Everything Matters

Everything Matters
Zim's Bottling of Strawn

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Dodson Prairie Dances Tie Old Country to new

Dodson Prairie Dances
Tie Old Country to New

            There’s a scene in the movie “Titanic” about the fabled luxury ship’s fateful date with destiny. The elderly woman in the film tells the story of her own voyage that tragic night. She looks off across the waves many decades later, visions of a luxurious whirling ballroom filled with dancing couples coming brightly back into view inside her memory, inside her words. She makes us see it too. We are transported.
I met with 95-years-young Lenora Teichman Boyd last week. I like it when someone I’m interviewing says, “I can only tell you what happened up until the 1940s.”

I’m wanting to learn about the monthly Dodson Prairie dances, held about six miles west of Palo Pinto, the town. They started just after 1910. Lenora is home from the hospital, from rehab after back surgery to relieve constant pain. She’s sitting in a recliner, enjoying the unseasonably warm December day. I pull up a chair.
            “They had the dances right out there.” She’s pointing out the window south and a little east behind this house. The closest public building that direction is in Strawn or maybe Mingus many miles away. But Lenora sees the old dance hall just outside, about fifty yards away. She starts talking, teaching. She makes me see it too.

Dodson Prairie really was in 1900 – a prairie, I mean. There might be an occasional small stand of oaks out there, she told me. Mostly one saw grass, as high as a horse’s belly. The flat prairie is today covered in cedar and mesquite, flat earth loping west until the ground erupts skyward into mountains, cleaved in two by Metcalf Gap. Lenora told me that those early farmers would burn their fields back each year, to invite fresh grass in the spring. The Comanche did the same, during their turn on this land.
Dodson Prairie was and is a German settlement. Folks worked hard, mostly farming, raising stock. Lenora’s Teichmann Family arrived in 1900 from the Schulenberg-Weimar area (before that, from Germany in 1868, landing at Galveston). They’ve been hard at it in Palo Pinto County ever since.
            Once a month area families gave a dance, a get together. There was a public wagon road when this all got started, leading in from the west. That road is gone, though Teichmann Road remains. Lenora keeps talking.

It’s a black dark Saturday night on the Texas prairie. Coal oil lamps paint pale orange light onto the dusty ground outside Dutch Hall’s double doors. Saddled horses and mules are tied outside. The creak of wagons pulled by teams approach from the west, puncturing the stark silence of this bone cold December. Kids hop out and meet their friends, promise moms they’ll stay close, then run off to play. “There was a bed in one corner of the hall,” Lenora told me, “where babies could sleep.”
Dutch Hall was a tall community building made of overlapping frame lumber. It might’ve been 30 by 50 feet, though lonely brown foundation stones and a few wooden pilings are all that remain. Dutch Hall was used for dances, lodge meetings, and other community get-togethers. Night school for adults happened here. People came from all over for those Dodson Prairie dances – from Thurber, Mingus, Gordon, Palo Pinto, even the country across the Gap west toward Caddo.
We start to hear painfully brittle sounds inside the wood-heated hall – trumpets, sousaphones, a bass drum, and fiddle strings all looking inside the growing cacophony for a key they can all agree on. Finally, the band starts playing and the silent prairie comes to life with the joyous dancing, stomping and hand-clapping of hard-working farm families, taking a break from their tough frontier.
Cap Foreman yells loud across the heads of couples circling the floor. A square dance is called, couples circle up, his loud voice centers all:

Meet your partner and meet her with a smile,
Once and a half, and go hog wild.
Treat ‘em all alike,
 if it takes all night.

Married couples and still-shopping young singles answer his call, with doe-see-does, and promenade rights. That morning’s broken plow and the calf that ran away fade in importance to these farmers and their wives.

Lenora’s father C. A. “Charlie” Teichmann led the Dodson Prairie Band. He taught friends and relatives to play brass instruments, and in one case a drum. At midnight, the wooden dance floor is cleared and large tables are spread deep with fine native foods prepared by the Prairie’s Germanic mothers and maidens. Families gather into Community here, from the oldest great grandmothers to the youngest newborns, rock fences built to keep in cattle, not to keep people out.
Dodson Prairie families were in many cases only one generation removed from their European homelands. The Herman Riebe family came here along with Joseph and Carl Teichmann, then the Ankenbauers, Bergers, Beyers, Dreitners, Holubs, Kainer, Kaspers, Nowaks, Popps, Schlinders, Telchiks, Thiels, and others.
 One time “wild cowboys” interrupted the dance’s fun after one too many snort from the bottle. Poor planning on their part became apparent as lawmen were in attendance. The offenders were congratulated, then handcuffed to oak trees outside until morning. As the years progressed, fiddles, guitars and banjos replaced the brass-centric nature of Teichmann’s original Dodson Prairie Band.
I asked Lenora about moonshine, knowing it flowed liberally (I’m sorry, “freely”) to the south of here. “There was no moonshine,” she tells me, and I believe her. “Well, there might have been wine,” she finally admitted, these being upstanding Germans after all. I’d been told elsewhere that no one partook inside. During breaks men might wander outside for some light inebriation, I mean conversation. Many of these German families had their own small vineyards at home, home grown mixed with wild grapes from Lake Creek thickets down the hill. Do the math.
When the dances were over late on star-speckled nights, Lenora’s family would walk through the dark about a quarter mile to their home. Lenora remembers being carried. She couldn’t have been more than three. Lenora remembers.

            “Was downtown Dodson Prairie right here back then?”
            “No, it was spread out. St. Boniface was to our south. The first schoolhouse to the south of that, then the new schoolhouse was built north of the church. Over toward Highway 180 there was a cotton gin, west side of the road. Past that fell the store, the post office inside. The Poseidon post office. And a filling station. The county farm (poor farm) on the east, but that came later.”
            The Teichman Family (the second “N” dropped through the years) came from Austria and Germany to Galveston, then to central Texas. They must’ve scored down there, because they bought two full sections of land when they reached this prairie. They paid between $2.50 and $4 an acre.
            “Why did they buy here?” I asked.
            “Because it was for sale,” Lenora answers.
It might have been because the black soil at Dodson Prairie mirrors that found where the Teichmans farmed down south, her son Charlie later tells me. Clearing these wide fields of rock, they built stacked, drift rock fences by hand. The two fences I saw to the southeast were two to three feet thick. A vintage photo shows another farther east rising in height above a horse’s head.
            Dances moved to the “new” schoolhouse around 1950s. They occurred off and on there until four or five years ago. The bands finally got too expensive.
            When Lenora was born in 1915 Woodrow Wilson was president. The Ranger oil boom was still two years in the future. Dodson Prairie was a thriving, peopled settlement.
            Back to that German factor I mentioned earlier. Son Charlie and his friend Ann kindly loaded me in their pickup to show me around the Prairie. I’d made a quick tour before, not finding a lot. I wasn’t looking close enough.
            Though their early houses were mere box houses (no internal framing), both original Teichman brother’s homes are still standing. From around 1900. One is being lived in, standing in proud testimony to the hard labor and attention to quality that these men and women nailed into place. The old school house, the new school, several thick rock walls, the church, and several county poor farm buildings are all standing. Those Germans built straight and true, though their local population continues to wane.
            Teichmann and Schoolhouse Roads are two of the few roads in this area one can still travel down and read many of the same family names that settled that land 100 years ago. This too, is changing. If you stand respectfully in a quiet spot out Dodson Prairie way, I have to believe the old dance is still being held. Couples twirl, long lost love still beating hard and true. Invisible dance floors and midnight dance callers invite the distant past into the prayed-for future. If you stand quietly. If you believe.

