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.

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Published in: on January 13, 2016 at 6:20 pm  Comments (1)  
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Town Beautiful

Is there such a thing as an “urban planning nerd?” Because if there is, then that’s what I am. I have not formally studied this kind of endeavor, so all of the information and conjecture I postulate is strictly founded on the predicate that “your mileage may vary.” But that won’t stop me from telling you exactly what I think. Lucky you.

When I drive around – which I do a lot, to a lot of different places, in hopes of discovering the history of the Red River Valley – I tend to notice what towns work, and which ones do not. By work, I don’t necessarily mean that I count how many manufacturing plants or how many businesses are located inside a town, though good urban planning will definitely help a town have both. I look to see if there are people walking, and under what circumstances. Are they having to use the street to get from point A to point B, or can they use sidewalks? Are the sidewalks actually maintained, or are they pitted by ruts and dirt? Is the grocery store far away from neighborhoods, or is it close by? Are houses well maintained, or do they look like perpetual yard sales? Are the town’s parks and other respite places in walking distance, or is a car to ferry the kids around mandatory?

shreveport peytons us 80 small

Before Texas Street ( US 80) in Shreveport was superseded by Interstate 20, this neighborhood epitomized compact and good urban design.

More than anything else, the environment in which we live has a profound impact on how we see and interact with the world. Neighborhoods that are walled and gated, for example, give the impression of fear and distrust. Strip malls that are half-empty and moated by huge parking lots (and sometimes, surrounded by ill-maintained car washes) look depressing and dangerous. Places with few or no sidewalks seem very discouraging, even suspicious, of normal human activity, such as walking and biking. This kind of atmosphere doesn’t lend itself well to enticing new enterprises to open shop, people taking success and schooling seriously, or citizens having confidence in their elected officials. While all of this may sound like common sense, I have to wonder, why is it that many towns and cities ignore these fairly basic tenets?

irving big state sign

Businesses should be at the street – not in the middle of a sea of empty parking lots – and neighborhoods should be compact. Well, I think so, anyway.

One reason I can deduce is that Southerners pretend not to like too much government interference. The opinion goes that no one – no neighbors, code enforcer, or some arbitrary rule – should preclude one from the enjoyment of one’s own property. And I can appreciate this, of course. But communally owned property, such as city sidewalks, business districts, parks, and streets, should be viewed not simply as necessities, but rather calling cards: “We live here and we love it here.” Compact streets in interconnected neighborhoods that are walkable, maintained, and close to what makes a place livable – such as parks, grocery stores, and libraries – give the impression of a working town. Not just working in the sense of people having jobs, but also in the ways that make life pleasant and beautiful.

Is beauty and harmony in the world a concept we should all strive for?  My little, unimportant opinion is that they’re the only things that make life worth living, and the most immediate way to achieve them starts in our own neighborhoods.

Published in: on June 8, 2015 at 7:58 pm  Comments (4)  
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Antebellum Ghost Towns and the Railroads that did them in

I’ve been making several trips around the Red River Valley to discover forgotten towns for my book project this summer. However, I don’t just look for cemeteries, even though they’re the best way to find old settlements. I want to find actual ruins! I think that remains speak much louder than anything can, so I look for towns with remains.

The other day, I took a trip around Louisiana and found the antebellum town of Allen’s Settlement, which was built around intersecting roads. Because nothing remains of Allen’s Settlement,  I don’t consider it necessarily a “ghost town” that needs to be visited.

Allens Settlement

Allen’s Settlement in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, 1863.

But it makes me wonder – why did some towns thrive and others falter? I guess it’s because most antebellum towns west of the Mississippi River did not survive the railroad boom. It’s not necessarily just because the existing towns didn’t provide enough incentive for the companies to lay tracks, though. These corporations – the original “corporate personhoods”- often had settlement, or rather town building, subsidiaries that speculated on selling land plots. They didn’t want to (or need to) compete with established towns as the state granted them charters, like the land grant companies of old, to entice settlers. They simply built new towns, and the profits of both freight hauling and land sales could be gained by the railroads exclusively.

Examples of the railroad land schemes can be found all over the Red River Valley: Hope (Hempstead County, Arkansas) and Texarkana (Miller County, Arkansas and Bowie County, Texas) were founded by the railroads, as was Denison (Grayson County, Texas).

Hope UP train

Trains made Hope, Arkansas what it is today – including the Hempstead County seat.

Luckily, some antebellum cities along the Red River still exist – Dallas, Sherman, Alexandria, Shreveport, Natchitoches, and Marksville, for example. Being a county seat helped them to survive, of course – however, Hope wrestled the county seat status away from Washington, as did Ashdown from Richmond (Little River County, Arkansas) – so political status was no guarantee. The take-away is that in the American capitalist system, money talks. Cities that were able to incentivize railroads enough for them to lay tracks were able to “weather” the corporate land take-overs.

Railroads might be romantic and all, but above all, they were corporations that changed the very nature of human settlement patterns, at least in the US. They are the true Goliaths.

Published in: on May 16, 2015 at 2:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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An Arkansas Traveler

The old story of the “Arkansas Traveler” tells of a person coming through the backwoods of Arkansas and happening upon a house. The traveler is lost or maybe just curious, and the house’s inhabitants answer his questions  – such as “Where is the nearest town?” or “What do you do here for fun?” – in a roundabout manner… “It’s closest to the nearest signpost” or “Spit upwind and see on who it lands.” The conversation then devolves from there. Depending on the person telling the tale, it either makes fun of the foreign nube or the Arkansas dude.

