Thursday, November 25, 2010

Paris, Texas

It was your typical Saturday and Dianna was itching to go on a road trip. Really, she was. Lately she has given me indications she actually looks forward to some of our trips...well except the ones when I make fun of her in this Blog.
iPhone 4 Self Portrait
This was one of those moments. I had completed my meager chores and she was all packed up and ready to go. My daughter asked us where we were going and Dianna chimed in that we didn’t require a destination. Having it be a surprise was part of the fun and added, "That’s how we roll”. My daughter was stunned into silence and her only response was for us to have a good time. At moments like that, I firmly believe she’s doing a mental countdown to the day she has to put us into assisted living.
But away we went to Paris, Texas  the County Seat of Lamar County nestled in the northeast corner of Texas, the north eastern edge of the Piney Woods and  a buttress of the Red River holding back Oklahoma. Paris is also the official Crepe Myrtle Capital of Texas.
This is my favorite color
Local residents like the slogan "Second Largest Paris in the World." Following a tradition of American cities named "Paris", a 65-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower was constructed in 1993 on the site of their Performance Arts Center and adjacent to Paris Junior College, a sprawling campus on the southeast end of town. Paris Junior College (Go Dragons) was established in 1924. It is one of the oldest junior colleges in Texas.
In 1998, presumably as a response to the construction of a 70-foot tower in Paris, Tennessee, to set it apart from the Tennessee tower (like they needed to), the city placed a giant red cowboy hat atop the tower. The current tower is the second Eiffel Tower replica built in Paris; the first was constructed of wood and later destroyed by a tornado. Well, it is, after all, Texas. Both Paris' were forced to surrender in 1999 to a 540-foot copy on the Strip in Las Vegas.

Downtown has seen many makeovers since the town was established in 1826. Like many towns in Texas, because of the heavy use of wood construction and poor fire fighting ability, in 1877, 1896 and 1916, major fires forced the city to rebuild. Historically compared to the Chicago Fire, the 1916 fire was so extensive that it destroyed almost half the town, ruining most of the central business district and sweeping through a residential area before it was finally controlled, resulting in huge property damages estimated at $11 million (in 1916 dollars, that was a bunch).
Burned structures included the Federal Building and Post Office, Lamar County Courthouse and Jail, City Hall, most commercial buildings, and several churches. The 1916 fire started around 5 p.m. on March 21, 1916. The exact cause of the fire is unknown. Winds estimated at 50 miles per hour fanned the flames that were visible for up to forty miles away. The fire was brought under control on the morning on March 22 by local firefighters and those from surrounding cities and even the little town of Hugo 30 miles away across the river in Oklahoma. So today, it’s hard to find a building built before 1916. The beautiful Culbertson Fountain in the Plaza square was given to commemorate the rebirth of Paris.
Original 1897 Courthouse
Rebuilt in 1917

Even the Courthouse (which, interestingly, is not located in the square) was a second build of the original 1897 Courthouse. It was rebuilt in 1917 after the fire in a Classical Revival with Romanesque detail refaced with the marble and pink granite recovered and cleaned from the burned out 1897 Courthouse. The pink granite is from the same quarry used for the State Capital in Austin.
After the drive, walking from the car and taking in the Plaza square, we (well….I) was hungry and headed over to JAXX Burger on Clarksville Street on the edge of the square. Dianna had the Cheeseburger and I had the JAXX Bacon Burger. I’m not sure what they do to their bacon, but they dip it in some kind of liquid brown sugar mix with black pepper. Wow. They had several Gourmet Custom Burgers on the board as well that sounded great too. A must try if you get to town.
There was some talk that Paris, Texas was the home of the French fry. Well, there is evidence that the modern Hamburger was created in Athen’s Texas . Not to be confused with the low-quality beef the Russian Tartars made from Asian cattle they ground up to make it more edible and introduced to Germany before the 14th century. The Germans flavored it with regional spices and either cooked it or ate it raw (gross!). It became a standard meal for poorer classes and in Hamburg acquired the name "Hamburg steak". Athens is a mere 100 miles south of Paris (Texas...yeah, I know, confusing).

The alledged creator of the hamburger, Fletcher Davis, took his creation to the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. When Fletcher was interviewed by a New York Tribune reporter about the sandwich, Ol’ Fletcher told the reporter the sandwich was his idea, but said he learned to cook the fried potatoes he served from a friend in “Paris” (Texas). Apparently, the reporter thought Fletcher meant Paris, France (probably the accent threw him), and reported that the hamburger was served with wonderful "french-fried potatoes." The name stuck, and history has forever given the wrong Paris the credit for French fries.

The basic premise that the French fry did, in fact, originate in France, remains solid. In French cooking, frite specifically refers to deep fat frying as opposed to sauté, which is used for pan-frying. There's plentiful evidence that frying potatoes in oil was common in France before 1830.

Several pop historians credit Thomas Jefferson with having introduced French fries to America and is one that just may have some historical foundation. When he was stationed as America’s emissary in Paris (he and Ben were quite the wingmen), he had tasted the delicacy and wrote about it in his journals. Jefferson was also a chronic receipt keeper (I’m sure for tax and travel reimbursement purposes) and there is evidence he had recorded some meals including the little frites. In the French, they are “pommes de terre frites, à crû en petites tranches” (potatoes, fried in deep fat while raw, first having been cut into small slices). Sorry Jane, my French is a little rusty.

