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March 28, 2021
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March 26, 2021

Day 8: Weirdness, Cheer and Fixer Uppers on the Road to Dallas

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Most recently updated on October 8, 2021

Originally posted on March 27, 2021

We’re out the door early on our fourth and final full day in the big state of Texas.

Ahead of us are a “batty” college town, a market that made home improvement a thing, the home of some champion cheerleaders and the most infamous plaza in our nation’s history.

We head north out of San Antonio on Interstate 35, a 1,500-mile freeway that starts in Laredo, Texas, at the Mexican border before cutting through the middle of the country and finishing in Duluth, Minnesota, on Lake Superior near the Canadian border.

I-35 is the ninth longest freeway in the United States as well as the nation’s third longest north-to-south route. We’ll see a lot of it the next two days as well as later in our virtual trip.

texas map

A little more than an hour into our day’s drive, we arrive at the state capital of Texas.

Austin’s population has crested 1 million, making it the 10th most populous city in the country as well as the 4th most populated in Texas. It’s also the second most populous state capital, behind only Phoenix.

Austin also holds the distinction of being the southernmost state capital in the continental United States. It’s slightly closer to the equator than Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Tallahassee, Florida.

For hundreds of years, the Tonkawa, Comanche and Lipan tribes lived in this region before the first Spanish explorations in the 1700s. The initial European American pioneers arrived in the 1830s and settled along the rivers and lakes.

The settlement, then called Waterloo, replaced Houston as the capital of the Republic of Texas in 1839. The city was subsequently renamed after Stephen F. Austin, the man considered the “father of Texas.”

Unlike a lot of Texas towns, Austin’s growth in the 1800s centered on government jobs due to the state Capitol and education jobs because of the University of Texas at Austin, which was founded in 1883.

The Houston and Texas Central Railway arrival in 1871 made Austin the westernmost railroad terminus in Texas at the time, boosting the community status as a trade center. The Texas oil boom from 1880 to 1920, however, mostly bypassed Austin.

The city made it through the 1930s depression by relying on its education and government jobs. It also received more federal funding for municipal construction projects than any other Texas city that decade.

In the 1950s, Austin began the slow transition to a more high-tech economy. The city is now home to 7,000 technology companies, employing about 170,000 people, approximately 16 percent of the city’s workforce. That has earned Austin the nickname “Silicon Hills.”

In 2018, Apple announced it was building a new $1 billion campus here. The company broke ground on the 3 million square foot facility in November 2019. In May 2020, a 192-room on-site hotel was added to the plans. The campus is expected to open with 5,000 employees in 2022. A 129-acre office campus next to the future Apple complex is planning to add 800,000 square feet of office space along with 1,800 apartments, a 340-room hotel and 80,000 square feet of retail space. The facility already houses offices for companies such as PayPal, eBay and Polycom.

The city’s tech sector got another boost in December 2020 when Oracle executives announced they will be moving their headquarters from Silicon Valley in California to Austin.

Another new tech-related outfit coming to the Austin area is Tesla. The company is building a “giga-factory” in southeastern Travis County to manufacture two types of electric vehicles, including the new Model Y. The plant is expected to open later this year. However, if Texas law isn’t changed, the Tesla facility won’t be able to sell cars and trucks directly to Texas residents. They’ll need to be shipped out of state first. Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk also announced in October 2021 that he is moving the company’s headquarters from California to Austin, although Tesla’s main manufacturing facility will expand and remain in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Austin area also has a growing biotechnology sector with nearly 200 life science firms.

It may come as no surprise that in June 2021 a LinkedIn survey reported that Austin had the largest inflow of tech-related job migration of any city in the country in the past year.

Austin is in the midst of a skyscraper boom to accommodate the 14,000 people who live downtown. In early 2020, there were plans for 21 towers in the city’s core area. There’s a new mixed-use development on which construction began in June 2021. The EastVillage complex will be near the city’s tech sector. It will contain 2,000 homes, three hotels, 37,000 square feet of grocery space and a 150-acre wooded preserve. It’s scheduled to open in 2028.

The University of Texas’ impact on the city shouldn’t be taken for granted either. With more than 40,000 undergraduate students, it’s listed as the fifth largest campus in the country. It also employs about 21,000 faculty and other staff.

The university is certainly partly responsible for the liberal bent on politics in the city, which has earned the community such nicknames as “Berkeley of the Sage” and “Berkeley on the Brazos.” Some conservative state legislators have been known to call it the “People’s Republic of Austin.”

Among other things, Austin has a strong environmental community.

