Highway 121 will be the yellow brick road to Johnson County, but there ain’t no Emerald City.
(Published in FW Weekly on: May 10, 2001)
It was, they would later remember, a most unpleasant evening. The weather was hot and muggy and emotions were running high. Then-Mayor Katherine Raines and the members of the Cleburne City Council sat, some squirming in their seats, facing a crowd that grew bigger and bigger by the minute. The angry residents (voters) came singly and by the bunch, sometimes whole church congregations, packed into the town’s senior citizens’ center, where the meeting had been moved to accommodate the crowd. They had come to face down a serious threat to their community’s safety, values and well-being — an Applebee’s restaurant.
The restaurant chain’s big-city lawyers seemed stunned. So, too, did the few brave souls who were about to put their social lives and reputations on the line to speak on Applebee’s behalf.
To the majority who were there that night, a group highly representative of the town itself, the threat was real. Applebee’s, part of a big, out-of-state chain, had asked the city to grant it a license to sell liquor as a private club. Liquor … cocktails and wine and beer … at a restaurant … in Cleburne? One by one, they stood to denounce the petition and threaten dire consequences for any council member who dared vote yes. The remarks culminated with a surreal monologue by former English teacher La Rue Barnes, a Republican Womens Club officer and wannabe writer. “I like to think of Cleburne as Mayberry,” Barnes said, straight faced and to all appearances deadly serious. “We don’t want to be Arlington, or Mansfield,” Barnes declared. She received a standing ovation.
Small Texas cities like Cleburne don’t suffer change lightly. In Cleburne, as with Mayberry – or the fictional land of Oz, for that matter – image is everything. It is a place where the three-story-plus-clocktower courthouse is the tallest building; parking downtown for an hour still costs 5 cents; and the streets are deserted on autumnal Friday nights because the Cleburne Yellow Jackets are playing football.
Everybody knows everybody, here, or thinks they do, and who your grandpa was still matters. The churches on nearly every corner, the charming courthouse square, the friendly “everybody knows your name” atmosphere – are what is. Anything that doesn’t fit is disregarded or ignored. Like shopping for lingerie, drinking liquor is something that is best left for behind closed doors or a trip to Fort Worth. In Cleburne, if you dare to say in public that there’s no sin in drinking an occasional beer with your nachos, you’re taking a serious chance of getting kicked out of church and run out of town.
That summer night at the senior citizens’ center, Applebee’s request for a private club license was denied by a unanimous vote of the council, on the grounds that the site – not near a school or church – was too close to the county’s Mental Health/Mental Retardation offices. Applebee’s didn’t come to Cleburne. And five years later, neither has Bennigan’s, or Chili’s, Steak ‘n’ Ale, The Blackeyed Pea or any other big-name restaurant. No Holiday Inn, either, or Ramada Inn, or Howard Johnson’s, or other national hotel chain. Cleburne is still Cleburne.
That’s probably why it is so discordant to hear so many high-rolling Cleburnites pinning their hopes on a two-lane stretch of concrete known as Texas Highway 121 — the yellow brick road that will link Fort Worth and Cleburne and, they are sure, be the highway to a better, more prosperous, more fulfilling future for everyone. “Highway 121 will be a big boost to the Fort Worth, Cleburne and Johnson County economies,” says current Cleburne Mayor Tom Hazlewood. “There is no doubt. The way things are right now, it limits the economy. The highway will take care of that. All sides will win in this equation.”
In the future they foresee, workers will have a quicker route to Fort Worth and its better-paying jobs. Shoppers will have a quicker way to get to Hulen Mall. Business and industry, already eager to move to Johnson County for its lower taxes, will have a faster route to D/FW Airport. And, “the right kind” of Tarrant County families, attracted to the area’s lower taxes and “better” schools, will flock to Cleburne and the rest of Johnson County, filling upscale housing developments and providing a windfall for local businesses.
That infusion of money and outsiders also will inevitably lead Cleburne into a dance with the Devil – in the form of wine tastings, margarita swirls and Superbowl beer chugs.
Welcome to the next Plano.
If Cleburne is Mayberry – Mayberry LSD, maybe – Johnson County is as close to Oz as you get, in Texas. Still mostly rural with an inferiority complex about its place in the Metroplex, it collectively wants what other North Texas counties have without giving up what it’s already got. Coming back to the city after a visit there can be a little disorienting, like coming home after a trip to a strange foreign land, peopled by odd inhabitants with quirky qualities. Every stop – Burleson, Joshua, Godley, Alvarado, Venus, Rio Vista, Keene – along this corridor to another dimension has its own brand of strangeness. Remember the move to put gym shorts on Burleson High’s anatomically correct elk statue?