There is a fierce debate (if one can be that passionate about French fries, well there is a web site dedicated to the French fry) as to whether French fries were originally thinly sliced fried potato chips. Some early recipes called for cutting them in thin round slices. Some feel it may have been a deviation for the more ritzy restaurants to separate the wealthy patrons from the unwashed. Well, after all, it was around the second French Revolution (1848). When the French say frites, there is only one possible meaning: deep-fried in deep fat, Yum. Funny, I don’t recall Julia Child whipping up a batch on her show.

And there is the whole “Freedom Fry” movement at the beginning of the second Iraq War. As you recall, there was quite a bit of anti-French sentiment after the UN debates of 2003. So if you feel the need to believe the French fry had its origins in Paris, Texas, USA, there you go.
Now we’re going to have to get to Athens and check out the Hamburger myth. Well, that will, of course, require eating there too. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Garland Symphony

I’m not sure how we got roped into it but the wife and I spent a wonderful Friday evening in Garland, Texas at the Garland Symphony Orchestra . Well, let me state early on that we both really do love the symphony and most classical music. This was a trip initiated by young Justin, a co-worker of mine at the Frisco Police Department. Justin is back in college finishing his degree and needed a Music Appreciation class to get his Liberal Arts out of the way.

Justin came to me on the Thursday before the concert to relate to me a tale of woe of how his mean spirited instructor had made it a class requirement to go to a concert and report his impressions of the event. With a little impish, conspiratorial grin (yeah Justin, I have kids, I know when I’m being played) and suggested it wouldn’t be a bad idea if Dianna and I joined him and his lovely girlfriend Becca at the concert. Seems our presence would somehow reduce the pain and not make the evening a total loss. I so enjoy sincerity in youth today.

Trying to be supportive, I checked in with the wife and she readily agreed to join in, for the educational value, of course. Well and to watch Justin squirm under the relentless assault on his Country Music sensibilities.

For 26 years, the Garland Symphony Orchestra has been providing performances of great orchestral music to Garland and its surrounding communities. Since 1986, the symphony has been led by the current Music Director, Robert Carter Austin. Maestro Austin is quite the guy. He’s not only a classical musician; he holds a Bachelor of Science degree from MIT a Diploma in Computer Science from Cambridge and had time to get his Masters of Musical Arts from Stanford.

One of the best parts of the presentation (and I feel wholly needed in most classical venues) was that, prior to the beginning of the three selections, Mr. Austin took the opportunity to educate us, if you will, in the basics of the music and the composer. He brought forth the intricacies and the background of each movement and what it meant to the overall piece. Subtleties I hadn’t considered in the past like what animal a given instrument represented or what brought the composer to write the music. Even some of the politics as to how the agendas of the various patrons influenced the music.

Trouble was, like most teachers, he had to play "answer my arcane trivia question" about the composers. There were two particular music "know-it-alls" that were quick to shout out answers to his questions, even stumping the members of the Orchestra.  I got their names for my list of go-to people the next time I need a lifeline on "Millionaire".

If Mr. Austin was impressive, the soloists for that evening were even more impressive. The Violin Soloist was a young man named Andrew Wang, himself a bit of a genius in his own right. Mr. Wang is not only an accomplished chamber musician, orchestra leader and jazz violinist but took the time to get his Bachelor of Arts Degree and just completed his PhD in Immunology at University of Texas’ Southwestern Medical School where he’s finishing his MD degree. Holy Cow, I can’t get the time to pick up the dog poop in the back yard, this guy got a PhD while doing his MD. His parents must be very proud.

Like the other two Soloists, I couldn't help but wonder if, while they played the fancy stuff, their contemporaries in the Orchestra weren't looking over their sheet music a little envious thinking, "Big deal....I could do that too."

There were three selections on this night. Concerto in F Major for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 8 No. 3 RV (Ryom-Verzeichnis is the catalog the music was documented in) 293 “Autumn” from The Four Seasons (the concerto, not the hotel) by Vivaldi, Symphony No. 36 in C Major, KV 425 “Linz” (the city it was first performed in Austria) by Mozart and concerto in C Major for Violin, Cello, Piano and Orchestra, Opus 56 by Beethoven.

The first Concerto was done by a small segment of the entire symphony. Vivaldi wrote this series of Concertos as musical stories or sonnets. He even interjects descriptive comments within the bars such as "The barking dog" or "the drunkards have fallen asleep" in the second movement. That was a challenge. In most music the musicians finish a number, pause, get applause and move on to the next number. In classical, there is a pause between the pieces (movements) and you don’t applaud. You have to hold off until the end of the whole piece.

For the Mozart piece, they brought all the big guns of the entire Orchestra. The stage was laden with every string instrument they could get with just a smattering of winds like the Oboe to bring the base tones to light. There was one percussionist in the back who, I swear, had the hardest job. The Orchestra would go for many minutes just so this guy could follow page after page of Concerto to hit the big drum once.

We had a real intermission and then the Beethoven piece played. Mr. Austin cautioned us it may start out pretty soft and might lull us into thinking we were going to be bored to tears but it would get its momentum about half way through the second movement and beat us senseless as the Piano Soloist Alex McDonald swept his fingers in a blur across the keys at break-neck speed ending in a crashing crescendo which left us all rising to cheer their efforts. Dianna swears it was the same music they play at Bank of America while they wait to enter a conference call.

The evening ended with Wang, McDonald and the Cello Soloist Oliver Schlaffler became a trio doing a brief example of a Jazz number which had us rising again to reward the Soloists and the entire Orchestra on a great night of music. Yes, Justin did nod off briefly but Becca caught him before he snored. It was worth the experience.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Saint Jo, Texas

It was a beautiful and windy Saturday for our trek north to the lands which border the muddy, and yes, red adobe colored waters of the Red River. Along were our friends Debbie and Torrey. I had suggested the trip because Debbie and Torrey are working hard on their “project home” in Tom Bean, Texas and are antiquers and buyers of unique furniture and stuff Torrey can fix. Another friend, Glynda, had told me of her visit to an interesting combination general store and warehouse named Freight Outlet Plus, in a place called Saint Jo, Texas.

