BACK IN 1997, THE MEMBERS of the CanadianHemphill County Economic Development Council ( EDC) took a look at the numbers and cringed. The Panhandle town of Canadian had not known prosperity since the oil-and-gas boom of 19751985. There were no jobs, and like most small towns in the area, Canadian was shrinking. There had been about 4,500 people living there in 1985, but the EDC estimated that half of them had left. “So I started searching frantically for something that would attract more people to Canadian,” recalls Remelle Farrar, who was then an insurance agent and EDC volunteer, “and as I looked around to see what had worked in the past and in other places, I kept running across this term, ‘ecotourism.’” So Farrar proposed a two-pronged program that would not only draw visitors to enjoy the abundant plant and animal life in the Canadian River Valley but also rebuild a largely boarded-up downtown to give tourists someplace to eat, sleep, and shop.
Canadian may be the first small Texas town to decide to base its economy on ecotourism, and in the seven years since it did, the population decline has stopped and the count has stabilized at its historical postwar norm of around 2,300 people, according to Farrar, 48, now the director of the EDC and the CanadianHemphill County Community Development Partnership. Downtown, fourteen historic buildings have been restored, some of them housing the eleven new businesses and 180 new jobs that have been created. Retail-sales-tax revenues have jumped more than 25 percent, and in the past year alone, hotel-motel-tax revenues—considered the strongest measure of tourism income—have doubled. And the locals, from small shopkeepers to big ranchers, are talking up the lesser prairie chickens that mate out along the Canadian River breaks in March and April and the delicious scampi at Our Fillin’ Station.
Originally a railroad settlement called Hogtown that was located five miles to the east and was known as a “desperado city,” Canadian was platted and named the county seat when Hemphill County was organized, in 1887. The railroad quickly made it the commercial center for the surrounding ranches. Then, in 1953, the Santa Fe Railroad relocated 150 families from Canadian to Amarillo. After the Amarillo Daily News crowed that Canadian was about to become a ghost town, its mayor, Malouf “Oofie” Abraham, a realtor from one of the town’s oldest families and later a state representative, raised funds to install 61 mercury-vapor lamps downtown. “If we’re going to be a ghost town, we’ll be the best damn lit ghost town in the United States,” he reportedly huffed. That project, along with his other civic improvements, allowed the town to hold its own despite the loss of the railroad families and the droughts that nearly crippled the farming and cattle businesses. During the decade of the oil-and-gas boom, the population doubled and bank deposits tripled. By the early eighties, just before the boom went bust, Hemphill County was one of the largest producers of natural gas in the nation and one of the state’s wealthiest counties per capita.
So the subsequent collapse was particularly bitter, but the city-county government still had assets and traditions to build on. The boom had created neighborhoods of modern housing and financed a YMCA, a hospital, and a top-flight school system. The Fourth of July Rodeo, launched in 1888, had grown into the centerpiece of a four-day civic extravaganza. The Canadian Record remained an award-winning small-town weekly, and the arts community continued to grow. And, especially by Panhandle standards, Canadian was still a pretty town of wide, hilly streets and brick or stone prairie-style houses with tile roofs, built shortly after the turn of the century as townhomes for ranchers, many of whose descendants live in them today.
And then there was the surrounding countryside. Located below the Llano Estacado Caprock, the Canadian River Valley’s rolling plains are less snowy and icy in the winter, and less dry in the summer, than the High Plains seven miles south. Nature is varied and colorful. Out Formby Road, which leads northeast of town to the Gene Howe Wildlife Management Area and the Black Kettle National Grassland, the river bottoms nurture cottonwood, persimmon, hackberry, western soapberry, mulberry, and marshmallow, as well as eye-popping fields of sunflowers and wildflowers. It’s one of the few places in the state where colors change dramatically in the autumn, and the two-day Fall Foliage Festival, established in 1954, draws 10,000 visitors every October.
All of this gave the community enough to work with, and Farrar’s group set out to get local, state, and federal funding for their plan. Since there was much more private land than public land, they would have to win over ranchers whose experiences with environmentalists had left them suspicious of terms like “ecotourism.”
“We don’t even call it that here,” says Jim Bill Anderson, laughing. “We call it ‘nature tourism.’” The 53-year-old rancher had already been contemplating nature tourism as a way to help make ends meet when Farrar began promoting the idea. Today his wife, Deborah, leads kayakers down the river through their land, and he takes out groups—serious birders, like nature photographers and Audubon clubbers from Houston, who pay $50 each—to view lesser prairie chickens in the spring and rough-legged hawks in the winter. And because the hunting and birding seasons barely overlap, he can still sell hunting leases, with bobwhite quail lately surpassing deer as the most popular quarry.
If Anderson was a natural for Farrar’s approach, Mike Arrington, whose ranch southwest of town has been in the family for more than a century, was a tougher sell. Running a cow-calf operation, he was worried about how he and his wife, Debbie, would be able to hold on to the property long enough to turn it over to their three sons. But he was incredulous when ecotourism advocates urged him to start protecting prairie dogs, that underground-tunnel-dwelling scourge of ranchers, so city folk could view them on weekends. “You show me someone who will pay me to