In the town where I grew up (Abilene [which, by the way, is not exactly 'the finest town I ever seen”]) there was a place on the northeast side of town called “Old Abilene Town”. Built out on I-20, so it would have been visible to people traveling between Dallas and Midland (and trying their best to ignore Abilene as much as possible), it was a conglomeration of buildings designed to look like an old west town.
There was a saloon (of course) and a doctor’s office in an upstairs room and other frontier-like buildings. And, some Saturdays during the year, you could go out there and watch “gun-fights” staged by local actors who were—I hope—using blanks. (Not like certain parts of Amarillo where you can go and watch gunfights with real bullets.) And there would be people dressed in costume running the various stores, singing in the above-mentioned saloon, etc. There was also a rodeo grounds on the property at which my brother and his buddies started a rodeo for high school students that has grown in the four decades since to be one of the largest rodeos of its kind in the world.
Old Abilene Town (or “Old Abilene Town” as it was called, we weren’t much for shortening names), however, is no more. It closed up in the late 70s and, by the time I was in high school, there was nothing left, the buildings having burned down in what turned out to be a fortuitous “accident” for the owner who had them insured. Those of us who remembered Old Abilene Town remembered it as a sort of fond joke.
A joke because it wasn’t supposed to have been that way. When it was built, the Old Town that we came to know (frontier buildings on a main street) was just supposed to be a starting point. According to my parents, when the place was built the owners were telling everyone they were going to add rides and shows and all sorts of things that would make Old Abilene Town competition for 6 Flags as the “most fun place in Texas!” They were going to turn it into SEVEN Flags Over Texas (the traditional 6, plus “Black Flag Roach Killer”). It never happened.
And it never happened more than once. Every few years, someone new would come along, buy the place, slap a new coat of paint on the clapboard, and start telling us how they were going to fulfill—and maybe even surpass—the old plans. Roller coasters, thrill rides, swimming pools, movies stars … the works!
I guess all these people were just dreamers, hoping to sucker—I mean, “entice”—somebody with more money into investing. Ads would be placed in the newspaper, word would come of “big money” that was going to be invested by some “rich oil man” and Old Abilene Town would be “on the map”.
What happened? I ask that more rhetorically than anything else. I know the answer: America changed. It used to be that there were lots of “roadside” attractions that people would go visit on their summer vacation. “World’s Largest Ball of Twine and/or Phlegm” and so forth. I think a lot of this came because America was still new to the automobile, but the roads weren’t very good. So, if you were loading the family into the old flivver for a “summer of fun” you really didn’t want to have to go out that far, if you didn’t have to. A family from, for instance, Leuders-Avoca, might drive the first day to Abilene and see Old Abilene Town after fixing the flats they had incurred; then, the next day, it would be on to Cisco, Texas, where—after fixing more flats*—they’d spend the night in Conrad Hilton’s first hotel before lazing away a day or two in the “world’s biggest swimming pool”**.
Now, though, our cars go 75 miles an hour with no problem and, so, we’re willing to go a lot further afield for these trips. At least, we were until gas topped $3 and all our disposable income got fined away because we refused to buy an insurance policy that’s worse than the one we used to pay less for.
* I have a letter my grandfather wrote my grandmother when they were courting in which he states that the drive from Haskell to Throckmorton (40 miles) had been a good one because he made it in two hours and only had to fix three flats.
** Cisco, Texas, really did have both of these things at one time.