Dallas and Fort Worth represent only one facet of the Texas experience. Leaving the two large cities, we kept to the side roads and found a string of small-to-tiny towns, some of them thriving and pleasant, others not so much. In some cases, the town has dried up so completely that the only remnant is the sign, one in each direction on the highway. These are the towns where the railroad promised to come but instead built tracks a Youth football mile or so away, or where the county seat was moved, or simply where the young people moved out, year after year.
The towns which are still alive work hard to distinguish themselves from their neighors. They may erect memorials to their founders, support a community college or develop a tournament-champion high school sports team. They will refurbish the storefronts and sponsor art displays on Main Street or the Historic District, and volunteers will give tours. In many instances, a local business is steadily at work to keep the town attractive.
Texas towns love football. Entering Celina, Texas, on a Saturday morning we wondered why both sides of the road were lined with parked cars. It turned out to be a school football game, complete with tailgaters, roaring crowds, cavorting uniformed cheerleaders, professional-looking officials -- and tiny players, already Art in a field dreaming of playing in the big Friday night high school game when they grow up.
We looked for the field, in St. Jo, Texas, which was reputed to hold some folk art sculptures, especially a herd of a half dozen VW Beetles. We stopped at the library for directions and met the librarian, who had been born and raised in St. Jo but had moved away for about thirty years before deciding to make his permanent home there. He not only told us about the field but mentioned several additional sights we should see, noted the artist's gallery down the street, recommended a place for lunch and told us why the town has this name: it was founded by two good friends, one of whom drank. The drinker nicknamed his abstaining buddy a Moulton Yule Walk Saint, possibly ironically. The name stuck.
Moulton, Texas, population 944, has a Main Street that runs along the former railroad track. They have set up their holiday decorations early and they are cheery. It seems that every business and family has a spot, from a simple candy cane staff to a large cardboard cutout, and the greetings are in several languages including our favorite Slovak quote.
Palestine, Texas, is much larger at 18,000 but is still struggling to restore its downtown area. They have been working hard on tourist attractions, such as the Texas State Railroad, which is powered by a steam engine and takes passengers on a thirty-mile ride through the piney woods near town. While we were there they were offering the Polar Express -- hot chocolate and a chance to chat with Santa. They have additional festivals during the year. They are aided by several industries that are located in or near town. Their most elaborate effort is the new juried sculpture exhibit, in which some thirty artists have entered works which are placed on pedestals on the downtown streets. At the Blue Bell Creamery
Brenham, Texas, is the proud host of the Blue Bell Creamery. The company's slogan is, "We eat all we can and sell the rest." This is the headquarters of the third largest ice cream manufacturer in the U.S., and its influence is widespread around the area, from storekeepers to restaurants to dairy farmers and truck drivers. The ice cream is homogenized a second time, giving it a delicious creamy texture. We enjoyed our tour, with a surprisingly large group of area visitors, watching the machines pump back and forth, and learning that the pipes carrying the ice cream were not painted white -- they were covered with frost.
We ate a tasty lunch of Cajun-inspired seafood at the Longhorn Saloon, where a particular treat was the sight of a large black-Stetsoned cowby sitting at a table with his small black-Stetsoned son. There are plenty of little special-purpose stores and galleries near the courthouse square, and there is, generally, an optimistic spirit.
One constant thread in our travel is the fairly frequent realization that we have great gaps in our understanding of American history. In earlier years we learned about King Philip's War and the War of 1812, two deeply unpopular wars which are rarely discussed or taught. Recently we have been reading about Quanah Parker, the Comanche chief who first gained fame as a warrior and subsequently melded into the Anglo world, entering political life in what later became Southern Oklahoma.
This has led us to inquire into the Republic of Texas, the result of a revolt of early Anglo settlers of Texas against the far-away Mexican government of Santa Anna. Most of the rebels expected to immediately be absorbed into the U.S., although it took 10 years for this to happen, after a vicious war with Santa Anna's army. Meanwhile, the Texas Rangers were formed to deal with the extremely ferocious and undeclared war with the Comanches, who were fighting to retain their very existence as nomadic bands of buffalo hunters.
The recent political Texas Revolution Monument oratory about Texas seceding from the United States builds upon this historical "precedent," although most Texas secession advocates are more interested in the shock value of the plan. Certainly Texans are known for boastfulness. We visited one State Park, Washington-on-the-Brazos, where the Constitution of the Republic of Texas was signed. We were amused by terms such as "sacred ground" referring to this place, and irritated by the tendency to create myths while ignoring historical reality.
Gonzalez, Texas, is known as "the Lexington of Texas" which makes us think about the gritty underpinnings of so many American legends. When the small Anglo settlement in Mexican territory was being threatened by Indian attacks, the Mexican government gave them a cannon for their defense. But when, in the following year, the Anglos declared their own Republic, the Mexican government sent its troops to retrieve the cannon. The Texians made a flag reading "Come and Take it" and fought off the Mexican troops. This was the beginning of a bloody conflict in which many of the casualties were the settlers and their families.
Today these towns are as varied and as intriguing as anybody can imagine, and the spaces between are filled with ranches, pastureland, farms and woods. Except for the many historical markers, a traveler would not have any idea how much blood had been spilled throughout this region.