March 26,1937: Strong to the Finish

Crystal City, Texas, has a long tradition of spinach – in fact, it is the self-proclaimed “Spinach Capital of the World.” And it has a statue to prove it. Unveiled on March 26, 1937,  just in time for the city’s second annual spinach festival, the larger-than-life statue of Popeye the Sailor Man with his trademark can of spinach stands proudly in front of City Hall. The first annual spinach festival was okay, but it just lacked something – a Popeye statue perhaps.

Granted a post office in 1908 and incorporated two years later with a population of 350, Crystal City became a farming center with the arrival of the railroad which allowed produce to be shipped to northern markets. Onions were the first crop of choice for Crystal City farmers, but spinach soon replaced the onion crop. By the 1930s, the Crystal City Cannery was pumping out 10,000 cans of spinach daily and shipping them off to those lucky northerners.

As popular and downright exciting as the spinach festival was, it was abandoned during World War II when Crystal City became home to the largest of the nation’s internment camps, housing American civilians of German, Japanese, and Italian ancestry (and introducing them, it would be surmised, to the wonders of canned spinach). Festivals were not resumed until 1982. And by then, the pent-up passions were palpable.

There are other Popeye statues, one in Illinois and three in Arkansas – most notably a bronze 2007 statue in Alma, Arkansas, which also claims to be the spinach capital of the world. And in fact, the shiny fiberglass Popeye effigy in front of Crystal City Hall is no longer the real statue, but a clever fake. The real statue is tucked safely inside City Hall to keep it safe from teenage vandals and those pesky Alma, Arkansas, wannabes.

 

 

At the age of eleven or thereabouts women acquire a poise and an ability to handle difficult situations which a man, if he is lucky, manages to achieve somewhere in the later seventies. ― P.G. Wodehouse

November 14, 2006: Wings on a Pig

When the first Pig Stand opened, it was a restaurant like no other that had gone before. The year was 1921, the onset of the Roaring Twenties. Americans were in love with their pigstandautomobiles. More than eight million Fords and Oldsmobiles and Pierce Arrows roamed newly created highways.

Located on a Texas highway between Dallas and Fort Worth, the Pig Stand catered to those automobile folks – the first drive-in restaurant in the United States The restaurant’s owner, Dallas entrepreneur Jessie Kirby, reckoned that all those drivers would flock to a roadside barbecue where they could drive up, fill their faces with good Texas vittles, and drive off, without ever stepping out of their automobile. “People with cars are so lazy,” said Kirby, “they don’t want to get out of them.”

Kirby was a showman who knew how to attract customers. The Pig Stand had a red-tiled pagoda-like roof set on a rectangular building framed of wood and covered in stucco. As a customer was pulling in, teenage boys in spiffy white shirts and black bow ties would dash over to the car, hop onto the running board, and take an order – before the driver even came to a stop. For this derring-do, the servers were given the nickname carhops. Food historians credit the Pig Stand with the introduction of deep-fried onion rings, chicken-fried steak sandwiches, Texas Toast and high cholesterol.

The Pig Stand was a big hit with hungry drivers, and it soon became a chain, through one of the first franchising arrangements in restaurant history. Pig Stands popped up everywhere. By 1934, there were more than 130 of them in nine states, sporting the slogan “America’s Motor Lunch.” And dinner – Pig Stands boasted that more than 5,000 people enjoyed pig sandwich dinners every evening in Dallas alone. Pig Stand drive-ins soon replaced male carhops with attractive young women on roller skates, but maintained the formula that had got them this far: good-looking young carhops, tasty food, and speedy service – all in the comfort of your automobile.

Wartime gasoline and food rationing took its toll on the Pig Stand chain. And then came McDonald’s.  And Burger King.  And Wendy’s. By the end of the 1950s, all of the franchises outside of Texas had closed. And by 2005, only six remained in the state. Then on November 14, 2006, state officials closed the last two Pig Stands restaurants for unpaid sales taxes. And an icon oinked off into the Texas sunset.

