by Stewart Dill McBride, Staff Correspondent
The Christian Science Monitor – November 4, 1977
John H.B. Sanders needlepointed seat cushions for the entire front row. A junk shop in Cleburne supplied the chandelier. Jesse Brooks plastered the proscenium. Mr. Mac, the town cabinetmaker, finished the Victorian doors. From a Fort Worth steel company, Jo Ann Miller wangled a scrap beam to hold up the balcony. The Wednesday Woman’s Club scavenged in their closets and found material for costumes
Now the local Girl Scouts usher. The Junior League sells cider (to pay for the spotlights). Mo Todd, “queen of the pit pianists,” plunks another round of “Deep in the Heart of Texas” for the pre-theater sing-along. Then it’s on with the (shoestring) show…in front of another capacity crowd at the old opera house in Granbury, Texas.
“We’re competing tonight with the Dallas state fair, and the Texas-OU [Oklahoma University] game on TV,” said Mrs. Miller one recent Saturday evening in the opera house lobby. It was minutes before curtain time. “But just look at that crowd!” She proudly gestured to Granbury’s town square, jammed with double-parked Cadillacs from Fort Worth and local cowboys’ pickup trucks.
A crumbling opera house
Seven years ago, this sleepy county seat was a virtual ghost town. Most of the 19th-century buildings on its town square were vacant and boarded up; a cannonball could have rolled down Crockett Street at high noon and not hit a soul. The old Granbury opera house–which during the Gay Nineties had bustled with vaudeville and chautauqua–was crumbling into rubble. Hay and pigeons occupied its attic; windows were broken; the roof was collapsing; planning consultants had recommended demolishing the 1886 structure–along with the entire south side of the town square.
But the citizens of Granbury refused to give up the opera house and the town’s glorious past. Their pride was pricked. With the same cowboy stubbornness that tamed this tiny Wild West settlement, they embarked on an unpretentious fix-up of their town square–tuck-pointing the buildings, sandblasting away decades of dirt and mildew stain, and painting. The project was not the work of big business, but of ordinary townspeople–peanut farmers, cowpokes, bankers, fragile little ladies in crisp cotton dresses–who wanted to restore the wholesome hometown values and sense of community those buildings stood for.
No state or federal funds
The townspeople did just that. Four years after they started, Granbury’s once-dingy town square was once again buzzing with business, and had been added to the National Register for Historic Places. The project was accomplished without a penny of state of federal money. The preservation spirit has since captured all the shopkeepers on the fully occupied square and is creeping into the surrounding neighborhoods. Residents are restoring old Victorian homes on oak-shaded lanes. They are renovating quaint clapboard houses adorned with white picket fences and front porch swings.
Descendants of the original settlers, as well as fugitives from the pressures of urban life in the Dallas-Fort Worth “Metroplex,” are “coming home” to Granbury. In the last two decades the town’s population has nearly doubled, and property values on the town square have increased tenfold. Yet despite the historic preservation, Granbury remains a living, working community with not the slightest interest in becoming a Williamsburg museum town or an Old West country curio for city folk to gawk at.
“We’re no Disneyland, honey! This town is for real,” booms Texas-born Jo Ann Miller, whose singing voice bandleader Tommy Dorsey “discovered” years ago. “We brought this town back to the way it was,” she says. “There’s nothing pretentious about it. Everybody still says ‘Hi’ on the streets. And the restoration wasn’t done by Rockefeller and billions of dollars. It was done by little bitty people.”
A future in their past
The people of Granbury are finding a future in their past. And a remarkable past it was.
When James Monroe was president, what is now Hood County was still part of Mexico-Indian territory that provided ample wood, flintstone, pecans, and wild game for the Comanche and Kiowa who followed buffalo migrating along the meandering Brazos River. The log cabin village of Granbury, settled in the 1850s as an outpost against the Indians, was some 40 miles south of Fort Worth–“where the West begins.”
The settlement lay on the edges of heavily wooded east Texas and the “hill country,” and had become a haven for desperadoes and outlaws from as far away as Missouri. These included (according to local lore) Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and Belle Starr. Some historians believe John Wilkes Booth, after assassinating President Lincoln, took cover in Granbury under the pseudonym of John St. Helen.
