Alpine’s Post Office with a View of the Past

     Public art in the form of murals has become so popular in recent years, but they aren’t anything new. The next time you drive through a small town in Texas, stop into the local post office and take a look around. You might just find fine art where you’d least expect it.

     Often referred to as “WPA murals,” examples of fine artwork created to enhance public buildings were actually a gift from the government to its citizens.

     But, first thing’s first . . . the painting in Alpine wasn’t actually created as part of the Works Progress Administration. The WPA (I’m not going to drown you in details here) was created in 1935 as part of the “Second New Deal” to provide jobs for unemployed men during the depression. Most of the jobs were in construction, building roads, bridges, schools, parks, and airports. There were also artists recruited by the WPA, but they were given fairly free rein in the subjects they painted.

     The murals I’d like to introduce you to were created by the Treasury Department Section of Painting and Sculpture which was created a year earlier than the WPA. It was later called the Section of Fine Arts. The goal of this program was to “secure for the Government the best art which this country is capable of producing.” Luckily for us, this art was contracted to decorate federally owned buildings, including hundreds of post offices around the county.  That meant that everyone could enjoy fine art in their everyday lives, and the hope was that it would uplift the spirits of citizens during the hard times.

     As one writer summed it up, “One boosted paychecks, and the other boosted morale.”

     Professional artists (no students or amateurs could apply) entered competitions for Section assignments and were encouraged to visit the individual communities so their artwork would reflect local life or history. And unlike the WPA paintings, Section artists had to have their proposed artwork approved by committee and were limited in the subjects they were allowed to portray.

     One project of “The Section” placed artists in Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps to create paintings of CCC work and life, and to make safety posters and decorate camp buildings for that project. The Section even provided sculptures to be exhibited at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

     By the end of the program (brought on by World War II) 1,047 murals and 268 sculptures had been created – which is pretty darn amazing. You can still find some of them today, but many have been lost due to building restorations, demolitions or public buildings being bought by private owners.

   Anyway….

   That’s why I went looking for an example in Alpine on a recent trip through West Texas. The subject especially spoke to me, since it portrays people reading. And nothing makes the heart of someone who writes books happier than seeing someone reading!

     It was installed in 1940 inside the town’s new post office which was built by…you guessed it…the WPA.

     The building on the corner of 6th Street and Avenue E served as the town’s post office through 2000, when it became the appraisal office for Brewster County. Since that building is open to the public, you can still see the mural in person during weekday business hours. You just have to walk a bit to the left and peer around a few light fixtures and bulletin boards!

     In 1939, a Spanish-American artist Jose Moya del Pino (1891-1969) living in San Francisco entered a TDSFA competition to paint a post office mural in San Antonio. His design depicting Sam Houston and the Alamo didn’t win, but he received a consolation assignment at the new Alpine building. The sketches he submitted with a “View of Alpine” did the trick that time.

    Jose couldn’t afford to travel to Texas to take a look at the town for ideas, so he asked for suggestions from the local postmistress, who told him about the local college, cowboys and scenery. From there he went to work painting this 4’ x 12’ work in oil on Masonite. He even used a neighbor who happened to own a hat and boots as his model for the cowboy.

     When he completed the work in 1940, he accompanied it to Alpine for the installation and unveiling. The depiction of three locals relaxing with books on a hillside, with the Twin Sisters Peaks and Sul Ross State College (now University) in the background were a hit. The only question one local had was why a cowboy would be reading when the cattle were roaming unattended. (A valid question from someone who would probably never let that happen!)

     I love the style and subject matter of this painting. It portrays an idealized but beautiful vision of our state, and it was well worth the stop whether you call it a Section or WPA creation.

     Now, who’s ready to go out and hunt down a few more these treasures?


Looking for Buchel County’s Lock-up

Old, abandoned stone building? (I’m slowing down as I’m driving by.)

Bars on the door and windows? (I’m definitely stopping.)

My first guess that this had to be an old jail turned out to be right on target.

     This lonely structure was the Buchel County Jail back when Marathon Texas was the county seat between 1887 and 1897.

     Wait . . . Buchel County? Nope, you’re not losing your marbles. There’s no Buchel County in the Lone Star State! Both Buchel and Foley Counties were absorbed into Brewster County – now the largest county in Texas – when their populations failed to flourish as well as expected.

