Over the holidays, I spent some time working to update my website. "Places," a series of photo essays from the different cities and states I've visited, has received a refresh. You can take a look by going to http://glenncook.virb.com/places.
When I was a kid, we traveled back and forth from Texas City to Longview quite a bit to see my grandparents. It was the early to mid 1970s, and I always wanted to stop at one of the Stuckey’s that dotted parts of U.S. 59 as well as many highways in the South.
My mom, who did the driving because of my father’s illness, refused to go because she didn’t want to have a battle with her children over the thousands of tchotchkes, sweets, and knickknacks that we would want and beg her to buy. (And to be honest, she probably would have had the same battle with my dad, too.)
Now that I’m an adult and a parent, I get it. But I still have a thing for these places and have wondered how they’ve managed to survive all these years. (Buckee’s, the supersized stores that have popped up all over Texas, feel like Stuckey’s on steroids, but they don’t have the same dated charm.)
The company started in the early 1930s as a lean-to roadside shed in Eastman, Ga., as a way for founder W.S. Stuckey Sr. to sell his pecans. According to a history of the company, Florida-bound tourists on U.S. Route 23 stopped to buy the pecans, and Stuckey’s wife Ethel created a number of homemade candies to sell at the stand.
As travel on the nation’s highways became popular post-World War II, Stuckey’s expanded, eventually growing to more than 350 franchises across the nation. They frequently were paired with gas stations, restaurants, and nice clean restrooms.
By the late 1970s, the company had declined to more fewer than 75 stores, but it has slowly grown back to just over 100 franchises.
Earlier this week, I drove to South Carolina to work on a freelance feature story and saw a Stuckey’s on Interstate 95. While this little franchise was dwarfed by places like South of the Border, the familiar gas pumps and Dairy Queen were still inside. And the bathrooms were pretty clean too.
Between my birthday, the crazy winter weather, the ongoing government shutdown, and the anger over students taunting and harrassing a Native American veteran who served in Vietnam, it’s been a heckuva a week. (And that’s not counting a trip to South Carolina and a shoot at the Library of Congress.)
• Monday: Dipping a toe into the Toddler in Chief cesspool that now has kept portions of the government closed for more than three weeks: HTF (TF being exactly what you'd expect) can he justify using the phrase "humanitarian crisis" to justify his call for a border wall? Especially when it relates to anyone who is disadvantaged? Come on, even my GOP friends can see the lack of sincerity in that.
I'll just leave it there. No further explanation necessary.
Pause. Pause. Beat. Beat.
Nah. Not worth it.
• Tuesday: Quote from Hayes Carll: “I take stock of myself and the world around me and write about it. ... I understand a lot of people look to music as an escape, and it can be really upsetting when it feels like that’s disrupted. But I have a really low tolerance for the people who say ‘shut up and sing.’ It minimizes everybody’s voice. We are citizens, and we are artists.”
• Wednesday: The Mathletes are at it again, this time at last weekend’s BroadwayCon.
• Thursday: I’m now 54. Great notes and posts from family and friends far and wide. It’s enough to make someone in his early 50s feel like the cool kid from elementary school.
• Friday: Reblogged from @alicexblog, on the topic of whether it’s OK to platonically say “I love you” to your friends: “I think it’s incredibly important to express when you love someone. Tell your parents if you love them. Tell your friend who helped you through every bad break up since you were 14. Tell your fat cat. Tell them.”
• Saturday: I hope the smug looks have been wiped off the faces of the students from a Catholic school in Northern Kentucky who verbally harassed a Native American elder and other activists at the Lincoln Memorial. The students, who were wearing red Make American Great Again hats, were shown in a video that went viral mocking the elder, a Vietnam War veteran who was chanting as part of the Indigenous Peoples March.
Postscript: As always, there are two sides ot every story, and additional video has been released that shows both adults and the youth did nothing to de-escalate the situation. It's sad all around, and yet another example of how divided we've become as a country. Everyone has a position and no one is willing to listen to the other side. That's difficult to swallow.