She assured me it wasn’t just any store but a curious combination of dry goods, grocery and wacky kind of museum and curio shop. All I needed to hear was the word “museum”; I was on Google to figure how to get there. I brought Debbie and Torrey because I knew we would end up eating somewhere different. I wasn’t disappointed.

We began our mission by joining up with Debbie and Torrey at their home in Little Elm, Texas right next to Frisco. Torrey and Debbie usually don’t take the direct route (this has many benefits) and we wended our way north on U.S. Highway 377 instead of the larger, faster Interstate 35 which parallels it.

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before we found ourselves just outside Pilot Point, Texas pulling up to a little-known family run Mexican fast-food place called “The Taco Shack” right alongside the road requiring a quick turn onto the shoulder to the grassy knoll of the “Shack”. As the wives ordered, Torrey told me they watched as the “Shack” grew from birth. As they were house shopping for their second home, they often drove the 377 looking at listings.

On each pass, they would see another piece added to the Shack. It started as a manufactured, for want of a better description, back-yard storage barn. A picnic table showed up, then they added the patio cover. Then some benches appeared. As we talked, I snapped a couple of pictures. When the wives returned, Dianna said the daughter of the owner got real suspicious and asked why we were taking pictures. Maybe they thought we were undercover building inspectors. My wife assured them we were tourists and only interested in their food. The true test is the food they produce. We had their chorizo breakfast burritos. Wow.

North again, and we found ourselves in little Tioga . It was founded in 1881 when the Texas and Pacific Railway reached the site. The crew used water from the local well and named the site Tioga, a New York Indian word said to mean "swift current" or "fair and beautiful”. Tioga is a town in Grayson County, Texas.
It is the disputed birthplace of Gene Autry; one of the main streets through the town is named in his memory. Dr. Eugene Ledbetter, the doctor and namesake (Autry was named for the good doctor Eu-Gene) that delivered Gene Autry said he was not born in Tioga but a few miles away in Cook County. Though there was this disagreement between he and the Autrys because of unpaid doctor bills. Gene Autry did spend some time growing up in Tioga, but not more than a few years.

In 1884, medicinal qualities in the local water were discovered. As a result in the 1880s several companies-Tioga Mineral Wells Company, Radium Mineral Water, Tioga Mineral Water Company, Atlas Water, and Star Well-marketed the mineral water and attracted health seekers to Tioga. It was said that ten trainloads of visitors came to Tioga each day. The resort business, however, declined. Depending on peanuts and cotton had the same result. There was an attempt to revive the town and bottle its water in the 1970’s. Neither the water business nor the town ever took off. There are some small antique shops and restaurants springing up in their town square but the town only has about 900 people calling Tioga home. 

Further north found us in Whitesboro, Texas. Originally “Whitesborough” in 1860, its namesake was Ambrose B. White who moved into the area (then named Wolfpath) in the late 1840s. The White family ran White's Westview Inn which was a stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail route. It was later reincorporated in 1887 as “Whitesboro”.
Whitesboro is a neat little town which holds a big Peanut Festival  every year. Like the cotton, peanuts aren’t as prevalent a crop as they used to be (the peanuts for the last festival were trucked in from Oklahoma). In the center of town is one of the main attractions in those early years. Still seen on Main Street there is the watering well. Folks gathered around the well to water themselves and their horses. In addition to supplying water for the local residents, the well was also used to water stock and for the convenience of travelers.
Torrey wanted me to see a unique antique shop on Main Street. It was a place called “Past and Blast”. As the name implies, there are antique items in the front of the store and antique firearms in the back.

Right next door is “Lovejoy’s on Main Street” owned by Hank and Rita Lovejoy. I, of course, let the women do their shopping, I zoned in on the turn-of-the-century soda fountain in the back. Rita saw me hovering and told me a cool story about the soda fountain. Rita explained that her husband had built it from scratch from his memories of the soda fountain he worked at across the street back in 1954 in what is now a bakery.

Seems Rita was a fetching young girl at the time and frequented the shop with her baby sister. Hank was the soda jerk and they struck up a casual relationship. Rita always felt Hank was a little standoffish and didn’t seem able to ask her out. It was because her sister always referred to her as “Mother” and Rita figured Hank thought she was either taken or an unwed mother. She set him straight and the rest is history. They both grew up in Whitesboro, wed, raised their kids and grand kids there. All three generations have graduated from the same high school.

We then headed off to Saint Jo. Established in 1856, Saint Jo, Texas was originally known as Head of Elm, named for its location at the headwaters of the Elm Fork of the Trinity River. It was near the crossroads of two significant paths of commerce of that day. Those were the famous Chisholm Trail for cattle driving and the California Trail, the stagecoach and personal travel trail surveyed by the federal government, beginning at Saint Louis, Missouri, and going out through El Paso, on to California, where gold had been discovered.

The town was considered briefly as the county seat of Montague County, but lost out to the City of Montague (didn’t see that coming). There are two conflicting stories regarding how Head of Elm became Saint Jo, both of which involve Joe Howell, who originally laid out the town.

