Sour Town

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.

They aren't.

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."

In 1894, when Ladonia's first mayor declared the town's future "glorious," it probably looked that way. The city boasted a population of nearly 4,000. Cotton was king, and Ladonia (pronounced la-dawn-ya by old-timers and la-dough-nya by other old-timers) was cotton country. Muriel Burleson, an 86-year-old retired elementary school teacher, is a Ladonia native and history buff who lives about a mile out of the city in her grandmother's 1880s-era house. Burleson published the city history A Community Affair, 1836 Toward 2000 Ladonia, copies of which she keeps in the trunk of her car. Most of the passages in the book begin with the somewhat loaded question, "Aren't you glad you live in Ladonia?" Burleson, who was around during Ladonia's boom, is glad she stayed, even through the bust. She is unabashedly fond of her city.

"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."