Friday, August 27, 2010

Texas Wine Country

Living in a place like California can make one a little myopic as to what the rest of the world has to offer. California, of course, has a very rich and extensive history of wine making that harkens back to the bringing of European grapes by Cortés and the hordes of Mission Friars that came around 1520. The vines were brought initially to produce sacramental wine for Mass (yeah, I’m sure that’s all they used it for). Of course, the Spanish, realizing there was a market for mass consumption, a real moneymaker, expanded their wineries to all regions of California.

When we think of wine, many of us immediately think of the Napa and Sonoma region of northern California, but in America, we rarely hear of any other places that produce wine. Meanwhile, there is a vast thriving grape squeezing business going on right here in Texas.

A little history is needed here. Texas has always had many native grape varieties naturally growing within the State. What isn’t generally known is the impact Texas grapes have had on the more contemporary history of wine making. There was a thing called the Great French Wine Blight in the mid-19th century that destroyed many of the vineyards in France (and Europe in general) and laid waste to the wine industry. It was caused by an aphid, commonly known as grape phylloxera that originated in North America and was carried across the Atlantic in the late 1850s.

How the Phylloxera aphid was introduced to Europe remains hotly debated: American vines had been taken to Europe many times before, for reasons including experimentation and trials in grafting, without consideration of the possibility of the introduction of infection to native grapes.

It is argued by some that the introduction of such pests as phylloxera was only a problem after the invention of steamships, which allowed a faster journey across the ocean, and consequently allowed durable pests, such as the Phylloxera, to survive.

Fortunately, the remedy of grafting resistant American rootstock was well known and the Californian wine industry was able to quickly rebound and utilized the opportunity to expand the plantings of new grape varieties.

Although the French had known about the blight for some time, it took an American in 1870 named Charles Valentine Riley to figure out that by grafting a Phylloxera resistant American rootstock to the infected European rootstock, they could reconstitute the European vines and end the blight, thus saving the European wine industry.

Back to Texas and our own T. V. Munson of Denison, Texas. Munson moved to Denison, Texas, in April 1876 where two of his brothers had already relocated. Few persons have or will ever study, describe, classify, breed, select, propagate, market, record, and exhibit greater technical excellence about the grape than Mr. Munson. For 30 years, 1880 to 1910, he traveled 50,000 miles by horse, train, and foot in 40 states, making concise notes on over 1,000 native vines.

The greatest contribution of T. V. Munson was his cooperation with the French wine industry in developing Phylloxera resistant rootstocks. Once the solution was identified by Charles Valentine Riley and it was learned that American species were resistant, the great challenge of moving rootstock material to France was taken up by Munson. For four months in south central Texas, from Bell to Bexar (pronounced “Bar”) counties, Munson organized dozens of workers and landowners who collected 15 wagons of dormant stem cuttings for shipment to France. The vines were the breeding stock for the rootstocks, which saved the European wine industry. Yes, we baled them out of that one and those little skirmishes of WWI and WWII and they still don’t like us. Riley and Munson were feted as heros by most of Europe.

Hundreds of villages were saved and thousands of grape growers were able to grow grapes again. The rootstocks used throughout the world today originated from that Texas native grape material from Munson. For this effort, T. V. Munson was awarded the Legion of Honor, Chevalier du Merite Agricole, by the French Government. Who knew Texas held such an important place in wine making history?

