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Watering Hole of the West : Alcohol Keeps Town From Drying Up

September 21, 1986|WALTER PUTNAM | Associated Press

PUTNAM, Tex. — Even if your last name isn't Putnam, this town has a certain allure at night, its neon lights beckoning in soft rays of reds and blues, glimmering in the West Texas twilight along Interstate 20.

By day, it's but a small cluster of buildings left from the time when the highway cut through, a town that has lived through boom and bust in ranching and oil. At one point it dreamed of becoming a mecca of tourism--"The New Carlsbad of America."

Putnam, population 110, now has another attraction. It's the only place to buy liquor in the 60-mile stretch between Ranger and Abilene. To many it's the watering hole of the West.

'It Had Been Dry Forever'

Larry King, author of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" and other tales, spent the first 13 years of his life in Putnam, decades before the liquor sales began.

"It had been dry forever," King said. "It had always been a staid and dry and preacherful place."

Geographically, Putnam can be defined as lying along the Texas & Pacific Railroad 30 miles east of Abilene. On a north-south line, it's located where scrub oak stands are replaced by mesquite for the next 300 miles west.

Two Previous Names

The town first was called Catclaw, for a native bush that grows in rocky hills and makes the terrain look like a scene out of the Old Testament. It also was briefly known as Breman, but that was changed in 1881 because of the similarity to Bremond, another Texas town.

In the early 1900s, developers sought to take advantage of the railroad and local mineral wells, billing Putnam as "The New Carlsbad of America."

The Carter-Holland Hotel opened March 20, 1910, with 50 rooms near the two mineral wells with bubbling water that promised to be "Dame Nature's own prescription for suffering humanity."

The mineral water business never was as kind to Putnam, however, as oil. By 1920, the area's first oil wells were drilled.

Hurt by Depression

In 1925, 40 businesses crowded around the town square and the population had swelled to more than 1,000, up from an estimated 250 in 1890. Some say it even reached about 5,000 before the boom was over.

Then came the Depression, and by 1940 the town had dwindled to about 500 people. During World War II, the government offered people an opportunity to move their houses to cities like Fort Worth and Abilene, where the defense industry offered jobs, said LaVerne Rutherford, the postmistress and a cousin of Larry King's.

In the mid-1960s, Interstate 20 divided the town in half. The once-grand hotel was leveled. The springs were covered and the square plowed under.

Alcohol Sales Have Helped

The town's gravel streets now connect to a paved road that passes under the highway. To the north of I-20, there's a single strip of stores, many of them bearing neon signs advertising beer and wine.

Alcohol sales, which began about a decade ago, have helped keep the town from drying up completely, said Ida Mae Waddell, the justice of the peace.

"It gives us revenue to do what we never had--for the fire department, sidewalks, a redo of city offices," she said.

King, whose father was a blacksmith here, chronicled the town's demise in his essay "Requiem for a West Texas Town."

He remembered it as a place where "hammer on anvil could still be heard in my father's blacksmith shop" and "roadwise drummers in straw boaters and polka-dot bow ties still brought their sample cases into our two hotels. . . . the cotton gin ran in season a dozen hours a day . . .

"Whatever the motive, some invisible bureaucrat with an operable slide rule (but with no operable heart) decided imposing an overpass, or viaduct, would look good at a given point on proposed Interstate 20. He laughed madly, no doubt, as he made his fatal mark on the map. Four-fifths of my birthplace rested on the mark he made."

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