“A Town So Nice, They named It Rice”

   A little comical for a town motto perhaps, but it reflects a pride in the heritage of this little town.

   Settlers first arrived in the area of Rice, Texas in the late 1860s, and by 1872 the Houston and Texas Central Railway was built through the area.

   The town was named for one of the railroad owners, William Marsh Rice who was the namesake of Houston’s Rice University as well. Rice also donated land to the community for a church and cemetery.

Brick sidewalks

   By 1890 Rice boasted a cotton gin, steam gristmill, two grocery stores, three general stores, a blacksmith shop, two wheelwrights, druggist and about 75 citizens. Pretty impressive, right?

   Unfortunately almost half of downtown was destroyed by fire in 1901. The side of charming buildings that survive on the north side of what was once a busy street are shuttered, but charmingly picturesque. Step up onto the raised brick sidewalks to get a glimpse through the windows of interiors that have surely seen more than their share of stories.

Bank windows
Former bank building

   At the corner is the local bank building, where some locals say the infamous Bonnie and Clyde carried out a bank robbery. Though rumors of the criminal duo robbing the local bank may have more to do with spinning a good yarn, they reportedly did stay at the hotel that used to be downtown. Photos in the Pioneer Village in Corsicana evidently offered proof of that part of the tale.

The question remains…but the legacy is for sale.

   With roofs caving in, restoration looks doubtful. Rice isn’t a true ghost town but many of its residents work in nearby Corsicana as local businesses have shuttered.


Interior of building on main street.

   Take the time to visit remnants of vanishing communities like Rice before the opportunity disappears. Walking in the steps of those who lived before us gives us a unique glimpse into their lives you won’t want to miss.

Moody Gardens’ ICE LAND Opens Saturday!


    What’s inside that huge, white tent at Moody Gardens? It’s visions of Christmas Around the World, carved entirely from ice.

     This holiday season, grab your ear muffs and set off on a chilly journey around the world without ever leaving Galveston Island with a visit to Moody Gardens’ ICE LAND exhibit. Returning with a brand new theme for its sixth year, this frosty phenomenon has become a favorite of visitors and locals who have made it part of their annual holiday traditions.

     The process begins when 6,000 300-pound blocks of dyed ice arrive from College Station, dyed in an array of colors. Just to put it into perspective, if those ice blocks were lined up they would stretch 4.46 miles.

     Even Elsa from “Frozen” would surely be impressed!

     A team of 25 professional ice carvers from Harbin, China carved over 100 sculptures in just 45 days completing over 1,080 hours of work in a tent kept at a bone-chilling nine degrees. Brrr…..

     After several years of hosting the event Moody Gardens President and CEO John Zendt is still impressed with the undertaking. “The craftsmanship and artistry of these carvers is truly spectacular. The precision is quite remarkable as you consider this work is done free-hand with just chainsaws and ice picks. For example, the Statue of Liberty, just of the massive landmarks being featured in this year’s ICE LAND is itself over 20 feet tall.”

   When you arrive at ICE LAND, you’ll be issued a full-length blue parka especially designed for the frigid temps ahead. Special hint here (and I’m speaking for experience) – BRING GLOVES! Even if you pull them off occasionally to take photos, you’ll be soooo glad you did.

     Once you’re bundled up, you’ll enter the 17,000 square feet of exhibit space and “travel” along a path between famous sites from around the world, including a giant windmill, the Alamo, Russian nesting dolls, Egyptian pyramids, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China and more with some towering 35 feet in the air.

     And of course they haven’t overlooked the most famous gent of the season. Santa appears occasionally in the festive variety of fashion and styles he wears while delivering goodies across the globe.

 

     What’s a family attraction without a slide, you say? No worries. In the center of the exhibit, visitors can climb the stairs to reach nutcrackers standing at the base of the Eiffel Tower, then glide down a 30-foot ice slide to land at the Arc de Triomphe. It’s a slippery, slide-y (yes, that’s a word!) photo app waiting to happen.

   The bravest of visitors can linger after seeing the sculptures and  “chill out” with refreshments in the log cabin style Shiver’s Ice Bar, a watering hole made completely of ice. Yep…including the tales and stools. But don’t take off your mittens! Even the flames in the fireplace are carved from the frozen stuff.

   One thing’s for sure: it will be the coolest thing you do all season!

   In addition to ICE LAND, Moody Gardens will feature seven other attractions as part of Holiday in the Gardens including the Cirque Joyeux Dinner & Show, Festival of Lights, an outdoor ice rink, train rides, Arctic Slide, Rudolph 4D, and 3D holiday films.

  ICE LAND will be on display Nov. 14 – Jan. 12. Admission for adults is $28.95 and $23.95 for children and seniors. Super Value Days start at $8.95 for Festival of Lights and $19.95 for ICE LAND with an additional $5 off for seniors and children at ICE LAND. Super Value Days start at $19.95 for ICE LAND with an additional $5 off for seniors and children at ICE LAND. Super Value Days are Nov. 17-21; Dec. 2, 9 and 16; and Jan. 5-12.

