By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Robert Bledsoe walks across a vacant lot just behind Main Street in the century-old town of Ladonia. Wearing a weathered baseball cap and dirty work pants, he steps onto the concrete foundation where the city's railroad station once welcomed eight trains a day. The building is gone, but that's OK, because so are the trains. And the tracks. And most of Ladonia's people. Ladonia, a town of 761 mostly graying and retired residents about 80 miles northeast of Dallas, is a place where the bad just seems to keep getting worse. The latest blow in the downhill slide for Ladonia came in September when the cattle slaughterhouse, the city's largest employer, went out of business..
Making matters worse, the town recently finished building a $1.4 million sewage-treatment pond to take care of waste from the slaughterhouse. Without big monthly water and sewer payments from Supreme Beef, Ladonia, home of baseball's much-hated Ty Cobb and a festival celebrating a poisonous weed, is nearly broke. With the bills piling up, the city in September was forced to lay off its municipal judge and one of two water department workers, dissolve the police department, and put two of three squad cars up for sale.
But Bledsoe, who is officially recognized as Ladonia's resident dreamer (he has a certificate to prove it), is trying to turn his town's fortunes around. Bledsoe has dreams to rebuild his city from the foundation up. He wants to bring in a new cash crop to make woodless paper. He wants to turn landlocked Ladonia into a lakeside resort and draw mountain bikers to a new trail on the abandoned railroad. He wants to find a businessman who needs plenty of retail space or millions of gallons of piping-hot industrial water. (In Ladonia, it comes out of the ground that way.) And, he wants to find a customer for Ladonia's sewage-treatment plant, which is now big enough to digest the contents of toilets in a city six times bigger. Bledsoe is an optimist, an entrepreneur, a can-do guy who is ambitiously trying to bring back some of Ladonia's faded glory, and you would think Ladonia's residents would be grateful for it.
Bob Bledsoe may be ambitious and have good intentions, but some of his neighbors say he is also a royal pain. Bledsoe counters that no matter what he accomplishes for Ladonia, he is unappreciated and has to fight for progress every step of the way. Like the railroad station he hopes to rebuild, every project is a struggle. Standing on the railroad station's foundation with his building materials stacked nearby, he says, "This is another one that's thankless and people hate you. I'm the man in the area that people love to hate."
"For a time, we had six passenger trains a day and two or three freight trains," she says, beaming.
Heavy sulfur deposits tainted Ladonia's water table with a smell. "We all stunk rotten-egg stinky," one former resident says, but that wasn't enough to keep newcomers away, and the city's population grew.
Thanks to the cotton economy, for a while the downtown had three movie theaters, banks, restaurants, a hotel, and grocery and hardware stores. Ladonia was a respectable destination for a farmer on a Saturday. The high school, home of the Fannindel Falcons, was for a time large enough to compete in sports with Dallas.
Today, the school is the smallest in the state to field an 11-player football team. Last year, it attracted national attention for including a female student as wide receiver, a reverend as assistant coach, and students' mothers as groundskeepers. Larry Braley, the Ladonia High School athletic director and veteran Ladonia High School football player, says the female wide receiver, Jentaisha Scott, put up a good show and did well.
"She got hit pretty hard, and she hit pretty hard," Braley says. "For it being her first outing, she drew a lot of attention. I mean, the major stations and networks came, and even all the way from Detroit."
Scott is a cheerleader this year, but the 16-year-old junior says she plans to return to the field next season. "After they started playing, I just wished I could be out there this year like I was last year," she says. "I did have fun."
The school's alumni recall with pride--in sports if not academics--how in the mid-1980s a "no pass, no play" policy eliminated all the substitute players, but the 11-man team kept winning anyway and went right on to the playoffs.
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."
Hardly anybody does business in Ladonia anymore. On the square, a huge vacant lot now occupies the site of Burns tractor sales, which once attracted farmers from across North Texas. The downtown mostly consists of the Farmers and Merchants State Bank, a couple of real estate offices, Delta Funeral Home (which has a respectable selection of caskets in the casket room), a medical clinic, and an antique store.
The slaughtering operation on the edge of town was one of the city's few stable industries for about 25 years. Though the business came with flies and bad smells for some townspeople when the wind was right, the jobs were good. At first, in the mid-1970s, horses were slaughtered for overseas appetites. (It's a delicacy over there, one former worker says.)
