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Spotlight (Archive) (46)

Wednesday, 25 February 2009 11:04

Spotlight on Bastrop

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A Day Trip, and More

Bastrop had been on my mind since last fall, when I spent a couple of hours poking around the picturesque downtown, which nestles against the banks of the Colorado River southeast of Austin. With a wealth of historic buildings and several intriguing restaurants, this destination had Day Trip written all over it.

A return visit proved my instincts were correct. Bastrop is indeed worthy of a trip, but I was wrong in one respect—you’d be hard-pressed to enjoy all that this small town offers in a single day. The other surprise: Not all the action is downtown.

I began my tour by driving to ROSCAR Chocolate, on the outskirts of Bastrop, just off Texas 71 East. About a year ago, longtime chocolatier Frans Hendriks and his wife, Roselly, opened a tasting room and retail space in a handsome, cedar-clad building in front of their one-room chocolate factory. Glass cases display an alluring array of bonbons and truffles, while bookshelves and tables around the perimeter hold jars of chocolate ganache, packages of Belgian chocolate bits, vanilla bean-flavored sugar, and teas and coffees with exotic names like Dragon Pearl and African Autumn.

As I savored a pecan-amaretto truffle, I exchanged knowing sighs with another chocoholic who had stopped in to pick up some business gifts. Another customer soon joined us. Evidently, I’m not the only one who considers 10 a.m. a fine time to sample chocolate.

After my breakfast of champions, I headed to the Bastrop “Old Town” Visitor Center on Main Street, where I picked up maps and brochures, including one for a walking tour of downtown. Stephen F. Austin himself established the town in 1832, and because it now has more than 130 sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Bastrop claims the title of “most historic small town in Texas.” Many of the downtown buildings have been restored and now house businesses, shops, and restaurants. It’s a win/win situation—downtown retains its character, while residents and visitors enjoy shopping and dining in memorable, one-of-a-kind spaces.

I popped into the 1891 R.A. Green Mercantile, and talked briefly with one of the tenants, Dianna Mincey, the proprietor of Love, Hope, & Soap. A recent transplant from Arizona, Mincey specializes in soaps and lotions made with natural ingredients. I sniffed a sage green bar labeled “Lost Pines—Made in Bastrop,” and sure enough, it had a delicate pine scent reminiscent of the area’s signature evergreens.

“I have trouble keeping the Lost Pines soaps in stock,” said Dianna. “They sell out fast. We also tuck them in--to almost all of the gift baskets we make as a way to include something that’s representative of Bastrop.”

Other venerable store fronts beckoned, including Lock Drug, in the W.J. Miley Building, where Miley opened a drug store in 1905, complete with a soda fountain that’s still in operation. Many Bastrop visitors enjoy a malt or a scoop of ice cream in this nostalgic setting.

Continuing down Main, I came across Fat Cat Kitchenware & Catering, which, appropriately enough, occupies the site of a former grocery store. The culinary boutique offers upscale kitchen supplies and equipment, cookbooks, and freshly dried herbs, as well as cooking demonstrations on many Saturdays.

Farther down the street, Big Mouth South-western Grill began calling my name. The historical plaque on the outside of the building noted that William Kesselus opened a tailor shop here in 1891, but the colorful, red-brick interior belied any trace of such activity. I was more curious about the Southwestern aspect. Where did that come from? I wondered. I pondered the menu for a clue, to no avail. However, some of the entrées sounded intriguing—loco yolko enchiladas (two blue corn tortillas layered with fajita chicken and topped with a fried egg, shredded cheese, and green chili sauce), blackened salmon, and mesquite-smoked prime rib. I wavered between the green chili burger and the green chili-chicken soup, and finally opted for the soup with a side of green chili-cilantro rice.

Both were excellent, and so satisfying that I decided against having a slice of iron skillet apple pie, which is served on a hot skillet with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with a brandy-butter sauce. Something to savor on another trip.

