Y’all Come Back
Every high school has a homecoming. But in the West Texas town of Spur, the beloved yearly ritual is more accurately described as an invasion.
A FEW YEARS BACK, Beverly and Bill Watson, both of whom graduated from high school in the tiny West Texas town of Spur in the mid-fifties, found themselves faced with an agonizing dilemma. Bill’s elderly mother, a lifelong Spur resident, had sold her home without telling anyone and moved into an assisted-living facility. At the time, the couple was living in Lubbock. “Honey,” Beverly said to Bill. “We’ve got a problem. We don’t have a place to stay anymore for homecoming.”
The loss of free lodging shouldn’t have been much of a hardship. Lubbock is just seventy miles away—not exactly a major trek. Instead of sleeping at Bill’s mother’s house, all they would need to do for future homecomings was get up in the morning, drive for an hour to Spur, be there for the day, drive home that night, and then do it again the next day. What kind of problem was that?
“Oh, no, you don’t understand,” Beverly told me. “We weren’t going to take the chance of missing any of the festivities due to us being in our car.”
So Beverly and Bill, who owned a business that built highway signs and barricades, plunked down $65,000 for a house in Spur, and then they spent another $65,000 fixing it up and furnishing it. All for a house they intended to stay in for just one weekend a year.
“Best investment we could have ever made,” said Beverly.
Every Texas high school, of course, has a homecoming. It typically consists of a ceremony during halftime of a Friday night football game in which one of the school’s most popular girls is crowned homecoming queen. And then there is homecoming in Spur, population 1,088. Held the last weekend of October, it begins on a Thursday night with a hamburger supper and continues nonstop until Sunday afternoon. Not only is there a football game and the crowning of the homecoming queen, there are two pep rallies, a bonfire, a homecoming assembly at the high school, various barbecue lunches and tailgate suppers for the entire town, two homecoming dances at the Exhibition Barn, a concert at the Palace Theatre, a Cowboy Prayer Breakfast, and a gigantic parade through the center of Spur featuring a couple dozen floats.
At least three hundred graduates of Spur High School who no longer live in Spur arrive each year for homecoming weekend. “They’re not just coming from neighboring towns,” said Liz Daughtry, a graduate of the class of 1947 who spent ten years as the executive secretary of the alumni association. “They fly in from California, from New Jersey, those kinds of states. They drive their RVs in from all over the country. Goodness gracious, it’s like an invasion.”
WHEN I HEADED SOUTH on Texas Highway 70 to attend this year’s homecoming, I thought I was on the road to nowhere. I saw one vehicle, a cattle truck. Toward the horizon, a couple of pump jacks were creaking back and forth. “There can’t be a town out here,” I thought. Then the road swung to the right, back to the left, went up a hill, and just like that, I was in the heart of Spur. I turned onto Burlington, the town’s main street, and I saw close to a hundred people mingling in the small city park. Cheerleaders were prancing around in front of a stage, and the high school band was playing “Barbara Ann.” It was early Thursday evening: The first pep rally was already under way. I got out of my car, and a seventy-year-old man named Joe Bell, class of 1953, came up to me and said, “You the texas monthly boy? Welcome to Spur. It’s a darned good day to be in Spur, Texas.”
Bell told me he had driven up from Odessa, where he works for a substance abuse clinic. “Thirty-fifth year in a row I’ve been here,” he said. “And when I can’t walk any longer, I’ll make someone wheel me over here.”
“But why?” I asked.
“You wait till the weekend’s over. You’ll know the answer.”
I checked into a bed-and-breakfast—the Back Door Inn, a gift shop that has a handful of bedrooms in the back of the building, all of them decorated with Old West knickknacks—and then drove over to the South Plains Electric Cooperative, where the class of 1955 was gathering in the banquet room to celebrate its fiftieth reunion. Women handed me slices of cake, plates of cookies, chips and dip. Every time I finished one thing, someone was handing me something else to try. “That’s another reason I wanted to buy a home here,” said Beverly Watson, who had made a Black Russian chocolate cake for the evening. “I didn’t want to be lugging so much food from Lubbock every day.”
After Bill’s retirement, he and Beverly decided to live full-time in Spur. Five others from the original 48-member class of 1955 have also moved back to Spur in the past few years. At another point during the weekend, I met 81-year-old Bill Carlisle, who had graduated from Spur High in 1940 and ended up in the nearby town of Post, which is not all that different from Spur, where he spent the next fifty years farming and ranching. “The day I retired,” he said, “I told my wife to get packed, because we’re going back to Spur. People from Post just about dropped their false teeth when they realized I was serious. But I said, ‘I was born in Spur and I’m going to die in Spur and that’s all there is to it.’”
