Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Balaam's Gotta Lotta Gumption ~ I Found a Book That's a Jewel..

I am a voracious reader, but this 2004 novel by Fort Worth's own Mike Nichols totally escaped me at the time.  That may have been the year I was running from myself or more likely I had my nose in the bag of worms that is the Chisholm Trail story trying to make some sense out of the printed mutterings of aging but arrogant old cowboys. Anyway, I entirely missed it until a friend of mine loaned me her copy and said "you gotta read this".  Thank goodness for friends...

Click for Review

This is a true Texas book. Mike has written a funny, sad and smart book about the Texas a lot of us know. A Texas that still exists in more places than you'd think. Having lived in many small towns including Ralls & Floydada out on the Caprock, I know all these people. I are one. They are the people that show up with me at JR's Cafe in Saginaw at 6 or 7 AM every morning for breakfast. Not all good people, but real people.

Mike's story of a few months in the life of the one-blinking-light town of Willoughby down near Waco, is a gem.  He has successfully written the hardest kind of fiction to create. It was named the "Funniest Texas Book of 2004", but it's a lot more than that.  Gumption has a lightness of spirit coupled with genuine humor and heart that never gets gooey. He successfully walks the fine line that keeps everything together.

Ten minutes after I opened the book, I was hooked.  Click on the review link for the story, but better than that get online or start looking for it in your bookstore.

See you at JR's..

Monday, July 11, 2011

Where The Heck Was Hell's Half Acre? ~ Probably NOT Where You Think It Was..

The other day I was at JR's Cafe in Saginaw having breakfast surrounded by the conversation of the other regulars, mostly older men.  These are people that have lived in the Fort Worth area most of their lives or at least moved into the area many years ago.  Some had fathers or grandfathers who were ranchers, or had worked for Swift or Armour in the packing plants or who had worked on the railroads. Most of them knew some history about the area.

The subject turned to the story of the famous 1887 gunfight between Jim Courtright and Luke Short near the White Elephant Saloon a few blocks north of Fort Worth's notorious Hell's Half Acre.  As I sat there, I realized that most of these guys believed that all this took place down in the Stockyards District and that the White Elephant was in the Acre.


They weren't alone in their misunderstanding.  Over the years of listening to visitors at the Stockyards Museum and sitting in conversations with other Fort Worth residents I have found that while almost everyone has heard of Hell's Half Acre, for a number of reasons, the true location has drifted from the historical memory of many.

In 2007 at the suggestion of some of the people at the Stockyards Museum, I started work on a large poster map that would give a little more perspective to Hell's Half Acre, define it's true location in early Fort Worth, and dispel some of the other myths that surround it.  I decided to base this work on a number of antique maps in my collection that combined together would show the big picture. To begin with, I used a section from the well-known 1886 perspective or "birds-eye" map of Fort Worth.  The red line shows the approximate boundaries.

1886 Birds-eye Map of Fort Worth ~ Click to zoom
Hell's Half Acre was really a few square blocks south of 9th or 10th street down to the the Texas & Pacific railroad reservation.  Front Street (Lancaster Avenue) was the south boundary. On the west was Throckmorton and Rusk (Commerce) on the east. Above that, to the north as far as the Trinity bluffs and the Courthouse was sometimes known as "Uptown". Far from fading away after the cattle drives stopped, Hell's Half Acre endured in its rowdy way until at least 1918 or the end of World War I surviving numerous attempts to destroy it.  The construction of the Fort Worth Convention Center in the 1950's wiped out almost all the remaining buildings.

Rand, McNally Fort Worth Map ~ Click to zoom
The second map  places Hell's Half Acre in perspective to the rest of the city in the middle 1880's.  The Chisholm Trail cattle drives which had spawned the Acre had dwindled after the coming of the T&P railroad and the roads that came later, but Fort Worth was busy shipping cattle, and there was plenty of customers for an "entertainment district" of questionable morality and for sporting people of all kinds.

