Book Review: Killeen, Tale of Two Cities (1984)

Categories: Book Reviews, History
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Published on: 2013.07.18

Killeen native Gra’Delle Duncan put together “Killeen: Tale of Two Cities” in the early 1980s as part of Killeen’s centennial celebration, in conjunction with the Killeen Daily Herald’s 100-year special edition. The book does a decent job of chronicling the town’s two separate identities, first as a farming and ranching trade center from 1882 through 1942, and then as an entirely separate military town from 1942 through the present (1982 in the book’s case).

It’s rare that a town changes so completely and so quickly — except those that are conquered and occupied by a foreign power. In at least one sense, that’s kind of what happened to Killeen.

Duncan starts with the arrival of the first train in May 1882, after the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe railroad company had platted the town in the middle of nowhere, sold lots for $75 apiece, and named it after the company’s assistant general manager — an Irish immigrant who isn’t known to have ever visited the area.

She mentions communities that once surrounded Killeen but which aren’t known to any modern residents: Sugar Loaf, Palo Alto, Sparta, Maxdale, Clear Creek, Okay, and others, some of which were located inside the modern borders of an expanding Killeen, and others which were engulfed by Fort Hood or disappeared beneath Belton Lake. The farming and ranching communities were the ones that provided Killeen’s first residents and which were served by the railroad to bring produce to market.

Decade by decade, accompanied by photos from the times, Duncan takes the reader up to the most important event in the town’s history: the opening of Camp Hood (“Fort Hood” by the 1950s) in 1942, which for the first time brought color and diversity to the previously “all-white, all-Protestant” Killeen and jerked its population from about 1,500 into the multi-thousands.

A late bloomer by many standards, Killeen developed into one of the most cosmopolitan cities of its size (42,000 by the time the book went to press), but as of 1982 hadn’t developed any industry to speak of. Duncan points out on more than one occasion what is still true today: that Killeen is utterly and entirely dependent upon Fort Hood for its growth and even continued existence.

Through a series of sidebar “profiles”, Duncan highlights some of the citizens who’ve left their mark on society, many of them familiar names today because of streets or schools named after them, including the author’s father, for which an elementary school is named. Most of them were mayors or presidents of the Chamber of Commerce, or both, or at least multi-term city councilors and business operators. Perhaps the one with the biggest claim to fame was the only woman listed, Oveta Culp Hobby, who made the cover of TIME Magazine in 1944, the the second female to ever serve as a member of a President’s cabinet and the first secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Seeing the history of the town from a 2013 perspective, I naturally felt that the book fell a little short; it’s 30 years old and thus missed the continued growth of Killeen into a 130,000-person city and the introduction of hundreds of chain stores, both big and small. I live in a neighborhood in Killeen that didn’t exist until three years ago, and wasn’t inside the city limits until a few years before that.

But for its time, it does seem comprehensive.

The tone of the book is a mix between forced optimism and barely concealed disappointment and longing for the pre-Fort Hood days — at least that’s what it felt like for me. In 1982, there were still enough old-timers around who had clear memories of the pre-1942 Killeen, the cotton and wool trading center of Central Texas, and still enough citizens left who felt resentment for the U.S. Government taking their land: 160,000 acres in one fell swoop, some of it forcibly, and none of it at better than Depression-era land prices, often paid several years later after the market had recovered so the amounts were pitiful.

Still, there was an undercurrent of pride in the author’s tone for how Killeen had managed to roll with the punches, accepting the sudden non-white, non-Protestant influx with only small ripples of adjustment, and because Killeen’s school system integrated by its own decision several years before the rest of the South and without federal government orders.

There are numerous typographical errors, much like one would expect from a small-town newspaper: names spelled differently on different pages, and occasional dating errors.

But, as the only comprehensive Killeen history on the shelf at the local library, I enjoyed it.

The book is listed for sale on Amazon at more than $190 for a new copy and as low as $50 for a used copy, which seems startlingly high for a self-published book detailing the history of a medium-sized town in Central Texas. For anyone in the Killeen area, I’d recommend checking it out from the library if you’re interested.

(Duncan also wrote “Killeen Area Bicentennial Sketch Book” and had a big hand in “Unforgettable Decade” [about the 1930s in Killeen].)

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