A Short Story about Wichita Falls’ First Skyscraper: Everything’s Bigger in Texas…. Welllllllll….. Almost.

In researching Rt66, I came across a little stop that wasn’t on the Mother Road, but had a funny story nonetheless. I read it and had a chuckle, and then went on my way, thinking it wasn’t in the cards for this trip. This is usually the kind of thing we’ll drive WAY out of our way to see, but by the time we were headed in that direction, I’d forgotten all about it.

So as we wandered the deserted streets of Wichita Falls on Thanksgiving Day hoping to luck into an open mom and pop restaurant, I was only thinking about turkey. But when I saw a familiar silhouette peeking out over a dumpster near the train depot, I squealed like a little girl and navigated the hubs towards it, briefly forgetting about food.

Mark: “What is that?”
Me: “It’s a SKYSCRAPER!”
Mark: “What? No it’s not.”
Me: “Yes it is! It’s the world’s littlest skyscraper!”

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Here’s the skinny:

Once upon a time, Wichita Falls was a bonafide boom town with something like 20,000 hopefuls streaming in to seek their fortune in oil. This sudden tsunami of people, jobs, industry, and money happened a little too quickly for the small town, so infrastructure was lagging. Oil companies and brokerage houses had hastily pitched tents for temporary office space and brokers were frantically doing business deals worth thousands of dollars on street corners. This frenzy created the ideal setting for one of the most fascinating con jobs in American history.

In 1906, Wichita Falls and Oklahoma City Railway Company director August Newby built a one story office building near the train depot. The Newby Building, as it was called, was never at full occupancy until the discovery of black gold nearby. Then, the modest office building swelled with seven tenants.

Enter JD McMahon, a fast-talking East Coast businessman, engineer, and oilman. McMahon was one of the Newby Building tenants, and he had an idea. He drew up plans for a high rise unlike anything Wichita Falls had ever seen. The late-neoclassical style “skyscraper” annex to the Newby Building would overlook the oil fields, and help usher the sleepy town on the plains into the future. He quickly set about selling $200,000 (that’s about $3 million to us) in stock to eager investors looking to get rich quickly. The investors, many of whom were city officials, blindly handed over their money, their eyes too clouded with dollar signs to pay much attention to the details.

Once McMahon had the cash, his crew began to build. By the time the investors realized what had hit them, it was too late. The “skyscraper” was nearly complete. In a stroke of evil genius, McMahon had clearly drawn his high-rise plans in inches rather than feet, rendering the perceived 40-story skyscraper to a mere 40 feet tall– not much larger than an elevator shaft.

The angry investors dragged McMahon into court, demanding that the film flam man be punished and their money returned. But the judge ruled against them, teaching them an expensive lesson: read the fine print. Other than building the annex on property that he didn’t own, without the owner’s permission, McMahan had done nothing illegal. He had built the building EXACTLY according to the blueprints– the blueprints NONE of the investors had bothered to look at. So good ‘ol JD headed off into the annals of history with his millions, never to be heard from again.

Embarrassed by their gullibility (ie: the proposed building site was only 10′ x 16.75’) or that the double tick marks next to all the measurements on the blueprints (rather than the single tick marks) indicated inches, the investors had no choice but to accept defeat. The contracted elevator company even backed out, either out of pity for the investors or because an elevator wouldn’t actually fit in the building. Until an internal staircase could be added, an external ladder had to be used to access the upper floors. Since office space was still in high demand, oil companies squeezed desks into the 118 square feet (per floor).

When the Depression hit and the boom ended, the silly little skyscraper at the corner of Seventh and LaSalle was boarded up and forgotten. In 1986, the City of Wichita Falls deeded the building to the Wichita County Heritage Society, and they attempted to preserve it. But, shortly thereafter, the little skyscraper was abandoned again. There were plans to have it demolished, but the architectural firm of Bundy, Young, Sims & Potter was hired to stabilize the dilapidated structure. The partners fell in love with it and partnered with Martin Groves Electric to buy it. They spent a bunch of money restoring it. They admit it probably wasn’t the smartest financial investment, but they found the little skyscraper’s true value was in its unique place in local history.

Plus, it’s a great conversation piece and draws a steady stream of curious tourists… like the Crazy Train! I told the kids the story, and, wide eyed, my daughter asked how so many people could be so gullible. I told her that this building is a great lesson: always read the fine print before signing anything or investing your money.

