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U.S. Highway 83 south out of Ochiltree County and you come to the
town of Shamrock,
an unlikely name for a High Plains town that bears little resemblance
to the Emerald Isle.
George Nickel, an Irish immigrant who grazed sheep on the area's immense
grasslands where the buffalo had recently roamed, named the town when
he opened a post office at his dugout six miles north of the present
town in 1890. He named it Shamrock in honor of his mother, who taught
him to honor the Irish folk tradition of the shamrock as a symbol
of good luck and courage.
Of courage, Nickel no doubt had plenty - it took guts to move into
a dugout out in this rough expanse off country - but Shamrock
failed to bring him any luck of the good variety. A fire destroyed
his home on the range the same year he named the post office.
The town didn't really get a foothold until the Chicago, Rock Island
and Gulf Railway laid tracks through the area in 1902. Shamrock
incorporated in 1911, and in 1923 ran a water line from the J.M. Porter
Ranch, eliminating the need to haul water to town in barrels. The
city's population swelled to 2,500.
Today, the water tower in Shamrock
rises 181 feet in the air and might be the tallest water tower in
Texas, just as town boosters have claimed for decades. The discovery
of oil in 1926 led to a fair-sized boom followed by an inevitable
- but survivable - decline. The town was holding its own when Route
66 cut through the center of town and gave the town not so much
a facelift as major reconstructive surgery.
image from the makeover is the Conoco
Tower at the intersection of the former Route
66 and Highway 83, a juncture once known as "America's Crossroads."
The Texas Historical Commission has deemed the Conoco
Tower to be "one of the most impressive examples" of art deco
architecture in the country. The story goes that Nunn drew the building's
design in the dirt with a rusty nail, and in 1936 J.M. Tindall and
R.C. Lewis built it at a cost of $23,000. People from all over the
country, usually on their way to somewhere else, marveled at a structure
that writer Bryan Woolley once noted "could have stood in Oz."
Joe Berry designed it as three buildings in one: the Tower Conoco
Station, named for the four-sided obelisk rising from a flat roof
and topped by a metal tulip; the U-Drop Inn Café, which a local schoolboy
named by winning a naming contest; and a retail store. The café was
so popular that the proposed store never materialized, utilized instead
to seat more hungry customers.
|The 1936 U Drop
Photo courtesy Jimmy Dobson, May 2016
In its heyday,
the U-Drop-Inn was the only restaurant within 100 miles, small,
vibrant art deco oasis on Route
66 set against a backdrop of unrelenting realism. "The newcomer
to this region is impressed with the almost limitless emptiness
of the countryside," Jack Rittenhouse wrote in the first Route
66 guidebook, published in 1946.
newspaper described the U-Drop Inn as "the most up-to-date edifice
of its kind on U.S. Highway 66 between Oklahoma City and Amarillo"
and the restaurant as "the swankiest of the swank eating places."
Most of the old gas stations, tourist courts and other buildings
spawned by Route 66
disappeared when the highway department finished IH-40 and later
decommissioned the highway once known as the Mother Road.
Tower, a.k.a. U-Drop Inn, survives but it was a close call.
Following its heyday, the building passed through a succession of
owners, becoming Nunn's Café and the Tower Café before going back
to U-Drop Inn. The bank eventually ended up with it and the once
iconic building existed for a time not so much as an eyesore but
as a forlorn reminder of swankier times.
In May of 1999, the First National Bank of Shamrock bought the Conoco
Tower - and gave it to the city. Today, it houses the Shamrock Chamber
of Commerce, a museum and a visitor's center where you can buy snacks
and souvenirs, recharge your Tesla out back and wonder, "Didn't
I see this building in the movie 'Cars.'"
Yes, you did. Pixar animators used it as the model for Ramona's
Body Shop in the movie.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
December 1, 2017 column