Monday, October 24, 2011

Belcherville (Montague County) - May 2010/October 2011 photos

When I first started my personal ghost town project in May 2010, the first townsite I visited was that of Belcherville, which is located a short drive west of Nocona in Montague County in northern Texas. There was no real strategy for visiting Belcherville first; I was on my way north to Oklahoma City when I decided to make a side trip west of Interstate 35 on Highway 82 and visit a couple of ghost towns that T. Lindsay Baker had documented in his book Ghost Towns of Texas. Six miles west of Nocona, I turned north on FM 1816 and followed it up for about a quarter mile, and there it was.

Belcherville intrigued me so much during my short visit that I knew I'd have to come back someday, which I finally did in October 2011. During my first visit, it was just me, my trusty camera, and Baker's book in the front seat. Since then, I've taken advantage of various Web resources, satellite maps, and various accounts from others who have visited Belcherville or even lived there in the past. I've had to change many of my first assumptions of the ghost town as a result, and my appreciation for this abandoned town has grown significantly. Amanda Warr, editor of The Squawker, has described Belcherville as "a photographer's oasis of gutted old structures, abandoned homes, and overgrowth of purple sage, mesquite and spindly live oaks." Frankly, I can't top her description of the ghost town by myself - I'd better let my photos do most of the talking.

A short bit of background first. Belcherville, established in 1887 as part of a land promotion enterprise by Alex and John Belcher, enjoyed a short but happy boom period during which the population grew to at least 2,000, with thirty businesses serving the population. The Belcher brothers laid out the townsite apparently in anticipation of the extension of the Gainesville, Henrietta, and Western Railway. Indeed, the destruction of nearby Red River Station by a tornado in 1890 caused the denizens of that town to move further down the tracks to resettle in Belcherville, leaving Red River Station to become a ghost town in its own right.

The details of Belcherville's demise are a bit murky. The railroad eventually extended out to the still-active town of Henrietta, a few miles east of Wichita Falls on Highway 82, and this drew away some of Belcherville's townfolk; but what really brought Belcherville to its knees were a couple of fires that gutted the town. In Ghost Towns of Texas, Baker gives the date for the first fire as February 6, 1893, but the Texas State Historical Association claims that the fires erupted shortly after World War I. Oral tradition from some of the people who stayed at Belcherville states that the business district was burned down by people from the other side of town, so someone from the business district retaliated by burning down whatever was left - in other words, Belcherville self-destructed. Only a few of the buildings were rebuilt, because everyone was headed off to greener pastures in Nocona or Henrietta. In 1930, there were only 85 people and five businesses left in Belcherville; in 2000, only 34 people still resided at Belcherville.

And what does Belcherville look like today? I mentioned photos, so here goes:

A former gas station and post office at the heart of Belcherville; once operated by the Blevins family

The entrance foyer to the abandoned Belcherville Church of Christ, which collapsed sometime after 1992

Another view of the ruins of Belcherville Church of Christ

I've been told that the church sanctuary still contained pews, hymnals, and various other sundries before the roof collapsed. Want to excavate any of these from underneath the roof? You're braver than I am. Bring a first-aid kit, and I hope you like grasshoppers...

Exterior shot of Belcherville Baptist Church at the intersection of Belcher Avenue and Bonham Street, now hidden behind trees and foliage

Interior of Belcherville Baptist Church's sanctuary with minister's pulpit

When I first discovered this abandoned school, I regarded it as another church. Then I found older photographs and testimonials from former students of Belcherville High School that seemed to confirm that this was a school building instead of a church. Not true, according to a former resident of Belcherville; this is a church after all. One more reason why studying history is so important - it's so fragile.

The abandoned Manley house in Belcherville on Elm Street

Abandoned furniture and debris inside the Manley house; the doorway leads to the deteriorating bathroom

A word of caution - when I explored the Manley house, it groaned and creaked whenever the winds picked up. This house may not remain upright by the time you make it out to Belcherville, so take advantage of the cooler autumn temperatures and see it now while it lasts.

Abandoned Belcherville gas station and grocery store, once operated by the Vannoy family, right off of Highway 82

Intriguing stone ruins on the extreme western edge of Belcherville, now on private property

Sign near the front gate to Belcherville Cemetery, on Crenshaw Road west of the town center

Handsome tombstone of Belcherville Freemason V.D. Cranford

Primitive stone grave of John W. Campbell with hand-carved grave marker

There are many gravestones at Belcherville Cemetery where either the letters have weathered away or there never was any inscription in the first place. This plot, however, is the most isolated of all the plots at Belcherville Cemetery - and, in my estimation, one of the most poignant cemetery plots I've seen:

"Unknown Cowboy" buried at Belcherville Cemetery - unknown, but definitely not unloved

I hope this photo essay has inspired you to make your own trip to Belcherville and visit these sites on your own. Be sensible, be safe, and by all means, enjoy.

