Little Town on the Prairie
Why do so many people trek to Albany (population: 2,000)? For starters, it has a serious art museum, an imposing courthouse, picturesque storefronts, historic ranches—and every June it lets its hair down with a Texas-size spectacular under the stars. Fandangle, anyone?
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For most travelers, the first hint that Albany might be a little different from other small towns in Texas is the Burma Shave-style signs just outside the city limits: “See Jane bop / Jack hunt and fish / Drive carefully / Stop wildlife squish / In Albany.” Drivers who proceed on to the tidy town square (and Albany’s single traffic light) can’t help but be impressed by the monumental Shackelford County courthouse, a bronze-toned limestone beauty that has stood sentinel over Albany for 120 years now, its four-acre lawn neatly trimmed and ringed by pecan and mesquite trees. A few turns around the business district heighten the sensation of having driven onto a Hollywood set. The picturesque storefronts don’t house cheapo dollar chains and video rental stores but a varied and upscale assemblage: a Texana-and-antiques shop, a chichi kitchen emporium, and a press—not an ironing service, you understand, but an independent book publisher, Bright Sky Press. And a sculpture garden only a couple of blocks away marks the location of the town’s pride and joy, a Real Art Museum, with holdings that range from pre-Columbian artifacts to Renoirs.
Some 35 miles northeast of Abilene, and well off the beaten highway, Albany is the largest of Shackelford County’s three towns: It has two thousand residents, give or take a few dozen. But it is so much more than a pretty little town. Besides the vaunted bucolic qualities that turn urban Texans misty-eyed—the easy pace, the friendly populace, the Dairy Queen filled with working folks—it also has a steadier economy and a more sophisticated mind-set than many cities ten or twenty or fifty times its size. Not surprisingly, it has been a ranching stronghold for more than a century; the town was on the trail to Dodge City, and its slogan since 1920 has been “Home of the Hereford,” because area ranchers were instrumental in popularizing the breed. The county is also known for quarter horses, oil, and hunting leases (“We all raise game and have a few cattle on the side,” says one cowboy). A nearby state park contains the ruins (haunted!) of Fort Griffin, an 1870’s-era Army post. And best of all, Albany has the fabled Fort Griffin Fandangle.
Held the last two weekends of June, Fandangle, which debuted in 1938, is the oldest outdoor theatrical performance in the state. A Texas-size production crammed with cowboys, cavalry, critters, cancan girls, and much more, the show spins out on a three-acre stone stage on the grounds of a historic ranch. But the pageant’s age and scope are not all that set it apart. Fandangle—a word coined to suggest Western-style liveliness and fun—is Albany’s love letter to local history, and never has a town so unilaterally embraced its past, checkered and otherwise. For example, the citizens take pride in the fact that, during the 1870’s, gunslingers such as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were once regulars at local saloons like the Bee Hive, as was the beautiful Lottie Deno, a renowned poker player. Amazingly, at no point in its 65 years has Fandangle been subjected to revisionism—at the hands of feuding historians, outraged descendants, agenda-driven Bible-thumpers, or anyone else. Why? Because Fandangle belongs to Albany; the whole town puts on the show. Families donate what they can, from six-figure sums to sixteen-hour days. Some three hundred Fandangle roles, from a cactus to an Indian chief, are played by Albany residents. Says one local: “You’ll hear an elderly person telling a little kid, ‘You’re the armadillo? All right! I was the armadillo!’” Johnnie and Debbe Hudman, both Albany natives, have helped with Fandangle all their lives. His main memory is being told, “Little Johnnie Hudman, quit horsin’ around!” She notes an important coming-of-age competition in the town: “When Albany girls are growing up, they all aspire to be cast as saloon girls. That is the ultimate. Those costumes!” The Hudmans’ children also acted in Fandangle; in fact, their daughter, Christine, went on to become a professional performer whose successes include playing Rizzo in the national road show of Grease. Other Albanyites sell tickets, print brochures, hang posters, sew costumes, handle lighting, and man concession stands.
Albany has changed relatively little since a high school English teacher wrote the musical 65 years ago. The scion of an old ranching family, Robert Nail was a graduate of Princeton University (where his mentor was Thornton Wilder) who came home after college and signed up to teach school. When the senior class of 1938 staged his original play, then called Dr. Shackelford’s Paradise, on the Albany Lions’ football field, the locals were so delighted that they requested a summer reprise and pitched in to make it a citywide production.