            Special thanks to Lenora Teichman Boyd, Charlie Boyd, Ann Mixon and Gloria Holub. Jeff may be reached at jdclark3312@aol.com.

SUGGESTED CAPTIONS

PHOTO ONE. The original Dodson Prairie Band members standing in front of Dutch Hall, circa. 1910.


PHOTO TWO. One of the two Dodson Prairie Homes of the Teichmann brothers. This home was built in 1900, and is still lived in today.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Visiting Grant Town Grandparents,
The 1930s Road from Seguin to Mingus

(This story was written by Louis Scopel, recalling childhood trips to Grant Town. Grant Town was a “suburb” of Thurber, located just to the west, northwest. Many structures remain.)

“Travel from Seguin to Mingus was a trip attempted usually not more than twice a year for reasons mentioned below. The distance was 245 miles on primarily on US 281, usually a highway in good condition. The trip usually took from five to eight hours depending on stops etc. Most of our trips were in a 1936 Plymouth 4 door. US 281, was wide enough for two cars and was pretty mundane on most occasions. Plenty wide as you seldom met another vehicle every thirty minutes, or at least, so it seemed. Once we left New Braunfels, the next stop light was in Stephenville. The 1936 Plymouth diligently purred along with an under dash radio keeping dad aware of the latest baseball scores. 

We normally left when dad closed down the poultry processing plant for the weekend and he took a quick bath – he smelled better then. By then Mom had items packed and ready to go. Mom knew how long these trips were as she packed plenty of provisions! There was the thermos of coffee but containers of cookies, several cakes for Gi Gi and John Franks. And there would be another bag of fruit and sandwiches. She seemed to believe we might get stranded somewhere sometime. Anyway we would soon be purring along after leaving civilization in New Braunfels or so it seemed with our head lights piercing the darkness. In later years I compared them to two candles! 

When traveling in colder weather our heating system worked great—three of us in the front seat with a blanket amply dusted with crumbs, tucked across our laps. On one trip, as we approached Marble Falls, our headlights started getting dimmer. When we arrived in Marble Falls we located a lonely street light and dad opened the hood – immediate diagnosis was a loose generator belt but that did not seem to be the problem. A quick consensus convinced us to continue on to Burnet as it seemed larger and the county seat.

So we continued and as luck would have it, there was a Texaco station open, and the young man was accommodating enough. Yes, they did have a part time mechanic but he had went home for the week end, however, with a bit of prodding he agreed to come in and look at the Plymouth’s charging system. We agreed this was better than on the side of the highway – we had food and a rest room. After arriving, the mechanic determined it was the generator but questioned where do you locate one at this time of the night on a weekend? Amazingly our mechanic located one, left and came back with it under his arm. In short order the generator was ‘ginning’ again and the lights were comparable to two candles once more.

Our trusty Plymouth would usually rattle across the cattle guard in Grant Town between 10 and midnight waking everyone and announcing our arrival – and time to eat and catch up on news.  If my aunt Pauline was there, there would be dishes and bowls of fudge and divinity etc.
{When Thurber shut down many people moved out to Grant Town. "My mother and grandparents came to Thurber from Italy to work in the coal mines,” Scopel said. “When they shut down, my mother's folks moved to Grant Town and my dad's, along with many others, moved to Manvel south of Houston.”}

            Noted historian Leo Bielinski has written about Grant Town, and shares:

“Jimmy Grant opened a saloon just outside the city limits of the Texas & Pacific Coal and Oil Company-owned Thurber. His saloon was frequented by miners who could talk freely about unionization without fear of company intimidation. Some immigrant Thurber miners moved out of Thurber to Grant Town to own homes and small businesses. The area became known as Grant's Town, shortened to Grant Town.”
"Today it is part of Mingus, but the locals still refer to it as Grant Town. During Prohibition, there was bootlegging in Grant Town, and after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, several honky tonks opened up.”
"Johnny Biondini, Louis Scopel's uncle, summed up the family's move from Thurber to Grant Town after the coal mines shut down in Thurber: 'In Thurber we had all the modern conveniences like running water, gas heat and electricity. But when we moved to Grant Town, just a quarter mile away, we had to adjust to coal oil lamps, well water and wood stoves. There are just a few left who lived in Grant Town before WWII."
“Thurber had a barbed wire fence around it to keep Thurberites buying in the company store. Jimmy Grant's saloon was just outside this fence. The immigrant Italians made up a fourth of Thurber's population, but the company store did not stock the different salamis, cheeses, olive oils etc. (which the Italians wanted). So in addition to Grant's saloon, there were several Italians who set up small combination grocery store/saloons in Grant's Town, just outside of the barbed wire fence to cater to the Italians on Thurber's nearby Italian Hill: Sealfi, Ronchetti, Mezzano, Corona, Castaldo and Raffaele [and others].”
"There were several prominent bootleggers in Grant Town during the Prohibition era. Not just Italians, but all nationalities were involved in bootlegging. When the mines began shutting down in the 1920s, bootlegging was a way of surviving and had none of the Chicago style gangsterism. There was little stigma if you bootlegged. The nearby Ranger Oil Boom was profitable for the bootleggers."

          

Hand laid stone oven in the mountain side...Stephens County


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Weatherford, Texas Black School


Black Mount Pleasant School Forges 
Two Communities Into One




Race riots may be coming to Weatherford. That was the talk around town. Images of angry police dogs, fire hoses and bloodied protestors across the Deep South paraded across Parker County TV sets in the early 1960s. Some feared a repeat performance here.

When Weatherford schools opened that first 1963 day of integration, all was quiet. The reasons are both simple, and complex.

Our mystery begins in church. Two years after the Civil War ended, blacks organized the Prince Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal Church on Oak Street. This oldest “still in business” church in Weatherford was named after the Rev. A. Bartlett “Bart” Prince, its first elder (as is Prince Street, near the first black public school). The church’s building went up in 1871, and was modified in 1912.

The “CME” sign in front meant “Colored Methodist Episcopal” until the 1960s, when it changed to Christian Methodist Church. It’s believed to be the second oldest CME church in the nation. There’s no Texas Historical Marker here. Within this pioneer church’s walls, black students received their first education, until the county built them a schoolhouse. Smythe’s 1877 “Historical Sketch of Parker County” lists thirty-seven county schools that year, each tied to a geographic “community”, save one: School No. 33 – The Weatherford Colored School.


Seymour Simpkins taught thirty-nine “colored” students. Prince Memorial pillars Willis Pickard, Rev. Henry Johnson and Rev. Prince served as trustees. The “Colored School” gets mentioned in the newspaper off and on down through the years. In 1887, land just south of West Oak and west of Prince was purchased for $200, its schoolhouse built in 1917.

 A brick school house replaced that structure in 1927. Today that forgotten brick schoolhouse stands proudly among the weeds. The September 8, 1933 Weatherford Democrat lists five ward schools that year, plus the “Colored School”. Tillie Woods was principal and Ella Varnel was the teacher.


