Life in the Slow Lane

Clockwise from top left: A sign in Crawford welcomes the Bush family back to town. The flashing lights are the only thing to slow traffic through Crawford. And displaying flag decals proudly wasn't enough to keep this Crawford barber shop open for business.
Mark Graham

CRAWFORD--The lone traffic light that slows passing motorists in the heart of this tiny Central Texas community blinks in silence as another 100-degree day gives way to welcomed, cooling twilight. The 705 residents of this McLennan County dot-on-the-map have made their way home or out to the high school to watch the football team work out in preparation for the upcoming season.

Finally, Crawford, the summer vacation home of President George W. Bush, has retreated to the sleepy little town it has generally been since the Great Depression robbed it of its prosperity and promise.

The rails paralleling Main Street are quiet, the last freight train having passed through hours earlier. Manager Jamie Burgess has put a "closed" sign in the front window of The Red Bull, one of a half-dozen gift shops in town; waitress Kameron Bonner has cleared the last table down at the Spanos Family Coffee Station. The lights are out at the Fina station, and Tod "Doc" Mishler, who rode from Montana in the long-shot hope of speaking to the region's most famous resident, has unsaddled his horse and bedded down for another night of waiting. His political work done, Mayor Robert Campbell is at home, contemplating the Sunday sermon he will deliver to his congregation at the Prairie Chapel United Methodist Church.

And if things go as usual, there won't be much for Crawford's three-man police force to worry about, unless someone ignores the traffic signal or a rancher's cattle break through a fence and help is needed with a midnight roundup.

At the elementary school, the parking lot, earlier filled with dusty SUVs and rental cars, is all but empty. The visiting White House press corps, which had spent the day inside the 90-year-old gymnasium-turned-press center waiting for breaking news that never broke, has retreated to Waco, 20 miles to the east, where amenities like motel rooms, a variety of restaurants and the legal purchase of a tall cool one await.

On this mid-August day, the only noteworthy bulletin passed along to many of the nation's most elite journalists was that a local farmer soon would arrive with a pickup-load of sand and metal stakes and set up a horseshoe-pitching court near the spot where network TV reporters usually stand to give their reports. (Many viewers, who nightly see the bales of hay and farm equipment in the background, might get the impression that the reports are coming from a rural spot very near the Bush ranch. Truth is, the reporters are standing near the high school running track.) As soon as Cathy Horton, a local souvenir and memorabilia designer, could locate some horseshoes, a new way to pass the time in Crawford would be up and running.

Welcome to the hinterland where a once-obscure little scrub brush town in the middle of farm and ranch country has been elevated to international fame. Since lifelong resident Ken Engelbrecht, needing to move his ailing mother closer to her dialysis treatments in nearby Temple, sold Bush his 1,600-acre ranch seven miles outside town, Crawford and its summers have changed dramatically.

Originally a Tonkawa Indian campground, then a once-thriving cotton-ginning center that challenged nearby Waco for designation as the county's commercial center, the town had quietly retreated into the comfortable '90s obscurity enjoyed by many rural Texas communities. Possessing a school system with an exemplary rating, it was a community where everyone was on a first-name basis and kids were free to wander and explore. Crawford wasn't dying, folks insisted; it just wasn't breathing very hard.

And then the president came, bringing with him a steady stream of visiting dignitaries from all over the world, grim-faced Secret Service agents, protesters angry about everything from the war in Iraq to environmental oversights, vacationers detouring through in hopes of catching a glimpse of the leader of the free world, and a cadre of dazed and perspiring reporters who still privately wonder whatever happened to the presidential idea of spending summers in such wonderlands as Kennebunkport or San Clemente.

One need only spend some time in the gymnasium press center or listen to the idle conversations beneath the nearby tent where cameramen prepare to relay the latest news to realize that the men and women of the press would damn well prefer another dateline for their stories.

"If I talked to you," one veteran White House correspondent admitted, "I'd get fired." Mum, apparently, is the word when it comes to candid observations on working in Crawford.

