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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"


by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

During one of the hottest years of the Cold War, residents of a small Texas town made national headlines in taking umbrage over what looked to them like nothing less than a sinister Communist plot to besmirch the name of their fair community.

With Premier Nikita Krushev pressing his Soviet military machine to catch up with the United States in nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles capable of delivering them between continents, many Texans believed the end of the world drew near. A lot of people built fallout shelters and many others did some extra praying. The U.S. stayed ahead in the arms race, but patriotic Americans tended to see a commie under every bush, particularly conservative Texans.

All that, of course, would come long after Phillip Dimitt established a trading post in what is now Jackson County in 1830. Five years later, the Texas Revolution broke out. That war, a decidedly hot one, succeeded in gaining independence from an earlier dictatorship.

One of many men who distinguished himself in that fight was Charles Keller Reese. He participated in the siege of Bexar in 1835 and fought in the battle of San Jacinto the following spring. With Texas a republic, Reese settled down in Jackson County and raised a family.

In 1909, still a half-century before its future residents would fire a shot of protest heard around the world, developers laid out a new town only a couple of miles south of where Dimitt's trading post had been. They named the town for Reese's attractive granddaughter, Lolita.

Lolita, Texas never boomed, but by the time President Dwight Eisenhower neared the last full year of his second term, the town had 600 residents. Many of those residents soon were mad enough to see red - or Reds.

Nothing much ever happened in Lolita, but in 1959, a naughty novel by Russian-born writer Vladimir Nabokov raised a literary mushroom cloud over the American cultural scene. Soon the figurative radioactive dust began to drift down on Jackson County.

Most if not all of the good folks in Lolita not interested in reading a book about a grown man's romantic obsession with a pretty teenage girl, it took a while for the community to realize it suddenly shared a name rapidly becoming synonymous with forbidden behavior.

Perhaps having read about Nabokov's best-seller in some general-circulation publication while waiting for a haircut, Lolita church deacon R.T. Walker decided the name of his town had been besmirched. Starting with his fellow congregants at the First Baptist Church, Walker began circulating a petition asking the government to take decisive action in response to what he saw as a veritable nuclear attack against American morals as well as an affront to his town.

Though his campaign stopped short of mass book burnings, Walker's petition beseeched the U.S. Postmaster General to drop his town's suddenly infamous first name and replace it with a nice, respectable surname: Jackson, as in Jackson County.

"The people who live in this town are God fearing, church going and resent the fact that our town has been tied in with the title of a dirty, sex filled book that tells the nasty story of a middle aged man's love affair with a very young girl," Walker fumed. To Walker's way of thinking, the literary accident that Nabokov happened to name his female character Lolita stood as "the toughest break our little town ever had." And in Walker's view, it dishonored the town's namesake.

"Knowing what a lovely little girl Lolita Reese was, it makes me mad," he said in a news story distributed by the Associated Press and widely published.

Walker's assertion that Nabokov's book was Lolita, Texas' "toughest break" amounted to something of a stretch. After all, the town had survived hurricanes, the 1918 flu pandemic and the Great Depression.

Even so, the petition from Jackson County went to Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield. Whether to abide by the First Amendment or just because some bureaucratic rule had not been followed, the government took no action on the request for a name change.

What Lolita ended up losing was not its name but a fair number of residents. They didn't leave because of the town's suddenly racy city limits signs; they just left, as have the residents of scores of other small Texas towns.

Three years after the Lolita matter, another small Texas town made news over its attitude toward the Soviet Union.

Civic leaders in the Polk County community of Moscow revealed plans to petition the USSR through the United Nations to pick another name for its commie capital city. After all, as Moscow, Texas Postmaster W.C. Fancher pointed out, his town got its name in 1853, long before that bigger, often-snowbound city in Russia.

The Cold War ended, the Berlin Wall came down and democracy prevailed as a political system. But the names on the maps of Jackson County and Russia haven't changed.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - May 18, 2006 column

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