By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Robert Crozier, a Ladonia-area resident who admits he told Bledsoe he would shoot him if he came onto his land, says it's not that he opposes Bledsoe's every move, it's just that the whole rails to trails project is a "bad apple" that amounts to a fraud. About a mile of the trail runs through Crozier's property. He says he's got the original agreement with the railroad to prove that the land belongs to him and that the government is not entitled to the land now that the railroad is gone.
Crozier says that he made money by developing houses on a ranch in California and that he served on a school board in a district near Los Angeles. He is familiar with business and the political processes of a small town and its people, which include the Bledsoe types. He calls Bledsoe a "promoter."
"He's a promoter and really gets nowhere in his promotions. I've come across a lot of promoters in my time," he says. "I don't like the guy. I'm not saying he's totally wrong, but what he's pushing is the trail, and it's a total flop."
Besides attempting to establish the trail through Fannin County, Bledsoe is trying to get a grant to pave two miles in front of the old train station and maybe use leftover grant money to finish the inside of the station once the shell is erected. He wants to put old-fashioned lights and benches on the trail for the old and young to enjoy, he says.
"We need to have a place where our children can Rollerblade and ride their bicycles and enjoy small-town America," he says.
And, after the blacktop is in, Ladonia can promote its town and attract Dallas dollars, Bledsoe says.
"If I can bring a guy who rides a bicycle with his little skinny-looking clothes and his plastic helmet, and I can get him to come to Ladonia to ride, he spends $9.75 a day. If I can get a thousand of them to come to Ladonia, I can change things."
Bledsoe and his wife, Venita "Vee" Bledsoe, are known for putting Ladonia on the maps of tree lovers and environmentally sensitive types everywhere with a plant called kenaf. It is touted as the source of a fiber that can be substituted for wood in the papermaking process. Initially, Bledsoe hoped the plant could replace cotton as Ladonia's cash crop.
"My wife walked into my office one day and said, 'Gee, Bob, look here, farmers can grow paper.' I said, 'Wow, it's a cousin to cotton and it's a cousin to okra, and we're in the ideal place. Cotton was king, and we could bring back what used to be,'" he recalls. "That started our quest 12 years ago. We founded the International Kenaf Association, which is headquartered here in Ladonia."
Kenaf received accolades and attention at first, but despite what appeared to be a perfect solution for Ladonia's farmers and tree lovers everywhere, the Bledsoes met resistance. The papermaking industry, Bledsoe says, has its own supply of forests and has neither the need nor the inclination to change. The newspaper industry, which initially seemed to embrace the idea, has now backed down. The industry is controlled by corporations that are controlled by the paper industry, Bledsoe says conspiratorially. The only people who seem interested in furthering the production of kenaf as an alternative to wood are foreigners who want to grow it in their own countries. Bledsoe isn't interested in letting them steal what has taken him all these years to learn about kenaf production.
While he wages the battle for the train station, the blacktop trail, and kenaf, Bledsoe and a group of others, including U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall, are also trying to turn Ladonia into a resort by creating a 7,500-acre lake around the headwaters of the trickling Sulphur River.
Bledsoe is chairman of the board of directors for the Sulphur Valley Water Supply Corp., which is trying to get money to study engineering aspects of the lake project, he says.
"What we're attempting to do is to build surface water for our area...What it is, is a 7,500-acre lake, 60-foot deep, that will supply 30 million gallons of water a day, 365 days a year," he says, unfolding a blueprint-type map and pointing to the Ladonia area shown beside the proposed lake. "Here is the city of Ladonia."
"We'd be a soil conservation lake, and we would supply water for all of Fannin County, not just for our little town, and we would have recreation, which would revitalize all of this part of the country."
As usual, Bledsoe has met local resistance, he says. He leans back in his chair in an office at his label-making operation. He grimaces, disgusted, and says, "I get the most irate phone calls. 'By God, my grandfather was buried down there, and you sumbitches ain't gonna run water over my grandfather. I'll have you know that right now. I'll shoot your ass off if I catch you on my land.'"
As for his efforts to market the city's underused sewage-treatment plant, he says that so far, nobody's come calling or responded in a big way.