It was perhaps no accident that the Texas Legislature chose turbulent Granbury as the county seat of Hood County. From a one-room log cabin courthouse, law and order were to radiate out, along with the economic, political, social, and cultural activities of the county. And this actually happened. By the late 19th century Granbury was the proud possessor not only of three saloons but also a couple of banks and an accredited college. The town was settled by the thoughtful as well as the adventurous.
‘Those were the days…’
After the Civil War’s humiliation of the Confederacy, many prominent Southern families packed their bags and followed the wagon ruts westward to Texas, which had also fought for Dixie. They brought with them their antebellum architecture, religion, and culture. A few ventured as far west as the Brazos to ford into the hostile territory of Hood County–where they found water was even more plentiful than outlaws and cotton could still be king.
“Those were the days,” says Mabel Aiken Bayer, “when land was 50 cents an acre and Indians were scalping settlers by the wagon-load.” Her grandparents, with 40 slaves, arrived from Atlanta before the War Between the States. Today “Miss Mabel” offers to guide tourists and spin local lore. Her office is a rocking chair in the renovated Nut Shell bakery on the square.
To this day, Granbury retains trappings of Southern society: Virginia plantation-style mansions, chicken and dumplings, grits and gravy, a graciousness, gentility, and lazy drawl that are more Deep South than Wild West. (The names for both Hood County and Granbury were taken from heroic Confederate generals.)
The town was settled on a 40-acre tract donated by Jesse and Jacob Nutt, two blind Missouri merchants. Streets were platted in a grid pattern around the courthouse. In the 1870s and ’80s commerce boomed, and wooden structures on the town square were replaced by hand-hewn limestone. By 1895, Granbury had a swank opera house, a county jail, numerous businesses, and a three-story stone courthouse. Fort Worth was a full day’s ride away, so farmers and ranchers in Hood County came to Granbury on Saturday to sell their crops and buy flour, sugar, and shortening. They filled the square with horse teams and wagons of cotton.
Depression bore in
“The town’s decline began with the depression, and it never recovered,” says Mary Lou Watkins, a leader in the restoration and the granddaughter of David Lee Nutt, one of the town’s founders. She tells how, in the 1930s, cotton crops withered–and increased mechanization drove farmhands to seek work in the cities.
When the nation began to recover, growth occurred mainly in urban areas; wartime manufacturing only reinforced that pattern. Small towns like Granbury could no longer compete with the prices and variety of large chain stores in Dallas and Fort Worth.
When the state finally built Highway 377 around it, Granbury became another little Texas town that people and progress literally bypassed. Shops closed down and were boarded up. The town’s sons and daughters left for colleges and for jobs in the big cities. The old hand-wound Seth Thomas No. 16 clock leaned precariously in the courthouse tower. In the square’s Presbyterian church, the preacher stopped ringing the bells for fear the vibration might topple the steeple.
Bud Olson, now a city councillor, remembers Granbury in 1969. It was “literally bankrupt. We couldn’t buy a light bulb without having to pay cash.” He adds that this sad financial state was, however, something of a blessing. Lacking money, the town was prevented from grafting on to its historic buildings such “improvements” as aluminum windows and brick veneer facades. When the time for restoration came, there was still plenty of the original town left to work with.
‘Away long enough…’
Mrs. Watkins “came home” to Granbury in 1967. She and her family, like many of their neighbors, have a history here. Mrs. Watkins’s family moved from Granbury during the depression. She finished high school in Fort Worth, married an Army officer, traveled the world, and then eventually found her way back to Texas-Dallas. But she was making frequent trips to her “old homeplace.”
“I’d been away long enough to appreciate Granbury’s architecture and the values of small-town life,” she says. Her grandparents’ home, in which she was born, stood abandoned, its backyard head-high with sunflowers, its interior buried in 30 years’ dust.
“At the time, historic preservation wasn’t a big thing,” Mrs. Watkins says; “it was just a few kooks. Nobody knew anything about historical markers.” But she had known enough to begin scrubbing and cleaning and tearing away the accreation of porches added to the home’s original Victorian grandeur.