     There was good reason to want a sturdy jail in town. West Texas was still a pretty wild place filled with cantankerous cowboys and outlaws back then.

     But before the town had an actual building for that purpose, a windmill in the middle of North First Street was Marathon’s first jail. Drunks and other petty offenders were chained to one of its legs, and serious offenders were taken down the road to the Alpine jail.

     Later, a one-room adobe house behind French’s Store served as a jail but, after several colorful escapes, locals decided that a better “calaboose” was in order, so this rock jailhouse was built.

     It was constructed just south of the old Ritchey store in town, of rocks dug from a ledge on the northwest side of town. Talk about working with on-hand materials!

     I can’t even imagine how hot it was inside this jail during the hot west Texas summer months!

     When the Alpine jail was remodeled in 1901, their two old “cages” manufactured by Diebold Safe and Lock were brought to this location and installed. If you peer through the boars on the front door you can easily read the identifying word “L. T. Noyes – Houston, Texas” on the cell locking mechanism on the wall.

     Now this is pretty neat for fans of old-times Texas. Lucius T. Noyes was an agent for the Diebold Safe & Lock Company of Canton, Ohio. From his Houston office on the corner of Congress Avenue and San Jacinto Street he established a far reaching reputation in the world of “security.”

     In addition to selling and installing over 50 county vaults and safes in Texas, Louisiana and surrounding states; and countless of the same for banks – he became quite a celebrity as a jail builder.

     He sold the steel and iron fittings for the facilities and personally oversaw the construction and contract work for over 100 jails including this one, the impressive 1897 Fort Bend County Jail that now serves as the Richmond Police Department, the 1887 San Jacinto County Jail in Coldspring, the 1894 Glasscock County Jail in Garden City, and the 1886 Live Oak County Jail in Oakville.

     I imagine he wasn’t too popular with the bad guys!

     Stealing a peek through the door and windows, it looks like there might have been a museum at Marthon’s little jail at some point, and the decaying remnants are admittedly a bit creepy. That mannequin will definitely take you off guard, but you can clearly see the jail cells, photos of what are probably local lawmen of the past on the wall, and broken display cases – whose contents I can only hope were safely removed before the damage. I’d love to see this “attraction” re-opened for a closer look.

     You can find the former Buchel County Jail in Marathon behind the Ritchey Brothers building on South 2nd Street between Avenues C and D.

Searching for Outlaws in Sanderson

   Have you ever search for an outlaw while on a vacation? They can be found in the most unexpected places, and it might not be as dangerous as it sounds.

  If you recognize this famous photo, you might just be an Old West enthusiast like I am! It’s Butch Cassidy (bottom right), the Sundance Kid (bottom left) and the Wild Bunch, and is known as the “Fort Worth Five” photo.

   That fellow sitting in the middle – known as “The Tall Texan” – was the subject of my search in Sanderson, Texas. He was a handsome guy, but didn’t always make good choices.

   Ben Kilpatrick was born just east of San Angelo in 1874. He worked as a cowboy for several years before he became acquainted with Texas outlaws Sam and Tom Ketchum, and ended up riding with the Ketchum Gang.

   After a failed train robbery that ended in several of the members being caught, Kilpatrick fled to Robber’s Roost in Utah and joined the Wild Bunch. After some success, he and his girlfriend Laura Bullion made their way to St, Louis where they were arrested. Kilpatrick was seated to 15 years in prison for robbery, and Laura was sentence to five. After serving 31/2 years she was released, and went to Tennessee under an assumed name to make a new life.

   Kilpatrick, on the other hand, was released after 10 years and went immediately back to a life of crime. Bad decision…

   Train number 7 of the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railroad pulled out of Del Rio on the evening of March 12, 1912. It made a brief stop for water in Dryden, but as it pulled away from the station Kilpatrick and Ole Hobek ( a friend from his prison days) jumped aboard.

   The masked robbers ordered the engineer to go to the first iron bridge east of Baxter’s Curve, about halfway to Sanderson. Once there the bandits ordered the train to stop and the passenger cars and caboose uncoupled from the engine, mail and baggage cars.

