Back to the Future
What has kept tiny Fayetteville alive and authentic when other Texas towns have died or surrendered to tourism? The answer lies in its past.
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TIRED OF SPRING GETAWAYS ON the coast, where the sea air is thick with teenage pheromones? For something completely different, head inland to the gently rolling hills an hour and a half east of Austin, an area I once called home but fled the minute I graduated from high school. At the time, possibly pheromone-crazed myself, I considered my rural stomping grounds completely comatose. Twenty-five years of urban thrills later, however, comatose sounds pretty good.
But while some towns hereabouts have withered away to little more than a post office and a few vacant buildings held up by trumpet vines, others have morphed into homogeneous, Wal-Marted mini-cities or festival-obsessed tourist destinations. Miraculously, tiny Fayetteville, population 261, still manages the difficult high-wire act of remaining both charming and genuine without tumbling into either the pit of oblivion or one filled with tour buses and Ye Olde Fudge Shoppes. (What is it about tourists and fudge?) Fayetteville’s 74-year-old water tower (which looks like the Tin Man’s head) and its white clapboard precinct courthouse ringed with pecan trees are so picturesque, I actually squeal every time I see them. It’s a sweet town, sure, but not cloyingly so, thanks in part to the authenticity of these quaint landmarks as well as the presence of several businesses on the square that offer real things real people need—things like loans, cold longnecks, haircuts, work gloves, and chicken-fried steaks.
Even so, on recent trips through Fayetteville (it’s on Texas Highway 159, my favorite route to my parents’ house, in Kenney), I had the sinking feeling that my secret small town—which I’ve never touted for fear of ruining it—was a little out of balance and in danger of slipping off the tightrope. If it did, which pit would it land in? Hmmm—let’s try to decipher the signs.
There are Portents of Near Oblivion: Chovanec’s, a rambling grocery and dry-goods store that had been in business since 1941, shut its doors early this year. Across the street at Kabala’s Hardware Store, the service is unfailingly gracious but—although you can still find the unequaled Duke’s Easy Pecan and Nut Cracker—the inventory is quite sparse. Most ominous, however, is the void where Baca’s Pavilion used to be, where I learned to polka and, in the mid-seventies, gyrated to Procol Harum tunes cranked out by cover bands like the Barons. A couple of years ago, the thirties-vintage Czech dance hall was sucked into the vortex of consumerism that nearby Warrenton has become. The old building was sliced in half, hauled a few miles north, plunked in an empty field, glued back together, and dubbed an antiques mall.
And there are Portents of Fudge Shoppes: Stores selling cheesy doodads imported from faraway countries, Christmas ornaments year-round, and contemporary “collectibles” (think Beanie Babies and their ilk) have proliferated over the past five years. Most have been opened by an influx of retirees from Houston, who also operate many of the burgeoning B&Bs in the area (22 at last count). Each April and October, the town rides the coattails of Warrenton’s Antiques Week, transforming the meeting hall of the Slavonic Benevolent Order of the State of Texas (SPJST) into an antiques emporium and succumbing to Midnight Madness, when most of its shops stay open until the witching hour on Fridays and Saturdays. And if remote Round Top can become a classical-music destination, why not Fayetteville, with its fledgling annual harp competition?
It occurs to me that this tug and pull between decline and cutesiness might, at least in part, be what has kept the place on its feet. But most towns contend with these same forces and many fall. So what is the key to Fayetteville’s delicate balancing act? Suspecting that it might be the town’s serious love affair with its Czech-Moravian-German heritage, I hooked up with Fayetteville’s unofficial historian, Louis J. “Buddy” Polansky, one afternoon in December for a personal tour.