SPUR WAS FOUNDED IN 1907, when the owners of the Spur Ranch began subdividing their land to sell to settlers. Two years later, stores were opening and a railroad train was stopping at the depot. By the forties, Spur had 110 businesses and more than three thousand residents. There were movie theaters, auto dealerships, grocery stores, mom-and-pop restaurants. During the fall, the high school football stadium was packed on Friday nights. On Saturdays, farmers and ranchers arrived from two counties away to buy dry goods, and on Sundays, all the churches were full.
Today, of course, Spur is like so many other rural West Texas communities, its economy sputtering and its population dwindling. Red’s Barber Shop, on Burlington, which, according to its sign in the front window, specialized in “flat tops” and “fades,” recently closed, as did the Dixie Dog, a little hamburger and hot dog restaurant that had been a teenage hangout since the fifties. “There is no hospital, no country club, no honky-tonk,” said Cindi Taylor, a 1979 Spur High graduate who now owns and edits the Texas Spur, the weekly newspaper. “About the only places where young people can find jobs now are at the phone company or at South Plains Electric. But those of us who are here refuse to let Spur die. I mean, we love the place.”
Although Spur High began holding an annual homecoming football game in 1952, the idea of a full-blown homecoming weekend didn’t get under way until 1970, right about the time the town’s fortunes were significantly fading. Lillian Grace Nay, a graduate of the class of 1939, sent a letter to every living ex-student whose address she could find, encouraging them to “come home for homecoming” and show their support for Spur. “She realized that people, especially those who had moved on to other cities and towns, still needed an opportunity to gather and reminisce about a way of life that, to be honest with you, doesn’t really exist anymore,” said Liz Daughtry.
The Spur Ex-Student Association has an impressive 5,300 members, about five times the actual size of the town itself. It is reportedly the largest ex-students’ association, per capita, in the country. The association has its own building on Burlington, which is filled with old school photos, letter jackets, and banners. On homecoming weekend, the building is constantly packed, filled with elderly Spur High graduates. (A good number of younger graduates show up for homecoming, but the majority of the attendees are retired.) The women wear pretty flowered blouses and pants. The men still wear their cowboy hats, but many of them have stopped wearing cowboy boots because, as one man told me, “It gets harder every day to lean over and pull those things on.”
Every time I walked into the building, I witnessed the time-honored ritual of old classmates’ flipping through their annuals from their senior years, pointing at pictures and telling stories. Two men, looking at a photo of the school’s most popular girl from the early fifties, whistled appreciatively. “Heard she died of multiple sclerosis a few years ago,” one said. “That’s right,” said the other man. “Lord, I used to follow her down the hall.”
Another group regaled me with story after story about their teenage antics in the fifties: racing tractors up and down Burlington, putting an outhouse on the school’s tennis court, feeding laxatives to a bull and then leading him late at night into the superintendent’s office. “One night I climbed up the steeple of the Methodist church and rang the bell as hard as I could, waking up everyone in town,” said Charles Sonnamaker, who retired from Texas A&M University.
“The law was right there waiting for him when he came down,” said his wife, Jean, who had been his high school sweetheart.
“What was the biggest town scandal?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” said Jerry Thomason, a resident of Las Vegas, Nevada, and a 1955 graduate who has been back to homecoming weekend at least 25 times. “What happens in Spur stays in Spur.”
THE DEVOTION TO SPUR is so strong that during the Friday afternoon pep rally—this one took place at the high school gym—there was a trivia contest about the town that lasted a staggering twenty minutes. Various ex-students were invited to step forward and answer such questions as “Who was Spur High School’s first homecoming queen?” and “Who was the coach during the war who also owned a Texaco station?” Joe Bell, the man who’d initially welcomed me to Spur, answered every question he was asked, including the question “What football team did the Spur Bulldogs beat in 1930 by the score of 186—0?” (Answer: the Lorenzo Hornets.)
I sat with him at the football game that night. Spur was playing the Jaybirds, from the town of Jayton, about 25 miles away. In 2001 the members of the Spur school board, realizing they no longer had enough boys to field a competitive eleven-man football team (there are only about seventy students at the high school each year), voted to join a six-man division composed of other small West Texas schools. “That was a pretty big blow for a lot of us,” said Bell. “It made us wonder if there were going to be enough young people around to keep the town going.”
