Texas

A Big Portrait of a Small Texas Town

The tight-knit community of Corsicana is home to the hit show Cheer, a film-producing police chief and BLM protests

by Sarah Hepola

I used to pass small towns and feel sorry for the people who lived in them. What could you do there? Who could you be? So much of modern life was a race to be exceptional—the biggest houses, the most followers—and I felt a tinge of sadness staring at those rusty warehouses and abandoned shacks off the highways of rural Texas, a land that time forgot. But something happened as the technology age unfolded, with all its virtual bustle and ambient anxiety. I became a woman who sniffed around the small towns looking for a hit of what they had: a slow-pour pace, a sense of community, something called affordable rent.

That’s how I wound up spending time in Corsicana, a community of 25,000 people an hour south of Dallas. The more I became acquainted with its charms, the more I came to feel not sadness for those who lived there, but a kind of lifestyle envy. Contrary to my expectations, there was a lot going on: an artist residency downtown, a hit reality show, a statue of a Black principal getting ready to be unveiled, a police chief making movies.

“I wrote a Western last week,” said Robert Johnson, the first police chief I’ve met who has his own IMDB page. Over the past decade, Johnson has acted in more than 30 TV and film productions. Lately, he’s been moonlighting as a producer and screenwriter, and when we met, he was eagerly preparing for the filming of his Western, titled (wouldn’t you know it) Corsicana. Johnson’s unusual work in both law enforcement and entertainment has helped bring more than a dozen projects to town in the past few years, including Warning Shot, a drama starring David Spade, and American Zombieland, a B-movie satire whose climax had locals descending on the historic downtown to play mobs of the undead—not exactly the scene my mind conjures when I imagine “life in a small town.” But Johnson is only one of many people reimagining what it means to live and thrive in rural Texas—a part of the country that is no longer a land time forgot, but a land of opportunity.

The story of Corsicana’s rise in the 21st century is a story of small towns more generally, which are making a comeback as big cities have grown more expensive and crowded and, during the coronavirus pandemic, less desirable. You could say the internet started it, freeing us from any fixed location, but Chip and Joanna Gaines pushed along the trend, building an empire in Waco, Texas with their company Magnolia, and showing people how to transform abandoned shacks into rustic dream homes on their hit HGTV show Fixer Upper.

Lockhart, Brenham, Marble Falls and many other towns were being rediscovered by a new generation, long before the pandemic and the popularity of Zoom made their own argument against dense urban areas. As I wandered the wide avenues of Corsicana, I noticed how easy it was to socially distance, as though staying six feet away from strangers were not a guideline but a casual way of being.

Until recently, Corsicana has been known for one thing: fruitcake. Collin Street Bakery is home to the indomitable dessert, as well as one of the great scandals in baked goods, when an unassuming accountant embezzled millions—the subject of a delicious 2016 Texas Monthly story by Katy Vine. But the city’s reputation shot up in early 2020, when a new Netflix reality series tumbled into the zeitgeist. Cheer, a compulsively watchable six-episode show, took viewers through a nail-biting season with the top-ranked Navarro College cheerleaders, whose injuries and feats of daring show how cheerleading has evolved from sideline spectacle to rigorous competition. The idea was conceived by director Greg Whiteley, whose Netflix show Last Chance U followed junior-college football players (and was not part of Chief Johnson’s initiative to court film and television projects). With its gravity-defying basket tosses and hard-luck tales of kids trying to be better, Cheer was like a mix of Cirque du Soleil and Our Town. The show was a surprise hit, earning six Emmy nominations and turning its hard-driving but maternal head coach, beloved Corsicana native Monica Aldama, into an overnight sensation who quick-stepped her way onto Dancing With the Stars.