I did, however, find out about the restaurant’s Southwestern influence before I departed. “Two brothers from Tucumcari, New Mexico, Monty and Jory White, own Big Mouth,” Manager Dustin Minear told me. “They just wanted to offer Texans some New Mexican-style food. It goes over well here, but our biggest seller is still chicken-fried steak.”

My next stop was the Bastrop County Historical Society Museum. In addition to housing the museum, the 1850 building is one of the oldest structures on Main Street. Originally the home of early settler John Cornelison, it was also home to a ferryboat operator and later served as a furniture-manufacturing shop. Today, it displays artifacts including the lower skull of a mastodon—found in 1992 in the Colorado River south of town—and fine Victorian furniture from local landmarks. With exhibits about the Republic of Texas and Civil War eras, the museum provides a good introduction to Bastrop’s pioneer past.

Next, I walked across the street for a peek inside Apothecary’s Hall Antiques. Named for the first business on this site—the 1839 Apothecary’s Hall—the shop offers a mix of vintage items and genuine antiques.“I like Art Deco, and I almost always find something here I can’t live without,” a local resident told me as she purchased a piece of pink pottery. The shop also has a varied selection of old linens, one of my own weaknesses.

I decided to stop at the Green Chai Café for a glass of iced tea so that I could enjoy the view of the Old Iron Bridge from the sunny patio.(The building dates to 1848.) No longer traveled by cars, the 1923 bridge has been converted to a scenic walkway/bike trail over the Colorado River. I considered ordering a bowl of the soup du jour—sweet potato-chipotle chili—but I knew I had to pick up the pace to make it to my final stop.

The Deep in the Heart Art Foundry lies southeast of town in the Bastrop Industrial Park. Established three decades ago, it casts bronzes for sculptors around the nation. And if you call a few days ahead, the folks at the foundry will give you a tour for a nominal charge. Once you know all the steps in the lost-wax process, you’ll understand why large bronzes often cost thousands of dollars. Stay tuned: Deep in the Heart will open a gallery and sculpture garden this spring.

There you have it: a day trip to downtown Bastrop bookended with fine chocolates and a foundry tour. You’d best get an early start.

—Nola McKey 

Thursday, 22 January 2009 09:26

Spotlight on Texas Athletes

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Heroes in Waco

Texas Sports Hall of Fame in Waco. (Photo by Kevin Stillman)It’s been almost a decade since I visited the splendid Texas Sports Hall of Fame in Waco. Too long. I was in town to see a Baylor basketball game at the university’s Ferrell Center on a recent Monday evening, so I decided to spend the day reacquainting myself with some of the city’s many tourist attractions, including this remarkable tribute to honored sports royalty. But I never made it out of the Hall of Fame. Four hours here flew by like four minutes. I spent an entire afternoon reveling in the interactive displays, memorabilia, keepsakes, photos, paintings, illustrations, timelines, press clippings and other exhibits at this Lone Star State sporting compendium.

Granted, I’m kind of a sports geek. But even if you’re not, I’ll bet there’s something at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame to captivate your curiosity, whether it’s the javelin or golf bag of arguably the greatest athlete ever, Babe Didrikson Zaharias; rare posters of legendary boxer Jack Johnson; or memorabilia relating to other colossal sports heroes who either came from Texas, or reached their highest level of achievement here.
What particularly impressed me? Was it the prestigious 1957 Walter Camp Trophy won by Texas A&M’s John David Crow? Former UH All-American and Basketball Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes’ NBA game jersey? An HBO video of George Foreman’s stunning heavyweight-title-fight-knockout win against Michael Moorer in 1994, whence “Big George” reclaimed his crown to become the oldest heavyweight boxing champ in history, at age 45? Those exhibits all got my immediate and undivided attention.
Then, there are the three Super Bowl Champion’s trophy replicas from the powerhouse Dallas Cowboys teams of the ’90s. I was transfixed by the 1938 Heisman Trophy of TCU Horned Frog Davey O’Brien. A bronze football from UT’s 2005 National Championship brings back memories of the Longhorns’ thrilling season and climactic win over USC at the Rose Bowl, while NFL legend and Pro Football Hall of Famer Elvin Bethea’s gigantic pair of shoulder pads serves to remind just how big some gridiron gladiators really are.
The wall-size print of Michael Johnson winning 400-meter gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics majestically captures that athletic pinnacle. I enjoyed the exhibit on soccer star Mia Hamm, which not only gives evidence of this sport’s explosive growth over the past decade, but also documents the rise in female athletic participation throughout the world. The Texas High School Football Hall of Fame here provides an essential overview of this statewide phenomenon/tradition.

