A Look at Small-Town Texas
Photo: Sheriff Gates Wright in Leakey, 1973.
It feels like I have seen this same man a million times in a thousand Texas towns. Same glasses, same pipe, same pen and glasses case in the front pocket.
Photo by Marc St. Gil for the Documerica Project
It was fortuitous, I thought, when the folks at Texas Highways asked me to gather some historical photos and put together this collection of small Texas towns. After all, if a man from the town of Little River-Academy can’t address the myriad glories and minor frustrations of growing up in a small Texas community, who can? In all honesty, I thought I would knock this out in a few hours.
But then I began looking through the huge archive of photos I've collected over the years and soon realized the error in my thinking. For one thing, I must have on the order of 15-20,000 historical photos, split roughly 50-50 between photos from publicly available archives and those sent in by readers of Traces of Texas. For another, the stories behind some of the photos are so compelling that to give them an earnest retelling would take considerable time and effort.
While the history of each Texas town is unique, gathering the images quickly made clear that there are common elements and themes that bind together each of these small communities—and generations of Texans. The names of the churches and cafés and high school mascots might be different, and Main Street in one town may be Highway 95 in another, but the underlying motifs are universal. The fiery passion that animated my Little River-Academy Bumblebees to want to beat the ever-lovin' tar out of our rival Rogers Eagles is the same passion that makes Pilot Point want to beat Celina. And these passions—all of them—are threads in the grand tapestry of Texas. I didn't know it at the time, but I was blessed to grow up where I did and wouldn’t change it for anything.
Having said all of this, let me just add on a personal note: Sting 'em, Bees! Beat the stuffing out of Rogers!
Jump to: Main Street | Sports | Theaters | Courthouses | Cafés, saloons, and shops | Train stations and depots
Every small Texas town has a main thoroughfare. It might be called Main Street or Pecan Street or Highway 95, but it's where the action takes place. You stop and get a cold Coke or Dr Pepper and your friends are there and the next thing you know, you're shooting .22 rifles on the river under the bridge or helping Mr. Wilson round up the cattle that escaped when somebody—you know who but aren't saying—took out 57 feet of his barbed wire fence with their pickup after the sock hop and drove away without telling him.
Almost every small town in the Lone Star State has a high school and lives and dies with the success of its team in whatever season it happens to be. The impact of a great team on a community's morale can be monumental: People are smiling, business picks up, and all is right in the universe.
Not every Texas town has been blessed with a theater and, regrettably, most of the smaller ones have withered on the vine, victims of the ease of multiplexes in larger nearby towns. Fortunately, old theaters are good general-purpose structures and community centers, so many small towns have repurposed their old theaters.
If a small Texas town is particularly favored, it is a county seat. County seats fare better during lean times than their neighbors because there is always county business to be done.
Cafés, saloons, and shops
I could write a book about the people I've met and the tales I've been told in the cafés, restaurants, and watering holes in every corner of the Lone Star State. From the before-sunrise gathering of old men in the "spit and whittle club" at Bird's Café in Percilla to the late-night group of barroom sophists at the Devil's Backbone Tavern near Wimberley, Texans are a convivial bunch. We gather, let our hair down, gossip, solve the world's problems, and tell stories we've told a thousand times, some of which may, in fact, be true.
Train stations and depots
The history of Texas small towns is often a history of trains. Many of our villages began as train stops and are named for railroad officials or as places for trains to take on water or passengers. Communities have lived and died by the decisions of railroads to put their tracks through them or through a neighboring community. Sometimes, like in the case of D'Hanis, citizens just up and move the whole town a considerable distance in order to be where the train goes through.