   Leaving the passengers behind, they ordered the engine across the bridge and about a mile down the tracks, where the robbers had staged horses for their getaway.

   Hobek kept a gun on the engineer while Kilpatrick went back to the baggage car with Wells Fargo Express agent David Trousdale. As they were making their way to the back of the car, Trousdale picked up a mallet from a shipment of frozen oysters and hid it in his clothing. (Frozen oysters…who would have thought THAT would be on the train?!)

   Kilpatrick was so busy filling a bag with $60,000 he didn’t see Trousdale sneak up to hit him over the head with the mallet. (Ouch!) The outlaw was killed with the one blow. Trousdale took the bandit’s gun and returned to the engine where he shot and killed Hobek just after midnight.

   With the threat ended, the engineer backed up the train, re-coupled the passenger cars and proceeded to Sanderson.

   The dead train robbers were held up for photographs, and later buried in a joint grave at Cedar Grove Cemetery in Sanderson. Trousdale, of course, was rewarded for his bravery.

   Now known as the Baxter’s Curve Train Robbery (or the Sanderson Train Robbery), it was one of the last train robberies in the state.

   In 2019, the mallet used in the incident, a photo of the dead bandits and the Wells Fargo accounts were sold at auction in Arizona for $64,900. It’s a bit ironic how close that amount is to the amount that the robber’s might have gotten away with, had there not been a quick thinking agent on board.

   The train robbers’ grave was fairly easy to locate, surrounded by a decorative wrought iron fence and gate. The concrete slab that covers the plot was most likely poured in an effort to prevent gruesome souvenir hunters from robbing the grave.

   As a taphophile, or someone who studies cemeteries, I’m always amazed at the stories that lie behind the stones if you only take time to investigate!



Ozona – The Biggest Little Town in the World

Biggest little town in the world, indeed!

     Ozona is the only community in Crockett County which is the size of Delaware. Yep, the only one! It’s about an hour southwest of San Angelo, 398 miles from Houston and 347 miles from El Paso. Which makes it a pretty good jumping-off point for a lot of directions.

     But before you zoom through, consider stopping for some of the unique things that Ozona has to offer. We scheduled an extra night on our trip to Big Bend to give us time to wander around and explore . . .and to give the ol’ accelerator-foot a break.


     If you follow my blog or instagram account, you’ve probably figured out by now that I’m a sucker for historic courthouse buildings. I was happy to finally see this one in person.

     The 1902 Second Empire courthouse of Crockett County – named after the legendary Davy Crockett – is the centerpiece of town. Designed by Oscar Ruffini, one of a pair of proliferate brother architects who kept busy populating Texas with their creations. Oscar also designed the Sutton County Courthouse, Tom Green County Courthouse and Ozona High School, and his brother Frederick Ernst designed the Concho County Courthouse, Bastrop County Courthouse, former Blanco County Courthouse (now restored) and the Millet Opera House in Austin. 

     The courthouse was made from stone quarried on nearby property owned by the Crouch and Meyer families, and cost a whopping $30,000. In 1909 an arc light was added to the steeple to signal the sheriff (the Batman beacon comes to mind!) and guide travelers to town.

     It was far more than a courthouse for Ozona and surrounding communities though, and served as a social center for cowboy dances, roundup celebrations, Christmas trees and box suppers (which reminds me of a particular scene from the musical Oklahoma!).  

     If the bull’s eye or “ox eye” circular moldings the mansard roof look like they’re missing something…they are! They were originally intended as a place for clock faces that were never installed. At one point in the past it bothered the locals enough to paint clocks in the features. When the courthouse was recently restored it was decided to leave them as is. 

     A memorial statue of Davy Crockett stands nearby on the square. Placed on its base in 1938, it was carved from two slabs of granite weighing nearly 20 tons (well, after all – he WAS a heavyweight of Texas history!), and is inscribed with Crockett’s motto, “Be sure you are right, then go ahead.” Still seems like sound advice.

     “The Tie that Binds” is an emotional bronze stands at the center of the square just a few strides away from Davy to remind visitors of the perseverance of their pioneer ancestors. At life-and-a-quarter size, it makes quite an impression close up!

