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When a district closes, its community dies

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

By SIDNEY LEVESQUE

Abilene Reporter-News

McCAULLEY, Texas -- Connie Hansen slid the key into the door of the school's old gymnasium and pushed it open, revealing an inch of water standing on the floor.

She splashed through it, apologizing for the mess.

"We have a leak," she explained.

The old gym, with its polished wood floors and boarded-up windows, doesn't see much use. McCaulley High School closed in 1987. The whole district shut down in 1990 after enrollment dwindled to 37 students.

"It destroyed the town," said Hansen, 50.

Rural towns all over the Big Country with dwindling enrollments shudder at the thought of having to consolidate and close their schools. Most people say closing their school would be a deathblow for their small towns.

They could be right.

"Education is vital to the vigorousness and vitality of West Texas towns," said Donald Frazier, a McMurry University history professor.

In the old days, schools were used as a centerpiece to attract new settlers, said Frazier, who is also executive director of the local historical McWhiney Foundation. The loss of schools in rural towns, coupled with declining enrollment in the region, is causing West Texas to revert to a frontier landscape, he said.

After McCaulley lost its school district, the buildings housed an alternative program for dropouts and students who are at risk of dropping out of school, but that didn't last long. The school closed for good. The quiet little farming town without paved streets, and with a population of 100, became even quieter. The only grocery store closed.

School buildings began to rot.

Vandals left the elementary campus in shreds.

The only action on the football field was a growing number of anthills.

The gym grew silent, except for pesky teens, who occasionally break in looking for ghosts. Rumors have spread among area youngsters that the gym is haunted by the five students who lost their lives in a bus crash in 1978.

Hansen's family and a couple of other families provide upkeep at the old school property, which is now part of the McCaulley Recreational Development Corp. It rents the gym for functions and uses the old agriculture building for monthly musicals that feature visiting bands.

Until recently, the development corporation sponsored a haunted house and carnival at Halloween, trying to draw on peoples interest in the "haunted" gym. Attendance has fallen off, however, as families have moved away.

People seem to have little reason to come to McCaulley nowadays.

There are few businesses and fewer jobs in the town, along Farm Road 57 in eastern Fisher County. The library is open only on request. A fire in 1920 destroyed the business section, and it was not rebuilt.

Residents blame the town's recent troubles on the school's closing.

"We used to have a large population in our churches," said Hansen, who works for the postal service with her mother. "It's gone down."

The community has a Methodist and a Baptist church, which once had 50 people on a Sunday morning. It's now lucky to have eight or nine people attending, said Hansen's mother, Lorene Dowell, 69.

"It just makes you sick," she said.

Old Glory

The sound of wind and chirping crickets at an empty schoolyard with rusting playground equipment fill the void left by the absence of childrens' voices.

Old Glory, 30 miles northeast of McCaulley, lost its school in 1985. Like McCaulley, the town hasn't been the same since, although things seem to be picking up.

The school's windows are boarded up, but a sign out front says it's the community center. A lot of towns that lose their schools turn them into community centers. Often, the population shrinks so much there are few people left to enjoy such a facility.

In the last 20 years, Old Glory's population has dropped 20 percent to 100 people.

The post office and a small grocery store run by Joe Castro, 54, are the only businesses left. The only church, run by an elderly couple, closed after they died.

"When you lose the school, you lose everything," said Castro, who graduated from Old Glory High School in 1969.

The town, on U.S. Highway 380 in Stonewall County, was settled in the early 1900s by German Americans who named it Brandenburg. Residents changed the name to Old Glory during World War I to prove their patriotism.

The population peaked at 280 in the late 1930s. People began moving away as farming declined. A drought in the 1950s forced many out of work.

Through it all, the school was the center of activities, serving as a civic center and educational facility, according to the Texas State Historical Associations Handbook of Texas Online.

Eventually, the school's enrollment dwindled to 33 students. Stonewall County took advantage of a state law that allows commissioners to annex school districts with fewer than 150 students, and Old Glory was merged with the Aspermont school district.

People continued to move away, some to nearby Rule, Castro said. After a school closes, the teachers leave and take their children, causing the population to decline even more.

"there's not much for anyone here," Castro said.

A group of residents looks after the old school and run a monthly musical. Castro and his wife are busy trying to bring tourists to Old Glory.

They painted a large mural of the flag and the town's name on the side of a building by the highway and built a pavilion.

They are building a larger grocery store nearby. They also capitalize on the town's name each July 4 with a celebration called Old Glory Days.

"It's been hard," Castro said of their efforts to improve the town. "But I don't want Old Glory to disappear."

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Distributed By The Associated Press

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