Little Town on the Prairie

Why do so many people trek to Albany (population: 2,000)? For starters, it has a serious art museum, an imposing courthouse, picturesque storefronts, historic ranches—and every June it lets its hair down with a Texas-size spectacular under the stars. Fandangle, anyone?

For most travelers, the first hint that Albany might be a little different from other small towns in Texas is the Burma Shave-style signs just outside the city limits: “See Jane bop / Jack hunt and fish / Drive carefully / Stop wildlife squish / In Albany.” Drivers who proceed on to the tidy town square (and Albany’s single traffic light) can’t help but be impressed by the monumental Shackelford County courthouse, a bronze-toned limestone beauty that has stood sentinel over Albany for 120 years now, its four-acre lawn neatly trimmed and ringed by pecan and mesquite trees. A few turns around the business district heighten the sensation of having driven onto a Hollywood set. The picturesque storefronts don’t house cheapo dollar chains and video rental stores but a varied and upscale assemblage: a Texana-and-antiques shop, a chichi kitchen emporium, and a press—not an ironing service, you understand, but an independent book publisher, Bright Sky Press. And a sculpture garden only a couple of blocks away marks the location of the town’s pride and joy, a Real Art Museum, with holdings that range from pre-Columbian artifacts to Renoirs.

Some 35 miles northeast of Abilene, and well off the beaten highway, Albany is the largest of Shackelford County’s three towns: It has two thousand residents, give or take a few dozen. But it is so much more than a pretty little town. Besides the vaunted bucolic qualities that turn urban Texans misty-eyed—the easy pace, the friendly populace, the Dairy Queen filled with working folks—it also has a steadier economy and a more sophisticated mind-set than many cities ten or twenty or fifty times its size. Not surprisingly, it has been a ranching stronghold for more than a century; the town was on the trail to Dodge City, and its slogan since 1920 has been “Home of the Hereford,” because area ranchers were instrumental in popularizing the breed. The county is also known for quarter horses, oil, and hunting leases (“We all raise game and have a few cattle on the side,” says one cowboy). A nearby state park contains the ruins (haunted!) of Fort Griffin, an 1870’s-era Army post. And best of all, Albany has the fabled Fort Griffin Fandangle.

Held the last two weekends of June, Fandangle, which debuted in 1938, is the oldest outdoor theatrical performance in the state. A Texas-size production crammed with cowboys, cavalry, critters, cancan girls, and much more, the show spins out on a three-acre stone stage on the grounds of a historic ranch. But the pageant’s age and scope are not all that set it apart. Fandangle—a word coined to suggest Western-style liveliness and fun—is Albany’s love letter to local history, and never has a town so unilaterally embraced its past, checkered and otherwise. For example, the citizens take pride in the fact that, during the 1870’s, gunslingers such as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were once regulars at local saloons like the Bee Hive, as was the beautiful Lottie Deno, a renowned poker player. Amazingly, at no point in its 65 years has Fandangle been subjected to revisionism—at the hands of feuding historians, outraged descendants, agenda-driven Bible-thumpers, or anyone else. Why? Because Fandangle belongs to Albany; the whole town puts on the show. Families donate what they can, from six-figure sums to sixteen-hour days. Some three hundred Fandangle roles, from a cactus to an Indian chief, are played by Albany residents. Says one local: “You’ll hear an elderly person telling a little kid, ‘ You’re the armadillo? All right! I was the armadillo!’” Johnnie and Debbe Hudman, both Albany natives, have helped with Fandangle all their lives. His main memory is being told, “Little Johnnie Hudman, quit horsin’ around!” She notes an important coming-of-age competition in the town: “When Albany girls are growing up, they all aspire to be cast as saloon girls. That is the ultimate. Those costumes!” The Hudmans’ children also acted in Fandangle; in fact, their daughter, Christine, went on to become a professional performer whose successes include playing Rizzo in the national road show of Grease. Other Albanyites sell tickets, print brochures, hang posters, sew costumes, handle lighting, and man concession stands.

Albany has changed relatively little since a high school English teacher wrote the musical 65 years ago. The scion of an old ranching family, Robert Nail was a graduate of Princeton University (where his mentor was Thornton Wilder) who came home after college and signed up to teach school. When the senior class of 1938 staged his original play, then called Dr. Shackelford’s Paradise , on the Albany Lions’ football field, the locals were so delighted that they requested a summer reprise and pitched in to make it a citywide production.

Nail also played a bit part in creating Albany’s highbrow gem, the Old Jail Art Center. In 1940 he bought the town’s former jail, built in 1877, to use as a writer’s studio. When he died, in 1968, he willed the stone building to his nephew, Reilly. Later, when the younger Nail and his cousin Bill Bomar needed a place to stash the extensive collections of Asian art they had inherited from their mothers, Reilly proposed turning the jailhouse into an art house. Subsequently, both he and Bomar donated many items from their own collections. In 1980 the museum opened to such acclaim that the board promptly planned an expansion. Today, after another one, it covers 14,000 square feet and boasts a permanent collection of more than 1,900 pieces, including works by Picasso, Matisse, Miró, Klee, Modigliani, and Toulouse-Lautrec. The Old Jail Art Center also serves as a meetinghouse and performance venue (making three in town: There are also two restored movie theaters, the Whitney and the Aztec). Most notably, it doesn’t settle for peaceful coexistence with the town’s fifteen churches but actively supports them. The First Christian Church recently completed, on land across the street from the museum, a replica of the flagstone prayer labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral. The museum is

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