Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story
A Texan sauntered into an Anchorage bar, maybe looking for a bit of trouble. It was the summer of 1958, and he was surrounded by crowds of Alaskans celebrating the news of impending statehood. On June 30, 1958, Congress passed the Alaska Statehood Act, followed by President Dwight Eisenhower’s signature on July 8. As every good Alaskan knows, Alaska officially became a state on Jan. 3, 1959, and while there were parties aplenty that wintry week, the largest festivities came half a year earlier.
Texas’s status as the largest state was a longstanding point of pride for its residents, a fact even referenced in the official state song. However, Alaska statehood bumped Texas to a distant second place. That night in Anchorage, something small snapped inside the Texan and, suddenly, he wanted nothing more than to mute the good cheer around him. So, he made his way over to the jukebox and played the unofficial Texas anthem, “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” As Anchorage Daily Times editor Robert Atwood subsequently wrote on behalf of all Alaskans, “We are sorry that a Texan got a black eye when he played ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ on a juke box the night of the statehood celebrations. We are also sorry he saw fit to play it.”
Once statehood was guaranteed, a dormant rivalry erupted between the two generously sized states. Suddenly, there were loud but empty political gestures, insults, advice, songs, books, and every other sort of possible ephemera. It was a veritable cottage industry of Alaska versus Texas jokes and anecdotes, primarily good-natured exchanges apart from the occasional fool soon parted from his jukebox.
“Friendly Feudin’: Alaska vs. Texas” by Texan humorist Boyce House was the preeminent document of the new rivalry. Published in 1959, the book played both sides, with compliments and insults for everyone. “Alaska,” wrote House, “has the fartherest north university in the United States. Also the fartherest north airfield. Also the fartherest north plate of mashed potatoes.” He imagined confrontations where an Alaskan could tell a Texan, “If you Texas folks give us any trouble, we’ll just divide Alaska in two — and then Texas will be the third largest state!”
On the other hand, “Alaska has avalanches, frostbite, snow-blindness, and death by freezing,” rare outcomes in Texas. In addition, “Alaska has the biggest volcano chain in the world — although the advantage of this is not readily apparent to a non-Alaskan.” In House’s most cutting observation, he wrote, “The most famous event in the history of Alaska was the Klondike gold rush. And the Klondike isn’t even in Alaska; it’s in Canada!”
As for Texas, it “has many natural attractions, such as Johnson grass, which can not be eradicated; loco weed; mirages; tumbling tumbleweeds; duststorms; javelinas, which are wild hogs, and if you wound, but don’t kill, one, you better have a tree picked out; horned frogs and all the kinds of cactus there is. In fact, we have a saying: If it don’t bite you, it’ll sting you. Great country, Texas!”
Nothing is allowed to be small in Texas. “Why our laws don’t even recognize such a thing as petty theft; nope, if anybody steals in Texas, It has to be grand larceny.” The wealth was bigger too. According to one legend, oil magnate Clint Murchison Sr., father of Dallas Cowboys founder Clint Jr., wrote a check to complete a large deal. “But the check came back from the bank marked ‘Insufficient funds.’ He indignantly phoned, and the bank president replied, ‘Yes, insufficient funds; not you — us!’ ”
House maintained a positive attitude, but others felt the loss of stature more deeply. Disparities of geography and economy in Texas left some communities politically disconnected and relatively forgotten by the legislators in Austin. For some, the status of Texas as the largest state had been a unifying point. Cities like El Paso and Corpus Christi share little else besides a state.
In July 1958, Houston columnist Ed Kilman wrote, “Now that the ‘biggest’ position is no longer involved, some are for whacking the five points of the Lone Star into as many smaller states as the Constitution permits. This may be done just as soon as some means is devised for letting each of the five keep within its borders the Alamo, the historic capitol building, the San Jacinto monument, and the other priceless possessions which none of the five would give up.”
The same month as Kilman’s editorial, the city council of Alpine, a southwest Texas town, declared they and three surrounding counties had seceded from Texas. Due to “the way things are going in the rest of Texas,” they would instead form “the solemn and separate state of Big Bend,” which was “ready to be put on the roll of the list of states receiving federal aid.” Alpine Mayor W. E. Lockhart assured reporters the secession was both a “gag resolution” and an accurate reflection of local attitudes towards Texas.
No one seceded from Texas, and most comparisons between the two states were more lighthearted. For example, the 1958 country song “Alaska vs. Texas” by Lawton Williams is representative of the musical attempts exploiting the trend. Williams sings, “Oh, the Texan takes his Lincoln to round up his cattle herd, and children drive to school each day in a brand-new Thunderbird, but Texas pride is hurting now for they have just been told, that Alaska is the biggest state, and the place is full of gold.”
Before oil, and as House noted in his “Friendly Feudin’” book, Alaska was best known for snow and gold. And as regards gold, Oklahoman columnist Lucia Ferguson had some advice for Texas women. Wrote Ferguson, “Good news, girls — about that new state! For thar’s more than gold in them thar Alaskan hills. Thar’s men.” At the time, Alaska had a higher proportion of men than any state. Ferguson continued, “This is our newest frontier. And like all frontiers, it offers good hunting ground for females stalking mates.”
