Balneotherapy–Texas Style; Taking the Waters in Marlin, Texas

Whenever I get a superlative case of the vapors, and miasma brings along coryza, the grippe, and quinsy, or I need relief from my lumbago, lethargy, the ills of overconsumption, or female hysteria, I just need to take the waters. Since Texas is lousy with sulphuric-rich mineral waters, you’d think easing nervous tension and dyspepsia with some old-fashioned balneotherapy, promenading, and repetitive quaffing of foul-tasting water would be a piece of cake, but no dice. There ain’t a single mineral spa in the Lone Star State where a girl can relax for a few days of massages, hot mineral baths, drinking stinky water, and socializing.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1430.jpgMost people speeding up and down I35 pass the Marlin exit with little more than a glance. I mean, really? A landlocked town in Central Texas named for a big saltwater fish? Hmmm…. Sounds, well, fishy.

Marlin is one of those dots on the map you’ve probably never heard of, but who’s history will surprise you. It wasn’t named for a fish, but for John Marlin, an early pioneer and Texas patriot who settled nearby in the 1830s. Marlin was incorporated in 1867 and became the Falls County Seat, guaranteeing its initial growth. Then the railroad came and people followed. By 1892, there were 2,500 residents.

But that was nothin’. It was around then that a surprising discovery put Marlin on the map, making it one of the top tourist destinations in the state.

No. I’m not kidding.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1422.jpgIn 1892 while digging for an artesian well, a hot, sulphur rich mineral spring was discovered. Rumor has it that 174° water shot 75 feet into the air. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, mineral spas were all the rage, so a medical/resort town sprung up (pun intended). Before “germ theory,” antibiotics, and sulfa drugs, doctors thought “taking the waters” was a cure-all for whatever ailed you. All that stuff I said earlier would’ve been cured by taking the waters. Miasma (that “something funky” in the air that caused sickness) like coryza (a cold), the grippe (influenza), and quinsy (tonsillitis). The waters also cured lumbago (low back pain), lethargy (exhaustion), the ills of overconsumption (hangover), female hysteria (PMS), nervous tension (stress), and dyspepsia (tummy-ache), arthritic, and most skin diseases. Remarkably, some physicians claimed it could cure liver disease, mental disorders, and cancer via osmosis during balneotherapy (soaking in the stinky water) and by drinking it.

Hotels and sanitariums went up everywhere. A hospital, various clinics, a “crippled” children’s clinic, and a pavilion with public fountains and a foot bath were built. Tens of thousands of people flocked to Marlin to take the waters ever year. Some say as many as 100,000 visitors a year came to Marlin to take the waters. The Cincinnati Reds held their spring training in Marlin in 1907, and from 1908-1918, the New York Giants (now the San Francisco Giants) called Marlin home. Legendary Baseball Hall of Fame player and manager John McGraw batted left, threw right, and swore by the healing waters in Marlin. Did I mention that the Giants won the Pennant in 1911, 1912, and 1913? See? Magic water!

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1434.jpg

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1438.jpgWhen the stock market crashed in 1929, a grand, nine story hotel on Coleman Street was only half completed. The Crash had little effect on Marlin. In May of 1930, the 110-room hotel, which featured a ballroom that could hold 300 guests and an underground tunnel to the Marlin Sanitarium Bath House, became the eighth hotel opened by Conrad Hilton. Yeah. That Hilton.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1432.jpg