The “Colored School” taught Cub Young, who pitched against Satchell Paige in the Negro Baseball League. Weatherford’s Negro League team played where Weatherford High School is now.

Within this pioneer church’s walls, black students received their first education, until the county built them a schoolhouse. Smythe’s 1877 “Historical Sketch of Parker County” lists thirty-seven county schools that year, each tied to a geographic “community”, save one: School No. 33 – The Weatherford Colored School. Seymour Simpkins taught thirty-nine “colored” students. Prince Memorial pillars Willis Pickard, Rev. Henry Johnson and Rev. Prince served as trustees.
The “Colored School” gets mentioned in the newspaper off and on down through the years. In 1887, land just south of West Oak and west of Prince was purchased for $200, its schoolhouse built in 1917. A brick school house replaced that structure in 1927. Today that forgotten brick schoolhouse stands proudly among the weeds.
The September 8, 1933 Weatherford Democrat lists five ward schools that year, plus the “Colored School”. Tillie Woods was principal and Ella Varnel was the teacher. The “Colored School” taught Cub Young, who pitched against Satchell Paige in the Negro Baseball League. Weatherford’s Negro League team played where Weatherford High School is now.
Leonard Smith entered first grade at Mount Pleasant in 1939, three years after it was renamed the Mount Pleasant School. The school’s two classrooms taught nine grades then.
Most black students walked to Mount Pleasant from four Weatherford neighborhoods – The Flat (First Monday Trade Day Grounds area), The Hill (West Oak Street area), Sand Town (near Akard & Sloan) and The Neck (near Cherry Park).
Black and white kids played baseball together, had rock fights, and cut up like children still do. Raymond George and some of his white friends walked to school together in the late 1940s. When they reached the Stanley School, the white boys went inside. Raymond kept walking.
“That’s just the way it was,” he said.
Mount Pleasant was a two room school, several grades in each classroom. Florine Roddy taught in the southern room, when Raymond was a student. The northern classroom was Lucille Rucker’s. Outside sat two outhouses and a water well whose pipe led over a trough. “One kid pumped while another drank,” Raymond told me.
Raymond remembers there being about fifty students, though that number swelled when migratory families came to town with the railroad or picking cotton. Raymond’s teachers (1946-1953) included Ella Varnell, Lucille Rucker and Mrs. Roddy.
“Lucille Rucker built the foundation beneath those black kids’ sense of respect,” Raymond said, “respect for others and for themselves.” Not only was she a good teacher, she was highly regarded by whites and blacks alike. Rucker made the boys play out back and the girls play out front during recess. “She taught us to treat the girls like ladies. Because of her, my generation of students stayed married, kept one job our whole lives, and successfully retired from those same jobs.” Still, when Mount Pleasant closed, Mrs. Rucker was forced to do odd jobs to survive. “She wasn’t taken care of,” he reflected sadly.
Wilson Hall was added to the northwest edge of the Mount Pleasant campus around 1944. Named after Superintendent Leonard B. Wilson, it was a barracks-like building used for classes and assemblies, with a stage on its west side.
Mount Pleasant sits high atop the western skyline of Weatherford, looking down on the Courthouse to its east. Below its majestic perch, blight stares back from where working black families once raised families. “Wood-burning stoves sat in the corners of each classroom,” Charlie Simmons told me, “replaced by gas heaters.” Flue holes still puncture the school’s two chimneys.
Each large classroom had wood floors and large windows along two walls. One can see daylight looking up through fourteen foot ceilings to the sky. “These classrooms were filled with little desks,” Charlie told me. “There were kids everywhere.”
“Every morning all the kids would walk out here, to the flag pole,” he said. “Say their Pledge of Allegiance and sing a patriotic song.” The flag pole base remains. He showed me where the swings were, the slide, the concrete front porch to Wilson Hall. “We had more fun than you can shake a stick at.”
The schoolhouse road entered from Prince Street, rising up the hill then circling the school. The old schoolhouse sits on private property, contiguous to Love Street Park on its west.
This was a time of separate white and black drinking fountains in our city. Blacks couldn’t enter white restaurants (unless they worked there) or attend most theaters. Blacks could buy Texas Theater tickets, as long as they sat in the balcony. Raymond remembers walking through the Texas Café to the kitchen out back as a little boy, wanting to spin the bar stools around. He couldn’t since the place was whites only.
Weatherford had black churches, a black tabernacle, and a two-story black Masonic Lodge on Fort Worth Highway, east of the courthouse. There were few black businesses.
If black students aspired to go to high school, they were on their own. Raymond and Leonard went to Fort Worth’s I. M. Terrell High School. Most of these kids didn’t have bikes, much less cars to make the thirty-one mile journey each way.
Raymond’s dad John Lorenzo “J. L.” George stepped up between 1953 – 1963. He left his upholstery shop twice a day to drive black students to Cowtown in his Ford station wagon at his own expense. Local businessmen later chipped in to buy gas. When J. L’s car got too crowded, a bus was finally supplied. J. L. spent five hours a day toting school kids, losing this time at his store.
Mitchell Rucker was another pillar of the black community here, born in 1899. “He was respected by the white community,” Raymond told me, “but held at a distance.” In the white community, Rucker was employed at the M & F Bank as a janitor. In the black community, he was superintendent at Prince Memorial for over fifty years, taught classes to Senior Citizens for the WPA in 1944, taught soldiers at Camp Wolters and was a board member at Texas College in Tyler for forty years. Rucker was one of the main conduits between Weatherford’s white and black communities.
“Pappa Ike” Simmons was another black leader. He attended school at Prince Memorial, before Mount Pleasant was built. “Pappa Ike was more of a politician – he knew everybody, running that mouth 100 miles an hour,” Charlie told me. Ike and brother “Uncle Charlie Simmons” each raised families off shining shoes at the Palace or Texas theaters and at barber shops.
Many prominent white families had black nannies, butlers, and groundskeepers. There was a parallel but unseen black society here, one from which trusted black men like Rucker, Pappa Ike and J. L. George could communicate informally with the white establishment.
Equally important, several white leaders reached out to the black community – Jack Borden, Borden Seaberry, the Cotton Family, and James and Dorothy Doss, among a few others. Respected whites and blacks interacted, albeit at a distance. Though not treated equally by any means, attacking one group would’ve meant attacking their own.
Mary Kemp remembers when the integration meetings took place in the third floor study hall of the old Weatherford High School. “It was a great time for all, very peaceful. I remember thinking, ‘This is a great historical time.”
Charlie Simmons was one of the first black students at Weatherford High School in 1963. He did well, as hundreds of other black students had before, riding atop the shoulders of Mount Pleasant’s teachers and black leaders. “It was a simple transition,” he said. “Nothing happened.”
This would be another “happily ever after” Weatherford story, save one omission. Unlike so much of this great town’s heritage, the Mount Pleasant School hasn’t been added to the roll call of hallowed historic touchstone sites in our town.
Raymond George tried to ignite a movement to get Mount Pleasant a historical marker some years back, maybe have the site turned into a museum or park. The Mount Pleasant School site and several surrounding acres can be accessed from the city’s Love Street Park and four city streets. The old school’s roof stopped turning back the rain many years ago. This historic place is not long for the world.
The Mount Pleasant School marks a chapter in Weatherford’s history where two communities became one. Unlike much of the South, this town pulled it off peacefully and with respect. As I put my camera back in its case, I noticed graffiti on the wall of Miss Rucker’s last classroom:
“Hold on to the ones you love,
cuz you never know when you’ll lose them.”