The "White Elephant Saloon" was not in the Acre. Instead it was at 3rd & main in the "uptown" district which in many ways was as rough n' tough as the area to the south. The Short/Courtright fight was just a few feet away from the Saloon on 3rd street. One of the reasons that many think that the Acre was in the Stockyards, is that the much later White Elephant Saloon there promotes a re-creation of the fight every year in February on Exchange Avenue.

The Texas cattle trail through Fort Worth is also shown based on the markers placed during the Fort Worth Golden Jubilee in 1927.  Obviously, this route was only used until the railroads began coming in 1876.

1885 Hell's Half Acre Detail Map ~ Click to zoom
An 1885 fire map was used as the base for the Hell's Half Acre detail. Shown is a clip from the central portion. In spite of it's reputation, the Acre was not just a few blocks filled with bawdy houses and saloons. Notice how much empty space there was, much of it used as we do today for parking lots for animals & wagons.

The map shows that it was a diverse community where all races lived more or less side by side. It had grocery, jewelry, tack, and candy stores. There were several churches as well as Chinese laundries.  And the Acre was filled with commercial business of all kinds from an illuminating gas generation plant to cotton & lumber yards.

There was probably little danger in the Acre during daylight hours and probably for the average person, not much more danger in the evening than the Sundance Square area in the 1970's before its development.

This map was fun to make and I was fortunate to have lots of help and advice from a number of prominent Fort Worth scholars. I learned a lot on the way.

I you want the whole story , I highly recommend Rick Selcer's 1991 book "Hell's Half Acre".  It's still in print and available at the Stockyards Museum Store in the Livestock Exchange Building, as well as a number of other local book stores. It's a great read.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The 1945 Hit Parade Magazine! Faded Fort Worth Musical Memories and Some You Might Still Remember

It was a hot Saturday afternoon.  I was out prowling a nice little antique mall just off the main drag in Handley that was just slightly too warm for my comfort. I picked up a postcard folder that I liked and was just about to check out when I found a little gem. At least for music lovers like me.

I was only about 9 years old and really wasn't much interested in pop music when this issue came out, but I still remember seeing these magazines in drug stores and grocery stores and other places. The big old radio at our house was the only music source and I was totally at the mercy of my parents, whose music tastes had matured in granite in the 1920's. My grandmother thought these magazines were scandalous.

 Pop music started rolling after prohibition was repealed, moved into the 1930's and then the 40's with the advent of the big dance bands, the popularity and acceptance of night clubs & dance halls during the great depression and the huge number of radios that were installed.  In addition, motion picture "musicals" like "Meet Me in St. Louis" with singer Judy Garland became very popular and often featured well known live bands.

The average music fan was a good deal older than the tiny teeny kids that rule pop music today. Little kids did not go to dances or concerts. Music was not portable and few cars had radios in them. More likely, they were new teenagers just learning to dance and listening to live bands locally.  It was important to know the lyrics to the latest songs. Magazines like this were the source.

The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra was one of the most popular dance bands on the touring circuit and featured top notch instrumentalists and singers.  Jimmy, the brother of the better known Tommy Dorsey, was a constant performer at the Lake Worth Casino Ballroom and the better nightclubs around Fort Worth.

It seems strange to us now, but it's important to remember that except for the records (78's) that you bought in the store, all music was LIVE until the musicians union boycott was settled in 1948. Some exceptions were made for live performances in movies, but there was no recorded music on radio at all. Therefore, no DJ's. It was always:  "And now, live from the Blackstone Hotel Ballroom" etc., etc. The Lucky Strike Hit Parade was live.

In the 40's the Jitterbug was the dance for those that didn't need to move slowly and it has survived through till today in various forms. The Boogie-Woogie with its strong left hand and beat, was hot and it all got mixed up with jitterbugging.  Linda Darnell, who lived in Dallas was an aspiring singer who eventually made it as an fine actress in Forever Amber, before her life fell apart.