Nail also played a bit part in creating Albany’s highbrow gem, the Old Jail Art Center. In 1940 he bought the town’s former jail, built in 1877, to use as a writer’s studio. When he died, in 1968, he willed the stone building to his nephew, Reilly. Later, when the younger Nail and his cousin Bill Bomar needed a place to stash the extensive collections of Asian art they had inherited from their mothers, Reilly proposed turning the jailhouse into an art house. Subsequently, both he and Bomar donated many items from their own collections. In 1980 the museum opened to such acclaim that the board promptly planned an expansion. Today, after another one, it covers 14,000 square feet and boasts a permanent collection of more than 1,900 pieces, including works by Picasso, Matisse, Miró, Klee, Modigliani, and Toulouse-Lautrec. The Old Jail Art Center also serves as a meetinghouse and performance venue (making three in town: There are also two restored movie theaters, the Whitney and the Aztec). Most notably, it doesn’t settle for peaceful coexistence with the town’s fifteen churches but actively supports them. The First Christian Church recently completed, on land across the street from the museum, a replica of the flagstone prayer labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral. The museum is also dedicated to turning kids on to art. While most Texas school districts are facing the loss of their art teachers for budgetary reasons, for example, the museum’s staff and Albany educators have secured a private grant to ensure that next year students in the town’s high school will have a full-time art teacher for the first time.
ALTHOUGH ROBERT NAIL GETS CREDIT for writing the Fandangle script and several of its songs, he was inspired by another Albany writer who—outside of town, at least—is better known than he is. In 1936 Sallie Reynolds Matthews, a 75-year-old retired rancher and judge’s wife, published a charming little memoir called Interwoven. She intended it to be only a family history, but her crystalline recall made the book a treasure trove for historians: She remembered everything from gnaw marks left on the door of her childhood home by a wolf or panther to gossip about the capture and trials of Kiowa chiefs Satanta, Satank, and Big Tree in 1871. Interwoven made the sweet-faced great-grandmother a celebrity, and 67 years later the book is still in print. The title, which referred to the many intermarriages and longtime friendships between the Reynolds and Matthews families, is an excellent metaphor for Albany life in general.
Lambshead, the property owned by Sallie and her husband, John Alexander Matthews, has long been regionally famous. (Don’t let the name fool you; it’s a cattle ranch and was named after a nearby creek, which had been named for a local honcho with the Butterfield Stage in the late 1850’s.) Today the 43,000-acre ranch is only one of their descendants’ extensive land holdings. Its unofficial headquarters is the large separate kitchen, or cookshack, which feeds the ranch’s regular hands and whatever family and friends happen to show up hungry. Half a dozen rustic cabins ring an acre of dusty yard, in the middle of which sits Texas Gold, T. D. Kelsey’s large bronze sculpture of a cowboy working Longhorns (it’s about one-quarter scale; the full-size piece sits on Main Street in the Fort Worth Stockyards).
There’s clearly plenty of room at Lambshead, but for sixty years or so, the only family member who permanently resided there was the youngest of Sallie’s nine children, Watkins. Watt, as he was always called, was another of Albany’s Princeton graduates; a lifelong bachelor, he was, everyone agrees, married to the ranch. Along with his share of the land and cattle, Watt inherited his parents’ appreciation for history. At considerable expense, he restored many historical buildings on the ranch, including Sallie’s childhood home, a one-room schoolhouse, and a dirt-floored dugout. To help fund such endeavors, he diversified Lambshead’s business interests, introducing hunting leases, coordinating oil-marketing operations, and even allowing footage of the ranch to appear in Marlboro commercials. And although he kept the ranch’s main house and smaller cabins in good repair—and adorned them with the many mementos sent to him by old friends, such as original sketches by the Western artist H. D. Bugbee and Christmas prints mailed out by Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson—his own living quarters for some forty years was one corner of a no-frills bunkhouse.
