Vanishing Texas

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

November 1990By Comments

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 their sons, Youthful customers were instructed not to linger among the spittoons, bootblacks, and idlers, where raucous bursts of merriment conflicted with the grim business of making a living or the unsmiling purpose of our preachers.

My Uncle Claude’s barbershop in Putman was an exotic Istanbul of spicy tonics, racy stories, football bets, and individual shaving mugs often bearing the initials or cattle brands of local dandies. In that three-chair shop with its black-and-white checkerboard tile floor, I heard gossipy tidbits about local traffic in bootleg whiskey, backstairs romances, and tricky cattle traders. There I had my first philosophical thoughts that perhaps not all Putnamites were likely candidates for the heaven so tirelessly recommended by Brother Hollis in his interminable dronings at First Baptist each Sunday. Uncle Claude’s barbershop was Putnam’s political center, Uncle Claude having offered himself for county commissioner in nine consecutive elections. Not once was his idealism compromised by elusive victory.

My Uncle Vit owned a barbershop in Rotan. It was there that a young resident, freshly home from his first weeks at Hardin-Simmons College in Abilene, earned an unfortunate lifelong nickname. “Son,” he was asked, “you had any poontang over there at Hardin-Simmons?” The sophisticated college boy had the misfortune to answer, “Yeah, I’ve drunk a couple of bottles.”

Women of Letters

By custom and by their own choice, women did not enter male bastions like barbershops and domino parlors. They were more likely to frequent the post office; women seemed to write and receive more letters—and to value them more highly. Back then, when relatively few women worked, they gained relief from household drudgeries by gathering to visit while postal clerks sorted and boxed the mail. Women were better reporters and local historians than men were. Men told stories or joked or exchanged dull observations of commerce; women announced the latest births, deaths, travels, acquisitions.

As small towns grew into mini-cities in the post-war boom of the late forties and fifties, requests for mailboxes often outpaced availability. Patrons called for their mail at general-delivery windows, where new friends might be made during waits in long lines. The changes at the post office were among the first intrusions of the modern world into traditional rural life. As home-delivery service expanded, patrons had mixed emotions; it was more convenient, but it also deprived them of long-established social habits and cut an essential bond of the town.

Blue Plate Special

Everyone had a favorite café where the coffee, waitress, blue plate special, or house specialty—barbecue, Mexican food, steaks—was proclaimed “the best in town” or perhaps “the best in Texas.” An outsider might not immediately understand the brag.

I never comprehended, in Odessa in the fifties, why the courthouse gang swore by the Club Cafe’s grumpy cadre of aging waitresses, fierce black coffee, or leather-fried cheeseburgers. Close proximity to the courthouse? But how, then, to account for city detectives who drove two miles each morning to the Rig Caf, where the sausage was just as greasy, the toast just as butter-logged, the sunny-side eggs just as runny as those to be found elsewhere? These were opinions one learned to keep to oneself.

Funny thing: Regulars who defended their “special” greasy spoon to outsiders with the partisanship of hardball politics often affected dissatisfactions in bantering with the owner or waitresses. I heard a tall-haired waitress say to a Club Cafe regular who had ordered a midmorning beer, “You want some pie with that?” The customer made a great show of inspecting pies on display before drawling, “Naw, them pies been in that case so long, it’d be like eatin’ a old friend.” I stored that exchange and, 25 years later, took it to Broadway in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas; it became one of the surefire laugh lines.

I came to the belief that slavish loyalties to given cafes in small-town Texas were based less on superior food or service than on avoiding unwelcome surprises. Patrons found the same comforts associated with private clubs. Cares of the workplace or domestic strife could be forgotten in the camaraderie of a place where everyone from auto mechanics to bankers could be as one for the time it took to devour the blue plate special. There was familiar comfort, too, in knowing you could set your watch by the appearance of regulars for the midmorning and midafternoon coffee breaks.

Twinkle Toes and Two-Steps

I never saw a dance hall that wasn’t painted white. They had side-prop windows—hinged at the top and braced open with poles—to let in summer breezes or shut out winter’s cold. Picnic tables normally were grouped outside or ranged inside along the walls. Whole generations—grandmas to toddlers—might pile out of crowded cars and pickup trucks to tap toes to polkas, square dances, waltzes, the two-step cowboy stomp.

I confess a little personal experience in such wholesome dance halls. Mine was Danceland, located in Odessa among a sprawled string of oilfield supply houses, scabby beer joints, and easy-access motels during the fifties oil boom. The closest Danceland came to family matters was when policemen were called to adjudicate domestic disputes after an erring spouse was discovered in the wrong company. Country and western bands played on as the blood was mopped up.

Beer was the sanctified house drink before Texans were permitted to purchase “mixed drinks” outside of private clubs, though setups—ice and chasing soft drinks—accommodated liquor lovers so long as their bottles were decently clothed in brown paper bags. The law did not insist that hard liquor be so dressed, but local mores and protocol surely did. The drinker ill-mannered enough to flaunt a naked booze bottle was subject to eviction.