Leonard Smith entered first grade at Mount Pleasant in 1939, three years after it was renamed the Mount Pleasant School. The school’s two classrooms taught nine grades then. Most black students walked to Mount Pleasant from four Weatherford neighborhoods – The Flat (First Monday Trade Day Grounds area), The Hill (West Oak Street area), Sand Town (near Akard & Sloan) and The Neck (near Cherry Park).


Black and white kids played baseball together, had rock fights, and cut up like children still do. Raymond George and some of his white friends walked to school together in the late 1940s. When they reached the Stanley School, the white boys went inside. Raymond kept walking. “That’s just the way it was,” he said.

Mount Pleasant was a two room school, several grades in each classroom. Florine Roddy taught in the southern room, when Raymond was a student. The northern classroom was Lucille Rucker’s. Outside sat two outhouses and a water well whose pipe led over a trough.

“One kid pumped while another drank,” Raymond told me. Raymond remembers there being about fifty students, though that number swelled when migratory families came to town with the railroad or picking cotton. Raymond’s teachers (1946-1953) included Ella Varnell, Lucille Rucker and Mrs. Roddy. “Lucille Rucker built the foundation beneath those black kids’ sense of respect,” Raymond said, “respect for others and for themselves.” Not only was she a good teacher, she was highly regarded by whites and blacks alike. Rucker made the boys play out back and the girls play out front during recess. “She taught us to treat the girls like ladies. Because of her, my generation of students stayed married, kept one job our whole lives, and successfully retired from those same jobs.”

Still, when Mount Pleasant closed, Mrs. Rucker was forced to do odd jobs to survive. “She wasn’t taken care of,” he reflected sadly.

Wilson Hall was added to the northwest edge of the Mount Pleasant campus around 1944. Named after Superintendent Leonard B. Wilson, it was a barracks-like building used for classes and assemblies, with a stage on its west side.

Mount Pleasant sits high atop the western skyline of Weatherford, looking down on the Courthouse to its east. Below its majestic perch, blight stares back from where working black families once raised families.

“Wood-burning stoves sat in the corners of each classroom,” Charlie Simmons told me, “replaced by gas heaters.” Flue holes still puncture the school’s two chimneys. Each large classroom had wood floors and large windows along two walls. One can see daylight looking up through fourteen foot ceilings to the sky.

“These classrooms were filled with little desks,” Charlie told me. “There were kids everywhere.” “Every morning all the kids would walk out here, to the flag pole,” he said. “Say their Pledge of Allegiance and sing a patriotic song.” The flag pole base remains. He showed me where the swings were, the slide, the concrete front porch to Wilson Hall. “We had more fun than you can shake a stick at.”

The schoolhouse road entered from Prince Street, rising up the hill then circling the school. The old schoolhouse sits on private property, contiguous to Love Street Park on its west. This was a time of separate white and black drinking fountains in our city. Blacks couldn’t enter white restaurants (unless they worked there) or attend most theaters. Blacks could buy Texas Theater tickets, as long as they sat in the balcony.

Raymond remembers walking through the Texas Café to the kitchen out back as a little boy, wanting to spin the bar stools around. He couldn’t since the place was whites only.

Weatherford had black churches, a black tabernacle, and a two-story black Masonic Lodge on Fort Worth Highway, east of the courthouse. There were few black businesses. If black students aspired to go to high school, they were on their own.

Raymond and Leonard went to Fort Worth’s I. M. Terrell High School. Most of these kids didn’t have bikes, much less cars to make the thirty-one mile journey each way. Raymond’s dad John Lorenzo “J. L.” George stepped up between 1953 – 1963. He left his upholstery shop twice a day to drive black students to Cowtown in his Ford station wagon at his own expense. Local businessmen later chipped in to buy gas.

When J. L’s car got too crowded, a bus was finally supplied. J. L. spent five hours a day toting school kids, losing this time at his store.


Mitchell Rucker was another pillar of the black community here, born in 1899. “He was respected by the white community,” Raymond told me, “but held at a distance.” In the white community, Rucker was employed at the M & F Bank as a janitor. In the black community, he was superintendent at Prince Memorial for over fifty years, taught classes to Senior Citizens for the WPA in 1944, taught soldiers at Camp Wolters and was a board member at Texas College in Tyler for forty years. Rucker was one of the main conduits between Weatherford’s white and black communities.

“Pappa Ike” Simmons was another black leader. He attended school at Prince Memorial, before Mount Pleasant was built. “Pappa Ike was more of a politician – he knew everybody, running that mouth 100 miles an hour,” Charlie told me. Ike and brother “Uncle Charlie Simmons” each raised families off shining shoes at the Palace or Texas theaters and at barber shops. Many prominent white families had black nannies, butlers, and groundskeepers.

There was a parallel but unseen black society here, one from which trusted black men like Rucker, Pappa Ike and J. L. George could communicate informally with the white establishment. Equally important, several white leaders reached out to the black community – Jack Borden, Borden Seaberry, the Cotton Family, and James and Dorothy Doss, among a few others. Respected whites and blacks interacted, albeit at a distance. Though not treated equally by any means, attacking one group would’ve meant attacking their own.


Mary Kemp remembers when the integration meetings took place in the third floor study hall of the old Weatherford High School. “It was a great time for all, very peaceful. I remember thinking, ‘This is a great historical time.”

Charlie Simmons was one of the first black students at Weatherford High School in 1963. He did well, as hundreds of other black students had before, riding atop the shoulders of Mount Pleasant’s teachers and black leaders. “It was a simple transition,” he said. “Nothing happened.”

This would be another “happily ever after” Weatherford story, save one omission. Unlike so much of this great town’s heritage, the Mount Pleasant School hasn’t been added to the roll call of hallowed historic touchstone sites in our town.

Raymond George tried to ignite a movement to get Mount Pleasant a historical marker some years back, maybe have the site turned into a museum or park. The Mount Pleasant School site and several surrounding acres can be accessed from the city’s Love Street Park and four city streets. The old school’s roof stopped turning back the rain many years ago. This historic place is not long for the world.

The Mount Pleasant School marks a chapter in Weatherford’s history where two communities became one. Unlike much of the South, this town pulled it off peacefully and with respect. As I put my camera back in its case, I noticed graffiti on the wall of Miss Rucker’s last classroom: “Hold on to the ones you love, cuz you never know when you’ll lose them.”

County Poor Farm, A Little Girl in the Woods

County Poor Farm
A Little Girl in the Woods

By Jeff Clark

We may lose everything.

There's a depression heading our way. That's what the newspapers tell us. The economic kind. Here in Weatherford. Nibbling around the edges of our little town - taking its first taste.

Millions of everywhere-but-here folks have lost their jobs already. Swept away by the same tidal wave. Whose shadow we don't yet see. Most in this nation, in this town, live three paychecks from the abyss. It will frost my britches, if my parents were right.



A family doesn't need nice cars, a big house. You don't OWN anything. You can't DO anything. Why, your father and I made do with so much less. We didn't have to worry about tomorrow. We didn't have to.

