This is the first in an occasional series exploring Texas locales near and far that offer uncommon sights and experiences.

The two-hour drive from San Antonio to Bartlett along the Pickle Parkway toll road is rife with sunflowers, filling the expansive views with contrasting bright yellow petals and dark brown kernels during a recent road trip to the town 30 minutes northeast of Georgetown.

The unusual proliferation of sunflowers serves as a metaphor for what’s happening in Bartlett, once considered a ghost town but newly revived with an infusion of planned revitalization by Robert Zalkin, a developer from the town of Liberty, New York.

Once big-box stores began populating the countryside, the mom-and-pop small businesses that formed the core of small town downtowns started going out of business, unable to compete. Those closures perpetuated a cycle of diminished opportunity, and younger townsfolk drifted away, toward college or cities with plentiful jobs and teeming social offerings.

Like helianthus annuas, the common sunflower that has benefited from the dieback of other species due to the heavy freeze in February and subsequent heavy rainfall, conditions may be just right for Bartlett to make an astonishing comeback.

The present moment is ripe for glimpsing the transition from a downtown once devoid of life to what its developer hopes will be a burgeoning artist’s mecca.

Paying a visit

Arriving in Bartlett, Clark Street becomes immediately apparent: a two-block-long row of ornate storefronts overlooking a broad street paved in red brick.

Not long ago, nearly every storefront was vacant, earning the forlorn place a reputation as a ghost town. Hollywood moviemakers even came calling when scouting for an empty Western-style town — close viewers of the 1998 film The Newton Boys, starring Matthew McConaughey (and Dwight Yoakam!), will note the resemblance of one of the gang’s targeted banks to the former bank building on the corner of Clark and Evie streets.

A former tavern and bank anchors the corner of Evie and Clark streets. The building plays a role in the 1998 movie “The Newton Boys.” Credit: Nicholas Frank / San Antonio Report

On Clark Street, the painted advertisements on the sides of some buildings look oddly new compared to the dusty old walls they occupy. That’s because they were freshened up as backdrops for The Newton Boys and other movies and television shows, such as Fear the Walking Dead, shot there.

Today and for the past five years, the only barbecue in town has been available on weekends at Perez BBQ. But if Zalkin’s plans come to fruition, the main downtown thoroughfare will feature a sit-down barbecue joint, a pizza place, a tavern, an ice cream stand, a coffee shop, and other amenities to go along with the new corner liquor store he manages with Austin resident and business partner Jeanine Plumer.

“I truly love Texas small towns, and I get the vibe, and I get the people,” said Plumer, who regularly produces events throughout Texas. “So I contacted him, and I said I really understand what you’re doing and I want to be a part of it.”

Until those businesses get up and running, though, the storefronts will still appear vacant, leaving Bartlett teetering on the edge of its old ghost town reputation.

A real ghost town?

So is Bartlett really a ghost town? Depends on whom you ask.

To Plumer, who runs Austin Ghost Tours while maintaining the Bartlett Liquor Store, the town of 1,879 living souls just might be bursting at the seams with actual spirits.

She was first invited to town to investigate reports of possible ghosts in one of the downtown buildings. Plumer and colleague Monica Ballard now run ghost tours in the Old Red School House Museum and Bartlett Activities Center the first Saturday of every month.

Plumer said most days she looks upon the downtown streets emptied of life and sees a ghost town “not necessarily because of the residual energies of people who once lived here are still roaming or not willing to leave, but because just look outside. … It looks [empty] like that, all the time.”

However, curator Leslie Moody Castro and the ICOSA Collective of Austin staked an entire art exhibition on the grounds that Bartlett is not a ghost town, a designation she calls a “misnomer.”

The Old Red School House Museum and Bartlett Activity Center host ghost tours once per month. Credit: Nicholas Frank / San Antonio Report

After spending time there working on what Houston visual arts website Glasstire called an “arts-centered revitalization project and exhibition” named The Bartlett Project, Moody Castro made her case. “Bartlett is the opposite of a ghost town,” she wrote. “It is a town whose seams are beginning to bust, and whose story is fighting against being forgotten.”

Moody Castro and her ICOSA compatriots were good sports in including the ghost tour among the activities scheduled for opening day of The Bartlett Project on June 12. Several of the artists involved in the exhibition and panel discussions, held in the vacant spaces of Clark Street, participated in the late-night ghost tour.

I will leave it to intrepid adventurers to discover on their own whether any actual ghosts are to be found among the yellowing archives, portraits of deceased town leaders, and antique furniture of the Activities Center’s display rooms.

Voices of the past

San Antonio artist Mark Menjivar participated in The Bartlett Project by interviewing residents of the Will O’Bell nursing home for an oral history project, currently available for listening via KBART, Menjivar’s low-power radio station broadcasting to the Bartlett community at 91.1 on the FM dial for the foreseeable future.