Click here for a calendar of of all of the special pricing opportunities…you can save a bundle before you bundle up!

   For a calendar of daily hours, special discount offers and hotel packages call 409-744-4673 or visit their website here.

Want a peek into the process of creating this icy wonder?

Click here!

Fairy, Texas: A Tiny Legacy with a Big Heart

     Driving through Central Texas recently, I made a detour to visit a Fairy . . . and the tiny town named after her.

     In a state that likes to brag that “bigger is better,” the town of Fairy Texas in Hamilton County named themselves after a surprisingly diminutive member of their community.

     Originally known as Martin’s Gap it was named after James Martin, a settler killed by local Indians in the 1860s while driving cattle through a “gap” between two mountains in the area. He was buried at the foot of one of those mountains.

     As you can see from the map, it isn’t “on the way” to anywhere particularly…but it’s worth a road trip diversion.

     When a post office was requested for the town in 1884, locals renamed it “Fairy” to honor Fairy Fort Phelps (1865-1938), the daughter of Sallie and Battle Fort, a former Confederate Army Captain and lawyer.

     One of the smallest Texans ever, Fairy was just 2’ 7” tall and weighed about 28 pounds. Her size didn’t stop her from leading a somewhat normal life and becoming one of the most beloved people in her community.

     Her namesake town once had a cotton gin, school, general store, café and businesses to serve the ranchers in the area.

     Fairy had four younger brothers: Henry; Hugh Franklin; William “Battle,” Jr; and Walter Herbert – all of whom were average heights.

     Fairy and her father taught area children at a school in their home for many years. One story reflects how respected and well liked she was by her students. The tale states that it became necessary for Fairy to paddle an unruly student, but she couldn’t high enough. The student himself lifted his teacher onto a chair so she could paddle him.

     The petite young lady even married twice, once to William Y. Allen in 1892 and again to T. J. Phelps in 1905, but both marriages ended in divorce. Probably not surprisingly, she never had children, but she did live into her 70s and is buried with her parents at…yes…Fairy Cemetery. The sign on the gate alone is enough to back you look twice.

     Fairy’s post office closed in 1947, and the school consolidated with Hamilton schools in 1967. A Baptist church, community center, volunteer fire department, a few homes and one historic cemetery are all that endure.

     The stories of a petite woman who lived life to the fullest remain with the residents, and those who stop to visit her gated grave.

     The tiny town’s cemetery is interesting on its own for a variety of style of distinctive, handmade grave markers. Many exhibit expert stone carving skills, but others include one constructed of petrified wood and another meticulously covered with sparkling, local minerals.

     Oh….and if you’re curious what locals are called, they are “Fairians.” How cute is that?





Ghostly Residents of the Baker Hotel

     It’s impossible to roam the halls of Mineral Wells’ 14-story Baker Hotel without uttering the stories of its hauntings. And while I look forward to sharing more about the history and state of the hotel itself in my next post, Halloween calls and insists that we revisit their stories once more.

 

     Now closed to the public the once luxurious Baker was one of the most popular resort destinations of its day.

     Now the graffiti covered walls with their flaking paint and the crumbling walls and ceilings create what seems to be the ideal home for the numerous phantoms that are said to roam the premises.

     Climb the front stairs, turn on your flashlight and join me for a visit with the Baker Hotel ghosts.

ELEVATOR ANTICS

     15-year-old Douglas Moore earned a job as a passenger elevator operator at the grand hotel two years after his family moved to Mineral Wells.

     On January 16, 1948 Douglas arrived early for work and went to the basement to catch up with his friends working maintenance shifts. Teenage talk turned to horseplay and Douglas began to play with the service elevator at the base of the stairs, jumping in and out when it was in motion.

     Mind you, this was in the days before safety features would keep doors from closing entirely if something (or one) was in the way.

     You see where this is going…and it can’t be good.

     One of his friends notice that Douglas hadn’t jumped quite far enough to get his body totally inside the elevator compartment on one attempt, and pulled the young man’s legs to try to get him out. Tragically, he wasn’t quite fast enough and Douglas was caught between the doors and floor of the rising elevator, crushing him at the abdomen.

 

     Even more gruesome, it was half an hour before help could dislodge him and get him to the hospital, where he died of his injuries.

     As if his fate wasn’t horrific enough, lore states that he had actually been cut in half and that apparition of merely the top half of the unfortunate teen has been seen throughout the basement. According to his death certificate was an exaggeration of his fatal injuries, however.

     Visitors have said that those who call the young man’s name aloud will feel a cold rush of air push by them…but it’s best not to tempt him while standing too close to the elevator shaft. The teen might just be lonely for a bit of company after all these years.

