T-towns were founded in the Great Plains in the second half of the nineteenth century as market centers for farmers. They developed in the shape of a T, with the railroad constituting the top bar and Main Street and the commercial area the perpendicular.
As Americans pushed westward in the nineteenth century the shape and format of their settlements changed along with their needs and the environment. In the Old Northwest and the South the pattern of town development usually took the form of a square. If the town was the county seat, the courthouse stood in the center; if not, the municipal hall or some other civic institution was located there. Commercial buildings surrounded the square, and residential areas developed on a grid pattern following the survey lines laid out in the Basic Land Ordinance of 1785. Some courthouse-square towns are found in the Great Plains in areas such as southeastern Nebraska, where some settlement preceded the railroads, but most Plains settlements accompanied or followed the rail lines and took the T-town shape.
As the rail lines extended westward, opening the Plains to grain farming and ranching, there was a need for market centers. Developers followed the team-haul principle for determining the location of these centers: a team could haul a wagonload of wheat five miles round-trip in one day; a ten-mile distance required an overnight stay. Thus elevators and, subsequently, towns sprang up across the Great Plains along the railroad right-of-ways approximately every ten miles. On the Rock Island line in Kansas, for example, from its division point in Herington eastward, Latimer, White City, Dwight, and AltaVista lie approximately ten miles from each other. In White City, also on the Kansas-Texas (Katy) division of the Missouri Pacific Railroad, the rails with the elevator near the depot provided the link with the outside world. Its primary street, McKenzie, ran westward from the depot, and commercial buildings sprang up on both sides of this main thoroughfare. When the Rock Island built northeast to southwest on the western edge of the town some fifteen years after the Katy, it confirmed the future of McKenzie as the "downtown" artery, with a depot at each end. In other towns with only one railroad in the early period, the end of the commercial zone was often marked by a public building, perhaps the county courthouse, as in the case of Council Grove, Kansas, and Bismarck, North Dakota.
The T-towns were outlets for the farmers' grain and service centers for their needs. Farmers hauled their wheat to market during the cold winter months and returned with a load of lumber and groceries. The lumberyard was second only to the grain elevator as a dominant feature of these towns, because almost all of the lumber had to be imported by rail to construct Plains town and country buildings. The local bank that financed both rural and urban needs often was the sole brick or stone structure in town, a sign of its security and stability. Most of the wooden commercial buildings, including the requisite hotel for drummers and transients and the mercantile stores, were standardized so that as needs changed over the years different kinds of merchants could utilize them. A smithy might be converted into a creamery, a lodge hall, an automobile garage, and finally a movie theater.
With the advent of the internal combustion engine, the technological revolution in agriculture, and the closing of many rail lines, many T-towns lost their economic foundation. Farmers were able to travel to the county seat or other larger centers for machinery parts, and while they were there they did their shopping in the supermarket and, eventually, the regional Wal-Mart. The team-haul principle had given rise to many Plains towns during the nineteenth century, but by the mid– twentieth century many of these towns had become obsolete, and they dwindled along with their commercial outlets. A few of them survived by aggressively seeking light industry or by fostering tourism through a museum and antique shops. Some, like Lincoln, Nebraska, thrived as government and university centers. Most that had blanketed the Plains, though, went the way of the horse and buggy and became relics of Great Plains settlement, standing as a mute reminder to the old-timers of dreams gone awry.
R. Alton Lee University of South Dakota
Hudson, John C. Plains Country Towns. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.
Lee, R. Alton. T-Town on the Plains. Manhattan KS: Sunflower University Press, 1999.