Chris Sutton, a journalist for Accuracy in Media, has even gone so far as to suggest that the annual exile to Texas may have something to do with the angry tenor of much of the political reporting that appeared in major dailies throughout the country during August. "We'd like," he writes, "to think that journalists are machines, professional and above allowing their own sentiments to seep into their reporting. But just maybe the heat has embittered some journalists' pens."  

If so, it doesn't seem to concern the president. When he first announced his annual vacation destination, he told a gathering of Republican senators that "the national media will hate it, but I'm going where it's 98 degrees, average temperature, day and night." In fact, his idea of catering to the media rarely goes past an occasional invitation to join him on the ranch for what he calls his "100-Degree Run." Those who complete Bush's three-mile course while the thermometer is in triple-digit range are given a T-shirt that commemorates their survival.

It isn't exactly strolling on a California beach with Richard Nixon or leisurely keeping tabs on Bill and Hillary out on Martha's Vineyard.

As soon as it was apparent that the newly elected president would be spending considerable time in Crawford, Mayor Campbell and several city officials made a hurried fact-finding visit to Plains, Georgia, where President Jimmy Carter had vacationed during his White House tenure. "Plains is much like Crawford; a population of 711 and no motel or hotel facilities," Campbell says. What he and those who accompanied him learned was that the newness of being the presidential vacation spot eventually would wear off, and with a little patience things would quickly return to normal once the president and his entourage headed back to Washington.

Now in his third term in a position that pays no salary, the 60-year-old Campbell gives the union of politicos and big-city media with the laid-back people of Crawford a passing grade. "There is a cordial, peaceful co-existence," says Campbell, a black Democrat in a community that has less than a 4 percent black population and has become increasingly Republican since Bush bought his ranch.

"Truthfully," says the Philadelphia native who moved to Crawford 23 years ago, "all you have to do is go down to the coffee shop and sit in on the conversation for a while to learn that politics isn't the town's main concern. Before the president became a part of the community, no one ever worried about political affiliations. And that hasn't really changed much. Right now, everyone's talking about how the Crawford High Pirates football team is going to do this year."

Though the minister-mayor takes a politically correct "neutral" stance on the president and his policies, he does admit that Bush's proximity has created one giant-sized headache for the community. "The protesters," he says with little sign of sympathy for their causes.

Every weekend during Bush's stay in Texas, they came to the local football stadium (the designated staging area for such events), chanting against the war on terrorism one week and the president's road map for peace the next. Greenpeace activists attached a large banner to the local water tower that read, "Bush: The Toxic Texan. Don't Mess With the Earth." Most recently it was an anti-war group calling itself Military Families Speaking Out urging Bush to bring the troops home from Iraq.

Now lending a hand to the weekend protests is Dallas peace activist John Wolf. A theater set designer by trade, Wolf recently purchased a small frame house on the edge of downtown and named it the Crawford Peace House, making it available to dissidents and demonstrators who come to town. Visitors are now greeted by yard signs bearing messages like "War is NOT the Answer." "We just wanted to have a place to speak our truth from," Wolf explained to The Associated Press shortly after making a $54,000 down payment on the house.

Not only does the vitriol of outsiders rankle the townspeople, it creates resource and manpower problems that Campbell says Crawford's budget and minute police department are simply not equipped to handle, even with the help of officers from the Department of Public Safety and the Waco-based McLennan County Sheriff's Department. "That," the mayor says, "is the only real downside to having the president here. It's a problem, but we're working it out."

In an effort to bring some degree of sanity and organization to such intrusions, the city passed an ordinance in 2001 that requires demonstrators to request a permit 15 days in advance of any march or rally. But in May, after five people were arrested and charged with violating the ordinance, a lawsuit was filed against police Chief Donnie Tidmore and the city. In the suit, the anti-war demonstrators claimed their First Amendment rights had been violated.

Chief Tidmore would not discuss the lawsuit, saying only that he is "a flexible person." "I will work with anyone or any group that abides by the law," he says.  

