“The Path of Good Intentions is a Steep Learning Curve” – An Update from Zada Law

 

“Nashville, Tenn., from the South-East, Showing the State Capitol” from the “War of the Rebellion Atlas,” Series I. Vol. XLIX

Longtime readers of this blog may remember a post we wrote about a researcher at Middle Tennessee State University named Zada Law and her work to use GIS (Geographic Information System) data and our historic War of the Rebellion Atlas collection to map the Federal defenses of Nashville, Tennessee. Zada sent us an update via email recently, and it is a study in the nature of research in the digital humanities: a rollercoaster ride of progress, setbacks, new systems and the unending pursuit of new scholarship.

Initial Progress, Potential Setback, A New Idea

Zada reports that she went immediately to work georeferencing the maps at a large scale – 1 to 2500, for example. She eventually settled on putting them at the same scale they were published at: a scale of 1 to 25000. But as that process was wrapping up, she met someone at a conference who had already digitized the Nashville defenses. Zada says she “felt ‘lower than a duck’s instep’ (as my Dad would say).” But further discussions revealed the other researcher hadn’t pegged their data to known locations as Zada was doing, so her initial work wasn’t a lost cause. In reality, her discussion with her fellow researcher led to an exchange of data and the idea of producing a white paper dealing with best practices in “georeferencing historic maps and digitizing historic cultural landscape features.”

Computers and Software: Everyone’s Favorite Hassle

After connecting the digitized lines from the Atlas images to known entrenchment spots, Zada began to use LiDAR datasets (of enhanced elevation data) to look for entrenchment “signatures.” In her words: “Similar signatures = potential entrenchments = new conservation opportunities.” It seemed great progress was being made.

That’s when Zada had her “Aaaaccckkk!!” moment: realizing that the terabytes’ worth of LiDAR data she was attempting to manipulate in her GIS software was putting severe strain on her computers, which were “pretty darn good” at processing otherwise. She refocused her attention on how to best manipulate LiDAR data and had been making more progress when frustration came again, this time in the form of a software update that required “new licenses, new installations, new webinars for learning the new functionality, and doing a bunch of tutorials,” none of which addressed historic cultural landscape features.

In short: the technology Zada requires to do her research seemed to be conspiring against her.

Optimism Prevails

Despite these challenges, Zada remains optimistic about her research agenda. She said in her email, “But, I’m making progress. I’ve got new computers and new 3D data skills.  All these take time working thru bureaucracy.  I’ve also obtained LiDAR datasets for my AOI [area of interest] from two different years so I can compare changes and what might have been lost. My goal is to identify signatures of earthworks in LiDAR . Like I said at the beginning of this email, it’s been a steeper learning curve than I thought – but I’ll persevere!”

And that is the nature of working with digital assets in a scholarly setting. Progress followed by setbacks spurs a new idea and a change of direction. Software makes things easier, then more complicated, then easier again. It all costs money, time and effort, but ultimately, it may lead to the discovery of something thought lost since 1865 – or something unknown entirely until dogged persistence reveals it to the world.

We appreciate Zada’s willingness to share her challenges and breakthroughs with us in such an honest fashion, and we look forward to her continued success in her research. We will pass along any further updates we receive on her work with the hopes of being able to help her celebrate a discovery that benefits Civil War and geography scholars around the world.

Sources Consulted:

Email from Zada Law to Eric Ames, November 30, 2012

“War of the Rebellion Atlas Puts DPG on the Map in Tennessee.” DPG Digital Collections blog post, January 22, 2012

The Rise and Fall of the Soash Empire: A West Texas Hard Luck Story

“Ye Olden Days”: An image from a 1909 promotional booklet produced by the W.P. Soash Company

Everything’s bigger in Texas, the hoary old chestnut reminds us, and no group of people understood the Lone Star State’s geographic expansiveness like the speculators who bought up acres of prime Texas land for pennies on the dollar and hoped to turn a quick profit by selling them to newly arrived immigrants and Yankees looking for a better life out West. From railroad companies to chambers of commerce and private corporations, concerns large and small poured their creative efforts into marketing the open range in publications featuring photographs, artistic renderings and glowing testimonials from satisfied customers.

These promotional materials flooded the market with wild claims and speculative gambles dressed up as fact. From pie-in-the-sky layouts of a future metropolis on the High Plains to photos of “modern homes” offered on a dusty, unpaved street on the edge of a field of kaffir wheat, they were masterpieces of salesmanship. To an immigrant family setting foot on American soil for the first time in a major port city, surrounded by an alien culture, they must have been appealing indeed.

One of our smaller – but no less impressive – digital collections is a set of 37 promotional publications related to Texas. These items, which are held by our colleagues at The Texas Collection, tell the stories of the many ways the untamed West was broken through hard work, fast deals and dogged perseverance.

