Jun 1999 by Ford,
San Angelo celebrates its past and anticipates its exciting
It's an honor to walk with Elmer and Anna Kelton down Concho
Avenue in San Angelo, Texas, the first street in a city of time
and imagination. We stroll along in the blue, cooling dusk, a
day before the June event, Fiesta del Concho, begins.
The city of 93,000 sits out here 220 miles northwest of San
Antonio, with the farming country of Lipan Flats to the east and
sheep and cattle ranching among the blue hills to the west. Its
heart still beats on Concho Avenue, filled with boutiques and
restaurants in old buildings of native stone and cast iron,
crowned with oldfashioned finials. Below the street flows the
Concho River, and beyond the river stands the city's first site,
Fort Concho National Historic Landmark.
Elmer, the author of 37 novels, set some of them on this
ever-changing street. In The Wolf and The Buffalo, which takes
place in the 1870s, the fort was manned by Buffalo Soldiers, and
Concho was lined with saloons, cafes, and brothels.
In the transitional time period of The Good Old Boys, the early
1900s, both stables and auto garages arise along Concho.
Finally, characters in Kelton's The Time It Never Rained come
and go along the street of the 1950s.
"Concho Avenue then was busy with farmers and ranchers and
oilfield workers. You'd find it pretty busy on Saturday," Elmer
says. San Angelo, he adds, went into a decline in the sixties
and seventies, but "now some of the biggest businesses are the
shops back on Concho where it all started."
Restoration now flourishes along the avenue and in the city that
goes by two other names. Outlying ranchers and farmers just call
it "Angelo." They come to attend cattle and sheep sales, to buy
handmade boots, and to stop in at the avenue's Concho Saddles, a
business dating to 1884. It's now owned by Jeff and Karen
Kimball, who handcraft fine saddles.
"Everyone within a hundred miles still comes to Angelo," Karen
says. "Even people in Midland say there's no tack and saddle
shop there, so they come here."
Across the street, around the tables of Jabberwocky's Restaurant
&Tavern, natives and long-time residents call the city "S-nangelo."
Many love this restaurant that native Carolyn Maynard restored
from a 1926 auto parts store. She serves cornbread as well as
scones in what she calls her "New Texas Cuisine," defining it as
"a little bit of home cooking with a gourmet twist."
A few doors down in J. Wilde's, one steps into a riot of color
and texture with fabrics swooping and swaying from walls and
ceilings like a morning after Mardi Gras. In this imagination
laboratory, Joyce Wilde designs women's blouses and jackets,
along with robes, tapestries, pillows, and throws. Although shy
and unassuming, Joyce pioneered the street's restoration, moving
onto then-derelict Concho when it really wasn't safe.
Sparkling accessories for Joyce's creations await across the
street at Legend Jewelers, where owner Mark Priest displays
pearls found in mussels in the Concho River and other local
waters. Set in earrings, pendants, rings, necklaces, and
bracelets, the pearls sell from $90 to $5,000.
The pearls gave the river, and later the street and fort, their
names. "Concha" is what Spanish explorers called the gray
mussels, as big as old men's ears, that hold the beautiful,
lavender pearls inside.
One former business, now a museum, spans nearly all the years of
Concho Avenue. Upstairs, above Legend Jewelers, Miss Hattie's
Bordello Museum preserves a 19th-century establishment that
operated until authorities padlocked it in the
1950s-furnishings, clothing, accessories, and all.
For years it sat up there like a pearl in a shell, until it was
unlocked, dusted off, and re-opened as a museum. Concho Avenue
looks at Miss Hattie's with neither a leer nor a sneer. It's
simply a quaint curiosity of the town's rough-and-tumble past.
It's late Friday afternoon now, hot and bright as only West
Texas can be, and I walk across Celebration Bridge, a winding
pedestrian walkway across the river that ties Concho Avenue to
the River Walk and the river to the south bank where Fort Concho
Locals fish in the river. Behind them rise the native stone
walls and the copper, saddle-shaped roof of the new, $6million
San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts. Opening in September, it will
house what's been called the nation's best collection of
The museum gleams like the pearl in the city's new imagination.
This civic state of mind was spurred in 1992 when the American
Institute of Architects sent in a Regional/Urban Design
Assistance Team, chaired by civic leader and local rancher, Lee
Pfluger. The team, meeting with 2,000 townspeople, devised a
plan to coordinate various renewal projects on both sides of the
One, El Paseo de Santa Angela, reinvigorated a blighted area
with open-air markets and restored historic buildings to house a
depot museum, restaurant, and senior citizens center. In
downtown, the 14-story 1929 Cactus Hotel now houses a children's
museum, the local symphony, and the offices of San Angelo
Cultural Affairs Council.
Nancy Loving, director of that council, has brought in the
fabulous Cactus Jazz Series, as well as promoting other
performing arts. At Fort Concho on Saturday morning, in the
early dawn, Buffalo Soldiers gather like ghosts for Fiesta del
Concho's Frontier Day. While hundreds arrive for a pancake
breakfast, the reenactors raise a huge flag above the parade
ground and restored limestone buildings and take time back a
century. Throughout the day, with snap and polish, they parade
and fire and charge just the way Elmer Kelton describes in The
Wolf and the Buffalo. Conrad McClure, a re-enactor at the
city-owned fort for 15 years, watches the soldiers and smiles.
"I've always liked that time and era. I like reading about it,
everything," he sighs. "Maybe I was born in the wrong century."
There is no wrong century in San Angelo, it seems. Each era has
its place where time and imagination blend-here at the fort,
over in the city, and down along Concho Avenue. Advertisement
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