Then a little girl calls out to me. "I survived," she whispers. "So must you."

That young girl's childhood, remembered by her through a prism of almost eighty years, haunts me this day. She was my storyteller. I didn't see it at the time. I visited her home expecting a Great Depression story of hardship and woe. That cup was handed back to me, overflowing. But in the midst of today's woe, her small farm girl's smiling stories keep bubbling to my surface. In the swirl of terrible suffering, humiliation, of death, there had been joy. I pull out my notes from our visit. I listen to her words.

Parker County Commissioners bought land for the County Poor Farm in 1883. It operated until about 1946. The county still owns the site, about three miles south of town. A few of its buildings, along with its lonely pauper cemetery still wait out there.
Individuals and families deemed insolvent were "sentenced" to live there, many decades ago. When neither family nor neighbors would take them in. Many were old. Were infirm.


Pride still governed our society back then. These folks weren't happy to be out there. They weren't looking for a free ride. Weatherford resident Nila Bielss Seale remembers those times as a girl. Remembers those people. Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Alvin Bielss were the Poor Farm's caretakers. Hired by the county from the late 1920s through the early 1930s.

"It was like a big home," she said. "All the people there were like aunts and uncles. My mother and dad took care of them. They were doctor, nurse, and psychologist".

The Poor Farm consisted of two 160 acre tracts of land. The superintendent and his family had a home out there. The house still stands, barely. There was a barracks-like dormitory across the road from the family's house. Each Poor Farm resident had a room off its center hallway. The dormitory had a large porch across the front where the residents would often gather.

The Poor Farm's large barn, smaller outbuildings, and a water trough inscribed by Nila's daddy in 1923 also still remain. There's also a shack of a house off by itself, being eaten alive by a tree, shared back then by a blind man and the farm's Delco electrical system.


Joe C. Moore was one of the early Parker County Commissioners. He reflected on the court's thinking in starting the poor farm, in a Weatherford Weekly Herald story September 21, 1911: "Editor: I desire to answer some of your questions as to why the county poor farm was purchased, how used and what revenue it produced. About 1881, soon after A. J. Hunter was elected county judge, B.C. Tarkinton, Joe C. Moore, Frank Barnett and W. A. Massey were commissioners. After an investigation, this court found that other counties had farms that were a source of good revenue, a large savings to the taxpayers, and a good thing in general."

Moore says there were then thirty-eight people on the county indigent list who were each receiving $3 - $10 monthly. Parker County spent about $3,000 annually on its poor, back then. So the county bought this 320 acres, he said.

"George Abbott and wife were employed to superintend the farm with instructions to feed and clothe well all inmates of the farm, and to give each of the inmates a task according to their fittedness or ability."

The farm was free and clear of debt after only three years. The commissioners additionally used jail inmates to work at the farm. They received credit against their sentences.


All thirty-eight paupers under the county's financial support were then notified of the day and time to assemble, to be taken to the Poor Farm. Steaming Nazi locomotives pulling wooden-slatted cattle cars pop into my imagination as I write this. Though that's probably not fair. I'm sure some thought, in Parker County back then, these people must've brought it on themselves. They had it coming.

Apparently only about half showed up, Mr. Moore tells us, "showing that the county had been paying out money to those who had other means of support." No such testing goes on today. Far as I know.

The Poor Farm usually had between fourteen and twenty people living there at any one time. Those that were able worked in the fields, gathered eggs, raised hogs and cattle, milked or helped cook and clean back at the dormitory.

Aunt Mary, one of the residents there, was a cook while the Bielss Family lived there. The woman showed kindness to young Nila. "Aunt Mary made the best tea cakes," she remembered. Once Nila's pet goat Billy, who followed Nila everywhere, somehow got into Aunt Mary's room when the little girl was visiting. Though Billy created quite a mess, Aunt Mary, known for her organization and cleanliness, acted like nothing had happened. 

Aunt Mary grew tired in her later years and decided she was not going to help out around the farm any longer. Her back was bothering her, she said. She could no longer get around, she told some others. One afternoon, Nila's dad came up to the dormitory's porch, where Aunt Mary was still feigning illness. He let a harmless snake loose that promptly sought Aunt Mary out. Terrified of snakes, she leapt from her chair and took off, promptly cured of her affliction.



"We were almost totally self-sufficient," Nila said. "The people there were very busy people. My mother and dad alternated each month in buying groceries. Mother would get mad if the grocery bill was over twenty dollars for the month (for about eighteen people). My dad butchered hogs after the first cold spell and cured the meat. The cellar was full - the walls were lined with fruits and vegetables my mother put up."

During harvest season, when they would thresh the wheat, county commissioners would pay people from Weatherford one dollar a day to work (during the Great Depression). And people from town would come out, to help out - to get paid.
Nila's dad would salt meat and hang it from the rafters. When Poor Farm folks became ill, her mother or dad would sit up all night with them.

Nila had a horse as a little girl. The commissioners apparently had confiscated the animal from someone, to stop its abuse. "The horse wasn't quite right," she remembered.  "He would be perfectly sweet and normal, then all of the sudden just go crazy for a little bit." Nila loved that horse. One day she was riding him up by the big barn, through some old tree stumps. The horse had one of his episodes. Threw her through the air and onto the ground. Her dad was nearby. Thank goodness. Made sure she was okay. She remembers this part. He told her to get right back up on that horse. So she did.

The Poor Farm owned a few other horses to pull the plows and wagons, even a couple of Percherons at one point. Nila remembers her dad being partial to mules. These teams would take corn to the gin in Granbury in a wagon, and would help harvest the wheat. When it was ready.



Nila's father often woke up at 3 a.m. to begin his endless work around the farm. Near the end, most of the farm's residents were advanced in age. Were not a lot of help.
"Daddy liked to whistle," Nila told me. "He was known for that. You could hear him, even at three in the morning, out there whistling." He was a deacon in the local church, where her mom taught Sunday School and played the piano. Before they were married, Mr. Bielss had to sell his beloved horse Penny. He needed the money. He wanted a proper wedding ring. He sacrificed.

Nila's folks were good people, were hard workers. Nobody helped them out much except for Moses, Mr. Taylor, and sometimes Aunt Mary. "Mr. Taylor, who was blind, would want to help out more, but we were always afraid for him, when he got around the big saw," Nila told me. He was a nice man, she said. Mr. Taylor.

Nila remembers her family having a small record player. One day she and her brother Eldon were playing "He'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain" so loud that her mother could hear it down the hill. They got into a storm of trouble. Before electricity was common, the farm had a Delco unit powered by a windmill to run a few things, like the single bulbs that hung from a few of the ceilings. The Delco was located in same little house that Mr. Taylor lived in. The blind gentleman.

Poor Farm residents washed their clothes in big black number five wash pots. The man named Moses kept pecans in a Maxwell Coffee can. He cut those pecans into laser-perfect halves. Moses did. Moses was paralyzed on one side. Had a peg leg that he made himself.

Nila told me about Mrs. Baker, who'd been addled after being struck by lightning. It stayed with her. Mrs. Baker. Whenever a storm approached, Nila's parents had to comfort her fears.

Nila told tales of a happy childhood at the farm. At the Poor Farm. Where her parents took care of so many. Nila never lacked for anything, she wanted me to know. Nila bottle fed her goats. Had a menagerie of livestock to keep her entertained. She listened to Little Orphan Annie on the family's radio.

