By June Naylor
Each time I visit the West Texas town of Albany, it seems that the locals mistake me for a resident. I’ve finally realized that the historic frontier ranching town, just a two-hour drive west of my hoame in Fort Worth, is renowned for a welcoming atmosphere that envelops even folks stopping in just for the weekend.
And when Albany debuts the 75th anniversary edition of Fort Griffin Fandangle—its well-known annual pageant—this June, first-time visitors will experience the same thing. At any time of year, though, visitors dropping in to see what makes Albany such a tourist favorite likely feel that they’ve instantly made several hundred new best friends out in a prairie wilderness once guarded by cavalry posts.
Unsurprisingly, that’s the disposition at the heart of Fandangle itself: The message coursing through the production’s script, music, and elaborate staging resonates with the theme of overcoming hardships in a spirit of warmth, survival, and togetherness. And there are a lot of laughs thrown in for good measure.
The annual production is a community-wide effort. Hundreds of volunteers handle every detal of the extravaganza, large and small.
Fandangle tells the story of Fort Griffin, a government outpost established on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River in 1867 to protect newcomers in the unsettled territory. Albany native Robert Nail wrote the musical and directed its debut in 1938. (The production claims to be Texas’ oldest outdoor musical.) Fandangle, which is performed over the last two weekends in June, hasn’t changed much in its 75-year history, except for the occasional addition of new songs and updated details.
The annual production is a community-wide effort. Hundreds of volunteer townsfolk handle every detail of the extravaganza, large and small. Preparations begin months in advance, with projects ranging from costume upkeep to maintenance of sets and equipment—including horse-drawn wagons, a stagecoach, a train, and a calliope—used in the Fandangle amphitheater.
Planning and organization ramp up throughout the spring, with committees devoted to preparing for the elaborate parade that takes place on the first Saturday of Fandangle weekend and putting on the barbecue dinner offered nightly during the show’s run. As preparations began for this year’s big anniversary show, community excitement heightened noticeably.
“We have more volunteers than ever,” says Betsy Parsons, who has directed the production for 19 years. “When you’re doing something for the good of the community, everyone shows up. It’s like a family reunion.”
Parsons typifies the cast and crewmembers that produce Fandangle. She first volunteered as a fifth-grader for the job of folding programs and progressed over the years to various roles that have included cancan dancer and assistant director. She notes that Albany-area natives want their children and grandchildren to be involved, even if they’ve moved away. “People want to be a part of history, and people want to share that history with kids and grandkids,” Betsy says. “It’s an inheritance and a legacy.”
Everyone involved in Fandangle knows the show by heart—even the Longhorns. As I watched a dress rehearsal, I noticed that the Longhorn herd entering the stage from a hilly path seemed well-trained in their part. “Yes, the Longhorns are seasoned performers and know their cue,” Betsy says. “I joke that even if nobody else showed up, the Longhorns would come in when they hear their music.”
Set about a mile north of the Albany town square, the one-acre Fandangle amphitheater is carved out of rolling prairie brushland. Spectators sit on metal folding chairs for a production that appeals to audience members of all ages. The lively singing and dancing under the West Texas night sky brings to life the settling of the American frontier and the familiar themes of family, faith, and hardship.
The Longhorns come from the “official state herd” that lives about a dozen miles north of Albany at Fort Griffin State Historic Site, a worthy destination for anyone interested in the heritage of Texas. One in a series of defensive forts stretching across West Texas, Fort Griffin’s partially restored rock structures include a mess hall, barracks, officers’ quarters, bakery, and hand-dug well. When the weather’s nice, camping brings families in droves, as does the chance to catch catfish in the Brazos River and hike on riverside trails. The park offers tours, as well.
In the fall, Albany residents rally for an annual fundraiser benefitting the restoration of fort buildings. The Friends of Fort Griffin stage the weekend-long party that includes a barbecue dinner, chuckwagon breakfast, and a dance.
Even when no special events fill the calendar, I find Fort Griffin and Albany the perfect escape when I’m searching for simple diversions. At night, the stars sparkle brightly in the black sky over the fort. And in town, I’m always taken with something or another that the community shares with its characteristic pride.
The restored Aztec Theater, sitting near the courthouse square, exemplifies the collaborative spirit of Albany’s residents. Fastidiously renovated about 20 years ago with locally raised funds, the vintage movie house with a stucco facade and Spanish tile roof now hosts plays, musicals, and community gatherings. At the center of the square, the beautiful Shackelford County Courthouse—designed in Second Empire style with its clock tower, intricate roof details, and wooden interior—shines as another renovation success.
Perhaps Albany’s greatest attraction, however, remains the Old Jail Art Center, which I consider to be one of the finest small art museums in the nation. The museum opened 33 years ago in the former Schackleford County jail, an 1878 building designed by Fort Worth architect John Thomas and built by Scottish stonemasons who carved their initials into the building’s large limestone blocks. Over the years, the museum has expanded to 15,000 square feet and multiple galleries.
Saved from demolition in 1940 by the same Robert Nail who penned and directed Fandangle, the building became a national historic site in 1976 and found new life as an art museum in 1980. Nail’s nephew, Reilly Nail, and his cousin, artist Bill Bomar, pooled their modern art collections along with their family’s Asian artworks to found the permanent collection. Today, the collection counts close to 2,700 works, including pieces by Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Henry Moore, John Marin, and Grant Wood. Works by contemporary British artists are included, as are works in exhibitions by emerging American artists. Of special interest to history buffs, the Sallie Reynolds Matthews Historical Room and Watt Matthews Ranching Collection showcases saddles, rifles, and furniture belonging to one of the region’s most noted ranching families. The room is designed to look like a family gathering room at the Matthews’ historic Lambshead Ranch.
Albany’s love of art extends also to welcoming working artists who have made the town their home. One, Abilene native Randy Bacon, moved to Albany nearly three years ago from Fort Worth, where he had lived for 30 years.
“I always liked Albany,” Bacon explains. “When I had a show at the Old Jail Art Center in 2009, I saw a corner lot for sale and liked the idea of having my favorite courthouse for a front yard. Albany felt right.”
Bacon’s studio is open to visitors, and he also co-owns Biscuit, a café on the courthouse square with loads of Southern charm. Serving soups, salads, and comfort dishes like meatloaf and roasted chicken with cheese grits, Biscuit has become a big hit in the small town.
But Biscuit isn’t the only good dining option in town. For more than 30 years, locals and visitors have congregated at the Fort Griffin General Merchandise Restaurant and the Beehive Saloon—or just the Beehive, for short. The Western-themed restaurant’s two original sections were imported from nearby Fort Griffin, including the historic general store and saloon. The Beehive stands as a dependable place for a great chicken-fried steak and a beautiful aged rib eye, as well as a good glass of wine or margarita.
At the Ice House, a restaurant near the square, I’m often entertained by the locals sorting out the world’s problems over lunch plates of chicken enchiladas. This hangout was one of the first places I came to understand how Albany makes visitors feel like regulars just by stopping to sit for a spell.
Such is the spirit of a town that can “Fandangle” for 75 years. As artist Randy Bacon told me, “Albany has a vibrant can-do energy most little towns lack; citizens know how to work together to make good things happen.”
Fort Worth writer June Naylor looks forward to chatting with the locals over a slice of pie at the Biscuit café on her next Albany escape. After passing through Albany for years, Robert Hart of Fort Worth says photographing this story confirmed his admiration for the town’s civic pride and philanthropy. “It’s a very well cared for little town,” he says.
From the June 2013 issue.
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