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Abilene charts a new direction -- The Old West

City reviving its heritage through arts and culture

ABILENE - They're trying to lure the West back into Abilene. And they're using the arts and culture as bait.

A venerable hotel has been renovated into a handsome, four-story cluster of museums and the nation's only center dedicated to children's illustrated books. There's a bond proposal for a new downtown library; there's a new visitors and convention bureau - and a movement afoot to put some life back in such traditional cowboy arts as bootmaking. For Abilene's sleepy downtown, this is practically the Wild West all over again.

The West never really left, of course. Abilene lies 150 miles west of Fort Worth,where the West supposedly begins. And it remains surrounded by ranches and farms; agriculture is a leading industry. Every weekend, major cutting-horse competitions and rodeos kick it up in the civic center.

But as Lynn Barnett, director of the Abilene Cultural Affairs Council, says, "It's funny. You'll go into Joe Allen's [a popular barbecue joint south of downtown], and the guys in there will have spurs and boots on because they just came from the ranch. They're the real thing. But otherwise . . ." she says, her voice trailing off.

The implication is plain: Otherwise, there's very little that evokes Abilene's history as a rowdy frontier town. Or much that says downtown culture or commerce is even alive. Abilene is another small-to-midsize city (population: 110,000) whose central business area was drained ofmuch of its life. Once the Texas & Pacific (now the Union Pacific) railway halted passenger service into the downtown depot in 1967 and settled for hauling freight, stores and offices fled to outlying malls.

It wasn't always so quiet. A century ago, enough saloons and "disorderly houses" lined Cypress and Pine streets that John J. Clinton, the town lawman for 37 years, started his own New Year's Eve tradition. He'd signal it was time for the revelry to stop by standing on a street corner at midnight and blasting his pistol into the sky.

For a number of winters in the 1880s, however, you might not have been able to see Marshal Clinton from across the railroad tracks on First Street. That's because piled high alongside them were buffalo bones. The demand (for fertilizer and sugar refining) kept the struggling young Abilene alive and bustling. Thirty feet wide, the bone heaps were as tall as boxcars.

And they stretched for five blocks - the grave markers of the great herds. Just north of Abilene was the last reported sighting in the 19th century of a real, wild herd of bison.

Today, where Marshal Clinton once stood, there are no buffalo hunters, of course, or much in the way of saloons. Or any sign they ever were here. There aren't even many buildings from before World War II - which helps lend the downtown its nondescript appearance. It could be Anywhere, Iowa.

There is, though, a historical marker commemorating Marshal Clinton.

It's in a parking lot on South First.

Restoration efforts

Some of this neglect is slowly being reversed - beginning with the 1987 refurbishing of the Paramount movie palace on Cypress Street.

"We're trying to revitalize the whole downtown," says George McCaleb, Abilene's mayor since 1992. "But we're doing it one building at a time."

The centerpiece so far is the Grace Cultural Center - the former Grace Hotel, built in 1909 across the street from the train depot. The handsome, red-brick structure was renovated for $4 million in 1990 to house the city's historical museum, fine arts museum and children's museum. Its newest occupant, the National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature, opened this summer with an exhibition of artwork by award-winning illustrator David Diaz.

If there's a thematic touchstone for the area's redevelopment, it's a somewhat mysterious bronze statue across First Street from the Grace. Called Childhood's Great Adventure and created by Mineral Wells artist Rick Jackson, the statue stands next to the former train depot - now renovated as a visitors and convention bureau.

So far, the statue - of three kids riding a canoe out of the pages of a book - has no plaque, hence its unexplained nature. But the statue's three young characters come from William Joyce's 1993 book, Santa Calls. Set in 1908 Abilene, the popular holiday story has heroic kids sporting cowboy hats and native Indian gear.

Ironically, Mr. Joyce, who lives in Shreveport, La., had never even visited the city before he created the book. He just wanted to evoke the West. But it's easy to see why Santa Calls would appeal to Abilenians. It presents Abilene as a tongue-in-cheek adventureland with can-do kids taking off for the North Pole.

"We're trying to be a blend of contemporary and classic West Texas," says Mr. McCaleb. "And the arts have been an ideal blender. And then, lo and behold, here's this children's book, and it's exactly right. The theme of children, literacy and the arts and the West, it all makes a nice combination."

That combination, everything evoked by that statue - the West, kids, adventure, culture, reading - is still just a tiny beginning. The children's literature center, for instance, just opened; its six-month budget in 1997 was all of $190,000. The entire downtown revitalization itself remains mostly an attractive urban block with a park and a depot at the end.