A century before when Mrs. Watkin’s great-uncles, Jesse and Jacob Nut, ran the general store on the square, there was no hotel in town to accommodate the steady traffic of “drummers” (traveling salesmen) and stagecoach passengers, so David Nutt would invite them to come home with him. His practical and privacy-minded wife, Sudie, had an extension built on the house to act as a hotel. It became known throughout the circuit of Texas drummers as the “Nutt House.”
Santa Fe rail stop
Eventually, in 1905, Jesse and Jacob’s store was remodeled to include a hotel and dining room, which became the new “Nutt House.” It was most popular with passengers on the Santa Fe railroad. Trains stopped a few blocks from the square, and hungry travelers were transported by mule hacks to 50 cents’ worth of “pitch till you win” (the Texas version of “all you can eat”). The locals dined there, too.
“Eating at the Nutt House was a special thing for us children on Sunday after church,” Mrs. Watkins recalls. But when she returned to Granbury in 1967, her great-uncles’ hotel was a one-dollar flophouse and hadn’t served a meal in 15 years.
Joe Nutt, Mrs. Watkin’s cousin, “came home” close on her heels. “It was my boyhood dream to come back to Granbury,” he says. “Things had changed a lot since Grandpa [David Lee Nutt] put me on my paint pony to get the cattle at the cedarbrake, but still it was home. My friends in Denver said, “How can you go back to that tiny town where everybody knows your business?’ My response to that was, ‘Thank God somebody cares.'”
Together the cousins purchased the dingy old Nutt House on the square, and Mrs. Watkins rolled up her sleeves for another historic face-lifting. She had to wade not only through as much grime on this second project, but also through the skepticism of the spit-and-whittle crowd of old-timers who sat–and still sit–in front of the courthouse beneath General Granbury’s statue and a lush pecan tree (known somewhat facetiously as the “Tree of Knowledge”).
The Nutt House 11:30 dinner bell rang once again on April Fools’ Day, 1970. Mrs. Watkins had adorned the upstairs bedrooms with hooked rugs, brass beds, and marble sinks. The dining room was furnished with an eclectic collection of 19th-century chairs and tables from Hood County farmhouses and barns. The meals were “honest, unpretentious, and informal”–no steaks, ribs, or stroganoff, but the nonconformist “country cooking” served by Grandma Sudie in the original Nutt House: chicken and dumplings, turnip greens with salt port, stewed apples, pinto beans, yams, sauerkraut salad, and hot-water cornbread (originated “when the cows ran dry”; its recipe calls for “half a duck egg” of cornmeal dough).
“Local farmers soon found out about us and brought vegetables to our back door,” Mrs. Watkins says. “If they had okra or squash, that became the vegetable of the day.” She tried to involve as many townspeople as possible and offered partnerships in the business to local women who worked as cooks and hostesses. Mahota (Sis) Henslee, born in Oklahoma Indian Territory before it became a state, dishes up the day’s fare on the buffet line and always asks the guests politely, “Gravy on your grits?” The needlepoint plaque on the wall behind her reads: “Waste not, want not”; but that doesn’t stop the crowds from coming back for seconds…and thirds.
Fresh peach cobbler and German buttermilk pie are kept in wooden pie safes, and served by waitresses in calico dresses. The atmosphere is so informal that cowboys sometimes get through their meals without removing their ten-gallon hats. On a busy day, some 200 waiting customers are lined up from the Nutt House down to the First National Bank on the corner of the block.
Strategy in the restaurant
Before Mrs. Watkins and her cousin reopened the Nutt House, Granbury’s only eating place was a hamburger stand. To some, even the renovated restaurant seemed like much ado about nothing; the entire town economy needed rescuing. But Nutt House was a start.
“Napolean said an army travels on its stomach. Well, so does a small town,” says Mrs. Watkins, who is as gracious as they come, and looks quite natural in long cotton pioneer dresses. “We knew nobody would invest in Granbury if every time they came to town they got indigestion.”
The Nutt House was a major turning point in the community’s pride and faith in economic recovery. But it was not, strictly speaking, the first step toward preservation of local architecture. As early as 1967, a local lawyer, Jimmie Dixon, restored an old rooming house for his home and converted a defunct red brick Victorian bank, with keyhole windows, into his legal offices.
