Texas is famous, almost mythical, for many things. When you live here you tend to forget that; when I served overseas during the mid-1980’s all the German fans of the TV show Dallas reminded me constantly. Did I grow up with an oil well in my backyard? How many head of cattle did I run? On occasion I may have “indulged” their assumptions a bit, if only to make them happy. Now I wish I had grown up around the former boomtowns of Breckenridge and Albany; if so, my answers would have been more in line with another Texas myth, the “straight shooter.”
If you have been following along on the Empty Nesters’ travel plan to visit all 254 Texas counties, we last left you at Cisco (a former boomtown of considerable magnitude itself), which sits on I-20. Our quest is West Texas, the Big Bend area specifically. The GPS navigator pointed us straight west out of Cisco on the interstate. If you are going to see all of the state, however, you are going to have to leave the big highways. So we drove North on State Highway 183 for 25 minutes to Breckenridge before heading West to Albany on State Highway 180, parallel to I-20.
Breckenridge and Albany probably provided the starting place for the J.R. Ewings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They maintain some of that rough and tumble charm today, a place where the Texas trifecta of oil boomtowns, cattle drives and “Friday Night Lights” high school football are much more real than on TV dramas. We loved it; I want my German friends to come visit.
WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAMED.
Breckenridge, seat of Stephens County, was a little sleepy on an early Saturday morning. Downtown lies in a line along Highway 180 rather than in a traditional square. While the highway runs in front of the stately courthouse, the road turns to red brick for that stretch, allowing anyone with a little imagination to transport themselves back in time. The structure seems overwhelming for a town and county of this size. As we will see, however, boomtown commerce once demanded it. As a connoisseur of courthouses, Stephens County ranks highly.
Physically, I would describe Breckenridge as well preserved. The former First National Bank and the National Theater showcase beautiful restoration projects. The old bank now houses the Swenson Memorial Museum and the old theater serves as a special events center; an intimate concert there could be special. The museum (donations welcome, but otherwise free) is quaint and informative. The stores lining the highway mix utilitarian, everyday commerce and vintage picking.
The Marty McFly Analogy.
Breckenridge bills itself as “The Mural Capital of Texas and Home of the Buckaroos”. The mural claim is audacious, but not without merit. Particularly if we judge on a per capita basis. My favorite wall painting connects the town’s motto, showcasing the 1950’s most dominant high school football team. Across the decade, the local Buckaroos claimed six state championships, a feat that more than justifies the memorial.
On the surface, Breckenridge presents itself a bit like a 1950’s time capsule: clean, calm, and hard working. Trip Adviser lists three churches among the top five things to do, buttressing the time capsule analogy. The high school sports a great mascot over the auditorium; putting it all together, the town and school reminded me of Hill Valley in Back to the Future. A sweet, pleasant place to be.
More Than Meets the Eye.
Breckenridge may be calm now, but its history is raucous and important. Like most of North Central Texas, Breckenridge was once Buffalo country, controlled by the Comanches and their allies. John R. Baylor (no relation to my alma mater, I need to emphasize) led the first Anglo settlement in the area in the mid 1850’s.
Today’s Hollywood would cast Baylor as the villain in any story about Texas settlement, sort of an early “Ugly American.” At the time, the federal government used Indian Agents to negotiate the Native Americans off the land before exterminating them. Robert Neighbors, the Jimmy Stewart character in our sanitized cinematic tale and chief Indian Agent for Texas, generally negotiated in good faith and understood the Native Americans’ point of view. That point of view included brutal raids of the the farmers and ranchers encroaching into Comanche territory.
Hollywood would blur the issue of whether the raids were a proportional response to the immoral advance of an empire or needless brutal aggression by savages. Neighbors understood both sides. Baylor, who nominally served under Neighbors as the Indian Agent to the Comanches for the area that became Stephens County, indulged no such equivocations. To Baylor, the Comanches were pagan, untrustworthy savages standing in the way of progress. The Comanches’ brutality was evil; the Americans’ brutality was necessary. Baylor and Neighbors feuded constantly, ending in Baylor’s dismissal in 1857.
Beginnings of Commerce.
The dismissal, however was the beginning rather than the end. Baylor was quite the propogandist. Among his many ventures he began publishing an elegantly titled rag, The White Man, dedicated to inciting public opinion against the Comanches. Fake news or not, Baylor was more successful outside of government than in it.