In contrast to his spartan lifestyle, Watt Matthews donated lavishly to Albany doings. He gave dozens of his mother’s belongings to the Old Jail Art Center, enough to create the Sallie Reynolds Matthews Room, with its saddles, tools, rugs, and other pioneer relics, and he arranged for the Fandangle Association to lease part of the family’s land for a dollar a year for the Fandangle’s outdoor amphitheater. Recalls Debbe Hudman, “He gave me fifty dollars for my sixteenth birthday. Fifty dollars! I was in heaven.” He was also admired for his wit and his loyalty to his rugged home turf. As one friend remembers, “Watt Matthews used to say that bluebonnets only grew on sorry soil.” The Lambshead patriarch died in 1997 at the age of 98 and is buried in the ranch cemetery. On his tombstone is the simple epitaph “A Generous Man.”
Today Lambshead’s chief guardian is Ardon Judd, the youngest of the Matthews grandchildren, who lives in Albany with his wife, Rue. The rural area, where coyote-yowl serenades are commonplace, is a bit of a change from life in Washington, D.C., their home for 38 years. In the wake of Watt’s death, Ardon, a retired corporate lawyer for Dresser, Incorporated, has helped Lambshead make the transition from “a benevolent dictatorship to a democracy,” he says; a seven-member family board now runs the cattle operation and another group of seven oversees the ranch’s buildings and equipment. He jokes that he is also “vice president of whining” for Bright Sky Press, which Rue helped found in 2001. An experienced publisher who has produced books for Simon and Schuster, Random House, and others, she enjoys telling people that Bright Sky has a branch office in Washington. One of its 27 titles is Barbecue, Biscuits, and Beans: Chuck Wagon Cooking, by a Lambshead manager, Bill Cauble, and Cliff Teinert, a neighboring rancher.
Although Lambshead is famous, it is only one of Shackelford County’s many ranches, most of which have been in the same families for three or more generations. (“If you wanted to buy five hundred acres in Shackelford County,” points out a resident, “you couldn’t do it. There isn’t any land for sale.”) Because ranchers founded the town and still help run it, evocative terms like “feedlotting” and “working cattle” are still everyday expressions (and they produce a romantic frisson that “networking” and “pushing paper” can never hope to match). The Green Ranch, for instance, dates back to the 1880’s and looks much as it must have then except for a few modern touches—like power lines and bright-green signs that read “Drive Slow or Keep Out. Animals Have Right of Way.” On an April morning, owner Bob Green, who is pushing eighty, was working cattle with his great-nephew Henry Green. The younger man, a long, tall drink of water, was wearing dusty chaps and a black hat; his great-uncle is a Chill Wills type, silver-haired and likable. When they broke for lunch in the cookshack—chicken-fried steak with gravy, baked potatoes, and cherry pie, prepared by a smiling cook named Roberto Rodriguez—Bob Green proved that he deserves his reputation as the county’s one-man history book. He related the story of John Larn, a corrupt former sheriff who was shot to death by vigilantes in 1878, and the saga of nearby Camp Cooper, a military post on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River that was perfectly situated for being sneaked up on by Indians. After lunch Green retired from the table to his minuscule office six feet away, where a computer monitor was flashing cattle futures (“They’re up to $78.75,” he told a caller). He continued to expound knowledgeably on almost every aspect of Albany life over the past century and a half, then commented sadly, “I wish you could have met ‘em—Watt Matthews, Robert Nail. I wish any one of those great old-timers was still around. But they’re all gone now.” Not quite, Mr. Green.
TOURISM IS A MAJOR ALBANY business chiefly during Fandangle, in part because few local ranches are open to the general public. A classy, comfortable exception is Stasney’s Cook Ranch, where Johnnie and Debbe Hudman serve as wildlife manager and head of marketing and guest services, respectively. The ranch is graced with the same rocky, rolling, mesquite-and-cactus-strewn landscape as the rest of Shackelford County. But back in 1926, when it was just the plain ol’ Cook Ranch, the Cooks and their in-laws the Nails discovered that it had something extra that wasn’t immediately apparent: oil. Royalties from the Cook Field, which has produced more than 30 million barrels (so far), benefited not only the landowners and Albany in general but also Fort Worth, where the family established the Cook Children’s Hospital to commemorate a daughter who died giving birth.