In the early 1980s, Supreme Beef bought the plant and retrofitted it for cattle. (Horses are longer than cows, so the hanging equipment was lowered, the former worker explained.) Ladonia's operation, called Supreme Beef Packers, slaughtered live cattle trucked in from 10 states, six days a week. In 1988, the city drilled another well at a cost of $188,000, mainly for the slaughtering operation. The plant cleaned slaughtered beef to produce what is known as "bone-in" carcasses. The carcasses were then shipped to the sister company, Supreme Beef Processors Inc., in Dallas.
In the 1990s, Supreme Beef started looking at other locations, ones that had more capacity for sewage than Ladonia did. City leaders wanted Supreme Beef to stay. So, with $1.4 million in federal and local dollars, the city expanded the sewage-treatment plant. The plant went into service just last February. The EPA and the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission investigated allegations that instead of slowing production until the larger treatment pond was built, Supreme Beef regularly polluted Pecan Creek with slaughterhouse waste. Steven Spiritas, Supreme Beef's president and chairman of the board, says the allegations against his company are unfounded. The investigation focused on the city, not Supreme Beef, he says.
"The city apparently, over time, had themselves, both before Supreme Beef was there and after Supreme Beef was there, had problems with one of the government agencies," Spiritas says.
The new treatment plant was more than large enough to accommodate the Ladonia slaughtering operation.
"What they put in was far greater than what they needed for the city and Supreme combined. They designed something that was far greater than what we would ever use with our expansion," Spiritas says.
Problems for Supreme Beef arose when ground beef produced in Dallas repeatedly showed levels of salmonella contamination that the federal government said were unacceptable according to new United States Department of Agriculture standards. Supreme Beef fought the government and obtained a court ruling preventing the government from closing the company. Unfortunately for Ladonia, by the time the ruling came through, bad publicity surrounding the tests and Supreme Beef had scared off customers. The company filed for bankruptcy protection in September.
"One of the saddest meetings I've ever had in my business career was to go up there and sit down with the mayor and let him know we would be closing our business. That was a very difficult time," Spiritas says.
In addition to the lost jobs, the departure of Supreme Beef Packers cost Ladonia about $25,000 a month in water and sewer payments. The economic impact on the already depressed Ladonia economy is obvious, but the city's dwindling population will take it in stride, say some residents.
"There'd been rumors flying around that it's going to kill the school, but in realistic terms, the kids that went to school here went to school before their parents worked out there," Braley says. "It's not like they're professional, professional killing employees; they just went to work there because it was a job opening. It was very convenient and local," he says. "It's been closed before."
But the closure cost the city its police department, and that loss is something new even to Ladonians who stayed while learning to get by during the last 50 years of decline. Although the Fannin County sheriff agreed to help out and a sheriff's squad car can be seen prowling through town once in a while, it's a temporary fix.
"That's really the thing that concerns me the most," Braley says. "I mean, like I say, I was born and raised here, but we've always had at least one policeman of some type."
Roy Brown, another economic casualty who recently could be found in Ladonia sitting on the hood of a car smoking a cigarette, says he's collecting unemployment since being laid off from the city's water department. He's getting about half as much from unemployment as he received from his city job, which he held for about a year and a half before the city council cut him from the budget right after Supreme Beef shut down. The Ladonia resident and father of three, displaying the sangfroid that seems common in these parts, says that although there isn't much work in the area, he'll get by.
"It didn't have nothing to do with me," he says, then laughs at his own misfortune. "It'll work out. I'll leave it in the Lord's hands."
Ladonia's mayor since 1992, 77-year-old Leon Hurse, is confident Ladonia will recover.
"We're in a budget crunch...We're trying to cut our expenses as much as possible," the mayor says from his rumpled office filled with dated, worn furniture and a wall clock that's stopped.
Supreme Beef's $25,000 a month represented about half the city's spending money and "was our livelihood, so to speak," Hurse says.
"I'm optimistic we're going to stay in business, but it's not going to be easy," he says. "We're not going to fix any streets or anything like that for the next year or so. We don't have any projects we're going to carry out. We're just going to try to survive."
Hurse says the city still has something to offer in the way of houses for commuters and ample resources for another cattle processor or some other industry.
"We've got plenty of water, and we have a new sewer plant," he says. "We can handle the water. We can handle the water, and we can handle the wastewater. We can handle anything they want to drop on us."