Taking a side road and seeing where it leads you is one of my favorite things to do when traveling. Those opportunities are rare, however, and I can’t help but feel like I’m missing out on a lot every time I'm in a new place.
This was especially true during the ongoing saga of this month's 10-day trip to New England. Throughout the adventure, Mother Nature let me and everyone else know she is in everlasting charge. (No shock to the folks there I realize, but still…) The arrival of fall meant the weather ping-ponged all over the place — sunny and warm one minute, cloudy and cold the next, wet after that.
Nowhere was this in more evidence than during the 20+ hours I spent in New Hampshire, the bridge state on my trip from Vermont to Massachusetts. Traveling alone — my friend, Eric, had left Vermont early due to a death in the family — I dodged clouds and raindrops and found a couple of sunny/cloudy moments to take pictures.
These photos were taken in Sunapee and on the grounds of the Fells House, a lakeside estate that was originally the summer home of John Milton Hay, who was Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary during the Civil War and Secretary of State from 1898 to 1905.
To see more photos, go to my Facebook album here.
The fourth and final album from this month's New England adventure focuses on Cape Cod, where my wife and I stayed at a friend's beach house for two-plus days. As it was throughout the trip, the weather was flaky, with a beautiful sunset one evening and two solid days of rain that accompanied us all the way back to Boston. These photos were taken in three places: Provincetown, Wellfleet, and Hyannis.
To see more photos, go to my Facebook album here.
A true highlight of a 10-day trip that covered large parts of New England was spending an afternoon with one of my best friends seeing sites in his home state of Vermont.
Throughout the trip, the weather was decidedly unpredictable, a mashup of sun, clouds, fog, drizzle and rain. It was all three last Sunday, especially as my friend Eric Kleppinger and I approached Smugglers Notch.
Referred to as “the notch” by Vermonters, this mountain pass separates Mount Mansfield — the highest peak of the Green Mountains — from Spruce Peak and the Sterling Range. Its name comes from Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807, which prevented the U.S. from taking part in trade with Great Britain and Canada.
Vermont’s proximity to Montreal made the state a convenient trade partner, and Jefferson’s embargo — an attempt to prevent American involvement in the Napoleonic Wars — caused great hardship. Smugglers Notch was a way to carry goods and herd livestock illegally.
Over time, Smugglers Notch was used by fugitive slaves as an escape route to Canada. When the one-lane road at the peak was created for automobile traffic in 1922, it became a convenient way to smuggle liquor into the U.S. from Canada during prohibition.
Eric told me these stories as we approached the summit on an overcast Sunday morning. Fog and mist rolled in as we moved toward the notch itself. We parked and got out — the area is popular for hikers — and I took these photos.
To see more from my "Smugglers Notch" album, go here.
Earlier this week, I posted a series of photos from a recent trip to Smugglers Notch at the top of the Green Mountain in Vermont. Here are more photos I captured on the visit, showcasing the changing leaves, the beauty of the landscape, and a 1939 Hudson found in a backyard.
To see more photos from "Visiting Vermont," go to my Facebook album here.
The 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination prompted me to revisit photos from my 2012 tour of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. The museum, which opened in 1991, is located in the Lorraine Motel — where King was shot on April 4, 1968 — and various historically significant buildings in the neighborhood.
The museum chronicles the history of the Civil Rights Movement from the 17th century to the present. An exhibit that runs through this December, for example, looks at how events in 1968 are connected to today. Examples include sections looking at how King’s Poor People’s Campaign compares to Occupy Wall Street and how the Memphis sanitation worker’s strike is connected to today’s Fight for $15 minimum wage protest.
King was shot while standing on the balcony outside his hotel room, located one block off Main Street. He had come to Memphis to lead a nonviolent march that supported the sanitation worker’s strike. The hotel, which is located one block from Main Street, was long one of the top destinations for African-Americans to stay in segregated Memphis.