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1401.jpgThough Marlin held on longer than most mineral spa towns, science and circumstance finally caught up with them. Fires in some of the hotels and spas forced their closure, and advancements in medicine made rebuilding them seem inappropriate. The extravagant claims made by charlatans (eg. sulphur baths as a cure for cancer) annihilated their credibility. Some clinics held on through the 1960s because they incorporated hydrotherapy into a physical therapy tool. But eventually, the stink water craze went bust.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1394.jpgSadly, the town of Marlin is a ghost of what she once was. Marlin is by no means a ghost town, but time hasn’t been kind to this former resort town that once hosted hundreds of thousands of health-seekers. Various murals boast snapshots of the once-vital spa town. Virtually nothing was open on the Saturday of our visit. Keith’s Hardware is one of Marlin’s oldest continuously operating businesses– housed in an awesome 114 year old building. Keith’s employs some awesome people who graciously showed us the massive pulley and lift system that was used to hoist buggies, wagons, farm implements, stoves, and furniture up to the third floor over a century ago. The ghost sign on the building’s west side still stands testament to the history contained within.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1431.jpg

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1396.jpg

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1395.jpgThe only place to take the waters in Marlin these days is at the Fountain Pavilion adjacent to the chamber of commerce. All that remains is a small marble fountain and an empty foot bath.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1405.jpg

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1392.jpgAnd yes. The water is warm. And yes. The water stinks. I can’t vouch for how it tastes because the kids were too chicken to taste it, and, well… there’s three of them and only one of me. Plus, I heard that drinking the sulphur water makes you poop, and, well, we were over an hour from home…. so… better them than me.

Kinda sucks that there hasn’t been a rich entrepreneur looking to invest in an historic little town. The crunchy granola alternative health market just might line up for some 19th century nostalgia and turn of the century medical cure-alls. Too bad. I’ve got a girls weekend on my calendar in January, and a weekend of sulphur rich balneotherapy, promenading, and repetitive quaffing of foul-tasting water might be just what the doctor ordered.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1404.jpg

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1398.jpg

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1391.jpg
****nb: the pictures that look like I took them, are mine. The ones that don’t look like I took them–the ones from a hundred years ago– I did NOT take. The Marlin pics are from the Marlin City website, and the baseball pictures are from the New York Giants websites photo archives pages (1911-1913).****

Top Ten 2014 Crazy Train Destinations I Haven’t Blogged About… Yet.

We’ve been backroads road-tripping since before the kids– I only just started blogging about it. There are countless places I haven’t written about yet. With all the end-of-year lists emerging, I wanted to share my Top 10 Texas Destinations of 2014 that I haven’t blogged about yet. This is just the tip of the iceberg!

These are in no particular order since they’re so different, so I’ll just list ’em as I think of ’em!

10. Bandera
We went to Bandera for the National Day of the American Cowboy. We had a great day and wanted to spend the night, but learned a valuable lesson: Sometimes advance hotel reservations are necessary, or else you find yourself at Buckees at 3am for coffee.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_0032.jpg

9. Shiner
One of these days, we’ll make it to Shiner on a weekday when the brewery is open. Until then, the “Antiques Art & Beer” place is my favorite spot. Especially the ladies room.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_0031.jpg

8. Cuero
We had no idea there was a Pharmacy Museum in Cuero (heck, we’d never even heard of Cuero either). From the outside, it looked cool. The lady in the liquor store across the street said it’d been in the works for ever, but still hadn’t opened. Once it is, we’re there!

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1316.png

7. Mason
For Mag’s birthday, we went on a topaz dig on a private ranch in Mason. It was pretty awesome. Then we explored the downtown square, although everything was closed for the day (weekends are tough for roadtripping to small towns). We’d like to go back and do the whole thing again…. minus the crack.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_0030.jpg

6. Hallettsville
We’d heard that Hallettsville is a great little town, but we’ve never been on a day when everything was open. We’ve been through on a Sunday, and we went back for their Kolache Festival where William took the title of Kolache Eating Champion, 10 & Under Division. THAT was a day to remember!