It’s recognized as one of the most eco-friendly cities in the country due to its energy programs as well as green open spaces.

In April 2019, the city purchased the Nacogdoches Generating Facility for $460 million. The city was the only customer of the eastern Texas renewable power plant that burns wood chips to create 100 megawatts of electricity. Last year, city utility officials decided to turn the facility into a seasonal operation, switching it online from only May 15 to November 15. That did mean that the Nacogdoches plant sat idle during the cold snap and power outages that hit Texas in February.

Overall, the city receives 35 percent of its power from solar and another 35 percent from wind. The remaining 30 percent is from nonrenewable energy sources that would include the biomass plant.

Austin also has a large LGBTQ+ community. While there is no specific “gayborhood” in town, there are plenty of supportive events and groups. Among the organizations are the Austin LGBT Chamber of Commerce, which began in 1997, and the Austin Gay and Lesbian Pride Foundation. In 2019, Austin was selected in a Yelp survey as the fifth most LGBTQ+ friendly city in the United States.

Austin is also known for its strict anti-smoking laws, which include prohibitions on smoking in public buildings, city parks, libraries and within 15 feet of any pedestrian entrance to a facility. The restrictions include e-cigarettes and vaping.

The city’s unofficial slogan is “Keep Austin Weird,” a phrase the emanated from a 2000 local radio interview. The motto is used to promote local businesses, public events and community organizations.

The city’s liberal lean produced some fireworks in September 2020 when the Texas Municipal Police Association put up two billboards on I-35 in protest of the Austin City Council’s decision to reduce expenditures on police.

One billboard read: “Warning! Austin defunded police. Enter at your own risk.” The other read: “Limited support the next 20 miles.” The signs had the hashtag #BacktheBlue on them.

In August, the council had voted to cut $150 million from the city’s $430 million police budget and redirect most of that money to social services and other programs.

The decision was part of the trend in summer 2020 to reform police departments in the wake of the death of George Floyd while he was being detained by four Minneapolis police officers.

In December, a federal prosecutor blamed an annual increase in homicides in Austin on the police budget cuts, which took effect in October. Supporters of the funding changes said the rise in crime had started to occur before the budget reductions took place.

In January, the City Council voted to use some of the money taken from the police budget to purchase a hotel and create 60 units of permanent supportive housing for people experiencing chronic homelessness.

There are an estimated 2,500 homeless people in Austin. Community activists note that a third of the homeless population in town is Black and 30 percent are between the ages of 45 and 64.

That issue was spotlighted two years ago when the City Council in June 2019 approved a “housing first” plan that allowed homeless people to sleep, camp and panhandle on sidewalks as long as they didn’t threaten safety. Some residents and the governor of Texas were infuriated. In October, the council amended the plan by reinstating a ban on public camping.

Governor Greg Abbott still sent state employees to clear homeless people from underpasses and other places. He established a five-acre site with facilities for the homeless to live. During last summer, there were 120 people at the camp, which has been nicknamed Abbottville. In December 2020, the camp had 24 structures and 15 tents occupied by homeless people.

In June 2021, city leaders allocated $106 million of federal American Rescue Plan funds to expand housing for people seeking shelter. Several centers for homeless people were expected to be opened during the summer. In August 2021, local law enforcement authorities began enforcing a voter-approved renewed ban on camping in public places.

Homelessness isn’t the only conflict point within neighborhoods.

In March 2021, police were called out to “Chicano Park,” as locals call it, in eastern Austin. Since the 1990s, young adults, mostly Hispanic and Black, have gathered here on Sunday afternoons to show off their cars and play music from their vehicle’s stereo systems. The upper-income residents of The Weaver, a newly built luxury apartment complex, don’t appreciate the gatherings. They’d like the event to come an end. For the moment, the Sunday car shows are continuing.

Outside of its pressing issues, the city does have a lively music as well as culinary scene.

Austin refers to itself as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” a moniker developed in 1991 when it was discovered that the city had more live music venues per capita than other place in the nation. There’s plenty of evidence to back up that claim.

First is the PBS concert series “Austin City Limits,” a show that has been broadcast for 43 years showcasing music from Austin as well as Australia and New Zealand.

There is also the Austin City Limits Music Festival, which is scheduled to return in October 2021 for its 20th anniversary after being cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns. By June, the 2021 concert had sold out.

Finally, there is the popular South by Southwest Concert and Festivals usually held in March. The festival was one of the first well-known events to be cancelled in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread across the country. The festival was held as an online event this year, but organizers have announced that SXSW will return as a live gathering from March 11 to March 20 in 2022.

