Cotton fields get a Main Street address

To make sure that emergency personnel can find homes, Taylor, Texas, drops rural route numbers for a more citylike system.

Everyone in Taylor knows how to get to Louie Miller - the restaurant that sells what might well be the best barbecue in the Great State of Texas. Most anybody can also find their way to the Taylor post office, which rises imperiously over the banks and hardware stores on nearby Highway 79.

But ask someone - professor, policeman, or postal worker - to give you directions to Route 1, Box 20, and you're likely to get confused looks.

That's why this town amid the low Texas hills - once touted as the "World's Greatest Inland Cotton Market" - has dropped rural route numbers forever.

Gone are directions like: Turn left at Old Man McBee's barn, cross two cattle guards, and turn right where the apple tree used to be. Now, houses out in the corn and cotton have addresses such as 2200 County Road 19.

It's something that's going on across the United States, as small towns inaugurate new 911 systems that will help emergency personnel find homes more easily. Yet some Americans are unhappy about the change. To them, the rural route numbers pointed to a slower, more folksy way of life.

Here and across the nation, the changeover is an enormous undertaking. County officials have to drive every road in the county, finding homes and mapping them. Street signs have to be erected and roads upgraded; residents have to be notified and mailboxes updated.

Emily Stluka was one of the people here who spent hours driving the back roads and figuring out the best system.

"It took us a while to drive every road and spot every house," says Ms. Stluka, addressing coordinator for Williamson County. "We missed some people, and some people did not want to be found."

When it was all done and the notification letters sent out, calls started coming in. People were angry and confused about losing an address that was in their family for as many as 100 years.

"I tried to explain to them that when they dial 911, nobody knows where Route 1, Box 20 is," Stluka says. "Once people found out how it worked, they stopped complaining."

Each of Texas' 254 counties is charged with devising its own numbering system. The state expects to be finished by the end of 2001. Minnesota and Alabama are trying to switch over by the end of this year, and Wyoming has just begun work on its project.

Over the years, there have been various numbering systems. Some failed completely and others had to be redone more than once.

"It's taken us longer than we had originally hoped, but we are really close to physically addressing every part of Texas," says Jim Goerke, executive director of the Texas Commission on State Emergency Communications in Austin.

The new system in Williamson County is simple and efficient, says John Sneed, the county's Emergency Medical Service (EMS) director. If an address is 1500 CR 100, the house is 1.5 miles down County Road 100.

Previously, rural routes followed no rhyme nor reason. Indeed, a rural-route address simply designated a mailbox; the house could be miles away.

Mr. Sneed remembers his days as an EMS technician here in the early 1980s, when he kept a note pad next to his bed for calls during the night. On it he had scribbled questions such as: What county road are you on? How far down are you? What color is your house?

"And even then we had problems," he says. Sometimes he would have to call the phone company for better directions.

Another benefit of the change is that the Taylor post office - which doubles as a tornado shelter - has become more efficient delivering the mail. "It's much easier for new employees to learn the mail routes," says David Fields, the officer in charge here.

He recalls that only a handful of residents didn't like the idea and refused to change their rural addresses. One person was so adamant about not switching, he got a post-office box instead.

Waiting for his mail on a gloomy Saturday outside Taylor, Melvin Randig smiles when he sees the mail carrier coming. He's rambling on about whether or not to attend a wedding in such weather and where to find the best barbecue in the state, but he's unaffected by his new address.

"It doesn't bother me," he grins. "I spend more time fussin' with my wife."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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