One horse but two churches
When I drove to Houston this weekend, I took little back roads all the way
through small towns that I've heard about and seen on the map. These are
the little villages in the gaps between the main roads, those blank spaces
on the map circumscribed by the thick red and black lines. Crossroads, stop
signs in the corn. Remember the bus stop in the cornfields in North by
Northwest? Maybe a light or two on the main street in the bigger towns. A
square with the courthouse in the center and stores around the rim.
A friend from work grew up in these towns. He and his father told me about
some of them. They're small enough that everyone knows everyone, and has
known all your family for generations, and there are not that many different
family names in the cemeteries. The small towns have two churches, one
Catholic and one Lutheran. This part of central Texas was settled by
Germans of both persuasions. Up in the northern Midwest, if Garrison
Keillor is to be believed, it's mainly shy Scandanavian Lutherans. Here
it's mixed. So I was prepared to see a series of two-church towns.
(Unless you have a detailed map, these roads and towns aren't there at all.
Fortunately, computerized maps based on census data include a lot of detail.
I use the New Evil Empire's "Streets and Trips," which is pretty good.)
Smithville is not a small town. A gentleman I met told me how the small
town in this area are structured, religion-wise. His theory is that the
small towns in this area have two churches, one Lutheran and one Catholic,
because the entire area was settled by German immigrants of the two
persuasions. Not true here. Too big. This is not a one-horse or
two-church town. Three Baptists, a Presbyterian, a Methodist, and at last
on the edge of town, a Roman Catholic.
On the way to the next town there is a scenic overlook. A hill. In this
part of Texas, a hill? At least a hundred feet above the surrounding
landscape. At the top just a loop of road surrounded by boulders to keep
you from parking on the grass, three or four picnic tables, a helluva nice
view in all directions. And the inevitable modern-age security camera. The
rocks were lava, which is peculiar in this area that I thought was
sedimentary, and spotted with moss in red and green. Why is there lava on
top of this hill? Unless I misclassified the rocks, which I don't think I
did, they looked black, burnt, with holes that appeared to be gas bubbles.
Have to check the geologic map for this area.
Corn. Fields of corn. All uniform height, four to five feet, depending,
topped with tassels and little ears down below.
There is a four-arch truss bridge coming into town, over the Colorado River.
No, the other one. This is not the Colorado that cut the Grand Canyon, just
a little Colorado River that runs through central Texas. Around Austin we
have the Lower Colorado River Authority, LCRA, to control the dams, lakes,
reservoirs. Yes, confusing to newcomers.
The town has a large central square a lot like Georgetown, Texas, with a
stone City Hall or Courthouse in the middle. The periphery, however, has a
lot of empty storefronts, sorry to say.
This is a large town, overall. Three lights on the main road, and at least
one on a side street that I saw during just a quick run-through.
Out by the highway entrance -- no, not the interstate, just a two-digit
road, still lots bigger than the four-digit road I'm on -- among the line of
gas stations is "Honey Bunny's" shop for women's apparel, it says. Ms. T.
has called me "Honey Bunny" ever since she saw Amanda Plummer do it in Pulp
Fiction just to piss off her boyfriend. Sorry she wasn't there to see it,
so I photographed it for her.
Now this is a small town. Not even a stop sign. No parallel side streets.
A one-church town, Lutheran in this case. I notice several small octagonal
structures, wood frame, maybe eight feet tall plus a conical peaked roof,
six to eight feet in diameter. Giant coffee cans in the fields, but
whitewashed wood. In Utah, I would have thought they were small silos for
grain storage. Down here I think they're pump houses, but I'm not sure.
They're too far from the road and too close to the houses for me to go
politely to look.
And then there is the lodge house. "Sons of Hermann, Lodge 152 (1896)."
Sons of Hermann? Hermann? Wait a minute. Well, it's a German
neighborhood, so the name is not implausible. And George Hermann ("the
great oil, cattle and land baron George Hermann") gave a lot of land, now
parks, to Houston, which is only sixty or seventy miles away. A little web
research tells me that this is a fraternal organization that has life
insurance, children's camps, dance schools, and retirement communities.
Life insurance? Yes, that seems to be the mainstay. The lodge says it is
"a not-for-profit fraternal life insurance company" on its web site. Never
heard of this sort of lodge before. An odd coincidence: the one lodge I saw
was lodge number 152. The organization has 152 lodges. But, alas, it is
only a coincidence because the numbers are not contiguous. Still, a
Fayetteville is a real town but a small one. Much smaller than Smithville
or LaGrange. No lights. Still has a central square surrounded by stores.
But the center of the square is not the big stone courthouse one expects.
This town has a small wooden building, a whitewashed wood cube, two stories,
with a widows walk and a clock tower. And an octagonal gazebo large enough
for about twenty-four standees. The wood building is up on stone blocks
about two feet. You see this a lot in central Texas, but I keep forgetting
to ask why. I assume that it's for termites, but I'm not sure. Sometimes
it's concrete blocks instead of stone. Like this old post office in a
little town called Andice, west of Georgetown. It was up on two courses of
concrete blocks. And rickety as hell, and the sides pocked by hail. Ms. T.
has the guts to go into it. I didn't. Thought I might fall through the
rotting floor. But I digress.
The stores around the square had only a few empty storefronts. The open
ones were pretty typical: a bank, a restaurant, a saloon, a general store,
and six antique shops. Yup, typical.
The four-digit FM (Farm-to-Market) road from New Ulm to Frelsburg is zig-zag
zig-zag zig-zag zig-zag. Can't get up a reasonable head of steam. Imagine
a plan of fields laid out on a strict north-south-east-west grid. Then
build a road that goes northwest-southeast.
This is the town that a friend told me about, from which his family comes.
They've been there for half a dozen generations, which probably means around
the time the town was founded. It hasn't grown much. One four-way stop
sign. Fewer than ten buildings total; and, as advertised, exactly two of
them are churches.
Past town there is a small field containing Black Angus cattle and white
egrets, about twenty of each. An odd and beautiful juxtaposition.
This is the first place that I have noticed Spanish moss hanging from the
tree branches. It's very common in Houston and humid places like that. I
guess this is the transitional zone.
Cat Spring is a just a crossroad, a two-way stop instead of four-way. This
is an area of big trees, unlike Austin, and greener than Austin. It must
have more precipitation here and more humidity as I get nearer to Houston,
which is very humid and almost coastal. The upside of the increased water
is that everything is greener and you can grow anything. The downside is
that, well, it is humid all the time. There is a business sign in front of
a house: "Pressure Washing, Mildew Removal."
It is amazingly windy the whole way. There are whitecaps on the farm ponds.
One animal you see here that we don't see around Austin is burros. We have
goats. They have burros.
Finally I get back to the interstate at Sealy. But I can't get phone
service. For the last twenty miles before the interstate and the first
twenty miles on it there is no Sprint PCS service. Instead I get "Digital
Roaming," which I have never seen before. Gee, their coverage map shows
100% coverage over that area, but that doesn't seem to be entirely
realistic. As David Mamet said, "It's not a lie. It's a gift for fiction."