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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Letters from Central Texas"

Granger Through The Years

by Clay Coppedge
Vintage photos from the Martinets Collection
Dan Martinets used to walk along the railroad tracks running through the heart of his hometown, Granger, and dream of getting on one of those trains and never coming back.

That was in the 1920s, when both Granger and Martinets were young and in their prime. Now Granger would seem to be yet another small town with a great future behind it and Martinets has passed on; he died two days before Christmas last year.
Abandoned tracks west of Granger Texas
Abandoned tracks west of Granger
TE Photo 2004
Dan Martinets knew Granger in its heyday. He knew photographer John Trlica and he knew King Cotton and the Katy railroad. He saw the town rise and fall and grew to love it after a decades-long absence. He became the town’s unofficial historian and goodwill ambassador. For anyone who cares about how we got where we are today or who has a soft-spot for kind-hearted old gentlemen, he will be missed.
Granger TX Dan Martinets and father on airplane
Baby Dan Martinets (on hood) was already absorbing Granger history in the late 1920s
* *
Granger basically emerged full-blown from the Blackland Prairie in eastern Williamson County when the Houston and San Antonio branches of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad – commonly referred to as the Katy – intersected where Granger sits today. The main street of the new town was named Davilla, for a nearby community. The town’s first unofficial mayor was H. B Wright, who sold lots for Captain A.S. Fischer and proclaimed, “Granger is sure to be a town.”
Davilla Street awaiting a parade (Looking west - city hall building on right.)
The men who laid out the city had a grand vision of what the town could become. They made Davilla Street 100-feet wide, eventually stretching the town west of the railroad tracks. Because the Blackland dirt that was such a blessing for farmers was such a liability in town when it rained, the city took on the task of bricking Davilla Street in 1912. The wide brick street set the town apart from others in the area. The Granger News declared: “Granger is said to boast the distinction of being the only city in the state, of less than 5,000 inhabitants, that has paved streets or is in the process of paving them.”
Granger Bank Texas
Granger's (now) historic bricks on the west side of town.
TE photo
Granger’s brick streets were recognized on May 7, 2005 with a Texas Historical Marker. Martinets was there and spoke at the ceremony, but the driving force behind the effort to have the streets officially recognized was the late Loretta Mikulencak, an astute and dedicated local historian who passed away in 2003, two years before the official designation. She provided all the documentation for the marker to the Texas Historical Commission.

Many of the original bricks were gone by the time the historical marker was unveiled. Water lines destroyed some and the Texas Department of Transportation tarred and paved part of the street when it became part of FM 971. About a block-and-a-half of West Davilla is still bricked.

Mikulencak, in pushing for the designation, wrote the historical commission that bestowing historical status on 600 feet of brick would in itself be insignificant.

She wrote: “The true value of such a designation lies in the recognition and affirmation of the efforts of those early pioneers and the township they created; validifying the most basic fact: that they once lived and built a great community. Without such recognition, their era would be lost to history, as if they and the town they founded had never been.”

One of the people who helped make true the founders’ grand vision for the town was A.W. Storrs, who constructed the Storrs Opera House at the corner of Davilla and Granger Streets just after the turn-of-the-century. An elaborate, two-story brick structure, the Storrs Opera House became a cultural center on the prairie, drawing the Chicago Opera Company and other top-flight entertainment to the Blacklands. Ella Storrs, A.W.’s wife, founded the “Eat, Drink and Be Merry Club” and started the drive for Granger’s city clock. She donated many hours caring for the city cemetery, where she, A.W. Storrs and their four children are buried.

In later years, the Storrs Opera House was utilized as a stage for school activities and later housed a weekly newspaper and various repair shops. The building was eventually torn down to make room for a parking lot, a fact that Dan Martinets never quite got over.

“My God, you can put a parking lot anywhere,” he groused. “Why tear down one of the town’s most beautiful buildings for anything, much less a parking lot?”

By 1909 Granger had a modern electric power and light plant and was at the center of one of the top cotton-producing areas in the state. Williamson County produced 89,237 bales of cotton during the 1899-1900 ginning season, more than any other county in the state.

