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Odessa’s Stonehenge

Written by Helen Bryant.

Here it stands, where anyone walking out of Odessa’s Home Depot can see it across the road: Stonehenge. In West Texas, at the edge of the University of Texas of the Permian Basin campus.

A replica of England’s prehistoric stone circle might seem out of place in this town of oil rigs and prairie dogs, but it’s not as mysterious as the original. England’s Stonehenge is commonly thought to be some sort of astronomical calendar, but nobody’s really sure why it was erected on Salisbury Plain some 5,000 years ago.

As a matter of fact, there are Stonehenges all over the United States, in Missouri, Washington, New Hampshire, Montana, Nebraska, Virginia, Georgia—and New Mexico, if you count Santa Fe’s circular arrangement of dead refrigerators.

Odessa isn’t even the first Texas town to have a Stonehenge. A couple of neighbors in Hunt, west of Kerrville, built one in a field there in 1989, inspired by some leftover patio stones. That Stonehenge was pretty much a whim.

The seeds of Odessa’s Stonehenge, built last year, took root several years ago in the minds of three men. Chris Stanley, chairman of UTPB’s Humanities and Fine Arts Department, had for years required art students to build models of Stonehenge. His friend, retired contractor Dick Gillham, was a longtime backer of public art, always on the lookout for something to improve the cultural landscape of Odessa. (This is, after all, the place dubbed “the worst town on earth” in Larry McMurtry’s Texasville, although I’m told McMurtry has since re-visited Odessa and recanted.)

One day, Chris and Dick were staring at a bunch of rocks Chris’ students had arranged in a rough approximation of Stonehenge.

“Chris said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to get a real Stonehenge?’ never dreaming that we would,” Dick recalls.

Connie Edwards, another Stonehenge fan and the owner of a limestone quarry about 60 miles from Odessa, helped make it happen. In 2002, Connie sold stones to people in Montana who were building a Stonehenge there. He returned with an idea: Why not a Stonehenge in Odessa? He would donate the stones.

So, the three got The University of Texas System’s approval to put Stonehenge on UTPB’s campus and plotted to position the stones exactly as they are in England.

“A surveyor studied this thing from morning to night to make sure the stones were oriented right,” Dick says. Dick raised money in the community to pay for moving the heavy stones.

The circle of stones has the same diameter as that of the original, but the structure is only 70 percent as tall. The Odessans saved a little money by using, for each vertical piece, two stones stacked atop each other. That meant heavy-equipment workers had to maneuver stones that weighed a mere 20,000 to 40,000 pounds, instead of 90,000.

The test of the positioning came on June 21, 2004—the Summer Solstice—when the rising sun was supposed to shine through a particular arch on the formation’s northeast side.

“It worked perfectly,” says Chris, who bases his judgment on photographic evidence. The solstice came on a cloudy day, and townspeople who had gathered to watch the phenomenon didn’t see much. But they came out, and that’s what matters to Chris.

“It gets people outside,” he says, noting that many who’ve come to see Stonehenge are interested not only in the stone structure, but also in a wealth of bivalve fossils imprinted in the stones during the Cretaceous period, when much of Texas was under the sea.

Mathematics, physics, and geology students make field trips to study UTPB’s Stonehenge, and public-school art students came from all over the Permian Basin this year to draw Stonehenge for the Regional Visual Arts Scholastic competition.

Wildlife likes Stonehenge, too. Migrating birds roost on the vertical stones, and rabbits hide under the ones that rest on the ground.

On the sunny day when I visited, seven-year-olds Josh Anderegg and Alika Archuleta were climbing on the huge rocks.

Chris pointed out fossils to the kids, and they took the idea and ran with it. “It looks like where a dinosaur sat,” Josh said of a broad indentation.

As far as Chris is concerned, that’s justification for a Stonehenge in Odessa. “That was the real dream,” he said, “that people would just come here and hang out.”

Who knows? Maybe that’s what the original Stonehenge was all about, too.

 

Stonehenge is on the northeastern edge of the Univ. of Texas of the Permian Basin, just off 42nd St. It’s free to look at and walk around. More information is available at www.utpb.edu. Odessa’s area code is 432.

Stonehenge isn’t the only British icon that Odessa has reproduced. The city also has a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. The Globe of the Great Southwest, on the Odessa College cam—pus at 2308 Shakespeare Rd., is home to productions throughout the year, including those of the annual Southwest Shakespeare Festival. More information at www.globesw.org. Tours are available by calling 332-1586.

Other Odessa attractions include a meteor crater (free, I-20, at Exit 108), the Presidential Museum (4919 E. University Blvd., 363-7737), and the Ellen Nöel Art Museum of the Permian Basin (next to the Presidential Museum, at 4909 E. University Blvd., 550-9696; www.noelartmuseum.org).

Dining Some of the best Mexican food I’ve found in Texas—and that’s saying a lot—is at La Bodega, 1024 E. 7th St. (333-4469). Or for an Asian bite, try Pad Thai, 3747 Andrews Hwy./US 385 (362-8660).

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