After lunch at Casa Vieja on Sunday, we wandered around the little town of Whitewright, wondering what life must be like in this little time-worn village. There were obvious signs of efforts to revitalize the tiny downtown; Casa Vieja was one of at least three restaurants on the one-block-long downtown that were open for Sunday lunch. Next door to Casa Vieja is the Odeum Theater. And across the street, the Whitewright Chamber of Commerce is nestled in an old storefront, just a a door or two away from the town’s newspaper, the Whitewright Sun.
I commented to my wife, as I often do when we come across a struggling little town that I think has potential; “I wish I could get involved in the renaissance of a place like this; it would be such an exciting process to help rebuild a little town, to mold it into the kind of place people want to visit, a place people want to live.” She’s heard that so many times. I wonder if she understands how much I mean it. I had similar comments about Whitesboro as I was salivating over the idea of buying the old Christian Church in that town, contemplating how we could transform that grand old building into a community resource.
There’s so much potential in so many places. In Whitewright, a few weekends with a lawnmower, a weed trimmer, a paint brush, a bucket, and a squeegee could transform the blocks around “downtown,” revealing to even the most casual observer the potential beneath the dust and neglect and overgrown weeds. Just cleaning the windows of the derelict old buildings would brighten the place. And I think a thorough sprucing-up would make the entire little town a lot more appealing and attractive. People passing through, and the people living there, immediately would see the potential for the town.
Of course, I’m a day late and a dollar short. Whitewright is already working on building a community focused on improving the quality of life in and around Whitewright. The Chamber of Commerce office right in the heart of things was my first clue. But, still, I see a town that is in need of a visual makeover…just a clean-up. There’s work under way, but my once-through visit on Sunday gave me the impression it’s a half-hearted effort.
Our visit to the Trade Days area, on the grounds of the American Legion Park, reinforced that impression. Though the signs refer to the Fourth Monday Trade Days, which may well be a lively event, this fourth Sunday was a dreary, spare event with few vendors and even fewer visitors.
The event was not without its humor and its ironies. One of the few vendors offered organic honey, organic soap, holistic herb treatments, and “healthy lifestyle” alternatives. As we approached the vendor’s booth, situated by itself on one side of a curve on the dirt road near the back side of the park, we noticed the only other vendor nearby, directly across the road was buried in a book, paying no attention at all to the prospective customers walking by. The “healthy lifestyles” booth was empty; no one was there. But as we got closer, a weathered woman who I judged was in her 40s, approaching 80, came walking across the field, greeting us with “how you like this weather?” She was smoking a cigarette and looked and smelled like she had been doing that nonstop for the last twenty years. She proceeded to regale us with reasons we’d find real value in her organic honey and organic soaps and healthy lifestyle alternative products.
A short distance further down the road, we came across a fruit and veggie stand, where an Hispanic woman with a very heavy accent offered to sell us red or yellow flesh watermelon, tomatoes, and a variety of other stuff at discount prices. “I can’t give you samples, ’cause the county health department won’t let me, but believe me, it’s really good,” she said of the watermelon. Ah, thank you, Grayson County, for protecting us from what must surely have been deadly watermelon samples. We bought a sack of tomatoes, probably grown and picked green in Mexico or California and not yet really ripe, not because we needed any, but because I felt that a woman trying to sell fruit and vegetables in a ghost-town of a marketplace on a Sunday afternoon deserved a break.
Whitewright is a town of about 1700 people, just a few miles south of the Texas-Oklahoma border. It was founded in 1878 by a New York financier and investor named William Whitewright (hence the town’s name), who bought the land, which was in the path of the Missouri-Kansas Railroad. The town grew rapidly, reaching a peak population of just over 1800 in 1900. It seems to have struggled to hold its own since them, the population flagging and then recovering over the years, but never quite reaching its heyday numbers. It proximity to the larger population centers of Sherman and Denison and Bonham, coupled with better roads, cheaper land, and a growing desire of urban-dwellers to find serenity in smaller communities may give the town the opportunity to grow once again, though. This, from Wikipedia, is of interest: “By 1989 Whitewright had twenty-six businesses, and in 1990 the population was 1,713. In 2000 the community had 1,740 inhabitants and 106 businesses” The growth in businesses, far greater than the growth in population, may have a story to tell; I just don’t know the story quite yet.