Executive Ranch

George W. has his spread, but is Crawford ready for the presidential treatment?

June 2000By Comments

Green acres: Bush’s property was once used to raise turkeys.
Illustration by Rick Sealock

As the presidential race enters its final five months, it’s reassuring to know that the residents of one little town eighteen miles west of Waco aren’t caught up in the drama that could change their corner of the world into something they never would have dreamed of a year ago: a dateline that reads “Crawford, the Texas White House.” In fact, on a recent Saturday at the Great Shapes beauty shop, the campaign of George W. Bush was far down the list of conversation—Topic E, at best—somewhere below the marriage of Randy Clemons and the progress of the girls’ track team. Until, that is, a magazine writer starts asking questions.

At that point, with just a hint of hesitation, the ladies offer their take on their newest neighbor, the governor of Texas, who purchased 1,600 acres from B. F. Englebrecht last summer and has begun construction on a home. “This is a quiet town,” says one lady as she sits under a bubble dryer. “People live here for the peace and quiet.” She’s not particularly excited about the prospect of satellite trucks clogging the road, but as far as she can tell, the Bushes are pretty nice people. “They’re here this weekend. We know because we saw all these cars driving in a caravan out on Prairie Chapel Road,” she says. She does not want to be identified, however, because she works for the city. What if some fool reporter quotes her saying something less than flattering—you know the press—and then he bumps into her at work? “That’d be just my luck,” she says. Nuh-uh. No, thank you.

“I think everyone’s waiting and seeing,” says Puff Dieterich, who co-owns the beauty shop. “There’s a rumor he’s going to have a big barbecue, but I’m waiting for my invitation. He hasn’t contacted any of us.” So, aside from dealing with the odd reporter from the Washington Post or the New York Times, the town has accepted George and Laura with little fanfare. A tourist can’t even buy a T-shirt—yet.

The betting money would have had the governor following in the footsteps of Lyndon Johnson, who tapped into the aura of the Texas rancher by buying a spread on the Pedernales River that came to be known as the Texas White House. Maybe, though, the Hill Country would have seemed too, well, Democrat. Instead Bush settled on a gorgeous expanse of land where the Hill Country meets the Blackland Prairie, with rolling plains and outcroppings of limestone rife with clear-running creeks. Of course, Crawford’s proximity to Fort Hood, which is a little more than an hour’s drive away, must have been a selling point for anyone who might happen to be the next president of the United States and need a place to land Air Force One.

Crawford is hardly the commercial center it was fifty years ago, when the town had four groceries, three cotton gins, a drugstore, an appliance store, a movie theater, a Chevy dealership, and a cleaning plant. Despite the two blocks of empty storefronts on Texas Highway 317, however, the population has been inching up to almost seven hundred residents, thanks to a surprisingly stable farm economy, plenty of work at the Franklin Industrial Minerals limestone plant, and a growing school district. “Our schools are getting bigger because people want their kids in a small district,” says Dieterich. In fact, the Crawford school district has earned the coveted “exemplary” status from the Texas Education Agency, which partly explains the growth of subdivisions like North Bosque Estates and more transfer applications from students in neighboring areas than can be accommodated.

As for the land itself, the Englebrecht family settled it more than a hundred years ago, raising turkeys and hogs before B. F. started raising cattle. Which begs a question some people have been asking: Did Bush buy a farm or a ranch? “I’d call it a ranch,” says Doug Andrews, the McLennan County extension agent, who admits that there’s no hard-and-fast rule in making that determination. He leans toward describing it as a ranch because B. F.’s son Kenneth will continue to run cattle on the land. (Which is probably better, since the last president to be known as a farmer was a one-termer. Of course, the last president from Texas who was known as a rancher didn’t fare so well either.) “Definitely a ranch,” says David Heymann, the Austin architect who is designing the Bushes’ new home. Heymann oversees construction of the residence, which he describes as “quiet and neutral, casual, extremely small, low-key, and absent of pretension, intended to blend in with nature.” What does that mean, exactly? Well, basically it’s a ranch-style house with wraparound porches and a dogtrot. Heymann has designed it with an east-west orientation so that it catches the breeze and lets the winter sun in while keeping the summer sun out. “It feels like you’re at the end of the world,” he says. Heymann’s design reveals a greener shade of Bush than his public image suggests, with a rainwater collection system and cistern, blackwater and graywater tanks for irrigation, and an air conditioning system that uses groundwater. “My projects are simple and direct, and they are sited with sensitivity in regard to the landscape,” Heymann says.

Despite a highly publicized prime-time interview with Barbara Walters at the ranch, the Bushes hope to maintain as much privacy as possible at the home. That desire sits perfectly well with the small-town nature of Crawford, which may lack a country club but does boast five churches—two Methodist, two Baptist, and one Lutheran—with three more congregations in outlying areas. “I’ve been told he’s a Methodist, but I haven’t seen him in church yet,” says Boo Lynch from under her bubble dryer. “We have a great pastor. He’s just a friendly, old-fashioned preacher.” One thing the ladies have mused about is what improvements might come to Crawford if Bush is elected. A new grocery is on the wish list. Eight years ago the S. Amsler and Company general store, which was founded in 1907, closed down, so residents must drive to McGregor, which is six miles south, or Waco for food. More jobs would be nice. So would new roads, or at least better ones. “The town needs the roads improved,” says Dieterich. “They all have potholes in ‘em.” Bush could also boost his environmental record by helping out at Tonkawa Falls, Crawford’s natural jewel and the town’s one-time community swimming hole that is now choked with weeds and strewn with litter. As the environment becomes a larger campaign issue, maybe Crawford’s new residents can initiate a cleanup to transform an eyesore into a civic point of pride again.

At least one family has already benefited from the move. Bobby Driver and his family moved there from Alice two years ago to run the Coffee Station, the town’s sole cafe. Driver, who describes Crawford as “Mayberry 2000, the kind of place where an auto accident on Third Street creates a lot of excitement,” says business picks up considerably when the Bushes are in town because of all the orders placed by the Secret Service. “Everyone tells us we should be selling Bush burgers,” says Driver’s daughter, Leah. Boo Lynch, who lives just down the road from the Bush place, figures that if enough tourists start showing up, she might start potting some of the prickly pear on her place to sell as souvenirs. She does have some advice, though, for any would-be visitors: “Don’t run over my goose and watch for stock on the road. And if there’s a big fat guy on a four-wheeler, don’t run him down either. He’s my husband.”

The most troubling rumor for residents so far is that if Bush becomes president, the Secret Service would prevent people from hunting on their land or firing their guns. Such a policy would create a delicious irony, since Bush has been an ardent defender of the right to bear arms. “There are several hypotheticals involved in that scenario,” says Jim Mackin, the spokesperson for the Secret Service, a nice way of saying he’s not about to touch that question with a ten-foot pole. “It’s impossible to answer, but I can assure local residents that they have nothing to be concerned about. We are able to provide a secure environment for all those we protect and still be as unobtrusive as possible. The chances of us inhibiting someone in his daily routine are highly unlikely. And keep in mind, we’ve taken several protectees hunting.”

So for the meantime, the citizens of Crawford can rest easy, and if the town’s newest residents do win in November, they will get as good as they give. “People from Crawford will leave him alone,” predicts Dieterich. “We’re not out to exploit him any more than he’s about to exploit us. He’s just a guy who bought some land and who wants his privacy. He’ll get that. Even if he does get to be president, I don’t even know that I’ll drive out there.”

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