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1317.jpg

5. London
Raina and I had High Tea in downtown London. Yes, I’ll blog about it. Not sure if we’ll be headed back, but at least we can tell everyone that we went to London and had tea.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_0011.jpg

4. Gonzales and Goliad
Who knew that the “Come and Take It” cannon was still around and that you could actually see it? Both Gonzales and Goliad had a lot of interesting historical spots, and they’re pretty close together. I’m really looking forward to blogging about both places.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_0038.jpg

3. Huntsville
I’ve always thought of Huntsville as the prison town. But it was fantastically beautiful. With Sam Houston State University, countless cool historic sites, and all the cool antique dealers on the square, we are definitely planning a return trip.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_0033.jpg

2. Walnut Springs
Out in the middle of nowhere, somewhere between Meridian and Glen Rose is a little ghost town called Walnut Springs. A short trip into a junk shop turned into one of the most memorable Crazy Train afternoons yet. Definitely looking forward to a return trip. Sometimes you really can’t judge a book by its cover.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_0024.jpg

1. Phelps
Is there a more PERFECT spot for a family photo than in front of a city limits sign for a town bearing your last name? I know, right?!?!? But, to quote the poet Robert Burns, “But little Mouse, you are not alone, In proving foresight may be in vain: The best laid schemes of mice and men, Go often askew, And leave us nothing but grief and pain, For promised joy!” In other words, no city limits sign, no ghost town, no family photo…. nothing but a dot on the map. Literally.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_0029.jpg

I could go on and on and on. But, why give y’all preview snippets when there are full stories to be told? Here’s to a fantastic upcoming year filled with more fun and adventure with the Crazy Train!

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_0037.jpg

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!”

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1288.jpg
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.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1287.jpg

Crush, Texas… Population: 0… Town Duration: ONE Day

Fact is often WAY more entertaining than fiction, and the Crazy Train LOVES a great story. This is one of our favorites!

IMG_1075.JPGBesides kolaches and the tragic events of April 2013, West is–or was–famous for a much different reason. In 1896, a tract of land just south of the town was transformed into a temporary town called Crush, and for one day only, it would be the site of one of the most spectacular publicity stunts in American history.

IMG_1124.JPGWilliam George Crush was a passenger agent for the Katy Railroad. Two 20-year old Baldwin locomotive engines with diamond stacks, the No 999 and No 1001, were being decommissioned. Rather than send them off to scrap, Crush proposed that the company stage a train wreck as a publicity event. Train wrecks were big news, and people often flocked to see the aftermath. The “Monster Crash,” as it was called, would be unlike anything anyone had ever seen. The locomotives, each pulling seven boxcars (covered in advertising), would race towards each other, and then collide magnificently in front of an audience. There would be no admission charge to the event, but round-trip train fare would be $2 (approximately $55 today) from anywhere in Texas.

IMG_1126.JPG
Throughout the year preceding the event, flyers and bulletins were distributed all over Texas promoting the Crash at Crush. The Old 999 was painted bright green, the Old 1001 was painted a brilliant red, and the two engines were sent around the state on a publicity tour. Thousands of curious Texans turned out to see them. Newspapers ran reports on the preparations, piquing the interest of tens of thousands more.

IMG_1116.JPGCrush and the Katy execs expected a crowd of around 20,000. But they had no idea how grossly they had underestimated interest in the Monster Crash. The first of 33 fully loaded excursion trains arrived at the temporary station at Crush at daybreak on September 15. Demand for transportation to Crush was so great that some passengers rode on top of the train cars because there was no room inside the train. By 3:00pm, there were already more than 40,000 people on the grounds. Some estimated that the crowd was closer to 50,000.

The town of Crush was pretty impressive. A special grandstand had been erected for VIP seating. There were also three stages for speakers, two telegraph offices, a special viewing area for the media, and a bandstand. A large tent on loan from Ringling Brothers housed a massive restaurant, a carnival midway was set up with dozens of game booths, lemonade stands, medicine shows, and more. This was an event so epic that the promoters were confident it would make history.

At 5:00pm, Crush, Texas was the second largest city in Texas. Old No 999 and Old No 1001 squared off. George Crush, mastermind of the Monster Crash trotted to the center of the track on a white horse, raised his white hat, and after a brief pause, whipped it to the ground, signaling the engines to start. The engines lurched forward as the began their path towards each other, their engineers prepared to jump at a pre-determined point.