The Oasis Restaurant at Lake Travis in Austin is the largest restaurant in Texas

Austin is also well known for its food.

On the edge of town is the Oasis Restaurant on Lake Travis. It has enough seating for 2,800 people, making it the largest restaurant in Texas, a state known for big eating establishments.

Austin also has a reputation for Tex-Mex and barbecue specialties.

One of them is Franklin Barbecue on East 11th Street. The restaurant is owned by Aaron and Stacy Franklin. It began with back yard cookouts by the couple who then opened a small barbecue trailer along the interstate. That morphed into the full-fledged barbecue joint it is today.

Aaron was the first barbecue chef to win a James Beard award. He’s also written two books. The couple has a merchandising industry that includes shirts, hats and even barbecue pits.

In the process, the Franklins may have created the most popular eatery in Austin. President Barack Obama even paid them a visit in 2014.

Franklin Barbecue has a variety of dishes from sausage to ribs. However, it is particularly known for its brisket. It sells out of that offering every day. People have been known to line up for hours ahead of the restaurant’s midday opening. In fact, the restaurant’s official hours are “11 a.m. to sold out.”

Before we depart from Austin, we need to swing by two locations that might fit the city’s “weird” motto.

The first is a street light at East 11th and Trinity Avenue, not too far from Franklin Barbecue. The light is one of 31 moonlight towers that were first installed in 1894 to light up Austin’s streets.

The 165-foot towers illuminated a 1,500-foot radius around them. They were purchased from the Fort Wayne Electric Company in Indiana.

Only 13 of these lights are still standing in Austin. Four others are being restored and may return soon. They are the only moonlight towers remaining in the world.

Our final stop is at the Congress Avenue Bridge, not too far from the moonlight tower. The span is nicknamed “bat bridge” and for good reason.

A colony of as many as 1.5 million bats migrates from Mexico to Austin every spring to have offspring. Almost all the bats who come here are female and each one gives birth to a single baby bat.

When they’re in town from late March to early fall, the flying mammals congregate under the bridge. It’s the largest urban bat colony in North America.

The free-tail bats started showing up in 1980 after the bridge was renovated and its under-span turned out to be a pretty good bat cave.

Now, the bats have become a town favorite due to the fact they eat between 10,000 and 30,000 pounds of insects per night and put on some spectacular shows at sunset as they exit the bridge. Some nights it takes 45 minutes for all the bats to depart. Crowds of spectators will line the bridge to watch the nightly spectacle.

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We’re quickly back on Interstate 35 north.

In 20 minutes, we’re gliding past the community of Round Rock.

The city of 130,000 people has co-opted Austin’s “weird” motto with its wry slogan of “Keep Round Rock Mildly Unusual.”

Much of the “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was filmed in Round Rock, although it should be noted  that the 1974 movie was not based on a true story.

Native American tribes began occupying this region 6,500 years ago. The first Anglo settlers arrived in 1848.

The town was along the Chisholm Trail used for cattle drives. In fact, it was named after a round rock that was in the middle of a low point in a stream that travelers crossed.  The Chisholm Trail Crossing Park has a bronze statue that marks the crossing and details the cattle drive industry.

Cattle sparked the local economy in the late 1800s. In the early 1900s, the cotton fields promoted growth. Later in the century, row crops and ranching took over.

The city has also developed into a bedroom community for Austin, although it does have its own energy, technology and manufacturing sectors. Dell Technologies has its headquarters here.

Those industries have pushed the median household income in Round Rock to $86,000 a year.

We wave to Round Rock as we pass through. Another hour on Interstate 35 and we’re at our next destination.

The Land of Dr. Pepper and Home Improvement

If you’ve ever watched “Fixer Upper” or drank a Dr. Pepper, then you’ve had a taste of Waco, Texas.

The city of 140,000 is home to the world’s largest Baptist university and a site near a river that’s full of prehistoric bones.

In addition, Waco has the dubious distinction of having its name attached to a gruesome lynching as well as one of the most violent sieges in U.S. history.

The city is named after the Waco tribe that lived on the banks of the Brazos and Bosque rivers for thousands of years. It was founded in 1849 as a farming community near the old Texas Rangers’ Fort Fisher. The Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum is here to commemorate the law enforcement’s ties to the town.

In the mid-1800s, the cotton industry took hold and a plantation economy was established. That mindset led to widespread support in Waco for the South during the Civil War. The town contributed 17 companies of soldiers and six generals to the Confederacy.