At that moment, the high school band began playing the school song and we rose. Bell, his singing voice dry and crusty, belted out the words: “On our city’s western border/Raised against the sky/Proudly stands our old Spur High School/As the years roll by.”
He couldn’t finish the chorus (“Ever onward is our motto/Conquer and prevail/Hail to thee, our alma mater/Hail to thee, all hail”) because he got choked up. “My daddy came by wagon to Spur in 1912, then he ran Bell’s Café in the heart of town from 1919 to 1969,” Bell said. “He stayed open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Me and my four brothers and sisters worked there. We watched all the townspeople come in to have a cup of coffee and a piece of pie. We saw how hard they worked, how much they wanted to succeed. People in the big cities don’t have these kind of memories, memories of what a real community felt like.”
On this evening, Jayton was too strong for the Bulldogs, winning the game 55—21. Many in the crowd filed straight out of the ancient stadium, where the first football game had been played in 1935, and drove over to the Exhibition Barn for the first dance of the weekend. They drank beer that was iced down in coolers that they kept in the backs of their pickups, and they danced liked mad until one o’clock in the morning. Nine hours later, they were back at the high school for the homecoming assembly. The emcee asked everyone to “please stand and uncover [take off their cowboy hats] for the presentation of the colors.” Then there was a prayer, a long series of announcements, and the introduction of the new officers of the ex-students’ association, a few of whom were in their thirties. (Younger officers are always included, Liz Daughtry told me, in order to ensure that the homecoming tradition is passed on to the next generation.) The superintendent spoke. A woman sang a few songs. A woman from Seminole, who had married a Spur native, gave an impromptu speech about how she and her children loved going to the homecomings at Spur more than the homecomings in her own town. At the conclusion of the assembly, the school song was sung again. Once again, Joe Bell choked up.
SATURDAY AFTERNOON was the homecoming parade downtown. Members of various classes—class of 1950, class of 2012, class of 1952, class of 2007, and on and on and on—proceeded down Burlington, most of them standing in the backs of pickups or on flatbed trailers pulled by pickups. Almost everything was decorated with blue and gold papier-mâché. The members of the class of 1968 walked down the street, holding a large hand-painted sign that said they couldn’t afford a motorized float because of high gasoline prices. Other citizens rode by in old tractors, model T’s, and mule-driven wagons.
By then, it seemed every person in town had heard that a magazine reporter was there to write about Spur. Every few minutes, someone was sidling up to me to tell me another story. “Did you know Red McCombs [the San Antonio multimillionaire] grew up in Spur and named his basketball team [the San Antonio Spurs] after the town?” one man asked. Yes, I said, I’d heard that. (It’s only half true: McCombs is from Spur, but the team name was a result of a contest.) “Did you hear the story about the Spur backfield that once wore cowboy boots in a game against the Motley County Matadors?” someone else asked. No, I said, I did not know that.
As I headed over to the Back Door Inn to pack for my trip home to Dallas, I met a striking, white-haired woman named Zella McKinney, a member of the class of 1949 who now lives in Abilene. She asked me if I had done the drag through town. I got into her van, she turned on the ignition, and we drove to the south end of Burlington, turned around, drove back up the street to the parking lot of the football stadium, and then turned around and did it again. “It’s all I did on Friday nights and Saturdays, over and over, fifty-five years ago,” McKinney said softly, shaking her head. “This sounds funny, but every time I come back, I’ve got to do the drag at least once.”
She decided to show me one other place where the teenagers of her generation used to go—Thrill Hill, which was a small hill outside town that had a sudden sharp incline right at the top. “In our day, there was just a dirt road going to Thrill Hill, and we’d drive as fast as we could up the hill and feel our stomachs drop as we flew over it,” she said. “It was truly, truly exciting.”
Today, the hill has been graded, and the road is paved and far more level. Nevertheless, when we got there, McKinney pressed on the accelerator. I didn’t feel a single bump, but when I looked at her, her wrinkled face was flushed.
“Did you feel it?” she asked, giving me a grin. “Just for a moment, did you feel it?”
She stopped the van, turned it around, and went back over the hill again, and then she kept on going, straight back to Spur. “Sometimes it feels like nothing has changed,” she told me. “Sometimes it really feels like that.”