Back in late February, I headed out to Cisco in search of the Wilks brothers, or, at least, the place that gave rise to them. Depending on how deeply you’ve immersed yourself in the current hysteria over the race for the GOP presidential nomination, you either know or don’t know about Farris and Dan, who, along with their wives, contributed a record-breaking $15 million to Ted Cruz’s campaign.
As has been true of so many rich Texans, the Wilks brothers were typical good ol’ boys until their well came in. They made a decent living as masons, and in 2002 they started an oil-field-services company, Frac Tech, that thrived during the boom. The brothers sold out, fortuitously, to a Singapore concern for $3.5 billion in 2011, which landed them comfortably on Forbes’s famous rich list. That fortune also allowed the Wilkses to become players in real estate nationwide; they now happen to be, for instance, the largest landowners in Montana. Simultaneously, they have made their way into the world of politics: “We support [Cruz] because he believes in the morality of the free market, in keeping our country safe, and in the right of the unborn not to be killed in their mother’s womb” was the way Farris explained his backing of the senator in an email to Reuters. That kind of statement inspired one publication to call the brothers “The Fracking Sugar Daddies for the Far Right.” Maybe it isn’t so surprising, then, that I am still waiting for Farris to respond to my email queries.
The national press has also made quite a to-do of the fact that the brothers supposedly started life in a former goat shed and that their father, Voy, founded a church called the Assembly of Yahweh in nearby Rising Star, which is about 55 miles southeast of Abilene. The church promoted a strict if confusing mixture of Judaism and Christianity. Today, the place looks like one of the most well-funded institutions in Eastland County—it could be mistaken for an elite boarding school—with a main building fashioned from stolid native stone, a jogging path, playgrounds, and verdant playing fields. Farris now preaches from the pulpit: one of his frequently quoted sermons asserts that homosexuality is “a perversion tantamount to bestiality, pedophilia, and incest” as well as “a predatorial lifestyle” that needs “your children and straight people having kids to fulfill their sexual habits.” Climate change gets a thumbs-down too: “If [God] wants the polar caps to remain in place, then he will leave them there,” Farris has declared. It’s probably safe to say that the church and its followers are not exactly in the mainstream, or in what used to be the mainstream, of religious practice.
For all of these reasons, the Wilks brothers are what reporters tend to think of as good material, because their ideas—okay, their often nutty ideas—can be used as examples of the kinds of (often nutty) people who support Cruz. Likewise, a visit to Cisco might be used for the same purpose: to reaffirm a lot of notions about small, dying West Texas towns and the kind of people who remain in them.
Superficially, that argument can seem over before it begins. You’d be hard-pressed, for instance, to make the case that Cisco is booming, despite the downtown banners that proclaim “Cisco, a great place to be!” Located on I-20, it’s got a population of just under four thousand people; the median family income is $36,000, and 23 percent live below the poverty line. The town is 90 percent white. Cisco’s greatest claims to fame long ago faded into the past: Conrad Hilton purchased his first hotel here in 1919, and the infamous 1927 Santa Claus bank robbery happened here, in which one of the bad actors dressed as Santa so he wouldn’t be recognized by townspeople.
The center of town looks a lot like the center of many other struggling small Texas towns: storefronts that welcomed customers to prosperous businesses back in the twenties and thirties now house antiques stores featuring goods from that time. The handful of streets leading out of town contain a few nice Victorian and Prairie-style houses. On a spring afternoon, a cool breeze hinted at a bitter winter earlier in the year, while the dusty, scrubby hills suggested long, very hot summers. (Not coincidentally, Cisco also sported, from the twenties through the seventies, the world’s largest concrete swimming pool.)
Of course, there are a lot of churches—somewhere around thirty—to support the deeply religious population. I’m not sure that you’d see a young chamber of commerce employee with “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” emblazoned on her sweatshirt in Houston, or even Dallas. And yet, this year the modern world had no trouble finding its way to the town’s door, and vice versa.
Maybe that’s why I was a little cranky by the time I got to town. It was a week or so before Super Tuesday, and the hostilities were raging between Donald Trump, Cruz, and Marco Rubio. The candidates’ behavior, even before all that talk of penis size, was of the never-before-seen-or-heard variety; the only useful purpose that could be ascribed to Trump’s antics was that they obscured the extremism of his competitors. Despite Cruz’s preference for, say, carpet bombing civilians in his determination to put ISIS out of business, he was favored to win Texas, but as Trump began to surge, the big guns like Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick came out to assure the potentially restive that Cruz best represented the pro-gun/anti-abortion/anti-immigrant/anti-government/anti-Obama ideology that real Texans believe in.
