Vanishing Texas

Though faded and forlorn, these places are graced with the memories of another time. Photography by Harry De Zitter

The icehouses are all gone, the old domino halls are as scarce as traveling tent shows, and you need a search warrant to find a blacksmith shop or a one-room schoolhouse in modern Texas. A few of the institutional touchstones of my youth remain, but only if you take to the back roads. The all-male barbershop, the downtown “last picture show,” the one-clerk post office, the mom-and-pop grocery store or motel or café—most have been lost to chain stores, office buildings, shopping malls, interstate highways. The few remaining have the look of faded yesterdays or stand crumbling and ghostly among runaway growths.

In the old days such places provided more than goods and services. The were equally valued for their social role in hosting what were, in effect, informal town meetings. In a time before fast cars and good roads, forty-hour workweeks and leisure time, cordless telephones and television saucers, they relieved the isolation in the great expanse of rural Texas. Their main function these days is to stir old memories in graying heads and to bring the melancholy knowledge to the rest of us that places and values once so vital to the fabric of life in Texas do not count for much anymore.

Let us take a look at these vital old relics before they become as extinct as the dodo bird.

Gold-Painted Gods

My childhood theater was the palace in Cisco, where for 9 cents those under twelve years could enjoy each Saturday a feature movie—usually a cowboy shoot-’em up—plus a cartoon, a newsreel, a thrilling new chapter in heart-stopping action serials, and previews of coming attractions, which established new standards of hyperbole. Shopping parents used the movie house as a baby-sitter; a lucky kid might get to squirm through three screenings. No rational adult would have willingly been exposed to the popcorn fights, the knock-down wars for the best seats down front, the screams and hoots tracking the fortunes of the Good Guys and the Bad Guys. And no sane kiddie would have missed it. Parents chose to go on “Bank Nites,” when prizes of dishes or cash or war bonds were offered as box-office inducements.

In Midland the funky old Ritz on South Main—where “colored” patrons were directed to balcony seats—specialized in B films starring actors of widespread obscurity: horror flicks, cops and robbers, gung ho war movies. Teenage stags hoped to ease down next to a high school queen who had conveniently paid for her own ticket, then work up the courage to casually drape an arm across the back of her seat. If she didn’t move or slap you, there remained the exciting prospect of holding her sweaty, popcorn-salted hand.

First-run films always played the more expensive and elegant Yucca, with its intricate carvings of gold-painted Egyptian gods and its half-moon and stars twinkling from a blue ceiling of changing shades. The Yucca in 1944 was the scene of the potential ruination of Midland youth: Howard Hughes sent us his much-heralded film The Outlaw, starring the doubly talented Miss Jane Russell. Pinch-mouthed parsons and worried parents stood guard outside the box office at a special midnight preview, warning against Miss Russell’s corruptions. Despite the sidewalk vigilantes, The Outlaw played to a packed house. Town cops with eager flashlights patrolled the aisles to intimidate those whose carnal fevers might too rapidly rise. Though we teenagers howled and whistled when Miss Russell’s assets required it, we secretly though the parson-parent-police hysteria to be a much better show than the one on the screen.

Barter and Sody Pop

We didn’t call them mom-and-pop stores in that time before supermarkets, though, to be sure, they usually were family enterprises. Gattis Brothers and Morgan and Sons stood across the street from each other in the Eastland County—crossroads settlement of Scranton. Each had manual gasoline pumps, shaped like lollipops, out front to service Motel T or Model A Fords. Inside, a customer could buy everything from patent medicines to horse collars.

No packaging or plastic separated you from the food. Briny pickles and juicy apples were plucked from barrels, cheese was sliced from huge rounds, flour came in big, colorful sacks suitable for mother to sew into little-girl dresses. You fished your “sody pop” from the icy waters of a large cooler, then placed a nickel on the counter. Many candies could be had for a single penny; nothing in the candy case cost over a dime.

There were no rolling shopping carts; clerks fetched your goods by employing sliding ladders and long pincer-jawed poles. In a time before credit cards, the grocery store might be the only business in town where you ran a tab to be settled monthly. The grocer knew everyone in your family and probably knew their habits. He might be your kin.

I never saw the inside of on of Putnam’s two grocery stores: Family loyalty restricted our trade to my Uncle George Gaskins’ Cash-and-Carry Hocus Pocus Grocery. There, the notorious Candy Bandits of 1936 struck repeatedly. Cousin Kenneth would sneak into the back storeroom to create a diversion sure to send his one-armed father scurrying to the rear. As bagman, I scooped from the unguarded candy case all the jawbreakers, peanut patties, and chocolate bars a seven-year-old could carry. When we finally got caught, Kenneth bawled that he had nothing to do with the conspiracy and then led the Sunbeams kids at the First Baptist Church in loud and pious prayer for my rehabilitation.

Trade between grocer and customer often was reciprocal. Farmers brought in their surplus eggs, butter, fruits, peanuts, pecans, or other homegrown edibles and bartered for other products. Townsfolk often waited for Saturday to visit with farm friends or relatives coming from miles around. Many grocery stores had wood-burning stoves around which farmers gathered in midweek should rain or snow leave their fields too wet to plow. Good grocers provided dominoes or checkers to help their visitors while away the idle hours.

Spicy Tonics

Barbershops were totally masculine. To most mothers, they rated with pool halls and beer joints as threatening the innocence of

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