Hobby for nosy people

I took up a new hobby last year – estate sale shopping. Like my “hobby” of ghost town collecting, this new pastime does not require amassing a large collection of finds that I have to find storage for, however. Going to estate sales is, for me, simply another way to satiate my nosiness.

But I have to make myself clear; I’m not nosy about other people’s possessions. Rather, I like to go inside houses to savor, comment, critique, enjoy, and marvel at their architecture. And the older the house, the better. At the Dallas-area estate sales I frequent, I have the opportunity to visit early and mid-century homes that had been owned by one family for decades. After the last of the parental generation dies off, their possessions go on sale and the house itself is also up for grabs. Often, that means that the house will no doubt become bulldozer fodder as the new homeowners wish to transform geographically desirable addresses into fashionably designer homes with the latest accouterments. I could pretend to be understanding in their desire to tear down the older homes to build more modern ones. It’s their money, right? And everyone wants the latest conveniences, right?

lamar county log house front.jpg

Not a modern house.

But I’d be lying. I LIKE the older homes. I think pink, tiled bathrooms, with built-in toothbrush holders, are awesome. I cannot contain my enthusiasm when I encounter a vintage metal kitchen, often painted in a cheery yellow. Massive brick fireplaces with wooden mantles, built-in corner china cabinets, transoms, stained-glass windows, arched doorways, crystal door knobs, telephone nooks, linoleum, shag carpeting, scuffed wooden floors, decorative plaster… I’m a big fan.

Estate sales offer the rare opportunity for me to see these hidden gems before they’ve been demolished, and without having to employ a real estate agent, either. Visiting these sales is like capturing a small moment in time, before the future obliterates the past.

Published in: on January 13, 2016 at 6:20 pm  Comments (1)  
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Ruins Tell Stories

Lots of the pictures I post on my website, www.redriverhistorian.com, tend to be of ruins – disused buildings and such – and sometimes, I’ve been accused of worshipping “ruin porn,” as if I am some voyeuristic pervert.  I find that such an obnoxious term, and wonder if the same people who tell me this also insult people who visit and take pictures of the pyramids in Egypt, Mexico, or Guatemala.

Before I get accused of comparing cultural icons like the Sphinx to a disused gas station in Italy, Texas, hear me out.

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Modern American culture and history are built on commercialism, not ancestor worship (note I wrote “modern American culture” – that means I’m not talking about Cahokia or Spiro). The first European settlements in North America consisted of trading posts and plantations. Religious and governmental structures, like the missions and presidios in San Antonio, were erected to support the colonial exploitation of the continent. And while American children have been taught that the pilgrims came to Massachusetts to found a religious settlement, that intention was secondary; they were part of the Plymouth Colony, the primary goal of which was to send beaver pelts, copper, and timber back to Mother England. (** Please note that Pilgrims and Puritans are both from the Anglican Separatist tradition and only became distinctive as American history was documented in latter years).

Therefore, I argue, the demise of American capitalism is well worthy of documentation. Detroit, as well as the thousands of ghost towns dotting the United States, are all prime examples of the disintegration of a culture based on economic gains. Think about it – the eerie beauty of the abandoned Michigan Central Station in Detroit is directly related to the city’s demise as an industrial center. The same goes for the derelict storefronts in small towns like Gotebo, Oklahoma, because they serve as a very tangible reminder of how corporations have come to dominate and homogenize the cultural landscape.

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Michigan Central Station, Detroit and Gotebo, Oklahoma

What can I say? People who derisively label photographs of American abandonments as “ruin porn” are historically illiterate.

Published in: on June 19, 2014 at 4:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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We Built This City… Well, Not Really

Two interests tend to consume my mind. One is history, of course. The other, oddly, is urban planning. I’m by no means an expert on this topic, and I tend to focus on theory rather than action. Recently, I read “Geography of Nowhere” by James Howard Kunstler. He’s a bit of a whiner, but overall, he made some good (if obvious) observations that reaffirmed my opinion that there should be a growing movement to change the nature of our cities.

Specifically, I’m thinking of the cities within the Red River Valley… naturally.

fort worth stockyards downtown trinity best

(That’s the Trinity River, but still).

