Glancing at Google Maps, the city of Abilene looks to be right near the geographical center of Texas, located on the edge of the relatively green side of the state and the high deserts of West Texas.
Affectionately known as “Abi” to its residents, Abilene was established as a frontier town in 1881 by cattlemen as a rail transport hub for their stock to the rest of the U.S. The “frontier” term has stuck, used by the city in its self-touting advertising and by Texas author Stephen Harrigan, who grew up there in the 1950s.
“I remember it as a somewhat idyllic place for a kid to grow up and roam around,” Harrigan said. “It still felt like a frontier kind of place, in the middle of the plains with intriguing nearby places with names like Buffalo Gap.”
Abilene retains a strong sense of its history while also growing, thriving and modernizing. Trains still blow through the center of town regularly on the old Texas & Pacific tracks, but a clever system of underpasses allows easy access to and from downtown to the north and neighborhoods to the south.
A powerful statement
The current exhibition is Witness: Black Artists in Texas, Then and Now, a stellar example of curation that connects current regional art with its antecedents.
Houston artist John Biggers is the center point in this galaxy of 18 Texans artists. Biggers, born in 1924, lived through segregation. He died in 2001 leaving a significant body of paintings and murals that celebrate Black identity through a personal system of symbols such as gabled shotgun house rooftops representing community and roosters heralding a new day.
Biggers influenced younger Black artists through his teaching, including Kermit Oliver, a painter originally from Refugio who won acclaim while studying at Texas Southern University. Oliver’s elaborate hand-wrought frames stand out in several paintings in Witness, particularly the detailed bas-relief carvings of flowers and vegetables in I Too Was at Eden of 2018.
The line of influence is represented by younger artists including Delita Martin, a Conroe native who also studied at Texas Southern, and Letitia and Sedrick Huckaby, Fort Worth artists who focus on family and faith in paintings, installations and fabric prints.
Curator Judy Deaton said Biggers, his colleague Carroll Harris Simms, their students Geraldine Crossland, Harvey Johnson, Elizabeth Montgomery Shelton, Roy Vinson Thomas and others “were witnesses to their own experience and their own feelings about how they wanted to be represented, and what they wanted to say.”
Letitia Huckaby called Deaton’s exhibition “a pretty powerful statement to make in West Texas. … I don’t know if I would have expected it from a city outside of Houston or Dallas or Fort Worth or San Antonio or Austin.”
Frontier Texas would make a good first stop on any trip, as it’s the city’s official visitor welcome center and a museum of state history. Displays begin with tableaux of the region’s prehistory, highlighting the nearby 700-year-old paintings on a rock wall overlooking the Concho River an hour south in Paint Rock.
Interactive displays focus on the Jumano and Apache Indigenous tribes before an extensive section on the Comanche Empire, a reference to the nearly 100-year period when the tribe dominated the Western and Southern plains.
Innovative 3D displays include the story of Britt Johnson, who pops up as a video figure in a facsimile of his 1800s workshop to tell of life as a former slave who started a frontier freighting business, a forerunner of later railroad barons.
The visitor center boasts a comprehensive display of free brochures covering local, regional and statewide points of interest. Of note were brochures on Buffalo Soldiers once stationed in the area and a Texas Historical Commission brochure, African Americans in Texas: A Lasting Legacy, that details 41 stops throughout the state that reveal elements of Black history from the Civil War to the civil rights era.
The brochure’s entry on Abilene led me to Fort Phantom Hill on the northern edge of town, where a regiment of Buffalo Soldiers was stationed in the mid-1800s.
All that remains are a couple of buildings and ruins, well-built chimney stacks still rising above tangles of brush. A rusting iron plow peeks through a window in the foundation of the commissary storehouse, and a lone cannon stands among cactus, overlooking the plains below.
A Legacy Unearthed
Continuing the Black history theme, I also located the Curtis Cultural Center, a restored Black funeral home just northeast of downtown. The center is the effort of Reverend Andrew Penns, a military veteran who has dedicated himself to collecting and preserving archives of Black citizens of Abilene throughout its history.
