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Abilene My Abilene

An accident of fate landed this writer in Abilene for some of the best times of her life.

The truth is, I never wanted to move to Abilene. I just landed there by default after the 9/11 terrorist attacks pretty much obliterated my chances of getting in with a big metro newspaper in the fall of 2001.

I had just returned from more than a year in the Czech Republic when the New York towers got hit. And with the economy the way it was, any American with a job was a fortunate American. So when I got the offer to work at the Abilene newspaper, I put on a smile and headed to this town in the middle of nowhere that the young folks like to call “Drabilene.”

From the start, Abilene surprised me. Though I first visited after a snowstorm, and the roads were treacherous, my drive through town was pleasant. On the way downtown, I cruised up Sayles Boulevard, lined by grand older homes, and crossed the railroad tracks. There, I found a beautifully restored downtown with well-kept sidewalks, red brick buildings, parks and, despite the snow, a few pedestrians. The city center looked newer, shinier and more alive compared to some Texas cities of similar size.

I ended up living in Abilene for three years. I now view my time there as some of the best of my life.

Why?

Maybe I get a bang out of time travel. There were moments in Abilene when it seemed I had beamed back to another dimension—1950s rural Texas. A farmer wearing overalls and a baseball cap would walk into some downtown café. A vintage Thunderbird would roar up to me at a stoplight. The “Chicken Dance” became one of my dancehall favorites.

I also appreciated the slower pace of life. Today, I most value the kind people and friendships I formed there. Abilene has no monopoly on friendliness but is indeed a friendlier place than most.

I also admire the tenacious spirit of Abilene. It knows all about resurrection, and not just because it has three private, religiously affiliated universities and numerous churches educating its population.

In August 1881, months after a town lot sale helped establish Abilene along a Texas & Pacific Railway route through West Texas, a fire destroyed much of the town’s new business district. The local newspaper editor, whose own facility was burned by the blaze, predicted that, “Phoenix-like,” the city would return.

Abilene and affected downtown businesses did rise from the ashes, more than once. Two years after the fire, Abilene wrested the county seat from Buffalo Gap, a town to its south, paving the way for Abilene to become the commercial and cultural hub of a 17-county region.

Abilene took another blow with the 1980s oil bust, but a commitment to downtown revitalization brought Abilene back to life.

Preserved partly by remoteness—the city is 150 miles west of Dallas-Fort Worth—Abilene remains an authentic stronghold of rustic cowboy culture accented by a surprising splash of modern sophistication and appreciation for the arts. What was uncharted territory for settlers in the 19th century is now a new frontier, this time explored by travelers seeking both contemporary Texas culture and the last true remnants of a vanishing Old West.

Genuine and Beautiful

Dr. Donald Frazier, professor of history at McMurry University in Abilene, says Fort Worth is where the West begins, but Abilene is where the West keeps going.

“You get great big skies at night and real, live cowboys going to the restaurant with you, and their spurs are jingling,” Frazier says. “There’s a sincerity about what Abilene is. There’s no pretense of being something else.”

That’s not to say the townspeople don’t work to impress their guests.

Crape myrtles greeting visitors around town are as colorful as the story behind them. In 1997, Abilene Clean and Proud committed to selling 5,000 of them to help beautify the city. Janet Ardoyno, who was involved with the project, got the idea to promote it by using a series of billboards that gave a new twist to an old saying: “Myrtle’s coming. Get your beds ready.”

Billboards went up, each with a silhouette of a fancy lady wearing a big hat. They were supposed to bear the project slogan, but the “s” was mistakenly left off of “beds” on each billboard, changing the slogan’s meaning just enough to stir an enormous controversy.

“That’s when this lady, so indignant, called the city manager and complained about the sexual connotations of this ad,” Ardoyno recalls.

Still, the beautification project caught on. That year, Abilene Clean and Proud sold more than 8,000 crape myrtles, far surpassing its goal and making a lasting mark on Abilene’s landscape.

Downtown Pizzazz

If you’re passing through town on the highway, you might not think Abilene has any pizzazz. All of the major thoroughfares bypass the city center, which should not be missed. You’ll realize you’re downtown when you see a cluster of buildings, museums, shops and parking garages, one with a green dinosaur and orange car perched on the roof.

For a population of only some 114,000, Abilene boasts an impressive lineup of downtown museums. And the artists and their art aren’t the highfalutin’, inaccessible sort.

For the full artistic flavor of this town, plan your visit to coincide with ArtWalk, the second Thursday evening of each month, when most of the museums stay open late and offer free admission. People stroll through downtown, visiting shops, cafés and art studios or perhaps taking in a film at the historic and majestic Paramount Theatre. An assortment of street performers and other characters liven the scene and may vary from artisans and dream interpreters to a one-man banjo band playing for tips.

Nearby Excursions

Artists and artisans also dwell in Buffalo Gap. I like to escape to this shady oasis to peruse its unique shops and art galleries. As in Abilene, the creators are often in plain sight—painting on canvasses, drawing with their pencils, shaping their clay, talking about what inspired each work and, of course, ringing up sales.

The Buffalo Gap Historic Village offers another chance for time travel and includes the first Taylor County courthouse and jail.

Also in Buffalo Gap is one of two Abilene-area restaurants standing out from the rest for regional fare. Aside from the obvious, the famous Perini Ranch Steakhouse dishes up delicious whiskey bread pudding.

Not far from Abilene, locals visit The Homeplace Restaurant in Tuscola for its pastoral setting and homestyle food. Here, you pass bowls of bread, salad and vegetables around the table to accompany the main course.

It’s a fun place to go for dinner on the way to The Grand Ole Oplin, a Friday night dance at an old Oplin schoolhouse gym converted into a community center. A 25-minute drive if coming straight from Abilene, it’s worth the trip for a wide range of folks who go there for country dancing and live music sans smoke or alcohol.

If you square dance, you can also kick up your heels at the Wagon Wheel dancehall back in Abilene, where the regulars gather every Saturday night. Otherwise, check out what’s going on at the Expo Center of Taylor County, which holds fairs, rodeos, concerts and other events. Or see what’s showing at the Town & Country Drive-In Theatre in Abilene.

Indeed, I found plenty to do in Abilene. Professional opportunities ultimately spurred me to Austin, but I now light up with excitement when preparing for visits back to Abilene and often find myself accidentally calling it “home.”

For more information, contact the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau in the restored T&P Depot, 1101 N. First St., at (325) 676-2556 or 1-800-727-7704.

Once a reporter for Abilene’s daily newspaper, Staci Semrad is now an Austin-based freelance writer and member of Pedernales Electric Cooperative.