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Rayburnís unparalleled impact on North Texas continues
By Allen Rich
Jan 7, 2024
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Fannin County, Texas -- Texas Government Code ß 662.042 established January 6 as Sam Rayburn Day in memory of the legendary Texas and U.S. statesman. Sam Rayburn, a man who grew up in Windom, Texas and went on to be a 25-term congressman, still holds the record for the longest tenure as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives.

Although few people in his beloved 4th District fully comprehend the growing impact of the sweeping changes ushered in during his time in office, January 6 is still Sam Rayburn Day in Texas.

But take a pause and reflect on how the visionary accomplishments of the 48th, 50th & 52nd Speaker of the United States House of Representatives are impacting North Texas in a far greater way now than they did in his lifetime and it becomes a fair assessment that, on his 142nd birthday, Mr. Sam never looked better.

In fact, some scholars call Rayburn the greatest legislator in U.S. history.

One such expert is Texas Christian University professor Dr. James Riddlesperger, Jr. 

"I tell my students," Dr. Riddlesperger said during a visit to Bonham in 2009, "that if you make a list of the most effective legislators in U.S. history, the debate starts at number two.  Number one has been taken.  He was from Bonham and his name was Sam Rayburn."

In addition to legislation that shaped the nation -- rural electrification, improvement of the nation's highways (Route 66, for example) and farm to market roads -- it is impossible to overlook how one man changed, and continues to change, the landscape of North Texas.

Well aware of how floods along Red River threatened lives and devastated fertile farmland, Rayburn was a staunch supporter of a flood-control impoundment that could also produce electricity and promote economic development through recreation. Lake Texoma, the 12th largest U.S. Corps of Engineers lake, was completed in 1944 and at that time was the largest rolled, earth-filled dam in the U.S.

According to U.S. Corps of Engineers, Lake Texoma now attracts more than six million visitors each year. In a 2006 study, Lake Texoma ranked first among Corps of Engineer lake projects nationwide, with visitors spending over 90 million hours at the lake.

The entire region is often referred to as simply "Texoma." In addition to being a jewel of an 89,000-acre lake, Lake Texoma has earned monikers such as "Striper Capitol of the World" - it is one of only seven inland U.S. lakes where stripers reproduce naturally -- and "Playground of the Southwest." In addition to two state parks located on the lake, don't forget the added bonus of 25,000 acres that two nearby national wildlife refuges have to offer. Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, at 11,320 acres, has approximately 250,000 visitors each year. Tishomingo National Wildlife Refuge, on the upper Washita arm of Lake Texoma and has 14,464 acres.

Just as Lake Texoma tamed Red River, Lake Lavon was a project supported by Rayburn that would place some measure of control over the flood-prone Trinity River and serve as a source of water for several cities.

In Rayburn's hometown of Bonham, the largest employer is the Bonham VA, officially known as the Sam Rayburn Veterans Medical Center. The original facility was completed in 1951 (groundbreaking was held in 1948); the construction cost was only $5 million.

Sam Rayburn turns the first spadefull of dirt in 1948 for the groundbreaking of the Veterans Center in Bonham.

As the sprawling VA facility in Bonham continues to add employees, Rayburn continues to bring jobs to his hometown, almost 63 years after his death in 1961.

Not bad for a $5 million investment.  More importantly, the men and women who served in the U.S. armed services need this facility now more than ever. That shows the unparalleled vision of Sam Rayburn.

State Highway 121 is another Rayburn project that grows more valuable by the day.  Hwy 121 began in 1928 as a direct thoroughfare between Fort Worth and McKinney, but TxDOT approved plans in 1943 to extend the highway to Bonham. It would be 1964 before the final section of Hwy 121 between McKinney and Trenton was completed. To the folks in Bonham and Trenton, Hwy 121 is as vital as U.S. 75 is to residents of Sherman and Denison -- it is a lifeline to the Metroplex.  To comprehend peak-hour traffic on Hwy 121, be in Melissa, Texas at 7:15 a.m. on any work day; the stream of cars flowing south gives the appearance that officials have ordered the evacuation Fannin County.

TxDOT is now in the lengthy process of widening Hwy 121 into a four-lane highway all the way to the Fannin County line.

Caddo National Grasslands was another valuable public resource that is part of the Rayburn legacy. Sam Rayburn Reservoir in East Texas was posthumously named after Rayburn in 1963 and certainly deserves mention. 

As hard as it is to track down any comprehensive list of accomplishments by a man who preferred to work quietly behind the scenes, it would be much harder to put a dollar figure on the value of Lake Texoma or Hwy 121 or the Bonham VA to a retired veteran in rural North Texas who needs medical assistance.

Maybe each project, in its own right, is just as valuable as Sam Rayburn was to his 4th District: priceless.