While I’m certain the photos in this album no longer truly capture the site today, you can see the visceral power and emotion that a tour of the National Civil Rights Museum generates. As we look at King’s legacy and struggles that remain relevant today, it is an essential place to visit if you’re ever in Memphis.
To see more, go to my Facebook album here and look for a new "Places" album coming soon.
It's a question I ask often: What happens during those in-between hours in cities that rarely sleep?
Even though I'm a night owl by nature, I find most of my best shoots take place early in the morning. There's something about getting up before everything that surrounds us starts moving again.
Last week, I was in Nashville for the second time in four months. The first was to photograph a conference, which combined with the bitter early December temperatures, gave me little time or inclination to roam around downtown.
Working on a freelance story, I didn't have much time on this trip and Mother Nature again was not cooperative. But I managed to sneak out just before 7 a.m. on a cloudy morning, just before rush hour and the rain arrived, and capture these photos on and around the strip known as Broadway.
Hope you enjoy these. To see more from this series, go to http://glenncook.virb.com/places.
One of America’s literary icons, the person responsible for high school students around the world learning about the Jazz Age, is buried in a cemetery next to a busy intersection in a Washington, D.C., suburb.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s path to the cemetery of St. Mary’s Catholic Church was as troubled, in some ways, as his life. It took 35 years for “The Great Gatsby” author, who died in 1940 at age 44, to be buried in the Fitzgerald family plot in Rockville, Md.
Fitzgerald, whose life, marriage and work have been the subject of countless books, films, and TV shows, was a notorious drinker and raconteur. But the reason he initially could not be buried in the family plot was because he was a lapsed Catholic. A parish priest said Fitzgerald’s failure to go to confession and take communion regularly was enough to keep him from being buried in “consecrated ground.”
His wife, Zelda, paid to bury Fitzgerald at the Rockville Cemetery, which is a mile from St. Mary’s. Then in a sanitarium in Asheville, N.C., Zelda did not attend the funeral. When she died 8 years later, Zelda’s casket was placed on top of her husband’s because she had only paid for one space.
In the mid 1970s, members of the Rockville Civic Improvement Advisory Commission contacted the Fitzgeralds’ only daughter, Scottie, who was living in Georgetown. Fitzgerald’s posthumous fame had grown to the point that visitors had started flocking to the cemetery and were creating a ruckus.
Scottie said her parents were meant to be buried at St. Mary’s, which by this time was happy to accept the graves. The bodies of the Fitzgeralds were moved to the family plot at the church cemetery in 1975. Zelda’s casket was again put on top of her husband’s.
A stone covering the grave has one of Gatsby’s most famous lines: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
For more photos, go to my Facebook album here.
Forty years ago today, I was sitting in the lobby of Scott White Hospital in Tyler when I heard the news: Elvis Presley was dead.
I’ve written about my family’s history with the King of Rock and Roll, but this Places entry is related to Graceland and Sun Studios in Memphis, where more than 100,000 visitors have descended to mark the annual Elvis Presley Week. I made the pilgrimage in September 2012 and took these (and countless more) images while basking in the city’s musical history.
Elvis-related tourism is worth an estimated $600 million annually to Memphis’ economy. Graceland is second only to the White House as the most visited home in the U.S. Sun Records, where Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash (among others) made their first singles, draws 160,000 visitors a year.
As a child, I didn’t get the chance to travel much during the summers. Most of our trips were to visit family in various parts of Texas — Longview, Waco, Albany — and I spent most of my time buried in a book as the landscape passed by. Other than a quick jaunt around Longview in a family friend’s plane, I didn’t fly on a commercial airline until I was in high school. (Ironically, that trip was to Washington, D.C.).
It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I started traveling quite a bit, thanks to my job and family situation. Now, it seems, I’m on the road as much as I’m at home. And my camera is always with me.