     In an odd coincidence, his only brother Thomas was also killed as a teenager in a horrific accident while at his job in Mineral Wells.

BAKER, BUT WHICH ONE?

Earl Maynard Baker, nephew of the hotel’s found Theodore B. Baker, managed the Baker Hotel for over 40 years and lived in its Presidential Suite. After a string of contentious years with his family, spouse and even the community, Baker had a heart attack in his suite and subsequently died in the local hospital.

Reports say that he (or perhaps his uncle, the original resident) endlessly paces the rooms, now only a shadow of their former elegance. When the hotel was available to guides of ghost tours it was customary to knock before entering the suite as a form or respect…or perhaps to avoid his fiery temper.

Visitors to the area have claimed to smell cigar smoke, and to have small items from their purses or pockets come up missing…only to be found on the premises by tour guides later.

Whichever Baker may remain, he certainly has a sense of humor!

THE MISTRESS

The most famous spectral resident of the Baker is the lovely apparition of a ghost with red hair and green eyes. A porter of the hotel first saw her in the 1960s.

Known as the “Lady in White” she is believed to be the former manager’s mistress Virginia Brown, she flirts with men whom she finds attractive and resents the intrusion of other women in her suite at the southeast corner of the 7th floor.

Apparently the woman, distraught from the affair, committed suicide by jumping to her death from the window of her room (or the roof, depending on which version of the tale is told).

Her distinctive lavender perfume wafts throughout the floor; a red lipstick was even found by a maid on the rim of a glass when no one was staying in the suite.

The most restless spirit in the hotel, she refuses to be confined to one floor as she was in life, and the clicking of her high heels can be heard on the lobby floor.

I couldn’t find a Virginia Brown that would fit her age range and profile living in Mineral Wells at the time, though there were three others with the same name.

Whatever the name of the permanent guest, she is not to be taken lightly.

HIGH DIVE DURING COCKTAILS

     The parties held in the Cloud Ballroom on the 12th floor were legendary, and guests often enjoyed themselves to excess.

     One intoxicated woman actually tried to jump from the ballroom balcony into the pool below and naturally died in the attempt. Versions of the story say that she may have been racing her boyfriend who fled down the stairs to the pool deck and others that perhaps she may have received an unfriendly push.

     Now she paces along the balcony considering her fate.

The Cook and the Maid

     One of the persistent tales linked with the Baker is that of a hotel cook who was having an affair with one of the chambermaids. The legend states that the hotel’s cook was having an affair with one of the maids. The story goes that the woman threatened to expose their relationship to the cook’s wife, causing him to fly into a fit of rage and stab her to death in the kitchen pantry.

     It’s said that female visitors have reported hearing a woman’s voice telling them to leave when they entered the kitchen.

     Not surprisingly there doesn’t seem to be any evidence to support that such a murder too place – though the hotel’s food was reputed to be “to die for.”

LITTLE BOY

     Considering the fact that many visitors to Mineral Wells came in search of thee curative properties the local spring waters were said to possess, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that not all cures were successful.

     The spirit of a little boy about six-years-old plays in the hallways of the hotel, accompanied by his large, shaggy dog companion. A visiting medium claims that the boy communicated to her that he passed away in 1933, when his parents brought him there seeking treatment for his leukemia. He tends to be watched over by the spirit of an older woman who remains nearby, and try to gain visitors attention by bouncing his rubber ball.

OTHER DEATHS

     Any hotel that has had some many people pass through its doors has seen its share of tragedies, and the Baker is no exception.

     In 1944, a federal civil investigator – probably assigned to Camp Wolters- threw himself out of a window from Room 919. The FBI is said to have investigated, but no foul play was found.

     In 1952, a man rented a room, went upstairs and cut his throat.

     In the 1940s one man murdered another man in the lobby, reputedly over a private parking space. The murderer was found guilty, but released…enough of a reason for any victim to roam in anger.

     Stories have also circulated about a spooky, secret network of tunnels beneath the hotel. There is one known passageway that leads from the hotel the pool on the property, and it’s possible that originally extended northeast to the original water tower (now a parking lot for a Methodist church). No other tunnels have been discovered but just the possibility can cause a shiver.

     Although it doesn’t have stories of specific haunting attached to it, the hotel spa on the second floor is unarguably one of the creepiest areas on the property. It’s difficult to say whether that feeling is due to the archaic equipment crumbling in place or the general atmosphere.

The “Brazos Room”

     When a group of World War II veterans and their spouses toured the hotel, multiple people in the group heard voices chatting, orchestra music playing and the sound of dinnerware and utensils being used. This occurrence seemingly had not happened before or since that day. Maybe their recognized their contemporaries?

     With the Baker Hotel now receiving long overdue renovations and restoration, the ghosts of the famous inn will hopefully have plenty of living company very soon.