In the 1860’s, the first boomtown era, the area in the triangle between Breckenridge, Albany and Fort Griffin became ground zero for the Great Buffalo Hunt. Hundreds of hunters with tremendous firepower flowed into the area to seek the valuable hides, realizing Baylor’s vision. The scale of destruction is almost unimaginable as a species went from overflowing to endangered in a decade. The Comanches fought back ferociously but the hunters destroyed the basis for the Comanches’ culture; dooming a civilization. In the course of this grand battle, the town of “Picketville” established itself as the commercial center for the area.
By the 1870s, Picketville became Breckenridge, Buchanan County became Stephens (both in nods to the area’s Confederate sympathies); the Comanches and Buffalo disappeared and ranching dominated commerce. Soon enough energy provided the second boomtown era as coal mining brought a substantial population to the region. For 40 years, the region was stable and generally populous, with cotton farming increasing in importance.
In the early 1920’s Breckenridge achieved true boomtown status. Oil was the new gold and in 1921 new wells around Breckenridge literally covered the countryside in oil. One well took two weeks to cap. By the end of the year 200 derricks were erected within the city limits. Here is the most amazing statistic. In the year following, Breckenridge supplied 15% of America’s oil needs. Boomtown in every sense of the world.
Of course, boomtowns deal with exploding populations, intense legal disputes, illegal activities of the vicious and lascivious nature and a host of other challenges. In that context, the scale of the Stephens County courthouse makes sense. So does the fact that the high school football stadium has a working oil well next to the concession stand, something J.R. Ewing would understand and my German friends would love.
The March of Progress.
It takes many more people to drill a well than to keep it pumping. Inevitably, the population moves to new fields and boomtowns recede. Breckenridge was no exception and over the next century its population slowly dwindled. But its windy in North Central Texas. Huge wind turbines now dot the area; perhaps a different sort of boomtown is forming.
For those traveling State Highway 180 and not in need of a gas or rest stop, Breckenridge may pass by in a matter of minutes. That is a shame; a little observation reveals gigantic slices of Texan and American history, not to mention some quality architecture and enchanting murals. Manifest destiny and the fuel for American industry are part of Breckenridge’s story, sleepy Saturday morning or not.
ALBANY, AN EMPTY NESTER FAVORITE.
Breckenridge to Albany, seat of Shackelford County, is 24 minutes straight West. We passed over Hubbard Creek Reservoir, a fairly massive lake that looks to provide all sorts of recreational opportunities. Rolling into Albany one immediately senses something a little different. Albany is smaller than Breckenridge in population; actually, Albany is smaller than most Texas county seats. Shackelford County ranks as number 222 out of 254 in terms of population.
Albany, however, hits well above its weight. If you are inclined to argue the virtues of “Small town, U.S.A.” Albany might well serve as your Exhibit A. Like the other county seats lining State Highway 180, Albany engaged in the Comanche conflict, transformed buffalo prairies into cattle ranches and cotton farms and then watched oil derricks change the landscape again. Most boomtowns fade away; for reasons I can only guess at, Albany retains her magic.
We made a bee line for the courthouse, on a handsome square, bounded on two sides by residences. As a lawyer, I envied the shortest of commutes. I also loved the 1883 limestone structure, extensively and meticulously restored in 2001. The courthouse sits on a big lot and is one beautiful piece of architecture, all the more remarkable given that the structure’s architect, James Flanders, had no formal architectural schooling. The old jail lays behind it, a fact that became more important later.
From the Courthouse, we returned to “Main Street”. Most towns of Albany’s size have one or two decent antique consignment shops, some law offices and a tanning salon on their Main Street. Albany offers boutiques that would compete comfortably in a Dallas Uptown development, side-by-side with a knockout pharmacy/soda fountain; a classic car museum and a restored Sinclair gas station that draws photographers like flies to the honey.
The Sanders Drug Store, basically a nostalgia freak-out, was my favorite. The store looks like the pharmacy from Little House on the Prairie or some other frontier show. The shakes and floats bring childlike delight to all ages. The shopping is sophisticated and well-priced. Across the street are attractions 1b and 1c, the Blanton-Caldwell Trading Company and the Flying A Car Museum.
