By Gene Fowler
So many intriguing small Texas towns, so little time. Many a day I have traveled through the Johnson County seat of Cleburne, wishing I had time to stop and explore the vintage buildings around the courthouse square. So when I heard about the restoration of Cleburne’s 1924 Liberty Hotel and other downtown developments, I hit the road. After escaping the crowded lanes of I-35, I headed north from Hillsboro on Texas 171. As the rolling prairie gives way to the outskirts of Cleburne, the rural highway becomes Caddo Street. Soon, I was pulling up to the four-story brick hotel, one block south of the courthouse square.
Built by local merchant A.J. Wright to accommodate travelers drawn to town by the central machine shops of the Santa Fe Railroad and other rail lines, the Liberty was the life of Cleburne’s party for a time. Famed Big Band leader Lawrence Welk performed at the hotel with his Hotsy Totsy Boys in 1933. But the continuing Depression, combined with a railroad strike in the late ’30s, caused the hotel to lose half its business. By 2004, when local businessman and preservationist Howard Dudley bought the property, the Liberty had seen better days.
“Howard had the interior gutted and completely rebuilt,” explains Ron Lindsey, the Liberty’s general manager. “The original terrazzo floor was saved, but the antique-looking paneling, lighting fixtures, and other features are all new.” The inviting lobby made me wish I had time to sit and daydream, and the well-equipped fitness center reminded me of the need to make time on the road for keeping the old mortal vessel in shape. I also had to struggle to depart my comfortable room with its high-def TV, and it required immense self-control not to park my keister in the hotel’s business center and log on to its high-speed Internet. But Cleburne beckoned.
First stop, directly across Caddo Street from the hotel, I found another restored structure built by A. J. Wright. Known as Wright Plaza, it now houses a small mall with a restaurant, several apparel bou-tiques, and two portrait studios—one for artsy photographs and one for Old West shots.
On the side of a nearby building, I was amazed by the giant mural painted by well-known Cleburne artist Stylle Read. The 216-foot-long work depicts local history, from early explorers and Caddo settlements to courthouses, pioneers, the Chisholm Trail, and railroad culture to 21st-Century gas drilling. One section highlights Slats Rodgers, the maverick Cleburne airman who in 1912 constructed possibly the first airplane built in Texas, and A.J. Wright, standing by a Chaparral automobile manufactured in Cleburne. Though it appears the mural is painted on a brick wall, Read actually painted 10,000 bricks on the stucco wall.
I learned more about Cleburne’s past at the Layland Museum of History, on Caddo Street just north of the courthouse square. Housed in one of Texas’ remaining Carnegie Library buildings, the 1905 Greek Revival structure is likely the only museum in Texas named for a plumber.
Up the steps and past the stately columns, a photo blowup of W.J. Layland greets visitors in the museum’s entryway. “Mr. Layland would close the plumbing business every summer and take one of his eight children on a tour of the West, collecting Native American artifacts and other relics,” explains museum director Julie Baker. “He would display the materials in the shop, and any time a child came in, he would stop and show them all the artifacts.” Much of the collection eventually found a home in the museum, including an 1820s grain jar from Acoma Pueblo and a circa-1900 cradleboard crafted by Sioux or Cheyenne.
Encompassing prehistory to the 1970s, the museum also exhibits a mammoth tusk found in a field in the Johnson County town of Godley. And in addition to all the photos, mementos, and antique items that depict local life back in the day, the building itself is a museum piece. “We’re restoring the interior to historic colors, and replacing some lighting with Edison bulbs,” adds Baker, pointing to the retro sci-fi-looking ceiling lights with crackling filaments.
Behind the Layland, on Main Street, the museum’s recently opened Smith History Center features a research library in a restored 1914 commercial structure. The Smith Center’s window display really wows at night with neon signs that light up vintage autos to re-create a succession of automotive-age time periods.
Every vintage Cleburne building seems to have a story. At the Comic Boxx on East Henderson, a repository of pop-culture memorabilia that occupies a former automobile dealership, folks can show you the elevator that lifted Pontiacs to the second floor in 1927. The tiny Burger Bar on North Anglin housed the pioneer wagon yard and livery stable office (and later a taxi dispatcher). And on Main, a brightly painted secondhand bookstore called Bill’s Books is housed in the first commercial brick building in downtown Cleburne.
Ready for dinner, I headed for the Caddo Street Grill, which offers a varied menu of steaks, burgers, wings, seafood, salads, fajitas, and more. Sorely tempted by the salmon—not to mention the General Cleburne Center-Cut Steak, named for town namesake Confederate General Patrick Cleburne—I opted instead for the zesty, mesquite-grilled chicken breast and vegetable plate, the latter a tasty mix of brown rice, broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots. The restaurant’s adjacent sports bar features a smaller Stylle Read mural along with a bank of high-def TVs. On the night I visited, excited fans converged here to watch the Texas Rangers defeat the New York Yankees and earn the team’s first-ever trip to the World Series.
After dinner, I strolled over to yet another Howard Dudley restoration, the Plaza Theater, housed in a former Western Auto store on Main Street, to take in a spirited performance of the gospel musical Smoke on the Mountain. The talented Plaza cast delighted an all-ages audience, and an update on the Rangers game was announced at intermission. (Another local theater troupe, the Greater Cleburne Carnegie Players, performs nearby at the new Performing Arts Center, offering fare ranging from Dracula to It’s a Wonderful Life.)
That evening, I conked out fast in the Liberty’s luxurious bedding. The next morning, before leaving town, I parked at Buffalo Creek BBQ on US 67 and spent a few moments at an adjacent spot on Buffalo Creek. An historical marker explains that a spring at the site was instrumental in the town’s founding and that Sam Houston often visited the spot after traveling to nearby Alvarado to see his daughter. And like Sam, I thought, I’ll be back.
From the March 2011 issue.