There’s so much more to tell you about: Buttons to push for hearing various Texas college fight songs; tributes to such golfing greats as Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Ben Crenshaw, Lee Trevino, and Judy Rankin impress with how influential Texas has been in links history. And, informative displays on auto racing’s A.J. Foyt, Carroll Shelby, Jim Hall, Johnny Rutherford, and the Labonte brothers, Terry and Bobby, personalize the world of driving fast. The Hall’s exhaustive number of exhibits offers a tangible glimpse of supreme athletic success.

The breadth of Texas contributions to the sports world simply overwhelms. If I returned to the Hall tomorrow, I would very likely compile an entirely different catalog of lasting impressions. If you live in Texas, and think of yourself as a sports aficianado, you’ve just have to go.

The exciting news is that the Hall of Fame is about to expand to twice its current size. It will have a Southwest Conference exhibit space on every former member, as well as more room to display its ever-growing permanent collection. Construction is underway, with completion scheduled for 2010.

—Marty Lange

Tuesday, 23 December 2008 17:37

Spotlight on Abilene

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When you touch the electronically wired, wooden pads of Edward Weiss' interactive sculpture Grace Notes, you can make music. By Lori Moffatt

I love gifts for special occasions, but I love the experience of travel even more. For a celebration this past October, my husband, Randy, and I headed west from Austin for Abilene, which promised a restored, 100-year-old downtown to explore and a 1930s bungalow to call home for the weekend.
Whenever I travel in Texas, I like to imagine what the land looked like centuries ago. In the case of the plains that surround Abilene, the vistas were often defined by buffalo—hundreds of thousands of them. By the time the Texas and Pacific Railroad arrived in Abilene in 1881 and town boosters declared it “the Future Great City of West Texas,” though, the buffalo had been eradicated and the Southern Plains tribes that depended on them had been driven out. As banking and retail commerce flourished, it wasn’t long before the wooden buildings in the downtown business district gave way to permanent structures made of brick.
Today, that big brick hotel—a Mission Revival-style structure that was once the most impressive lodging between Fort Worth and El Paso—houses the Grace Museum, a four-story anchor to the rest of Abilene’s historic downtown. And this year, to celebrate the building’s centennial, the museum hosts an imaginative variety of programs and exhibitions, including a multimedia show by Texas artist James Surls this summer and, beginning in September, an exhibition highlighting 100 years of Texas art.
In the lobby, I was dancing “The Bump” on Edward Weiss’ Grace Notes sound sculpture—making music as I touched each section of the wall with my hip—when I met art curator Judy Deaton. “Sometimes when people come into museums, they feel a little uptight,” she told me, smiling. “The sound sculpture makes everybody relax and sets the tone for the rest of the museum.”
Deacon directed us to the galleries, where artworks from the Grace’s permanent collection rotate with traveling exhibits selected from museums across the nation. And while I’m well past the target demographic of such kid-friendly exhibits as a faux tornado, holographic dance-screens, and a pretend ambulance, I found it hard to tear myself away from the children’s section. I’m eager to see what inventive programming Deaton and her team bring to the museum in its second 100 years.