     Just across the street is the former Hotel Ozona (not to be confused with the former Ozona Hotel . . . they could have used a bit more imagination, evidently). The three-story mission style inn was built in 1927 to attract tourists along the Old Spanish Trail. See more of my photos of this abandoned beauty and find out more about the OST here.

    I really appreciate visitors centers that are more than a room filled with pamphlets, and the Ozona Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center (505 15th Street) is definitely worth a stop (even if it’s just to see this cocky granite Texas sporting a Stetson). The building is bright and welcoming, and the staff are versed in numerous local and area attractions that might peak your interest.

     Across the parking lot is the Crockett County Interpretive Trail (free to visit) showcasing native plants that can be found within 100 miles of Ozona. The short trail (like a small park) has over 200 plants representing over 75 species, each identified by an inscribed stone. We were lucky to stop by in spring when several of the plants were showing off their blooms, but the display would be fascinating year round.  Botanists and gardening fans will get a kick out of this detailed brochure of the exhibit.

     Off-roaders will definitely want to venture out to the Escondido Draw Recreational Area, a 3,500 acre, 110 mile trail for all-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes and 4-wheel drives.

     After driving all day and seeing a bit of town, we were ready to sit down for a good meal, the The Hitching Post Steakhouse (1301 Old Highway 290) came highly recommended. Actually, on some days of the week like we arrived on it’s pretty much the only game in town, but that’s just fine.

     We were a bit confused when we pulled into the parking lot filled with at least two dozen fire trucks and rescue vehicles from all over Texas until we realized there was a firemen’s convention in town. But we definitely took that as a good sign, because let’s be honest – firemen know their food!

    The western theme, come-as-you-are restaurant probably hasn’t been redecorated much in the last few decades, which the faded photos of Old West Outlaws and cowhide on the wall, heavy wooden club chairs and indoor/outdoor carpeting will attest to – but you won’t care a bit once your food arrives. If you’re looking for good food at reasonable prices, The Hitching Post fits the bill.

     A smoking room on one side has pool tables and the bar, and the other side of the building has non-smoking seating. An outdoor patio is also a good option for dining on fair weather days.

     Thirsty for something stronger than tea? Be forewarned that the restaurant charges a $5 club fee to “join” to order alcohol.

     Since we hadn’t worked up big appetites we decided to split a couple of appetizers, and settled on marinated cube steaks and 1/2 order of fried mushrooms. The portions were generous and deliciously seasoned. Thank heaven the waitress suggested we choose a half order of mushrooms, since a full order would have fed half the firemen in the room.

     I’ll definitely go back to try the chicken fried steak next time I’m in town. The fact that they’re open until 11 p.m. makes it easy if one of your day trips from Ozona runs a bit longer than expected. 

     If you have a bit more time during your visit to Ozona, you might want to explore:

  • Crockett County Museum

  • Fort Lancaster State Historic Site in Sheffield

  • Caverns of Sonora (34 miles)

     Accommodations: We enjoyed our stay at the Holiday Inn Express Hotels & Suites. The staff was friendly and the rooms were lovely and clean. Just be aware that if you’re booking because you find a great rate, there might be unexpected charged added at checkout. Our $111 rate (which was one of the selling points that helped us decide to make Ozona a stop)— ended up costing about $165 which is a heck of a difference and more expensive than any of the other stays on our 10-day trip! 



Hotel Ozona- Nothing But Vacancies

     While taking photos of the county courthouse in Ozona, I turned around to see the remains of Hotel Ozona, and couldn’t resist getting a closer look. Obviously once a beautiful hotel and it was easy to imagine it surrounded by cars and people carrying in their finest leather luggage for a stay along a road trip adventure.

     Ozona is a fairly small town, but its position along the Old Spanish Trail would have brought a lot of visitors a few decades ago.

     The Old Spanish Trail (also known as OST to many Texans), was a 2,750 mile long roadway that reached from ocean to ocean – St. Augustine, Florida to San Diego California. The headquarters for the project was in San Antonio, where an executive committee of prominent businessmen met weekly at the Gunter Hotel from 1915 until it was completed in the 1920s.

     Perfectly timed for a nation that was enjoying a newfound enjoyment of “auto touring,” hotels and restaurants began appearing long the route just as they did later on Route 66. If traveled from one end to the other, tourists would cross eight states and 67 counties along the Southern United States!