But farmers asked too much of the rich Blackland dirt and planted too much cotton. After the boll weevil hit Williamson County in 1923, King Cotton was on its way to being a pauper. By the late 1930s, the county had become the top corn-producing county in the state.
Granger Officials in 1936 sending miniature bales of cotton to Texas Centennial
Granger Officials in 1936 sending miniature bales of cotton to the Texas Centennial
In 1938, leaders of the Texas Grange, the East Texas Chamber of Commerce and Texas A&M agencies joined forces to stage the Corn Carnival, the first one ever held south of the Mason-Dixon Line. About 20,000 people showed up, most of them by automobile; the railroad was still the preferred method of shipping, but the car had replaced the train as America’s favored means of travel.
* *
Granger TX Trlica Wedding
John Trlica's wedding photo taken by Martinet's Studio
Granger photographer John Trlica chronicled the Corn Carnival, along with nearly every major event that took place in Granger from 1924, when he opened his photography studio, until it closed in the mid-50s.
A collection of Trlica’s pictures are collected in Barbara McCandless’ excellent book “Equal before the Lens: Jno. Trlica’s Photographs of Granger, Texas.”

Martinets, whose grandfather first employed Trlica on the farm when he arrived in Granger, said he was stunned to see the book’s cover with a picture of a young Hispanic boy with long thick black hair holding an ear of corn.

"The boy's name was Louis Escobedo,” Martinets said. He was quite the little rascal. You’d hear a big whoop and it would be Louis chasing one of his brothers down the street.”
(See Update - Editor)

The ear of corn was deemed worthy of inclusion in the photo because it bore a sign of the cross, which Louis’s father, Jose Escobedo, believed foretold of a great war. This was nine years before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, but about the same time Hitler was coming to power in Germany.

Equal before the Lens book cover

“The Martinets family was to become very important in Trlica’s growth, influencing his life in the church, in retail business, and, most importantly, in photography,” McCandless wrote. “Trlica’s belief in photography as something that should be available to everyone, not just the upper class, set him apart in his day.”

Martinets agreed with assessment. “For his time, I guess you would have to say he was avante garde,” he said. “He photographed Black folks, Hispanic folks. He might not have known it but he probably took pictures of the Ku Klux Klan too.”

Raymond Trlica's 8th Birthday party in Granger Texas
Raymond Trlica's 8th Birthday
TE Archives
Trlica kept his prices low to make sure the people of his little town could afford his services. The foundation of his business was portraits made from four-by-five inch glass plate negatives with a postcard layout on the other side. These could be sent through the mail, like a postcard. He sold half a dozen of these portraits for a dollar.

Granger’s town and social scenes provided the subject matter for most of Trlica’s postcards and functioned as advertising for local businesses, including his own. His influence didn’t extend far beyond Granger’s city limits but because of that he was able to chronicle in photographs an almost complete history of the town.

Trlica saved more than 15,000 film and glass plate negatives, several hundred prints and bits and pieces of studio equipment. Even more remarkable, he saved his original studio ledgers, which helped identify and date the images.
Granger TX J.F. Martinets Family
The J.F. Martinets Family
GrangerTX JF Martinet Store Delivery
The Martinet's Store Delivery Hack
Granger TX Mayor F.E. Martinet 1934
Mayor F. E. Martinets in 1934
Dan Martinets’ father appears in several of the book’s photographs. One man in a picture with Martinets’ father was a man that he remembered becoming a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

“He represented Granger in Washington,” Martinets recalled. “One day you would see him driving to market with a couple of filthy, squealing pigs in his car. The next thing you know, he’s riding a limousine in Washington.” With Martinets gone, there’s no one left in Granger with those kinds of memories, and Granger is poorer for it.
* *
Dan eventually bought that one-way ticket out of town and spent most of his adult life working in the production end of the advertising department at Neiman-Marcus in Dallas. “It was an interesting life,” he said of his Dallas years. “You got to see how the wealthy people lived.”