One theory involves a Tennessean named Irby Holt Boggess a Confederate Army Captain. In partnership with Joe Howell, in or around 1872, they developed the town to service the trail traffic. It is told that Joe was an abstainer from alcohol, a life style Captain Boggess did not share. When Captain Boggess wanted to name the new town after his partner, he thought it would sound appropriate to name the new town, "Saint Jo." The town he founded (which still does not permit alcohol sales) is still “dry”. But could also be due to the extension of prohibition “dry laws” which is still true for most of Texas since 1897.
A short drive through town gets you to our destination, Freight Outlet Plus . It is owned by Lois and Mel Gilbert. Mel is a retired Dallas Police officer. They bought the original store in Saint Jo’s central square from a Walter Collier in 1989. As time went by, they began their lifelong acquisition of “stuff”. I know some of you may have watched some of the “hoarding” reality shows. Those poor folks who can’t let go of anything of intrinsic value. Lois and Mel are those people.

Over time, they needed to expand. Mel had his eye on a group of industrial warehouses at the intersection of State Highway 59 and State Highway 82. He and Lois first bought the building at the roadside and subsequently three other warehouses behind it. They advertise that they have, “Merchandise may include virtually any type, with unclaimed or distressed goods, groceries and frozen products”. That doesn’t tell the whole story.
After picking up an amazing deal of Christmas wrap, we were directed back to the “Gilbert Collectables Museum” behind the store. We were met by Lois who gave us the 10 cent tour. Inside we were shown a large room with display cases along the walls and through the middle of the room. Lois reminded us that things on the entry side were for sale but things on the other side of the center cases were not. The whole thing reminded me of those little “roadside attractions” you chance by along those out-of-the-way places your parents took you to when you were young. We were in “roadside attraction” central. I was keeping a lookout for the bearded lady and the half-man half-dog tent.
There were some treasures but a lot of curiosities of little value. For instance, in the middle of the “not for sale” section was a running 1931 Ford Model “A” roadster complete with rumble seat. In one of the cases, I saw what appears to be an original (scalloped edged) photo of Clyde Barrow and his sister allegedly a week before he was killed in Louisiana. I’m no expert but I have seen that photo but never in what appears to be a period reproduction, it might be worth something. Marie Barrow Scoma wrote a book published at her death, “The Family Story of Bonnie and Clyde”. Her son Luke gave the photo to Lois and Mel.
Among the treasures were lots of …well….”stuff”. Cute ornaments, lamps, watches, clocks and finery mixed in with an 1840 Steinway piano in mint condition that only a true collector of the strange would collect and admire. But everything laid out with reverence for its “value”, cultural and historical importance. In short, this place is an altar, a place of worship.

As we moved around, Lois would follow, carefully explaining the various displays. She seemed to warm up to our inquisitiveness and as we approached a certain place she would open a non-descript door which would lead off to another wing of the museum. There was one entire room dedicated to the lifelong Fenton Glass collection of Carlie Gossage. The Gilberts are Fenton Glass aficionados and learned back in 1992 that Mr. Gossage’s family was auctioning off his collection.

Gossage had been collecting for 50 years before his passing and his family really didn’t know what to do with all the glass so they decided to sell it off. Lois told us Mr. Gossage originally had a two story home in Monticello, Kentucky which he filled with Fenton Glass sets. You see, Mr. Gossage lived about 5 hours from the Fenton Factory in Williamstown, WV. Whenever he heard of a new style or color, he zipped over and bought it.

This led him to bring in three open floor plan mobile homes onto his property (sound familiar?). He set them up in a “U” shape behind the house, ringed them with glass shelving and filled them floor to ceiling with Fenton Glass. When Doris and Mel went out to see the collection, they convinced the family to pack everything away and slowly purchased the whole collection piece by piece.

After winding our way deeper into the museum morass, Lois finally asked if would like to see the “furniture”. This peaked Debbie’s interest because she’s buying for the “project” home and was looking for something unusual. Lois led us to the back warehouse. Inside of this cavernous metal building were rows and rows of “stuff”. Conjure up the last scene of Indiana Jones when the government worker is driving the crated “arc of the covenant” into the great unknown.

There were rows of stacked and palletted things that have obviously, in some cases, been there for some time. Home furnishings, office equipment, vending machines the like of which I have never seen. Debbie’s eye did catch some chairs and a chest of drawers. Lois made a deal on the spot and after loading up Torrey’s pick up, we headed out of town, our heads still reeling for the experience. Dianna and Debbie said we’re going back soon.

On the way back we decided to do dinner before returning to Little Elm and home. We ended up at a steak place named Parker Brothers , originally named the Trail Dust in Aubrey (unincorporated Denton), Texas. The Parker family at one time owned restaurants in Denver, Colorado as well as Texas. They now own just the ones in Texas in Aubrey, Texas, Mesquite, and Arlington. If anybody has gone to Pinnacle Peak in Santee, California recalls the servers cutting off patron’s ties. The Traildust may have been the originator of the ritual. This place had rows of cut off cravats on the walls.

Parker Brother’s Traildust is designed to be family friendly. It is a restaurant with separate bar during the day and dance hall at night. They even installed a two story indoor slide (yes, slide) which terminates at the edge of the dance floor. We asked about this and our server (who stated she used to come here with her family as a kid) told us it was a Parker family staple in all their restaurants. I saw this mostly as a liability nightmare. Especially when the adults who have been drinking take their turn on the slide.

The steaks were good with healthy servings of beans, bread (Texas Toast) and vegetables. Debbie and Dianna shared the 32 oz. Margarita. They were pretty happy too. Thumbs down on the slide action. It was a bit annoying with all the ruckus of the kids yelling and slamming onto the slide from above. I really didn’t sit down for a $23 dollar steak to sit in Chucky Cheese.