     Which floor would you choose to stay on?

Ghosts of the Emily Morgan Hotel

     “Good evening, Mrs. Maca,” the desk clerk smiled as she handed me my room key card. “We’ve booked you in a suite on the haunted floor.”

     It definitely wasn’t the usual greeting I receive at a hotel check-in, but obviously someone on staff had Googled my name . . . and I have to say I was pretty delighted.

     I was in San Antonio speaking about cemetery symbolism at a paran
ormal conference, of all things. My books about Galveston cemeteries and ghosts have certainly opened up some unusual venues for me. And although I must admit that my choice to stay at the Emily Morgan was based on an admiration for its elegance and location (right next door to the Alamo, for heaven’s sake!), the stories of its hauntings may have played a part in the decision to choose it. It is known as one of the three most haunted hotels in the city.

UNUSUAL PAST

     Now a part of the luxurious Doubletree by Hilton chain (yep, that means their famous fresh cookies at check-in), the thirteen-story building wasn’t always a hotel.

     The striking Gothic Revival structure opened in 1924 as the Medical Arts Building, with the first four floors being doctors’ offices and a pharmacy. Other levels included a psychiatric ward (seventh floor), the top two floors served as surgical wards, and of course – a morgue in the basement.

     The towering building features unique ornamentation and a copper roof with wood ribs. The most unusual adornments are undoubtedly a variety of gargoyles (actually “grotesques” since they have no downspouts) that surround the building, each portraying a medical ailment that might have been treated within. They’re slightly reminiscent of some stone carving from the movie “Ghostbusters” about to come to life. There are even flying monkeys for those who look closely.

     One of the more “princely” – though certainly not handsome – examples wearing a crown was perched right outside a window of my room, and it was fascinating to see him so close-up.

     It remained a hospital for about 52 years before being converted into an office building in 1976.  Luckily for those who appreciate her beautiful architecture, the Emily Morgan (named after the Yellow Rose of Texas) was recognized by the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Alamo Plaza Historic District the following year.

     In 1984 it opened as a luxury hotel, and in 2012 it underwent a multi-million dollar renovation before being reopened as part of the Doubletree group.

     I suppose that should be our first clue, since one of the common superstitions about spirits . . . or is it a fact . . . is that they tend to get “stirred up” during renovations of their surroundings.

     Considering the amount of suffering and death the walls witnessed for so many years, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that “energies” from the past are reported to remain.

SPIRITED ROOMIE, ANYONE?

     Throughout the weekend I heard hotel guests inquire of each other if they had had any ghostly experiences, anxiously hoping to hear the answer “yes.” When comparing room numbers, my answer was usually met with a lot of interest, and I invited people up to check out my room for themselves whenever my timetable allowed. There was even a YouTuber who took video. More often than not, the visitors ended up being just as intrigued by the beauty of the view and the room as any otherworldly roommates I might have.

     I found it amusing that even a few attendees of the paranormal convention, which was held at a reputedly haunted mansion, left before all of the festivities were over to return to the Emily Morgan to seek out their own “encounters” in impromptu ghost hunts.

     Would you stay on the 13th floor of a notoriously haunted hotel or do you think that would be bad luck?

     Poppycock, you say – hotels don’t have a 13th floor! Ah, but we all really know the truth, don’t we? A glance at any hotel elevator board and you’ll see they’ve conveniently skipped from the 12th to the 14th when numbering floors to avoid any superstitious guests being uncomfortable. So the 14th floor actually is the 13th.

     The Emily Morgan has taken these superstitions into account at an entirely new level by omitting the room number 1408. You see, when you add those numbers together you would realize they equal 13 on the actual 13th floor.

     Regardless, there have been reported ghostly occurrences on almost every floor, with the 7th, 13th and 14th being the most active.

12th & 14th FLOORS

     Guests on the 14th floor have often specifically requested to stay on this notoriously haunted level. As one of the former surgical wards where numerous deaths occurred, the expectation of ghosts is somewhat understandable.

     Room occupants in the past have reported opening doors to the hallway only to see hospital scenes playing out in front of them, complete with nurses pushing squeaky-wheeled gurneys.

    When they shut the door to gather their wits before reopening it, the scenes vanish.

    Much more unpleasant is the report of a lingering scent of antiseptic, which I was quite grateful not to have noticed.

     The perception something cool brushing up against guests has been noted on both floors. Would it be a relief on a hot summer night, or send unwelcome chills?

     Utilities seem to be of special interest to spirits on the 12th floor, including flashing lights and impish water faucets. Dripping noises can be heard in the middle of the night, with investigating occupants discovering the bath faucets to be completely cranked open.

     I must admit that I heard an incessant dripping of water as I was admiring the full moon outside my window, but after investigating I decided that someone on the floor above me must have a slow draining bath, as there was no water actually running in my room.