Then, there’s Grandview, where the mayor, angry with the police chief for confiscating her hubby’s fighting chickens and issuing him a $50 citation, led an effort to have the chief fired. The chief sued and at a recent council meeting, his lawyer — who was 7 1/2 months pregnant – was punched in the stomach by one of the mayor’s best friends, a woman who has reason to dislike the chief herself, since he was partially responsible for her brother being sent to prison for capital murder. And, that was just one week’s happenings.
But Cleburne — a city named after a Confederate Civil War general who, some outside historians believe, might have been involved in a love affair with one of his men – is the most peculiar of them all. There are more characters per square foot than any other American town that comes readily to mind. It is a town in which Republic of Texas followers, a judge with a Pink Panther fetish, and a schizophrenic flying saucer abductee all fit right in. It’s a place where dirty laundry is everybody’s business, where a quarter of the people are either in jail, about to be in jail or on probation, and where black and Hispanic residents are presumed to be “content” to work for substandard wages and live in shacks and even packing crates on the “other side” of the tracks, seen but not heard.
As everywhere, sexual escapades are common in Cleburne, but here they are common knowledge, known but never alluded to except when necessary to censure socially whichever woman is involved. Good ol’ boy business dealings and political favors are accepted practice. Petty crime is overlooked and many people on the street can tell you where to buy stolen merchandise or who the local drug dealers are. In Cleburne, the head of a county agency can embezzle money and run off with a 15-year-old girlfriend; a county employee can be caught in a compromising position with his secretary on his office floor – and not get fired; a disgraced lawyer can buy big billboards to announce he’s out of jail and back in town; or a former football star can roam around waving a gun, wreck his car in a drunken stupor, openly sell drugs from his business and show up stoned to meet his probation officer four times before finally getting busted – and nobody thinks much of it.
Although he was born there and grew up in nearby Burleson, Rex McGee swears he didn’t really accept Cleburne’s more surreal qualities until he and his fiance went to the Johnson County Courthouse to obtain a marriage license. “No blood test, no AIDS screening. All we had to do is raise our hands and swear we weren’t related,” he says. “We just looked at each other and tried not to laugh.”
“Cleburne does that to you,” says McGee, an entertainment journalist and screenwriter (Pure Country) who divides his time between his hometown and Hollywood. “You get to the point where you don’t know if everyone else is crazy, or you are. … And, if that’s normal, you don’t want to be normal.”
He got in hot water recently for writing a letter to area newspapers making light of the county’s “dry” status and some residents’ determination that it stay that way.
“My wife and I went to the Chili’s in [the Tarrant County portion of] Burleson the other day and I couldn’t believe it – a restaurant that’s not all-you-can-eat?” he says, laughing. “Of course, we don’t want that kind of thing in Cleburne. We’re not that kind of town. … I’ve never seen so many people so proud of mediocrity.”
Deluded or not, high-rolling Cleburnites believe Highway 121 is the magic passage that will bring the city to a whole new way of life. Many, though they won’t say it on the record, admit to believing newcomers will overthrow the old “dry” regime and lure those big-city restaurants and hotels. In fact, seven businesses recently applied for private club licenses and another probably long and contentious city council meeting is scheduled for Jan 26.
George Marti isn’t shy about commenting, however. Marti, who has been involved with the 121 project since he was mayor in the late ’70s and early ’80s, owns much of the town, has put untold numbers of its children through college, and has nothing to fear from people who have made a tradition out of sucking up to him. “If you go back just nine years, Johnson County’s population was 63,000. Now, it’s 120,000 and growing every day,” he says. “When your population doubles, there are probably gonna be changes. When it doubles again, imagine the changes that will come.”
Seventy-something, with thick glasses, still dark hair and a wardrobe to match your typical Cleburne old-timer – twill pants, plaid shirts and white socks – Marti’s old geezer act is a cover for a sharp mind. The founder and still part-owner of local radio station KCLE, he is the inventor of the remote pickup system, otherwise known as a “marti,” a device that allows radio stations to do remote broadcasts without a telephone line. It is in use at 80 percent of the radio stations in the world, Marti says. Until he sold the company two years ago, George Marti was its sole manufacturer.
Change is coming and people need to get ready for it, Marti says. “In other words, you will never have a top-quality restaurant in Cleburne until you can have one with a bar or at least a private club licensed to sell liquor,” he says. “The people who are against it don’t even understand what the facts are. They’ll go to Fort Worth and eat in a restaurant that has a bar. Now, that’s all right, but not in Cleburne. I give them a rough time about it, taking Cleburne money and spending it in Fort Worth.”
