MUSTANG, TEXAS — Thirty years ago, cars jammed the freeway offramp to this town, the one community that sold liquor in an otherwise bone-dry, conservative Christian stretch of north Texas.
But when places elsewhere in the county began repealing liquor laws to bring in much-needed revenue, the party here was over. Green highway signs still mark the exit to Mustang, but all that's left is a trailer park behind the now-shuttered Mustang Club dance hall and the Wispers Cabaret all-nude strip club. Neither establishment currently has a liquor license.
The town's population has dwindled to about 50 people -- all of whom live in the trailer park behind the clubs -- and Mustang seemed destined to die the slow death of many rural Texas communities. Then last year, two parties who see a future for Mustang came to loggerheads over who owns it: The operator of Wispers and the widow of a man who co-founded the town -- each with a vision for bringing new life to the property fronting Interstate 45.
Their legal battle has generated a 6-inch stack of claims and counterclaims at the Navarro County courthouse, but also brought hope that a place known mainly for its quirky history has a last-ditch chance for survival. "People wanted to come here once," said Gary Arnett, chief of Mustang's volunteer fire department. "I'd like to see it get back on its feet again."
A judge is expected to determine who owns the town in a five-day bench trial in April.
In one corner is Marsha McKie, the widow of Mustang's co-founder. She's fighting to retain title to property she wants to turn into a family-friendly rest stop with an RV park and playground.
In the other is Thomas Sinclair, the strip club operator who some Mustang residents fear plans to turn the town over to more adult entertainment businesses. His attorney, Marty Price, downplays that prospect. "There's a lot of potential for that property for a lot of things," that don't necessarily involve nude, dancing women, said Price.
Still, a wary City Council last year banned new sexually oriented businesses and protested the Mustang Club's application for a liquor license.
Arnett concedes that creating obstacles for new commerce may not have been the smartest move in a near-bankrupt town with just one source of tax revenue -- Sinclair's all-nude club. "We may have shot ourselves in the foot, but it seemed like the right thing to do," he said.
Mustang began as a moneymaking venture in the 1970s, cooked up by Dallas lawyer William McKie and a business partner who saw a pent-up demand for liquor. One of their first steps was to boost the population of the Mustang Mobile Home Park, then in an unincorporated area of Navarro County.
About 200 people became residents, some lured by the promise of free rent. In April 1973, Mustang voters approved an initiative to incorporate as a "wet" town.
Before long, people who had been making a 60-mile beer run to Dallas were lining up in Mustang at The Gusher -- a liquor store so popular that when it burned down in 1975, a temporary building was up by day's end. Outside of Little Scholtz's beer garden, students from Navarro College, in nearby Corsicana, partied at picnic tables set near a catfish pond.
Water bills and other town expenses were largely paid with money collected from the lease of two buildings on the property.
But as liquor became more easily available elsewhere, sales dropped and Mustang fell into disrepair. In December 2004, Sinclair signed a lease for the now-defunct Mustang Club and the building he turned into Wispers.
The following year, Sinclair agreed to buy the town for $600,000 from the McKies. A lawsuit Sinclair brought against the sellers delayed the sale though, and William McKie died in November 2005 before the transaction was completed.
His widow, Marsha McKie, is challenging the validity of Sinclair's purchase contract, and says she doesn't want one of her husband's legacies turned over to a purveyor of adult entertainment. "I didn't want to drive by there and see he's put up more strip clubs. If I lose, at least I'll know I tried," said McKie, a real estate agent in Corsicana.
People in nearby communities are watching developments in Mustang with interest. Though beer may be sold freely across the county now, this is still a conservative Christian stronghold. Fifteen miles down the road, a billboard near an adult video store reads: "Please! Stop the Porn and Be Reborn."
A strip club doesn't look natural among the churches and grazing cows, said Angus resident Betty McCain, 74. "No one around here likes seeing that out there," McCain said. "An all-nude club isn't a good reflection from this area, it makes it look trashy. I wish it was gone."
Some don't care who owns the town as long as their lives aren't disrupted. "You really can't do anything about it, just wait and see what happens," shrugged Eric Adams, standing in one of the town's two dirt streets.
But Arnett worries that a new owner may evict everyone. "There are children here. I don't want anything to happen to where everyone has to uproot and relocate," he said.
Residents have no say in who owns the town, but Mustang's four-member City Council -- which meets monthly in someone's trailer, or occasionally in the street is trying to raise money for improvements. A website (www.friendsofmustangtexas.com) explains their predicament and appeals for donations ("Help us make history!"). About $800 has been collected, Arnett said.
However the lawsuit is decided, Mustang after years of decay has a chance to rebound, City Councilman Danny Parker said. "I'd like to see people coming back here to live. I think this could be a pretty good little community," he said.