PS - Amanda, if you're reading this, I have yet to visit Big Fatty's Spankin' Shack in Valley View. I'm a big fan of Clark's Outpost in Tioga, myself. But maybe I'll take the Big Fatty's challenge next time I'm in the neighborhood.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Terlingua Chili Cookoff - November 3-5, 2011

I reckon any Texas ghost town blog worth its salt needs to take a moment to call attention to the upcoming 45th Annual Original Terlingua International Frank X. Tolbert - Wick Fowler Championship Chili Cookoff, which is taking place on November 3-5, 2011 in the Brewster County ghost town of Terlingua. Although the county is still under a burn ban due to the ongoing drought, the Chili Cookoff has been granted a waiver provided a few safety measures are obeyed for safety reasons.

Wish I could be there, myself. I love a good bowl of chili.

Then again, here's something to consider: According to our friends at the TSHA, Terlingua boasted a population of 267 in 2000 as well as 44 businesses - far removed from its utter desolation in the early 1960s. Is Terlingua on the verge of shedding its "ghost town" status, provided that the upward trend continues?

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Ghost Town Explorer's Checklist

Not that long ago, I was discussing Texas ghost towns with someone who told me that her son had gotten excited about paying a visit to his first-ever ghost town, and apparently I was one of his influences. I am indeed touched by this. After discussing preparations for the trip, I realized the list I came up with might benefit any of you who are also thinking of taking that first trip to Terlingua or Luckenbach or some other ghost town destination in Texas.

That said, here's a list of what I consider must-haves for first-time adventurers:

Don't rely on a simple traveler's atlas or even one of those travel maps that you can pick up at a convenience store or visitor's welcome center - exploring ghost towns in Texas calls for a really good county map book that shows all the highways, byways, county roads, gravel roads, pipelines, and all that. I've been using a laminated Texas county map book from MAPSCO that has been indispensible in my searches. The books Ghost Towns of Texas and More Ghost Towns of Texas by T. Lindsay Baker provide driving directions to select ghost town sites throughout Texas as well as some really good history on each site. Baker's books and the county map book always come with me on every trip.

Never, never, never underestimate the importance of hydration. When you hike a couple of miles into the middle of nowhere during a 100-degree summer afternoon in Texas, you're really going to miss having a cold one-liter bottle of water by your side - provided you're not already suffering from dehydration or heatstroke (or both). Seriously. Take an insulated shopping bag with a couple of cold one-liters. Or grab yourself some reusable bottles from SIGG or Klean Kanteen or whatever your favorite brand is. Or your can splurge a little and invest in a Camelbak system or something similar that you wear on your shoulders.

For cutting through the occasional clump of brush or thicket or reenacting scenes from Robert Rodriguez films just for fun (as long as nobody gets hurt). You won't need this everywhere, but it's good to keep this handy just in case. You can always leave it in your vehicle.

If you're in tall grass, by the lake, in a marsh, or just someplace unfamiliar to you, best to keep a good walking stick at your side. Use it to test the ground in front of you for quicksand, critters, or other assorted hazards.

Can you hear me now? It always pays to have law enforcement or AAA at the push of a button if something should happen during your travels, and a surprising number of ghost towns do have some form of cellphone reception. No, you're probably not going to get 4G speeds in the middle of Indianola or Bugtussle, but that's okay.


Now for a list of "optionals" you might consider bringing along:

A simple five-dollar compass that you can get at any Wal-Mart, for when it's time to blaze new trails.

Nothing fancy, just something that tracks how far you've actually walked from your car. Walking's good exercise, and most ghost towns have plenty of fresh air.

I have always considered a can of Pringle's chips to be a godsend after a lengthy hike. Water is vital, but if you've been sweating, you'll want to start replacing your salts, too. There's probably more nutritious ways to do it than Pringle's, so if you want to take along some trail mix, fresh fruit, Beer Nuts, or whatever keeps you going, use what works best for you.