Well, overall it was quite the day trip and we’ll be doing more soon.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ghost Chasing in McKinney, Texas

The City of McKinney, Texas  is just to the east of us here in Frisco and is the County Seat of our Collin County and thus has a Courthouse and town square. It gets it’s name from old Collin McKinney, signer of the Texas Republic Declaration of Independence, general organizer and cheerleader for North Texas in those early days.

McKinney’s star has been on the rise for some time. Although incorporated in 1848, it sort of moped along (like many communities in North Texas) until the late 90’s when things began to take off. Dallas/Fort Worth had their hay days and, mostly built out, were expanding northward. The surrounding communities welcomed (well sort of) the new start up families and industries needing a place to stay and grow in the limited tax and regulation environment that makes Texas so darn attractive.

The Census Bureau listed McKinney as the nation's fastest growing city from 2000 to 2003 and again in 2006, among cities with more than 50,000 people. In 2007 it was ranked second-fastest growing among cities with more than 100,000 people and in 2008 as third-fastest. In July 2010, McKinney was ranked 5th place in CNN's Money Magazine's  10 best places to live in the United States.

There was the original Courthouse of 1874 which was remodeled in 1927 to it’s current look. The original looked like something out of the Addams Family, it needed an update from its Empire style to it’s newer Neoclassical Revival style. It was again restored in 2006. By then a new Courthouse had been built elsewhere and a community theatre group turned it into the McKinney Performing Arts Center. They rebuilt the District Courtroom into a stage and auditorium seating (note the historic second story gallery seating).

We went to the square for it’s Halloween Ghost Walk . The Historical Society gives walking tours of it’s Heritage Park  which contains many original period homes of late 1800’s McKinney. They also do a walking tour to the spooky spots of the town square where tales of murder, fires, and accidents fill the square with the walking dead. All around they’ve gotten the assistance of the Texas Paranormal Research Team  to scope out the different locations and were more than happy to show you their videos of infrared cameras, digital voice recorders, Gauss, EMF and ELF meters tracking and hearing spirits wandering through the various sites in McKinney.

Of course, when we arrived we (well..I) was hungry and we took in our regular Italian cuisine restaurant on the square, Sauce on the Square . They do make pizza but their regular dinner menu is great. We always have the Bruschetta or the baked Fontina for an appetizer but this time we had the baked Peaches. Wow. Then Dianna and I share either the Chicken Prosciutto or the Rustica Ensalada.

One place on the tour was a restaurant we had frequented in the past, The Pantry Restaurant  on E. Louisiana just off the square. They had a tale to tell. The Pantry originated as a dry goods store then the Hope family hardware store. The building was built in 1898 and was Hope Hardware for almost 80 years. Most of the building is still 1890’s original including the creaky original wooden slat floors, with numbers for measuring rope and chain still in them. Our tour guide said that during the time it was a hardware store, a couple of incidents of note occurred.
The first was a love triangle which involved a female worker and two men. The forlorn woman ended up hanging herself. The second was an industrial accident of all things. The hardware store, at some point, installed a lift between the first and second floor to move goods. One of the male workers fell from the second floor into the pit below the first floor and died. Since that time, several sightings have been recorded by both workers and patrons. The most frequent is the worker who fell to his death. He is often seen, in worker clothes, leaning down from the second floor gallery down onto patrons dining below. On occasion the woman spirit is seen doing the same thing or standing at the top of the stairs to the gallery. Both seem friendly and appear to be watching over the store and the people who occupy it.

Of course, when we got there a seemingly major paranormal event had taken place as the tour group before us were being lectured inside. A stream of water came pouring down from the second floor gallery almost hitting the tour guide and some tourists. The guide explained that there is a third floor to the building which is unoccupied. The old roof leaks and they have positioned several buckets to catch the rain water that comes into a corner room. As some workers were busily cleaning up the water, the guide had gone upstairs to discover one of the buckets had toppled over causing the spill. When describing the event, I noted a distinct lilt to his voice and worried look on his face as he spoke. He really looked scared.

Turns out our young guide was the assistant manager of the restaurant. He said he frequently has to stay late to finish paperwork in an upstairs office after closing. He’s often heard voices conversing outside of the upstairs office and, thinking there were other people still in the restaurant, has gone out to see he was completely alone. While working, he has often seen lights turning on and off and kitchen machinery inexplicably turn on by themselves. He uses those moments in deciding the work can wait and leaves.

Another cool spot was the old Collin County Prison. Now I know you’re thinking jail but it actually was called a prison.

This simple, utilitarian fortress was the work of F.E. Ruffini and finished in 1880. Claude West was the jailer, and the son of a Collin County Sheriff. For many years a jailer's job was seven days a week - 24 hours a day. Mrs. West cooked for family and inmates alike. Sometimes they executed them.

Frank James was there briefly for being disorderly, Ray Hamilton, one of the Barrow Gang got a meal or two there and Charles “Tex” Watson of Manson Family fame spent time there on a California murder warrant and did his time fighting extradition back to Southern California to stand trial for his role in the Tate-La Bianca killings. Charles was a local boy and had gone to High School in Farmersville, Texas.

The last man executed by hanging in Collin County (and most of Texas) was Ed Stepp. Mr. Stepp had been convicted of killing a man and sinking the corpse in a well, Mr. Stepp was the last legal execution in Collin County before the State assumed the task. The fatal day was November 17, 1922.

Probably the worst part of this hanging was there was no hanging scaffold in the yard behind the prison. To accomplish the hanging, a temporary scaffold was assembled between the second floor windows. Mr. Stepp was then asked to climb up a ladder to the scaffold where a noose was placed around his neck by the executioner leaning out from the window. Mr. Stepp then stepped ( I know…not funny) off into oblivion. Reports at the time indicated Mr. Stepp had a very high degree of cooperation during the entire process. Apparently a real team player.