Matter of fact, the most important agricultural/viticulture (that’s grape growing for us uneducated folks) schools in Texas are at Texas A&M University, Texas Tech, and closer to home, Munson’s work is preserved as a course of study at Grayson County College in Munson’s home of Denison, Texas just north of us here in Collin County.
All of this was brought to our attention by making a last minute stop at a winery just on the outskirts of McKinney, Texas one afternoon. Our friends, Debbie and Torrey, had seen a small sign on the side of the road directing us to Wales Manor Winery . As we turned into the front gate, we were immediately greeted by rows of grape vines leading to a modest wooden structure in a stand of trees. We were greeted by the winery’s owner, John “Josey” Wales. John is a long time airline pilot and former Army helicopter pilot (my kind of guy). His call sign was “Josey”. He told us he always had a taste for fine wines and his aviation career gave him plenty of opportunities to visit wineries in many different countries. He got the bug and decided he wanted to make his own wine and put together Wales Manor.
John told us the story of how all 12 original grape varieties originated in Persia back to about 6000 to 5000 BC. The earliest evidence of wine production was around 6500 B.C. by the Macedonians (now southern Greece). The grapes moved to Egypt when Marc Antony and his Roman buddies got a taste for the juice. They began shipping vines back to Europe and they spread them throughout the Roman Empire. That’s how they got established in places like Germany, France and Spain. When the Chinese made a run into eastern Europe and Greece, they too got a taste and brought grapes to Asia. The rest is, well alcoholic history.

John said some of the earliest recorded Texas wines were produced by Spanish missionaries in the 1650s near El Paso. He said grapes and wine making were big business right up to the Civil War (War of Northern Aggression for you southerners). Then there was Prohibition. Even today, a quarter of Texas' 254 counties still have dry laws on the books. That’s caused a huge interruption in the production of grapes and Texas wine and the industry is just now making a serious come back.

Wales Manor Winery is unique in that John doesn’t advertise or sell his product outside of his little operation. You can’t find his wine in restaurants, grocery stores or liquor stores. He sells everything from his little tasting room, website, and at open-air events he sponsors at the winery like weddings, private parties and outdoor concerts. As he poured sample after sample of his wines for us, he gave us an example of how he names his wines.

While pouring us a delicious little Cabernet Sauvignon Rose named “Passion”, he pointed to the image of a lipstick transfer set of women’s lips on the label. Back in 2005, John had been seeing a young lady who was visiting from California. During a romantic moment while walking through the vineyard, she kissed him and he promised to name that grape's harvest and subsequent wine in her honor. She then had to return to California and they conducted a long distance relationship.

Once the wine had been produced, he sent her a bottle and continued to profess his love for her. Her email response indicated she was thrilled to get the bottle, which she planned on sharing with her fiancé in California. When John called her for clarification, she confessed she had been seeing the boyfriend at the time she visited Texas and had balanced the two relationships until deciding to marry California man. After thanking her for her honesty (yeah, I’m sure that’s the way it went), he moved on. Unfortunately, the wine had already been bottled and labeled. John said, had he known this before printing the labels, he might have changed the name to “Two-Timing Bitch”.

John said he completely sells out his yearly stock each year only by word-of-mouth. He said it gives him and his four employees the freedom to try out new varieties and formulas without the market pressures or mass production schedules (or headaches) of the big guys. He name-dropped some big name entertainers and personalities he’s met through his business and loves to come to work every day. He says he wouldn’t continue to do it unless he was having fun. When the fun stops, he’ll quit. We hope that day never comes.
According to the Texas Department of Agriculture and the Texas Wine and Growers Association, there are about 210 commercial wineries in the 5 American Viticultural Areas of Texas (places suited for grape growing). We’re in the North-Central region. John gave us our Texas Winery Passports we intend to get stamped at future Wineries as we continue our exploits in Texas.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Van Alstyne, Texas

My wife and I have committed ourselves to get out and see Texas. When we were in California, with kids, school, work (and whatever excuses we could come up with), we rarely ventured out of our County. Well...we did get out on some vacations here and there by car and plane but when you're with kids, it's all about their fun and activities. You know, the guilt about being working parents and not wanting to traumatize your children so they become mass murderers or, God forbid, workaholics like you (which is what ultimately happened). So we never got any adult time until the kids were on their own and we began taking ship cruises to foreign lands. Texas gave us an opportunity to leave all that behind and discover this vast and diverse land we immigrated to.

As stated earlier, we have met some fun folks to hang with and this last weekend we were invited to hook up with Debbie and her husband Torrey and check out their "project home" purchase in Tom Bean, Texas (yes, that's the town's name) just east of a town named Van Alstyne, Texas in the southeast corner of Grayson County. Torrey is a pretty handy guy and he and Debbie buy second homes to rehabilitate and renovate. They found a two-acre piece of property with a one-story fixer-upper in need of sprucing up. They wanted a place relatively close to work and their home in Little Elm, Texas so they could work on the house on weekends and be "away from it all" in rural North Texas.