In 1968, the clock tower on the courthouse was damaged by storms. The county commissioners had repaired the clock just eight years before, but now there was talk of taking down the clock tower altogether. In its defense, Norma Crawford’s Hood County News triggered a deluge of sympathetic mail from readers. This persuaded the county to invest $73,000 in steel reinforcements for the tower. An additional $185,000 was spent in 1974 for renovation (sandblasting, painting, and refurnishing the interior).
Committee and corporation
Granbury’s centennial came the year following the opening of the Nutt House dining room. Civic pride was steadily rising. By 1973, 15 other buildings on the square had been renovated. Local merchants and residents began sprucing up their stores and homes. The City Council appointed a Town Square Historical Committee to oversee development and approve architectural alterations of buildings on the square.
Joe Nutt and three friends had already formed a corporation that would buy up the old buildings and sell them to historic-minded investors. The corporation would purchase a building, borrow the cost of restoration (using the building as collateral), and then pay off the loan with rent received on the refurbished structure. The four friends charged reasonable rents and tried to involve as many community investors as possible. As is wise in any historic preservation project, Mr. Nutt “anchored” the restoration with key purchases of corner buildings on the square; these were the most visible.
Tourists played a vital part. Picture-taking day-trippers from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex brought more than badly needed revenue. They brought a fresh perspective on Granbury, a perspective the residents had lost over the years of neglect. “It took people from the outside to show us what a good-looking town we had,” Mrs. Watkins says. “We sometimes forgot to notice the kinds of things the newcomers could see.”
Among the newcomers
Some of the newcomers liked what they saw so much that they decided to settle down there. Among the urban transplants who came to Granbury in search of the kind of hometown they had never known were:
Clif Cook, a barrel-chested west Texas boy who went to Texas Tech on a football scholarship. Later in Granbury, using the waitering skills he learned in college, he opened the Cuckoo’s Nest, a restaurant that serves the steaks, crepes, and quiche you can’t get at the Nutt House. The popular chocolate cake on the menu is baked by Clif’s mother.
Jeanine Macon, who moved from Dallas and opened a fashionable dress shop in what was once the rowdy Aston-Landers saloon. Carry Nation and her temperance tomahawk are said to have closed the saloon around the turn of the century.
Hugh Rauper, a traveling insurance salesman who woke up one Saturday morning in a hotel in Muleshoe, Texas, and decided he’d seen enough of the white line on the freeway. He restored an old house in Granbury and served several years as the town’s mayor.
Bud Olson, the city councillor and president of the local Optimists Club, who is a native of Washington State. “If somebody had told me 12 years ago I would settle in Texas, I would have said they had rocks in their head,” he says. Today Mr. Olson proudly dons the local costume–from Western hat to bola tie held by a “petrified dinosaur bone” carved in the shape of the state of Texas.
Gil Moore, a systems analyst and programmer who left the hustle-bustle of Berkeley, California, to open a bookstore on the square with his parents. They sell everything from Texiana to the New York Review of Books.
Dave Brown, who at age 15 left his Michigan home to become a Texas cowhand and was bucked off enough rodeo bulls to seek a safer profession: painting. He now is Granbury’s resident cowboy artist.
Lawrence Hamilton Romaine III (“Just call me Larry”), who was born in Toledo, Ohio, but is a 1976 graduate of Granbury High. Using all his savings, he bought and is restoring an 1880 farmhouse on the edge of town at a time when most of his classmates have left to pursue the bright city lights. As he wades through the rubble and plumbing fixtures strewn all over his front lawn, he encourages himself with the thought that “everything in the town square once looked this bad.” Mr. Romaine and Lou Brooks, who owns the bakery and bric-a-brac shop “All in a Nut Shell,” are now planning to open a sporting goods store together.
Haven from alienation
As Mrs. Watkins puts it: “There’s nothing about Granbury that attracts the high rollers or jet set. But the nation has been through a rootless period of alienation, and many of us are trying to re-establish our sense of place. Granbury has become a hometown for a lot of these people.”
The restoration was given further momentum as preparations for the nation’s 200th birthday celebration got under way. A branch of the local bicentennial committee spearheaded the restoration of the Presbyterian church and put the finishing touches on the courthouse, which had acted as the linchpin of the local preservation push.
