My first thought on hearing that my friend Carlton Carl had bought the sleepy Central Texas hamlet of Martindale was that the dog stole one of our best ideas. Turns out he did—and he’s welcome to it. Back in the seventies, we few founding fathers of Mad Dog Inc. tried several times to buy just such a town. We planned to rechristen it the Republic of Mad Dog, secede from Texas, write a constitution, and live happily ever after, details to be worked out on the fly. Predictably, each attempt was thwarted, possibly because nobody wanted to do business with an organization whose stated purpose was doing “indefinable services to mankind.” It wasn’t until I actually visited Martindale with Carlton on a blistering hot day last August, however, that I realized how close we’d come to making a dreadful mistake. Or how our long-dormant ambition had inspired his folly.
Driving east from San Marcos to Martindale on Texas Highway 80, Carlton told me that he began fantasizing about buying and restoring a failing town when he learned of Mad Dog’s unfortunate experience with Sisterdale. That was years ago, when he was still a political operative in Austin, working for the likes of Preston Smith, Price Daniel Jr., Bob Bullock, and Ann Richards (a charter member of Mad Dog). On weekends, Carlton and his friends used to pile in someone’s Volvo and meander around Central Texas, stopping at honky-tonks and barbecue joints, drinking beer and talking history with the locals. “I was troubled when they began building bypasses around towns like La Grange and Smithville,” he said as we turned off the main highway and onto a narrow road leading to the San Marcos River. “Nobody goes to La Grange anymore, and yet it’s a wonderful town, with a great courthouse and great cafes. Martindale was like that once.”
Though he moved to Washington, D.C., 23 years ago—working for U.S. congressman John Bryant, of Dallas, and serving as vice president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America—Carlton never scraped Texas off his boot heels. Looking for investment opportunities on the Internet in 2004, he discovered that Martindale’s historic and abandoned downtown was for sale; by selling a rental property that he owned in D.C., he was able to buy it (he wouldn’t tell me how much he paid, but according to the tax appraisal district, it was subsequently valued at $178,000). The purchase included six redbrick buildings on either side of Main Street, a corrugated-tin warehouse, sixteen silos, and three hundred feet of river frontage.
Martindale is not exactly a ghost town—its population is roughly 950—but it has been shuttered for years. The old downtown is a charming, decaying memory, a place where grass threatens to grow in the street and where deer ignore the occasional passing motorist to drink from the cool, clear waters of the San Marcos. It is so picture-perfect that movie companies have filmed there for years; you have to look closely to determine what is history and what is Hollywood fakery. It used to be the cotton and cottonseed capital of Central Texas, but it began declining after World War II and virtually died once the lone public school closed in the mid-sixties. Aside from the fines generated by an infamous speed trap, hardly any financial transactions take place there.
A sweep through town shows what once was. The water tower hovers over the original barnlike cotton gin with a huge sign proclaiming “The Largest Cotton Gin in the World for Breeding Seed Exclusively.” A few blocks away are the ruins of Harper Seed Company and the Merchant-Planters Bank. On the window of the old barbershop next door to Crook’s Store (relabeled “Walker’s Saddlery” by some set designer), a fake dinner menu advertises “beef stew 15 cents.” Embedded in the curb are real iron rings that were used to tie mules and horses. Most of the cotton was grown by sharecroppers, who enjoyed credit at Crook’s and all the other stores. At harvest time, they’d arrive at the gin in their mule-powered wagons to process and sell their product, then move on to Harper’s to sell the seed back to the growers, and then proceed to one of the general stores to pay their bills and buy supplies. Today, the only downtown structure that is occupied, air-conditioned, and not in need of restoration is the Municipal Building, which houses the police department, the city court, and the mayor’s office.
Standing inside the vacant hollows of Crook’s Store, I learn more of the history of the town from 85-year-old Martha Nell Holmes, the town’s first mayor (when it was incorporated in 1982) and the great-granddaughter of its founders, George and Nancy Martin Martindale, who came here from Mississippi before the Civil War. Martha Nell recalls that her uncle Hardy Crook sold everything from food to clothes. “Over by that window was a round rack of dresses,” she says. “The night our farmhouse burned—I was ten—he told me to pick out any dress I wanted. I picked a green one with lace and blue flowers. I loved that dress. I just wish I’d kept it.”
Martindale’s biggest problem is apathy, Martha Nell says. “It got so nobody wanted to run for office. We didn’t have much of a budget. I kept thinking someone would come along and restore these wonderful old buildings, but all they wanted to do was build facades for movies. Maybe Carlton is the answer to our prayers.”
Across the street, in a 10,000-square-foot building that once housed a bank and the Martindale Mercantile Company, I began to appreciate Carlton’s dilemma. This would make a great restaurant, he tells me. The loading dock, which extends almost to the river, would be a killer patio. So far, true to form, the only thing anyone has offered to build is a movie set. The place was used as a bank in Richard Linklater’s The Newton Boys, a bordello in Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World, and a