Members of the Houston Grand Opera have been known to perform the National Anthem under the Friday night lights before Albany Lions football games.
The singers are guests of Charles Richard Stasney, part of the family that owns Stasney’s Cook Ranch, 24,000 acres north of Albany. In the old days, as legend has it, the ranch was known as “the sorriest piece of land in the county.” Until 1926, that is, when oil burst out of the ground at the rate of a thousand barrels a day. These days, Stasney’s spread is both a family retreat and a guest ranch offering hunting and fishing packages.
The Stasneys are just one of the many well-to-do ranching and oil families behind Albany’s prosperity. The Nails, the Matthewses, the Greens, and others—intertwined by marriage and friendship—have a long tradition of giving back. The Matthewses are actually the best known among them. Watt Matthews, who operated the family’s vast Lambshead Ranch until his death in 1997, at age 98, was one of the last of the great Texas cattlemen. He was a man who, except during his college years at Princeton, “virtually never left his home in the West, yet who seems to have missed little,” the best-selling historian David McCullough wrote in the introduction to Laura Wilson’s photo collection Watt Matthews of Lambshead.
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Matthews was also the director of the First National Bank of Albany and was invariably willing to invest in the future of the town, which is a half hour’s drive from Abilene. “You’d go to Watt first and see what he was willing to give,” said Jon Rex Jones, an 84-year-old Albany native who serves as chairman of the Houston-based energy company EnerVest. “And then you’d go to the oilies and see what they were willing to give, and then you were able to raise funds without a bond issue.”
Today, some of the newer ranching families are keeping the tradition of civic duty alive. As a result, the town is flourishing. Its town square is unlike many across the state; every last building surrounding Albany’s stately Shackelford County Courthouse is occupied by local shops and restaurants. There’s the Blanton Caldwell Kitchen Store; its cookware rivals anything found at Sur La Table. There’s also Blue Duck Winery, opened by retired high school football coach Adrian Allen and his wife, Sheila, a couple of years ago.
Visitors flock to Albany to enjoy one of the finest small-town museums in the country, the Old Jail Art Center—housed in, you guessed it, the town’s old stone jail. It boasts a Renoir, a Klee, two Picassos, and an admirable collection of ancient Chinese and pre-Columbian art.
The Mayberry ambience has begun to attract urban exiles of late, among them young families enticed by highly ranked public schools. The NFAs (“Not From Albany”) keep the local economy humming. But the town’s old money is its bedrock.
This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Texas Monthly. Subscribe today.