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Alice

Due west of Corpus Christi, at US 281 and Texas 44, the town of Alice proves an intriguing stop in the heart of South Texas. Symbols of the town’s past crowd into a three-block area—the oil derrick park, the statue of Spanish colonizer José de Escandón, the South Texas Museum, and the old Texas State Bank building, the latter the storage place for the notorious Ballot Box 13, whose controversial contents shifted the 1948 U.S. Senate election to Lyndon B. Johnson. While the heydays of railroads and cattle drives are gone, Alice, home to 19,010 residents and the seat of Jim Wells County, is parlaying its ranching heritage into ecotourism and its oil-field years into oil-patch servicing.

Named for cattle baron Richard King’s only daughter, Alice originated in 1831 as a Mexican land-grant settlement known as Los Preseños and evolved into a community called Collins in 1878. When the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railroad laid out a town site nearby in 1888, Collins residents moved their homes and stores there, leaving behind only the Collins Cemetery. The new town, known temporarily as Bandana after—take your pick—the railroad workers’ neckerchiefs or the symbol of Grover Cleveland’s presidential campaign, became Kleberg briefly, before settling on the name Alice.

Now the first stop on the Llanos Mesteños (Wild Horse Plains) South Texas Heritage Trail (see “Down the Llanos Mesteños Heritage Trail,” page 65 of the print issue), Alice has two often-stolen Chisholm Trail markers and a cultural memory of bawling cattle lined up for 15 miles waiting for the next train north. “For 10 years, Alice was the largest inland cattle-shipping point in the world,” says Joyce Dunn, director of the South Texas Museum, which is housed in the former McGill Ranch headquarters. Joyce oversees “the attic of Alice”: a curling iron that was heated over a kerosene lamp, millstones, guns, carding combs for sheep’s wool, a side-saddle, and portraits of South Texas pioneers like Shanghai Pierce, who brought Brahma cattle to the region. Here you’ll find tales of the Alice-Brownsville stagecoach, which ran until 1904, and of the auctions held in 1916 to sell off the burros that roamed the city’s streets.

Thanks to pharmacist Lupe Martínez, Alice is the only Texas town with a bronze statue of Spanish leader José de Escandón, who led settlers to the region 250 years ago. “The town erected the statue to let people know how we got here and to bring back some of the history and heritage of South Texas that’s not in school books,” says Lupe. He led the drive to memorialize the man he considers the greatest colonizer of the Western Hemisphere, for not displacing Indians.

Alice’s Third Coast Squadron of the Commemorative Air Force boasts a tribute to the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots), thanks to Alice resident and former WASP Maxine Flournoy. At the museum, in a hangar on South Airport Road, aviation memorabilia honors the handsome young men and women and their flying machines, most from WWII. Take time to see the maps, weaponry, aircraft recognition cards (used to identify enemy planes), and a replicated three-seater Japanese fighter used in the movie Tora! Tora! Tora!

Alice pays homage to its oil-boom days—and the oil-field service industry, which now employs second- and third-generation oil-field workers—with a 1927 oil derrick that dwarfs the pocket-size Industrial Park along the railroad tracks. When the Alice High School Coyotes win a football game, the derrick is lit up.

Down the street, at the Tejano R.O.O.T.S. Hall of Fame Museum, Juan Sifuentes (on the museum’s board of directors) tells how Armando Marroquin set up a recording studio in his Alice kitchen in 1942 and recorded the earliest Tejano singers there. “Anybody who was anybody in Tejano music within 400 miles would come to record here,” says Juan, pointing out Marroquin’s old-fashioned recording equipment. The museum displays album covers, La Mafia’s Grammy, and the instruments of such Tejano stars as Beto Villa (“the Father of Tejano Music”), Ruben Naranjo (who grew up in Alice), Tony de la Rosa, Conjunto Be-nal, Lydia Mendoza, and singer Antonio Sifuentes, Juan’s father. When he asks a musician’s family, “What good is that guitar going to do inside a closet?” Juan understands firsthand the emotions tangled up in a decision to lend a family heirloom. The Tejano R.O.O.T.S. Hall of Fame Museum fields requests from the Grammy’s staff for photos and music, resists inducements to move to a metropolitan area, and is preparing for the next induction, on November 12 (inductees to be announced June 10).

Alice, for so long part of the scandal-rich political machine of South Texas boss George Parr, thrives on conspiracy theories. Okay, many of the conspiracies were real; reporter Caro Crawford Brown, writing for the Alice Echo-News, won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting of stories that brought decades of local corruption and terrorism to light. Even though the old bank—at the corner of Main and Wright streets, where the overstuffed Ballot Box 13 was miraculously, belatedly, discovered—is soon to become an apartment building, any gathering of longtime residents seems to resurrect rumors, myths, and sworn statements of plots and intrigue, including a tale of Lee Harvey Oswald applying for a job in Alice.

I had long wondered if you can get anything you want at Alice’s restaurants. Well, you can get meals worth the trip. At Tutti Frutti Delight, Esther Martínez heroically downs a 16-ounce, Mexican-style shrimp cocktail spiked with avocado, onion, tomato, and serrano peppers. “It’s a little spicy, but delicious,” she tells me, never offering to share. I sample owners Alex and Olinda Gonzalez’s special corn cup, a mix of lime juice, light mayo, Parmesan cheese, and tender corn kernels, and can barely restrain myself from licking the bowl. (Customers come from miles around for the restaurant’s chicken salad.) Locals recommend eating at Dena’s (a varied menu) and at the two busy Dairy Burgers, which between them sell 1,200 quart-size, date-stamped cups of ice tea daily (with all-day refills for 40 cents).

Alice’s ranching heritage, still central to the town’s identity, is being boosted by its inclusion on the Llanos Mesteños Heritage Trail. La Copita Ranch, a Texas A&M University ecotourism research site seven miles south of town, offers ranch tours, nature photography, and birding opportunities, besides helping 21st-Century ranchers learn about diversifications that can help preserve their land.

But that’s what’s appealing about Alice—diversity of interests, cultures, and plots.

Alice, seat of Jim Wells County, is at US 281 and Texas 44, 45 miles west of Corpus Christi. For information on lodging, dining, and events, write to the Alice Chamber of Commerce (612 E. Main), Box 1609, Alice 78333; 361/664-3454 or 877/992-5423; www.alicetx.org. Following is information on sites mentioned in the story. The area code is 361.

Attractions

South Texas Museum (668-8891), 66 S. Wright; Tejano R.O.O.T.S. Hall of Fame Museum (664-8000 or 701-6028; www.tejanorootshalloffame.org), 213 N. Wright; Maxine Flournoy/CAF Third Coast Squadron Museum (664-7268), 1309 S. Airport Rd. La Copita Ranch is 7 miles south of Alice off US 281. Call about individual or group tours; 361/664-1093; www.lacopita.com.

Restaurants Tutti Frutti Delight (664-6191), 1721 E. Main; Dena’s (664-9043), 711 E. Main; Dairy Burger (664-2117), 314 N. Johnson; (664-7207), 1900 E. Main.

From the June 2005 issue.

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