The Chisholm Trail cattle drives helped Waco’s economy recover after the war. A suspension bridge over the Brazos that was built in 1870 brought more cattle through town, as many as 700,000 in 1871.

The arrival of the Waco and Northwestern Railroad that same year as well as the completion of two other railroad lines through town in the 1880s transformed Waco into transportation hub for cotton farmers and local factories.

By 1884, there were 12,000 people living in Waco. In addition, there were 50,000 bales of cotton, 900,000 pounds of wool and 500,000 pounds of hides transported through the city annually. By the 1890s, Waco had become of one of the top cotton markets in the South.

Baylor University moved to Waco in 1886 and developed into the largest Baptist university in the world with 19,000 undergraduate and graduate students on its 1,000-acre campus. It’s also the oldest institute of higher learning in Texas. The college is dealing with the issue of statues, names and slavery. A report issued in March recommended against removing the statue of Judge Robert Emmett Bledsoe Baylor, the founder of the university, or renaming the school due to the fact Baylor owned slaves. The report does recommend adding information to the statue’s plaque to reflect this history. Baylor’s president will work with administrators to come up with a plan to present to the Board of Regents.

By 1900, the city’s population had risen to 20,000 and there more than 160 factories in town. Camp MacArthur, an infantry training base, was established during World War One, sparking more growth in the economy.

Between 1900 and 1930, Blacks from the rural South began to move to Waco in search of better jobs and educational opportunities. In the 1920s, a Black middle class was emerging. That didn’t sit well with the Ku Klux Klan, which organized boycotts of businesses that didn’t agree with their racial point of view. A number of lynching incidents occurred that decade, too.

The depression in the 1930s decimated the cotton industry and many residents had to rely on government jobs for work.

World War Two helped revive the cotton industry. By 1942, Waco was the armed forces’ leading producer of cots, tents, mattresses and barracks bags. The military activity subsided after the war, but Waco’s economy kept churning. In the 1950s, there were 250 factories producing a variety of goods.

However, in 1953 a destructive tornado tore through town, killing 114 people and destroying 196 businesses. Another 396 commercial buildings were so badly damaged, they had to be torn down. The downtown area didn’t recover for decades.

Today, the city’s population is an ethnic mix of 44 percent white, 30 percent Hispanic and 20 percent Black.

Its economy still has agricultural, manufacturing and service sectors, but the annual median household income is barely $40,000, well below the state average of $64,000. The poverty rate sits at 25 percent, well above the state average of 15 percent.

Waco is also known for two historically violent incidents.

The first one happened in 1916 and is known as the Waco Horror.

It occurred after Jesse Washington, a 17-year-old African-American man, confessed to killing a white woman. Washington was convicted by an all-white jury that took all of four minutes to deliberate.  Afterward, a mob outside the courthouse seized Washington as he was being led away and lynched the teen in the town square by burning and then hanging him as more than 15,000 people watched.

The murder became part of the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign.

On the 100th anniversary of the lynching in 2016, the Waco City Council issued a proclamation condemning the incident.

The other infamous act happened in 1993.

It began in February when 70 federal agents raided the Mt. Carmel Branch-Davidian compound on the outskirts of town. They were investigating accusations of child abuse as well as reports that members of the religious sect were stockpiling weapons.

A shootout erupted, killing six Branch-Davidian members and four federal agents. A 51-day siege followed in which federal authorities surrounded the complex while the Branch-Davidian members refused to surrender.

On April 19, federal agents fired tear gas into the compound as Branch-Davidian members unleashed gunfire. A fire erupted inside the compound, killing 75 people including 25 children and sect leader David Koresh.

Federal officials were criticized in the months afterward for their handling of the “Waco Siege.” Investigators eventually determined that government agents did not return fire during the April 19 exchange nor did their tear gas canisters ignite the blaze.

Nonetheless, some viewed the fatal standoff as an abuse of government authority, spurring the creation of some militia groups.

Two years later, on the anniversary of the Branch-Davidian compound fire, Timothy McVeigh carried out the Oklahoma City federal building bombing.

Despite these two incidents, Waco is not all shooting, lynching and killing.

For starters, it’s the hometown of a World War Two hero who has an aircraft carrier named after him.

Doris Miller was born in Waco in 1919. In 1939, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

He was aboard the USS West Virginia on December 7, 1941, when Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

After helping move the ship’s wounded captain, Miller raced across the deck and began firing a .50-calibre antiaircraft gun at the attacking Japanese planes. It was the first time Miller had fired one of these weapons because Black sailors were not given gunnery training. He was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions.

