Aug 08, 2023

MICHAEL BUNKER: Sticks and stones, a history lesson we need

This column isn’t about building with brick and stone. It’s about history, and you won’t want to miss it. But we have to put things in context so we can look around and know what we’re seeing today.

In a recent column, I referred to urban buildings constructed with quarried or gathered stone as “stacked rocks.” Stone was a popular building method for centuries because it was cheap. Stone was something you only had to dig or gather, and labor was plentiful and inexpensive. Bricks were great too but building with brick – which had to be manufactured – was (for a time) more expensive. Out in the county, they built foundations of field stone, but most of the buildings were made of timber cut from the lowlands by the creeks and, when the sawmills were built, the houses and barns were constructed of sawn boards.

Remember when I told you about the first gunfight in Brownwood? That was in 1861. The Wild West frontier was between Brownwood and Coleman then. By 1894, only 33 years later, Brownwood was a big city with hopes and dreams:

“Brownwood is a fine town, located in a fine farming region (when seasons are favorable) and shows thrift and enterprise. They have a good system of waterworks, electric lights, oil mill, compress, flouring mill and other enterprises that one expects to find in the largest town west of Fort Worth. Substantial stone and brick business houses abound, while they have two large colleges, four newspapers, six churches, a large public-school building and many find residences.” (The Granbury News)

Nearby Coleman had been tamed a bit too. In fact, they looked side-eyed at Brownwood, competitively proud that their neighbor city had cleaned itself up from its hard-won reputation as a hellish den of gambling, drinking, and vice (It’s true!):

“Brownwood is a much nicer town now than three years ago. The hell holes have all been stopped up, and instead of brilliant red noses there are electric lights. The knights of the green cloth have emigrated and, in their stead there are more preachers and school teachers and newspapers.” (The Coleman Voice)

“Brilliant red noses,” meant “drunks,” and “knights of the green cloth,” meant “gamblers.”

So, keep this in context. The area went from the Old West days of the wild frontier and gunfights to a civilized land of large cities with beautiful brick and stone buildings, colleges, and stately homes in just three decades. Do you think thirty years is a long time? My oldest daughter turned thirty this year. (Thirty years ago the number one song was Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You, and songs from Disney’s Aladdin were on the radio. That’s not a very long time.)

Now we’ll leapfrog ahead only another 30 years from 1894.

Coleman was in the running against Lubbock for who was going to get Texas Tech. Over 30,000 people lived in Coleman County in the early 1930s, and about that many lived in Brown County too. But Brownwood was soon to get a major influx of residents. In 1940 Camp Bowie was up and running and when the war started, some say as many as 80,000 or more soldiers were stationed here. There were a lot more buildings constructed with brick and lumber then. It was the boom time.

After the war and when the population began to shrink, things changed.

You see all those beautiful stone and brick arches on the backs and sides of buildings downtown? The ones that are bricked in or boarded up? Those used to be beautiful windows. When air conditioning came, those windows were deemed an excess nuisance and an expensive loss of efficiency. So, they were all closed up. The buildings were made to look ugly for efficiency’s sake. People wanted to live farther away from the city center anyway, so they spread out more. Neighborhoods were built, mostly of brick and lumber.

In the mid-century, some awesome space-age-looking modern buildings were built, but the post-war boomers grew embarrassed of the “old” stone structures nearby. This wasn’t just in Brownwood, this was everywhere. When the post-war generation reached their twenties, by the 1960s and 70s, the old buildings were either being torn down or “renovated” by covering up the old stone walls and big windows. Downtown areas were abandoned for the new strip malls, and the people who owned the downtown buildings just wanted to lease them for whatever they could get.

It’s like when your children reach their teens and twenties and they’re embarrassed about how old and out of touch you are.

Building owners used cement or wood to square up and “modernize” the building facades. High-ceilinged stores were either divided into two floors or drop-ceilings were installed to cover up the ornate tiles. When some of the old buildings burned, they were either bulldozed, or the upper floors were removed. There was a purposeful attempt to erase the past because the prophets of futurity wanted to advertise how forward-thinking and modern the town was.

How does this apply today?

Sometimes people come to believe that they are in competition with other cities, colleges, towns, etc., and they believe they need to sell how new and hip they are. So they wipe out the past. They apologize that they are forced to do it, but they still do it.

The really forward-thinking places, however, recognize that nostalgia is often a bigger seller than modernity. The Ivy League colleges and the old cities in Europe were some of the first to realize that history is a fantastic marketing tool. When you keep the old buildings and modernize the “guts,” you can get the best of both worlds.

As an aside, I just love that young people in our town are buying buildings and uncovering the beautiful stone and brickwork. Uncovering the gorgeous windows. Restoring the connection with their history.

The number one subconscious marketing motivator in the world right now, among the aging population AND the younger groups, is nostalgia. That’s right. Even the young are looking backward because they know that the modern world they’ve been sold is missing something vital. Maybe they don’t know what it is, but they know they need some silver thread of faithful connection to what came before.

When the future is subconsciously connected with fear (as it is today,) the only way to help the new generations to look forward with optimism is to keep a clear-eyed connection with the past. When you eradicate the past, tear down the connection with history, you leave people solely in the arms of the fear they hold for the history-less future.

In the movie Field of Dreams the moviemakers touched on this connection. In the movie, the connection with the past was baseball. In real life, we all want to know that we are connected to the past and that we aren’t just nihilistic bits of space dust with no past and no future. The muddier the future gets, the better we would all do to uncover and touch the former landmarks before it’s too late.


Michael Bunker is a local columnist for whose columns appear periodically on the website.