Surprise has long been part of Corsicana’s history. A man drilling for water struck oil in 1894, turning a land of cotton fields into the first boomtown west of the Mississippi. The railroads had arrived in 1871, making for a bustling turn-of-the-century marketplace where enterprise and characters collided. A boy named Lyman T. Davis dragged his wagon past the saloons to sell bowls of chili for five cents, a business that became Wolf Brand Chili. An oil field worker fathered a singing cowboy named Lefty Frizzell, whose
honky-tonk yodel would influence generations of country performers, including Willie Nelson, who recorded an album of cover songs. (The Lefty Frizzell Museum is one of the city’s hidden gems.) A one-
legged tight-rope walker strung a high wire across the main street only to tumble to his death and into Texas lore, an unidentified man buried in a grave under the name “Rope Walker,” like the Lone Star version of the unknown soldier. (A recent book claims his name was Joseph Berg.) When I expressed confusion about this story to a local—why was a one-legged man walking on a high wire across downtown?—he answered in a soft twang with a wave of his hand. “Well, he had to sell his pot-belly stove.”

The sliding-door moment for Corsicana might have been in the 1920s, when city leaders declined to let Magnolia Petroleum Co. build two 29-story skyscrapers downtown, hoping to retain the town’s charm. The company, which eventually became Mobil Oil, moved to Dallas, along with much of its accompanying progress. Corsicana still had wealthy oil families whose patronage shaped the town, but the urban boom that transformed Texas in the latter half of the 20th century left Corsicana largely untouched. The rare success story was Collin Street Bakery, which advertised its pecan-rich DeLuxe Fruitcakes for mail order, becoming both late-night punchline and holiday staple. But Corsicana’s downtown fell into disrepair, a slump that spread through much of small-town America. It took decades to revitalize the neighborhood into a place out-of-towners might like to visit, with its antique shops, spangly bracelets and lattes.

Indeed, it was downtown that first called to me, when I pulled off a drab stretch of I-45 one Sunday, on my way back home to Dallas from a friend’s ranch in nearby Streetman. I sauntered along the red-brick storefronts that reminded me of 20th-century Americana and the murals made for an Instagram age, a curious mix of then and now. The main stretch of Beaton Street was spookily quiet, the only noise being the lonely blare of a train passing through. I had a sense of walking through suspended time, or a town where I was the only inhabitant, al- though in fact I was learning a valuable lesson about small Texas towns: never visit on Sunday. Everything’s closed.

That sense of having stumbled onto something unique is a common experience. “It felt like limitless potential to build a world,” said Kyle Hobratschk, a young artist who was living in Dallas in 2011, struggling to find an affordable wood shop to make furniture, when he heard about a space in Corsicana. It was a long shot (what was Corsicana?), but he went anyway and pulled into downtown to find a leaky, three-story, nineteenth-century former Odd Fellows lodge that was both decrepit and magical. He bought it. Hobratschk called the place 100W, after the address, and spent years restoring it to a dreamy marvel of natural light— huge open lofts with just the right amount of plaster crack. He didn’t need 11,000 square feet of space, but along with a few other local artists, he hatched a plan to build a Corsicana residency that has now hosted over 100 visiting artists, from as far away as New York, Iceland and Scotland. Residents get to experience a part of the state that might not be as familiar in tourist circles as Marfa and Austin but still matches the Texas of the imagination: cattle ranches, empty mills, rolling prairies. “The art world can be snobby and insular,” Hobratschk said. “We can introduce our Parisian resident to an 80-year- old cowboy.”

The residency’s location in a conservative town offers a bridge into another America, a connection that has been hard to make in a time marked by echo chambers on both sides and the impulse to block-delete anyone who disagrees with you. Small towns are not known for their accepting natures, but what I heard from locals when the subject turned to fraught subjects like politics or sexual orientation or religion is that it is hard to hate someone you saw at the grocery store or chat- ted with on the street. The old complaint about small towns was: everyone knows you! Now, in the anonymous Internet age, when social media has turned into a battleground and flattened so much of human complexity, the words sounded soothing to me, a promise that your soul could not be swept aside. Everyone knows you.