Tom Bean was founded in 1887 and named after Thomas Bean, a land surveyor from Bonham, Texas who donated the land to be used as a stop on the local railway (the recurring railroad theme). It later became a stop on the St. Louis Southwestern Railway. In the late 19th/early 20th century, Tom Bean was bustling with two saloons, a movie theater, a social club, a cotton gin and factories. However, growth soon ended, and eventually the railroad removed the tracks through the city. There's about 1000 folks living there now and some consider it an up and coming bedroom community of nearby Sherman, Texas, the County seat of Grayson County.

It should be mentioned that Torrey is a kind of BBQ aficionado, has a smoker BBQ and has even gone so far as to make his own rubs and BBQ sauce. He is hell bent on acquiring his own steer and maybe a pig to coddle so he can have his own supply of beef and pork to BBQ and smoke to his heart’s content. Torrey has never met a piece of brisket he didn't like. His proposed 4H project has thus far been stymied by Debbie's concern over having to eat something she may become emotionally attached to. You know, once you name it, you can't eat it.

So, in our travels to the new place, he wanted us to go to a new BBQ restaurant he had heard of in Van Alstyne, Texas, Buck Snort BBQ on E. Jefferson in downtown Van Alstyne. As I mentioned in my Profile, I'm all about finding good food to eat, so we went along for the ride.

Now I had been through Van Alstyne before on business for the Frisco Police Department a time or two. Van Alstyne is the home of Cops Stuff, an emergency vehicle outfitter on the east side of town where we get our new vehicles outfitted with lights and sirens, but I had never taken in the sights of downtown Van Alstyne.

The present town of Van Alstyne was formed by residents of a town named Mantua. When that community was bypassed by the Houston and Texas Central Railway railroad in 1872, they packed up and moved the town, lock, stock and barrel. The residents moved to be close to the railroad right-of-way and that new town was named after a railroad stockholder, Marie Van Alstyne. A post office was opened in 1873 and the town's population was 400 in 1890 when it incorporated. Around 1900 the town had 1,940 residents and a number of businesses, including several banks, a grain elevator, a roller mill, and a chemical company. It has about 2,500 people calling it home now.

Van Alstyne boasted one of the first Opera Houses in North Texas. In 1894, the Opera House opened its doors. The original owner of the building, Charlie Carter, ran a family grocery store on the ground floor.

Van Alstyne was the last home of Collin McKinney, the namesake for our Collin County and the City of McKinney, Texas, the County seat of Collin County. Born on April 17, 1766 in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, McKinney was one of the first settlers in Mexican Texas in the Red River Colony in 1826. He was a land surveyor, merchant, politician, and lay preacher.

In 1836, McKinney was a central figure in early Texas history and was one of five delegates from the Red River Colony to the Convention of 1836, which called for Texas to declare its independence from Mexico. He was one of five appointed to draft the Texas Declaration of Independence, and at age 70 he was the oldest to sign it. He would later be a member of the committee that drafted the Constitution of the new Republic of Texas.

In 1840, he would move one last time, to a portion of Fannin County that would later be formed into Grayson and Collin Counties. He passed away at his home in September 9, 1861 and was buried in Van Alstyne.

Ok, back to the food. The owner of Buck Snort BBQ, Jim Smith, has done an incredible job of salvaging a segment of a really old building (circa 1880's) and creating a great eating spot. I need to explain that Texas BBQ (and most all BBQ style food) is generally a messy affair of baskets or plates of brisket, pork, chicken, or sausage (or all the above) spread over or sans bread with copious amounts of baked beans, fried ochre and coleslaw. There are usually baked biscuits and buns to sop up the left over juices and BBQ sauce sloshing around the plate (and even on the patrons).