     Although promoters for the OST claimed that it followed the route used by Spanish Conquistadors 400 years earlier, there wasn’t actually a continuous trail from Florida to California that long ago.

     The three-story Hotel Ozona was built in 1927 for $150,000  from reinforce concrete, hollow tile and stucco, to provide stylish accommodations for the influx of tourists coming through the area. The hotel was a busy center of social life for the community for the next twenty years as well, hosting conventions, luncheons, bridge clubs, organization meetings. wedding receptions and more. The Comanche Ramblers, Fort Stockton’s string band, played for old time dances in the ballroom.

     But the party didn’t last forever. In 1948 notices appeared in Texas newspapers advertising the 41-room hotel and its newly equipped kitchen for sale for a mere $8,500, due to the dissolution of a partnership. Travelers along the OST lightened in favor of other, newer highways resulting in many of the once-thriving businesses along its path to close down.

     For whatever reason, the Hotel Ozona closed its doors, and never reopened. A peek in the few windows that aren’t boarded up don’t reveal many distinctively original design features other than the from desk, stairway and wrought iron railings.

     The old neon sign touting air-conditioned rooms still stands tall, minus most of the neon. 

     So she sits and wait for someone to come to her rescue. With the revival of so many older properties in recent years, I’m crossing my fingers that her patience will pay off.

Does Bigfoot Hang Out in East Texas?

     For my 11th birthday, my parents took a group of my friends and I to see a new movie: “The Legend of Boggy Creek- A True Story.”

     If you need a good giggle, click here to see the original movie trailer.

     It was a new scary movie (called a docu-drama) about a monster that lived in the swamps of Arkansas. (I know, I know…”swamps in Arkansas?”) Basically portrayed as a Bigfoot-like creature, this guy attacked and killed people. I remember not being very scared (even back then it took quite a bit to scare me), but my friends screamed and clutched each other through the entire thing. I don’t remember if I noticed that it was painfully obvious that this “Bigfoot” was a guy in an ape suit, complete with cutout eyes.

     But as bad as it was, the movie holds a fun spot in my memories because, hey…it was my birthday.

     Just a few months ago I was speaking at a paranormal convention in Jefferson (about Victorian funeral customs). One of the gentlemen who had a booth in the vendor hall carried just about everything Bigfoot-themed you could think of: dolls, bumper stickers, books, key chains and more. I resisted as long as I could, but I finally politely asked him what connection Bigfoot had with East Texas.

     He looked at me as if I had lost my mind, and then asked if I had ever heard of a movie called “Legend of Boggy Creek.”

     I smiled and replied that, well yes as a matter of fact I remembered that movie.

     That’s when he told me that although the movie was set in Arkansas, those events actually happened in East Texas, where Bigfoot has been seen for years.

     A couple of other attendees gathered to tell me that OF COURSE it was about East Texas, and the movie had even been filmed there.

     Well, huh. Who knew?

     I thanked them for the information, and sat myself down for a visit with Mr. Google. But all I really had to do was walk across the street from the convention area to see a bronze statue of Bigfoot.

     The next day, I drove to Uncertain, which is appropriately named for anything spooky, and recognized the same type of swampy, cypress-filled waterways and run-down wooden shacks that appeared in the movie.

     I didn’t get to meet Bigfoot, but maybe he rests during the day. Wherever he was, I found Uncertain to be a magical place, and can’t wait to visit again to go kayaking or on an airboat ride. It’s an ecological wonderland. But I’ll have to remember to keep an eye out for the Big Guy in the treeline.

     Who wants to join me?

 

World’s Smallest Skyscraper: How a Con Man Gave Wichita Falls a Claim to Fame

     How could a city invest a fortune in a “high-rise” that’s only about forty feet tall? This building’s tale should appear in the dictionary as the definition of “hoodwinked.”

     In 1912, a large petroleum reservoir was discovered west of the city of Burkburnett, a small town just outside of Wichita Falls. Of course everyone was pretty happy about the financial windfall that ensued, but it also brought more people and businesses to town that wasn’t prepared to house them. People were so desperate that they were even conducting business in tents pitched on street corners. What Wichita Falls needed was more office space!