Of course, the history of Corsicana is not uncomplicated. History never is. Councilwoman Ruby Williams remembers going to school before integration, which came late to Corsicana, in 1970. “I had to walk to school 30 minutes every day, whereas my White counterparts rode the bus, said derogatory remarks as they passed,” she said in a smooth contralto as we sat in the Martin Luther King Jr. Center on the east side of town, the mostly Black and Latino neighborhood Williams has represented for 16 years. Corsicana is fairly diverse: Whites are 40 percent, Latinos 35 percent and Blacks 19 percent. But like many other cities, the town has suffered a painful racial divide. “Things are better now,” Williams said, “but they’re not where they ought to be.”

Williams’s father was a minister and sharecropper, and she remembers picking cotton when she was four, weighing the bag on her daddy’s scale, two bucks a bag. “I thought I was going to move away,” she said, and sighs. But life happened. She got married, had a family. Like many people I spoke with, she had a sense that she might be useful in her hometown. She showed up for our interview straight from church, wearing a sharp white suit and dangly beaded earrings that shimmied when she moved her head. “How old do you think I am?” she asked at one point, with the confidence of a woman who knows she is going to win at this game. I guessed she was in her 50s. “Seventy-six,” she told me, and I whistled.

Over those decades, she’s seen progress, but it’s been slow. Lately, one of the projects she’s helped oversee is the development of a bronze sculpture of G. W. Jackson, a Black principal whose early twentieth century school was so excellent that, as the story goes, kids rode from Dallas to attend. Bronze statues around town are a Corsicana trademark, one of the ways the place tells its own story, but until now there has not been a single statue of a Black person. Dallas-based artist Spencer Evans was commissioned to sculpt Jackson in a powerful posture, hand reaching out. A video of the sculpture in progress, shared on the local daily newspaper’s Facebook page, got thousands of views.

That video came in the weeks after the George Floyd video brought about a national racial reckoning, and Corsicana was part of that wave. On a hot summer day in early June, five young Black women stood on the steps of the Navarro County courthouse passing a bullhorn between them. “When I say Black lives, will you say matter,” said Jasmine White, who had organized the rally with Kameron Betts. “Black lives!” she said, and voices roared back: “matter!”

Chief Johnson had been asked to ad- dress the crowd in a way that might keep the peace. “We all know each other,” he said, looking casual in a baseball cap and khakis. “We sit across from each other at our kids’ plays and basketball games and football games.” Protests in major cities had been turning violent, but Johnson told me later that his biggest concern was the heat. “Please drink your water,” he told the crowd, holding up a bottle.

The climax of the speeches came when one of the organizers, a young woman named Kameron Betts, spoke about racism and how she didn’t recognize it in her hometown until she’d gotten the perspective of attending Prairie View A&M. “Y’all think there’s nothing wrong with this town?” she asked, and dropped the bullhorn, as if she couldn’t even complete the thought. “If you think this is not a big deal, you are the problem,” she continued. “Change this town, change this county, then you change the world.”

It was another scene my mind would not have conjured when imagining a small town. Even the organizers seemed taken aback. Jasmine White told the audience at one point that she worried nobody would come, but a crowd of about 150 people had gathered. “Corsicana really showed up,” she said.

•• •

On an unusually chilly day in September, I drive along a winding farm road to an old white church and a cemetery where Chief Johnson is filming his Western. I never could get my head around a police chief making movies. When I asked him what folks in the department thought about it, he said, “I don’t hunt, I don’t fish, I haven’t watched TV in seven years, so what other people think of what I do on my time off? Well…” And he left it at that.

At a moment when trust and communication between police and ordinary citizens have been strained, Johnson told me his side hustle was a bonus, not a detraction. “You have no clue how many young people will not talk to Robert Johnson the police chief,” he said, “but will run across the parking lot, call, or drop by to speak to Robert Johnson the actor, writer, producer.”