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Shamrock, Texas

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Would you be surprised if I said that Shamrock, TX was founded and named by an Irishman? Probably not. So, here goes: Shamrock, TX was founded and named by George Nickel, an Irish immigrant and sheep rancher who had settled nearby. In 1890, he got permission to use the name Shamrock, chosen because it symbolized luck and courage. And because he was Irish.

But, the post office never opened due to a fire in Nickel’s dugout. Mary R Jones served as postmistress at a nearby location for a few years, and amid a fury of flip-flopping names, post office closures, relocations, and re-openings, the railroad arrived. In 1903, the Luck of the Irish prevailed when the Chicago, Rock Island and Gulf Railroad chose to name the stop Shamrock. The rest is history.

It wasn’t long before people arrived in the newly incorporated town. Shamrock really started to flourish when a water main was laid in 1923, eliminating the need to import water. Over the next few years, water wells were dug and oil and natural gas were discovered, ushering in the next population boom.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1243.jpgI’m not sure if y’all have done the math yet, but I hadn’t. So, I’m going to give you a hint—there’s a HUGE oil and gas company named for this town. (Hello McFly! Yeah, I felt kinda stupid.) The Shamrock Gas Company provided ample fuel, and other companies took care of the rest. Shamrock suffered some with the oil industry’s decline in the 1930s, but improvements to Route 66 (which came through the middle of town) helped Shamrock bounce back. But, when I40 bypassed Shamrock, many businesses closed.

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Unlike many other Rt66 towns, Shamrock has continued to grow with steady cattle, petroleum and agricultural industries. In 1938, the town had its first St Patrick’s Day celebration, an event that—after more than 75 years— draws in thousands annually. Shamrock also hosts the annual Eastern Panhandle Livestock Show.

But, NONE of these are the reasons The Crazy Train made the trip to Shamrock. We blew into town on that breezy Wednesday afternoon for a totally different reason entirely.

In 1936, a guy named John Nunn drew up the plans for a filling station in the dirt with a rusty old nail. The plans were later given to an architect and for $23K, the Crown Jewel of the Mother Road was born.

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You see, like I said before, many of the locations depicted in the Pixar film Cars were based on real locations. But ONE location was copied almost exactly. The Tower Station and U-Drop Inn Café became Ramone’s Body Shop. And in Shamrock, the beautiful art deco structure has been magnificently restored to its original glory. My Cars fans rejoiced when they laid eyes on it. The Tower Conoco Station with its flat roof and tulip top was everything we hoped it would be…. everything EXCEPT open. Yep. They closed for Thanksgiving week, so we could only press our noses against the glass. Today, it’s owned by the City and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The place had a hard life being passed from owner to owner, living different lives for decades before it was foreclosed on by the bank and then gifted to the City. This gesture by the First National Bank of Shamrock does my heart good and restores my faith in the goodness of some businesses. Thankfully, we ‘d planned a night in town, so we were happy to find the neon was on a timer, so we got to enjoy the beauty of the building both all lit up at night and during the day.

I could walk around the outside of a building for hours. I could photograph the nooks and crannies of a historical structure until even my camera was bored. But, the Crazy Train will only humor me for so long before they force me to pack it up and call it a day. The art deco décor, the tulip adornment, the glazed terra cotta with decorative green and gold tiles of the U-Drop Inn…. The geometric detailing, the curves, the neon outline… I was in my element. But the Crazy Train was hungry, and the masses needed to be fed!

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The kids were delighted with Ramone’s. I mean the Tower Station. It was a pity that they closed up before the holiday because while we were roaming around, taking pictures and soaking up the ambiance, several cars with disappointed kids in their backseats slowed down and saw the closed sign and kept driving. During the hour we were there, I counted eight cars who would’ve stopped had it been open.

I was surprised to learn that Shamrock had such a thriving population. Although we arrived the day before Thanksgiving, we were surprised at how deserted the town seemed. There weren’t many places open for business (or that would be open on a regular day) and there seemed to be a lot of abandoned structures. The Tower Station and U-Drop Inn was beautifully restored, and there was a Magnolia Station that had also been restored in town, but the other historic buildings seemed to have been forgotten.

But, all that aside, we really enjoyed it. It was probably the highlight of the 4-year old’s day. He was a bit curious about where Ramone was, but when we talked about it, he understood that the movie just copied this place, and that it was kind of a cool thing to see.

