Before Blackhawk helicopters circled overhead or Secret Service sharpshooters lurked in the switchgrass or Saudi princes breezed down Main Street, Crawford was an ordinary small town, its only landmark an old cottonwood tree that stood next to the blinking red stoplight. Cottonwoods rarely grow far from rivers or creeks, but this one had sprung, improbably, beside the cracked blacktop, in a ditch where rainwater pooled after storms. It was a stately, wide-limbed tree, used by locals for giving directions and approximating distances, as if it were the axis on which the town revolved. Ranchers used to trade cattle under its splayed branches, and children—now grandparents—had climbed up its furrowed trunk. The tree had endured hail, tornadoes, and months without rain, and lightning had spared it more than once, skittering past it down the telephone wires. But it could not endure the changes coming to Crawford. Early one morning in August, without warning or explanation, the tree was cut down and hauled away.
Anyone wondering why only had to look a few feet beyond the tree’s severed trunk to the Yellow Rose, the eighth gift shop to open on Main Street since Crawford’s most famous resident, George W. Bush, became the forty-third president of the United States. Before it was felled that day, the tree had obscured the view from the street of the Yellow Rose. Now the gaudy storefront—a scaled-down reproduction of the Alamo—dominates the center of Crawford. Kids rode their bikes down Main Street to stare at the spot where the tree had stood; one woman salvaged part of its trunk, which lay across the sidewalk, and carried it home. All afternoon the tree was discussed under the bubble dryers at the Great Shapes beauty shop, over cups of coffee at the Fina, and around city hall. The rumor around Crawford was that the Yellow Rose’s owner, an out-of-towner named Bill Johnson, had cut down the tree himself, although the truth was more complicated. The actual culprit was the Texas Department of Transportation; the tree had been not on Johnson’s property but on the state’s right-of-way. “I told them that the tree was theirs and if a branch so much as scratched this place, it was their problem,” Johnson told me. “I said, ‘You’re on notice. I spent a lot of money over here.’” Then he shrugged. “That thing was half-dead anyway.”
Crawford’s 705 citizens had been unfailingly polite as the slow rhythm of life was disrupted by a cavalcade of reporters, hucksters, protesters, curiosity-seekers, tourists, and Secret Service agents, but the reaction to the tree’s razing was swift and decisive. That night, someone—no one will say who—hurled a rock at the Yellow Rose, smashing its front window. Police chief Donnie Tidmore’s investigation has so far turned up no leads. “A few people came up to me afterward,” Tidmore recalled from his one-room station house on Main Street, with an expression of barely contained amusement. “They said, ‘Chief, I want you to know I didn’t break that window, but that’s only because someone beat me to it.’”
Crawford lies eighteen miles west of Waco, on a stretch of the Santa Fe railroad line that runs north along the Blackland Prairie. The town is little more than a wide place in