Now Jim did a smart thing. Traditionally, Texans stand in line and order their favorite artery clogging combination and wait for the concoction to be prepared. Depending on the popularity of the place, the wait can be long and arduous but all is forgiven upon delivery. Well Jim decided to do his both ways. You can have the traditional wait in line and order from the cash register or you can choose to do his buffet style dining (did I hear the words "all you can eat"? Yep).

Jim stocks the entire menu on a buffet steamer bar and even has the desserts on the back table for all to sample. On that day, it was bread pudding and apple pie. All the while, Jims running in and out of the kitchen bringing baking pans full of right out of the oven biscuits and rolls out to the hungry masses. One note, Jim is obviously a master baker as well as brisket maker. The rolls literally melted in your mouth and the biscuits that day were flavored in a combination of green onion and garlic, which were to die for. No need for butter to defile the flavor but there was plenty on hand if you needed it.

As to the BBQ, well the restaurant was one of the quietest BBQ places I have had the privilege to be in. Everybody seemed preoccupied with eating. The brisket was juicy and the beef fell off the rib bones. Debbie had the chicken and said it was one of the best she ever had.

After eating, we waddled out to settle all the food we had and decided to walk around downtown. We immediately saw in the Drug store next store to Buck's, a still used classic soda fountain circa 1950. It was Sunday and wasn't open but I was able to get a shot of it through the window declaring "City Drug" in old style gold leaf lettering.

The rest of the town was pretty average, typical of the small rural railroad town of the late 1800’s. It was a place where farmers and ranchers would come at the end of the workweek to buy supplies, food and personal necessities like clothing and shoes. Families, ranch and farm hands would come to town to get their latest news, whoop it up, enjoy a shave and a bath, participate in a dance or come to church.

Bucolic Van Alstyne suffers today, like other towns of its size, as it did when the railroads stopped coming. The bigger towns and cities around it have attracted bigger businesses and development so it remains a bedroom community and home to small and mid-size ranches that no longer need to be served by a major railhead. But there’s still life in the old girl as boutique, antique and niche shops are moving in to the old storefronts and gaining some ground.

The town has a downtown development committee, which is trying to attract more business, and some new home development is taking place on the outskirts of what was old Van Alstyne. As the economy turns around, and more entrepreneurs like Jim Smith come to town, I see big things in the future for places like Van Alstyne.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The War Comes to Texas

The City of Terrell, Texas is a popular destination for World War II history buffs, aviation enthusiasts, and veterans. During World War II, thousands of British pilots learned to fly at six civilian training schools in the United States. The first and largest of the schools was in Terrell. With the outbreak of World War II, British Royal Air Force (RAF) officials sought to train aircrews outside of England, safe from enemy attack and poor weather. In the United States, six civilian flight schools dedicated themselves to instructing RAF pilots; the first, No. 1 British Flying Training School (BFTS), was located in Terrell, Texas, southeast of Dallas.

Most of the early British students had never been in an airplane or even driven an automobile before arriving in Texas to learn to fly. The cadets trained in the air on aerobatics, instrument flight, and night flying, while on the ground they studied navigation, meteorology, engines, and armaments–even spending time in early flight simulators. By the end of the war, more than two thousand RAF cadets had trained at Terrell, cementing relations between Great Britain and the United States.

After the United States entered the war, American Aviation Cadets also trained at the school. More than 2,000 Royal Air Force and American Army Air Force pilots earned their wings over North Texas between 1941 and 1945. Terrell's citizens welcomed the student pilots to their community, and many life-long bonds were forged.

Known as Terrell Field (now Terrell Municipal Airport), the land was originally purchased by a Major William Long of Dallas, a civilian flight school operator (probably a precursor to Halliburton). The American government, through the Lend-Lease Program, had agreed to bring British aviation cadets to America to train. The Terrell British flight training school, the first of six in the United States during WWII, was officially opened in August 1941 and hosted classes of 50 British student pilots at a time.

To get them into the country, the pilots were first decommissioned by the RAF, sent to Canada, and then given visas to enter America due to the official United States policy of neutrality before Pearl Harbor. They had to swap their uniforms for civilian clothes and reenter as private citizens. After Pearl Harbor happened in December, classes in Terrell expanded to 100 pilots and they were able to enter without all the cloak and dagger stuff.