     Bathroom doors visibly opening and shutting have also been witnessed, which is odd since the extensive renovations should have taken away any explanation of “off kilter” doors.  

     Having heard these stories, I considered myself pretty darn brave to take a soaking bath both nights of my stay . . . but I just couldn’t resist the immense “champagne Jacuzzi” tub. Thankfully, the spirits left me to unwind in peace.

     I even heard one report that the Emily Morgan’s swimming pool, a triangular feature situated on an outcropping of an upper floor, was constructed out of the stainless steel from the medical center’s operating tables. Though I couldn’t find anything to confirm this, it sure makes a great story and would have been an ingenious (if eerie) example of repurposing materials.

IT HAS ITS UPS & DOWNS

     One ”phenomenon” at the Emily Morgan that I can confirm through personal experience is that the elevators seem to have a mind of their own.

     The elevators are said to often to ride up and down without a single rider or skip past a floor that a rider has requested by pushing the button, because . . . c’mon, ghosts just wanna have fun.

     When you step onto one of these conveyances, take a bit of patience and be ready to accept an adventure if it should present itself.

     Front desk attendants are said to receive phone calls –from these same elevators-even when no one is inside.

     One of the creepiest experiences reported by visitors is that the elevators (regardless of which floor was requested) have taken their passengers below ground to the basement level, where the morgue once was.

     Meeting rooms and housekeeping are the only things housed there today, but it is said that even employees keep their time there to a minimum. Among the things reported to have been experienced there are dancing orbs (there are no windows, so they couldn’t be reflections) and disembodied voices. I wonder what they have to say?

     The most dramatic – verging on unnerving – experience I had at the hotel involved the elevators. It was witnessed by numerous other guests and staff, but I’ll keep this one to myself (sorry).

OTHER “RESIDENTS”

     Other floors in the hotel come with reports of a woman’s shrieking cries in the middle of the night, transparent apparitions moving from room to room and passing through walls or even gazing into the mirror as guests check their appearance. Which of these would you be brave enough to see or hear?

     The staff confirms that occasionally guests request to switch rooms, citing that the activity in theirs is too much to endure.

     Did they actually experience something paranormal or did they take the hotel’s ghostly tales too close to heart? Only they will know for sure, but I suggest you check in and decide for yourself.

     Employees of the hotel are happy to share their own experiences or stories they’ve heard, and if they aren’t scared, why should we be?

     Ghosts or not, the Emily Morgan Hotel remains high on my recommendations for accommodations in the city of San Antonio. The beautiful architecture and interior spaces and gracious staff are unparalleled.

Did You Say . . . Funeral Museum?

     One of the least known and most fascinating museums in Houston surrounds a topic that not everyone is entirely comfortable discussing – funerals.

     The National Museum of Funeral History isn’t only a great idea to visit around Halloween, though. The tasteful curation of a fascinating collection from across  generations and cultures will soon have you roaming around wondering why you haven’t visited before.

     I admit I hadn’t visited the museum since they were in their original, much smaller space so I was wowed by the 30,500 square feet of exhibit space is filled with fifteen permanent displays that explain topics from the lives and deaths of popes, to presidential funerals and the Day of the Dead celebration as well as visiting exhibits.

     My favorite room is filled with historical hearses, which will especially amaze car enthusiasts.  Rare horse drawn carriages from the 19th century sit beside the actual hearses that carried actress Grace Kelly and U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald R. Ford. There’s even a 1916 Packard funeral bus large enough to hold a coffin, pallbearers and up to 20 mourners.

 

     The museum even has Roy Rogers and Dale Evans parade car…and you have to see it in person to believe it!

     Around each corner are unexpected surprises, including a replica of Snow White’s glass coffin and displays of funeral details of the rich and famous.

     A collection of fantasy coffins from Ghana, West Africa captures the personalities of the departed. Imagine being laid to rest in a wooden coffin carved to resemble an eagle, a chicken, an airplane or even a Mercedes Benz! They are truly pieces of art.

     Other exhibits explain the history of topics like the history of embalming or 19th Century mourning. They’ll open your eyes to a part of history that isn’t often talked about, but can of course be bypassed if you’re with younger ones who you’d rather not have view them.

     Rest assured though, there is nothing gory or blatant about any of the displays. And yes, there’s a gift shop with a great selection of conversation-starters to commemorate your visit.

     Whether you’re looking for something you consider a bit creepy to visit for Halloween, or an unusual museum that your friends probably haven’t even heard of…this is the spot.

     Find days, times, and other information to place your visit here: National Museum of Funeral History.

 

 

Brrr! Ice Land in Galveston is the Coolest Exhibit of the Season

     What happens when a team of 25 professional ice carvers from China arrives on Galveston Island? Why, the chilliest fun to be found for the holiday season.

     While it may be a bit too early for most of us to start thinking about Christmas, it’s never too soon to plan fun outings.