On this blog, I’ve shared almost 1,500 daily photos over the past four-plus years, and started a Places section on my website with galleries and short essays about interesting sites I see. More often than not, however, the photos I shoot are of random things that catch my eye.
Here are 20 images from the past month. To see them in a larger format, go to my Facebook album here.
While reporting and taking photos for a future story on how schools in the Greater Houston area are recovering in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, I decided to go to the George R. Brown Convention Center, the primary shelter site for the American Red Cross. Three weeks after Harvey made landfall, then dumped more than 50 inches of rain on the city and surrounding areas, the shelter still houses more than 1,000 people.
Driving down the Avenida de las Americas, the street in front of the convention center, I was struck by the colorful strips of table cloths, shower curtains and painters drop cloth that are part of Arcade, three separate installations designed by Texas artists Sunny Sliger and Marianne Newsom of The Color Condition.
The streamer sculptures, dubbed Hopscotch, Double Dutch, and Red Rover, were installed prior to Harvey and will remain up through mid-November. They provide a welcome respite from talk about the hurricane, as visitors can see them create new colors as the light changes and the wind gusts.
On a hot and extremely humid afternoon, as reporters from Houston’s TV stations prepared to go live with stories on the status of the shelter, I saw a small child ignoring her mother’s admonitions to leave. I talked to another photographer (Mickey Lawrence of Urban Exposure Media) who was taking a break from storm coverage and had brought someone along to photograph the strips of colors and light.
To see more of what I captured, go to the Places section on this website, or visit my Facebook album here.
In 1967, at the height of unrest in the U.S. over Vietnam and social/racial issues, as many as 100,000 people swarmed San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in the hopes of “creating a new social paradigm.” Today, the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love is being celebrated in a remarkable exhibition at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park.
Titled “The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion, and Rock & Roll,” the exhibit features posters, photos, interactive music, light shows, costumes and textiles that tell the story of a summer in which artists, activists, writers, and musicians converged on the Bay Area neighborhood.
The de Young exhibit, while celebrating the hippie culture and flower power, does not gloss over the problems that ended the Summer of Love almost as quickly as it began. Haight-Ashbury was not equipped to handle the crush of people, and the neighborhood rapidly deteriorated due to overcrowding, homelessness, crime and drug use.
However, the legacy of the Summer of Love lives on to this day. As the museum says in a digital exploration of the exhibit, “The social developments in San Francisco and the Bay Area in the 1960s as epitomized by the Summer of Love catalyzed a set of ideas that would eventually lead to new norms: the birth of the natural food industry, concern for the environment, sexual liberation, and challenges to the nuclear family. The era’s political and social activism had a significant impact on the course of American history. The counterculture touched every facet of American culture, offering alternatives to the mainstream that still flourish today.
It is a fascinating exhibit, well worth your time if you can make it to San Francisco between now and Aug. 20. These photos attempt to capture what I saw during an afternoon walk through.
Last week, after Jill’s conference ended in Denver, we took some time to explore the beautiful state of Colorado, but rain and clouds marred a portion of our visit to Colorado Springs. Still, we forged on to Pikes Peak and Seven Falls, two locations that anyone visiting the state should see.
Pikes Peak is one of 53 “fourteeners” in Colorado, and the 14,115-foot summit is higher than any point in the United States east of its longitude. Named in honor of explorer Zebulon Pike, the trip included a treacherous 19-mile drive to reach the summit, with stops at centers at the 6- and 12-mile points.
The clouds were threatening at the first stop, and by the time we reached the summit, temperatures had fallen to 36 degrees amid sleet and drizzle. I later learned that the summit has a polar climate due to its elevation, which means it can snow year-round.
What I found interesting about Pikes Peak is how commercial it is, in part because it is not part of the National Parks Service, and that gives parts of it an odd theme park feel. Also, the switchbacks on the winding drive, which look like EKG results from the sky, take your breath away almost as much as the thinning air.