Our guide said, since that time, Mr. Stepp has been seen peering into the second floor windows or at the top of a metal fire escape leading down to the courtyard from the second floor. The building has been a restaurant and now contains an Attorney’s Office (a truly appropriate use of the space). Our guide said workers on the second floor got so spooked about seeing Mr. Stepp, they had the curtains on the windows overlooking the courtyard permanently closed.

We ended our tour of haunted places sitting sedately on the square at Pacuigo a four-generation gelateria, of Christiana Ginatta, her husband Ugo and son Vincenzo. The Gelato makers came from Turin, Italy with a family recipe and a dream of a gelato empire in America. They now have twenty stores nationwide and Mexico. In the gentle, cool wind of an October in Texas, people watching on a sidewalk in McKinney, Texas, I shared a Gelato with the wife and a decaf coffee. It doesn’t get any better than this.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Mid-Term Election

Ok…I need to say something about last Tuesday’s election (I apologize in advance, recall Blog number 1 and let me get this rant over with).

I am, and always have been, a card carrying Republican since my Young Republican days at Mesa College back in 1972 when I turned 18. I consider myself a left-of-center conservative who may actually be dragging my blue shirt wife kicking and screaming with me into the dark side.

It’s only been a week and I am officially tired of all the chest-bumping and high-fiving going around the Republican and Tea Party houses of ill repute. I want John Boehner (pronounced Bayner…yeah, I know it’s not how it’s spelled) to know that there’s no crying in politics and I really don’t care that it’s been his “life’s work” to become Speaker of a House divided. I’m less enthusiastic about Mitch McConnell being the Republican Leader of the Senate. This is the guy who still questions the citizenship of our President. I’m not sure if being able to read is a much sought after quality in that backwoods district you’re from but it’s a documented fact he’s a citizen, get over it.

Here’s the thing. One of the flaws of a two party system of government is….it’s only two parties. Yeah, I know there’s a smattering of Green Partiers and Independents out there (how’d that work out for you Governor Crist?). Our beloved Constitution does make it possible for discourse and disagreement. But in reality, there’s only two. So to all those who are running hysterically through the hallowed halls of our Local, State Houses and their Federalist brothers and sisters, let’s be clear. We didn’t have much of a choice. Oh, we did want to unseat most of you fools who, once elected and receiving your lobotomy at the door of the Senate and House Chambers, completely turned off your hearing aids and pulled out your own worn and frayed agendas from your pockets.

And there’s the rub. John, I’m not sure I would have voted to keep your gravelly voiced, “Pledge to America”, Brooks Brothers suited butt in your 8th District seat if I was from Ohio (have you checked the unemployment rate in the Buckeye State lately?). Hey, is it me or doesn’t the “Pledge” look a lot like Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” from 1994, look how well that went for ol’ Newt. Talk about “Professional Politician”, Johns been in the House since 1991.

Oh yeah Mr McConnell, by the way, I didn’t vote straight ticket either. You might want to know that when I looked over the field, I didn’t think all the red shirts out there warranted my vote. Unlike Rand Paul, I (and I dare say most Americans) believe the Civil Rights Act (that’s right, LBJ was a Democrat) was the best thing to happen to America since Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 (oh yeah, he was a Republican too). The Civil Rights Act snapped America back from the worst legislation ever created, the “Jim Crow” laws of the 1870s, a complete repudiation of our “unalienable rights” our very own Constitution guaranteed us. Oh, wait a minute, isn’t Mr. Paul from Kentucky too? Hummmm.

Oh, and get a reality check. Mr. Obama is our President. He is a birth-certificated citizen of these here United States. Get passed it. I kind of like the guy and being POTUS is not the easiest job out there. I also like the idea of free or low fee health care for the poor, old, and especially kids. Especially when I hear how the huge, bloated, health care insurers won’t treat a child’s brain cancer or replace a missing limb because it’s not cost effective or due to a “pre-existing condition”. Are there actually humans on this planet who can tell kids to their faces they might die or can’t have a new leg because it’s too expensive? I’m a Dad and that sort of thing really upsets me. Especially when I see an elected official take a different stance as he’s filling his next campaign coffer with money it would take to treat the kid from the insurance industry PAC .

Oh, Mr. McConnell, I forgot to mention that my vote was not a vindication of your personal agenda to make sure Mr. Obama is a “one-term” President. Really, is that all you could come up with representing a Nation with a 13 trillion dollar debt, which grows daily (Source: )? I was hoping the people I voted for would abide by my agenda of getting my neighbors, many of whom haven’t worked for two years, back to work so they can provide for their families, stay in their homes, contribute to their community’s well-being and reduce the crushing debt that has virtually ceased all economic expansion and left us, for the first time in our history, beholding to the very nations we scorn for their human rights abuses and dictatorial governments.

What I believe to be the most important message I and the rest of America sent on November 2nd to the new and old guard is…you’re currently the only game in town and we have so little to work with. But, if you get to your State House or your tony Alexandria, Virginia farmhouse home away from home, you can stay there and earn our respect and your paycheck (and free heath care...did I say that out loud?) if you continue to listen to your electorate and the American People as a whole and do their bidding not yours. The alternative is to become one of the 9.6 percent of the unemployed you so handsomely made possible being the party of no for the last two years. Well…after you exhaust all those honorarium fees and the book advances. Remember, “it takes a village”.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Waxahachie Update

In my last post, I highlighted the condition of a World War Two memorial just outside of Waxahachie, Texas on the US 77 south of town. Well, as promised, I wrote the City Manager and the Editor of the local paper, the Waxahachie Daily Light about the memorials condition.