Drive to Cleburne (29 miles south as the crow flies or an hour on the road from downtown Fort Worth) any weekday afternoon and you’ll understand why people there are anxious to see 121 come their way – so anxious, in fact, that they built a loop around the city in anticipation that the proposed new road would be funded. You must go south on I-35W, past Loop 820 and the Miller plant and Crowley and Everman, to the Burleson/Texas Highway 174 exit. Over the bridge, you will enter the four-lane slice of driving hell that will take you to your destination.
A few years back, the joke in Burleson goes, somebody’s brother-in-law – maybe the same guy who persuaded the chamber of commerce to declare the city the Crepe Myrtle Capitol of Texas and then sold them a truckload of dying bushes — must have had a job peddling streetlights. In the two- to three-mile stretch of Texas 174 that passes through the city, there are no fewer than nine stoplights — almost one per block. Dodging the cars and trucks darting to and from the businesses along the road, and the drivers who believe the turn-only lane is a free zone for them to drive in until they can slip into traffic, is also part of the fun. The result is an almost constant traffic quagmire that has motorists creeping along at 15 mph or slower.
Beyond Burleson, before the new subdivisions or the country club and its meager golf course, you will pass a dairy and realize you have left the city behind. No farm buildings will be visible, but you will know that plenty of cows live nearby. Like your fellow motorists, you will hold your breath and speed up, even if it means riding the bumper of the car just ahead.
Down the road is the burg of Joshua, known to the dwindling population of natives as “Josh-uh-way.” To a traveler passing through it on the recently widened six laner, Joshua appears to be nothing more than used-car lots, a couple of burger joints and lots of schools. Someone in city government here, too, must have had a relative in the stoplight business because there are six along this stretch of 174. The traffic is a little lighter, although this is where you will begin to meet the creeping farm tractors and pickups with livestock trailers attached that will slow you down even more.
Just as Joshua peters out, one reaches the city limits of Cleburne. The first thing one will see are the auto dealerships with their acres of shiny new cars and – on three out of four – the Forrest family name. (Clint Forrest, whose father founded the dealerships, is active on the Chamber of Commerce’s Highway 121 and transportation committees. He did not return numerous calls requesting an interview and refused to be photographed for this story.)
Past the car lots, before the cattle auction barn and its neighboring steakhouse, you will see Second Chances, the only private club in the city selling memberships so its patrons can buy alcohol. Don’t be seen stopping there. Several stoplights later, you will be experiencing Tarrant County dejà vu, crawling along in heavy traffic, passing a couple of Victorian-era houses and the dozens of fast-food joints that were responsible for the destruction of many more. Downtown Cleburne, when you finally get there, will seem charming, even without the cut-rate casket store that used to grace one corner of the square. The courthouse, built in 1912, is more architecturally intriguing than the famous one in nearby Granbury. There are also some nice, restored 19th century buildings among the deteriorating, empty ones. Down one street sits the old Carnegie Library, now the home of the amateur theater company and a museum – the only museum in Texas, maybe the world, that was started by a plumber – that boasts one of the state’s most complete Civil War collections.
Most of the houses you will see on your way through town are old and many are shabby, although there are some interesting specimens of prairie Victorian architecture, including a couple of bed-and-breakfasts. What you won’t see, unless you look hard, are the dilapidated frame houses and dismal tenements on the east side, or the many brick mansions on the west side. Most of the new businesses and almost all of the thriving ones are on U.S. Highway 67 (Henderson Street) on the west side, just a couple of miles from where 121 will merge onto Loop 267.
Looking down Cleburne’s Main Street at its tackiest point – the auto salvage yard, the pawn shops, the lumber company with its piles of recycled toilets, bathtubs, concrete and boards – it’s hard to picture anything resembling Plano, here … ever. Plano is one of the state’s most affluent communities (median income $58,000) and, with 206,000 residents and counting, the fifth-fastest growing city in the United States. People move to Collin County looking for a better life in a place where the economy is booming. It is safe, taxes are low, the schools are the best in North Texas, and the “right kind” of people live there.
But Plano wasn’t always the suburban fantasyland – streets too clean, lawns too manicured, homes too perfect, too huge, too castle-like – that it has become. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, before the expansion of another highway, the Dallas North Tollway, made it (along with Carrollton and The Colony) another stop on an urban traffic artery, it was a small farming community of 3,500, situated among the cotton and alfalfa fields. A lot like Cleburne, it was mostly Baptist, mostly poor and 100 percent “dry.” There wasn’t much to do there except have a Coke at the Dairy Queen and ride up and down the strip.