     Today I was invited by Moody Gardens to get a sneak peek at the process of creating the annual, larger-than-life ice carving installation Ice Land. I can honestly say that even though I’ve seen every year of Ice Land, this one is the best yet.

     The theme is “Christmas Around the World” and incorporates ice sculptures of the Eiffel Tower, Russian Matryoshka (nesting) dolls, the Great Wall of China, a Dutch windmill and more…all carved from 300-pound blocks of colored ice.

 

     Experience has taught be to come prepared with gloves, and Moody Gardens provides long parkas to brace against the shocking nine degree temperature of the 28,000 square-foot tent where the exhibit is taking shape. Today’s tour also included hard hats since it’s a very active construction zone.

Shivers Bar under construction

     One of the attraction’s most popular annual features, an ice slide, will let guests slip and slide from the base of the Eiffel Tower to the ground floor this year. And the unique “Shivers Bar” (aptly named) will once again be serving beverages inside the venue…if you are brave enough to chill out counters and tables carved from ice!

     I’ll be back in two weeks to share their progress with you, and tips for how to save on family visits to Moody Gardens Ice Land and Festival of Lights.

     Mark your calendars: Ice Land will be open November 16 through January 12 – plenty of time to get your chill on!

     Right now, though, the artists need to get back to work…and I’m breaking out the hot chocolate!

 

For ticket information, visit Moody Gardens

A Kiss for Luck: Shamrock Texas


     I’ll admit that because Irish (my maiden name is Shanahan), I loved the town of Shamrock even before I arrived just for it’s cute name. What I found is a place that’s adorable for much more than just the moniker it’s had since its first postmaster named it in honor of his Irish mom at the turn of the last century.

 

TOWER STATION & U-DROP INN

    Of all of the unique stops we made along Route 66 in the Texas panhandle, this small town just 15 miles west of the Oklahoma border had one of the most recognizable buildings to fans of the Pixar movie “Cars.”

   The Conoco gas station and diner at the corner of Highway 83 and Route 66 inspired the design of Ramone’s “House of Body Art” paint and body shop in the film. If you’ve seen the movie, you’re sure to recognize it immediately.

 

   This Art Deco-lover’s dream was designed by Pampa architect J. C. Berry and built by James M. Tindall and R. C. Lewis in 1936, for a whopping $23,000. Quickly nicknamed the “Tower Station,” it was the first commercial business Shamrock had on Route 66.

   Made up of a streamlined gas station and office, a diner named “U-Drop-Inn” (get it?), and a retail space that was soon incorporated to expand the popular diner.



   The brick and concrete building sculpted with curved Deco relief curves has two side canopies, and two obelisks sitting on top. The tallest tower over the service station and is almost 100 feet in height. Topped with a metal tulip and adorned with letters spelling “Conoco,” it succeeded in luring in passing tourists. Glazed green and gold terra cotta tile walls and blazing neon light trim added to the attraction, day and night.

     Reported to be “the swankiest of swank eating places” and “the most up to date edifice of its kind on the U.S. Highway 66 between Oklahoma and Amarillo” it quickly became one of the most fashionable stops on the Texas stretch of 66.

     In addition to drawing tourists in from the road, the U-Drop was the place local parents would sit and visit on Saturday nights while their kids were at picture show at the Texas theatre down the street.

     Open 24/7 it had a reputation for friendly waitstaff and delicious food, and was surely a welcome sight for tired, road-weary travelers.

     John Nunn, the original owner, passed away in 1957 and the structure changed hands a few times. In the 1970s the station was converted into a Fina station. But the new era had begun when traveling was more focused on the destinations than the adventure of traveling itself, and Route 66 sights took a back seat.

     James Tindall, Jr., the son of one of the builders, purchased the landmark in the early 1980s, but closed it in 1997. Ironically that was the same year it was added to the national Register of Historic Places.

     Two years later the First National Bank of Shamrock purchased the iconic building and donated to the town of Shamrock. A careful restoration was completed in 2003 recovering its Art Deco charm.

   Repair of the station included the use of 508 linear feet of LED lighting to replace the original neon, which was often damaged by harsh Panhandle weather.

     Luckily for today’s travelers, the Tower Station complex has been turned into a Visitor Center and small memorabilia museum where you can get a feel for what it was like in its heyday, and sit in Elvis Presley’s favorite booth! They even have era hats to use as props in your photos. The shop also carries a small assortment of Route 66 souvenirs.

     Travelers now come from all over the world once again to visit the Tower Station. One of the ladies volunteering in the shop pointed out that they has already had people there from over 100 countries this year alone.

   What you might not expect to find is a row of Tesla car chargers in the side parking lot, but the juxtaposition of old and new is pretty darn neat.

BLARNEY STONE

Kiss It, It’s Irish!