     There was a one story building on the corner of Seventh and LaSalle Streets built by Augustus Newby in 1906 that was ideally located near the downtown railway depot. One of its tenants, J. D. McMahon, had a construction firm in there and say what he thought was a shining opportunity.

     In 1919 he proposed to build a high-rise annex next to the Newby Building that would provide multiple floors of space for commerce to the boomtown. Sounds like a great idea, right? That’s what the city leaders thought, too.

     McMahon drew up impressive looking blueprints (though he wasn’t an architect) and showed them to potential investors, who forked over $200,000 in capital for the building’s construction. That’s the equivalent of $2.8 million in today’s money!

     He proceeded with the construction of the skyscraper, but used his own construction crew to control and oversee the project.

     Locals evidently turned their attention elsewhere as the building was being raised, because it was almost completed before they noticed that something was wrong. Their high-rise tower wasn’t what they had envisioned. Instead of the 480-foot structure thy expected; McMahon had built a 480-inch building.

     The brick embarrassment was only eighteen feet deep, ten feet wide and each of the four floors had only 118 square feet of space on each of the four floors.

     It’s been referred to as a glorified elevator shaft, which is especially ironic since the crew originally hired to install an elevator backed out of the project. The only way to access the upper floors was by an external ladder (until an interior staircase was built years later).

     Infuriated investors took McMahon to court, sure that they would find justice for the con. But they had one more surprise in store.

     Even though the judge was sympathetic to their complaints, he had to rule in favor of McMahon. What none of the financers had noticed in their excitement and rush to sign off on the project is that the blueprint listed the building’s dimensions in inches – not feet. It was build to the specifications proposed – 480” not 480’. Oh, the different an apostrophe makes!

     The narrow stairs that were built a few years later took up twenty-five percent of the interior space, making it even smaller.

     How could the situation possibly be worse? McMahon had never gotten permission from the property’s owner, who lived in Oklahoma, to build on the lot!

     Needless to say, the Newby-McMahon Building was quite an embarrassment for local officials. The oil boom ended shortly after the building was completed, and it was boarded up and fell into disrepair.

     Once the economy regained its footing, several small businesses operated in the snug spaces of the structure, including a barbershop and restaurants. It is now home to an antique shop on the bottom floor, and artist studios above.

     Luckily, the building has survived several potentially fatal events including a fire, a 2003 tornado, and attempts by locals to have it demolished.

     Wichita’s City County granted $25,000 in funds for the building’s restoration in 2005. Now, it’s true that that’s as much as it cost to build it in the first place – but that was a different time. Now the people of this Texas town have a reminder of the oil boom, a curiosity of visitors and something to point to and tell an amazing tale.

     It might be difficult to spot from a distance because there’s more “sky” than “scraper,” but it’s worth stopping by to see this scam-tastic little piece of Texas history.

 

 

Lady Bird Johnson’s Haunted Childhood Home

   When I hear the name Lady Bird Johnson, I immediately think of wildflowers. She was, after all, a visionary environmentalist who focused on protecting and preserving North America’s native plants, including Texas wildflowers.

   But did you know that Texas native Lady Bird Johnson grew up in a haunted house?

   High on a hill 2 ½ miles outside of Karnack, Texas an isolated white mansion surrounded by trees, fields and bayous houses a special place in Texas history — as well as its very own ghost.

   The imposing, 17-room plantation style mansion known as the Brick House was built in 1843 by Cephus Andrews. It was also the site of a tragedy.

   In 1861 during a violent thunderstorm, Andrews’ 19-year-old daughter Eunice, known as “Oonie,” sat in her bedroom beside a fireplace. Lightning struck the chimney and raced downward striking the young girl and consuming her in flames.

   Legend has it that Oonie’s spirit has never left the home. Stories have been passed down through the years of eerie noises, ghostly apparitions, misplaced objects and other odd occurrences…all attributed to poor Oonie.

   In 1902 the Andrews family sold their home and thousands of acres of cotton to the wealthiest man in town, Thomas Jefferson Taylor. He also owned two cotton gins, a fishing business and two country stores emblazoned with boastful signs stating “T. J. Taylor—Dealer in Everything.”