Photographs, maps and other documents line the walls and tables inside the house, which sits in what was once the segregated neighborhood on the East Side of Abilene.
A documentary film sold at the Texas Star Trading Company downtown, A Legacy Unearthed: The History of Black Abilenians, tells the story of Penn’s life under segregation and how the arrival of Dyess Air Force Base in 1951 and integration changed the city’s racial landscape.
The Texas Star Trading Company was a recommendation of Harrigan, who touted their selection of Texas-themed books.
Owners Glenn and Carol Dromgoole not only stock the more well-known authors such as Harrigan, Lonesome Dove novelist Larry McMurtry and Paulette Jiles, but Abilene writers including Glenn Dromgoole himself, who has published a number of books on life in West Texas.
Shoppers can also peruse the downtown store’s overflowing selection of Texas memorabilia, trinkets and locally-produced foodstuffs, including an ample selection of gift baskets.
East of Cypress Street — also called Storybook Way in honor of the city’s identity as the Storybook Capital of America — sits the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, an exhibition space for original children’s book artworks and a store that sells books by authors featured in exhibitions. On view through Jan. 13 are drawings by New York illustrator Raúl Colón.
The center also organizes the annual Children’s Art and Literacy Festival over three days each June, with readings, performances, puppetry, a costume contest and a parade. Each guest illustrator also spurs the creation of a new storybook sculpture for the city’s growing collection, on display in the Adamson-Spalding Storybook Garden adorning the new downtown civic center under construction.
Children’s book character Stuart Little is there paddling his canoe, as is an elaborate life-sized setting of the Big Bad Wolf threatening to blow down the house of the Three Little Pigs. The garden plays host to several artworks, one grouping among at least 25 public sculptures around town, including a rearing mustang by Luiz Jimenez and a giant bull skull by Joe Barrington on the Frontier Texas grounds that makes a popular backdrop for selfies.
Why Abilene and its surrounding areas have emerged as a center for literature and prominent writers is an open question.
Harrigan spent some formative years of his youth in the city, as did fellow Texas author Lawrence Wright. McMurtry was born nearby in Archer City, about 100 miles northeast. Notable Abilene author A.C. Greene took on the naysaying McMurtry in claiming literary status for Texas writing, and Fort Worth writer John Graves spent significant time nearby composing his poetic 1967 Brazos River elegy Goodbye to a River.
When asked why Abilene has nurtured so much writing, Harrigan wrote in an email, “I don’t know if proportionately more writers emerge from places like Abilene, but when you realize your town isn’t even on the map of people who decide where literature should come from, maybe there’s a part of you that wants to prove them wrong.”
If You Go
How to Get There
Interstate 10 introduces two options for the drive further north: at Comfort, Highway 87 runs through Fredericksburg up to Santa Anna; and at Junction, Highway 83 takes you through Paint Rock (which looks like it’s seen better days) and thriving Ballinger. Both converge near Buffalo Gap south of Abilene.
Where to Stay
A brand new Double Tree by Hilton hotel puts visitors within walking distance of most downtown sites. A number of Airbnbs in the broad-lawned Sayles Boulevard neighborhood are within minutes of everything and offer sightseeing of grand Craftsman and Victorian-style homes.
Where to Drink & Dine
Author Stephen Harrigan highly recommends the Dixie Pig, a delightful family-owned diner just south of downtown. (Cash only.) For a more mid- to upscale, locally sourced Mexican fusion dining experience, try The Local (the carnitas wings intrigued). Cypress Street Station nearby offers American fare and cocktails, housed in a beautifully restored curved-window diner.
Coffee choices include Monk’s and Majestic, the latter inside a historic theater building. The mod choice would be Front Porch across from Frontier Texas.
Craft brewpubs include Grain Theory located downtown and Taylor County Taphouse on the Southeastern edge of town, where the friendly bartender said you can’t beat the “Bat Out of Hell” meatloaf with sriracha chili glaze and mashed potatoes.