Thursday, 20 November 2008 16:34

Spotlight on Christmas in Goliad

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Copyright Bob ParvinBy Caitlin Sullivan

In the brisk wind of a dark, early-December night in Goliad, I look around at usually quiet streets that I often stroll with friends and family. They aren’t quiet now. The storefronts and restaurants that are usually dark at this hour are brightly illuminated and welcoming. The air practically vibrates with excitement and anticipation. It’s Friday night during Christmas in Goliad, an annual weekendfestival that for 25 years has ushered in the Yuletide season withholiday performances, shopping, and the arrival of good ole St. Nick.The crowd waits for the kickoff event, the lighted parade. During the first weekend in December, this tiny town of fewer than2,000 people doubles in size with visitors from across the UnitedStates who have traveled to Goliad to partake in the food, music, andcelebration.

The sidewalks are packed with chattering residents and visitors. The Goliad square is now a winter wonderland. Pots of poinsettias decorate the entrances to antiques shops, and garlands hang from wooden balconies, accented by shiny, red foil bows. Strings of sparkling white lights outline the century-old brick buildings crowded around the courthouse like children around a Christmas tree. The Goliad natives cheer and whistle, clapping in time with the music. The sound of the carol floats away as the parade continues on its geometric path around the courthouse.

The next morning, just south of town, the thundering of hooves accompanies the sunlight as it creeps over the stone walls of Presidio La Bahía, the oldest standing fort west of the Mississippi. La Bahía is the first stop of an event called Christmas Along the Corridor, an annual reenactment of the historic Pony Express. A lone horseback rider delivers a proclamation of the Christmas season to the fort before racing off to six other counties.

Back on the downtown square, folks wander from booth to booth, savoring samples of homemade tamales and baked goods and marveling at the vast selection of handmade items for sale. Artisans from around the state show off their skills, offering paintings, leather goods, iron works, wooden furniture, stained glass, jewelry, bars of soap, and dolls.

Singers, bands, and dancers from as far away as Corpus Christi provide the festive background for the day’s meandering. Local children have been called in to provide entertainment, too. Everyone’s attention returns to the street when, at high noon, a jolly “Ho ho ho!” (with a slight Texas twang) echoes from around the corner.

In the evening, the events return to Presidio La Bahía and the neighboring Mission Espíritu Santo. At 6:00 p.m., in La Bahía’s chapel, Goliad’s Zaragoza Society celebrates the Hispanic tradition of “Las Posadas,” which tells the story of Mary and Joseph just before the birth of Jesus, when they searched for a place to stay but found no room at the inn. A choir performance within the reverberating walls of the Mission Espíritu Santo’s chapel brings the weekend to a close.

Christmas in Goliad has come a long way from its first year in 1983. The lighted parade that was once over in minutes has grown into an hour-long occasion with more than 70 entries. More events have been added over the years, including a living Nativity scene.  The growth in popularity of the festival even attracted the attention of the HGTV special Small Town Christmas in 2004.
Goliad may be a small town, but for a quarter century, the people have proven that it sure has big Christmas spirit.  