   Taylor and his wife Minnie had two sons, and in 1912 added their only daughter Claudia Alta Taylor. Her nursemaid took one look at the dark-haired baby and said she was “as purty as a lady bird.” The endearing nickname followed her throughout her life.

   When Lady Bird was 5, the Brick House witnessed a second tragedy. Her mother fell down the staircase of the home and died a few days later from complications of a miscarriage caused by the accident.

   Lady Bird, whose brothers were away at school (and weren’t even told about their mother’s death for almost a year), remained in the home and was raised by her maternal aunt Effie who came from Alabama to live at the home.

   When asked about the Brick House’s ghost in later years, Lady Bird would say that she often had a feeling of apprehension and unease in the home. She spent most of her indoor time in her room, which was just down the hall from Oonie’s room that servants repeated warned her to stay away from…as they did. The sounds of the old house, including wind whipped through the sills of the floor to ceiling windows must have added to the spooky atmosphere.

   Her aunt Effie believed that Minnie’s ghost visited her at night to instruct her about caring for Lady Bird, washing windows and taking care of other forgotten household chores.

   In her 80’s Lady Bird told her biographer, “I would not, even now, at this age, feel comfortable being alone in that house myself.”

   Luckily young Lady Bird was able to spend most of her time outdoors strolling through the woods and fields where she developed her love of nature’s beauty. So it’s perhaps indirectly thanks in part to the ghost of forever-young Oonie that Texas enjoys wildflowers along its highways each spring.

   The home still stands as a national historic landmark, and is privately owned. I wonder if Oonie still provides caretaking instructions to them.

Road Trip Rest Stops – Enjoy the Ride

   Starting off a new year usually begins with lofty goals quickly filling up our calendars. But it’s probably the ideal time to make a decision to slow down and enjoy the ride.

Carl Monk Sr. Overlook and Picnic area on Highway 7 between Martinsville and Swift.

   When I was growing up, family car trips looked a lot different than they do today. The journey and taking in the sights of the places we traveled through were just as important and fun as the places we were going to.

   While a modern day family is more likely to think of Bucee’s when someone mentions a rest stop, (we had our version of that too back in the day, in the form of Stuckey’s) the roadside rest stops were something entirely different.

   Families didn’t scurry out of the car and head in different directions with the goal of loading up their arms with snacks and souvenirs.

   Instead small clusters of roadside rest stops, basically roofed spots with picnic tables, dotted the sides of the two-lane blacktop highways and offered travelers a place to get out of their car and stretch their legs, let the kids run off some excess energy, and unload their hamper of food Mom had packed that morning to enjoy a family picnic while taking in a view.

   Texas is lucky to still have a wide variety of these mid-century rest stops, so it might come as a surprise that other states have taken to demolishing theirs. Along Texas highways you might spot some shaped like teepees, with wagon-wheel sides, retro-curved roofs or just simple, functional designs. They bring back great memories of time spent on family vacations, and rank right up there with folded maps from gas stations on the nostalgia scale.


   I’ve never gotten over my love of road trips, which is a mystery to some of my friends who would rather fly somewhere that’s only a couple of hundred miles away. But I’ve noticed with all of the challenges in the past few months that many Americans are rediscovering the love of road trips, whether they are going across the state or across the country.

   And, yes, I’ll make the time to take a few minutes at lovely spots I find like this one, because they’re just as enjoyable when I’m traveling by myself.

   Take it from me, and rush less the next time you’re driving along to a destination. If you see a nice roadside rest area, take the opportunity to pause for a few minutes, enjoy a drink or snack and the view. It can put a whole new perspective on your trip.

     What road are you planning to follow in 2021?

 

Christmas at the George Ranch 2020

     Ready to peek into Christmas Past, Texas style? Let me take you on a virtual visit to the George Ranch Historical Park in Richmond  where they’ve lassoed a wonderful event to share just that!

     The annual Christmas at the Ranch event was a bit different this year due to additional safety protocols, but the staff couldn’t have created a more welcoming and fascinating day for their guests.

     Founded in 1824, the George Ranch showcases the four homes of four generations of this Texas family, and this time of year they’re dressed up for the season.