In 1943, Miller was aboard the USS Liscome Bay when it was hit by torpedoes near the Gilbert Islands and sank. Miller died along with 643 fellow crew members.

The Navy honored Miller by naming a dining hall, a barracks and a destroyer escort after him. In 2020, the Navy broke with tradition and named an aircraft carrier after Miller. Most aircraft carriers are named after presidents. Few have been christened with the name of an enlisted sailor.

In Waco today, there is a YMCA center and a cemetery named after this naval hero. There’s also a memorial with a bronze statue of Miller in a city park.

Waco is also known in the archaeology world for a site near the Bosque River.

In 1978, mammoth bones were discovered here and scientists converged on the town to explore.

Eventually, 22 mammoth remains were found along with a camel and a big cat. The bones are estimated to be 65,000 years old. A 5-acre Waco Mammoth National Monument was created in 2015.

The town is also home to the Dr Pepper Museum. The beverage is actually bottled in Temple, Texas, a town about 40 miles south of Waco that we passed on Interstate 35.

The reason the museum is in Waco is because Dr Pepper was invented here. Pharmacist Charles Addelson came up with the concoction at the Morrison’s Old Corner Drug Store in 1885.

It wasn’t unusual at that time for a pharmacy employee to invent a carbonated beverage. After all, a lot of pharmacists were chemists.

The soda fountain was actually born in the 1850s when customers would buy specialty drinks from their local pharmacy to treat certain physical ailments. A combination of cocaine and caffeine was used to cure headaches.

Coca Cola was invented by a pharmacist in Atlanta, Georgia. Pepsi was introduced by a pharmacist in North Carolina.

Legend has it that Addelson named his drink after the father of a girl he once loved.

Dr Pepper was served locally at first and then introduced nationally in 1904 after it was showcased at the World’s Fair in St. Louis. Dr Pepper is the oldest of all the major soda brands in the United States. A year older than Coca-Cola.

The formula includes 23 fruit flavors, but prune juice is not among them. The recipe is a trade secret and is secured in two halves at two different banks in Dallas. No one person knows the entire list of ingredients.

Finally, Waco is probably familiar to people who watch a lot of HGTV.

The Magnolia at the Silos shopping center in Waco, Texas, is the city’s top tourist attraction. Photo by Dreamstime.

That’s because it’s the home of Chip and Joanna Gaines, the stars of the network’s popular “Fixer Upper” home improvement program.

The genesis of the show came in 2003 when the newly married couple opened their first Magnolia Market, now called the “Little Shop on the Bosque.” In 2006, they closed the store to concentrate on raising their children and their Magnolia Homes construction business. They used the shop as a construction office.

They developed the idea of “making Waco beautiful one home at a time.” Chip was in charge of construction and Joanna oversaw design.

They refurbished homes in town for the next six years. Then, in 2012, a friend sent photos of one project to Design Mom, a popular blog.

The blog post caught the eye of a production company that worked with HGTV. The network decided to give the couple a tryout.

A pilot episode of Fixer Upper aired on May 23, 2013. The TV audience loved it and in April 2014 HGTV began broadcasting the first season of the Gaines’ show.

The premise of Fixer Upper was pretty simple. A homeowner in Waco would hire Chip and Joanna to remodel their house within a certain budget. Then, the Gaines would transform the worn-out home into a quaint, stylish abode.

During its five years on the air, “Fixer Upper” grew to be the number one unscripted show on cable television. It drew 75 million viewers in its final season.

The couple, who now have five children, stopped filming their show in April 2018. However, in August 2020, they announced they are bringing back “Fixer Upper” to their new Magnolia Network,  which launched on July 15 on Discovery +.

The Gaines are more than just their show, though. They are retail giants in Waco.

In 2015, the couple built on the success of “Fixer Upper” and used two former cotton seed grain silos as the focal point for their Magnolia at the Silos shopping center.

The facility has 20,000 square feet of retail space. It’s anchored by the Magnolia Seed + Supply store. There’s also a boutique, a large garden and an area for food trucks.

The couple also owns Magnolia Realty, the Magnolia Table restaurant and an online catalogue of Magnolia-themed products.

They even have plans to open a new hotel later this year.

Their impact on downtown Waco is unmistakable.

At the height of their show, the Magnolia brand employed 750 people. Businesses advertise themselves as “close to the silos.”

The shopping center also brings in tourists. In 2017, an estimated 1.6 million people visited the silos. That’s more people than visited The Alamo in San Antonio.

There are complaints from some residents about a lack of parking these days and rising property prices.

Like any folks in the public spotlight, the Gaines have had to deal with some disputes and false stories in the past.

However, to many in town, “Fixer Upper” gave the nation a chance to see a town rebuilding itself. Waco was no longer solely viewed as the place where the Branch-Davidian complex went up in flames.

In fact, some locals refer to life before the show as “Old Waco” and after the show as “New Waco.”

Three Cheers for Oil, Chili and Fruitcake

Out of Waco, we take a detour and head east on Highway 31.

In an hour, we enter the town of Corsicana, where chili, fruitcake and cheer are on the menu.

This is a lively community of 23,000 people, where more than a third of the population is Hispanic and nearly 20 percent are Black.

The town was founded in 1848 by Jose Antonio Navarro, who named it after the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea where was father was born.

Corsicana was a typical Texas cotton town in the mid-1880s. The town was not only a place where cotton was grown and processed, it was also home to factories such as the Oil City Iron Works, which began operations in 1866 to make cotton gin parts.

The Houston and Texas Central Railroad spurred on these businesses when it came through in 1871. Likewise, the Texas and St. Louis Railway when it arrived in 1880.

The biggest impact on the economy, however, happened in 1894 when oil was accidentally discovered in the downtown area by a crew from the Corsicana Water Authority that was drilling an artisan well. This was the first significant find of oil west of the Mississippi River.

The first oil refinery in Texas was subsequently built here in 1897. Within six years of the discovery, 500 wells were producing 800,000 barrels of crude oil per year. Mobil and Texaco started their companies here.

Manufacturing and service firms also sprung to life. One of them was the American Well Prospecting Company, which opened a repair shop and then developed a hydraulic rotary drilling rig that became known as the “Corsicana rig.”

The large Powell oil field was discovered a few miles east of town in 1923. That oil boom helped Corsicana get through the depression in the 1930s.

Another oil field was tapped in 1956, spurring another 500 wells. In the 1950s, it was reported that Corsicana was home to 21 millionaires and had the highest per capita income of any town in Texas.

There’s a Petroleum Park downtown with an oil derrick to honor the town’s early industry.

The local economy no longer is completely reliant on oil and gas. It also features a manufacturing base that includes the Guardian Industries glass plant as well as the Corsicana Mattress factory, a company that now has 10 mattress facilities across the country. A Kohl’s distribution center is also here.

Among the local industries is the Collin Street Bakery, just a couple blocks from Petroleum Park. If you’ve ever received a fruitcake during the holiday season, there’s a good chance it was made here.

The bakery has been producing the Deluxe Fruitcake since 1896 when German immigrant August Weidmann started the business using a recipe from his home country.

The bakery’s mail order business began in 1904 when Ringling Brothers bought dozens to hand out as gifts. The company now sells its product in all 50 states as well as 190 countries.

From October to mid-December, the bakery pumps out 30,000 fruitcakes a day, expanding its staff from 50 to 600 to do so.

Not too far from the bakery is a statue of local interest.

It’s a monument to Lyman T. Davis. He’s the Texas ranch cook who started Wolf Brand Chili in Corsicana in 1895 from a lunch wagon, selling it for 5 cents a bowl. He named his product after his pet wolf, Kaiser Bill.

Davis began canning his chili in town in 1921. At one time, the factory produced 2,000 cans per day.

Davis sold his operation in 1924, but the local plant continued to operate until 1985. The chili brand is now owned by ConAgra foods and is manufactured in Dallas.

Davis’ statue was unveiled in 2018 at Fifth and Beaton streets, the original location of his lunch wagon.

Coach Monica Aldama’s cheerleading squad at Navarro College put Corsicana, Texas, on the map after they were featured in the Netflix documentary, “Cheer.” Photo by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Before we leave town, we swing by Navarro College.

If you’ve watched the Netflix documentary “Cheer,” then you’re familiar with this educational institute.

It’s where Monica Aldama has coached her championship cheerleading squads for the past 25 years. Those teams include 14 national champions.

The Netflix documentary displayed the hard work put in by the squad members that championship year as well as Aldama’s strict discipline and close relationship with her student athletes as they captured the national community college championship in 2019,

The six-episode show, which debuted in January 2020, put Navarro College as well as Corsicana on the map, much to the delight of many local residents.

It also landed Aldama a spot as one of the competitors on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” in September 2020.

In an interview that month in the Austin American-Statesman, Aldama, who grew up and still lives in Corsicana, said she was surprised by the popularity of the “Cheer” documentary.

She said the notoriety brought tourists to the Navarro campus trying to locate the team. The squad had to cover their practice facility’s windows to keep people from peeking in.

