Courthouse, Counting House, House of Prayer

There are three great powers in every society, economic, political and religious.  These three powers can be respectively characterized as the power of the purse, the power of the sword, and the power of the word.  In the days of Christendom, these were known as the First Estate (clergy, religious), Second Estate (nobility, political) and Third Estate (bourgeoise and peasants, economic).  In Hindu civilization, they were known as the Brahmins (religious), the Kshatriyas (political) and the Vaisyas (economic).

Each power has an exclusive function in a well-ordered society, and is extremely jealous of its dominion in its appointed sphere.  But each power is also prone covet the perquisites of the other powers, and when possible to usurp those perquisites for its own advantage.  Thus, statesmen have debased the coin of the moneymen, moneymen have suborned the preachments of the priests, and priests have acted as if Christ was a fool to scorn what Satan offered him in the wilderness.

Plutocracy is the name that we give to a society in which the money power is preponderant.  Theocracy to a society in which priests have the last word about everything.  Where political power is absolute, we call it a totalitarian state, or what was classically known as despotism.

There are many ways to tell which power has the whip hand in a society, but since I am a geographer, my data is the landscape.  When I look at a town, I ask which is most magnificent: the courthouse, the counting house, or the house of prayer.  Please understand that I use these terms as archetypes that may in actuality be many buildings.  The courthouse is the archetype of all government offices, the counting house of all places of business, the house of prayer any church, shrine, convent or monastery (the schoolhouse can be a modern house of prayer, but this status is uncertain when its only purpose is to prepare workers for counting house and courthouse).

Bearing all this in mind, I will tell you a story that I believe says something about the relative importance of the three powers in our society.  It is a true story, but it also has the deeper meaning that we expect in a parable.  It is the story of Donie, Texas, a little town seventy-five miles north of here.

Donie began with a house of prayer, a Baptist church no less.  This was in 1886, and since the little Baptist church was set in a natural meadow called Dewey Prairie, it took the name Dewey Prairie Baptist Church.  The prairie presumably took its name from some early settler in those parts, but it seems fitting to recall that the name Dewey means beloved.

In 1898, the citizens of Dewey Prairie decided to apply for a post office, in those days the humblest sort of courthouse that there was.  But it so happened that Commodore George Dewey had made himself famous earlier that year by destroying the Spanish fleet in Manilla Bay.  For this glorious feat of imperial statesmanship, Dewey was the first (and to this day only) man to be given the highest possible rank in the U. S. Navy.  Although he likely did not know it, the Admiral of the Navy was also honored by being almost immediately made the namesake of a small (and now defunct) town in northwest Texas.

Since statesmanship demands that no two post offices can share the same name, the citizens of Dewey Prairie were obliged to ask that their post office be spelled Douie.  We do not know if it was due to imperfection in the handwriting of the applicants, or in the eyesight of the clerks at the big courthouse on the Potomac, but their application was approved for the altered name Donie.

Nine years after letters were first addressed to the post office at Donie, Texas, the moneyman Benjamin Franklin Yoakum built his Trinity and Brazos Valley Railroad a few miles east of town, causing the post office and counting houses of Donie to at once pull up stakes and remove to a more propitious locations beside the tracks. The little house of prayer lingered on the Dewey Prairie under its original name, but then in 1913 followed the post office and counting houses to Mr. Yoakum’s railroad.  It also emended its name to conform to the error of a government clerk.

Courthouse, counting house, house of prayer.  He who has ears, let him hear.

7 thoughts on “Courthouse, Counting House, House of Prayer

  1. Pingback: Courthouse, Counting House, House of Prayer | Reaction Times

  2. Americans worship mammon. Interesting story, though. Do you teach your students through such tales? If so, how do they respond? As I’ve told you before, I really enjoy them.

    • Thanks. I sometimes tell students stories that can be understood at two levels. The surface level is prosaic geography, and that’s what will be on the test. But the story is also a parable with a second lesson for those who have ears to hear. They teach aspiring fiction writers to “show not tell,” and I think the same rule applies to teaching. Personally, I’ve never shaken the medieval belief that life itself is an allegory.

  3. It’s always interesting for us geographically minded fellows to learn of how a given place on a map got its name. I listened to a podcast a couple weeks back wherein the host told the (partial) story of a fellow – a Texas cattleman and ruffian – named King Fisher. During the show, and in spite of the fact the host never mentioned the connection, it occured to me that it could not possibly be that King Fisher (the man) and Kingfisher, OK (the town and county) were so similarly named by mere coincidence alone. So I checked it out online, and sure enough… There is also a Kingfisher Creek in the county in question I had never heard of before. And who knows what else?

    I think I’ve mentioned before that my little home town in Oklahoma is named Ringling. If you or any of your readers get the idea or impression that the town got its name from the John Ringling of circus fame, you would be perfectly correct. ‘Way back in the day,’ the circus needed a summer training ground, a site was chosen, and Ringling, OK, was established as a result. I should imagine that every Ringlingite (Mudcreekers, by another name) yet living, excepting those twenty years old or younger, has sat ringside at a Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circus show free of charge. For the better part of forty years, inviting the town of Ringling and all her former residents to one of their shows was a big selling point for the racket. And, in turn, Ringling re-named her annual “Western Days” celebration to “Circus Days,” in a mutual back scratching competition between the two entities. Thankfully the circus is basically dead, and Western Days has been revived.

    I thought it very interesting that the short Wiki entry on the Texas town in question states that (paraphrase), ‘although the town is unincorporated, it has a post office and official zip code.’

    • “It’s always interesting for us geographically minded fellows to learn of how a given place on a map got its name.”

      I live in Scotland and I own a piece of ground, about 18 acres of winter pasture, which is known locally as “the ten shilling land of Boyd.” [The shilling is an old British coin, 20 to the pound, abolished in 1971], Boyd being the name of our family seat.

      As a child, I was intrigued by the name and so I asked the old shepherd about it. He looked after the sheep on the common grazings and he knew everything. He told me that there was once a wicked king, who charged the poor people money, just for living on their own land.

      Years later, I had occasion to check the progress of title in the Register of Sasines and, sure enough, the piece of ground was described as being “ten shilling land of Old Extent.” Now, the Old Extent was a survey of rental values, carried out by King Alexander III in 1280, in connection with a proposed land tax.

      People around here don’t forget things like that in a hurry.

      • Charming. I really like Scotland. The Scots compete with the Jews for the Most Objectionable Wonderful People. So many great things mixed with some not so great things. That’s true of the human race as a whole (well, not all — vid. the Walloons) — but the contrast is so striking in these two formidable nations.

        Besides, they (the Scots) have the most delightful English accents. I also think that they’re the most attractive group overall in the British Isles.


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