Thursday, 23 October 2008 15:58

Spotlight on Brownwood and Beyond

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By Lori Moffatt

Deb Morelock teaches yoga to guests at the Star of Texas B&B. Photo by J. Griffis SmithIt’s hard to believe I’m hungry. After all, I had just spent a long weekend exploring wineries in the northern reaches of the Texas Hill Country, and among the indulgences I chose, delicious food ranked high. In restaurants both plebeian and posh all around Brownwood, I savored country-fried chicken; rare steak with wild-mushroom risotto; three different flavors of Italian gelato; even a basket of puckery, fried dill pickles served with buttermilk ranch dressing.
But here we are, my husband, Randy, and I, driving through San Saba on our way back to Austin, and my lunch light is blinking. A tip from a video-store clerk on the courthouse square leads us to the Double-G Pit Stop, where plumes of mesquite smoke pour from a covered barbecue pit out front.
Randy pushes open the squeaky front door, cradling a case of wine in his arms like a newborn baby.
As I dig into my chopped beef sandwich, I hear my husband explain that we don’t plan to drink the wine on-premises, but we’ve been visiting wineries all weekend and we don’t want the bottles to get hot in the car. Could we please just keep them in the air-conditioning while we eat?
“You’ve been doing what?” asked the manager incredulously as he allows our wine into the A/C. “Drivin’ around to wineries? In Texas?”
Well, actually, yes.
And if our lovely weekend is any indication, we won’t be the last couple cruising through town with a backseat full of Texas wine.    
The five wineries we chose to visit are part of a loosely knit group (eight in all) extending from Lampasas to Granbury. Together, they call themselves the Way Out Wineries, which describes both their off-the-beaten-path locations and their approach to making wine.
We’d be staying for two nights in Brownwood, the midway point on a self-guided wine trail. There, in a railroad town whose initial heyday ended a half-century ago, we found surprises at nearly every turn.  
We booked a stone cottage at a wooded, rambling compound called the Star of Texas B&B, where owners Deb and Don Morelock offer five cottages, a large tipi, and a restored 1955 Spartan camper to overnight guests. The couple greeted us with a bottle of chilled Viognier from Brennan Vineyards of nearby Comanche, and as we sipped the boldly perfumed wine while lounging in low-slung chairs on the porch, I sensed trouble—a conundrum exacerbated by the nearby hammock, hot tub, koi pond, ping-pong table, and scenic hiking trail: How were we going to tear ourselves away to explore the area?
Our winery visits the day prior—to Texas Legato and Pillar Bluff Vineyards in Lampasas and to the fine Alamosa Wine Cellars in Bend—had provided us with knowledge we could use as we further explored the other WOW Wineries. At Texas Legato, for example, vintner Bill Bledsoe taught us that Malbec, a grape best-known as an Argentinean varietal, grows in Texas, too. And at the rustic tasting room of Alamosa Wine Cellars, vintners Jim and Karen Johnson allowed us to sneak a sample of their still-maturing 2008 Viognier from a cask.
We dropped by the Brownwood Visitor’s Center to pick up a map; I thought we’d be in and out. But, we learned, the center occupies part of the former Brownwood Harvey House, a Prairie-style structure built in 1914 to serve customers on the Santa Fe Railroad. Soon, we found ourselves wandering along the railroad tracks, taking photos and imagining what it must have been like during World War II, when a dozen passenger trains came through the station daily, bringing soldiers, visitors, and prisoners of war to nearby Camp Bowie.
Next, we set off for Comanche’s Brennan Vineyards, where we met winemaker Pat Brennan, who changed his career from nephrologist  to vintner after purchasing some of the most historic property in Comanche County. In fact, his tasting room, where we sampled a crisp Viognier and a succulent, slightly sweet Muscat, occupies the 1879 McCrary House, home to some of Comanche’s first Anglo setters.
Brennan Vineyards also serves as the contact point for the Way Out Wineries’ five annual “Road Trip Weekends,” when wine enthusiasts enjoy food-and-wine pairings and live entertainment at each WOW winery. The next one, the winery group’s Holiday Road Trip, will take place Nov. 7-9. “It’s a fun way to see the wineries,” says Pat, “but it’s a 300-mile road trip. It takes two days.”
We had run out of time, and after a lovely drive through the greening pastures of North Central Texas to try the wines of one more spot in Rising Star, we returned to our cottage in Brownwood

Tuesday, 05 August 2008 00:00

Spotlight On: Willie’s Place

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Willie’s Place at Carl’s Corner by J. Griffs SmithBy Charles Lohrmann


It’s the unofficial opening night of Willie’s Place at Carl’s Corner. There are no signs outside that identify the building, but the 550-seat theater is packed. The operation houses two restaurants, the convenience store, the Night Life Theater, and the Whiskey River Saloon.  Even XM Radio has soundproofed a studio inside and is broadcasting Willie’s Place Channel 13 around the clock with Eddie Kilroy on the air every weekday morning.