Around 1946 the dormitory building where the residents lived was moved to the 100 block of Throckmorton in Weatherford. It there served as a home for the aged. The move was the end of the true operation of the Poor Farm. The building was later relocated to Rusk Street, where it still stands.
I drive past it. Often. Though I've never ventured up to it. Wouldn't be polite.
After World War II, the federal and state governments increased social services for the poor and the elderly. For the nation. Not just Parker County.

The Poor Farm pauper cemetery still sleeps off in the woods. The place was forgotten until the early 1980s, rediscovered by a group of hunters. It appeared to have about forty adult graves. And one child's grave. No one knows for sure.



The earliest documented burial was 1904. The lonely site had no fence. At that time the county commissioners were considering selling the farm. The Parker County Historical Commission persuaded commissioners to let them restore the dignity of the cemetery. This, they did.

Later in 1986 a historic marker was awarded by the state, now visible from Tin Top Road. A right-of-way was established from Tin Top to the cemetery. The Parker County Abandoned Cemetery Association continues to maintain the cemetery, with the help of donations. They do this, to this day.

I need to finish this story. There's much to do. To prepare for. I feel nauseous. Unsure.

I need a snake to scare me off this porch.

One man living at the Poor Farm was insistent that he not end up in the pauper cemetery. When the time came, Mr. Bielss buried him off in the woods. Wayne Thompson, who ran a dairy on the property in the 1950s remembers three lone graves off together near a lone tree, about a half mile away. This man's presumed to be one of the three. But I'm not sure.

J. G. Godley's death was particularly tragic. Godley died of suicide November 11, 1929. Nila recalls that Godley was once a wealthy man (related to the family that started the Godley community to our south). He was divorced, was 87 at the time of his passing. He apparently squandered his fortune and died a pauper at the farm. He was always very bitter and depressed, Nila told me. Many times he pleaded with her dad to kill him.
One morning the Bielss Family was having breakfast. Before sunrise. The cows down the hill started bawling. Her dad got his lantern. Said he'd better go check on what was wrong. On what was the matter.

Mr. Godley had cut his throat inside the farm's two hole privy. In the Poor Farm's out house. He lay dead on the floor. The county death certificate lists no relatives and no birthdate. The November 12, 1929 Daily Herald obituary shows one daughter in Austin. I never found her.

Nila remembers Mr. Godley being buried outside the paupers' cemetery fence by her father. County records show his final resting place as Oakland Cemetery, in an unmarked grave. Stories about Mr. Godley conflict around this town, even today. I believe that little girl, though bottom line, Mr. Godley is lost as well.

The Poor Farm Cemetery has one of the highest ratios of unmarked graves in Parker County. Out forty known graves, only one had a marked headstone. There is a newer granite marker listing the people who died at the farm, but were buried in other locations. The Abandoned Cemetery Association did that.

Association members Mary Kemp and Billie Bell spent long hours going through records trying to learn the names of those interred at this cemetery. Mary helped me with this story. Nila was its ringside witness.

I don't know how this story comes out. The Poor Farm. Parker County. The American nation writhing in doubt and uncertainty. Today's headlines could be an echo to that earlier time.

We could be in for the surprise of our lives.

The Poor Farm woods south of Weatherford probably hold this nation's answer. The souls in that graveyard. The whispers in those trees.Those times seem so foreign. Listening to that little girl. To the slip-sliding past. Our future's out there. A cradled secret, walking around in the faded front overalls pocket of another time. But those folks aren't talking. Not today. Not to me.



SUGGESTED CAPTIONS

Depression-Era residents sit on the front porch of the Poor Farm Dorm.


Nila’s Family near the Poor Farm barnyard.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Sometimes you just have to pay attention...look what's around. Why would THIS be sitting HERE. If man made it, there's a reason (at least in most zip codes). The T & P Railroad, as it chuggged east to west through our stretch of Texas, had to stop for water at pre-determined intervals (1 - 3 miles sometimes). We're used to seeing the wooden elevated water tanks near train depots from childhood Western movies, but sometimes, if a stream ran nearby, the crew that built the railroad also dammed up the stream for the locomotives to drink.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Eternal warrior

I’m told a story several days back, here in Eastland County, by a man, on some land, not too far away from where I now stand. ‘That his great grandfather was walking through these woods we’re standing in now, way back, noticing the tip of a feather protruding from the ground. Sticking up through the leaves, like a stalk of grass, between two ridges of rock.

The tip of a feather.

His great grandfather dug down, this now man said, discovering an Indian war bonnet, then below, this man looked me in the eye, the remains of an Indian beneath the bonnet, wearing it, seated astride a warhorse, the horse still standing, also, very much dead, from many years of waiting there, between two vertical shelves of rock. ‘Ready to lead his warriors into battle inside the far banks of eternity.

Surely that would be heaven, for a warrior.

The setting, a forest of tall oaks on a steep hillside of house-size boulders, flaking off the east side of the rise above a stream, like Edsels sliding off the edge of an overpass. The stream would’ve been live water, back then.

Are we standing in a Native graveyard, a portal to something better? The karma felt right, though words are only words, are only words, are only words, after all, I’ve recently learned.


He said to me, as we moved up the path to another tale, “The grave was desecrated back then. They didn’t know any better. The war bonnet is an heirloom in my family, even now…”

Friday, November 29, 2013

Where Did You Go?

You let me down.
My gas gauge blinking E for the last twelve miles.
I pulled into your gas station. Desperate.
Your sign says “Gas, Oil & Parts”. Such a kidder.


I’ve been inching down your too-slender Bankhead Highway, now Finley Road, west of Putnam. Callahan County just east of Baird. A new friend tipped me off…
In a Model T, I’d have wide pavement to spare. Today, much faster than twenty and I’d be sucking bar ditch dirt.
Nothing to see here.
I passed a granite Texas Centennial Marker back up the road, surrounded by turkey vultures atop hack-cedar fence posts. The 1874-1875 military telegraph line crossed there, connecting Fort Concho to Fort Griffin.
The year Comanche Natives were herded north.
No coincidence, that.



Black and white stripes mark the center spine of your phantom road west. No shoulders. No signs. No billboards.
No gas.



I’ve crossed four dying bridges coasting to this place, rusted rebar finger bones poking through crumbling concrete guard rails. The Model As of long ago safe from raging flood waters that came along once a year, or not.


Is that your frame house behind the gas station, back in the trees, fallen to the ground? Abandoned or fled or did you just move on? Disgraced in every way but fire.
Are you back there, hiding from me in those shadows?
Your neighbor’s farm house crowds us, from across the road. I bet they made you uncomfortable, right there when your customers pulled up. A dad or widowed grandmother once answering that front door. Unlike yours, their empty home stands proud. Shoulda seen to that leak in the roof…
I hear the monster that killed you, if you’re dead, roaring low over my left shoulder.
Interstate 20, though it looks like you skedaddled before that Faster-Better-Longer blew through and spoiled your fun.
Will great grandkids explore that abandoned four-lane someday, they distracted from Whatever Comes Next?
Will they mourn the eccentricities of their ancestors,
Even know their names?
Our names?
I know you’re here. Need you to be here.
But again today,
Like yesterday,
Like tomorrow, you’re not.