The crowd cheered as they pressed forward in anticipation, jockeying to get a better view of the track. The engines’ whistles shrieked, the track rumbled, and the engines roared. As the crowd of 40,000+ spectators, media, showmen, VIPs, Railroad executives, laborers, and more cheered, the Old 999 and the Old 1001 lifted off the track as the red and green engines thunderously and grindingly collided in a blast of steam of smoke. Railroad mechanics and experts expected the engines to rise in a “V” at impact, and for the cars to fall to the sides of the track. Unfortunately, their predictions were grossly incorrect. Instead, the engines telescoped, and their boilers simultaneously exploded, sending scalding hot steam, shrapnel, bolts, twisted metal, and burning fragments of train and track flying hundreds of yards into the panicking crowd.

IMG_1117.JPGAs the dust began to settle, three people had been killed and six others were seriously injured by flying debris. The Missouri Kansas Texas Railroad came in to remove the wreckage, and dismantle the grandstand and other temporary structures. Souvenir hunters carried off the rest. Spectators went home, the tents were struck, the carnival midway packed up, and by nightfall, the town of Crush was wiped from the map after it’s single, legendary day.

The Katy settled all damage claims brought against it with lifetime rail passes and big fat settlement checks. George Crush was immediately fired with a wink, but was rehired as soon as the press had moved on to other topics. Crush was even rumored to have received a bonus, and worked for the Katy until his retirement many years later. And the town of Crush has gone down in history as one of the most amazing stories in Texas history.

IMG_1125.JPG

Vega, Texas and Adrian, Texas

Remember how I said that I was disappointed in how Texas has failed to maintain much of our Rt66 history and landmarks? (See post “Preface to Route 66.) Here’s what I meant: IMG_1049.JPGAmong the disappointments on our Rt66 journey was our trip west of Amarillo to the towns of Adrian and Vega. Adrian is also known as “Midway” or “Midpoint” because it is EXACTLY half-way between Chicago and Los Angeles on Rt66–1,139 miles to either. And, we were excited to learn that the inspiration behind Flo’s V8 Cafe in the Pixar movie “Cars,” had been none other than the Midpoint Cafe in Adrian, Texas! We knew the cafe itself didn’t look like Flo’s but we’d heard that the owner and the inside were pretty awesome. Rt66 memorabilia was on display in the 1950s-esque diner, and the owner was reportedly the inspiration for FLO HERSELF! “Cars” fans in the backseat rejoiced in excitement!

IMG_1046.JPGAfter leaving Cadillac Ranch, we went west, first to Vega. We saw some of the old neon signs– which, we learned, is what mostly remains of the Mother Road. We parked at the Courthouse and used their facilities to try to scrub the spray paint off the kiddos. No dice. My boys were blue. The paint wasn’t coming off. So we checked out the old restored Magnolia Station (pretty cool) and then headed across the street to Roark Hardware. Of all the places we stopped on our trip, Roark Hardware has got to be filled with some of the nicest people we’ve met. Not only did we want to see the oldest operating hardware store on America’s Main Street, but we needed help getting the paint off the boys. The shop was pretty neat. Filled with modern hardware items as well as some cool vintage stuff on display, Roark’s looked a lot like an old-time general store. Everyone jumped in on helping us find a way to un-paint the boys, and when we wanted to BUY the supplies, they were surprised that we didn’t just want to use some! We insisted, and left with clean kids and a happy feeling because we LOVE supporting small business.

IMG_1044.JPGHowever, our joy was short-lived. Everything else in Vega was closed! Every Rt66 attraction we’d read about, every place our new friends at Roark’s recommended, everything on Trip Advisor and Yelp and our Rt66 app…. Closed. We passed up the restaurants because, well, the Midpoint Cafe was just a few miles down Rt66. So, we took some pictures around the Magnolia Station, and made our way west to Flo’s. I mean The Midpoint Cafe.

