Sour Town

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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."

In these boom times in North Texas, Ladonia is an island of bust. A hundred years after the mayor predicted great things, most of the shops around the city's square are boarded up. The 19th-century brick buildings are dilapidated. Junk is piled inside some of the stores. Slogans for the Falcons are painted in black and gold on the windows. "Black Gold," says one; "Feel the Power," says another. Nearby on another closed storefront, "Go Falcons" is painted beside a hand-written "for rent" sign. At a closed arts-and-crafts store, a small "for sale" sign is below a large sign that reads, "Grand Opening." Across the street, on the City Hall lawn at the center of the square, are wooden picnic tables and the green-roofed gazebo where the man dropped dead. Beside the city's one-story brick building are the police cars, parked head in, awaiting sale.

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.

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Charles Siderius
Contact: Charles Siderius