Many of the towns we've driven through in central Texas show signs of having once been much more prosperous than today. Long main streets of empty storefronts that used to be the commercial center of the town. Drugstores, clothes, banks, hardware, jewelry, gifts, you name it, now all turned to For Rent signs, plywood, whitewashed glass. Empty parking spaces for blocks at a time.
A few of the shops have turned into antique stores. Even these are usually collective "antique malls" that rent small spaces to dozens of people who have collections too small to warrant a whole store. All it takes is one person to attend the desk, write up receipts noting whose piece got sold for how much. Haggling is not possible because the owner is not present, and the person at the desk has no authority.
Looking down the street, mom and pop convenience stores make up the rest of the going concerns in these towns. It's eerie to drive through these Last Picture Show streets. Where have the stores gone? There is no strip mall on the edge of town to suck the commercial life out of the center of town. Just these empty storefronts. Is the population smaller than it was forty or fifty years ago? Agriculture as a business surely employs dramatically fewer people now than then, and maybe that alone is the difference.
At the end of a day of such wandering, we ended up in the town of Temple, TX. It's about fifty thousand people, sort of the size of Nashua, NH, a few years ago, and it looks and feels a lot like Nashua. An old industrial town, and a large rail center. In Nashua, the rail system is largely unused now, except for a couple spur lines that run chemical cars to and from some local factories and bottling companies. You could live there for years and not know that the rail ran at all, then get stuck for ten or fifteen minutes at a grade crossing while six cars move from side to side, pulled by one old engine and a man on foot with a lantern. Very homey but not efficient.
Temple was very different. The railroads there are active. The tracks neatly divide the town. Some are working tracks for the Santa Fe Railroad in several incarnations. The engines and cars all bear initials that end in SF, though the beginning might be AT or BN or nothing. Other tracks are parking for exhibits of old train cars. One large steam engine, a couple passenger and sleeper cars, several different cabooses.
Instead of going over the bridge that spanned the ten-wide tracks, we turned to the side to see what was there. We happened upon the rail station and museum. We didn't get to see the museum because it was too late. They had just closed and were setting up for a party that night. Barbeque and country music in the restored station, probably nifty but we passed. Next door there is another building that houses the model railroad society. They were setting up for a reception, too, but the president of the society generously took half an hour to show us around.
The building itself used to be the real train station in Moody, Texas, and had been moved to Temple recently. We noticed as we approached it that the new stairs and wheelchair ramp were supported on concrete blocks. The building was, too, on closer inspection. The inside of the station was oddly symmetric, with two waiting rooms. Our guide explained that, when the station was active, it was segregated like most other public facilities in the South, at least. Separate waiting rooms, separate restrooms, etc., in the station; separate cars on the train. Only one ticket counter, though.
There were several model railroad dioramas under construction. Different model scales, towns, loops, mountains, bridges, switches. The model buildings and people were being installed into their landscapes by teams of volunteers. There were smaller displays and plaques commemorating previous events, for instance, one about a young man who had displayed models at this association for fourteen years, starting at age eight or nine, and was now graduating college. Our guide was the president of the association, and even he was awed by this young man's dedication to the hobby.
The town of Temple itself has a peculiar street layout. Oh, the grid is nice and rectangular, but the naming is special. The four axes, measured out from the town square, are labeled with even numbers, odd numbers, names, and letters. To the north, names in alphabetical order: Adams, Barton, Calhoun, Downs, Elm, French, Garfield, Houston, Irvin, Jackson, King, Lamar, Munroe, Nugent, Oakland, Park, Royal, Shell, Thompson, Virginia, Victory, Walker, Xavier, Young, Zenith. To the south, letters A thru Z. Simple. The tricky bit is the numbers, evens to the east, odds to the west. We noticed this when we drove out to the west, just to see what was there, and were very puzzled when we made a U-turn around 31st Street and, huh, we haven't driven thirty blocks, have we? And on the way back, we passed 29th, 27th, 25th, and then we got the idea. We found the train station by going down 7th Street until we hit Avenue B, so we must have been in the southwest (fourth) quadrant, right?