Now Plano is home to the corporate offices of Electronic Data Systems, J.C. Penney, Frito-Lay, Dr Pepper/Seven Up, Fina Oil and many others. Southfork Ranch, where fictional millionaire oilman J.R. Ewing did his wheeling and dealing, borders the town. The west side – near the Tollway – is dotted by strip malls, shopping centers, fancy restaurants, gated communities and guarded cul-de-sacs. Locally owned businesses are rare, replaced by high-dollar franchises and upscale chain stores. The old downtown, now filled mostly with antique stores and craft shops, and the older neighborhoods that surround it are, as in Cleburne, on the east side of town.
Fast-forward to the future. “I can see nice housing additions, name-brand restaurants, a shopping mall – maybe with a Foley’s and a Dillard’s in it,” says Nell Dixon, dreamily closing her eyes. Then, apparently remembering who and where she was, the Cleburne Chamber of Commerce Director adds a disclaimer, “Or maybe Nolan River Road will be expanded and our mall will be enlarged with new stores in it. I’d like to see businesses that are already here, the ones who have stuck with us through thick and thin, profit from it rather than have these big chains come in and take away from what we have.”
Dixon is a relative newcomer to Cleburne, where not being born there makes you an outsider for life. A long-time Lone Star Gas Co. employee who lived in Arlington for 27 years before moving to Cleburne eight years ago, she says, “I was surprised at the Fort Worth people who were afraid that the highway would cause people to move out and hurt the inner city. The highway is a two-way street, you know.”
To Johnson County politicians, business owners and civic leaders, the potential newcomers look green – not the green of naivete, but the green of money. Attracting these people is the key to a better, more prosperous, more mainstream future. The only thing that stands in the way, they all believe, is bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Whether Highway 121 will ease that crunch is up for debate, but one thing’s sure: the project is a “done deal.” Just ask Fort Worth Mayor Kenneth Barr, who has told opponents the road will go through, even though the City Council hasn’t really voted on it yet. One needs only to scan a list of the names of those who stand to benefit from its construction – landowners Bass, Hillard, Rainwater and Edwards, and politicians Granger and Geren – to know that this yellow-striped highway to a hellacious growth is going to happen.
“I think  is gonna be the biggest thing to happen to this town in this century,” says Lloyd Moss, director of the Johnson County Economic Development Commission and a consultant for the Cleburne Economic Development Foundation.
“It will have the most dynamic impact on people and business of anything for years and years. It just opens up another avenue for us. I see a dramatic effect, a change in the schematics of Johnson County.”
A former Cleburne city manager, Moss is the man who helps attract industry to the county. Leaning back in his chair, looking out through the doors of his office at the Cleburne Civic Center, Moss declares 121, in combination with the already-begun expansion of Texas 360 to the Cleburne loop, a boon not just to Tarrant and Johnson counties but to the counties to the west, as well. “It will be the beginning of a new Johnson County, and Parker and Somervell and Hood,” he says. “My prediction is that we’re going to see major growth in that whole area, particularly if we get the road situation put together. The last 10 years were very interesting, but the next 10 years will be a lot more interesting.”
While talking up the idea of growth, prosperity and money, money, money, however, Cleburne’s movers and shakers refuse to consider the possibility that such a thing could happen in their town. To Mayor Tom Hazlewood, even questioning the idea of encouraging growth is foolish. So is expecting another Plano to arise in this former railroad town to the south. “Will this become the next Plano? More likely the next McKinney, with a thriving economy but a more rural atmosphere,” he says with a sniff. “Cleburne will still be Cleburne.”
Hazlewood, a commercial real estate developer who is former manager of Cleburne-headquartered Rangeaire Corp., does not tolerate foolishness. “Wages in Cleburne will not be in the Plano price range,” he says. “The average worker in Plano now makes twice the average for a worker in Johnson County. Wages will go up here, but they won’t go up so much they discourage business from coming down here.”
It is ironic that Cleburne’s pro-121 leadership cites as positives all the things that Fort Worth City Council member Cathy Hirt and her neighbors have listed as reasons not to build the turnpike – urban sprawl, increased commuter traffic, upscale flight to the suburbs. It’s already happening. Johnson County has become the destination of choice for more and more Tarrant County residents looking for a little country living. Every weekend, by the hundreds they flock down I-35W to scope out the idyllic new subdivisions with their $100,000-$300,000 brick homes.
They oooh and aaah over the cows grazing in nearby pastures and buy into the tales about better air, better schools, a better way of life. To say that both sides are deluded could prove to be an understatement.
“This just seemed so perfect, like a movie about an old-fashioned, all-American small town,” says one new Cleburne resident, a refugee from Newark, New Jersey, via Fort Worth. “We thought we’d found a way of life that would be freer, more laid-back. The first week, we’d been moving and we were all sweaty and hot, so I ran down to pick up a six-pack. I found out we were in a whole different world.”