It was definitely worth the trip, but we would’ve loved to have spent a little cashiola on some souveniers! On the Crazy Train scale of must-see-spots, this ranks way up there. But, make sure they’ll be open before you make a trip. And, put some other things on your itinerary while you’re in that neck of the woods, because unless you’re hard-core history nerds like we are, the Route 66 Trail through Texas can be a bid underwhelming. That being said, I still want to go back. Soon.

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Preface to Route 66

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When we decided to go up north to Route 66, I was really, REALLY excited. Not because I’m a history nerd, but, for all y’all who don’t know me, I’ll give you a partial autobiography of the Crazy Train’s navigatrix.

Primarily, I am a photographer. As far back as I can remember, I usually had a camera with me. So when I joined the yearbook and newspaper staff in high school, toting a camera was nothing new. I majored in Photocommunications at St Edward’s University in Austin and afterwards, began (but never completed) an MFA in photography (someplace else). While life took me in other directions, photography was always my touchstone. After having kids, I dabbled in family portraiture, but that’s just not my wheelhouse. (Environmental portraiture, yes, this stuff people do today? Not so much. I jokingly call myself a MWAC to my photo friends, and they just laugh at me, saying if anyone is NOT a MWAC, it’s me.)

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To get to the heart of my love of photography, you don’t go back to my roots–I started too young for that. You can’t really even go back to the first years where I started to explore in photography. But if you go back to college where I first learned about the specific artistic movement that would grab me and bring out the artist deep within me, then you see why the idea of Route 66 was so exciting.

It was during my studies in photocomm at St Ed’s that I first learned about the art of documentary photography and the photographers of the Farm Securities Administration (FSA). It was from my professor, photographer Sybil Miller, that I learned how photography, quite literally, changed America.

The (FSA) was created in 1937 (an evolution of the Resettlement Administration) in the US Department of Agriculture as a part of FDR’s New Deal. From 1937-1944, the FSA became famous for its small, but highly influential, photography program. Economist Roy Stryker headed up the Information Division of the FSA and launched the documentary photography movement. Though not a photographer himself, Stryker understood the power of the photograph and promoted the camera as a tool to document society. In an age before digital manipulation, TV, and the 24-hour news cycle, a photograph provided solid proof of the conditions and the details in which so many Americans lived.

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Stryker had a knack for attracting top-notch photographers and for getting the best work from each one. He sent them into the field fully prepared for what they would encounter, and they all knew that an educated, sensitive, understanding, and compassionate photographer could effectively transfer the feelings and emotions of an otherwise silent portion of our population onto film, and in doing so, could cogently share those feelings with the rest of the nation. He was responsible for launching the careers of some of the most gifted and influential photographers in American history. Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein….

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FDR’s Brains Trust underestimated these photographers’ ability to produce images that breathed life and emotion and art and empathy and truth into the era. The eleven photographers who worked on the project took on this task of “introducing America to Americans,” and produced approximately 250,000 images– half of which still survive today in the Library of Congress. It wasn’t until these photographs were introduced to the nation that America really understood the depth of the Dust Bowl, the Depression, and the plight of the American migrant farmer.

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So, let’s put two and two together. Old Route 66 appealed to me, not just because I’m a history nerd, but because I wanted to walk in the footsteps of some of my favorite photographers–the very men and women who have influenced my vision for the last 20+ years. I wanted to see the places they visited and photograph some of the places they photographed.

But, time marches on, and, to my disappointment, it has trampled all over Old Route 66 like a steamroller over a flowerbed. Texas is usually wonderful about preserving our historical places, but this was not true for the 178 miles of Texas’ portion of “The Main Street of America,” the road taken by hundreds of thousands of Americans during the 1930s. This legendary road that follows the path of Native Americans, conquistadors, cattle and oil barons, cowboys, and Dust Bowl refugees has been replaced by US40, and is mostly unmarked (as Rt66). The iconic signs are gone, both from the road and from many of the places that made it famous. (Route 66 is the ONLY National Highway to be decommissioned from the original 1926 grid created by the US Highway System. Shameful.) The landmarks have all but disappeared. And, without a doubt, our stretch of The Mother Road will disappear into myth and lore, replaced by something newer, something better, and sometimes, by nothing at all.

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