Just today I received very positive responses from both the City and the newspaper. It seems my note came too late. In the week since we were there, someone had stepped up, cleaned and spruced up the site in time for Waxahachie's Veterans Weekend Celebration. Mr. Pike, the Editor of the Light even enclosed some recent photos one of their readers sent in. They added they were doing a story on the memorial as part of their Veterans Weekend coverage. Kudos to the mystery landscaper.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Waxahachie, Texas

Waxahachie, Texas  is a great place to visit. Waxahachie has designated itself, among other claims, the "Gingerbread City," for the elaborate wooden lacework on vintage homes, and the "Movie Capital of Texas," since four Academy Award films, including Places in the Heart and Bonnie & Clyde, "Tender Mercies" starring Robert Duvall, as were the movies "1918" and "The Trip to Bountiful". The long-running television series Walker, Texas Ranger, starring Chuck Norris were all filmed on location in Waxahachie.

The name Waxahachie has it’s origins among the early Tonkawa Native American tribe. Generally meaning "cow creek" or "buffalo creek" some say it is actually a derivative of the language of the Wichita Indians who used to live in the area but now reside around Anadarko, Oklahoma (gee...I wonder how they got there). In their language, it means “fat wildcat”. Considering the first two, I’m going with “fat wildcat”. Sounds way better.

Many of you might recall in 1988, when Waxahachie was designated as the location for America’s Superconducting Super Collider. It was supposed to be a 54 mile in circumference particle accelerator to smash atoms, forward the new field of quantum physics and disclose the makings of the universe. They sank several construction shafts and tunneled about 14 miles underground before they were stopped. Serious cost overruns shut it down in 1993.

Imagine a project costing an estimated 4 billion goes to a mere 12 billion and Congress decided it cost too much. It would be a drop in the bucket compared to some of today’s Congressional spending. The Europeans decided to build theirs, the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland for a paltry 5 billion. Guess our guys included too many $500 dollar ashtrays and $100 hammers in the plan.
Waxahachie was established in 1849 and made the County Seat of Ellis County in 1850 thus it has a central Courthouse and square. It is the fourth Courthouse built on the site, the first two burned and the third was judged too small and the fourth was built over the foundation of the third (1870 cornerstone) in 1897. Waxahachie and Ellis County had a period of great growth from about 1880 to 1930. Waxahachie was considered the center of Texas cotton production (actually all of America) and the largest producer in the world before 1930. Cotton made a lot of people wealthy here and Waxahachie still has fine examples of classic late 19th century and early 20th century homes. Yearly, the town sponsors a “Gingerbread Trail” home tour, which takes in most of the restored older homes.

Now to the important stuff. It was a Saturday and I had been given marching orders to find a likely destination for our weekend road trip. A town called Paradise, Texas looked promising but when I glanced outside, some serious weather was brewing out to our northwest and heading our way. So, I decided to err on the side of caution and decided to check out the  Texas Country Reporter  (kind of a California Gold TV series) street fair in Waxahachie. We had been there about a year ago on a Sunday and found it deserted and barely alive. This time there would be food (a big plus) and activities in the square.

When we arrived it was cold and rainy but, sure enough, there were tons of people milling around (Texans are a hardy lot) and it was hard to find a parking place. We parked some distance off the square and as we made our way into the square, two things immediately jumped to mind. We had forgotten our umbrella (there was now a steady misting drizzle) and Dianna had forgotten her iPhone.

This requires a moment to explain the seriousness of the matter. Since Dianna discovered the immense benefit that Social Networking has provided man(and woman)kind, she has become passionate (I call it obsessed) about updating her Facebook page and her need to text everyone in her contacts book about each significant moment in her life (I’ve caught her texting in the bathroom). Mind you, we were slowly getting soaked for lack of an umbrella, yet her first thought was, “How am I going to text anybody while we’re here and tell them what we’re doing. I won’t be able to update my Travel Log App”.

Realizing the gravity of the moment, I immediately volunteered to go back to the car and get it (and the umbrella). She took a deep breath, steadied herself and pronounced that it wouldn’t be necessary. She had decided to tough it out and go without her phone. She needed to show me she could go without her vaunted iPhone. It was the timid resolve of a drug addict attempting to throw off the monkey on her back. Though I questioned her decision and the effect it would have on our morning, she stuck to her guns and we moved onto the square.

The last time we had gone to Waxahachie, we discovered a great restaurant right across from the Courthouse, the 1879 Chisholm Grill . Waxahachie was a stop on the famous Chisholm Trail cattle run from South Texas to Kansas. The Chisholm Grill occupies what was a row of small wood-frame structures housing the General Store and several saloons (and brothels). In 1890, as the town square developed, the current building replaced the General Store and saloons with a row of two-story Victorian commercial buildings typical of late 19th century Texas. It has been the site of a restaurant of some kind since 1920. We shared the ample 1879 Chisolm Special of eggs, sausage, bacon, crispy hash browns and “scratch made, never soggy” pancakes. Really great sweet tea too. It was awesome.

Full from breakfast, we made our way through the square. I quickly noted there were guided tours being given of the Courthouse. Always aware of Dianna’s tepid interest in all things historical, I stopped and she quickly said, “Why don’t we go on the tour?” I was stunned into silence. I looked her in the eye and could see her pupils constricting like a cornered animal deciding to fight or fly. I knew the iPhone thing was working on her. I decided to take the bait and agreed. We met our guide who walked us around the perimeter and described all the wonderful attributes of architect J. Riely Gordon’s Courthouse.

