By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
In its heyday, Ladonia had brushes with the famous and infamous. Baseball legend Ty Cobb, who is best remembered for his batting skills and aggressive play--not to mention his being a racist--lived in Ladonia for a while.
"Aren't you glad you live in Ladonia? TY COBB came to Ladonia as a child to stay with relatives for whom the Cobb Addition was named," an excerpt from Burleson's book reads. "Ty left Ladonia about the age of 16, played with a club in Augusta, Georgia, and was sold at the age of 18 for $750 to the Detroit Tigers."
Machine Gun Kelly supposedly took part in a bank heist in Ladonia. And, according to local lore, the Fannin County sheriff once chased Bonnie and Clyde through Ladonia and Commerce.
Ladonia's other claim to fame is its annual Poke Sallet Festival, which celebrates a Southern delicacy often found growing near outhouses--at least it is by those who aren't averse to looking for their greens there rather than at, say, Tom Thumb. The spinach-like plant, typically boiled twice to eliminate naturally occurring poisons, is perhaps best known as the subject of the Tony Joe White pop hit "Poke Salad Annie." ("Poke Salad Annie, 'gators got your granny.") Despite its considerable marketing drawbacks of being known as a poisonous privy weed, poke sallet still draws tourists to Ladonia, where they can sample a number of dishes. They come despite an unfortunate incident in the early 1990s when an elderly man who was talking about the health benefits of poke sallet fell down dead right at the City Hall gazebo, says James Conrad, archivist at Texas A&M University Commerce.
"He had a heart attack. He died right there on the stage," Conrad says. "They called the medics, and they came, and they took him to the hospital, but he was dead. It was the first time I had ever seen anyone die. He was standing up, and he sort of fell weak and sat down, and then he just lost consciousness and fell over. It was a very peaceful death from what I could tell...Of course, then everything just stopped dead."
His death probably had nothing to do with poke sallet, and the next festival will be held during the first weekend in May, if you're interested.
On the brighter side, in 1963, Ladonia overcame its rotten-egg water smell and other problems with shallow well water when the city spent $100,000 to drill a 3,344-foot well. Ladonia's well produced 300 gallons per minute of "good quality water," according to framed black-and-white pictures at City Hall that show the new well and proud Ladonians standing around washing machines at the local laundry. The water was better than what they had before, but it wasn't quite normal. Being drawn, as it was, from somewhere in the vicinity of Hades, water from the new well came out of Ladonia's taps at a toasty 120 degrees. The water is so hot sometimes that "it gets to a point where you don't want to take a shower," one resident says, slightly irritated. Oddly, hot water straight from the well means that Ladonians never turn on their hot-water heaters. Instead, they use hot-water heaters as reservoirs where the water can cool off.
By the late 1960s, the American cotton industry was shrinking and the city started going downhill right along with it. "With the decline...things changed," Burleson says.
And not for the better either. Cotton gins and other cotton-related industries closed, and so did Ladonia's ice plant and the city's cotton-dollar-dependent businesses. Sometime around 1969, to try to jump-start the fading economy, Ladonia legalized liquor sales, attracting droves of college students from nearby Eastern State Texas University and residents from as far as Bonham, 30 miles away.
Athletic director Braley, who returned to Ladonia for its small-town qualities after a stint in Grand Prairie, says the effect of liquor sales was immediate.
"There was a steady stream of college kids coming to Ladonia. I'm serious. I lived on Main Street, and you could sit on the front porch, and I mean they were just zipping back and forth," he says.
But Commerce, about 11 miles southeast of Ladonia on State Highway 54 and booming thanks in large part to the university, followed Ladonia's lead. Soon after, Ladonia's liquor business mostly evaporated, Braley says.
"Commerce went wet, and of course that killed Ladonia," he says.
Commerce is credited not only with "killing" Ladonia's liquor sales but also with landing the university that, according to local lore, was once considered for Ladonia. What's more, Commerce first attracted a Wal-Mart. East Texas State University became Texas A&M Commerce in 1996, and in October of this year Wal-Mart replaced its first Commerce store with a super store. Today, Commerce is home to Ladonia's closest fast-food restaurants, hospital, full-size grocery stores, and other fine suburban-type amenities.
"I've always heard that all my life--that, you know, Ladonia always had the opportunity to have a college here and then Commerce could have been like Ladonia and Ladonia like Commerce, but it's just fate," Braley says. "Ladonia's always been a rural farming community. The biggest thing we used to have when I was growing up in the '60s was a cotton gin."