Next, we went to the Broadmoor Seven Falls, a series of cascading waterfalls in the South Cheyenne Creek in Colorado Springs. A privately owned tourist attraction that opened in the 1880s, the falls were purchased after severe flooding and restored by The Broadmoor in 2014.
The falls are beautiful, but by late afternoon, the cold and rain helped us make the executive decision not to climb the 224 slick steps to the top, especially after we learned someone had fallen when we got there. I did manage to get a few nice pictures though.
A couple of weeks ago, I posted an album featuring images taken during two walks through New Orleans last month. As I mentioned, persistent rain throughout the week I was there provided limited opportunities to take photos outside the conference I was shooting.
Here are some candids of people I captured during those two walks. All comments welcome. To see the other album, go here.
Last month, after shooting a conference in San Francisco, I had an afternoon to visit a couple of places I’d wanted to see in previous visits to the city. Ultimately I decided on the expansive Golden Gate Park, home to the de Young Museum and the National AIDS Memorial Grove, among many other attractions.
After spending two hours at the de Young’s exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love — another “Places” album coming soon — I walked toward the grove, a 10-acre memorial dedicated to those whose lives have been affected by this devastating pandemic over the past three-plus decades. Despite overcast, foggy skies, a female couple was walking through their wedding ceremony scheduled for the next day, and I had a lovely conversation with two college students who, like my own children, were not alive when the pandemic was at its worst.
San Francisco was one of the cities hardest hit by AIDS, and a small group of citizens developed the idea for the grove in 1988 as “a positive way to express their collective grief,” according to www.aidsmemorial.org. Eight years later, in 1996, Congress designated the grove as the national AIDS Memorial, giving it status comparable to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, and the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.
The About section of the memorial’s website explains the mission beautifully: “to provide, in perpetuity, a place of remembrance so that the lives of people who died from AIDS are not forgotten and the story is known by future generations.”
To see a 2014 essay I wrote related to the AIDS crisis, click on this link.
Over the past two weeks, I've:
• Shot and edited more than 1,000 photos at two conferences in New Orleans and San Francisco.
• Written a column for one magazine and a paid-sponsorship feature for another. Also wrote a blog on Fathers and Sons and posted two albums of photos on my business page.
• Officially (at least according to LinkedIn) marked year 4 of this solo business gig.
• Visited a Louisiana swamp and Bourbon Street. (I'm not talking about the same thing, despite many similarities.)
• Spent an invaluable week with my oldest son, showing him NOLA, Texas, and (long enough to snap a picture) Oklahoma.
• Saw and spent varying degrees of time with my mom, aunt, sister, first cousin, and nephews/grandnephew. (Just saw one of the nieces in a literal drive by.)
• Took a number of photos in Kilgore, where my parents first got together.
• Visited my grandparents' gravesite and showed Nick the places where my parents grew up.
• I did not leave the hotel these last three days in San Francisco, but with an afternoon to kill before my red eye back to Virginia, I went to the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park to see the Summer of Love 50th anniversary exhibit. Before leaving, I also walked through the National AIDS Memorial Grove, where I had a fascinating conversation with two college-age women.
And despite a trigger finger that is rapidly approaching carpel tunnel status, I took my camera. It was nice, after all the work-related stuff, to let my eye roam free.
All in all, it's been a great and productive trip, exhausting but emotionally recharging at the same time. I'm truly grateful to Jill (who's had a couple of interesting weeks in her own right) for having the love and patience to let me do these things.
So that's the news from this end. Look for more photos here and on my Facebook page soon, and hope I sleep well on the plane ride home.
Thanks for reading... How's your week been?
I didn’t have much chance to walk through New Orleans last week. The city has battled rain all spring, and the two times that I could be outside were mired by weather that only added to the NOLA’s soupy skies.
Fortunately, given the rain and the humidity, I spent most of my time in the hotel shooting a conference. But here is some of what I saw during those two walks, and be on the lookout for another album that is of people I randomly caught on the city’s streets.