More than 2,300 British pilots went through the Terrell flight school during its five years of operation, and Terrell residents were the ones teaching the British pilots how to fly in the almost 365 day Texas flying weather. Aviation is, of course, inherently dangerous and unfortunately, several members of the training program died learning to fly. To honor their British friends, city residents set aside an area in Oakland Memorial Park Cemetery, which contain the 20 British pilots laid to rest there.

One of the cadets who's still there, is a man named Henry Madgwick. His journey began as a young British teenager enlisting in the Royal Air Force (RAF) at 16-years-old and coming to Terrell as a flight student in 1944 is unique in itself to Terrell's history. Madgwick was born in Hampshire, England on May 16, 1923. At 16-years-old, Madgwick volunteered for Home Guard, which was a defense organization in the United Kingdom during World War II that acted as a secondary defense force from 1940 to 1944 in case of invasion by the forces of Nazi Germany.

Madgwick was drafted into the RAF as a cadet where he trained in the Air Training Corps (ATC) three nights a week but also continued to patrol for Home Guard at night on the weekends to watch out for German paratroopers. At 17, he was made into a squad leader in the ATC. Madgwick arrived in Terrell in 1944 as a pilot in flight school. It was his first time to ever travel to the United States. The flight-training program in Terrell was based on a two-year pilot training course and was compressed into seven months, so they were pretty busy with aviation ground school training and flying every day of the week.

Madgwick also met and dated his future wife of 47 years, Kate, while training at the flight school in Terrell. After about seven months of flight training, he graduated eight out of 85 in his class and was shipped back to England ready to fight the war with plans to marry his wife once the war ended. After the war, Kate moved to England and they married. Once pregnant with their son, they moved back to Terrell to live. Madgwick became a citizen in 1955.

Madgwick became a resident of Terrell for the second time and has been very involved within the community. To list a few of his accomplishments, Madgwick served as Mayor of Terrell from 1998-2000, Chairman of the Baseball committee, Terrell Park Board, and the Tax Abatement Committee, Director of Terrell Youth Council, Terrell Rotary Club Citizen of the Year in 1974, and today, serves as the president of the British Flying Training School Museum. He remains a life member of the RAF association and the British Legion and still works as a tour guide at the BFTS Museum.

On the other side of things, Texas also hosted German prisoners of war in several camps established across the state. One of those is located in the city of Princeton, Texas. Situated in the Princeton Community Park and WWII POW Camp, the camp no longer exists but only as a Texas Historical Marker and a rusting water tower. The camp was originally used as a migrant worker camp in the late 30's to house seasonal workers to tend the fields and for the large onion and cotton crops every year. The campgrounds are now an expansive community park with picnic tables and baseball diamonds.

All 76 cabins were built of California redwood with shingle roofs and concrete floors. Each cabin was equipped with two beds, oil cook stove with oven, oil heater, and four chairs (no Jacuzzis). An overhead storage tank with the capacity of 30,000 gallons of water was the first thing erected on the campsite and is the only remnant of the camp still visible in the park.

In February 1945, the camp was turned into a prisoner of war camp for Germans captured during World War II. The local farmers paid the POW’s to work on their farms. This operation was continued for eight months. Earlier in 1943, the city had decided to honor the war dead with a memorial park but didn’t have the resources to do so because of the war. To get the park done, the German prisoners were contracted to do the work. Ironically, the Veterans Memorial Park was built in memory of Americans who served in the armed forces during World War II.

It should be noted that it's a generally accepted fact that the State of Texas has always supplied the most number of soldiers in all the conflicts from the Civil War up to the present. Most likely, due to its early history for their own fight for Independence, then statehood, Texans have always signed on when America was threatened. They always exhibit an enthusiasm for everything American as well as an undying loyalty to their State and its people revere anyone who joins in the cause of freedom. On any given day at DFW airport, you can catch the volunteer groups who cheer and sometimes set up lunches or dinners at the terminals for the military personnel as they are either returning or passing through the airport on their way to deployment. I'm not talking the USO but regular folks and church groups who make sure the military know they're appreciated.