Johnson’s law enforcement career began in Corsicana in the late 1980s, but by the 1990s he was working in Dallas, where he became the police chief of Methodist Hospital. A friend kept nudging him to try acting. He has one of those faces: grizzled, weather-beaten. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger crossed with Jon Voight. But he also has one of those personalities, a back-clapping Southern familiarity that could work for a sheriff, a salesman, a lawyer, all of which he’s played. Ten years ago, he landed a cameo on the short-lived TV show Lone Star. The bug bit. He retired from Methodist Hospital in 2016 and planned to act full-time, when the Corsicana police chief job came up and he spotted an opportunity. “I thought: Why not? I’ll end my career where it started.”

Johnson had been spending weekends in Bakersfield, California, whose varied topography makes it a popular film location, and it struck him that Corsicana could provide something similar. Lakes, cattle ranches, a historic downtown that could look like an old mining town or Anyplace, USA. He partnered with business leaders, including Jimmy Hale, who owns the Across the Street Diner downtown, and Amber McNutt, part of the McNutt family that owns Collin Street Bakery, and about a dozen projects have come to town from as far away as India and Russia. A Bollywood production was set to film during the summer, but COVID-19 shut it down.

His Western, Corsicana, is continuing apace, however. The film tells the story of Bass Reeves, the first Black lawman west of the Mississippi. Reeves’s life is riveting: He escaped slavery and lived among Cherokee, Creek and Seminole tribes, learning their languages, and was later recruited to work for the police, logging 3,000 arrests and becoming the first Black US deputy marshal. Experts suspect that he’s the inspiration for the Lone Ranger. He was a genius at forensics and tracking, long before CSI.

“This guy is the Black Panther of law enforcement,” said Isaiah Washington, formerly of Grey’s Anatomy, who plays Reeves and more recently took over as director of the movie. Washington wore a navy Union army jacket, and his gray-dap- pled beard had enormous fluffy mutton chops.

If you think filming a movie during a pandemic might be complicated, you would be correct. “This is my sixth test,” said producer Ryan DeLaney, as he coughs three times into his sleeve, per instructions, before spitting into a cup. Some cast and crew members had to be replaced when they didn’t want to fly, and the SAG-AFTRA labor union has strict limitations on food, sanitizing, masking, and social distancing. Johnson said filming has cost about 35 percent more during the pandemic. “I have to be cognizant of writing in a way where we have the fewest actors or crew members in the area,” he told me. “You will notice a lot fewer characters congregating on your favorite TV shows and certainly a lot less intimacy.”

There are also strict rules on set visitors, which is how I wind up observing across the dirt road, near barbed wire in a spot called Zone B, which might as well have been called “you can go home now.”

I head back to Dallas on that drab stretch of I-45, but as I pass signs for downtown Corsicana, I pull off to make one last stop. Despite my many visits, there’s one view I haven’t had, and I text Kyle Hobratschk at 100W to see if he can help. “What time might be ideal?” he asked, ever the gentleman. I’m embarrassed to say “now,” so I say 10 minutes, and he says sure. Neighborly visits: another small-town bonus.

Kyle walks me up a narrow, winding staircase and lifts a latch that opens onto the broad rooftop of 100W, a view he had told me about. Both of us step to the perimeter to take in the panorama. There it is: A sweeping view of a small Texas town. You can see the buildings like pieces of a puzzle slotting together: the renovated Palace Theatre, the railroad, Grace Community Church. I have stood on many tall rooftops, marveling at epic views, but this is the opposite. How human-scale, how easy to get the mind around.

Kyle told me that he had to write a check and walk it over to the water company, one of those rural inconveniences he’d come to enjoy. It was nearly Paleolithic in a day of one-click and Venmo, but he liked writing the numbers in the box, walking the money to its next location, earning each step of the transaction instead of the robotic extraction, money gone in a silent blip.

“The more I’m here, the more I think this is how people should be living,” he said.

I wish I could have stayed for the sunset, but you know, modern life. I needed to beat the traffic.

CONTRIBUTOR

Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola writer-at-large for Texas Highways magazine and the author of the bestselling memoir Blackout and the upcoming Unat- tached.

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