On a cloudy, soupy and humid Sunday, with less than a day to kill before I started shooting the first of two conferences this month in New Orleans, I decided to go on a tour of a Louisiana swamp.
The tour of Bayou Barataria started at the dock of Crown Point, located just 12 miles from the French Quarter and adjacent to the Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve. Lafitte, the infamous pirate, used the bayou as his “highway” to New Orleans.
The tour included bayou views of a 200-year-old above ground cemetery known as the Indian Mound. We also saw herons, a couple of pelicans, and the inevitable alligators.
A couple of interesting facts from our guide at the Louisiana Tour Company:
• The major difference between alligators and crocodiles is gators hibernate for 3 to 4 months a year.
• Male alligators typically grow up to a foot a year until they reach 6 feet. They continue to grow — reaching up to 13 feet in length and more than 500 pounds — but the rate slows at about age 6.
• Female alligators are smaller and grow less quickly than males. They can reach 9 feet in length and more than 200 pounds.
• Alligators are color blind. It’s one reason they like, believe it or not, marshmallows. It’s true; I’ve seen it up close.
All in all, an interesting experience and an opportunity to take some fun photos.
To see more photos in the Places series, go here.
The Longview Post Office, built during the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration and open since 1939, holds a special place in my family’s history.
The town, about 125 miles east of Dallas, is where my parents grew up. The post office at 201 E. Methvin Street opened in 1939, the year before my father was born, and my grandfather was the assistant postmaster there until 1964, the year before I was born.
Like many families, my grandparents used a post office box rather than home delivery. Even after he retired, my grandfather would dutifully drive the two miles or so every day or two to get the mail from P.O. Box 344. After he became ill, my aunt or another family member would get the mail for my grandmother, who never learned to drive.
Earlier this month, my mom and I started the long process of moving my aunt back to her hometown.
I’ve been to Longview only once or twice since 1989, the year my grandmother died. Each time I’ve returned, I’ve wanted to see what has changed since my childhood. The older, south side section of town where my dad grew up has fallen into decay. The post-World War II era Pine Tree area where my mom grew up has changed as well, though not as much.
Remarkably, the post office remains the same, a step back in time.
In addition to the post office boxes, which are the same as I remember them from my youth, a massive oil on canvas mural titled “Rural East Texas” remains in the lobby. According to the website East Texas History (http://easttexashistory.org), Thomas M. Stell Jr. painted the mural in 1942 “to celebrate the history of farming in East Texas and demonstrate how mechanization changed the agricultural industry.”
Stell, described by the website as “a master portraitist who strove to connect his work with the viewing public,” was the WPA’s state director of the American Index of Design and a professor at San Antonio’s Trinity University.
When my oldest son moved to North Carolina as a toddler, we lived less than a mile from the American Tobacco Company plant. Today, Nicholas still lives in North Carolina, just a mile from the place that was home to the cigarette maker’s primary headquarters.
But times have changed greatly over the last two decades for everyone involved, in oh so many ways.
For me, the move from my native Texas to Reidsville, N.C., in 1993 represented a huge personal and career risk. Over the eight years I lived there, life as I knew it took a series of seismic shifts. I got a divorce, met the love of my life, remarried, had three kids in a calendar year, bought a house, changed careers and found lifelong friends.
I also saw a town and region face a series of seismic shifts of its own, as its economic drivers — mainly textiles and tobacco — left either gradually or almost entirely during that time.
A few months after I took over as managing editor at The Reidsville Review, the town’s largest employer was sold by its parent company. More than 1,000 employees — almost 10 percent of Reidsville’s population — lost their jobs because the American Tobacco Company was no more. Today, the plant that once employed more than 1,500 people and dominated the northern part of the town is only a shell of itself, with only a handful of workers plying their trade for a company that sells cigarettes in foreign markets.
Several years earlier, in 1987, American Brands closed the American Tobacco factory on Blackwell Street in downtown Durham. This, combined with declines in the textile industry, was a huge blow to the town on many levels; the company had been founded by the Duke family after which the university nearby is named.
