CENSUS shows baby boom in Panhandle county

Saturday, May 19th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

The vast expanse of Oklahoma Panhandle once called ``No Man's Land'' has become Oklahoma's fastest growing maker of mankind, 2000 census results released Friday show.

Texas County, a place best known for its crop of hogs, is nurturing a bumper crop of babies.

The county's under age 5 population jumped to 1,700 in 2000, an increase of almost 50 percent from 1990, the census found. That compares with a state growth rate for that age group of only 4 percent.

While Oklahoma overall grew older in the 1990s, Texas County found new youth. Its median age dropped from 32.8 to 30.4. Children not yet old enough to go to kindergarten make up 8.5 percent of the population, making it the youngest county in the state.

With the growth have come growing pains.

``Many, many growing pains,'' said Bob Neel, school superintendent in Guymon, where the under 5 population grew by 74 percent to 944 last year.

The children are the legacy of the opening of the Seaboard Farms pork processing plant here in 1995. The plant has drawn a flood of workers, mostly Hispanics with young families.

Guymon built an elementary school in anticipation of the growth, but the new classrooms were filled almost immediately to capacity, Neel said.

With the new census numbers showing hundreds of new kindergartners on the horizon, Neel said school officials will have to ask the community once again to support a bond issue for a new elementary.

``Right now we have very few available classrooms in the district,'' he said. ``With this increasing number, we're going to have to take some action one way or another.''

The hog industry helped bolster the county's population by 22 percent to 20,107 during the 1990s. The Hispanic population grew by 267 percent.

The influx transformed the town, bringing Hispanic-owned stores and restaurants. A new YMCA caters to a younger crowd.

Larry Olmstead, a former administrator of the Texas County Health Department, saw the demands for maternity, prenatal and other services soar during his 13-year tenure there. He described many of the new families as working poor.

The agency doubled the size of its building, but on immunization days, ``it's plumb full,'' he said.

Erin Raybon works with Texas County families through the Oklahoma State University extension office's home visitation and parent education program.

She estimates that 80 percent of the families she sees plan to sink their roots in the community, envisioning the toddler's in their arms as Guymon's future.

``They're just like everybody else,'' she said. ``They want their children to grow up in a good environment.''

The transformation of Guymon may be most obvious to the local labor and delivery nurses she knows.

``They said in the past few years, things have really picked up out there,'' Raybon said.