In my pursuit of making our collections more accessible and easier to browse, I was enhancing the navigation on these items this past week when I came across three promotional brochures issued by the W.P. Soash Land Co. of Waterloo, Iowa. The design work on two of the brochures was nothing remarkable, while the third was a veritable tour de force of early 20th century design including illustrations, photographs and overblown rhetoric. They tell the story of one company’s gamble on marketing land in the South Plains of Texas and boldly declare the bright future of the towns of Big Spring and Soash: “destined to be the Twin Cities of the Plains!”

The “Empire Builder”: W.P. Soash and His Company

William Pulver Soash lived a life typical of many of the newcomers to Texas in the waning years of the 19th century. Born in the Midwest, his early life included frequently moving from town to town with his father, a railroad contractor. He dabbled in carpentry and worked as a deputy United States marshal before settling on land colonization. He founded the W.P. Soash Company in 1905 and set his sights on cheap land in the Texas Panhandle and South Plains regions.

Illustration from 1909 Soash Co. brochure

Soash sought to differentiate himself from his competitors by creating a company that would serve as an all-in-one concern. His company purchased the land and sold off its parcels directly to buyers, thus avoiding the stigma of merely serving as an agent or middle-man between the landowner and the buyer. Soash attempted to “[familiarize] himself with every feature of the business,” from studying climate reports to creating special excursion trains – dubbed “Soash Specials” – that ran passengers from the Union Pacific Depot in Kansas City through Ft. Worth and eventually to a terminus in Big Spring.

The Soash Company grew prosperous enough to justify locations in more than a dozen towns across ten states. As its reach grew, the company professed to have been “built along permanent lines and expects to always be in business.” It claimed (somewhat paradoxically) to be the “largest, most progressive and most conservative organization of its kind in the world.” As to Soash’s personal credentials, his brochure claimed that ““… it can be stated without fear of contradiction that W.P. Soash has sold more land contracts than any other man in the United States today.” In short: purchasing land from the Soash Company was a safe bet for opportunity seekers of all stripes, with a track record to match its uniformly positive claims.

Establishing a Namesake on the Texas South Plains: “Why Soash is Destined to be a Large City”

Battling perceptions of the South Plains of Texas was accomplished through the development and distribution of a series of promotional brochures focused on the “Big Springs Ranch Country” of Texas. The company had purchased some 300,000 acres of land comprised of the Big Spring Ranch and adjacent properties for $3 million in January 1909 and quickly set about hacking out smaller parcels for immediate sale.

To counter notions that this area was home only to rowdy cowboys, “untamed Indians” and arid, desert-like conditions, Soash produced a 50-page promotional booklet (“at a very large expense”) outlining the advantages of purchasing a farm or ranch site near Big Spring. The booklet contains a good overview of the company’s history, testimonials from landowners in the Big Spring area and plenty of data on climate and crop futures. A second, smaller pamphlet with similar information on the area was also produced.

Big Spring Ranches of South Plains brochure, cover and back cover, W.P. Soash Co., 1909

For reasons of business success, the enticing opportunity to leave a lasting legacy or inescapable hubris, the company founded a town in the land between Big Spring and Lamesa and called it Soash. The company produced another booklet entitled, “Why You Should Invest In The New Town [of] Soash, Texas,” which included a series of photos depicting scenes from the “Grand Celebration of July 5, 1909.” They show a large gathering of people mingling among several completed buildings, patriotic bunting and American flags in prominent locations.

The pamphlet describes the city in expectedly glowing terms:

“Soash, the new town started a few months ago on Big Springs Ranch, is conceded by every one cognizant of conditions to have a splendid future. The new railway which this company is to build will aid materially in developing the town. Already there has been a good start made as is evidenced by the illustrations on this page. We want to tell you more of Soash, Texas, at some time in the near future.”

Soash built the Hotel Lorna (named after his daughter) and a company headquarters, and within a few months the town boasted several permanent structures and electricity service. New settlers began arriving in increasing numbers and a post office was established by the end of the year. The future seemed secure.

A bright future seemed assured: image from the 1909 brochure for Soash, Texas

Ominous Silence from Rail and Sky

Warning signs mounted quickly, however. Despite repeated assurances that a railroad line from Big Spring would be laid to the city within twenty months of the city’s founding, the line never materialized. The Santa Fe Railroad instead chose to run a line through nearby Lamesa. For frontier towns of the early 20th century, access to a rail line was crucial for long term sustainability.  A railroad meant crops could be exported to market and finished products imported for consumption. It meant quicker access to major cities – with all their social and mechanical innovations – and a sure way for more immigrants to arrive. And its absence from Soash was only the first of two major blows for the fledgling community.

The death knell for Soash came at the hands of something beyond human control. Despite a table in its Soash brochures showing the rainfall totals for the area as comparable to the highest producing regions of the Midwest, the South Plains experienced a three-year drought cycle beginning in 1909. This proved to be too much for the “highest examples of citizenship” to be found in the city, and the population dwindled rapidly. The town lost its post office twice – permanently in 1917 – and the site was abandoned after another drought cycle in 1917-1918.

