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.

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