Best wishes, wherever you are.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Not Today...from about 5 years ago

Not Today

Most days I write until about noon, then go walk, then spend the afternoon researching or interviewing future stories. If I’m in Weatherford, I walk along an old rail bed, the Lake Mineral Wells State Trailway.

I’m fried from five or six hours of writing. And tense. The walk burns that off. Let’s me continue. Reminds me to listen.

Today when I get to the trail parking lot another car is there, bikes stuffed in the back. I walk up to the gate to pay my $5. A lady climbs out of the car.

“Excuse me, sir. Do you know how much it costs to use the trail?”

There’s a sign listing fees, duct taped to a pole, it too a victim of this state’s budget woes.

“$5”

I tell her this.

She’s studying the laminated sign as I walk away down the trail, hoping she and her kid won’t make too much noise.

I hear the young boy’s voice over my shoulder, from their car. “It costs $10?”

I see a deer, cardinals and squirrels. Trees are greening up – getting ready for spring. This town grows quickly. Not many places small children can safely ride bikes, though a greenbelt walkway near Town Creek will solve that soon.

The mother and her son never ride past me on the trail.

I get back to the parking lot after my walk. The car, the mother, the little boy are gone. A mother and her son drove their car out here, bikes piled hopefully in the back. They obeyed the law.

It costs $10.

No bike ride today.

It’s spring break for Weatherford school children this week.


For one little boy, it’s not.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Zim Zimicki’s Hard Work
Fuels America’s Trip West
            Driving a Model A Ford from Weatherford to Ranger in 1928, I would’ve been worn out by the time I hit Strawn. My average speed was 35 miles an hour. Pulling off the Bankhead Alternate Highway at the first gas station I found, Marche “Zim” Zimicki might have greeted me, might have shown me around. I made such a trek Thursday, not in a Model A (and more than a little bit faster). Viewing all that Zim left behind felt like a warm handshake between new friends. Zim passed away in 1962.

            Traveling from my home to Ranger back when Zim built this place, drivers followed the Bankhead Highway from Weatherford to Mineral Wells, to Palo Pinto, toward Metcalf Gap, then they turned south to Strawn, finally attempting one steep hill west up into Ranger. The Thurber brick-paved Bankhead Highway was cobbled together from a patchwork quilt of older already-existing county roads, America’s first transcontinental highway.
Cross-country auto travel offered high adventure after WWI, not for the faint of heart. Cars often carried two spare tires in case of flats. The “Monkey Grip” cold-patch kit, with glue and about 100 little rubber patches to fix inner tube holes was as necessary as extra tanks of water for overheated radiators. My uncle could’ve followed me in a second car, if our family now was as large as it was back then. When one car “quit” (broke down), the other could tow its fallen brother to the next mechanic.

Giant billboards of the time lured westbound drivers approaching Metcalf Gap south to Strawn, onto the Bankhead Highway Alternate (now Hwy. 16) or west across the historic gap to Breckenridge. Think Route 66. At slow speeds with a car full of kin, boredom (or madness) quickly set in. Approaching Strawn from the north, stopping at Zim’s Quality Beverages to get “fuel-eats-drinks & ice”, use the outhouse and even stay in the motor court would’ve been mighty tempting.
Zim’s brick service station – restaurant – Dr. Pepper bottling plant stretched along the west side of the two-lane highway, just south of the first Palo Pinto Creek bridge (past the Necessity cutoff). The mid-October morning I visited, 42 degree silence greeted my arrival. I crawled out and walked across brick pavers to survey the abandoned brick gas station, the rotting wooden overhangs held aloft by iron tie-rods. Twenty Model A’s or Model T’s could’ve packed this station, back in the day.

My Model A now full of gas, I might have eased down the hill to the Y intersection at the filling station’s left. Travelers veered left to the Dr. Pepper bottling plant or right to the tourist court. I opened the gate to the right (with permission). Walking beneath towering pecan trees, one quickly realizes there’s more here than meets the eye. The one story “filling station” visible from Highway 16 conceals a two story labyrinth, housing a gas station (four pumps), restaurant, bar, cavernous machine shop, bank, office, kitchen and more.
Back then, a muffled clattering vibration sound would have come from the south. Across the courtyard a hulking brick warehouse that once housed the Dr. Pepper (and Coca Cola) bottling plant stares back, once supplying soft drinks to this part of the state. A “Zim’s Quality Beverages” billboard painted on its side invited passersby to pull off the highway. West from there, a five bay Dr. Pepper delivery truck garage connects. Shooting north, five fallen-in tourist court motel room shells sit abandoned, the forerunner to the modern motel.

“Kids need to be kept busy,” Zim might have told me, showing me around. There was a small gold fish pond in the days before color TV. Families could also venture south to Zim’s swimming hole in Palo Pinto Creek, just below the Watson House (now Edwards Funeral Home). It was shady and had a rope swing. There’s a story about a handicapped boy on crutches looking down at this swimming hole from the Watson House. The embankment caved in, the boy fell in the creek and drowned.
The first thing you notice about Zim’s buildings is the handsome brick work completed by Zim’s father-in-law, Pete (“Piotr) Wasieleski. When Thurber’s mines began to wind down around 1921, Pete began working for Zim. Atop gentle wall arches facing the highway, three small round brick parapets crown each capital (think a rook in chess), their symbolism lost to time. The tumbled burgundy bricks lend the building a warm glow in morning sunlight. Ornate arched brick drains and soldiered brick accents above windows reveal artistry uncommon today.

 “This land looks awfully low,” I might have suggested to Zim. He would have smiled. Pointing back toward the main highway building, you come to understand that Zim created this place to “fit”. The Bankhead’s roadbed soars fifteen feet above the bottomland you’re standing on. Zim snuggled his two story station against that roadbed. Its second floor fronts the road (was high enough). The bottom floor faces the other direction, sitting comfortably on the ground. Elaborate stone-lined ditches channel rain water to the creek. One rock-lined channel travels under the entire length of the main complex. Fit your building to the land, not the land to your building. Think Frank Lloyd Wright.
Marche (MARCH-EE) “Zim” Zimicki was born in 1897 in Pennsylvania’s rough-and-tumble coal fields. His family (originally Zamitzski) worked in Thurber’s mines by 1900, moving to Lyra’s mines by 1910 (between Strawn and Mingus). Being the only boy (three sisters), Zim and dad Pete worked in the mine and farmed (graffiti on a nearby water well records “Marche 1917”). Zim may have started mining as young as 13.

