By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Folks like Larry Schone and his wife, Ruth, thought 60 miles would be far enough away from Dallas to enjoy the peace and quiet of country life. Now, they've gone and founded a damn town, ensuring that nothing will be quiet for a long, long time.
The Schones and others of their ilk have created what is supposedly the newest town in Texas: Bethel. Population 214, they think. Located about an hour north of Dallas, the town theoretically occupies two square miles along Highway 160 in the southeastern corner of Grayson County. The next town over is Whitewright to the north--home of Carl's Sausage Company and not much else--and the closest big town after that is Sherman.
The area has been known as Bethel since the late 1800s, a nod to the Bethel Baptist Church, longtime geographical and spiritual heart of the community. But it didn't officially become the Town of Bethel until May 3. On that fateful Saturday, residents filed into the church and elected a mayor and two commissioners. More importantly, they voted to incorporate Bethel as a legal Class C municipality under the laws of Texas.
Many little hamlets are known as "company towns" because they are dominated by a single employer. Bethel is an anti-company town, created specifically with the intent of keeping a corporation out. The interloper is North Texas Cement Company, which is looking to build a plant nearby so it can tap into the bountiful supply of limestone that underlies Grayson County. There's a railroad, and few houses or people to get in the company's way. Instead, there's just miles and miles of wide open space.
Coincidentally, the area has been attracting other migrants of late. With their bucolic visions, barbecue grills, and fancy cars, suburbanites have been buying land in and around Bethel, dreaming of a life unencumbered by the crime, traffic, pollution, and other hassles of the city.
One of the newcomers is Schone, a 50-year-old telecommunications worker and Bethel's newly elected mayor, who moved to the area a year ago. Schone was horrified when he discovered that the cement company was trying to buy up some 2,500 acres of nearby land. The image of a dirty, dusty cement plant did not fit at all with the Green Acres lifestyle Schone was seeking when he and his wife bought their modest 10 acres. Something, he decided, had to be done.
So Schone and his fellow travelers formed a group called SWAT--which stands for Save Whitewright And TriCounties--and began trying to convince area farmers not to sell their land to the company. When that didn't work, SWATters led the drive to incorporate Bethel, hoping that maybe an official town could use zoning or some other municipal weapon to block the plant.
But many of the old farmers in the area are about due to retire from the land, and frankly the idea of selling out for about $1,800 an acre sounds right by them. The land doesn't inspire quite the same romantic longing among those who have spent their lives fighting weeds in the milo and castrating calves. Besides, the cement company's money could go a long way toward paying medical bills that have come with old age.
When the old-timers caught wind of SWAT's efforts to stymie the plant, they formed their own group called RIGHT--which stands for Responsible Industrial Growth Helps Texas--and began fighting what they believe is a subversive plot to stop them from selling their land.
The once-tranquil community hasn't seen anything like the battle between RIGHT and SWAT in nigh on a hundred years. The sides have dug in their heels and vowed to fight until the cows come home. Sisters are fighting with each other. Neighbors who have always lent each other a hand in times of need aren't speaking. Death threats have been uttered. The newly elected mayor claims someone has been reading his mail, and the mayor himself has been accused of roughing up a teenage boy. Everybody is spying on everyone else.
Even the Bethel Baptist Church hasn't escaped the fray. After its pastor sided with SWAT and allowed the group to use his church as its de facto headquarters, lifelong church members left his flock.
SWAT beat RIGHT in the May 3 election and created Bethel, but the town's budding revolutionaries are discovering that running a town is a lot harder than founding one.
Shortly after the election, Grayson County officials gladly relinquished responsibility for the roads in Bethel. Now the mayor and his cohorts spend their free time mixing tar and filling potholes, or hauling off fallen trees in a borrowed pickup.
Since one of SWAT's campaign promises was not to impose any taxes, the town has been holding bake sales and spaghetti dinners to raise money for the treasury. Until enough brownies are sold to build a town hall, the council is meeting inside a converted garage.
And SWAT is finding that there are all kinds of pesky laws that come along with public service--such as conducting business in the open and letting the citizens know what's being done in their names.
RIGHTers accuse Schone and the SWATters of holding secret, illegal meetings to plot strategy. Armed with video cameras and copies of the Texas Public Information Act, RIGHTers have taken to storming the mayor's house whenever they see a suspicious number of cars parked in his driveway. RIGHT is also trying to get copies of official town documents, but the city clerk has stashed them in a file cabinet, and she refuses to divulge its whereabouts.