Townspeople in Albany work together to put on a whopper of a historical show.
Walking down Main Street for a Dr Pepper ice cream float from the vintage fountain inside an Albany pharmacy, I spy a young cowboy, maybe 10 years old. Judson Rogers has a table full of cowboy items — spurs, chaps, rope, toy pistols — and $2 in a tip jar.
“Ma’am, would you like to see my demonstration?” he inquires politely.
Judson, like just about everybody in Albany, loves cowboy history. Almost everyone in town participates as cast or crew for an outdoor theatrical production that uses music and dancing to tell the story of early settlers. I’m here to see the fruit of their labor: the 83rd annual Fort Griffin Fandangle, running the last two weekends of June and featuring hundreds of locals in this town of less than 2,000.
Fountain manager Mischel Alexander (she’ll be heading over to the Fandangle soon to seat guests) makes my soda while friend/neighbor/co-worker Melissa Jones tells me about Albany.
“Albany’s got an old-time, homey atmosphere that’s different from the big city of Abilene,” she says. “You know your neighbors and you care about your neighbors. Everybody is family here. You know the whole town.”
It’s easy to see why there’s such a feeling of family in Albany. After all, practically the entire town works together to put on a “really big show” every year, as it has for decades.
Next to the courthouse, brothers Ali and Nariman Esfandiary have set up a spot to serve the barbecue, steaks and burgers that locals and visitors have enjoyed for decades at their iconic Fort Griffin General Merchandise and accompanying saloon, the famous Beehive. I decide to grab a bite before tonight’s show.
It’s Fandangle o’clock, so I head with Tamara Trail, my host and friend, to the Prairie Theater, carved out of the side of a West Texas hillside, one mile outside of Albany. A large, red musical machine with pipes by the gate catches my eye. Luann George, who’s playing the steam-driven Fandangle calliope, tells us she’s been doing it for decades.
For the next three hours, I’m thoroughly “fandangled” by the area’s history of soldiers and scouts, buffalo hunters and trail drivers, gamblers and desperados, saloon girls and prairie wives, all portrayed by Albany townspeople with gusto and humor. I’m most impressed with a herd of 16 longhorn cattle stampeding the field before us as professional cowboys-turned-actors keep them in formation.
The next morning, I venture downtown to find out more and run into the Fandangle’s cattle wrangler, Will Cradduck, with two longhorns, Bruno and Tandy, out on display in front of the courthouse.
“They’re a big part of the show and a part of history,” Will tells me. He’s the official State of Texas Longhorn Herd manager, so he knows plenty about their history. I bet he’ll tell this story many times before the day is through.
“Right here in Albany, when people started moving in and settling, they found wild cattle that were descended from Spain,” he says, referring to the Texas longhorns. “These cattle ran wild for a few hundred years with almost no human influence. As ranching became established, people gathered these cattle up and claimed them for their own. That was the start of trail drives.”
Those longhorns weren’t worth much until the railroad was built out to Kansas, where cattle were going for top dollar and shipped back east. Ranchers figured out they could move as many as 2,000 head with inexpensive labor to Dodge City, get them sold and then bring money back to improve their ranches and communities.
“A lot of people call the longhorns the first ‘oil’ of Texas because they made so much money,” Will says. “Right after the Civil War, when folks were poor and there wasn’t a lot of industry going on … longhorns gave a lot of families a start.”
My head full of longhorn history, I’m ready for another charming animal diversion, the Fandangle Pet Parade. (There’s a real “people” parade the first weekend of the show every year as well.)
Pam Davis emcees the parade’s procession of goats, ponies, a couple of Labradoodles in Western duds and many more costumed pups. Semi-retired, she’s also a Fandangle board member who has roles as both actress and staff, most notably the opening and ending narration of the play.
“I cry every time during Prairie Land, the finale of the show,” she tells me, a bit misty even now. “When the lights come up [she waves her hand in a grand gesture], there’s the stage full of everybody and the flags. It’s a song that is often sung at funerals here in town, it means that much. The words, I just take them to heart. ‘This is the land for men like me.’”