A little discretion is warranted here, especially since the ghost town adventurer is strongly encouraged to obey all Federal, state, and local gun laws. In addition, use your head - if the county you're in is under a burn ban, exercise extreme caution. The only reason I mention firearms is that I've heard from one friend who got shot at merely for visiting a remote cemetery in the Texas Hill Country. If you encounter a hostile boar or some sort of ornery critter, you might need more than just a machete. If you object to carrying a firearm, I understand. But please be safe no matter what you decide.

Surely you're not going to run off to some abandoned town in the Panhandle or near the Mexican border without snapping a few pictures to share with your grandchildren?

And finally, something to take along that some of you might consider strictly optional, but others will consider the most important of all:

So far, I have visited some three dozen ghost towns throughout Texas since May 2010, and I have always travelled alone. I'd like to take a trip sometime with a friend, someone who can provide good company while making sure I don't get myself in too deep. I've had a couple of folks who have offered to ride shotgun with me into the forgotten towns of Texas - you know who you are, and I thank you. It'll be fun, I promise.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Marysville (Cooke County) - September 2011 photos

The ghost town of Marysville, TX is not for the inexperienced or the faint of heart.

For starters, Marysville is one of the most isolated ghost towns in North Texas. Not a single paved road leads into or out of this Cooke County town - it's all gravel roads no matter how you approach the town. The most direct route to Marysville is to take Farm to Market Road 2739 north from US 82 (just east of Muenster) and follow it up for about 3.7 miles until you run out of pavement. At this point, FM 2739 turns into County Road 417, which winds and twists for around five rickety miles north through fields and over dry creeks (not recommended at night) until you finally reach the townsite. Don't look for any road signs; instead, look for a little white Baptist church on the east side of CR 417.

There are only 15 people (at most) living in Marysville, and it takes a special breed of Texan to live here. The nearest building that resembles a store is a 30-minute drive away, so you learn to live off the land, make do with what you have, and plan your drives into town for supplies carefully. If you're the type that is used to hopping in the car and driving to the nearest 7-Eleven because you're in the mood for a Slurpee, Marysville is definitely not for you. The locals are friendly enough, but also wary of outsiders, and one of them apparently doesn't see any harm in letting a pack of barking dogs surround any unannounced visitors whether on foot or in their vehicles. Even if you don't encounter either people or dogs during your sojourn in Marysville, it may not be that uncommon to hear in the distance the shouts of hunters, the baying of hounds, and the roar of shotguns. Consider this a friendly advisory.

So, folks - guess where I was one cool September evening? Here's some photos from the trip to Marysville in Cooke County:

An abandoned store in Marysville off of CR 417; the front porch collapsed within the last decade

Another abandoned store, boarded up and buried a little deeper in the woods

Marysville Baptist Church, where worship services have been held since 1872

Detail of the Marysville Baptist Church sign

Ruins of an old Marysville house

A disused building that served as a church (and possibly as a Masonic lodge)

Front gate to Marysville Cemetery, the larger of two cemeteries at the townsite

A sample of the numerous gravesites in Marysville Cemetery, some of them over 150 years old

Tombstone of Marysville's most famous resident - Daniel Montague; surveyor, Texas state senator, and namesake of neighboring Montague County

By 1900, according to the Texas State Historical Association, Marysville had 250 residents, a drugstore, a livery stable, a district school, a post office, two churches, two grocery stores, two blacksmith shops, and two mercantile stores. The town served the needs of small farms in central Cooke County, and even after the Great Depression hit, Marysville continued on with a somewhat smaller population until December 1941, when Japanese warplanes attacked Pearl Harbor and America found itself in the middle of World War II.

A week or two after Pearl Harbor, the War Department swooped into Cooke County and purchased some 59,000 acres north, east, and south of Marysville from the local farmers, turning the tract of land into Camp Howze, which served as an infantry training site and POW camp for captured German soldiers. Marysville was relatively isolated from the rest of Cooke County by Camp Howze, but the $20 million that Washington, DC pumped into the camp helped fuel the local economy until the end of the war. In 1946, Camp Howze was declared surplus and completely dismantled, the land once again available for the original farmers to come back - but they never did.

Without either the farms or a military camp to keep Marysville afloat, the town withered. First to go was the post office. By 1980, all of the businesses in Maryville were defunct, with only Marysville Baptist Church surviving. Even then, however, there were some 70 people living at the townsite, but the number plummeted drastically over the next 20 years. The handful that stayed put at Marysville are making do the best they know how, with their scattered homesteads, their gravel roads, and the pervading stillness that is occasionally broken by the baying of hounds and the roar of shotguns.