The building is “more-or-less 35,000 feet of space, and at least two times larger than the original Carl’s Corner,” says Willie’s Place Chief Financial Officer Robert Strouse. “We’re hoping to have the pumps working by Labor Day.”  Those pumps—12 of them, called master-satellite-high-flow diesel pumps—are designed to fill up both of an 18-wheeler’s fuel tanks at once. And Carl’s Corner will be known for pumping BioWillie biodiesel (as well as ethanol and the usual gasoline options at its regular pumps).


At a press conference on July 3, one writer asked Willie and Carl if the performance venue would be a problem for truckers trying to keep on schedule. Willie’s answer, “Well, it should be better than when Carl ran a strip joint here.” Hence the rogue spirit of the original rough-and-tumble Carl’s Corner will live on.  

Wednesday, 30 July 2008 11:57

Essentials: Devil's Sinkhole

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The new virtual tours will take place at the Devil’s Sinkhole State Natural Area Visitor’s Center, 101 N. Sweeten St., Rocksprings. Contact the Devil’s Sink-hole Society at 830/683-BATS (2287) or visit


Evening bat-flight tours Wed-Sun, May-mid-October. Travel to the sinkhole by bus from the visitor’s center; tours last approximately 2 hours. Cost: $12, $6 ages 4-11, free age 3 and younger.  Afternoon tours of the natural area require 3 days’ advance notice; no bats are seen in the daytime. Cost for a daytime tour: $6; free age 3 and younger. The Visitor’s Center also has a park store and provides information on area accommodations.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008 11:54

Spotlight on Devil’s Sinkhole

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By Melissa Gaskill


Dropping into a circular hole in a limestone ridge high in Edwards County, we descend 150 feet straight down to the top of a mountain of rubble, then another 150 feet or so to the sloping rock floor. Here, the cavity opens into an awe-inspiring oval chamber easily a football field-and-a- half across. Great horned owls peer down from nests high on the ledges, and swallows dart in and out of the narrow entrance high above.


After exploring awhile, it’s time to return to the surface, which normally requires an arduous climb on a precarious dangling rope. Fortunately, no one has to climb anything on this tour. In fact, we never leave our chairs at the Devil’s Sinkhole State Natural Area Visitor’s Center in the tiny town of Rocksprings. Our trek has been a virtual journey, courtesy of 3D glasses and two state-of-the-art technologies, Light Detection and Ranging (aka LiDAR), and 3D Photo Real Modeling.


At the actual Devil’s Sinkhole, a sturdy viewing platform affords a heart-thumping peek into those first 150 vertical feet. Purchased by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 1985, the property is a National Natural Landmark. Since 2002, on late spring and summer evenings, visitors have gathered here to witness millions of Mexican free-tailed bats whirling out of the sinkhole.


Of course, the view from the platform reveals only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, or in this case, a tiny fraction of the cave. Devil’s Sinkhole is actually Texas’ third deepest cave, formed several thousand years ago when porous limestone collapsed after underground water receded.


Before the creation of the virtual tour, only a few hardy cavers could see beyond the opening shaft, barely 50 feet across, and the pile of rubble directly beneath it. Now you get a bat’s-eye view of what it’s like to fly in and around the cave.


Before you go, check out these essentials.  
Tuesday, 17 June 2008 12:33

Rocking Out: Climbing to New Heights

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Climber Trish Higsby scales the limestone cliffs at Milton Reimers Ranch Park, in Travis County. By Tom WilliamsonBy Suzanne Edwards

The wall above me at the Austin Rock Gym suddenly seems a mile high as I search desperately for a handhold; I have no time for well thought-out strategies. “Reach! Use your legs!” shouts one of my buddies from down below. I push from my toes and slowly proceed up the wall, finding myself staring at the last stretch, my limbs shaking uncontrollably. All I need to do is hop up—just a bit—and latch on to the last handhold, but I can barely maintain my current position, let alone hop. “Come on, Suzanne, bump it up!” my friends holler encouragingly. I squint my eyes and, with all the intensity I can muster, manage to grasp the rock with my hand. Success!