When Zim returned from WWI, capitalism’s wheel began to spin more rapidly in this creek bottom. Zim took a job nobody wanted, tearing down the old Stephens County Courthouse in Breckenridge in 30 days. One wonders if some of the pressed tin ceilings above the gas pumps come from that facility. Streamlining his family name for “only in America success”, Zamitzski became Zimicki.
Father and son pooled their income, giving them the stroke needed to buy these twenty acres along the northern branch of Palo Pinto Creek. Other nearby land holdings were added at bargain-basement prices during the Great Depression.
Zim must’ve absorbed the Thurber “vertical integration” that Colonel Hunter and W. K. Gordon infused into Texas and Pacific Coal operations, offering coal miners not only a place to work, but providing for their human needs with company stores, bars, church buildings, even a cemetery. Zim dreamed of satisfying a similar menu of his visiting Bankhead Highway guests’ needs on their journey toward the Pacific.
            This complex was and is a work in progress. Begun in the 1920s, major construction took about a year to complete. Zim built the gas station, then the restaurant, ice house, bottling plant, and travel courts. Though run by family and staff, Zim could be seen everywhere, doing everything. Zim dressed plainly, not being a “behind the scenes pencil pusher.” Before we arrived, he likely just crawled out from under a truck, rebuilding its transmission.
Zim also mastered the load-bearing engineering he observed in the overhead wooden timbers holding up the uncertain ceilings inside Thurber’s deep coal mines. Zim’s ground floor machine shop’s ceiling reveals strong concrete beams atop solid columns carrying the weight of the entire suspended second floor.
Zim built his own power plant to supply electricity to the complex using a large diesel motor. To start the diesel engine, one had to light a wick (in place of a spark plug) and stick it in a hole (filled with gas) while cranking the engine. This required a man of deep faith (or great speed).

Zim owned the Dr. Pepper and Coca Cola franchises simultaneously for awhile. Coke asked Zim to tie into Strawn’s city water and stop using his well water (still in operation). Zim told them to go to hell (diplomacy not among his virtues). Today’s Strawn Museum (open 11 – 4, Thursday - Saturday) houses several versions of Zim’s Quality Beverages heavy, opaque Dr. Pepper and Coca Cola bottles, listing Breckenridge, Strawn and Cisco as his territory. Zim might’ve also leaned toward Dr. Pepper, as they also offered Crème Soda, Lemon, Lime and Strawberry drinks in their lineup.
Zim’s ground floor machine shop was always turning out clever gadgets – inventions, cattle guards, truck repairs, and gates. Old truck frames converted into work benches still do their duty. Discarded tin Coca-Cola signs hang from the black-dark ceiling awaiting their next assignment. Zim received a patent for delivery truck racks that allowed drink cases to slide forward on rollers when other cases were removed. He built a revolving cross for Strawn’s St. John’s Catholic Church bell tower, though this was never installed.
            Zim had a bar on the second floor. Accessed from the highway’s front door or up a winding stairway from the bocci ball courts below, one delights in the stout wooden columns that frame large mirrors behind the bar. There’s a kitchen to one side, a wood-planked dining room/dance hall to the north. “It happened right here,” I felt the room’s shadows whispering, though what happened there, I may never know.
The new owner, a kind man, lifted one of the barstool seats from its pedestal and turned it over. The seats were made from truck hubs, fitted onto cams atop their poles below, just like a delivery truck’s axle. I know Zim is smiling in heaven as I reveal his ingenuity and thrift. The bar counter’s base features corners of ridged glass blocks. The juke box surely played country swing dance tunes as working class couples circled the dance floor, gold-trimmed ceiling fans click-clocking lazy circles into the pre-air conditioning summertime air.

Between the restaurant and the backyard tourist court sat picnic tables, barbeque pits and bocci ball courts under shade trees providing travelers a much needed overnight oasis. The southern room of the filling station still boasts a full-sized bank safe built into the wall. There’s a story that Zim had a little bank for awhile, though sheltering Zim’s steady cash flow seems as likely (or perhaps a lack of trust in post-Depression banks).
Under the highway bridge outside one observes graffiti, colorfully modern and vintage. One scribe writes “Wiley Wells…From Buffalo, N.Y…going to God’s country. March 29, 1929.” I hope Wiley made it. Seven months later, Mr. Wells’ young nation plunged headlong beneath the waves of its first Great Depression.
 “Zim was tight-fisted, inventive, and versatile,” remembers nephew Leo Bielinski, “and quite an accordion player.” In the late 1940s, Edward Dumith was building a home in Mingus. Being Zim’s friend, Dumith hoped to buy some of the old (but solid) lumber salvaged from the Stephens County Courthouse at a “buddy” price. No such luck. Dumith could’ve bought lumber from the lumber yard at the same price. Zim used old Magnolia Beer signs to flash the bottling plant’s roof. He used discarded Coca-Cola signs to form the restaurant’s stout structural concrete foundations.
            One neighbor child remembers an army of people constructing Zim’s. As Thurber, Mineral City and other area coal mines were winding down, cheap labor was plentiful. These ex-coal miners (doing the work of three men today) did the heavy lifting, with Zim leading the way. In addition to Wasieleski, Zim’s brother-in-law Big Joe Daskevich helped construct the buildings, later rising to become bottling supervisor. Zim’s dad Pete (then about 55) was also an old miner who could handle hard work.
Family helped Zim achieve his dreams. Zim’s second generation immigrant imagination helped provide for his family and employees during wrenching economic times. At family gatherings Zim played his accordion. Wife Stella kept the books. When Zim and Stella married, they built a small two-bedroom wood home just south of the bottling works. With all of their wealth, they continued to live there until 1960, when they built the still-standing two story brick home just west of the original house.
            Zim wasn’t famous for paying high wages. When he bought ranchland around Strawn in 1938, Frank Bielinski and Tut Daskevich were paid $1.50 a day digging post holes by hand, ten hours a day. Of course, like today, any job was a blessing. When Zim’s son (Marche Pete) asked his dad to help pay for his senior year at Texas A & M vet school, Big Zim said, “Gosh, Marche, this school is costing too much. It might be cheaper if I just bought the damn school myself.”
            When the highway connecting Weatherford to Ranger was finally completed in the 1930s, it effectively killed Zim’s roadside business. He went into ranching, never missing a beat.
I was tipped to look for a hidden compartment built beneath the highway or bridge, to conceal beer or moonshine. I found no evidence of that. Zim didn’t produce moonshine, both because of his upright wife Stella and because it would’ve exposed his prosperous business to seizure by federal revenuers. Hiding his own hootch from his eagle-eyed wife Stella, however, keeping her from knowing he was “nipping at the bottle” was certainly a possibility.
Zim did own a honky tonk to the north in Metcalf Gap after Prohibition was repealed. This was a rough place, frequented by thirsty cedar hackers (talk about hard work). But Zim was all about making money. When beer cans came along, most drinkers used a “key” to open them. Zim invented a foot-operated can opener for his bartenders, to speed his liquid commerce along.
Shortly before Zim’s death, he was asked to speak to the Strawn Lion’s Club. He told this story: “It was a full moonlit night, freezing cold. The birds had nothing to eat and they were miserable. But an old bull in the corral had just let a nice steaming cow pie. A mockingbird flew down and gobbled this up. Now he was warm, and full, and contented, so he began to loudly sing. The disturbed rancher who was trying to fall asleep grabbed his 12-gauge and blew the bird away. The moral of this story: When you’re full of BS, keep your mouth shut.”
            Zim finally sold the Dr. Pepper bottling operation to M. L. King in 1937, who moved it to Ranger. One also finds Zim’s Heileman Brewing distributorship flyers (with offices in Strawn, San Angelo and Big Spring) among historic Zim literature. The multiple offerings of all Zim’s enterprises may never be known.
            Zim would have been pleased, I think, that another visitor to his American dream got what he came for. Several that lived in the Strawn area and many that traveled through it came to know the man Zim Zimicki by his works. I add myself to that list. The day warmed as I climbed in my car and drove away.