Map of the Big Springs Ranch area of Texas, including Soash; from booklet by W.P. Soash Co., 1909

“Conservative methods, carried out courageously, will always win.”

The “Empire Builder’s” company could not outlive the death of its namesake city. The W.P. Soash Company filed for bankruptcy in 1912, and its founder would go on to a longer career in land development after a stint in the Texas Cavalry in World War I. The site of Soash returned to the earth from which it briefly sprang, the ruins of only a bank and office building remaining to mark this once much-ballyhooed Texas town. Its name survives only in occasional street names in the counties around Lamesa and Big Spring.

***

The story of the Soash Company and its namesake West Texas town is but one of the hundreds of boom-bust stories to be told throughout the colonization history of Texas and the greater West. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that so much money was spent on marketing and promoting the city using the height of early 20th century printing technology. The booklets created for Soash are a time capsule of high hopes, speculative marketing, urban planning, early 20th century prairie architecture and irrational exuberance during the waning years of Westward expansion. The Soash saga is a classic example of a man’s reach exceeding his grasp, but its legacy for the present may well be as a snapshot into the mindset of a Wild West-style capitalism and the marks it left – physical and psychological – on the history of our state.

 

Sources Consulted

Soash, TX on the Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hvsaj)

William Pulver Soash on the Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fso01)

“Why You Should Invest in the New Town: Soash, Texas” from the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections (From the physical copy in the holdings of The Texas Collection)

“The Big Springs Country of Texas” from the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections (From the physical copy in the holdings of The Texas Collection)

“Why You Should Buy a Farm in the Big Springs Country on the South Plains of Texas” from the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections (From the physical copy in the holdings of The Texas Collection)

A Century of Daily Baylor History, Now Online: The “Lariat” Digital Collection

The “Lariat” digital collection spans the entire 20th century and beyond

If you follow us on Facebook, you’ll recall a few weeks ago that I teased some “big news” was forthcoming. Well, the wait is over, and we’re excited to announce that thanks to the efforts of the Digitization Projects Group, The Texas Collection and the office of Student Publications, the entire run of the Baylor University Lariat is now available online via the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections.

From the inaugural issue of November 8, 1900 to the present, users around the world can now access every issue of the Lariat from the comfort of their own homes. Issues from 1900 to 2006 are available in our Digital Collections, while issues from 2007-present are available from the Lariat’s website.

You may have seen some media coverage about this collection thanks to articles in the Lariat and the Waco Tribune Herald, but we wanted to give you some more information here, via our blog, about just what went into the creation of this major collection.

Planning and Process

The process began about three years ago with very early, test scans of bound volumes of the Lariat dating back to the early 1900s. We used our Zeutschel planetary scanner to handle the digitizing and found the process of manipulating bound volumes to be slow and cumbersome. With the addition of the Cruse large-format scanner – and permission from The Texas Collection’s director to unbind the volumes – we made much better progress. In fact, a skilled operator could digitize ten issues of the Lariat two pages at a time on the Cruse, a dramatic increase in efficiency that allowed us to complete the digitization of more than 11,000 issues of a newspaper collection in about a year and a half.

This staggering amount of content is the primary reason most universities choose to either avoid digitizing the full run of their campus newspaper or outsource the job to mass digitization companies. We chose to keep the process internal so as to avoid shipping irreplaceable copies of the Lariat off-site, as well as exercising full control of the metadata creation and collection curation process.

As with all of our digital collections, high-resolution preservation copies of the files were created and stored on our preservation server, and access-friendly PDFs of the issues were created and ingested into our CONTENTdm system. “Skeletal” metadata – basics like date, editor name and page count – were added to all items as they were ingested; later additions to the records include listing headlines for each issue, names of Lariat staff members, and the price per issue.

The Collection’s Impact

Digitizing a century’s worth of the campus newspaper was no small undertaking, and the decision to handle the process in-house from start to finish meant a significant investment in infrastructure, hardware and staff time. But none of those potential obstacles were significant enough to deter us from our goal of giving instant access to the wealth of information available in the pages of the Lariat. Now, scholars around the world can delve into the daily details of campus life, social commentary and world events as seen through the eyes of Baylor University’s student reporters.

Keyword searching makes the collection’s entry points as diverse as the English language. The ability to restrict a search to a single point in time – a year, a month, a decade – makes browsing from issue to issue not only manageable but enjoyable. The ability to zoom in on photos and paragraphs of text makes navigation and closer examination a breeze. And of course, access via the Internet makes it possible for everyone to use the collection, not just those with the ability to travel to the Baylor campus.

We look forward to seeing the ways our users dissect, synthesize and utilize the information in the Lariat collection. If you find something fascinating, earthshaking or downright bizarre in the thousands of pages therein, drop us a line at digitalcollectionsinfo@baylor.edu and tell us about it. Who knows? We might even feature your find in a future blog post (with your permission, of course!).

The digital Lariat collection is available at www.baylor.edu/lib/lariats. The Digitization Projects Group, The Texas Collection and Student Publications collaborated to create this collection.