"Arkansas Traveler" sheet music cover, 1937, Library of Congress."

“Arkansas Traveler” by Herb Block, 1937, Library of Congress.

 

I’ve been traveling through Arkansas on and off for the last six months to complete my newest book, The Red River in Arkansas: Gateway to the Southwest (The History Press, forthcoming February 2014), and all I can say is that I’ve never met nicer folks or a more interesting section of the Red River Valley.

The Red River makes a big bend right alongside the old steamboat port of Fulton. All rivers have their bends, some more than others (the Red River exhibits several, actually). What makes the Great Bend so important to the Red is that it changes the nature of the river, as it falls from a west -to-east stream  to a north-to-south stream. This also means that it changes from a sandy, broad, and not-very-navigable river to a narrower, deeper, and navigable channel. And not just that; the culture of the river changes, too. The American West, with its nomadic native tribes and its reliance on range animals, gives way to the Old South, with its reliance on cotton economy, race, and the plantation system. Yeah, I’m painting with broad strokes here, but history bears me out.

The railroad bridge above the Red River at Fulton.

The railroad bridge above the Red River at Fulton.

Maybe that’s why I’ve developed a real affection for Fulton. During the mid-19th century, this city was THE place for cotton shipments. I was also able to find several accounts of a booming slave trade based on the region’s many plantations, both big and small. It was also a genuine frontier town, situated directly across Old Mexican Texas (until 1836) and then the Republic of Texas before the border lines shifted in favor of the Lone Star State. Sam Williams, who grew up in Fulton during the 1830s where his father ran a tavern, reminisced about the town’s propensity as an emigrant gateway, with several inns, bars, restaurants and gambling halls to cater to their needs. He also said – and I can picture a twinkle in his eye – that there weren’t many churches around as Fulton’s inhabitants weren’t exactly “religiously inclined.”

Fulton, like the rest of the Old Southwest before the Civil War, succumbed to the modern age of the railroads and automobiles. There’s not much left to indicate what the area used to look like, or how busy it once was. Floods and new cities, such as Texarkana and Hope, replaced the older settlements in economics and location, just like the older Anglo settlements replaced the Caddoan villages that dotted the Red River before the Louisiana Purchase. Progress, whether good or bad, has made its mark on this small but incredibly diverse portion of the Red River. It fascinates me to no end, and provides me with ample opportunity to try to discover remnants of what used-to-be.

A great place to begin this historical exploration is Washington State Historic Park, located along the Southwest Trail (the Old Chihuahua Trail, now State Road 195) a few miles northeast of Fulton. There, the traveler can discover the importance of Hempstead County’s first seat and the temporary capital of Arkansas during the Civil War, with two courthouses, plenty of vintage houses, a recreation of the blacksmith shop where James Bowie supposedly had his famous knife designed, and the largest magnolia tree in the state. The Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives are there as well, with tons of information – including maps and photographs – about the area.

A scene from Old Washington

A scene from Old Washington

Washington and Fulton are both on this Southwest Trail, the main road that led people like Stephen F. Austin and his original 300 settlers into Texas. What I found interesting is that the trail is well-marked between Washington and Fulton, but north of Washington, the road becomes indistinguishable amid a plethora of dirt roads. I tried to follow the old trail, but got lost.

I reckon the tale of the Arkansas Traveler is still pretty pertinent.

The book will appear at stores and online in February 2014! You know you want it.

The book will appear at stores and online in February 2014! You know you want it.

Published in: on January 2, 2014 at 3:36 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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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!

Mapping the Red River Valley

When I go somewhere, I take a long a few necessities. A cell phone is always a good idea. So are cash, tea, and Altoids. My camera sticks to me like glue. But other indispensable tools when I’m road tripping are my wonderful, incredible maps.

You can infer a lot by reading maps. And I’m not talking just road maps, but topographical and historical maps, too. That’s why I spend hours perusing maps and atlases, just like others spend reading novels. Place names, the flow of rivers, and little towns in the middle of nothing all provide clues to the mysteries of human settlement, and how people react to their environment.

One of my favorite maps belongs to the SPV’s Comprehensive Railroad Atlas of North America series. There are several editions of these atlases that cover geographic zones, and I own the southern Plains and the Texas versions. Inside the atlas are maps of railroad routes that traveled throughout the region, whether in use or in disuse. I try to take “my SPV” along for all of my road trips, as it helps me to figure out what I’m looking at if I happen to come across an old siding, depot, or overgrown right-of-way.

A map of Shreveport's railroad lines offer glimpses into Shreveport's past.

Another “must” are the state atlases published by Mapsco and DeLorme. Each atlas includes county roads, major highways, old towns, and rail lines. Texas A&M publishes an atlas solely for Texas, which also provides information on elevations, cemeteries, and historic sites.

I sometimes bring WPA guides on my road trips, too. While they are definitely not up-to-date, it’s still interesting to see the cities from the experiences of writers who traveled 70 plus years ago. Landscape descriptions have changed, too, which make for interesting reading.

When I get home, Google Earth becomes one of my first stops. It’s fascinating to see from the air the places I had seen earlier on the ground. Often, Google Earth (and Google Maps) help me understand the context of what I saw.

My favorite maps are from the pre-Interstate era, like these two. The Ashburn Map is from the 1950s, and the Conoco Map dates from the late 1930s.

Maps are excellent historic sources and also serve as primary sources, too. I love that geography has become so much a part of my daily life now!

Published in: on May 31, 2011 at 9:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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