The “Old Southwest” was built by roads. Only in the southern parts (Louisiana, Arkansas) did rivers serve as a transportation route; otherwise, people traveled by foot, horse, stagecoach, buggy, railroads, streetcars, and automobiles. Naturally, our cities grew to accommodate these modes. Kunstler posits that this is the reason many American cities are built horizontally, with wide swaths of vacant land and acres of parking lots. While he has a point, I think the real culprits are the politicians who run the cities. It seems that the primary goal for council meetings is not to advocate for ideas that would create better communities, but rather what will make the most money. I once sat at a council meeting in my hometown and I swear, there were more “developers” in the meeting than there were media, citizens, and city employees. Not that construction is necessarily bad; it’s just that the kind of construction that tends to get the “go-ahead” by elected officials, many of whom don’t have any backgrounds in planning, repeats itself in every town. The big box stores made of pre-fabricated cement walls, large steel sheds, low roofed stripmalls, and bland suburban tracts that are approved by councils do not appeal to the aesthetics or the needs of those who have to live and work in the spaces. Literally, they create pockets of space that only suit their purposes but have no real connection to the city that surrounds them. The developers mostly don’t even live in the cities that they are developing, and without having a stake in the community, they have little interest in boosting the city’s appeal. While the council people do live in the cities, they usually have no way to not approve projects that meet the city code without protracted fights. And then we have to live in places that are depressing, ugly, and unwalkable.

Downtown Ardmore is really nice.

Downtown Ardmore is really nice.

One prime example is Texarkana. Up until the 1940s, this city had a vibrant downtown, filled with street cars, theaters, and home-grown businesses.For the majority of city-dwellers, department stores, grocers, and hardware stores were either a simple walk or a short trolley ride away. But then the interstate was built. The city approved new projects along this behemoth, neglecting its core in favor of  cheap land, hastily-imagined building codes, and the promise of future tax revenue (usually an unlikely source of potential revenue, as abatements often outlived the businesses they were supposed to help). The very leaders who were charged with advocating  for citizens’ welfare instead sold off the future of the city, and didn’t give themselves any recourse to stop this strangulation of its core.

The interstate put a damper on downtown Texarkana.

The interstate put a damper on downtown Texarkana.

I love to daydream about how to re-imagine our cities. I wish I could push for the end of strip malls in the middle of nowhere, and instead have businesses line the streets around downtowns. I’d make front lawns obsolete – seriously, what are they good for? – and make homes and businesses vertical to compact the space. I’d maintain all sidewalks and bike lanes, and rid cities of one way streets.

The nerd has spoken.

Published in: on April 17, 2013 at 4:31 am  Leave a Comment  
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Mapping the Red River Valley

Google Maps have been my constant companion since they were introduced back in the stone ages (okay, a few years ago). I can’t believe I ever did research without them, and I seriously pity the historians who came before me who didn’t have this kind of tool at their disposal.

I should mention that I’ve been a map fiend from way back, and have always used them extensively… but! The satellite pictures on Google Maps (and Google Earth) truly help me understand the geographical context of what I’m researching.

CaptureSpanishBluff

A snapshot of Spanish Bluff, the place where the Custis/Freeman Expedition was halted by Spanish troops in the early part of the 19th century.

History cannot exist without a grasp of the geography where events took place. The location, time, and space are all important factors in understanding why and how things happened. Sometimes, it’s not the easiest thing to picture… landscapes change, after all.

Let’s take at a photo I found on the Texas & Pacific Railway Historical Archive website:

denison tp tunnel

Denison, where this photo was taken, doesn’t look at all like it did back in its railroading hey-day. So I checked the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps to make sure that I am seeing the intersection of tracks correctly, as it seems the T&P tracks are passing underneath the MKT tracks:

CaptureSanborndenison

Using descriptions from the T&P site (behind Crockett and Hull Streets) and discerning the railroad bed from up in the air, I found the disused right-of-way on Google Maps. I made sure it was the right one when I traced it back to Bells.

CaptureDenisonKatylinemod

And, if you look closer, you can even spot a section of the stone wall from the old tunnel:

CaptureDenisonwall

Which is what I photographed when I visited Denison the other day:

Denison wall on old katy right of way

 

Looking at the photograph and the current condition of where the railroad used to be gives me a sense of how much Denison has changed over the years.

Then, there’s the question I had about something I saw from the air in Sherman, between Mulberry and Pacific Streets (south/north) and Willow and Lee Streets (west/east):

CaptureShermangoogle

It looked industrial (that wasn’t too far-fetched) so I decided to see what I could from old maps. First, I checked out the Bird’s eye map:

CaptureShermanbirdseyeCaptureSherman13

And then checked the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map:

CaptureShermansanborn

So, the bases I’m seeing are peanut and cotton oil tanks. Not earth-shattering, but at least I know what I’m looking at when I check out the ruins.

