Happy, Texas

When the Crazy Train sees a speck on the map called “Happy,” it’s pretty much a given that we’re going to make it a point to stop there.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1302.jpgLegend has it that around 1890, a team of parched cowboys found a stream in the area and named it “Happy Draw” because they were, well, happy to have found some water in this otherwise arid land. A post office and stagecoach exchange station set up shop by the draw, but when the town of Happy was laid out in 1906, they decided to move it two miles to the west to be closer to the new Santa Fe Railroad extension.

Unfortunately, the natives were restless in the back seats of the Crazy Train. Once again, the all-you-can-eat “free” hotel breakfast a few short hours earlier was not enough to sustain them for more than 120 minutes. (I’m starting to think that when food is included in the price of anything, it doesn’t matter how much the kids eat, they’re still hungry six minutes after we leave, thus requiring me to either buy them a snack or listen to them slowly, and loudly, die of starvation in the back seat.)

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1295.jpgWe drove down (literally) every single street in the town of Happy in search of food. We crossed our fingers and toes, praying for a diamond-in-the-rough mom and pop diner or a gas station with an ample selection of edible garbage. But, alas, Happy made us categorically unhappy in the victual department. So we bid a fond farewell to The Town Without a Frown (or, The Town Without A Dairy Queen) and hit the open roads, in search of sustenance and adventure.

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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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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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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.)

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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!)

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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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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