For more than a decade, the tobacco campus remained vacant, a gigantic hole in the center of town. But in 2004, the Capitol Broadcasting Company started a $200 million renovation effort that has led to both an economic and cultural renaissance in the city’s downtown area.
The American Tobacco Campus, as it is now known, is home to office space, restaurants, and entertainment venues. The Durham Bulls Athletic Park, one of the nicest minor league baseball stadiums in the country, is adjacent to the campus, as is the Durham Performing Arts Center, the largest of its kind in North or South Carolina. The area attracts more than 2 million visitors a year.
Today, small businesses form a strong restaurant and entertainment district throughout the downtown area, luring back 20-somethings like my oldest son and his girlfriend to Durham, where they live in a converted textile factory about a mile from the American Tobacco campus.
Durham is cool — not Kool — again.
The past two decades have not been as kind to Reidsville, located in a rural area just north of Greensboro about 60 miles from Durham. Like many former factory communities across the nation, Rockingham County has struggled economically, and is facing a population decline.
The tale is all too familiar. Within a decade after the Reidsville plant was sold, The Review was a shell of itself as well. Started in 1888, around the same time that American Tobacco came into being, it has been sold twice since 1997, consolidated with two other community newspapers, and seen its frequency cut from daily to twice a week.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve gone back through Reidsville during my trips to North Carolina. On one recent trip, I went past The Review building and the former American Tobacco plant and thought again of how their fates — caused by an almost simultaneous explosion of the Internet and the new global economy — seemed intertwined and in some ways interchangeable.
Say what you will about big tobacco, and there’s plenty to say about that, but there’s no denying that the collateral damage caused by any major industry going through rapid decline has generational impacts. I’ve seen this first hand in journalism, my chosen field, with overworked staffs in small and midsized newspapers being sliced to the bone as the institutions that served communities for decades consolidated or closed entirely. Too many of my colleagues, hard working people with an invested interest in their community’s future, present and past, have found themselves out of work and scrambling to make ends meet.
When I moved to North Carolina, I took some time to revisit You Can’t Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe, the state’s most famous author. I thought again of that book as I drove by the three houses and apartment where I lived, marveling at the snail’s pace in which small towns change, and recalling the tumultuous times that so dramatically changed my path.
It is a place, like my hometown, that will always be part of my history. And my son’s.
To see more photos from this essay, go to my Facebook album here.
For some time, I’ve had this idea to do short visual stories on the places I visit across the U.S. I’ve been fortunate to travel quite a bit over the past few years, and find that I’m drawn to places that are a little off the beaten path. In most cases, unless you’re a local, you pass by them on the road without a glance.
This new series of stories starts with a visit last fall to Texas’ Gruene Hall, where I saw Charlie Robison play the second night of his annual weekend Labor Day bash. It had been some time since I had been to Gruene Hall, located near New Braunfels in the Hill Country, and I wanted to showcase this unique Central Texas institution.
Built in 1878, the 8,000-square-foot dance hall was designed to give tenant farmers a way to socialize on the weekends. George Strait got his start there, playing once a month while beginning his career, and the hall has hosted a who’s who of Texas artists, including Willie Nelson, the Dixie Chicks, Townes Van Zandt, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, and Jerry Jeff Walker. Robison is a regular, as is his brother, Bruce, and they occasionally play as a trio with Jack Ingram.
Gruene Hall bills itself as the oldest dance hall still operating in Texas, a claim disputed by some, and it’s charm comes from how little about it has changed. It has a high-pitched tent roof with a bar in front and a small lighted stage in the back. Signs from the 1930s and ‘40s still surround the stage and hang in the hall, which has side flaps that are used for open air dancing.
This photos in this album were taken in real-time, so you can see how the evening started slowly and progressively got more full once Robison took the stage. If you ever get the chance to go to Gruene Hall, do so. It’s a piece of history you won’t soon forget.