But, as Mary Cooksey, the center's executive director, puts it, "Twelve years ago, when I came to Abilene, you could have fired a cannon down Cypress and not hit a thing."

`Heritage tourism'

So the arts are being used as starter fluid for urban redevelopment to catch fire. But what about Abilene's once-lively history?

The use, some might say exploitation, of local history to promote an area is called "heritage tourism." In such projects, the emphasis can be on the heritage (museums and education) or the tourism (T-shirt shops and fast-food joints).

One drawback for Abilene is that like many American towns, the city exists because wealthy landowners once cashed in on the railroad's arrival. The Texas & Pacific needed a town along the line every few miles, and in 1881 Abilene-area ranchers hooked the tracks their way instead of through Buffalo Gap, 15 miles to the south. A visit to the Abilene Historical Museum on the second floor of the Grace would give one the impression that the town pretty much begins and ends with the railroad. No displays about native tribes, shootouts on Pine Street, the last buffalo herd sighting or the Overland Mail Route that passed just west of town along the Butterfield Trail.

In short, Abilene doesn't have a major historical anchor like the Alamo in San Antonio, Fort Concho in San Angelo or the Stockyards in Fort Worth. Yet to satisfy conventioneers looking for something that evokes the "Old West," even Dallas, with its history of football and finance, wound up rustling up a small herd of large bronze cattle on a fake downtown hillside called Pioneer Plaza.

"There's a great deal of respect here for what you might call Western heritage," says Jack Holden, president of the Taylor County Historical Commission in Abilene. He cites the Western Heritage Classic and a cattle baron's ball. And there are those cutting-horse competitions.

"But no," Mr. Holden says, "there's no shrine or single memorial. There's nothing of the frontier in that way."

"Funny you should mention Dallas," says Elizabeth Grindstaff, Abilene's downtown manager. She says there has been discussion of following the Pioneer Plaza model, erecting some sort of monument to the cattle drives. (Abilene was named after Abilene, Kan., one of the drives' endpoints.)

Sundance model

The more relevant comparison, however, is Fort Worth's Sundance Square. It also has no historical anchor, but after years of trial and error and longtime support by the Bass family, it does have a successful cineplex, a set of live theaters, a relaxed pedestrian atmosphere and a set of "old-timey" buildings filled with restaurants.

James Toal is the former planning director for Fort Worth who became a consultant for Downtown Fort Worth Inc., the business consortium that includes the Bass family, owners of much of downtown Fort Worth. He's also a consultant for Abilene's downtown plans.

In fact, what Abilene city leaders have had on the drawing board for years, says Ms. Grindstaff, is a "Western trade cluster," a collection of shops related to traditional cowboy arts, such as leatherwork and hatmaking. The plan is to develop "an indigenous, open-air market," Ms. Grindstaff says, like the many "festival" marketplaces other cities have built to lure people back from the malls.

But that plan took a serious hit in July when the City Council voted down a proposal to renovate the 1920s Boyd Building for bootmaker James Leddy. The council balked at a $200,000 grant Mr. Leddy requested, says Mr. McCaleb, even though the shop could have been an anchor for the entire artisan market.

"I wouldn't characterize the vote as against the cluster," the mayor says. "It was against a particular economic package. The notion of an authentic bootmaker down there - that's still very attractive."

The negative vote, Ms. Grindstaff says, may even prove a turning point.

"We were surprised by the outpouring" for the project, she says. "I don't think anyone was aware of the depths of support. The loss of that deal motivated longtime Abilenians like no other project."

As it stands, Joe Allen's, the barbecue restaurant, will be taking over the old T&P Freight Warehouse, down First Street from the depot. A bookstore and the Chamber of Commerce will be moving into the recently renovated Windsor Hotel, built in 1893. And there's a retail outlet, Ms. Grindstaff says, interested in the Baggage Express building across the street from the Boyd Building.

Bringing the West back into Abilene is far from dead.

"I talked to James Leddy during all of this," Ms. Grindstaff recalls, "and he told me even 30 years ago there were eight different bootmakers in town." Some people may criticize heritage tourism for commercializing whatever authenticity a city might have, Ms. Grindstaff says, "but these craftsmen were very much a part of our culture here. They worked with the ranchers; they were part of it all. We're trying to re-introduce something into an area where, even a generation ago, it thrived.

"It was a great presence in Abilene, and we've lost it by just that much, a single generation."

The Dallas Morning News
Jerome Weeks