The Time we Took Our 9-Year Old Daughter to a Bar. On a School Night.

Yep. You read that right. We took our daughter to a bar on a school night. But we had a really, really good reason. And no, it wasn’t because we couldn’t find a babysitter.

You see, one of the best things about Texas is that we’ve got some amazing musical legends right here in our backyard. The Crazy Train is based just spitting distance from the Live Music Capital of the World, so we’ve got plenty of concert opportunities.

In 2012, The Hub and I crossed Willie Nelson off our bucket list, but our eclectic little GirlChild was furious to have been left out. You see, Mags isn’t like most girls her age. We’ve not been tortured (yet) with whatever tween chipmunk helium techno bubblegum earworm death sentence that some parents suffer through. She’s got a heterogeneous musical palette that is admirable for a 10 year old girl. Her playlist has everything from Neil Diamond to Taylor Swift.

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(The afternoon before the show.)

So when Willie and Family brought the legendary bus back through our neck of the woods in 2013, we had to go. The 80 year old Redheaded Stranger might not have too many touring years left, so we decided to carpe diem and spring for tickets. Seeing Willie at Floore’s in Helotes had always been on my Bucket List, but the folks in Luckenbach say Gruene is best. Unlike Floore’s, Gruene Hall’s stage is elevated, and it’s a lot bigger, so you’re not packed in like sweaty sardines.

Willie 9If you’ve never seen a show at Gruene Hall, you should. The historic dance hall was built in 1878, and is known as “the oldest continually run dance hall in Texas.” Not much has changed in the last 135+ years. It’s something like 6,000 square feet of wooden dance floor history with the kind of bar that only serves ice cold longnecks. I think if you ordered something pink with an umbrella, they’d be forced to call the Texas Rangers on you. The fact that it’s un-airconditioned is really irrelevant. The design keeps it fairly comfortable year round.

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Tickets went on sale about a month out, so I made sure to be online and ready to pony up with my plastic at the instant tickets went live. In under a minute, I was $312 poorer, but I knew I’d have one excited little girl on my hands.

On the day of the show, we prepared as best as we could.

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Brothers at Grandma’s: Check!

Comfy jeans and boots: Check!

Cooper’s brisket in the belly: Check!

In line at 5pm sharp: Check!

While we were in line, we schooled Mags on the concept of General Admission Seating. There’d be a lot of standing around and waiting, but if she played her cards right, it’d be worth it. We told her that once the gate opened and they took her ticket, she’d need to high-tail it to the stage—front and center—and park it there. Don’t wait for mom. Don’t wait for Dad. Park it front and center and DO NOT MOVE.

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When the doors opened, she flew to the stage and anchored herself right behind a lady in a wheelchair. BRILLIANT move, Grasshopper. She watched, wide-eyed, as Willie’s road crew prepped the stage. When they set Trigger up directly in front of her, she realized that she had the best spot in Gruene Hall.

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About an hour passed before Paula, Willie’s daughter, took the stage. Paula Nelson is a joy to watch. She seems to really enjoy singing both solo and with her brothers and her dad. She has a great voice, and she’s just plain fun to watch. But after a few songs, Mags was tired of waiting for the REAL reason she was there.

But when Paula finished and she saw those braids for the first time UP CLOSE and IN PERSON, she knew that the wait was worth it. She sang. She jumped up and down. She danced. She took pictures. And when Willie threw his bandanas at the end of the show, she freaking caught one. SHE CAUGHT WILLIE’S BANDANA. He threw 2 of them, and she caught one!!! (How do I NOT have a picture of this?!?!?!)

I am SO not kidding. Holy crap. My daughter, age nine, had the most amazing first concert experience ever. She got to see a living legend at an historic venue. She got to stand front and center, and she came away with the ULTIMATE souvenir.

Since thWillie Notee show was on a Sunday night, we chose to crash at a nearby hotel and head back on Monday morning. Knowing that I am not a good enough liar to pull the “she was sick” card, and I am trying to teach her honesty and integrity, I told her it was OK to go ahead and tell her teachers the truth as to why she had missed school on Monday. And I sent a note. With a picture.

A couple weeks later, I saw her teacher and the principal at school. When the principal saw me, she just laughed, telling me that in ALL her years in education, she had NEVER seen such an awesome absence excuse letter. We laughed about it and I shared the story. Only in Texas is taking your 9-year old to a bar on a Sunday night to see a Willie Nelson concert an acceptable excuse from 4th grade!

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Unfortunately, I am afraid I have completely ruined the entire concert-going experience for her for the rest of her life, but I am so happy to have given her this awesome memory. Now she has her sights set on meeting him, but I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as she seems to think it’ll be. But then again, she’s a pretty lucky girl! She just might find a way to make it happen.

(In case you can’t read the note, it says: Dear Mrs 4th Grade Teacher: Please excuse Mags from school on Monday… She had a ticket to the sold out Willie Nelson concert in Gruene on Sunday night and she had to stand in the front row and catch one of Willie’s bandanas! I am sure you understand this once in a lifetime opportunity was too good to pass up. Thank you! Mrs CrazyTrain)

And yes. All these photos are mine. Please be cool and don’t copy ’em.

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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!

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/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.

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/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.

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/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.

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/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.

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****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).****

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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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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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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Benjamin, Texas

As we made our way north up Texas 6, we entered the City of Benjamin, pop: 264. As the Knox County Seat and the town boasting, “Small Town, Big Country!” we hardly expected a bustling metropolis, especially on a Sunday afternoon. What we DID find was one of the most unique things– no, TWO of the most unique things we have yet to find in our travels. According to their Chamber of Commerce (remember, I do a little recon on the way into a town) we expected mesquite trees, cowboys and horses, a little tumbleweed, and, of course, a town square with a courthouse.
So as we drove the Square in our usual pattern (see The Crazy Train’s 10 Rules of the Road Trip), and we stumbled upon this, we HAD to stop and investigate.

IMG_0796.JPGThe town of Benjamin used to have a bank on the Square. But now, the bank is gone, but the vault…. well, the vault remains. It’s a massive iron structure that is mostly still surrounded by deteriorating brick and crumbling mortar. In these gaps, you can see that the vault, rusted to a brilliant shade of deep red-orange, is still completely in tact. OF COURSE I had to play with the dial (it still spins, although with some difficulty) and the handle jiggles a bit. But, alas, it is locked up tight, and since I neglected to bring my frontier bank vault safe cracking kit and nitro glycerine, I wasn’t able to get inside. Plus, it’s right next door to the Sheriff’s office, and I didn’t feel like getting arrested for attempted bank robbery.

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IMG_0798-0.JPGUnfortunately, no amount of googling yielded any juicy details as to how this came to be, but one can only fantasize. Buildings come and go, but a solid, iron cast vault doesn’t vanish so easily!

IMG_0800-0.JPGThe other fascinating bit we found in Benjamin was the old jail. The old Knox County Jail has been converted into a private residence, which was pretty freaking awesome. I’ve always thought it’d be fun to convert an unconventional structure into a house, so this really appealed to me. HOWEVER, when we saw this, my mind was still consumed with the vault, so I didn’t get any pictures. I guess this means we will just have to go back!

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