But restoration of the old opera house has remained the town’s tour de force. In 1970 the building was a shambles. The sagging room leaked so badly that previous inhabitants had used tarpaulins to divert rain.
Prodded by threats of the theater’s demolition, the Granbury Opera Association solicited and received some $50,000 in foundation money and 70 donations of $1,000 from local charter members. A city contractor offered to tear down the old roof for $7,000; a local boy bid $400 and got the job. Townspeople dropped by after work and volunteered two or three hours at the site. A newspaper editor borrowed a pickup from the local Chevy dealer and took some high school students to bring back a set of used footlights. Mr. Nutt’s wife bought 400 theater chairs in Dallas, and the opera association sold $10 needlepoint kits to residents who wished to embroider theater seat covers.
Jo Ann Miller, a 23-year veteran of the stage and owner of a summer stock theater in Cooperstown, New York, was initially hired on a six-month salary. And now the opera house provides musical comedy and melodrama six nights a week, 50 weeks a year. A night at the theater has persuaded many a day-tripper to spend a weekend in Granbury. Some have eventually taken up residence here.
In recognition of the town’s cooperative efforts in restoration, the Texas Historical Commission in 1976 awarded its prestigious Ruth Lester Award (normally given to a single individual) to the citizens of Granbury as a group.
“The thing we’re most proud of here,” Mr. Nutt says, “is that we didn’t use a dime of federal or state money.”
The civic refurbishing is already showing benefits beyond the aesthetics:
Since 1960 the town’s population has grown from 1,683 to 3,050, Hood County’s from 5,287 to 14,500. On the square, in the last six years, the number of property owners has doubled.
From 1970 to 1976, sales tax revenue rose from $19,942 to $100,187 and by 1978 Granbury’s sales tax revenue is expected to exceed the ad valorem property tax for the first time in the town’s history.
Since 1970, bank deposits at the First National Bank have risen from $4.5 million to nearly $18 million–further evidence that recycling buildings helps recycle cash through the local economy.
A lake spurs development
One somewhat fortuitous factor in the revival of the Granbury area was the damming of the Brazos River at de Cordova Bend, some 15 miles downstream from the town square. By the early 1970s the dam had created 103 miles of shoreline along a new Lake Granbury. This, together with the town’s revival, had the potential for attracting recreationists, retirees, and second-home builders to the area. (Today there are more than 50 housing developments along the lake’s shore.)
“The lake could be a mixed blessing,” Mrs. Watkins says. “But the way things were going [when it was first created], Granbury stood fair to become an ice-stop, bait-shop village, full of fishing shacks, and mobile homes parked just anywhere.” All the more reason to firmly establish its own architectural and economic identity, so it wouldn’t be overrun by uncontrolled growth. The town is trying to do this.
Granbury’s revival has, in part, been bolstered by the damming of the Brazos River and the recent reversal of the national trend of urban migration. Yet it is clear that, by acting quickly and carefully, the residents of Granbury have revived a pride of community that was dying. And in the process they have gained more control over the community’s future development.
Fervor is not unanimous
Nonetheless, Mary Lou Watkins and her band of preservationists have not won the hearts and minds of all Granbury’s old-timers. In fact, one of the town’s most distinguished citizens, Gladys Crockett Hendricks, believes the place should have been “left the way it was.”
In the eyes of Texas, Gladys Crockett Hendricks is pretty special: She’s the great-granddaughter of Col. Davy Crockett, the Alamo hero. Twenty years after the fall of the Alamo, Elizabeth Crockett (Davy’s second wife) came in a wagon train from Tennessee to claim some 320 acres in Hood County. The land had been granted to her by the State of Texas, in recognition of her husband’s sacrifice in defense of the state.
The Crocketts have since become bedrock citizens of Granbury. In 1878, Gladys’s father, Ashley Crockett, started the Vidette, the town’s first newspaper. (Now there are two: the Hood County News and the Village Weekly.) Mrs. Hendrick’s mother was one of the founding members of Granbury’s Wednesday Woman’s Club. And one of the main streets on the square is named after the family.