Prior to joining this indoor playground full of simulation rock walls and squishy floors, I had only dallied in rock climbing, most notably at Austin’s Barton Creek Greenbelt. But I had seen my fair share of movies in which rugged mountaineers stretched for tiny crags in the rock face,their veins bulging from every muscle, and I thought of rock climbing as an “extreme” sport; granted, on those early climbs, my muscles moved in ways completely foreign to me. Without technique, my performance was less than stellar. But reaching the summit, no matter how awkwardly I got there, quieted all self-consciousness. Aglow with a sense of accomplishment, it was hard to be bothered with outward appearances. It seemed to me that rock-climbing was something I could really grab hold of.

Thursday, 15 May 2008 10:35

Early Texas Schools

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By Charles Lohrmann

An an inveterate backroads rambler, I enjoy a particular affinity for mysterious derelict buildings and out-of-the-way communities that are bricks-and-mortar ghosts of a time long past. In most cases, these looming, sometimes frightening, wrecks represent faded memories or dreams and aspirations either outgrown or abandoned. When I spot these re-purposed or unpurposed buildings along the sometimes unmarked and often unpaved roads, I know many of them were once schools that embodied the ambition of the long-missing occupants. Each time I approach the always-open windows or never-open doors, I inevitably sense the presence of teachers and children drifting through the halls.

When I recently discovered the book Early Texas Schools: A Photographic History (University of Texas Press), I realized I had found a guidebook that tells the stories of many lost communities now languishing at backroads intersections. Because it touches the far reaches of the state, the book photographically docu-ments more schools than I’ll probably ever visit. But even though I don’t know all the communities represented, I enjoy reading the history and imagining from the photographs what the schools were like in their heydays.

Writer Mary S. Black and photographer Bruce F. Jordan searched diligently to find the institutions included. And while the word “institution” is appropriate for the abandoned Mary Allen Seminary in Crockett or the WPA high school building in Yoakum, it’s far too grand for Kimble County’s modest Ivy Chapel and School, the crumbling adobe schoolhouse in Terlingua, or the Junction School on the Pedernales River, where former President Lyndon B. Johnson studied as a child and to which he returned in 1965 to sign the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

As they gathered the stories for this book, Black and Jordan focused on Texas schools built between the 1850s and 1930s. This is the period when the quest to offer education was an outgrowth of a general passion for a better life in tough, often unforgiving, country. After that period, folks began to shift away from the rural settings and into larger towns and cities, leaving the rural school districts to consolidate among themselves and, in many cases, to slowly decline.

The stories of these schools, and the people who built them, resonate so clearly today because they are the personal stories of struggle, commitment, and survival against powerful odds. Some of the schools, such as Austin’s Huston Tillotson, started small, but laid the groundwork for important institutions that continue to play a role in education today.

Others were built and maintained, and then redirected to another use for the community, just as San Antonio’s Ursuline Academy is open today as the Southwest School of Art and Craft.

I’m particularly taken by the Clairette school (locals pronounce it with three syllables: Clare’ - e - ette) that sits beside Texas 6, just off U.S. 281 between Hico and Dublin. Or if you’d rather be even more obscure, between 281 and Alexander. Built in 1912, the two-story, native stone school building survives as a community center and polling place. In 1939, Works Progress Administration workers added a star-shaped fountain when they built a recreation building nearby. Even though the old school building is still in use, the recreation building is just a shell, and the authors aptly compare its foundation posts to headstones in a cemetery.

The stories of these schools are inspirational, but it is still the abandoned buildings themselves that speak most provocatively. I believe the buildings are haunted by hopeful spirits. And the scrape of a broken door against an out-of-kilter frame recalls the energetic youngsters bustling in to sit down and get to work.

For all its dreams faded and promises not delivered, an old school building still embodies a very real aspiration. Perhaps by seeing where these institutions started folks on a path to larger community, it’s possible to gain in-sight into how we relate to education today.

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