IMG_1047.JPGWhen we arrived in Adrian, we were a little surprised. (We have since learned that ANY town with a population of less than 1,000 is more than likely to be pretty sparse, so make a note for future reference!) As our second “destination city” on Rt 66 (after the county seat in Vega), we weren’t prepared for a virtual ghost town. After all, the online sites boasted 12 local businesses, a population of 150, and the Midpoint Cafe! We passed by the Bent Door Trading Post– Closed. The Antique Ranch– Gone. Tumbleweed actually blew across the road in front of us. Yet, optimistically, we pressed on. As we pulled into the parking lot at the Midpoint, our optimism quickly turned to sadness. It was closed. Closed. For the season. The handwritten sign on the door said, “Closed for the 2014 Season! SEE YOU IN JANUARY!” Sigh… (See note at the bottom.)

IMG_1043.JPG
However, we did take a little “scenic” drive through the town of Adrian, and saw some hilariously strange road signs. Since they were mostly in people’s front yards (and residents looked at us like we were nuts for cruising through the residential area) I didn’t snap any pics with my Professional Fancy Candy Apple Red Picture-Making Magic Box (or the iCheese). But now I regret it because NOW I know these were some of Stanley Marsh 3’s bizarre road signs, erected in tribute to the eccentric millionaire when he died this past June. HINDSIGHT PEOPLE!!! DO YOUR RESEARCH!!! I SHOULD’VE BEEN PREPARED!

IMG_1048.JPGAnd, well, I did enjoy the Bent Door Trading Post, even though it was closed. I jumped out and took some pictures (and poked around, like I love to do in old, broken down, scary-looking, dilapidated, ghost-town looking buildings). There was some interesting “rusty gold” as Mike and Frank on American Pickers say, and the gas station fixtures out front were pretty neat. Not to mention the cool front door, which is, in fact, “bent,” as the name implies. It was originally a cafe, souvenir shop, and gas station. Built in 1947 by Robert Harris, it was actually called “Midway Station,” but everyone just called it the Bent Door Cafe” because the recycled doors and windows from a WWII USAF watch tower were “bent.” In 2009, the name was officially changed to “The Bent Door.” It had been saved from demolition, and I’d read that it was in the process of restoration, but, unfortunately, I could see no trace of this when we were there. Sad.

IMG_1050.JPGUnable to take any more disappointment, we turned the SSPhelps around and did what the Crazy Train does best….. We implemented PLAN B! The kids were STARVING (my sarcastic emphasis because apparently, the all-you-can-eat free waffles at the hotel couldn’t have sustained them for another half hour so we could see the TX/NM border) so we turned around and headed back to Amarillo, sights set on the infamous cheeseburgers of the Golden Light Cafe– CONFIRMED to be open and ready to flip some burgers!

(END NOTE: Since we are HUGE proponents of mom and pop businesses, we applaud their decision to take a vacation! One of the best things about owning your own business is having the choice to open whenever you want. Now, we know that if there is a specific place on our “must go to” itinerary, we need to call ahead and check on the hours! Kudos, Fran Houser, for taking the holiday season off! We hope we can catch up with you next time!)

Preface to Route 66

IMG_0955.JPG
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.)

IMG_0956.JPG
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.

IMG_0957.JPG
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….

IMG_0958.JPG
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.

IMG_0960.JPG
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.

IMG_0940.JPG

The Town of Medicine Mound, Texas. Population: 0

IMG_0823.JPG
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.

IMG_0830.JPG
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.

IMG_0833.JPG
This, my friends, is a story worth reading. (See bottom for explanation of my new word!)

IMG_0822.JPG
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!).

IMG_0831.JPG
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.

IMG_0828.JPG

IMG_0829.JPG
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.

IMG_0832.JPG
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!!!!

IMG_0834.JPG

IMG_0825.JPG

IMG_0824.JPG