     My first stop was at the visitor center, where I was provided with a map of the ranch and demonstration schedule. The park is laid out in a mile long loop (yes, a MILE), and visitors can ride a tractor pulled tram from one stop to the next. But I highly suggest combining riding and walking when weather permits, to enjoy the natural surroundings.

     I rode the tram to my first stop, the 1830s Jones Stock Farm dog trot cabin, and was greeted by the volunteers dressed in period costumes. The cabin and buildings are replicas of Henry and Nancy Jones’ homestead – one of the earliest settlements of Northeast Mexico. Nope, it wasn’t even Texas yet!

     One gentleman shared the background of the family and information about the cabin, and another charmer played beautiful music on his guitar and told a few tall tales that were impossible to resist.

     A young woman had the unenviable, sticky task of demonstrating how to clean a deer hide in a yard populated by adorable hens, but managed to do it with a smile while explaining that when the thin hides were worked until thy were translucent, they could be used to cover the cabin windows during the winter months (since glass wouldn’t have been available).

     In the breezeway of the dogtrot a young man worked at weaving on a loom, taking breaks to serve visitors Mexican hot cocoa that was brewing over one of the hearth fires – and was a treat on the chilly day.

 

   In the nearby hog pen, one of the volunteers scratched the back of one of the docile 300-pound Berkshire pigs that are part of an initiative to preserve heritage breeds. Seems these fragrant residents are descendants of a rare breed that came to Texas from England in the 1830s. I know people who can’t trace their lineage as well!

   After a quick look at the chicken coop (always interesting to me since gathering the eggs was my job when visiting my grandmother’s farm), smokehouse barn and outdoor kitchen, I worked my way back to the road to hop on the tram again.

     Next stop: the 1860s Ryon Prairie home – picture perfect with garlands of evergreens draped across the porch rails.

     Mary Moore “Polly” Ryon was the oldest of the Jones’ daughters. She inherited th majority of her family’s wealth, and amazingly was on of the largest land holders in the region by age 18! She and her husband William built a cattle ranching empire after the Civil War.

    One young woman showed me around the knot garden and chicken coop until it was my turn (social distancing, ya know) to go inside the house.

     Inside two young docents explained the uses of the men’s and women’s parlors, and directed me toward the kitchen where more volunteers were baking cookies for the visitors in a period stove.


     I decided to walk the rest of the property rather than ride the tram since it was a beautiful day and I didn’t see any reason to rush.

 

     Susan Elizabeth Ryan was Polly’s only surviving child and sole heir of Polly’s estate. She married banker civic leader John Harris Pickens Davis. The Victorian era home sits in a complex that includes a sharecropper’s farm, the family cemetery with graves dating between the 1820s to 1916 and the Oldenberg blacksmith shop. It seemed ironic to me that Polly isn’t in the family cemetery (she’s at Morton Cemetery in Richmond). But the existing monuments are beautiful and well cared for. 

     In the blacksmith shop, kids were invited to try their hand at “forging” knives from chunks of clay with rubber mallets.

     In the side yard of the home, a sweet volunteer led visitors in creating Victorian style Christmas ornaments from paper as keepsakes of their visit.



 

 

     The last home to tour was the 1930s George Ranch House (designed by famous Galveston architect Nicholas Clayton) and complex, where a barbershop quartet was entertaining passersby with Christmas carols.

     Mamie George and her husband A.P. were the last descendants of the Henry and Nancy Jones family to oversee the ranching operation. Their influence and support is still seen across the community in libraries, schools, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, a community center and countless other contributions. 

     Their home is still decorated with their furnishings, right down to the ornaments on the Christmas tree! I loved Mamie’s collection of ceramic cowboy boots from her travels lined up on the mantle.

     Once all of the home tours were checked off of my list, I headed to the arena and barn area for the cattle working demonstrations.


 

 

 

 

      The cowboys demonstrated some basic cutting and lassoing techniques while explaining how and why these things are still down on the working ranch. Afterward, one of the cowboys walked the onlookers over to a dipping vat and related how they were used in the past – and why they aren’t any more (thank heaven!).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whether you’re looking for a day out by yourself like I was, or for something for the entire family to enjoy together, I highly recommend a visit to the George Ranch. It’s beautiful, fascinating…and you might just pick up a little Texas history along the way.