     One of Shamrock’s biggest claims to fame is that it has a piece of the actual Blarney Stone from Ireland.

     If you aren’t familiar with the original Blarney stone, it is a large piece of limestone built into the battements of Blarney in Cork. According to legend, kissing the stone will endow the kisser with the “gift of gab.” As a writer, I think that could come in pretty darn handy!

     In a tiny strip of property named Elmore Park on East 2nd Street, sits an allegedly theft-proof, crash-proof (for wayward trucks, I assume) concrete cylinder with a neatly cut piece of the legendary stone embedded in the top. The landmark is Irish green – of course – and has a depiction of Blarney Castle painted on the side by a talented local artist.

     A bronze plaque explains that the stone was placed there on March 17, 1959 (St. Patrick’s Day) by Texas Secretary of State, Zollie Stearley. According to the Shamrock official who brought it to town, the segment of stone was accidentally knocked off of the original at Blarney Castle. Local lore says that the chunk’s arrival was so important that Shamrock’s mayor called out the Texas Highway Patrol and the Texas National Guard, who reportedly stationed a sub-machine gunner atop the drug store as the stone was wheeled into town. If it isn’t quite true…well, it sure makes a good tale.

And if it IS true, I bet it made for a great show.

     If you didn’t know the Blarney Stone was in the park, you might stop anyway just to snap photos of the cute signs depicting St. Patrick and a leprechaun. But since it is, well…what harm can a kiss do?

WATER TOWER

     Shamrock is also home to a different sort of “tower” – the tallest riveted water tower in the state….and you know how we Texans like to build the biggest and best. I must admit I’ve never seen such attention and documentation given to a town water tower. It’s definitely worth a few minutes to wander the lot where it stands downtown and take in some of the old photos, informational plaques and murals that explain how they constructed this monster. Taking into consideration that it was built in 1915 and cost just over $6,000, it’s pretty impressive..

     Shamrock also still has a handful of motels that have survived several reincarnations since the days of Route 66, and a beautifully restored 1926 Magnolia gas station.

     You’ll thank your lucky stars – or clover – if you take the time for a stop in Shamrock.





Groom – Leaning Tower

     Watch out, it’s about to…huh…maybe not.

     Ladies and Gentlemen, the Leaning Tower of…Groom?

     It’s not everyday you see a water tower leaning this precariously. There are stories that it was side-swiped by a tornado (not unheard of in the Panhandle), shaken by a tremor (not so likely) or even struck by a wayward aviator. But the real story behind the popular roadside attraction in Groom, Texas is much more inventive.

     Ralph Britten, owner of a restaurant and truck stop along Route 66 purchased the water tower from the nearby town of Lefors, about 35 miles away. After hauling it all the way to his land he learned that the tower couldn’t serve its intended function because it didn’t meet code requirements.

     Considering his options, Britton came up with the idea of using the power as an attention getting gimmick for his business. He had “Britten USA” painted on the reservoir and, using only a bulldozer to lift the tower into place buried one side part way in the ground while leaving the other appearing to be suspended in midair. Yep, two of the tower legs are actually hanging above ground, with the tower itself leaning at an 80-degree angle to the ground.

Vintage Postcard of the Tower Fuel Stop

     Pretty neat trick.

     For those of you who appreciate the physics and engineering aspect of this feat, you’ll be interested to know that Britten partially filled the tower with water, which put its center of mass near the base directly above the two supporting legs. If the tower had been either fully filled or left empty, the angle would have caused it to topple over.

     Even if the mechanics of it don’t interest you, it’s hard to resist stopping to take a look at the popular roadside attraction. It served its purposed drawing customers to the café and fuel stop until they were destroyed by fire a few years ago. All that remains is the tower and the remnants of the Tower Truck Stop sign.

     The tower is still holding its ground, though and is one of the most photographed Route 66 oddities in Texas.

     The leaning tower isn’t the only claim to fame in the small town of 535 people though. It also is home to a short stretch of the original Route 66, and the seventh-largest freestanding cross in the world (190 feet tall)…both of which travelers could zoom past if they weren’t on the lookout.

     Groom was also the inspiration for Cross Canadian Ragweed’s song “42 Miles” which basically laments about a car breaking down in the town just 42 miles from its intended destination. If you’re curious, you can hear the song here.

     The leaning tower is just off the interstate, and a photo opp will only take about five minutes of your traveling time – well worth the stop before heading out to see the next offering of Route 66.

Conway’s Slug Bug Ranch

     Out of all the stops we made during our Route 66 trip, one was hands-down my teenage daughter’s favorite. She got to spray paint, explore and take lots of fun photos having the place all to herself almost the entire time we were there.

     So many travelers pass up the Slug Bug Ranch in Conway, Texas without even knowing it’s there and they’re definitely missing out.

