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Bad news town

Whitewright, Texas, appears to be an uncontroversial place.
It is what it is: a former railroad town, whose main industry now is the Carl's Sausage plant on Bond Street. Grand Street is lined with shops, city hall, the library, and the police department. The side streets of this town 60 miles north of Dallas have historic wood-frame houses, dating back to the city's 1887 incorporation.

Most of the 1,760 residents know each other enough to wave when passing on the street or speak when in the check-out line of the convenience store. It is, Mayor Bill Goodson explains, like living within a large family. "We're a close-knit group of people here," Goodson says.

And yet, for the third time in a little more than 10 years, Whitewright has found itself getting unwanted attention from outsiders anxious to pry into some of the family's more sordid business affairs.

The latest family crisis happened about three weeks ago when Collie Brown was arrested. Seems Brown, also known as Collie B, had to spend 10 days in the Grayson County Jail for illegally selling liquor from her clapboard home on the old railroad track. Neither the illegal sales nor the arrest came as a surprise to anyone in town. Brown has run Collie B's, an unlicensed club, from home for nearly 50 years and has been arrested at least once a year because of it.

What did surprise the town was the attention the arrest generated. The media descended on Brown with a phalanx of cameras and reporters surrounding her ramshackle home. Inside, sitting on a car's back seat that serves as a couch, Brown was bemused and annoyed by the attention.

"They're only interested in me because I'm old," she said, the day after the TV crews had finally left. "I'm 86 years old."

At one point, Brown had come out on her porch and harangued the reporters and cameras. She was tired. She had had enough of dealing with them and didn't want them on her porch or in her house. So they retreated across the street and filmed whenever visitors opened her door. "I don't know why these people keep trying me for my story," she says.

Brown's story is simple enough. Since 1948, she has run Collie B's from the front room of her home. The place is little more than a few tables and chairs, a juke box in one corner, and a pool table toward the other. For years, locals could shoot pool, play dominoes and cards, or just chat in her living room or on the front porch. If they were feeling thirsty, Brown would sell them a bottle or two.

Her latest arrest, estimated at number 50, got her 10 days in Grayson County Jail. It was ordered by the mayor after a shooting in April--which left a man dead in the grassy lot in front of Brown's home--was traced back to an argument that began inside her caf, Goodson says.

Accounts of the arrest ran in papers throughout the country, and TV news crews, local and national, pounced on the town. Tales of the "bootlegging Granny," as she was dubbed, aired on the "CBS Evening News," the "Today Show," and practically every local affiliate in Texas.

"You know we can't stay out of the news," a librarian in the small public library says as she watches the news truck from the "Today Show" roll by. She sighs and goes about retrieving abstracts on Whitewright's history.

The townspeople have gotten used to the publicity. But they don't like it any better than the first time Whitewright found itself in the national spotlight.

Collie Brown is just the latest in a strange line of news events to hit this tiny city. Clara "Pokey" Combs, managing editor of the Whitewright Sun, says Brown's fame has caused hardly a ripple in the water of local daily life. "Nothing will ever compare to the art treasures," Combs says. "It's a continuing story."

Five years ago, the town discovered that one of its most timorous residents, the orchid-growing hardware-store owner Joe Meador, had pilfered priceless art treasures from the German Cathedral of Quedlinburg during World War II, when he was a first lieutenant with the Army's 87th Armored Field Artillery. Meador's loot included a silver display case inlaid with enamels and precious stones, a manuscript dated 1513, and gold-and-silver crucifixes. He was rumored to have kept his treasures wrapped in an old quilt in a cupboard.

Meador's family tried to sell some of the artwork after his death. When some of the relics turned up for sale through a third party in Switzerland, the German government bought the relics and stepped in to reclaim the rest of the treasure. The subsequent legal tussle between the family and the German government put Whitewright at the center of an international scandal, bringing in media vultures from everywhere. You couldn't move, Combs remembers, without having someone sticking a microphone or camera or notebook in your face, asking if you knew Joe Meador. "They were swarming," she says.

 

Worse, the coverage was biased, Combs says. The New York Times reports were particularly terrible, making Whitewright seem a one-horse town where all the people were country bumpkins, she says. "I hate to see these negative things in the paper about us because we really aren't like that." Combs is emphatic: "They just don't portray us right."

Whitewright's image problem may have begun with the mayor's mini-arsenal incident. In 1982, then-mayor Felix Robinson bought four nine-millimeter submachine guns capable of firing in a few seconds nearly as many rounds as there were people living in town. Robinson claimed they were for the protection of the citizens of Whitewright and were essential to Whitewright's one-man police department. The guns would ward against "riot or nuclear attack," he said.

The press came calling. Whitewright was the butt of jokes in the neighboring cities of Sherman and Denison and beyond. Residents had their first experience in ducking news crews. The furor forced Robinson to resign as mayor and a city judge to be fired. The guns themselves were sold to a Dallas gun dealer.

Compared to these uproars, the attention paid to Collie Brown has been positively mild. Goodson says he has received numerous phone calls from across the country and has spoken to at least seven television news crews on the day of Brown's release from prison. But not many of them have milled around the rest of town like the times before, he says.

"I was surprised at all this fuss," the mayor says. "I think it is the age. They all think we are picking on an 86-year-old woman.

"But when that woman is doing something wrong and has known she had done something wrong, that's not picking on an old lady."

Still, the attention was unflattering. Combs talked about a report that aired on a network station from New York that used banjo music in the background. "As if we were hillbillies," she sniffed. "I mean news is news. But don't portray us as ignorant and all these other negative things."

People in town are quick to point out that Whitewright is downright progressive. It was the first town in Grayson County to have a black mayor, Goodson says; it has produced millionaires, including Kay Kimbell, who started the foundation for the permanent art collection at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth; the town has begun a clean-up campaign to get rid of debris in the street, along with tumbled-down houses.

"These people here are real friendly, real open," says Goodson, who spent nearly 30 years in the military before choosing Whitewright for a permanent residence.

The week after her arrest and publicity found Brown still a bit wary of the media. "What, you want my story, too?" she asked this visitor.

She won't talk about the cafe, except to say she's not running it anymore. Instead, she talks about the arthritis that has caused her joints to ache and render her capable of only styling her gun-metal gray hair in a single ponytail on the top of her head.

"I'm feeble now," she says, rubbing her knees. "I'm not sickly, but I can't do like I used to."

She talks about how she arrived in Texas from Chicago on a two-week vacation in the 1940s and just never went back. "Left a good job, too," she says with a chuckle.

Drugs "are messing things up," she says. They've made people meaner, she says, so much so that in the last days of the cafe, she wouldn't even go outside and chat with folks on the front porch for fear of being hurt.

After all that, Brown finally says a little about the cafe.
People just used to come, she says, and she would give them a little something--food, drink, conversation. She used to run the cafe at another place, but moved it into her home when she could no longer afford the rent.

"I've always done for myself," Brown says proudly. "I've always cared for myself."

From her porch, she points across the street to the lot where the shooting that led to her arrest occurred. They fought over drugs, she says. "The shooting had nothing to do with me," she says. The town "can't put that weight on me."

There is a standing order that if she sells alcohol again, she will be sent back to jail, this time for as much as six months. The city's clean-up campaign has targeted Brown's home. She has been slapped with numerous code violations and has until the middle of next month to remedy them or face daily fines.

 

Brown, true to her cantankerous nature --which perhaps is the secret to her longevity--still schemes.

"I've a mind to open the cafe again," she says, impishly. "My great-granddaughter can do it. She's old enough now.


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