The acting bug lasts all year for some Albany residents, so there’s an active theater troupe: the Albany Mainstreet Playhouse. Pam and other actors produce fall musicals as well as serious dramatic plays like On Golden Pond in the renovated Aztec Theater on Main Street, next to her office.
“The Aztec had fallen into disrepair; they were trying to decide what to do with it,” Pam recalls. “Walt Matthews, the late and wonderful benefactor of so many things in Albany, encouraged the renovation and underwrote a lot of it. The late Clifton and Shirley Caldwell were instrumental in refurbishing the inside with all new theater seats in the style of the day.”
For a small town, they’ve got enough talent to fill the theater all year long.
“This is a little pond,” Pam admits, “but it is a very sparkling little pond with some shining people.”
Some of those “shining people” in Albany express themselves with visual art as well as performance art. Maybe that’s why the Old Jail Art Center is such a success.
The museum’s home, an abandoned 1878 limestone jail, was purchased in 1940 by Fandangle playwright Robert Nail and refurbished four decades later by nephew Reilly Nail and cousin Bill Bomar. I wander through the modern art to meet Education Director Erin Whitmore. She’s been here since 2010, a transplant from Dallas, where she worked at major art galleries.
“My grandparents knew about this place because they came to the Fandangle in the ‘60s,” she told me when I asked how she wound up in tiny Albany. “I had to drive through a bunch of fields filled with sunflowers to get here.”
Erin was pleasantly surprised back in 2010 by what the museum offered and decided to make Albany her home.
“It’s a fantastic collection — it has just a little bit of everything,” she says. “Our mission is ‘Art for All.’ We have artifacts from many cultures, from contemporary works back to classical works and antiquities.”
The museum contains works by notable artists such as Modigliani, Picasso, Monet and Klee. One room dedicated to the Fandangle features portraits of the actors and drawings of the original sets. A slide show of past Fandangles — it was once held on the football field — loops on the wall.
Another room, the Robert E. Nail Jr. Archives, tells the story of ranching and friendship. The Matthews family lived in the area at the same time as the indigenous Tonkawa, interacting around Fort Griffin. The children’s friendship is portrayed in a painting and gifts from the Tonkawa children: moccasins and dolls.
“A very important part of our area history.” Erin notes.
Erin walks me around the site, once called the Alphabet Jail because Scottish masons carved their initials into the stones.
Historian Steve Waller later tells me Scottish masons also built the county courthouse, and preferred to relax at the end of a workday by drinking and playing bagpipes around the campfire, resulting in complaints by townspeople who couldn’t sleep with the racket. The belltower, an afterthought not included in the original design, seems to be a comical reminder of that late-night “music.” Steve laughs as he tells me they actually had to turn down the volume of the electronic bell when it tolled in the early morning hours.
The word “fandangle” means nonsense and tomfoolery. Traditionally, there’s a bit of mischief and fun during this last weekend of the Fandangle’s run.
Teacher Stacie Cook and Chamber of Commerce office manager Jamie Parsons and her mother-in-law, Jana McCoy, longtime Fandanglers, count proceeds and print tickets, getting everything ready for the final performance tonight.
“They usually do some pranks and stuff during the last show, so that’s always exciting,” they tell me.
Driving out of town, I hit red at the only stoplight. I take a last look around and notice that Judson Rogers is still hanging out with his table of cowboy items outside the Vintage Vanilla. When he’s not Fandagling, Judson likes to go hunting and fishing, help his dad rope cattle and ride horses. He’s such a great little cowboy — I can’t resist stopping for a moment to drop another dollar in his tip jar.
Something about Albany — the friendly people, the authentic cowboy culture, the love of self-expression in artistic ways — rings true and invites me back for more.
“There’s just a feeling here, an ambience of the West,” Pam says. “Those guys in the Fandangle are working cowboys working the cattle. They’re not dime-store cowboys. It’s a way of life that’s slower, maybe truer.
“We all have challenges, but we seem to manage to come together enough to welcome people in with open arms. Come see us, come visit, come talk with us. We’d love to have you here.”
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