There are many stories like these throughout the state and, in my travels I will always try to showcase the good and the bad of our adopted state. At the same time try to personify how it is to be a Texan.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Frisco, Texas

It's always good to start at the beginning and that usually involves a discussion about where one lives. When we chose to move to Texas, it was due to a job transfer offer for my wife Dianna. I was on the cusp of retiring from 30 years in California law enforcement, the kids were grown up and there was no need to hang around for schools or my job. We were ready for a new adventure.

At that time she was working for Countrywide Mortgage in San Diego and the offer was for a job in Plano, Texas. Though Countrywide was a California based company, the Plano office was a large campus containing most of the central mortgage operation for the nation. Plano is a modest sized city within the greater Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex in North Central Texas.

The Metroplex is a vast accumulation of cities and townships that encompass 16 large and small Counties (Texas has 254) all with their own individual identities, amenities (like the enormous Cowboy Stadium in Arlington), and politics. The dichotomy is such that though the Metroplex is very urban (think Los Angeles or the Bay area of California) within a short drive in any direction from downtown Dallas or Fort Worth, you can be in the wide open countryside of winding two lane roads where the only things moving are the horses, cows, and cattle. The only people you see are the ones driving the slow moving farm implements between ranches.

Dianna was given an allowance and moved to Texas in 2005 while I prepared our Santee home for sale. This was at the apex of the housing boom in California and we expected a quick and profitable sale. Little did we know we were at the precipice of the housing crash.When looking for homes, Dianna had set up shop in a rented home in eastern Frisco, Texas and I made occasional trips there to spend the weekends with her looking at houses. Frisco is a town on the northern border of Plano and very close to the Countrywide office. While I was gone, she had a realtor working the listings and driving her around when I wasn't there. Suffice to say the sale in California never took place as the housing crisis took hold there and everywhere. Thus a hard decision was made to ultimately rent the Santee house and hope for the best with a purchase in Texas.

Let's talk about where Frisco came from:

A military post near the Red River was named for Captain William C. Preston, a veteran of the Texas Revolution. The Shawnee Trail, which would ultimately become Preston Trail, then Preston Road (Texas 289), was used by wagon trains moving south bringing immigrants to Texas and by cattle drives going north from Austin. The seminal town, Lebanon, then a thriving a cattle town and now a part of Frisco, served as an assembly point for the cattle drives. South of this area in 1841, John Neely Bryan began the settlement of Dallas.

By 1869 the laying of track, which would become part of the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad line, was being completed in Texas. In 1902 one such line was completed from Denison to Carrollton through the center of what is now Frisco. The thirst of the steam locomotive brought the need for watering holes about every twenty to thirty miles. Since water was not as available on the higher ground along Preston Ridge where Lebanon was located, the Frisco Railroad looked four miles west to lower ground. There they dug a lake called Frisco Lake, on Stewart Creek to provide water for the engines.

In 1902, what would eventually become Frisco was a piece of land owned by the Blackland Town Site Company, a subsidiary of the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad (the railroad now a part of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad). The property was subdivided into lots and sold to potential settlers. The auction, which was held on February 13 and 14, 1902, was advertised up and down the rail lines as far away as Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City. The sale also attracted residents and merchants from surrounding communities that had no rail access. Businesses and residents began moving here from Little Elm to the west and from Lebanon, which was seeing fewer and fewer cattle drives.

With the decline of Lebanon, some of the houses were physically moved from Preston Road to what is now downtown Frisco. One was the T.J. Campbell home which was rolled on logs and pulled into Frisco where it now stands, a historical monument, at the corner of Main and Fifth Streets.

The settlement was first called Emerson, named for Francis Emerson, owner of the farm where the town site was located. However, when application was made for a post office under the name “Emerson” the application was refused. There was a town called Emberson in Lamar County, and authorities ruled that the names were too similar.

An existing post office called Eurida was transferred to the new town site from a community only two miles to the northwest. The postmaster, Tom Duncan, came along in the move. For some time the office continued to operate under the name Eurida.