When he retired, he headed toward Padre Island because, after careful consideration, he had decided to spend his retirement years as a beach bum. He stopped at his mother’s house on his way to the coast, but she slipped and broke her hip while he was there, and Martinets stayed on to look after her. She died in 1998, at the age of 104.
Granger City Hall, Texas
Granger's Moorish City Hall
TE Photo
Journalist Dick Reavis, who lived in Granger for a number of years knew Martinets and when the Troessers of Texas Escapes Online Magazine inquired about Granger's distinctive city hall, the staff called Dan directly. Somewhere along the line, Dan, as unofficial historian, was given the (equally unofficial) sobriquet "The Lone Granger" - a name that Dan sometimes used on his correspondence.

Not long after the Troessers’ visit, I dropped by Martinets’ place to visit. He talked about John Trlica, about a firebug who set fire to many of the town’s old wooden buildings and a double-murder and a runaway bride. He shared his memories of Hollywood actors Rip Torn and Sissy Spacek, native Texans who spent a good part of their respective childhoods visiting Mary Spacek’s house across the street from where Martinets lived.

“It was the first two-story house in Granger,” Martinets said. “That was very exciting to a kid.”

Martinets remembered Rip Torn as a little boy who would occasionally challenge Mary Spacek’s patience. “He had a little yellow scooter he drove like mad. His grandmother (Mary Spacek) would yell out, ‘Slow down, Skippy! Slow down!”

As might be imagined, Skippy rarely heeded the warning.

Torn presided over Granger’s Lakefest in 1986, not long after he received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of the farmer Marsh Turner in “Cross Creek.”

Though Torn doesn’t make it back to Granger as often as he used to, Martinets remembered when he flew back to Texas from Spain, where he was playing Judas in “King of Kings,” to attend Mary Spacek’s funeral.

“I remember him going up and kissing the casket,” he said. “I remember that because it was such a touching, human moment. It was genuine. He wasn’t acting.”
Spacek family headstone

The Spacek family headstone
TE Photo

Sissy Spacek appeared at Lakefest the year before Torn, her cousin, had the honor. She had just won an Academy Award for her performance as Loretta Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Like Torn, she served as Grand Marshal and received a proclamation from the state declaring May 11, 1985 as “Sissy Spacek Day.”

Spacek’s father, A.E. Spacek, was with his daughter at the 1985 Lake Fest and spoke to a reporter with mixed emotions about his old hometown.

“It’s the same story to be found in all small towns which used to be agriculturally important,” he said. “Now they’re dependent on industry and they’re in trouble…This is the friendliest, most wholesome town I know. This is a great little community. These people never give up – no way – and I’m proud to call it my hometown.”
* *
San Gabrial River meets Granger Lake, Granger Texas

Where the San Gabriel River meets Granger Lake
TE Photo

A lot happened in Granger during Martinets’ absence. Perhaps the most significant thing to happen was the construction of a dam on the San Gabriel River that created Granger Lake. The river has always had a tendency to flood, especially when low-pressure systems park themselves west of the Balcones Escarpment. A monumental 1921 flood made a dam on the San Gabriel a priority in Williamson County.

In September of ’21 a hurricane made landfall at Tampico, Mexico, roared through South Texas and stalled over Central Texas, dumping 38.21 inches of rain on the town of Thrall in 24 hours; to put it in perspective, Central Texas averages about 32 inches of rainfall in a year. More than 200 Texans drowned in that flood, including 92 in Williamson County. Livestock, bridges, houses, churches, stores, barns and people – all washed away.

That the building of the dams would turn into one of the most contentious issues to ever shake Williamson County could hardly have been imagined at the time. Over the next few decades, the controversy would erupt into something of a Williamson County Civil War that literally pitted brother against brother and neighbor against neighbor.

In those early days of talk about damming the river, most people assumed the dam or dams would be built in the western part of the county because the eastern end, around Granger, had some of the state’s most productive farmland. That’s why it came as such a shock in 1948 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it had decided to build one big dam, at Laneport, near Granger.
A local landmark, the Hoxie House burned in the 1930s
Ultimately, two dams were built, one in the western end of the county that created Lake Georgetown, and one in the eastern end that formed Granger Lake. Granger Dam and Lake was dedicated in 1978, more than five decades after the 1921 flood and 21 years after a similar flood in 1957. It began operating in 1980. More than 200 Blackland farms, along with whole communities like Friendship, disappeared under the waters of the new lake.

