Decaying Texas town clings to life Persistence: The few remaining residents of Spanish Fort bristle when their community is called a "ghost town." They say the once-vibrant trading post is very much alive.

Sun Journal

November 29, 1998|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SPANISH FORT, Texas -- On the banks of the Red River, whose sludgy waters separate Texas from Oklahoma, is a community so full of abandoned buildings, so eerily devoid of conspicuous signs of life, that you may be tempted to call it a ghost town.

Residents here would prefer that you didn't.

"I don't want anybody making fun of Spanish Fort," says 87-year-old Ruth Shipley, who once served as the town's postmaster. "I don't see anything ghostly about it."

Folks like Shipley know their town is in decay. They have watched, painfully, as neighbors have fled, as churches have held their last services, as businesses have shut their doors.

But when historians call Spanish Fort a ghost town, residents bristle. It is not easy to bury a place they have called home all their lives. Though nostalgic for their town's rich past, they cling to, and dwell on, what's left of the present.

"We don't have any church anymore," Shipley says. "And we don't have a grocery store. But we still have real good people."

Surrounding Spanish Fort's hauntingly empty town square, once the site of baseball games and rodeos, are a vacant Methodist church with white paint peeling from its sides; an abandoned service station with a collapsed tin roof and a rickety wooden frame that sways like a tree branch in the breeze; and a granite monument, surrounded by tall grass and a rusted gray railing, that marks the site of a battle in 1759 between Spaniards and Indians.

There are roughly 1,000 ghost towns in Texas, and thousands more in other states. Those in the Southwest are easiest to find because the dry climate has often preserved the buildings. A few, like Tombstone, Ariz., have been restored as tourist attractions. Others are simply heaps of rubble off secluded desert roads, unknown to all but history buffs.

In Spanish Fort and a few other ostensibly abandoned towns, a small community of residents goes about everyday lives. Amid the crumbling businesses are pockets of modern houses still occupied by folks working and buying groceries in bustling nearby towns, then coming home to watch sitcoms or rodeos on big-screen TVs. They stick around, most of them say, because of the quiet and simply because it is the only home they have known.

For them, talk of ghosts is an irritant. The stigma can be as hindering as it is offensive, making it difficult to draw respect to a community that residents fear is in danger of withering away.

"It kind of rubs people the wrong way," says Adrian Hill, 73, one of 145 residents still in Spanish Fort. "Even though we don't have businesses, it's an active community." Just weeks ago, he says, a church group held an anniversary party. And on Election Day, residents flooded the old high school building -- closed as a school years ago -- to vote.

Unfortunately for Hill, the definition of "ghost town" accepted by historians fits Spanish Fort.

It is "a town for which the reason for being no longer exists," says T. Lindsay Baker, a historian at Hill College in Hillsboro, Texas, and director of the Texas Heritage Museum.

Spanish Fort is neither the thriving 18th-century Indian trading post nor the bustling 19th-century cowboy town it once was. That made it an ideal choice for Baker's 1986 book, "Ghost Towns of Texas."

Such towns represent a historic link with a bygone generation, Baker says, even though perhaps half of them may still be inhabited. "These are places that people can go to establish tangible ties with past Americans."

Residents in Spanish Fort griped quietly about the book. But their real resentment erupted last month, when the Fort Worth Star-Telegram listed the town among spooky spots for kids to visit on Halloween. It included drawings of mummies and skeletons.

"They are scarier than 'Scream,' more frightening than 'Friday the 13th,' and they're within driving distance," an article said. "These places are creepy enough during the day; at night, you might be better off with Jason chasing after ya."

Viola Bigbie, an 83-year-old resident, fired off a letter of complaint to the newspaper. "Everybody who lives here is not a ghost," she says. "I haven't seen one yet."

Spanish Fort, an hour north of Fort Worth, enjoyed two periods of economic boom. In the 18th century, it flourished as a trading settlement on which the French built a fort (the town was misnamed by Anglo-American settlers) and mingled with Indians, exchanging manufactured goods for their beads and furs.

After a lull, the town rebounded in the 1870s as a stop for cowboys driving cattle up the Chisholm Trail to the railhead in Dodge City, Kan. The land beyond the town, later to become Oklahoma, was prone to Indian attacks, so this was the last place to load up on supplies. There were hotels, a bakery shop, a newspaper, schools, churches and a chili parlor. Travelers enjoyed drinks and merriment at the Cowboy saloon, whose interior was pockmarked with bullet holes from gunfights.

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