The Hot-Pillow Trade

Before the national chains made it difficult to tell one room—or town—from another, motels were wonderfully varied, if often down-at-heel. A few took exotic shapes—Dutch windmills, Indian tepees, Alamo replicas. In the thirties and forties many motels—or tourist courts, as we called them—were made of native Texas rock. Thick, massive, almost fortlike, they offered surprising relief from the Texas heat before air conditioning prevailed. Though long abandoned, those old rock structures stand sturdily along little-used highways to this day.

It was not easy to tell which motels catered to vacationing families or other legitimate transients and which welcomed the hot-pillow trade. The latter sometimes advertised their in-residence ladies by stationing a “bellhop,” usually a black man, in a cane-bottomed chair out front once darkness fell. If the unwary traveler did not know this code, however, he and his family might be treated to the sounds of all-night comings and goings.

Whether the trade was legitimate or illicit, the traveler might encounter lumpy or sagging beds, cold-water baths, suspect towels, no food facilities, or food better left untouched. Decent folks were expected to be early-to-bed, so travelers began hunting accommodations before sundown. Past nine o’clock, motel operators often turned out their lights and remained stubbornly impervious to frantic ringings by desperate parents seeking room at the inn.

Avoid the Bathroom

Fillin’ stations fixed flats, patched inner tubes, provided free compressed air for a kid’s bicycle tires. You didn’t have to beg attendants to check your oil, battery water, tire pressure or to clean your windshield; such automatic services came with the franchise. Most in-house mechanics were of the shadetree variety, however: nearer to paramedics, say, than to brain surgeons. Should you need major repairs, an expert might be required from a distant city; replacement parts, shipped by Greyhound, could take longer than the pony express.

You could buy do-it-yourself tire repair kits, retreads, hand pumps, fiery dried-beef snacks requiring strong jaws, nickel packs of salted peanuts, stale cheese crackers, headache powders, digestive aids, bottled sodas of many brands and hues. You could risk your pocket change against any number of punchboards. Anyone with the slightest tendency to fastidiousness did well to avoid the bathrooms except in dire emergencies.

Teenagers and good ol’ boys like to hang out at the fillin’ station. They closely inspected travelers and sometimes cut antics at their expense. One never wanted to depend on such layabouts for directions: Simply asking them tempted their mischievous qualities beyond control.

The Hardscrabble Life

Ranch houses were homes and workplaces of people who had little time for frivolities. Bogus “cowboy lore” too often paints the false picture of hard-drinking, fistfighting, bronc-busting, womanizing Huds who, when not involved in grand adventures, perhaps spent their days listening to the Sons of the Pioneers sing under a growth of cottonwood trees.

In truth, much cowboy work was—and is—bone hard, deadly boring, and discouragingly repetitious. Mending fences, kicking salt blocks out of truck beds, shoeing horses, working the cranks, handles, pulleys, chains, and gates of squeeze chutes against panicky critters who wish to be neither branded, castrated, vaccinated, nor dehorned—well, pardners, these and a hundred other exertions cause the lights to go out early in the bunkhouse and the libido to hunker down, whimpering, in the old corral. When I see a ranch house, I think of hard work and loneliness.

In truly isolated cattle country, some ranchers during holidays hosted the occasional barbecues or dances attracting distant neighbors. These celebrations might feature groaning tables, string bands, laughter and stories, the whoops of excited kiddies. Out back the menfolk passed around a bottle of two, and young hotbloods might infrequently square off for fisticuffs. But ranch life has always been more hardscrabble—and less nonsensical—than that depicted in Giant or the incomparably foolish Dallas.

Saints and Sinners

In my youth there seemed to be as many varieties of country churches as ice cream flavors; sometimes it seemed that my family insisted on sampling them all. The more hard-core fundamentalists talked in tongues, writhed at the Mourner’s Bench, cried or shouted or trembled. It may have been good theater, but I did not enjoy such shows as a child. They brought hell too close and made the devil too personal.

I much preferred the more sedate Methodist approach—even though sermons of sweet reason, combined with summer’s lassitude and Sunday’s torpor, might tempt a young back-row saint to nod off for a forbidden nap. What I truly enjoyed was the social element: frolicking with other boys, so long as our decibel level did not disturb God on His day of rest or cause a rip in our pants; semiflirting with little girls in their starched Sunday best; families exchanging visits for Sunday dinners and staying together until evening services. Country wives brought covered dishes to communal feasts, and old hymns stirred the air in making “a joyful noise until the Lord.” Good fellowship prevailed and the devil couldn’t prevent it. And the God who watched over us was the paternal New Testament God, not the angry God of the Old Book, who left tiny sinners sleepless in their dark and terrible beds.

“Tell ‘Er I Ain’t Here”

Some places called themselves taverns, affecting to be high class, perhaps bespeaking darts instead of shuffleboard or conversation instead of jukeboxes crying of cheatin’ hearts and whiskey widows. Personally, I preferred plain old “beer joins.” The kind where you bonded with friends who were also regular customers, although the possibility of a good fight skated on the fringe. The kind where, when the phone rang, a half-dozen revelers sang out, “Tell ‘er I ain’t here,” and there was always the prospect of going home with a stranger who wore blood-red nail polish and a swollen blouse. Of all the old country institutions, the beer joint remains the most prevalent and the most likely to last.

I’ll drink to that.

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