Still, he concedes he's not thrilled about being mayor at the moment. When asked whether he will seek re-election when his two-year term is up next year, Hurse quickly says, "No, I will not." Then he adds, "I shouldn't have run this time."
The owner of Beanie Adhesive Products Inc., a label-making company and the city's only manufacturing business, is trying to make something--anything--happen at the site of the closed slaughterhouse. He's confident he'll find a suitable industry to take over where Supreme Beef left off.
"What I'm doing, I'm putting together a book of our assets, and what that will cover is our town square, which is rather nice, our churches, our school system, the businesses we have now in place, our post office, our volunteer fire department--all the things that interest people about small-town America. I'll get a book together, and I'll find potential people and do a mailing on that book and invite them down to look at our town," he says.
Bledsoe, owner of four buildings and 10 lots, is what passes for a real estate mogul in Ladonia. He's trying to rebuild some city pride along with the railroad station. He wants the rebuilt station to be a sort of community center and attraction on the bike trail that replaced the railroad. The station is just one of Bledsoe's many civic-minded projects that he hopes will catapult Ladonia out of the doldrums and restore jobs, commerce, dignity, and residents.
Yet Bledsoe says his efforts to help the city have been rebuffed repeatedly over the last 15 years, and he believes he has become the most hated man in Ladonia because he is the only one trying to accomplish anything.
Bledsoe won a state grant for $10,000 that will be used to rebuild the shell of the depot. He's using old photographs and other information he's scraped up as a guide. The original building was moved off the lot and destroyed a couple of years ago, not long after the trains stopped running. The railroad tracks and ties were pulled out, leaving the concrete pad. Around the pad, his building materials (some of which have been stolen, he huffs) are stacked.
"This is the original foundation, built in 1910, again, no help. Nobody wants to help you do a fucking thing around here...I put bleach and acid. I came down here and scrubbed this back. The whole thing looked just like that," he says, pointing toward a weathered portion of the slab.
Then, pointing toward different parts of the concrete foundation, he says, "This will be the library. This will be the snack and vending window...and we'll have the rest area over there."
Bledsoe has a right to be a bit peeved at his fellow residents, he says. At his own expense, he is working tirelessly on several fronts. For instance, in the face of fierce opposition from property owners who were hoping to secure old railroad easements, Bledsoe says, he learned how to use a road grader and personally groomed about 11 miles of the bike trail on the old rail route through Fannin County. His effort was part of the "rails to trails" project that aimed to produce 56 miles of trail from Farmersville in Collin County to near Paris. At first, the project had $1.8 million in federal funds, but that money was pulled when property disputes and questions about local costs arose. Nevertheless, on the Ladonia segment, Bledsoe helped raise money and then put in bridges and chains and markers to keep cars out, he says. He was thanked by having his life threatened.
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.
"I contacted one of the chicken processors," he says. "They're not interested in moving west."
Bledsoe, who seems downright pissed off sometimes, says, "We pretty well nailed it down this morning of what the difference is between this community and others. There are 100 percent negative people here.
"The thing that stops you from making real progress is pulling the arrows out of your ass...Everybody thinks you're out to make a fortune. I've spent more money out of my pocket for this town in phone calls, in printing and time and travel, out of my pocket, with no reimbursement, to try to help this community. The mentality here is that because you're successful at something, you've got to be a crook...You understand?"
Orman Roderick, who has lived in the area for 67 years, is not among Bledsoe's fans. He says it's good to have ideas. Bledsoe's problem is that he just doesn't have any good ones. The trail would be too hot to use most of the year, and the lake would remove thousands of acres from the county tax rolls, Roderick says.
"Everything he does, I can't see that it's helping the community," he says. "I definitely get irritated with him, because I haven't seen anything good he's done yet."
Bledsoe steps down from the railroad station foundation and starts toward his shop. He stops to talk to the city's remaining water department employee, who at the moment is leaning out of the driver's seat of an idling backhoe. They laugh about how as a boy, the worker once rode his bicycle on the railway station platform. Walking away, Bledsoe acknowledges that it is a struggle to change a small town.
"There's lots of other things we're working on, but to make them happen is a whole different ballgame," he says. "We still have hopes and dreams. Somebody has to be a dreamer or a visionary, because that's how things happen." Resident dreamer Robert Bledsoe has a plan to keep his hometown of Ladonia from disappearing off the map. His neighbors want him to wake up--and shut up.