"I grew up in Paint Creek, Texas. If you can't find it on a map, I won't be surprised. Just look for Haskell, Texas, population 3,000, and then go a few miles to the south and east and you might find it." - Rick Perry in Fed Up: Our Fight to Save America From Washington
PAINT CREEK — Despite its sudden fame as the boyhood home of a new presidential contender, Paint Creek is still easy to overlook.
Motorists heading north from Abilene to Haskell can easily speed past the small farm road that bisects miles of sun-baked cotton fields and leads down to the community school where Rick Perry graduated in 1968.
Long before the governor's office and presidential politics, he was Ray and Amelia's boy, the high-energy teenager who quarterbacked the six-man football team and helped with chores on his parents' farm.
To longtime friends like Wallar Overton, who has remained in the area as a farmer, he is still Ricky Perry.
Throughout his quarter-century in public life, Perry has often cited Paint Creek as a familiar touchstone. In many ways, as the 61-year-old Texas governor embarks on his run for the presidency, Paint Creek constitutes a microcosm of his vision for America -- resilient people, an unbendable work ethic and a value system built on home, family and church.
Perry described himself as a "product of a place called Paint Creek" in his presidential announcement speech in South Carolina on Saturday, recalling how his father returned from 35 missions in World War II to begin working a "little corner of land" as a tenant farmer.
"It's a great place to grow up -- wonderful people out there," he said in a brief conversation with the Star-Telegram last week. "I tell folks, other than coincidental things in life, I could just as well be working in a feed store in Haskell County."
Perry's political trajectory took root here, beginning with a six-year stint in the Legislature that helped propel him into statewide posts as agriculture commissioner, lieutenant governor and the state's longest-serving chief executive.
While old friends and admirers applaud his latest venture, he also has more than a few detractors in this predominantly Democratic county, including those who still resent his switch to the Republican Party in the late 1980s. He did not carry his home county in his 2006 re-election campaign for governor or his 1998 race for lieutenant governor. In books, speeches and interviews, Perry has told of a rural boyhood that was both hardscrabble and idyllic. The family lived in a 1920s bungalow-style and was "fairly self-sustaining," Perry recalled in a 2010 interview in Texas Monthly. "Mom was a very, very good seamstress and still is. She made my sister's clothes; she made a lot of my shirts. Now, with blue jeans we wore Levi's. But when I went to college, Mother still made my underwear."
The stream called Paint Creek, which runs near the community that bears its name, got its moniker from its dark-red clay banks. The creek was dry for months until a summer rain late last week brought a brief respite in the worst drought to hit Texas since the 1950s.
"I've been farming since 1945, and this is the worst," said Dale Middlebrook, 83, whose cotton crop was destroyed by the drought. Some farmers who have suffered the same fate have been selling scrap iron to help get by.
But confronting hardships -- whether a relentless dry spell or a raging spring flood -- is ingrained in the community fabric and, as Perry has often recalled, helps define those who live here. Despite the distances that separate their homes, the farming families that dot the region seem strongly intertwined. If someone "lost a family member or the rains flooded your property," Perry once wrote, " everybody would be at your door."
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