Not only does the 67-year-old Polansky have the keys to the 1880 courthouse, but he can also claim ties to Fayetteville dating back to 1856, when his great-grandfather Konstantin Chovanec (oddly, no connection to the grocery store) arrived here from Moravia to open the town’s first general store. In the courthouse, which was immaculately restored last year, leather-bound ledgers from the late 1800’s reveal an imperfect past peppered with brawls and the occasional theft of a pig or a cow. The two cramped jail cells on the second floor have housed a horse thief and a child abuser (each of whom “mysteriously” died in his cell of gunshot wounds) as well as a parade of drunks. Polansky remembered one, arrested sometime in the fifties, who “howled like a wolf all night and kept the whole town awake.”
During my tour, the courthouse clock refused to chime, but considering that it was installed in 1934, the occasional malfunction can be forgiven (although it does still keep perfect time). The courthouse would be without a timepiece at all if the Do-Your-Duty-Club hadn’t struggled for ten years to raise $1,200 to buy the four-faced Seth Thomas beauty. One look at the photograph of the formidable clubwomen that hangs in the courthouse and you know the money would have been spent as they intended—not on the sidewalks, as the mayor had foolishly suggested. (You walk and spit on sidewalks, the women argued; you look up to a clock.) No wonder their modern-day descendants had what it took to raise some $60,000 to restore the whole building.
But the courthouse was only a teaser for what awaited me across the street at the Fayetteville Area Heritage Museum, where Polansky and a handful of volunteers have amassed an impressive collection of memorabilia and artifacts: a Victrola that plays a thirties recording of the “Green Meadow Waltz” by the locally renowned Baca Family Band; an 1872 life-size statue of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus from the town’s first Catholic church; a restored 1965 Chevy Impala bought from Fayetteville’s last dealership, which closed in the mid-sixties; the movie projector from the town’s long-defunct Dawn Theater; plus traditional, colorful Czech-Moravian costumes; hundreds of photographs, including group portraits of long-ago schoolmates and an autographed glossy of Sissy Spacek, whose ancestors figured prominently in the community; and so much more—each item like a talisman for the town, warding off both obscurity and pretense.
So spend some time in Fayetteville this spring. The wildflowers that carpet the surrounding countryside are alone worth a visit. Ride your bike down one of the quiet roads that lead out of town. Catch some country music at Baca’s Saloon and Confectionary, a reborn institution on the square where beer is now the candy of choice (“The club is new but the name is old,” wrote Michael Hall in “The Best of Small-Town Texas,” TM, March 1999). Sit at the counter in Orsak’s Café and indulge in scrambled eggs and sausage. Browse the stores (Aunt Donna’s Attic boasts the best vintage goodies, from campaign buttons to handmade lace). Definitely tour the courthouse and museum. Spend a night or two in a guest cottage in town or in one of the swank cabins operated by the Lower Colorado River Authority on nearby Lake Fayette (just avert your eyes from the power plant across the lake, which looms over this idyllic landscape like the Dark Tower of Mordor). And rest assured: I urge you to visit not because I want you to experience Fayetteville before it collapses but because I’m confident it can withstand all our attentions.
Aunt Donna’s Attic, on the square; 979-378-3000. Open Fridays and Saturdays 11 to 5, Sunday noon to 4.
Baca’s Saloon and Confectionary, on the square; 979-249-5486. Open Friday and Saturday nights when live music is scheduled; hours vary. No credit cards.
Fayetteville Area Heritage Museum, on the square; open Fridays 2 to 4, Saturdays 10 to noon, Sundays 2 to 4, and by appointment (call Louis Polansky, 979-378-2378). Free.
Fayetteville courthouse, on the square; tours by appointment (call Louis Polansky, 979-378-2378).
Lake Fayette Cabins, at Oak Thicket Park, off Texas Highway 159 three miles west of Fayetteville; 512-389-8900 or 979-249-3504; from $75 per night for an efficiency cabin to $125 for a two-bedroom cabin. For information about area B&Bs, contact the Fayetteville Merchants Association, 979-378-4281 or 979-378-3005; ilovefayettevilletx.com.
Orsak’s Café, on the square; 979-378-2719. Open Mondays 8 to 2, Tuesday through Thursday till 9, Friday through Sunday till 10.