In the five-hour repeating program, listeners will hear stories of Bartlett from residents ranging from age 9 to 92.

One thing they will not hear is a resident speaking of ghosts. “There was one person who mentioned it before we turned the recorder on, because we were in an old building,” Menjivar said, referring to the Activities Center. “And he said, ‘Oh, this place is haunted, you know.”

On June 12, a small crowd gathers in front of KBART 91.1 FM, an impromptu low-power radio station broadcasting oral histories from the town of Bartlett. Credit: Nicholas Frank / San Antonio Report

Almost to a person, longtime residents of Bartlett refer to the town’s thriving past, with multiple filling stations, grocery stores, a department store, a movie theater, and car dealerships.

“When I was growing up [in the 1960s], there were no empty buildings in Bartlett,” said Carole White, as she surveyed rows of vacant storefronts.

White serves the area as a large animal veterinarian, with local family roots that goes back generations and include the owners of a grocery store and cafe downtown. She pointed to the former Hausgarten Edelweiss restaurant, saying its elderly owners had to close in 2019 after their sole young employee went off to college and they could find no one to replace him.

“It’s kind of just been dead for so long,” White said. “It might need the defibrillators to come in. And that’s what I was hoping, this young man from New York would be able to, you know, kickstart it.”

A small town enthusiast

What does one do to make enough money that one can literally go small-town shopping? Zalkin would reveal only that he has been successful in real estate. A self-professed fan of small towns, he decided he would search for the perfect one for his revitalization dreams.

Drawn to Texas through his real estate career, he spent weeks driving around the state, then finally found his ideal. “When I stepped out of the car in Bartlett I’m like, wow, this is something special.

“When you look at these beautiful buildings, it’s almost like you’re transported into time.”

He would also not reveal how many of Bartlett’s building he owns, but assured that it was most of the buildings on Clark Street. Asked what level of success in real estate has allowed him to purchase most of the heart of a Texas small town, he demurred.

“I guess you could call me a small town enthusiast,” he said.

Zalkin has spent time hanging around the liquor store, which he said is a great way to meet local residents. Asked whether he’s encountered skepticism from the locals, he said, “I know everybody that lives on on the main street here, and not one person has ever said, ‘This is a huge disruption.’ Everyone wants to see something so badly.”

Wright proved his point. When her husband expressed skepticism about an outsider buying up the town, she said she told him, “I don’t care who comes to town and revitalizes it. I said, ‘It breaks my heart to see all the buildings falling apart.’”

For Sarah Perez who runs the Perez BBQ with husband John, the skepticism is generational.

“Some [older downtown residents], from what I hear in this little town, is that they like it the way it is, they don’t want businesses brought in,” she said. “However, the younger generation of this town, we want more. There’s stories about Bartlett, back in the day, it was booming. … All these buildings, nothing was vacant. I would love to see Bartlett like that again.”

Plumer said it was Zalkin’s commitment to including residents in his planning that convinced her to be involved. “He does want to make this a culinary and artistic destination, but part of that plan is very much including the community.” At the liquor store, she acts as a liaison to inform residents of what’s going on, giving feedback to Zalkin.

The restored Bartlett National Bank building now hosts a popular Airbnb. Credit: Nicholas Frank / San Antonio Report

During a building tour that was part of the opening day activities of her project, Moody Castro pointed out that the old Bartlett National Bank building had been turned into a popular Airbnb by new owner Jennifer Welch, who also renovated a cozy 1899 Presbyterian church that had fallen into disrepair.

Plumer was first brought to town by Welsh, who introduced her to Zalkin.

“We all are in this together,” Zalkin said of the overall redevelopment effort, “and want to see the best for Bartlett and see it being brought back to life. There’s just so much potential here. … It’s a beautiful place.”

That an art project and a new maker space, called Common Space – available for rent to artists and crafts makers from the region (contact Zalkin through his Instagram, @downtownbartlett) – are part of Zalkin’s early plans is no coincidence, as evidenced by his philosophy.

“I’ve always admired people that work with their hands,” he said. “Nowadays everything’s mass produced, it’s made in China, it’s made overseas. There’s something unique about an item or a product that’s made by hand, and I’ve always been fascinated by that. It requires years of skill and practice and hard work.”

Sounds like a good way to revitalize a small town.

If You Go

How to get there

The best option is to avoid I-35 congestion in Austin and pony up the $15 dollars or so to take the Pickle Parkway 130 toll road. A few vistas along the way open onto Hill Country sights.

Where to stay

The old Bartlett National Bank is now a popular Airbnb downtown and just a few blocks away is another rental in a cozy 1899 Presbyterian church.

Where to dine

Eating is a trickier proposition in Bartlett. While there are a few fast food stops, downtown’s only restaurant, the Hausgarten Edelweiss, closed a couple years ago. The Crossroads Cafe serves simple American favorites about 6 miles west on FM 487.

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...