1945 was still in the time when every home needed a piano and lessons were a requirement of an early age. So, sheet music was always a part of every edition of magazines like this. The publishing rights to this epic probably didn't cost them a whole lot.

They had some space at the end song lyrics on this page and so a little pulchritude was pasted in. Or did the picture come before the lyrics?

Not a whole lot of anything really historic here.  But maybe a nice view of how Fort Worth and American music lovers were in 1945..

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Granbury: Off-The-Square & Into Some Lost History

The Sunday before Independence day my wanderlust took me down US 377 to Granbury to scout around a little.  As expected,  the town was hopping with the flags flying and the vendors set up all around the classic Hood County courthouse.

Hood County Courthouse Square in Granbury

While it looked like fun, it was blinding hot and I really didn't have much interest although it looked like the city had done its usual classy job of getting things set up and moving..  I had stopped at Witherspoon's Antique shop on the way in and had scored some nice stuff at a good price, so I decided to move on around on the fringes and see if there was anything unusual and/or interesting.

Map of Granbury with Courthouse Square at lower left

The Google map shows the Courthouse at the bottom left.  I turned north on west side of the square on FM 51 and drove up toward the FWWR railroad tracks and the old restored Frisco Depot which is marked on the map at teh top left.

Restored Frisco Depot at Granbury

Granbury was the first major stop on B.B. Paddock's Fort Worth & Rio Grande Railroad in 1887.  By the time this station was built in 1914 to replace an earlier depot, the Frisco railroad owned the FW&RG and later, the Santa Fe came to own the railroad. The depot is owned by the city and has been restored.  I'm always proud of Granbury for doing this, since other towns like Comanche have let historic places like this fall to ruin or be demolished. I took too many pictures of the depot to show here and then headed east on Ellis toward Brazos street.

1904 Granbury Light Plant Historic Site

The 1904 Granbury Light and Power plant is not one of Granbury;s featured historic places, but it has been preserved and conserved and in my opinion has a great deal of Interest as an early 20th century industrial site.  The location is shown at the top right of the map..

I'm a sucker for cut limestone masonry and this is a fine example of rough squared stone construction without any pretense.  Over the years the stone and mortar have developed a patina that almost glows golden when the sun angle is right.

Front exposure of the Granbury Light Plant

The fence was not closed, so I walked inside and caught some close up images.  Above is the front or west exposure shooting from the south corner. Below is a window detail shot..

Masonry & window detail - Front exposure

Front exposure looking from the North corner

South side of the Granbury Plant

The windmill is probably over a well that provided water for the original steam boilers before the later diesel engines were installed. It looks like the stacks have been shortened since the plant is no longer in use.

North side of the plant

Plant interior through a dirty window
A look inside through the windows shows the old power plant frozen in time. Much as it was when the engines and generators stopped working in 1954.  We can hope that maybe sometime in the future tours might be available since it is a genuine modern archaeology site.

Hand laid dry stone wall under construction on Barton Street
 I turned north across the tracks by the old plant and wandered up to Barton Street then turned left toward FM 51.  About halfway down the street I found this man laying up a couple of dry stone walls on either side of his driveway. He gave me permission to use the picture because he said it will prove to his wife he was really working!

Several blocks west of the square

Time and light were running out, but I decided to head over to the historic area west of the courthouse.  I found this couple out working on their yard in the high heat and obviously enjoying themselves. They were kind enough to let me take the picture.

Beautiful home all decked out for the 4th
 Granbury is a city of many beautiful homes.  I couldn't resist including this one..

Brazos Motel
 On the way out of town I finally took the time to get a picture that I have wanted for years. This forlorn sign stands next to a dilapidated old green building that is all that is left of the earlier tourist hospitality business before things went big-time in little Granbury.  Right next to it on the lake is a monster development and I'm sure that this little landmark will quietly disappear in the near future. 

In spite of its growth and all the kitsch, Granbury is a town that understands about history.  It retains a charm and works hard to keep things from spilling over into the gaudy.  It's a good place..