The Ellis County Courthouse was built from architectural plans created by J. Riely Gordon. The building incorporates the Richardsonian Romanesque architectural style (a knock-off of Italian Romanesque) originally created by Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson and made popular in Texas by Mr. Gordon. One of the classic Romanesque style elements is to incorporate faces of people within the facades. There’s even gargoyles (originally rainwater gutters or flumes; from the French gargouille, originally "throat" or "gullet"; or Latin gurgulio, gula, gargula ("gullet" or "throat"), it's where we get the word "gargle" from) on minarets below the clock tower.

Around the base of the Courthouse, we saw the prisoner entrance. It was a simple door, not visible from any of the entrances. The forward thinking designers knew it would be important to have an entrance so the defendant wouldn't have to be brought through the entrances or walked by the public. After all, it is Texas and everybody back then (and some say now) had a gun and lynchings were commonplace in the early west. The door led to a sprial staircase which led to a rear door of the second and third floor Courtrooms (kind of like third floor holding in the old San Diego Courthouse). The defendant would only have to walk to the defense table to stand trial.

Cool story about Waxahachie’s façade. In 1894, stone mason Harry Herley was brought to Waxahachie to sculpt and decorate outer walls of the new courthouse, replacing the old wooden courthouse. While he carved some of the porches and arches himself, he also supervised several German-trained carvers. He and his workers were lodged at a local boarding house near the square.

Known as "The Legend of the Ellis County Courthouse," the story goes that Herley fell in love with beauty Mabel Frame, the daughter of the owner of the boarding house where Herley stayed. He carved her radiant likeness over one of the courthouse entrances. The story goes that Mabel’s mom wasn’t happy about Herley’s interest in Mabel and, as time went by, Mrs. Frame began to get a little short with the boys and their relationship became strained. He and his workers became embittered and subsequent carvings of Mabel were alternated with mom’s and depicted her as a twisted demon.

While a great story, there is no factual basis for it. Harry Herley is credited with being the master carver for the Waxahachie project, but more than likely, he carved only a portion of the portraits and supervised several other carvers, all of whom worked for Theodore Beilharz, a master stone carver in Dallas. The carvings were probably made in Dallas at the Beilharz yard and shop and shipped to Waxahachie in their finished condition, ready to mount. I’m a romantic at heart, I like the first version.

As we made our way around the red limestone and sandstone structure, I could see the thin crust of Dianna's resolve cracking. It started when I pointed out the images of Mabel and her mother. She snapped back, “Pretty cool, except I don’t have my phone camera to take a picture.” Our tour continued on the inside to the very ornate first floor Courtroom and to the really cool second floor Courtroom. Both are still being used today and were the focus of a massive restoration in 2002.
The old Courtrooms, hallways and offices were treated like an archaeological dig and taken down to their first layer of paint. The interior was then brought back to their original construction and luster in hues of red, green, white and gold. They even uncovered skeletal remains of some poor man who ended up inside a large vault in the basement of the Courthouse. No identification was ever made but the tour guide assured us the cause of death was not violent. We were sorry to hear there were no ghosts wandering the halls.

The second Courtroom was the crowning accomplishment. In the 50’s, in an attempt to gain more space, the County decided to extend what was an audience gallery on the fourth floor over the Courtroom creating more office space above the Courtroom. In the 2002 restoration, they removed the fourth floor construction and replaced the gallery. The room is now used as a Courtroom and County Commissioners (County Supervisors for us Californians) Court. The Courtroom ceiling now rises almost all the way to the base of the clock tower spanning the entire room. It looks remarkably like the Courtroom used in the movie “Inherit the Wind”. You can almost see and hear Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond, doing his best Clarence Darrow.

In the basement we found the old County offices of the Treasurer, Records, and the bathrooms. Through a rear door leading to a back stairway, we found the bathroom reserved for non-whites. The room was no longer there but the sign revealed by the 2002 restoration reached out a grabbed everyone who saw it. There was also the drum used in jury selection up until they began using computers.
The weather worsened and it was time to go. We retrieved our car and Dianna was finally reunited with her phone (a joyous moment surpassed only by the rescue of those miners in Chile). As we drove off, I could see her softly rubbing the glass face of her phone to restore it’s brightly colored graphical user interface to check on the latest emails and text messages she may have missed.

I chose a lengthy route of return to the I-35 so we could pass by the Sonic at  Italy, Texas . On the way, I was struck by a roadside memorial we passed. In a rather dismal setting, really a dirt turnout on the highway US 77. I only noticed it because of a roadside sign stating “World War II memorial” across from it. As we passed, it was only by chance I caught a glimpse of it through some high grass obscuring it. I made the U-turn and pulled up next to it and got a photo. There is was a tribute to “Waxahachie’s Sons and Daughters” who served in World War Two. I am writing a letter to the City right after I’m done here.
Knowing what a difficult time Dianna had without her phone, I decided to reward her with her favorite  Sonic R44 Strawberry Limeade . I could see the stress wash off her face as we entered the drive-thru.

Our trip back was rather uneventful but we could see dark ominous clouds before us as we made our way north to Frisco. When we arrived back home the wind had picked up and we could hear the wail of our town tornado warning system calling out to seek shelter. I ran inside to check my favorite weather site Weather Underground  and discovered the threat was well to our south and west so, we were in no danger. Dianna was now taking a bath and reported to me a friend had texted her (I kid you not) and told her the tornado horns were sounding in their neighborhood too. She asked me if I thought she should get out of her bath and take shelter in our closet. I assured her it was not necessary.

But as the afternoon progressed, communities around Waxahachie ended up getting the full brunt of the storm and there was a tornado that touched down just north of the town square. We were lucky and thankful our only concern that day revolved around a forgotten phone.