Later, in 1904, the people selected the name “Frisco City” for their town in honor of the railroad that founded the young city. It was soon shortened to Frisco, and the rest is history. Where wheat, cotton, corn and feed once grew, you see people, houses, businesses, churches, schools, offices, and parks. Frisco Lake served its purpose as a railroad lake (and a swimming hole). Though rail continues to be very important, automobiles and trucks, and how to keep them moving now claim our attention. Frisco is blessed with a toll road and major State and Federal highways. The once small village of Frisco has reached perhaps adolescence. The next census will show our little town has blossomed to more than 100,000 residents. The City’s Master Plan says, when the City develops fully into its 69 square miles, it may house as many as 350,000 people (Source: City of Frisco website  ). Map: Frisco,TX
The town mirrors many early Texas settlements in that it was once rural, surrounded by vast open space, and it's creation, survival, and fate were dictated primarily over access to water and the railroads. Throughout Texas you can see many history-rich towns which initially thrived due to the influx of immigrants, both domestic and foreign, and their desire to own and work the land, but ultimately failed because a promised railroad line moved two or three miles to the east or west dooming the little community to obscurity. Frisco persevered only because the members of the community made a hard choice to literally move themselves to the new track. How many communities would be willing and strong enough to make a decision like that today? It says a lot about those folks and the what America was like then and now.
Back to the story of us. In our travels of North Texas we came to a couple of conclusions. Texas, no matter if it's hot or cold, is a beautiful state. Now let me preface by saying Dianna is a native Californian and I spent most of my life there and California is a beautiful place. But little compares to the vast expanses of Texas. In our minds we pictured turn-of-the-century prairie homes with cowboys in period garb, spurs jingling down the covered wooden sidewalks amidst the choking dust kicked up as a cattle drive moved through town.
What we found was a wonderful mix of urban/rural lifestyle where just about EVERYBODY smiles and waves as they drive by in their ornate SUVs and pick up trucks. Complete strangers say, "good morning," and actually say,"excuse me, yes ma'am, no sir", and hold doors open for you just because they were brought up that way. Now it doesn't have snow covered peaks but it has everything else.
The other is that Texas has huge (they call them Supersized, with an apology to the Mc Donald's Corp.) dirt cheap modern homes. All the major players are here, Meritage, Lennar, KB, Centex to name a few, and they build LOTS of homes from the more contemporary brick faced homes to some exotic stucco/wood designs. Back before the crash you could pick up a 3,000 sq. ft. two story, all the bells and whistles, three car garage home for $250,000. Now post crash, the same home could run you anywhere from $190-$200,000. Lets not even talk repos and foreclosures. Having had the California home buying experience, it makes your eyes tear to know how far your dollar goes here. As of this posting, we're still buying gas here for $2.58 a gallon.
After all the riding around, the many weekends spent wandering into and out of a plethora of new and used homes, a lot of research and soul searching, we concluded that Frisco was a great place to live and settled on a nice two-story in a development on the north end of town. As time (and the mortgage crisis) has come and gone, Countrywide was absorbed by Bank of America and I kicked around with part time work landing at the Frisco Police Department (go figure).

The Homestead
We've met some great folks here in our new home town who have given their advice about places to go, history to discover, and other points of interest. In future editions, we'll talk and show you more about our travels in Texas and more about our little slice of heaven.....Frisco, Texas.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Real Texas

Texas, for most of us Yankees (yes, some still refer to non-residents that way), is the place we see depicted in movies and television (well, except for the long running show Dallas). Wide expanses of rolling prairies interspersed with small towns with really cool names like Cactus, Gun Barrel City, Deadwood, Dime Box, Fate, Lone Star, and Spur. The motto of the City of Fort Worth is " Where the west begins". When you speak the names and close your eyes, you can smell the leather tack, the dry boards of a covered sidewalk and feel the rumble of the stagecoach pulling up to the Wells Fargo office.