You don't have to wander the streets of Crawford long to realize that of all the summer intrusions that find their way to the little community, the visiting demonstrators are viewed as the biggest pain in the ass.

Such are the headaches folks in rural Texas never expected to come visiting. Thus, the downside, as the mayor suggests. The upside, the balm, is the steady ring of the downtown cash registers.

In the event you're running low on George W. Bush T-shirts, coffee mugs, buttons, caps, pennants, postcards or bobble-head dolls, the town's merchants stand ready to meet your every need. Crawford must lead the free world in per capita souvenir shops.

During August alone, lifetime resident Jamie Burgess ("My granddad's great-grandfather was the first mayor here," she brags) welcomed customers from a dozen states and Canada to The Red Bull, the shop she runs for her mother.

Vacationers steadily stop in to purchase proof they've visited the summer home of the president and to listen to Burgess' complimentary history lessons. In short order they'll learn that Crawford once had a state-of-the-art hotel, a movie theater, a thriving livery stable, a fancier-than-most restaurant and not one but two cotton gins.

Lending a hand during the August "busy season" is Cathy Horton, designer of many of the items The Red Bull has for sale. "I've enjoyed meeting people from all over," she said between phone calls to locate horseshoes for the reporters waiting at the elementary school.

Some in town view the visiting journalists as a bit aloof--instead of venturing out to try the $4.99 mushroom burger and fries down at the local eatery, the reporters choose the noon buffet served at the press center by a McGregor caterer. Still, Horton has no complaints. After all, many of them are regular customers.

"They'll come in and buy things to take or mail back home to friends and family," she says. "Some days, they'll wander in just to get out of the heat for a while."

When Soviet leader Vladimir Putin visited Bush's ranch, it was the Russian press that provided a landmark sales day. Same when the Japanese came to town.

"I've got reporters in several countries who I now exchange e-mails with," Horton says. "By sitting right here in little ol' Crawford, the world has come to me."

So good was business a few weeks ago that she and Burgess missed lunch at the Coffee Station when Bush and wife Laura arrived with visiting members of his Cabinet. The Secret Service "let everyone who was already seated stay in the restaurant while the president, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice ate."

"Afterwards, they shook hands with everyone and signed a lot of autographs," says waitress Kameron Bonner, who drew the honor of serving the president. "It was pretty exciting."

For weeks after, she says, all her regular customers wanted to hear were details of the celebrities' visit.

The impact the president's presence has had on the Crawford economy remains difficult to measure, Mayor Campbell says. Though sales tax revenue has obviously risen, he and fellow city officials suggest that any real financial windfall will come only if President Bush is elected to a second term. Trinkets and souvenirs alone will not breathe lasting life into the tiny community. But there's talk around town that suggests if Bush is re-elected, it is possible a deal with a motel chain could be struck, and at least one more restaurant and even a grocery store might open.

Like many in Crawford, neither the ladies at The Red Bull nor the town's mayor have ever met President Bush. And they're hardly alone.

W. Leon Smith, 50-year-old publisher of the weekly Lone Star Iconoclast, recently sent a formal request to the White House, pointing out that he felt "it would be appropriate to allow [the president's] local newspaper to ask a few questions and have a short exclusive interview."

"I've been informed it is being considered," he says. The roll of his eyes as he speaks signals the fact he isn't holding his breath.

Off and on since the late 1800s, Crawford has had a weekly newspaper. Over the years, it has been called the Crawford Yeoman, The Advocate, The Advance, The Grit and The Sun. Ultimately each went by the wayside, and until the fall of 2000, the community had been without a paper for four years. That's when Smith and a 24-year-old reporter named Nathan Diebenow, a University of North Texas graduate, stepped in to provide a weekly recap of city council meetings, school news, sports events, social activities and, yes, presidential sightings.  

While the masthead of the Iconoclast says it is published in Crawford, its home is actually 20 miles away in Clifton, where the enterprising Smith publishes a twice-weekly paper, The Clifton Record. He also owns and operates the Clifton movie theater and is in his second term as mayor. For a time, he rented office space in back of The Red Bull in Crawford but ultimately determined it was more cost-effective to have Diebenow drive in several times a week to gather the news.