Another way to do this is to check city directories from the time periods, but since I don’t have them handy, I’ll use the maps to figure things out.

This kind of research is what goes on all the time inside museums, archives, libraries, bored people’s laptops at Starbucks, etc. Hey, it’s something to do!

Published in: on March 17, 2013 at 1:45 am  Comments (2)  
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Three Things I love about Fort Worth

Fort Worth Camp Bowie Landmark Lodge small

A while back, I posited three of Dallas’ greatest places to visit… according to my biased, unasked-for opinion, anyway. Woe is me if I didn’t give Fort Worth its fair share of my enthusiasm. Fort Worth is, by anyone’s account, a city that knows its identity – pure western – and knows its value, as evidenced by the way citizens and benefactors care for it. Fort Worth is full of architectural gems, vibrant city life, and cultural mainstays, and I feel the need to give it its Red River Historian due. Therefore, in no particular order,  my top Fort Worth-y places are:

Camp Bowie Boulevard
I love roads – so much, in fact, that I’ve made it a habit of learning the history of highways. While Fort Worth has long been a crossroads of many different overland pathways, I have a special affinity for Camp Bowie Boulevard. The Camp Bowie Historical District  has fought hard to keep its original, brick-lined integrity intact. Fort Worth’s modern history is centered around this road, with locally-owned restaurants, small florist shops, traffic circles, and old-fashioned motor courts along the west end. At the other end of the boulevard (nearest downtown) sits the famous Kimball Art Museum. A large Picasso statue welcomes visitors (special exhibits require entrance fees, but the permanent collection is free).

Fort Worth Camp Bowie with Lucilles

Surrounding the Kimball are the Museum of Modern Art, with its contemplative exterior and expansive interior, and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Nearby are the Cattle Raisers Museum, National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, and the Fort Worth Museum of Natural History.

Believe me, you can spend DAYS here. So when you’re all museumed-out, come on over to my next-favorite place in Fort Worth:

The Texas & Pacific Station
Of all 20th-century design styles, the most decadent and identifiable is art deco, and the Texas & Pacific Station along Lancaster Avenue (the original US 80) sits as a holy grail to this style. While the upstairs portions are now lofts, the lower portion is still accessible. To take the Trinity Railway Express to Dallas, you’ll have to enter the station to get to the platform. From there, you can witness the many freight and Amtrak trains that come in and out of Fort Worth as well as fabled Tower 55, one of the last, fully functioning railway control towers in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The T&P Station used to be sit forlorn and empty after Interstate 30 was built on its north side, which separated it from its historic place at the south end of downtown. Luckily, the interstate was reconfigured to the south of the station, and now this wonderful building is, once again, a true Fort Worth icon.

Pictures can't do the T&P Station justice, but I'll try.

Apparently, the love I have for Fort Worth centers around transportation, and my last entry lets you use your own power:

The Trinity Trail passes the Swift ruins.

Trinity River Trail
To get a real feel for what my ex-coworker used to affectionately call “Funky Town,” I take bike rides between the Trinity River levees along the Trinity River Trail network. The trails stretch several miles to the east, south, and west, and they take me to downtown, towards the zoo, and into the Stockyards. I love this ride, as I get to pass under multiple railroad bridges – as someone who really loves trains, it’s always a bonus to get a little closer to them (and even on a quiet Sunday, I counted at least ten freight trains). But I especially like the scenery on the trail. The Trinity River Trail system provides a complete picture of Fort Worth, and I urge anyone who can to bike, walk, ride a horse, or mosey on a scooter to take it and see the city from such a historic and serene vantage point.

So these are my favorite places, but I could point out quite a few more: the Old Southern Pancake House! Miss Molly’s Burgers! Lucille’s! (Huh, all of these are food places, so I must be hungry). Okay, non-eateries: the Davidson and Centennial Yards! The old KATY bridge on East Morningside Drive! What used to be Hell’s Half Acre!

fort worth katy bridge
I just count myself darn lucky that I live in the Dallas/Fort Worth metro-mess, because I’m in awe of these fascinating cities. And that I consider them a part of the Red River Valley region, of course!

Walking and Discovering

I am usually on-the-go on weekends, but this Saturday found me in a somber kind of mood. While I’ve been enjoying the mild winter and am really excited about the signs of spring that have blossomed around me, I kind of felt out of sorts. To cheer up, I decided to go for a walk.

Always fun to find history.

Walking is a great spirit-lifter, of course. But I wasn’t looking forward to taking a walk around my own neighborhood. Not that it’s a bore, but frankly, I walk the mile-radius around my house all the time and what I really needed was a change of scenery. So, I picked out an older neighborhood in Denton and strolled my way through quaint gardens, rock fences, and bungalows with deep porches. I even found a few petrified wood pieces inside herb and flower beds. I saw a few cats and lots of squirrels, a couple of grinning garden gnomes, dog foot prints forever encased in concrete, and dodged lots of mosquito hawks.

I’ve done this a few times before – picked out a cute place in a different town and went for a stroll. It’s simply fun to blend in with the environment and experience the place as a resident would. And it’s a great way to get ideas for how to spruce up my own yard and front porch. I also like that I’m left alone with my thoughts, and that I can pace myself without worrying too much about traffic or other people. The discoveries made on these walks tend to make me feel as if I uncovered secrets, too, like when I noticed the WPA stamp on a broken sidewalk when I strolled through Mineral Wells, or the old toys strewn along an alley behind a garage apartment in Durant.

If it wasn’t for walking around and being nosy, I’d never have found these trolley tracks in Mineral Wells, either.

Yes, my entertainment runs on the cheap and boring side. I’m never going to be the life of the party when my idea of fun involves walking through the city streets of some strange town. Guess what, though?  I realized today that I need to do it more often.

Published in: on March 4, 2012 at 5:00 am  Comments (3)  
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In Defense of Automobiles

I love a good road trip, and I believe that I’m not alone in sharing that sentiment. I’d wager to guess that the majority of people from all over the world like to move about and see what they haven’t  seen yet, and experience things they haven’t yet come across. To want to get up and go is probably simple human nature.

But I’m also very environmentally conscious. I like my world green and clean. I recycle, plant only native shrubs, grasses, and trees, eat hand-gathered eggs, insulate my house properly, ride my bike to shopping, never litter, and pick up after my dogs.

Thus, many of my travels always come with twangs of guilt. Just last week, I once again took a road trip. This time, I retraced the old route of US Highway 77. Having been bypassed in many places by Interstate 35, it often proved a hard road to follow, but I lucked out and found both official and forgotten remnants along the way. I also discovered right-of-ways of long-abandoned railroad lines (mainly the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad). That, of course, made me think about the environmental impact of all the ways I could travel – by plane, train, or the automobile.

The Southern Pacific Sunbeam and the Sam Houston Zephyr at Dallas Union Station.

The oldest kind of major traveling option are trains, but here in Texas, they are also the most neglected. It used to be that daily trains from Dallas to Houston to Austin to San Antonio to Oklahoma City to Shreveport, et. al., were common sights. Now, those routes have been torn up, to either be used as bike paths or to simply exist as forgotten berms on the side of the road. Today, only three long-distance trains serve Texas (the Texas Eagle, Sunset Limited, and Heartland Flyer), and only one is in Oklahoma (Heartland Flyer). Hopefully, that will change soon, as talks are giving way to action in installing a high-speed rail line.

High-speed railroads are supposed to be THE answer to transportation problems like pollution and congestion. I’m all for them, because locomotives (whether at 60 mph or at 160 mph) use hybrid technology that use less diesel the faster they go, and carry more people per gallon than any other passenger carrier. So, yea for trains.

Planes offer a different experience, of course. They are far from efficient in their carbon footprint, but their speed makes up for their lack of environmental friendliness. I hate flying, though.

Remains of a gas station along US 77

Then, there’s the scourge of the earth – the personal car. When taking into account the gas used per miles driven, and the number of each needed to equal the capacity of one airplane or one train, then environmentally speaking, the car is a MAJOR loser. And I hear about it all the time, too: automobiles are major polluters, co-commuting and less driving will save the earth, etc.

And that’s all true. But I tell you what, cars have also been VERY beneficial in many ways. While I can’t dispute their negative environmental impact, I can say that of all the long-distance traveling options, cars are by far the most democratic. When I was driving along and around US 77, I saw many small mom & pop store, cafes, gas stations, and auto part stores (many still in operation) that crowd the sides of the roads. Airplanes don’t allow for that kind of infrastructure at all, of course, and train stations have limited space to accommodate small businesses. Cars are also quite affordable. Yes, I know they cost money (insurance, payments, taxes, repairs) but these costs can be stretched out over a period of time, whereas plane and train ticket costs cannot. Further, their affordability comes from their accessibility – cars can take you practically anywhere, whereas trains and planes bring you only to certain pre-designated spots. Besides, cars can be used (or not) as needs arise, meaning one can have a “beater car” and still get by.

Taking bikes rock, but driving rocks, too.