So I was intrigued when a friend told me of a Texas ghost town close to us named Climax, Texas . It was a mere 27 miles east of our home and had been one of the earliest settlements in the newly formed State of Texas. It was first settled by Williams (yes, with an "s") Warden, a farmer who moved to Texas from Missouri in 1844 in what is now a part of our Collin County north of the town of Princeton, Texas. In 1850, Warden received a Peters' colony land grant certificate for 640 acres near the East Fork of the Trinity River. He settled there with his family shortly thereafter.

A little discussion about Land Grants. To populate the vast Republic of Texas and ultimately the new state, the Texas Legislature advertised and sold land grants to organizers who would then attract farmers, ranchers and business people to settle in Texas. Land Grants, in the former Spanish Texas, go all the way back to 1716. The first organized American immigrants came in 1821. A man named Moses Austin was promised a contract to land on the Brazos River in exchange for bringing 300 Catholic families from Louisiana. After his death in June of that year his son, Stephen F. Austin, one of the fathers of Texas Independence, assumed the contract.

When Texas became independent of Mexico and became it's own country, under the Constitution of 1836 all heads of families living in Texas on March 4, 1836, except Africans and Indians (interesting since many of those folks had been here since the end of the ice age), were granted "first class" headrights of one league and one labor (4,605.5 acres), and single men aged seventeen years or older, one-third of a league (1,476.1 acres). These communities were often referred to as "Colonies". By the time Texas became the 28th state in 1845, the government continued land grants well into the late 1800's providing grants to members of the military after the "War of Northern Aggression". Yes, many Texans (i.e. southerners) still refer to the Civil War as such, and immigrant groups from Europe. A land grant was even used to compensate the designers and builders of the State Capitol in Austin referred to on maps as the "Capitol Lands" in what is currently the panhandle.

By the mid-1890s the community of Climax, Texas had two gins, a grain elevator, a school, a church, a hotel, and a general store. A post office was established in 1895. Climax has served as a retail point for area farmers for most of its history. It faced a rapid decline as other towns in the area became more prominent. At it's peak in 1910, it boasted 100 residents. Its population was estimated at forty from 1940 through 2000. It is no longer an established township and has become more of a distant neighborhood of the town of Princeton to the south. However there are still remnants of the town still visible if you want to drive around.

The most prominent is the former general store which is situated on the west curb line of FM (Farm-to-Market Road) 1377. Luckily the current owners of the property have saved it from decay by restoring the structure and the facade. You can still make out the word "Climax" on the storefront. We were a little disappointed (especially the wife as it was 103 degrees in the shade that day) in that there was no true "Ghost Town" to speak of but we did get a grand drive in the country.

Store in 2004 (Credit Erik Whetstone)  and the Store in 2010

This part of Texas is sometimes referred to as the Prairies and Lakes region of Texas. There are lots of lakes and the availability of water for the most part makes the area lush and green. You can often drive for miles and never encounter another car or truck. There are many opportunities to see old barns and outbuildings as well as lots of wildlife like cattle, horses, cows, deer, possums, and squirrels. Driving through the less populated areas is very relaxing and takes you back to a different time when things were a little slower. Having come from a more urban background, it's easy to see why people move to and work in places like this.

A significant part of Climax still in use today is the original cemetery established when  the town was created around 1850. It's named after the surveyor who laid out the original lines of the town, David Van Winkle. For his work, Van Winkle was also given some land as compensation for his work. He then donated some of that land to the town for their cemetery. Many of the monuments showed birth dates several years before the Texas Revolution.
Historical Marker

Very Old Plot

Well cared for Plots
We were somewhat surprised to see many of the older plots all the way back to the early 1900's were still being tended to and some had flowers on them. As we drove through the area, many family names on some of the ranches matched those on many of the markers we saw. Obviously family members of the original settlers were still living in the community around the cemetery. One thing you observe while traveling through Texas is that the towns you pass through often have stately old cemeteries which reach back to the early settlers of the area sometimes all the way back to the original Spanish or French land grants.

Texas is truly the land of Historical Markers and it seems you only need to turn a corner or pass by a building and you will be confronted by a marker divulging some significant event or architectural point of interest. I will try to make a point of showing some of the more interesting and not so interesting markers as we travel the highways and byways of this land known as Texas.