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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The Town of Medicine Mound, Texas. Population: 0

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While doing on-the-road recon for Ft Phantom Hill, we stumbled upon the name of a town that promised to be well worth a detour. Medicine Mound, TX has been called (by texasescapes.com) “Texas’ most interesting ghost town,” and when we see a claim like that, the first thing the Crazy Train’s Pilot and Navigatrix say is GAME ON!

This tiny town is surprisingly easy to find (unlike most ghost towns) as it’s still on most maps. Named for the nearby Medicine Mounds, the town was created when the Kansas, Mexico and Orient Railroad Co. extended their line in 1909. Almost immediately, business sprung up and more families arrived in the area. With a population of 500 and 22 businesses at its peak in 1929, Medicine Mound had promise.

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But the Stock Market Crash in 1929 was immediately followed by a decade of depression, drought, and dust storms. It was during this time that a bizarre series of events unfolded that would destroy this community, leaving it LITERALLY in ruins.

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This, my friends, is a story worth reading. (See bottom for explanation of my new word!)

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But first, OUR trip!
When we arrived in Medicine Mound, the cold wind was blowing a storm into town (and blowing my hair out of my ponytail!). The sun was on its way down, casting long shadows and giving everything really intense colors.

There are essentially three buildings left in town: 1.) The Cole building, which is now a museum run by a town native who lives nearby. We hear she opens for a few hours on Saturdays, but it wasn’t while we were there. 2.) The gas station, which is FLIPPING AWESOME with the old gas pumps still standing out front. 3.) The schoolhouse which is maybe 500ft away, down a dirt road (yet we were lucky enough that it was MUDDY!).

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Between the buildings is a little merry-go-round, so while I was kodaking at the gas station and Mark was peeking around the Cole building, the kids got to run wild. Since the biting wind had numbed our ears and we didn’t want muddy kids in the car, we drove to the schoolhouse and I jumped out and sacrificed my boots for some great pictures.

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This place was really cool. And if it hadn’t been so windy and cold, and had the museum been open, and had the sun not been so close to setting, we might-would have stayed and kodaked a little longer.

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Ok, back to the history. What happened to Medicine Mound?

At about 3:00am on March 31, 1933, Mrs Ella Tidmore BURNED DOWN THE TOWN.

The sad story of the Tidmore family was mostly a well-kept, small-town, secret for more than 65 years. The act of arson was not investigated (or even reported) although over $50,000 (about $1M today) in damage had been done, and all but 2 buildings in Medicine Mound were burned to the ground.

The Tidmores were one of the first families to settle in Medicine Mound, arriving before the railroad in 1902. By all accounts, the Tidmores were the perfect family. They were socially prominent, wealthy, active members of the community. Jim Tidmore was a deacon in the church and had higher ambitions than farming– he opened the town’s first commercial real estate venture. The large, extended Tidmore family was well liked, healthy, intelligent, and good looking. But when things went bad, they went BAD. Unrequited love, extramarital affairs, prison sentences, suicide, multiple divorces, several attempted murders, drowning, untimely deaths, theft, well poisonings, several acts of arson and a tale of insanity so incredible– really, you’ve got to read it to believe it.

The lasting effect the Tidmore family had on Medicine Mound happened on the windy night of March 31, 1933. It was 3am when Ella, by then completely insane, set fire to the barber shop on the south end of town. As the fierce south winds whipped across the plains, it wasn’t long before the entire town was engulfed in flames, leaving only two businesses standing. Even the bank vault collapsed, destroying all the town and financial records. Throughout it all, neighbors said they saw Ella standing on her front lawn, laughing.

Between the destruction in 1933, a freak snowstorm in April 1938, WWII, and the Industrial Revolution, Medicine Mound quickly became one of Texas’ most fascinating ghost towns.

(Full story here: http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth26723/m1/20/)
If you have time to click around this book, it’s so awesome. It’s a book filled with hilarious (and sometimes tragic) small town stories and gossip. There is some fantastic stuff in there. I wanted to buy a copy, but I could only find one online for sale, and it was $135.00. Yeah. No. But, I have read a bunch of the stories, and from one of them, I added a new word to my vocabulary:

KODACING (or KODAKING).

the -ing form of the word, appropriate in almost every situation, of the word Kodak. As in the camera/film/etc. company. In the book, it’s spelled with a “c,” but I prefer a “k.” Example: While in Medicine Mound, I enjoyed kodaking around the town. A common pastime in Medicine Mound in the 1920s was kodaking on the Mounds. Unfortunately I don’t get to use many Kodak products anymore, but it’s my homage to George Eastman!!! It’s so DORKY it’s AWESOME!!!!

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Fort Phantom Hill

IMG_8531-0.JPG Just north of Abilene, Texas on FM600 lies the remains of Ft Phantom Hill, a little gem of a ghost town that began in the early 1850’s to protect westward moving settlers from the Commanche.

IMG_8537.JPG The Fort is at the Clear Fork of the Brazos River. It was originally planned for Elm Creek, but a new general, changed the plan. This new spot had brackish water, no wood for construction, and…. isn’t that enough? They hauled in stone from Elm Creek, 2mi away (ironic, huh?) and brought oak logs from about 40mi away.

IMG_8532-0.JPG Though never officially named, the Fort was referred to as “The Post on the Clear Fork of the Brazos.” (But I bet the soldiers called something more colorful.) The name “Fort Phantom Hill” refers to the apparitions inhabitants have claimed to have seen there from the start.

Life at the Fort– for lack of a better word– sucked. Elm Creek (2mi) was often dry. The Clear Fork’s water was brackish. The 80ft well was unreliable, and hauling water from a spring 4mi away (again) SUCKED. With this water supply, gardens couldn’t be kept and the men got scurvy, fever, pneumonia, and dysentery. The most common pastime was desertion. They say the ONLY positive thing about the Fort was the view.

IMG_8538.JPG Since virtually all Commanche encounters were peaceful, the Fort was abandoned in 1854. As troops left, the Fort was ablaze. The official report was that the Indians set the fires, but it was more likely the soldiers torched it in celebration.

IMG_8533.JPG In 1858, the structures were repaired so they could be used as a way-station for the Overland Mail Stagecoach Line. In the Civil War, it was used as a field ops base, and in 1871, it was a sub post of nearby Ft Griffin. In 1876/77, it was a buying/shipping point for buffalo hides, and by 1880, the town that had sprung up had over 500 residents. Jones was named County Seat, but 6mos later, County government had moved to Anson and the Texas & Pacific Railway was routed 14mi to the south, thus ending the run of Fort Phantom Hill.

In 1928, the site was bought by private interests, and in 1969 it was deeded to the Ft Phantom Hill Foundation to ensure its preservation.

Today, it’s one of Texas’ most pristine historic sites. Strolling among the dozen or so chimneys and buildings on the 22 acres is a spiritual experience. Entrance is free, and they have brochures and clean bathrooms. Everything is clearly marked. Don’t trust your GPS or any addresses or other directions. The site is about 15-20 minutes up FM600 from Abilene. Just keep your eyes open and you’ll see it. If you miss it, you’re not paying attention.

IMG_8529.JPG Don’t miss it. It’s a fantastic piece of history.

IMG_8535.JPG Oh yeah. If you want a family photo, bring a tripod. Finding things to make a camera stand was NOT easy. I couldn’t even find stuff to raise my fancy-schmancy little candy apple red picture making magic box… I can’t imagine trying to find stuff to build a FORT!

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Take only pictures,
Leave only footprints,
Keep only memories,
Kill only time,
Waste nothing,
and
Always leave a place
better than you found it.