The 2020 season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Navarro cheer squad did resume in-person practices during summer 2020 with safety precautions in place.

The team received a setback in September 2020 when one of its members, Jerry Harris, was charged with one count of production of child pornography. Four additional charges were added in December. Harris has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The cheerleading squad finished second at the national championships in Daytona Beach, Florida, in April 2021.

The Plaza Where It Happened

We roar out of Corsicana and head due north on Interstate 45, the main freeway between Houston and Dallas.

It’s an hour’s drive to the “Big D.”

Halfway there, we glide through Ferris, a city of 2,900 people that doesn’t have a stoplight.

What the town is known for is bricks.

The community was first settled in the 1850s. In the 1880s, its main businesses were grist mills and cotton processing.

That changed quickly when manufacturers discovered they could use the mineral clays in the soil here to make some pretty good bricks.

In 1914, the town had six brick plants as well as a broom factory. By 1920, those companies were producing 350,000 bricks a day. In 1923, six firms merged to form the Ferris Brick Company.

Four brick plants were still operating in the 1950s when Ferris was known locally as the “Brick Capital of the Nation” as well as “The City that Bricked the World.”

Agriculture and brick making still dominate the local economy. The Ferris Brick Fest is usually held in late April to recognize the city’s chief industry. This year’s event was held on May 2.

Things may change dramatically for Ferris in the near future. A 5,200-acre housing development on the outskirts of town is on the drawing boards.

Woodstone is described as a master planned development that will eventually contain thousands of new homes amid green spaces, bike paths and ponds. The developers say the homes would fill a need for housing for workers in Dallas, just 20 miles away.

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We continue north on Interstate 45. A half-hour out of Ferris, we see the skyline of Dallas.

Almost 1.4 million people now live in this gleaming city in the high flatlands of Texas. That makes Dallas the ninth most populous city in the country and the third largest in Texas, behind Houston and San Antonio.

It’s a city that’s 41 percent Hispanic, 29 percent white and 24 percent Black.

The city also has a strong LGBTQ+ community, the largest in Texas. The Oak Lawn neighborhood and the Bishop Arts business district are among the strongholds. The Cathedral of Hope is described as the world’s largest inclusive LGBT place of worship. The city also holds a month-long Dallas Pride celebration every September.

The area was originally home to the Caddo tribe before Spanish explorers claimed it in the 1700s.

Like most Texas towns, it was ruled by Spain until Mexico took over the territory in 1821. It became part of the Republic of Texas in 1836 and then part of the United States in 1848.

The city developed a manufacturing base in the 1850s, but Dallas’ early economy was built on the cotton and cattle industries with the help of railroad lines that ran through the city. At one point, Dallas was the largest inland cotton market in the world. It also had a thriving cotton gin manufacturing business as well as one being of the world’s leading centers for leather and buffalo hide trade.

In 1909, the 15-story Praetorian Building at Main and Stone streets opened. It was one of the first skyscrapers west of the Mississippi River.

Oil was discovered in numerous nearby locations in the 1920s and 1930s, adding more diversity to the Dallas economy.

Following World War Two, the city’s manufacturing sector grew dramatically, led by the opening of several aircraft manufacturing plants.

The interstate highway system in the 1950s brought four major freeways through Dallas, strengthening its position as a transportation hub.

The Dallas-Fort Worth region is home to 22 Fortune 500 companies, including ExxonMobil, AT&T and Southwest Airlines. Its wide-ranging economy also includes finance, defense, information technology and telecommunications. It’s known as Silicon Prairie for its high-tech sector.

The city is one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country. It’s also home to the most malls and shopping districts per capita of any U.S. city.

In addition, Dallas has eight art museums. The best known is the Dallas Museum of Art, which has more than 22,000 works and is one of the top 10 largest art museums in the country. More than 650,000 people visit in a typical year.

As we draw near along Interstate 45, we look east toward the Texas Horse Park at the Trinity, located on 302 acres south of downtown Dallas. It’s a place to learn about the history of horses in Texas as well as saddle up and ride.

A little farther north and also to our east is Fair Park, the site of the State of Fair of Texas. This annual celebration is held in late September and lasts for 24 days. It’s one of the largest state fairs in the country.

We veer off Interstate 45 for a brief drive westward on Interstate 30 before dropping into downtown.

While looking at the towering skyscrapers, it’s hard to believe that Dallas was once home to the infamous crime duo of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. The pair were both born in small Texas towns but spent part of their childhood in Dallas.

