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FLASHBACK: Road trip to the Greatest Little Town in Texas - Odessa American: Celinda Hawkins

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FLASHBACK: Road trip to the Greatest Little Town in Texas

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Posted: Sunday, June 1, 2014 7:15 am

A recent road trip took me to Ballinger, a small, quaint town, with dollhouse-lined streets about 160 miles southeast of Odessa.

And there is actually a lot to see and do in this Ballinger, dubbed the “Greatest Little Town in Texas.”

A little bit before you get to the city limits sign on Highway 158, you know you’re in Ballinger when you see a huge steel cross glistening atop a hill overlooking the city. In fact, you can see the huge cross that is 100 feet tall and the arms are 70 feet wide, from almost any direction coming in to town.

The cross appears to glow in the sunlight, and if you drive up the hill, it is even more majestic. The cross weighs 50 tons and is supported by 100 tons of concrete and steel. Folks love to visit the cross. Under the cross is an area where the faithful can leave messages, sign in or simply pray and reflect.

Jim and Doris Studer, who own Buddy’s Plant Plus, where they make Miracle-Gro, donated the huge metal cross in 1993 just to give thanks for all of their blessings in life, especially since they arrived in Texas. Jim Studer once told me that when he and his wife decided to move their plant fertilizer business from Florida to Texas in 1988, they first stopped in West Texas; alas, they would ultimately decide on Ballinger as their home.

On the hillside just below the cross is a small chapel and grotto to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and both are crafted with native stone and bits of colored glass. The sight is decorated with gifts and mementos from faithful visitors.

It was the abundant water supply coming from Elm Creek that made Ballinger an attractive stop for the Santa Fe Railroad, so a depot (which is now city hall) was constructed in 1886. Folks flocked to the small, wild frontier settlement strewn with more saloons than businesses. In 1904, farmers began moving in, again thanks to the abundant water supply. The population boomed to 4,000 in 1910 and the small city would be one of 1,412 U.S. communities to receive funding for a Carnegie Library, thanks to the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie.

But in 1916, a mass exodus of farmers occurred because of drought. The population has fluctuated, but it now remains about the same as it was about eight decades ago.

A few years back, the town came very close to running out of water, when the city’s lake went dry. At that time, they were just about to hook up to O.H. Ivie for drinking water. If the good residents of the community wanted to water their lawns, they had to haul water. One day I sat at the city park where folks were lining up to fill huge plastic tanks on trailers with brackish water from a well there. Well, now that’s dry, a local told me the other day.

Important residents include Norton the ghost that haunts the Texas Grill (which is now a Mexican food joint) on Hutchins Avenue, which is the main street through town. I’ve been in there and while I did not see evidence of Norton that day, the guys in the kitchen said it gets a little crazy when the silverware starts flying around. Hmmm…

My new friend Fred Schwake, an Odessa native, is a picker of junk and signs, has a shop downtown and there are many interesting things to see there. Yes and he’s famous too — as a member of the National Basketball Hall of Fame.

A favorite son of Odessa, George E. “Buddy” West, was born there on Oct. 9, 1936. West, a very popular legislator from Odessa, served District 81 in the House of Representatives from 1993 to 2008. Sadly, West died in 2008. In 2012, Buddy and Shirley West Building was dedicated at the Presidential Archives and Leadership Library in Odessa.

Hundreds attended his funeral service on June 27, 2008, here at First Baptist Church. 

In West’s honor, Gov. Rick Perry ordered the lowering of flags in the state capitol complex in Austin on the days of his death and his interment at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. Perry said that the state "lost a great public servant when Buddy West passed away ... a dedicated champion for the people of West Texas, Buddy's legacy will live on in the lives of those he touched..."

Perry said that if a film of the "history of West Texas [were made], I think Buddy West would have been the perfect character in that movie to play the lead role. He not only looked the part, he lived the part."

Odessa, TX

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