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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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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