“Nope, don’t think Davy would have liked Granbury the way it is today,” said Mrs. Hendricks one Sunday afternoon after returning from the local Methodist church. “Davy didn’t believe in progress; he liked the open spaces. And you know, progress isn’t for everyone.”
The white-haired woman sat on a couch in her century-old home on West Bridge Street. The building’s age was hidden with chocolate brown tar paper shingles; the living room shimmered with tidiness; the walls were simply decorated with the Scottish Crockett coat of arms, a presidential seal Mrs. Hendricks embroidered, a certificate from the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, and a drawing of Mexico’s General Santa Anna surrendering to Sam Houston. “My mother is a great-great-grandniece of Sam Houston, so that makes me Texan two ways,” Mrs. Hendricks said with a smile.
A different view of Granbury’s growth is held by the son of her next-door neighbor, Helen Gilmartin, who is the granddaughter of Charles Brady, a local house painter and one of the few mule teamsters to escape the last Indian attack on Granbury residents in 1871. Mrs. Gilmartin escorts Mrs. Hendricks daily on shopping expeditions and the two sit each afternoon chatting about the old days.
Mrs. Gilmartin’s son, John, grew up in Fort Worth and got his law degree from Texas Tech. He now lives down the street from his mother in a rambling old Victorian house he recently bought.
“I felt I was coming home when I moved to Granbury,” Mr. Gilmartin says, wiping the sweat from his brow and laying down the hammer he is using to install wainscoting in the bathroom. “My great-uncle built the house across the street. My great-grandfather probably painted all the houses on this street in the late 19th century.”
Mr. Gilmartin, who commutes 45 minutes each way to work in Fort Worth in his MG convertible, says, “I’ve become a willing captive of Granbury, and this old house has become the love of my life.”
Thus far, neither real estate operators nor romance has been able to woo him from this piece of 1892 peeling gingerbread grandeur, which he bought with $7,500 he had saved up for a new sports car. Somewhat ruefully he explains:
“I’ve been serious with three girls, but work on the house has always stood in the way.” Not long ago his last girl friend handed him the ultimatum; “It’s me or that old house, John.” John took the house.
A welter of memorabilia
He is doing all the renovation himself, and figures he has another four to five years of labor ahead of him. His “new” home exhibits a clutter of antiques and memorabilia, including an 1899 Easy Runner bicycle with wooden rims, six four-inch-thick doors from the old courthouse, stacks of pressed tin ceiling tiles, a “$5 Fine to Spit on Floor” sign, and the 1870 desk of druggist E.A. Hannaford. (According to the irrepressible “Miss Mabel,” Dr. Hannaford was a Union soldier, who, after the Civil War, rode a horse “with saddlebags full of gold” from Pennsylvania to Granbury–where he was unable to find anyone to wash his “Yankee clothes.”)
Despite this indoor treasure trove, Mr. Gilmartin’s pride and joy stands regally in the backyard: one of the nation’s few Greek Revival outhouses. He gestures reverentially at the weathered Ionic columns on each corner. “Just look at those lines!” The interior carries the original wallpaper. Friends on the Texas Historical Commission have suggested he apply for a historical marker for his privy.
Down West Bridge Street from Mr. Gilmartin’s home stands one of the oldest post offices in Texas, a log cabin dating from the 1850s. Across the street is a much newer log cabin–Gilmartin’s Country Store, from which John’s mother sells souvenirs and knickknacks to the steady parade of tourists.
“When the tourists started coming in here with their cameras, no one in town could believe it,” Mr. Gilmartin remarks. “It took all those visitors, and the rising property values, to prove to Granbury’s merchants that restoration was good economics. Historic preservation is relatively new here, but it’s catching on.”
Granbury High School has started a junior historical society, and the neighboring towns of Glen Rose and Waxahachie have sent delegations to “find out what Granbury did right.” Waxahachie now has its own “Gingerbread Trail.”
“Five, 10 years ago, people were ashamed to be from Granbury,” Mr. Gilmartin says. “Everybody thought you were just another country hick. Nowadays, when I go into a place like Dallas, people say: ‘Granbury, now that’s some town!'”
As I drove off, I heard the faint tapping of his hammer.