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'Schizophrenic Situation' in 6 States : Panhandle People: A Difference of Geography

November 16, 1986|MIKE COCHRAN | Associated Press

PANHANDLE, Tex. — With eyes atwinkle and a smile on her lips, Betty Biggs says the folks of the Texas Panhandle need not fret over the ills and injustice of state government.

"I think," says she, "the panhandle of Texas ought to secede and form a state of its own."

She jokes with the country wit of a weekly newspaper editor who has seen the best and worst, including a rain and dust storm that dumped mud balls on this hamlet northeast of Amarillo.

But residents of the farms and ranches and wide-open spaces of the panhandle have long called this isolated chunk of Texas the 51st state. And not always in good humor.

Though fiercely independent, the people of the panhandle are separated physically from the rest of Texas and often feel neglected and ignored by their high-rolling brethren in Dallas, Houston, Austin and elsewhere.

"We have a greater kinship geographically, environmentally, economically and recreationally with Eastern New Mexico," said Byron Price, director of the Panhandle-Plains Museum in Canyon. "We're five hours closer to Santa Fe than we are to Austin."

Indeed, parts of the Texas Panhandle are closer to five state capitals than their own in Austin, which is 500 miles away.

Share Similar Problems

The panhandle people of Oklahoma, Nebraska, Idaho, Florida and West Virginia have similar complaints. They share problems stemming in part from isolation, economic imbalances, philosophic differences or geographic quirks.

Idaho is famous for its potatoes, but its panhandle residents can't find Idaho potatoes in their restaurants and supermarkets. Their potatoes come from Washington.

Pensacola, on the western tip of the Florida Panhandle, is 620 miles from Miami and 550 miles from Orlando. That means it is closer to Houston, Memphis, Atlanta and Cairo, Ill., than it is to Miami.

Some wags refer to the Florida Panhandle as L.A.--Lower Alabama. The governor of Alabama even offered to buy part of the panhandle a few years back.

The former publisher of a newspaper in a tiny slice of northwestern Oklahoma cavalierly dismisses the non-panhandle bulk of the state as "southeastern Oklahoma." And he put up a billboard announcing to travelers from the West that they were entering Guymon:

"Home of the most lied-about weather in the United States."

West Virginia claims two panhandles. People in the eastern panhandle are closer to the nation's capital than their own. In the northern finger, residents are squeezed between Ohio and Pennsylvania and can travel to Pittsburgh, Cleveland or Columbus much faster than to Charleston.

'Schizophrenic Situation'

"A schizophrenic situation," contends a West Virginia broadcaster who lives in Wheeling.

In 1982, the Star-Herald of Scottsbluff, Neb., asked its readers if they favored the 11 counties of the Nebraska Panhandle breaking away to join Wyoming.

Eighty-five percent of the 2,004 people who replied said yes.

At the time, Keith Kemper, publisher of the Alliance, Neb., Times-Herald, dismissed the issue as a winter diversion, a joke, and tossed out a suggestion of his own. Said he:

"What we ought to do is go into Colorado instead of Wyoming. Then we'd have the mountains and they'd have a football team."

Here are some often common experiences of the nation's panhandle people as reported by Associated Press correspondents in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Idaho, Florida and West Virginia.

Idaho:

Residents of western Montana, northern Idaho and eastern Washington have joked for years of forming a 51st state because those areas have more in common with each other than with eastern Montana, southern Idaho and western Washington.

They call the state Columbia or Washidamont (Wash-Ida-Mont).

Folks in the timber and mining industries of northern Idaho contend that they are misunderstood and neglected by Boise, the state capital. They can't see why their lush forests and rushing waters were patched together with Southern Idaho's farmers, fields and deserts.

Several southern counties are among the state's driest. Areas in the north receive more than 60 inches of rainfall annually.

Geography adds to the problem, since northern Idaho is cut off from the south by major mountain ranges such as Bitterroot and Sawtooth and White Cloud Peaks.

The major link between north and south is Highway 95, but motorists sometimes can't make the drive in winter. When they can, it's an eight-hour trip from Coeur d'Alene south to Boise.

This obviously could discourage commercial trade between north and south and explains why the panhandle gets its potatoes from Washington.

Idaho is served by three communications and business centers and two are out of the state. Southeast Idaho is served by Salt Lake City, southern Idaho by Boise, and northern Idaho by Spokane, Wash.

Secession Attempt Failed

Northern Idaho's last serious secession movement came in the 1950s after a temperance group sought repeal of a 1947 law allowing slot machines and purchase of liquor by the drink.

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