The long and ultimately decisive battle over the dams is detailed in Linda Scarbrough’s outstanding 2005 book, “Road, River, And Ol’ Boy Politics: A Texas County’s Path from Farm to Suburb.”

One of the people Scarbrough talked to for her book was Loretta Mikulencak. Aside from being an outstanding local historian, Mikulencak served as Granger’s school tax assessor and collector for many years; she saw the impacts of the lake from several perspectives.
Granger City Council (Date Unknown)
Granger City Council 1934
Granger City Officers 1931-32
“The Corps offered certain people high dollar for their land, but everyone was at their mercy,” she told Scarbrough. “The chief damage to Granger was getting those (Czech) families out of there; they were stable farm families who had inherited their land and they were not going to leave. They never recovered… They just died, one by one. And the worst of it was that it made us bitter; it made us what we weren’t. It made us different people.”
* *
Granger TX Martinets Store Today
The Martinets Store in 2000
These days, Granger keeps getting referred to by big-city types as one of the state’s “best kept secrets.” The Cotton Club in downtown Granger has been called that, but its hard to think of it as too big a secret on certain Saturday nights when the place is packed with people dining, dancing and drinking.

Even on certain weekdays Granger can be just this side of bustling. Though I don’t live in Granger, I have a Granger address and some of the affairs of daily living often take me there. I can say without fear or favor that the people I know and encounter in Granger are among the friendliest and most down-to-earth people you are going to find in Central Texas.

In recent years, Granger has served as the setting for several movies, including a documentary on the Newton Boys, the Hollywood productions of “When Zachary Beaver Came To Town,” “The Return” and parts of the Spike Lee movie, “25th Hour.”
DVD

“We may be poor but at least we’re picturesque,” Martinets once remarked.

The battle over the dams is but a distant memory to even the old-timers; now people in the Blacklands see the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor as the biggest threat to Granger and the other little towns on Highway 95 like Bartlett, Holland and Little River-Academy.

The exact route of TTC-35, the first segment of a proposed series of six-lane highways cris-crossing the state, has not yet been finalized but one proposal shows TTC-35 running through, or at least very close to, Granger.

While Granger has accepted Granger Lake, as its annual Granger Lake Fest shows, it’s hard to imagine any future celebrations over the corridor, especially if it wipes out the town. The scope and time frame of the corridor are so immense as to make the very idea seem almost abstract, but Granger knows better than most towns how imaginary lines on a map can turn into the next life-altering reality.

Whatever happens to Granger in the future, good or ill, there are some of us who can’t help but think what a shame it is that people like Loretta Mikulencak and Dan Martinets won’t be around to tell future generations about it.

© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
October 3, 2008 Column

See Letter of Correction on the book Equal before the Lens

Order Book
Granger: Texas' Best Kept Secret

By Clay Coppedge
Photos by Leroy Williamson
$9.95
122 total pages (Softcover) 5 1/2 X 8 1/2 format
Visit www.alpub.us for ordering information.

The book can also be ordered by sending a check for $12.95 (price includes shipping and handling) to:
Old American Publishing
14027 Memorial Dr. #159
Houston, TX 77079
Granger by Clay Coppedge book cover

The Granger Chronicles

According to Dan Martinets, The Lone Granger:
  • The Tailor and the Hideaway Bride
  • The Double Murder in Granger, 1934
  • "Rip" Torn and "Sissy" Spacek Cousins from Granger
  • Polly want a Galleta?
    More
  • John Trlica by Clay Coppedge
    "Every picture tells a story only as long as people know the story.
    A visit with Dan Martinets is in order if you want the story on the photographs collected in the book "Equal before the Lens: Jno. Trlica's Photographs of Granger, Texas" by Barbara McCandless..."

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