In composing, as a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigor it will give your style. ~Sydney Smith

August 6, 1874: The Ears of Texas Are Upon You

Western justice once more prevailed when law officers killed one Jim Reed, a black hat of minimal notoriety who would probably have passed quietly into desperado oblivion had he not married Myra Maybelle Shirley. starrMyra Maybelle came from a once prosperous family whose business in Carthage, Missouri, had been wiped out by the Civil War. The family moved to Texas when she was 16 years old, and it was there that she fell in love with Jim Reed, a family acquaintance from Missouri who had served as a Confederate mercenary. They were married in 1866.

Reed was a lousy husband, more into horse racing and gambling than farming. He gravitated toward a nasty Cherokee named Tom Starr, who led a brutal gang of thieves. Starr (who wore a string tie fashioned from the ears of the men he had killed) mentored Reed in the art of rustling and running whiskey (and possibly a murder here and there).

Myra Maybelle, or Belle as she was now called, was the mother of two children. Nevertheless, she began to take part in her husband’s career, attending several robberies as though they were fancy dress balls, wearing velvet skirts and plumed hats. As fame and the law began to dog them, the Reeds went back to farming in Texas where they could give their children a more respectable upbringing. Too respectable for Reed evidently, for he soon grew antsy and returned to crime, holding up a stagecoach.  And once again they had the long arm of the law all over them.

With a hefty reward offered for Reed’s capture – dead or alive – bounty hunters joined the hunt. Reed was able to elude them for a bit, but on August 6, 1874, one of his fellow gang members killed him for the reward money. Two years later, Belle married Sam Starr, the son of Reed’s Cherokee partner, and became famous as the Bandit Queen, Belle Starr. Sam Starr died in a gun battle, and three years later Belle too cashed in her ill-gotten gains, bushwhacked by hombres unknown.

November 2, 1957: Texas Haunt ‘Em

 

It was a dark and stormy night in Texas on November 2 when two immigrant farm workers, Pedro Saucedo and Joe Salaz, excitedly called the Levelland police department to report having seen a UFO. Levelland is a small prairie town not far from Lubbock.

The two men had been driving on a highway just west of Levelland when they saw a blue flash of light near the road. Their truck’s engine died, and a rocket-shaped object rose from the ground and saucercame toward the stalled truck. “I jumped out of the truck and hit the dirt because I was afraid,” said Pedro. “I called to Joe but he didn’t get out. The thing passed directly over my truck with a great sound and rush of wind. It sounded like thunder and my truck rocked from the flash…I felt a lot of heat.” Then, as the object moved away, the truck’s engine restarted and worked normally.

The police officer on duty ignored their story. (“I’m gonna believe a guy named Pedro?”) But then just an hour later, motorist Jim Wheeler, a bona fide Texan, called to report a “brilliantly lit, egg-shaped object, about 200 feet long” sitting in the road east of Levelland, blocking his path. His vehicle’s motor died, and as he got out of his car, the object took off. As it moved out of sight, Wheeler’s car restarted and worked normally.

Then a married couple driving northeast of Levelland saw a bright flash of light moving across the sky, and their headlights and radio died for three seconds. Five minutes later, Jose Alvarez met the strange object sitting on the road 11 miles north of Levelland, and his vehicle’s engine died until the object vanished. Shortly after midnight (November 3), a college student, followed by a farmer – two more egg-shaped objects and two more stalled engines. 12:45, 1:15, 1:30 – the calls just kept coming.

By now, police officers were investigating the incidents. Among them was the sheriff who saw a brilliant red object moving across the sky and the fire chief who also saw the object and his vehicle’s lights and engine sputtered. Then the sightings ended. During the night of November 2–3, the Levelland police department had received a total of 15 phone calls about the strange object – all 15 with stalled engines and not one of the vehicles was a Studebaker.

The Air Force did a perfunctory investigation, suggesting that “only the saucer proponents could have converted so trivial a series of events – a few stalled automobiles, balls of flame in the sky at the end of the thunderstorm – into a national mystery.” They argued that conditions were ideal for the formation of ball lightning, an atmospheric phenomenon that produces luminous, spherical objects which vary from the size of a pea to the size of a giant pumpkin.

Case closed – just a little too conveniently, say conspiracy theorists and all those folks who have been abducted by aliens.