     If you’re looking for a cuter, smaller scale roadside attraction than the famous Cadillac Ranch, the Slug Bug Ranch in Conway, Texas is for you.

     Also known as the Bug Ranch, VW Ranch and Bug Farm, it may be less famous and quit a bit smaller than it’s Cadillac Ranch inspiration, but it’s just as fun…maybe a bit more. It’s certainly less crowded!

     But it didn’t always look this way.

     The Longhorn Trading Post and Rattlesnake Ranch and gas station was opened by the Crutchfield family in 1967 on I-40 to lure tourists traveling down Route 66. The abandoned Conway Motel and Café sits on the next lot.

The Trading Post as it originally appeared.

     Unfortunately by 1970 more than half of the population of the small town moved away. In 200 Conway only had 20 citizens, and two years later Love’s Truck Stop was built on the opposite site of I-40 taking away much of the business the Crutchfields depended on.

     The owner plotted a parody on Amarillo’s Cadillac Ranch to bring travelers back across the overpass. Using off-road equipment, Crutchfield buried five Volkswagon Beetles nose down in the ground outside his shop.

     He built it, and they came…at the ready with their spray paint cans. The new attraction drew the attention of media and tourists, but wasn’t quite enough to safe the business. The family abandoned the decades old business in 2003, but the VWs remained – bumpers in the air.

     We pulled into the parking area at the Bug Ranch, avoiding the broken asphalt and potholes, to discover there was only one other person on site. A nice surprise after the crowds at the Cadillac a couple of days before!

     As we piled out of the car getting our camera gear ready, the man came over to give a friendly warning not to climb into the Bugs and uttered the word that will always get me to take notice, “Snakes.”

Snackes in the Slug Bug Ranch
See anyone hiding in here?

     He asked me if I wanted to see one, and of course I said yes! As we leaned slowly into the cab of the first car body we could easily see a slithering occupant that would prefer the tourists leave him alone. Enough said (and seen). We thanked the man for the heads up, and he drove away.

      Luckily just because we weren’t going to climb inside the cars didn’t mean we couldn’t still paint on them (cautiously) and take lots of photos – which is why we were there.

     We wandered around the VWs with a few leftover spray paint cans from our visit to the Cadillac, happy to take our time. Just like the Cadillac, the cars were mere shells without windows or tires. A few still had doors, though they were permanently open due to the combination of weathering and paint.

Empty Trunks at the Slug Bug Ranch
Shadows of Empty Trunks

     What is it about VW Bugs? Even when they are in scrap metal shape, they’re still so darn cute! And I think all of the colorful paint made them even more so.

     After adding our little bit of color to the metal canvases, we moved on to the other antique car on the lot. This one was still in an upright position and had seats, though they aren’t ones that would have been comfortable to sit in for more than a moment. I carefully checked for slithering residents before hopping in for a quick photo – because I couldn’t resist. But please note, I’m not suggesting that you do the same!

     There were three buildings accessible on the lot as well, and countless people have visited and left their marks. The one closet to the cars was in the most intact condition, but wasn’t very intriguing after an initial look around.

     The two other buildings, which had served as a curio shop and gas station years ago, had obviously enticed more visitors to come inside and let their creative juices flow.

     Barn swallows have nested inside the curio shop and swooped at us protectively if we got too close to their nests, so we gave them plenty of room. Someone’s note on an old table top that “Birds don’t exist” made us chuckle since we had just been dive-bombed by some feathered residents.

     Earlier visitors had left artistic and not-so-artistic contributions, Bible verses, poems and jokes. It was obvious that some had come prepared with a plan and some (like us) just shot from the hip.


My daughter couldn’t resist spray painting some positive messages for others to find, and taking in the designs left by others.

     There were more rooms past the main area, but due to the ceiling caving in and piles of what was probably insulation we didn’t venture back in that area.

     While she was adding her graduation year to some old theatre seats outside, I spotted a family with young kids near the VWs and wandered over to share the snake warning with them.

     Their horrified expressions told me they had already been inside the vehicles. They said they had put one child at a time inside the one where a snake was clearly visible if you looked, and taken several photos. Yikes! They considered themselves lucky, but decided to get the heck out of there and on down the road.

     The abandoned gas station had the least graffiti, though there was quite a bit there including warnings of a zombie apocalypse. (Good to know!) There were also quite a few dangling electrical wires that, though I’m certain weren’t hooked up to anything any more, I would definitely not want small children (or distracted adults) around.



 

 

 

 

 

 

     All in all, the three of us had a good time exploring the property and actually stayed quite a bit longer there than we originally planned. Even if you can swing in for a couple of minutes though, I’d recommend it. Where else will you see a field of VWs planted in a row?

     These Bugs have fun written all over them – literally! To find the Slug Bug Ranch and leave your own mark, take Exit 96 off I-40 and turn south. It’s open and easy to find, just about 30 miles outside of Amarillo.