The field is still producing, but in 1989 the Cook family sold the ranch—to another Albany clan, of course. Today the historic property is owned by the H. R. Stasney family and managed by native son C. Richard Stasney, now a Houston otolaryngologist whose clients include Luciano Pavarotti. Unable to visit as often as he’d like, Stasney decided eleven years ago to open the ranch to hunters, who fork over anywhere from $50 for a half-day dove shoot to $4,000 for a four-day trophy-buck hunt. Nature lovers are welcome too and are likely to spy the ranch’s herds of tame buffalo and elk as well as coyotes, feral hogs, and rattlesnakes. There are also wild turkeys, quail, roadrunners, red-tailed hawks, and many other birds (the Hudmans abandoned one deer blind after a pair of barn owls took up residence there). The ranch is on the Texas Forts Trail, and three stone cabins on the grounds are replicas of the officers’ quarters at Fort Griffin, Fort Concho, and Fort Mason. The main lodge is decorated in puredee Western style, with lots of leather, mounted animal heads, and antlers (or “reindeer faces,” as one New Jersey visitor dubbed them).
In town, there are several lodging possibilities (although it’s way too late to snag anything for the Fandangle weekends; overnighters had better plan on the short hop from Abilene). Most rooms are fairly basic, catering largely to the scratch-and-spit hunting trade, but the grande dame Ole Nail House, a 1914 Prairie-style bed-and-breakfast in the Nail family’s former manse, manages to be both frilly and funky, and it’s right on the square. The Hereford Motel, unremarkable on the inside, is worth checking out for its rooms’ funny faux fronts—bakery, barbershop, boardinghouse—which mimic those along an Old West main street. (They have fooled many a newcomer looking for a haircut or a lemon pie.) The Hereford is also conveniently close to Albany’s best eatery, the Fort Griffin General Merchandise Restaurant. Brothers Ali and Nariman Esfandiary have mastered the region’s preferred cuisine—steak, burgers, fried chicken—and also own the adjacent Bee Hive, a bar named after Lottie Deno’s hangout. It’s actually a private club, since Shackelford County is dry. (You knew this town was too good to be true, didn’t you? Not to worry—you can still enjoy your favorite libation by paying the $3 club fee.)
Between museumgoing and Fandangleing, pop into the courthouse; it’s almost as impressive inside as out. And by all means browse Albany’s nice block of shops, just northeast of the courthouse. Outdoorsmen and indoorsmen alike will enjoy the Blanton-Caldwell Trading Company, which owner Holly Bernard advertises as “Guy Heaven”; a hunting and fishing store, it purveys everything from beer koozies and crappie jigs to hurricane lanterns and horse shampoo. Next door is the Next Door Store, with candles, note cards, and such (not recommended for possessors of Y chromosomes), and down the block is KitchenWorks, a nifty little cookware shop that stocks, among other things, at least seven types of pepper mills and seven coffee-bean blends, including Fandangle Favorite. For quick refueling, drop into the high-ceilinged Weaver-Oates Pharmacy across the street, where you can get a chocolate malt or a vanilla Coke at the old-fashioned soda fountain. Finally, try to make time for a quick run out to Fort Griffin State Park, where you can admire part of the state’s Longhorn herd and investigate various ruins, some of which are said to be haunted by the ghosts of dead soldiers.
If you’re already booked up for June, consider visiting Albany on October 18 for Watt R. Matthews Cowboy Day, with all the attendant Western hoopla the name implies (plus team chicken-roping, reputedly the highlight of the event), or next spring for the annual Polo on the Prairie weekend; Tommy Lee Jones and George Strait are regulars. But there’s enough in Albany to make a visit enjoyable any day of the year—unless you don’t like art, architecture, books, shopping, food, history, or wildlife. And in that case, what in the fandangle is wrong with you?
If you go . . .
Fort Griffin Fandangle, June 19-21 and 26-28 at dusk; $5-$15; 325-762-3838; fortgriffinfandangle.org.
Old Jail Art Center, 325-762-2269. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10-5, Sunday 2-5.
Ole Nail House Inn Bed and Breakfast, 800-245-5163; doubles $70-$80.
Stasney’s Cook Ranch, 888-762-2999; doubles start at $125.
For more information, contact the Albany Chamber of Commerce, 325-762-2525; albanytexas.com.