As a teenager, Bonnie worked as a waitress at Hartgrave’s Café on Swiss Avenue. Clyde once worked at a glass and mirror shop on the same street.

Bonnie and Clyde met in 1930 and went on a murderous two-year crime spree together from 1932 to 1934 in Texas and the Midwest before they were gunned down by law enforcement officers in an ambush in western Louisiana.

Clyde was 25 when he died. Bonnie was 23. Both are buried at cemeteries in Dallas.

As navigate the downtown area, we cruise by Dallas College El Centro Campus at Main and Lamar streets.

In July 2016, a man who was upset over the treatment of people of color by police repeatedly fired gunshots from a building on campus. He killed five police officers and injured nine other officers as well as two civilians. Police eventually sent in a robotic explosive device, detonated it and killed the gunman.

Six blocks from the college is Dealey Plaza, the site of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, recalls the November 1963 assassination of President John Kennedy. Photo by Joy of Museums Virtual Tour.

Between the college and the plaza is the John F. Kennedy Memorial, a plaza that contains a simple commemoration to honor the late president.

From there, you can walk another block along Elm Street to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. This building used to be the Texas School Book Depository where Lee Harvey Oswald peered out a window on the top floor and fired on the presidential motorcade. The museum chronicles the assassination and its aftermath as well as life in the United States in the early 1960s.

Out the front door of the museum, you cross Elm Street and you’re at Dealey Plaza.

The triangular-shaped 3-acre plaza is actually a city park constructed in 1940 on the site of the first home built in Dallas. It’s named after a former publisher of the Dallas Morning News. The park has been called “The Front Door of Dallas.”

It wasn’t well known outside of the city until November 22, 1963.

That’s the morning President Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, arrived at Love Field after spending the previous day in San Antonio, Houston and Fort Worth. The plan was to ride along a 10-mile parade route through downtown Dallas, then deliver a luncheon speech at the nearby Trade Mart. The president was scheduled to travel to Austin that evening for a fundraiser.

Most of the president’s parade went down Main Street with Kennedy waving from his open top limousine to the 150,000 people who lined the route.

Near the end of the parade, the motorcade turned right off Main Street onto Houston Street, riding along the base of Dealey Plaza before turning left onto Elm Street.

It was just a one-block drive along Dealey Plaza’s north side to Interstate 35-E for the two-mile drive to the Trade Mart.

But halfway down that block, shots rang out and President Kennedy was mortally wounded.

Today, the buildings, street signs and streets lights around Dealey Plaza are pretty much the same as they were in 1963. There are plaques around the park as well as two small X’s painted on the street where the president was hit by gunfire.

The Warren Commission, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson just a week after the assassination, issued a report in 1964 that stated the shots that killed President Kennedy were fired by Oswald from the sixth floor of the school book depository.

A 1976 House committee report concluded that there was a “high probability” based on audio recordings that two gunmen fired at the president. However, the report maintained that the two bullets that hit President Kennedy were fired by Oswald from the school book depository.

In 2018, a scientific study using the film of the assassination shot by Dallas dress shop owner Abraham Zapruder concluded that the Warren Commission’s finding that Oswald was the only shooter was correct.

Nonetheless, there are many skeptics who don’t buy the lone assassin theory.

Among the people alleged to be behind the assassination are the Soviets, the Cubans, the Mafia and the CIA.

One of the most prominent conspiracy theories is that a second gunman was waiting for President Kennedy on a grassy knoll near where Zapruder was filming. It was that assassin’s bullet, skeptics say, that struck the president in the head and killed him.

However, there’s another lesser-known conspiracy theory that is based largely on the Zapruder film.

If you look at the footage, it seems possible that the fatal shot to the head came from the president’s left.

The school book depository was behind Kennedy. The grass knoll was to his right.

What was to the president’s left was a large U.S. Post Office complex.

The Terminal Annex looks directly across the plaza at the former school book depository. It’s the place where Oswald rented a post office box under a fake number and had the rifle he used in the presidential shooting delivered.

In a 2012 book, a crime scene analyst laid out her “South Knoll” theory that the fatal gunshot came from this direction in the vicinity of the Terminal Annex’s parking lot. A gunman in this position would have had some tree cover and would have had a perfect view of the president’s limousine coming straight toward him. They also could have quickly left the area from the parking lot.

It’s unlikely we’ll know the truth for sure, at least not in our lifetime.

So, we’ll call it a day and get ready for tomorrow.

Among the items on itinerary are the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, the site of a famous land rush and a memorial for a bombing we’ve been asked never to forget.

 

 

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