This steady blast of divisiveness was making me feel, more and more, that the Texas I grew up in was disappearing, eclipsed by forces that made no sense to me. There has always been a titanic struggle here, but it seemed to me that the natural optimism that so often held us all together was fading fast, replaced by a profound negativity directed not just toward newcomers and new ideas but toward the future itself. Despite the stereotypes, and no small evidence to the contrary, I’ve always chosen to look on the bright side, to believe that openness was what made Texas a wonderful place in which to live. And let live.
It was in that darkened mood that I wandered into a bustling Waverly’s Coffee Shop. A clerk in a convenience store had recommended it enthusiastically after I’d found that my go-to road restaurant of choice, Denny’s, was closed. (How’s that for conservative?)
I don’t really know how to describe Waverly’s except to say that it possessed a near-perfect blend of Texas’s rural past and urban present. Long ago the downtown building had been a bank, but in 2012 it was turned into a coffee shop–general store combo, a long, narrow, tin-ceilinged room where the vault was now a pantry and a person could buy not only ammo and hog lights but also journals and cappuccino. There were educational toys and books on Christianity by Malcolm Muggeridge and C. S. Lewis. Customers had settled themselves in a small row of tables and, except for big-city me, were talking with one another instead of staring into screens. At one point, a thirtyish woman with sparkly eyes and long dark hair came out from behind the counter and started a board game with a restless boy of about ten. (“And then are we going shooting?” he’d begged his father after getting briefed on the plans to visit Grandma.)
I studied the blackboard menu. Offerings included a variety of breakfast tacos, along with vegan smoothies, baked goods, chicken salad, brisket, and a sandwich referred to as “grilled cheese perfection.” I ordered a cup of sweet-potato soup, downed the fresh, soothing concoction of veggies, and promptly ordered a second one. At about that time, I heard a loud thump from outside the front door.
An older woman who had just been placidly sipping her coffee had stumbled on her way out the door and was sprawled on the pavement. What followed was the kind of small-town scene that has become something of a cliché—the dark-haired woman, a co-owner of Waverly’s named Kasity, rushed outside to help and, clutching her cell phone, put in a call to the customer’s best friend. A crowd gathered to comfort her until the friend got there and then offered their good wishes while helping load the injured woman into the car.
Just after that, a tall, eager young man with a hint of sadness in his eyes came in and introduced himself to me as Sean Grose, Kasity’s husband and co-owner. Sean had a manner that was both fervent and kind, a little reminiscent of people who lived in hippie communes in the sixties. He insisted on making me his famous blueberry cobbler waffles, which came topped with a scoop of Blue Bell ice cream on a plate that looked like the Texas flag.
My guess is that by now a lot of readers are rolling their eyes, but I wasn’t tempted at the time. Maybe because I soon learned that the couple’s happiness wasn’t due to dropping out of the larger world: purposeful, deeply religious, and well educated—both had trained to be teachers—they had lived in Austin for a time but eventually resettled in Cisco because of family ties to the area. Those grew stronger after the loss of their second daughter, Waverly, just a month or so shy of her birth. Anyone who has had a stillborn baby and held that child for just a few moments before letting go forever knows that the future can turn very, very dark if you allow it to.
Instead, the Groses changed their lives. The coffee shop came into being largely because Sean felt he was spending too much time away from his family—Kasity and their six-year-old daughter, Ilya. “None of us are promised another day,” he said several times, the hard lesson learned from his daughter’s death. But I also sensed that both Kasity and Sean, who had pursued graduate studies in the Bible and ministry, were secret activists and that it was no accident that Waverly’s soon became the kind of welcoming place that townspeople and those just passing through couldn’t resist. It doesn’t try to save the world, but it is a place that leads by example, a welcoming spot in a state, not to mention a country, polarized by politics, ideology, and class divisions. “The coffee shop is a place of neutral ground,” he told me, opting not to identify his own political leanings. “Millionaires sit down here with lawn-maintenance men to solve the problems of the world. You don’t sacrifice relationships with people in your community for political ideology.” Yes, even Farris Wilks has been in, though Sean had no idea who he was at the time.
Heading home I got lost trying to navigate the tangle of Metroplex freeways in the dark. Within days, I was back to my old routine and, like most people, consumed again by the Cruz-Trump war of mutual destruction. Still, at odd moments I’d remember the blueberry cobbler waffles and feel grateful for my time in Cisco. I was happy to have spent a few hours in a Texas I remembered.