"The business people in town like for us to write about President Bush as much as possible," Smith admits, "but we feel our primary responsibility is to cover the other things going on in Crawford." Thus a recent edition's front page carried not only an account of the rally to protest the closing of the Veterans Affairs hospital in nearby Waco but stories informing readers that the city council would consider adopting an 8 percent tax increase, that the Athletic Booster Club would be hosting a "Meet the Crawford Pirates" night and that the school board had OK'd day-care space for the children of teachers and administrators.

Which, says reporter Diebenow, is how he likes it. An English major with aspirations to be a novelist, he views his role as that of a year-round chronicler of life in Crawford, not just the annual August Bushfest. Profiling new coaches or reporting on the 125th anniversary of the Crawford First Baptist Church, he says, is more interesting to him than the occasional visit to the nearby gymnasium to mingle with the visiting White House press. (His boss, Smith, has even extended an invitation to the visiting media to enjoy a movie on the house at his theater, but thus far he has had no takers.)

"I'm in Crawford four times a week," Diebenow says, "and haven't seen the president yet. He's like Sasquatch [the mythical Bigfoot] to me."

To demonstrate the reporting priorities he and his publisher have established, Diebenow notes that he didn't bother to cover a recent anti-Bush rally. "They're all about the same," he says. "I'd had a wisdom tooth pulled and just didn't feel like going." The 1,500-circulation paper is as laid-back as the community it covers, though it did endorse Bush and is mailed to the White House.

And, Smith admits, it livens up the day when a big-shot New York TV producer gives him a call just to see if there are any overlooked feature stories in Crawford he might suggest.

Truth is, President Bush didn't spend much time in downtown Crawford on this trip to Texas. That was a disappointment to many, including Doc Mishler, the former college professor who has recently become part of the town's local color. A year ago he launched a 3,200-mile horseback journey from his home in Choteau, Montana, heading for Crawford. His cause: raising awareness of the world's starving children. "Every day," he points out to anyone who will stop to listen or read one of the press releases he carries in his saddle bag, "50,000 children die of hunger."

Daily, the 67-year-old, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from Western Michigan University, can be found beneath a shade tree near the post office. Dressed like a character out of Lonesome Dove, he's joined by his Tennessee walking horse, Chief Spirit, and his dog, Czar Bear. And to many Crawford residents, he's no longer viewed as an outsider. Even the mayor likes him. "He's a gentle, kindhearted man," Campbell says.

"The people here have received me wonderfully," Mishler acknowledges. He spends his nights in the air-conditioned comfort of Wolf's Peace House, a local rancher allows him to board his horses in a 60-acre pasture nearby at no cost and donations from passing strangers take care of his limited financial needs.

If, in fact, every small town needs a storytelling "character," Mishler fills the bill nicely. He'll gladly provide passers-by with details of his winding journey that began in June 2002 and ended with his arrival in Crawford in June of this year; he'll also tell of the generosity of people he met along the way, and of what he calls his "final mission in life." Given the opportunity, he's convinced he can turn the president's attention from war to providing nutrition for future generations. He even has a gift for Bush.

His trip began with two horses that he rode alternately. The mare, Faith, gave birth to a filly soon after Mishler arrived in Crawford. He named the foal Hope and has plans to present it as a gift to President Bush if the opportunity arises. Though a self-described optimist, he knows chances of that happening are on the far side of remote.  

And, since August has passed without the audience he'd hoped for, Mishler's future plans are a bit vague. He may head to Washington or go back home. A lot depends on whether his colon cancer remains in remission. Or, he may stay in Crawford awhile. "I really like the people here," he says, "and you know George is going to be coming back this way."

And when he does, sleepy little Crawford will awake, polish up the billboard on the edge of town that reads, "Welcome to Crawford: Home of President George W. Bush," and be ready, more experienced and better prepared for the circus that is certain to follow. They're getting used to it.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >