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.

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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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McLean, Texas

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Driving east on Rt66 from Amarillo, we were eager to get to the town of McLean, home of the first Phillips 66 Station outside of Oklahoma. According to what we’d read, McLean had an active Rt66 Preservation Society and two museums. One was dedicated to a WWII POW Camp in the area (who knew?) and the other, the Devil’s Rope Museum, celebrating barbed wire and ranching history.

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McLean is a small town on Rt66, 75 miles east of Amarillo. During its heyday, it was a significant cattle and agricultural shipping center. As the origination point for hundreds of loads of watermelons and hogs annually, McLean employed four telegraph operators to handle the station’s communications.

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Alfred Rowe settled nearby in 1878 after learning of abundant ranchlands for purchase. Rowe was from a middle class English family, but was deprived of inheritance since he wasn’t the oldest son. So the adventurous Rowe attended the Royal Agricultural College in England before heading off to America to seek his fortune. He was an honest, hard worker, and learned Texas ranching from Charles Goodnight’s men. In 1900, he began buying land and cattle, eventually becoming one of the most successful ranchers in the Panhandle with over 72,000 acres.

When the railroad came through in 1902, he donated land for a townsite which he named for William McLean, the Railroad Commissioner of Texas. In 1910, Rowe moved his family back to England, but often returned to Texas to check on his ranch. Unfortunately, it was en route to Texas in April of 1914 that he failed to make it back. Alfred Rowe was one of the 1,517 passengers who died in the Titanic disaster.

McLean benefitted from the 1927 oil boom and remained a major shipping point in the panhandle for livestock, gas, and oil. Rt66’s path through its center guaranteed growth for the next few decades, and McLane saw growth rapid growth, including the now historic Phillips 66 Station.
In 1942, the US Government established a POW Camp nearby. While the Camp provided workers to the community, the War was hard on McLean. Having 3,000 POWs so close brought the outside into this sheltered community. Many men left to join the war effort, and many of the town’s young women married soldiers and moved away.

It wasn’t until the interstate (I40) bypassed town that McLean’s future was sealed. Easier access to bigger cities contributed to the town’s decline.

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Needless to say, we were disappointed when we arrived and everything, once again, was closed. We didn’t see a soul in the hour or so we spent in town. The Devil’s Rope was closed, and the brick streets were deserted. We drove around and saw the Phillips 66, the Avalon Theatre, and many of the murals that we had seen celebrated online. Sadly, the murals and the theatre have fallen into disrepair. We’d heard there was an active Rt66 preservation society, but we saw no evidence of such.

So, we drove through the deserted streets, noting the obvious historical structures (and their lack of demarcation) and wondered what the town must’ve been like in its heyday. We thought a Wednesday afternoon might have shown some signs of life, but, unfortunately, there was none. The town must’ve been a nice little place, once upon a time.

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The Bug Farm, Conway, Texas

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The last town before Amarillo– or the first after leaving– on Old Route 66, is the ghost town of Conway, TX. Before I40 was routed 1/2 mile north of town, Conway consisted of ranchers and farmers who settled in the area in the late 1800s. The town grew after the Choctaw route of the Chicago Rock Island and Gulf Railroad came through in 1903.

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In 1967, the Crutchfield family opened a service station and souvenir shop at the I40 exit to Conway. Two years later, the town peaked at a whopping population of 175 people, but a year later, more than half of them had moved away. By 2000, only 20 people remained, and by 2002, the Love’s truck stop across I40 was the main draw in the immediate area. Undeterred by the big guys across the highway, one of the Crutchfields had an idea to lure in customers. He had always loved the Cadillac Ranch out west of Amarillo, so why not create a parody of the attraction east of the city? He put his knowledge of off-road equipment to use and buried five Volkswagon Beetles nose-down, a la Cadillac Ranch, in front of their station. It wasn’t long before the spray painting began.

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The stunt brought in the local media and drew in some customers, but it was’t enough to sustain the business. In 2003, the Crutchfields bugged out of town, and it has been abandoned ever since. But, that doesn’t stop kitsch-seekers like us from making it a destination point. I’ve heard it’s a great spot for geocaching, if you’re into that. The Bug Farm, or the Bug Ranch, or the Slug Bug Farm or the Slug Bug Ranch, or the Bugg Farm, or the Rattlesnake Curio and Souvenir Shop– whatever it’s called, all that’s left now is a deteriorating roadside attraction with Crazy Train written ALL OVER IT. (Quite literally!)

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Speaking of souvenir shops, I think I need to interject something here for a quick second. I was a little surprised at the lack of nick-knacks, tchotchkes, tshirts, and other miscellaneous crap available with “Rt66” emblazoned on it. Though relieved not to be nagged constantly for a bunch of crap by my kids, I am sure we could have found something wonderful that we couldn’t have lived without. I’m not sure how I’m going to survive without a Rt66 keychain, or how I am gong to feel in six months when I am not yelling at the rest of the Crazy Train when I retrieve a broken Rt66 snow globe from under the seat of the car. But I digress. Back to Conway.

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The Crazy Train had almost as much fun at the Bug Farm as they did at Cadillac Ranch. We climbed around an old Ford(?), took a fantastic family picture, and William even found a partially filled can of spray paint and the kids got to leave their mark both east and west of Amarillo. We were the only ones there, and it was a little warmer and slightly less windy than Cadillac Ranch had been. It’s definitely worth a stop.

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