Regarding potential spinsters, she said, “It would be smart for some of our intelligent, attractive young women nearing the point of no return toward perpetual single blessedness to pack up for Alaska. There are jobs available for them and better still, husbands.” Regarding younger women just graduated from high school, she suggested they “could do worse for herself than to explore the job and matrimonial prospects in Alaska.”
For Ferguson, nothing was more important for a woman than a man. Men, she said, “search for new lands and new wealth. They venture into unknown territories. So what is more logical than that women should trail them?” Her now antiquated attitudes reflected her context, including that her column was published under “Mrs. Walter Ferguson” instead of her own name.
In response to Ferguson, one Texan, Richard Veevers, wrote to the Daily Times, warning Alaskans of the impending stampede. He wrote, “These domineering female leechers will be flocking out your way in herds, not only to invade your sanctuary and grab your gold, but to tie an apron string around your midriff and give you a boot towards the kitchen, as second in command.” “Keep your territory as a male retreat from these demanding creatures,” he said. Shockingly, the charming Veevers died a married man.
The most colorful examples of the Texas-Alaska rivalry are the many postcards. Postcards were the quickest way to cash in on the phenomenon, cheap to produce, affordable to buy, and available everywhere. Once upon a time, if something mattered at all, there was a postcard for it.
Some of the postcards were aimed at the Texas audience, understandable given the larger population. In one, a Texas chamber of commerce meets to discuss the Alaska problem. Amidst the smoke, there is only one possible solution. “Alaska is bigger than we are, so there’s only one thing to do . . . BUY IT!” In another, a cowboy cries upon learning, “We ain’t the biggest anymore.” Then he laughs, “That is, until the ice melts!”
Yet, while there are more Texans than Alaskans, there have always been far more non-Texans, many of whom are very open to any excuse to poke fun at a state long known for its braggarts. In one such postcard, two massive Alaskans laugh at “another of those dwarfs from Texas!” Another card declares Alaska as “Texas’ Big Brother!” with the now familiar image of Alaska superimposed over the contiguous United States.
One such postcard was apparently inspiring. It features images of an iceberg in the Pacific Ocean above an ice-filled Portage Lake. The text on the front says, “Howdy from Alaska, check the crazy ice cubes (sometimes called Texas hailstones).” On the back of my copy is a message, “We need a purchasing method survey here in Alaskan icebergs. They’re not buying ice at the right price. Schedule it for January because that is the coldest month.” The postcard was addressed to a Defense Contract Agency office in St. Louis.
Apart from geographical trivia, one enduring change was forced onto Texas by Alaska’s admittance into the union. “Texas, Our Texas,” the official state song, originally began:
“Texas, our Texas! All hail the mighty State!
Texas, our Texas! So wonderful so great!
Largest and grandest, Withstanding ev’ry test;
O Empire wide and glorious, You stand supremely blest.”
As of 1959, Texas was no longer “largest.” Though the song proclaimed a lie, Alaskans were gracious in victory. In July 1958, the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce unanimously voted to request the line remain unchanged. Nevertheless, in 1959, coauthor William J. Marsh changed the third line to “boldest and grandest,” a less testable claim.
Though these insults, jokes, songs and postcards represent a larger wave of material, the frequency slowed down after 1959. In the end, House concluded that there was nothing for Texans to be concerned about with Alaska. Texas had already become “synonymous with size.” As the usually cantankerous Veevers wrote in a different letter to the Daily Times, “We Texans DON’T feel bad over this move at all, we’re very much elated over the fact even though Alaska HAS pushed us into second place as regards size. Take Californians, for instance, their state will have to settle for THIRD PLACE now instead of second.”
The addition of Alaska ultimately removed none of the features or charms from the older state. The somewhat forced rivalry fizzled into nothing, that is, until the 1970s. During the construction of the Alaska Pipeline, waves of laborers from Texas — and Oklahoma — surged into Alaska, prompting a backlash against the newcomers. As a popular bumper sticker of the time declared, “Happiness is a Texan headed south with an Okie under each arm.”
“Big Part of Texas ‘Secedes’ from Union.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 7, 1958, 1.
“City Chamber Holds Out Hand to Texas.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 8, 1958, 1.
Ferguson, Lucia. “Happy Hunting, Girls!” El Paso Herald-Post, July 3, 1958, 7.
House, Boyce. Friendly Feudin’: Alaska vs. Texas. San Antonio: Naylor Company, 1959.
Kederick, Bob. “All Around Alaska.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 31, 1958, 8.
Veevers, Richard A. “Letter to Alaska Men.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 14, 1958, 8.
Veevers, Richard A. “Texans’ Fighting Spirit Remains.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 31, 1958, 8.
“We Gotta Hold Texas Together.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 8, 1958, 4.