 62 town blocks.
She said Leonidas Wheeler was its first postmaster and R. Roy Ruff, who also published a newspaper, built a school there in 1915.
“Leonidas was my great-grandfather,” said Jerry Wheeler of Three Rivers.
Wheeler said Leonidas had six sons.
“And they all lived in Tilden,” he added.
He said his uncle, John Kerr Wheeler, was postmaster in McMullen County back in the 1930s until he died.
“He was postmaster close to 40 years. He was in the land clearing business,” he said.
“My dad, Jesse Wheeler, was a mail carrier six days a week. His route was Three Rivers over to Calliham to the Tilden Post Office. Then he’d finish southeast of Tilden and go back to Tilden and circle around through Wentz,” Wheeler said.
“The old school was still there in the late 1930s,” he said.
Wheeler said the mail route followed Leroy Street (through where the refinery is now) to Calliham.
“I used to carry the mail some when Dad was sick. I remember (at Wentz) lots of small ranches and houses – the little schoolhouse. It was all dirt road. During the rainy season, is was almost impossible to go in down there,” Wheeler said.
Wentz had been formed by an agent of the Two Rivers Ranch Company based in Kansas. The company was comprised of investors who never visited the town during its existence.
C.C. Wentz was the company’s hired agent – he was a successful businessman hailing from West Virginia – and began working on forming and promoting the town in 1910.
Of course, the town was named after him. Not much was written about C.C. Wentz, but he died in 1957.
Wentz wooed interested buyers by taking them in a limousine from Three Rivers to see the townsite, where the tall grass and abundance of game were impressive.
The limousine also was used to meet the train at Three Rivers and bring mail back to Wentz.
The deal for those who bought 100 acres included being able to have their cattle graze on unsold land. Buyers had to put one-third of the cost down with 10 payments to close the purchase.
According to the Texas Handbook Online, “by 1914, Wentz had a post office and, by 1916, a hotel, two schools, two grocery stores, a meat market, a cotton gin, a lumberyard, 200 people and a weekly newspaper.”
The Handbook continues with this conclusion: “Wentz was crippled by a drought that lasted from November 1916 to March 1918. Repeated attempts to drill water wells met with failure. By the early 1920s most of the residents had left; in 1921 the post office was closed. The schools closed in 1948, and by 1952 only a few families lived in the general vicinity. A 1967 map shows nothing standing on the original townsite.”
Doyle wrote “Wentz, Texas, was once a rather large town but today is abandoned pasture ... The population grew to about 200 by 1916,” she said.
She added that a storm that same year followed by the beginning of a severe drought spurred residents to move away.
The school in Wentz continued after 1930, she said.
“I did attend the two-story Wentz red brick schoolhouse for two school years,” said Tom Shelton Sr. of Loma Alta, McMullen County.
Shelton was a fourth- and fifth-grade student in 1936-1938 while he lived with the McClaughety family.
“I rode horseback to school 4.5 miles as did our teacher Opal McGee. Mr. and Mrs. Len McClaugherty Sr. had a son my age who attended Wentz school also,” Shelton said.
“Our drinking water was pulled up with a bucket from an underground cistern. It was collected from the school roof,” he added.
Shelton said the school had three classrooms, but his class only used one of them. Another served as an office for the teacher.
“Upstairs was the auditorium. Stage lights had candle holders recessed along the front rim of the stage. Small dressing rooms were on either side of stage,” he said.
“Our Christmas play had curtains – bed sheets hung over binder twine and manually pulled together for each ‘scene.’ One was a hand-picked choir – from 11 students. Yes, there were four of us, singing ‘Silent Night’ – ugh, (going loco in) Acapulco. Mercy!” he said.
Shelton said a large fenced-in area around the school was where their horses stood in the shade of a single tree during class hours.
“To say they were ‘grazing’ is a romantic notion. They did not have anything to eat. We were in yet another drought,” he said.
“The McClaughertys were hauling water for their cattle. We watered our horses at a water trough we passed going home – where the Zavishes were hauling water for their cattle.”
Water was always a precious commodity in Wentz.
“It is a fact, when we would discover a dead rat floating in our cistern water, we would ‘fish it out’ with our bucket. When we got the bucket thoroughly rinsed (rinsed the bucket?), it was declared cleaned and then would be used for pulling up ‘fresh water’ – well, the rat had been removed, right? No one got sick. The tonic effect was no doubt loaded with plenty of antibodies,” Shelton said with a smile on his face.
Wentz had success in its first years – so much success, people believed it should have more prestige.
Doyle wrote, “An interesting note appears in the records dated November 1915. It reads: A petition was presented to Dan Martin, county judge, to move the county seat to the booming town of Wentz some six miles southeast of Tilden. The proposal was put before the people, and they voted it down.”
According to the historical marker, a severe drought in 1917-18 forced most residents to move. The post office closed in 1921, and the two schools in 1948.
According to Doyle, there was a small red brick schoolhouse known as the Brice School near Wentz. The school was on one acre of land out of the southeast quarter of Section 22, Two Rivers Ranch subdivision.
The school had two rooms, one of which was the classroom and the other was residence for the teacher. All 12 grades were taught in this one classroom.
Some of the children who attended there were the Zavisch boys; the Gazaways; Rutherfords; Vaneks; Garcias; Millard Armstrong children; Annie Laurie, Jean and Walter Gibb; and Homer Norris.
The school was abandoned when it was consolidated with Tilden in 1947, according to Doyle.
“For several years after that, Jack Rutherford lived in the school building and operated a maintainer for the county. The building served as an election box for the Brice and Wentz voters for many years until that box was combined with Calliham.”
In the 1960s, the school building was sold to an Alice contractor, torn down and hauled away brick by brick, Doyle said.
“Brice was another community between Wentz and Calliham,” Shelton said.
Now, an occasional breeze blows over the pasture land in southeast McMullen County, and the wind whispers memories of the town of Wentz, once the market center of a 44,000-acre farm development.
Hardly a trace of the town of Wentz can be found at the end of Farm-to-Market Road 99, south of state Highway 72. Another account says Wentz was one mile south of Farm Road 1106 or 10 miles southeast of Tilden in eastern McMullen County.
After the drought of 1917-18, not much was left.
“All I remember are the few cement curbs that were evidence of the main street; and the ‘well head’ collars of the underground cisterns that were still existent dotting the low brush of the area, and along the ‘street.’ Portions of the street were red gravel,” Shelton said.
Wentz serves as a reminder how valuable water is to people. Without it, towns die.
Sources: Marker files, Texas Historical Commission, Texas Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association, Austin. Joe Pate Smyer, A History of McMullen County (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1952), John Leffler.