It’s not that I don’t favor alternate modes of transport… I definitely do! I take the train as much as I can. I voted for a commuter rail line that by June of this year will come through my town. I also walk to the grocery store and ride my bike to run errands. But, I have to admit – I LOVE my car, too. I love that I can drive around the Red River Valley and discover places I’ve never been to; that I can pick a place on a map and be able to visit it; that I can eat, read, and even sleep inside my car (which I’ve done on occasion, after visiting a ghost town in the middle of nowhere).  The car has provided me with more freedom than any other mode of transportation. I think everyone should feel this kind of freedom, too. Cars should become more affordable, more efficient, smaller, and more reliable. It may not be the “in” thing to say among my fellow tree-hugging friends, but I’ll say it, anyway: cars are cool.

I wouldn't mind road tripping in this.

Musing while on Amtrak

I took the Texas Eagle from Dallas to Chicago the other week, and had a great time doing so. There’s nothing like falling asleep to the clickity-clack of the rails, and waking up to see the mighty Mississippi River sparkling under the morning sun.

I’ve been to Chicago many times before. I’ve flown and driven, but nothing beats entering this grand city on the train. While it’s not the most scenic route – I saw plenty of hobo camps and abandoned car parts (and a whole car or two!) – I got a real sense of the city just by looking at its industrial and residential landscapes roll by. Chicago’s a compact city, with high urban density and a fantastic public infrastructure. It’s what a city SHOULD be like.

Fabulous downtown Chicago

And then, sigh, the Eagle and I glided back down through the Dallas. Dallas is the very opposite of Chicago in terms of its architecture and infrastructure – it’s a sprawling, meandering urban conglomeration with housing that looks like warehouses and vast stretches of empty, abused, and misused land. Watching the weed-strewn lots and urban blight roll by, I became almost obsessed with the questions that have bogged my mind for a long time: why does Dallas planning not seem to have any rhyme or reason? Why are the suburbs competing with, rather than enhancing, the city?

In terms of development, Dallas is about 50 years younger than Chicago – not so far apart at all. But they’re worlds apart when you look at how their growth has been managed. Chicago built up – Dallas built out. Chicago made room for trains and cars. Dallas forgot trains and relied too much on cars. Chicago didn’t allow its sports stadiums to leave the city. Dallas lets sports owners move to suburbs where public transportation is nonexistent. Chicago built around its river, which meanders through the heart of the city. Dallas turned its back on the Trinity River, and straightened it out so much that it has now become a lonely creek. Chicago has culture with world-class museums, art exhibits, and sculptures on public squares. Dallas neglects its cultural gem, Fair Park, in favor of shiny new developments that are devoid of life – like Victory Park.

Oh, and Chicago allows visitors to go up the Sears/Willis Tower. Dallas’ number one tourist attraction, Reunion Tower, has been closed for three years now, and no one has been able to go up to enjoy the view except customers of a restaurant now owned by celebrity chef, Wolfgang Puck.

Fabulous downtown Dallas (why's the tower still closed, Wolfgang Puck?)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I think Dallas is awesome. Maybe that’s why I get so worked up over what I think Dallas COULD be.

Published in: on August 31, 2010 at 8:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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While I was walking…

… through my hometown of Lewisville, Texas I was struck by my failure to bring the camera with me. Normally, I take my Canon everywhere I go, in the off-chance that I’ll find something interesting. And over the years, I’ve captured some incredible places and scenes that sent me deeper into their histories.

But it never even occurred to me to take the camera as I made my way through the Old Town area. As I passed by the old Huffines building, which was Lewisville’s first auto dealership, and stepped back in time as I entered the feed mill, which is the oldest, continuously-run business in Denton County, I wanted to kick myself for wasting a golden opportunity. Shoot,  I ride my bike around town quite a bit, and have not EVER taken photos to document my excursions.

I wonder if we all do that – we are so familiar with our every-day surroundings that we neglect them completely. We just tend to think that the old buildings will be there next year, too. And those people who remember what the neighborhood used to be like? They’ll be around next month, right?

Uh, no. People and buildings and history all crumble if we don’t take care of them. I don’t know if I’d call it an obligation to remind us to remember, but I will call it a necessity. And I’ve been very neglectful of these necessities.

So, while I get my camera out and ready to take a much-needed look at what’s right in front of me, I’ll post at least one photo of Lewisville that I found in my collection:

Inside this building which now houses a restaurant, Raymond Hamilton, who was once a member of the Barrow Gang, staged his last bank robbery.

Published in: on July 5, 2010 at 5:31 pm  Comments (2)  
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