Asked to describe Blanton-Caldwell, the answer is “Yes, they have it.” The store is a series of shops connected; your wife can shop for wife things while you peruse fishing and hunting equipment. If you absolutely refuse to shop, spend your time next door inspecting the American muscle at the Flying A Car Museum. These are the grade-A cars, bikes, toys and signs of our youth, restored to first-day condition. Sort of sexy.
The Empty Nesters are not shy. We wondered why Albany still looks and acts like a boomtown decades after most of the drilling ended. So we asked the store clerks and owners. Their response were uniform in this sense: they credited other people in the town and encouraged us to partake in Albany’s delights outside of their stores. It was a mutual admiration society of the highest order. Two of the common attractions we kept hearing were The Fandangle held every June and the old jail.
As much as we would have liked to stay through June, we could not. So we made our way back to the jail. Towns throughout Texas are making creative uses of their outdated jails, but they all pale in comparison to Albany. In the middle of North Central Texas, far from anywhere “cultured” sits a world class art museum. I mean holy—–. How does this happen?
I will admit that I have no qualification to rank art museums. Here is my reasoning, if you care. First, everything I saw in the museum was cool; it triggered emotions. Second, even I know American Gothic by Grant Wood, one of the most iconic American paintings ever. Grant Wood died young and devoted much of his energy to commercial endeavors and other art forms. As a result, he has a catalog of 29 titled paintings. Two of them were on display in Albany, Texas when we visited. How does this happen?
One of the museum’s exhibits was a series of video oral histories. We watched one, a well-done interview with a wildcatter from Albany. His family built an energy business that did exploration worldwide. At the time of the film, he was in his 80’s, still looking for deals, still living in Albany and still loving it. Some towns have history and resources; Albany has history, resources and people.
Albany’s people have done great things; no one any more than William “Ed” Dyess, the namesake of Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene. The museum has a room devoted to Dyess; his story is inspiring.
A football and track star at Albany High School, he graduated from Tarleton University in the 1930’s. He joined the Army after graduation, By the time we entered World War II, Dyess was a squadron commander flying P-40’s. He led his men into constant air battles in support of the Bataan Peninsula. The P-40’s were no match for the Japanese Zeros, but Dyess kept going up and kept encouraging the men. Until they finally flat ran out of planes to fight with.
Dyess transformed himself on the spot into an infantry officer. While on the Peninsula, Dyess oversaw the evacuation of a Philippine Colonel, saving his life; the survivor later served as Secretary-General of the United Nations. Dyess fought on until the Japanese captured him. After his capture, Dyess joined the infamous Bataan Death March, a high water mark for cruelty. He survived what many others could not, reaching the Japanese prison at Mindaro.
Dyess was not comfortable sitting out the war in a hell hole so he led an escape of nine American prisoners of war along with two Philippinios. After several weeks of dodging the Japanese on the island, a U.S. submarine picked him up; Dyess and his comrades completed the only large scale escape from a Japanese prison camp during World War II.
Back on friendly land, the top brass extensively de-briefed Dyess, as he had the first in-person account of Japanese conduct. The Army arranged for an interview with a Chicago paper then sat on the story, fearful that the Japanese would react to publication of the atrocities by punishing the existing prisoners of war.
In the meantime Dyess, now a Lieutenant Colonel, recovered and was ready to rejoin the fight. The Army reassigned him to P-38s. In December of 1943, Dyess lost an engine at the start of a training flight. With an opportunity to eject and ditch, Dyess decided that he would stay with the plane to keep it away from the populated area he was flying over. He crash landed and died; no one else was injured. A month after his death, the Chicago paper published his interview and the world learned about Bataan from this Albany native and American hero.
Albany and Ed Dyess stayed with me for a while as we headed West on 180. We travel because some places and some people are special. Encountering that magic physically, rather than reading about it, transforms us. Albany and Ed Dyess reminded me of how good life and people can be. I am sure Albany has its problems, but the town has created a gracious quality of life that includes, history, commerce and art through the dint of a common, adventurous spirit. Ed Dyess gave everything to protect that venture. These are things worth knowing.
As of this writing, we have managed 114 Texas counties. My travel resolution for 2021 is, COVID-willing, to see 86 more counties and find one story as good as Ed Dyess’ story. The first goal is achievable; the second doubtful. But it is worth the effort.
13 down, 241 to go.