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He Was the World's Oldest Trapeze Artist and He Lived in Old No. 25

by Bill Cherry
It hasn't been that long ago that the seawall ended at 61st Street, and from there on you drove on the sand until you got to the island's tip. Depending on the year and where the tide was when you decided to check, the water's edge could be as much as a city block south of you. It was a wonderful beach.

If you turned right onto 61st Street, it was a two lane road with open ditches. There was a Weber's Root Beer stand on the right, and then you'd passed Manuel's Seafood Restaurant ("Home of the Stuffed Flounder"), and a tourist court or two. When you reached Avenue S, there was a termite-eaten pink building on the left. It was a strip joint called the Showtime. It was always full of soldiers and sailors getting ready to fight.

Behind the Showtime, among the grasses and reeds, was one of the places where local rum runners like Fatty Owen and Dutch Voight stored their stashes. Next you'd cross Avenue S. The Hollywood Dinner Club was on the left. And on the right in a big and old clapboard former army building was the Airport Drugstore and Otis Skain's Rod and Gun Club. Then came the Old Mexico Café and the grocery that served that entire end of town, the Stop and Shop.

Stretching from Heards Lane all the way to Broadway, 61st Street was a crushed oyster shell road with a wooden bridge in the middle that crossed Offats Bayou. And on both sides of the street was one bait camp after another and the Athanasiou brothers' famous Sea Breeze Café.

When you got to Broadway, there was Jasper Tramonte's High Grade Packing Co. on the left and Mike Loomis' Broadway Motel on the right. Broadway wasn't a highway. It was a beautiful oleander lined road; two lanes in and two lanes out. It was how Houstonians got here nevertheless, unless they came by train.

Now just at the end of the seawall, at the 61st Street ramp, was Galveston's first electric trolley car. It sat on one section of track. It was called Old No. 25, and before gas buses had taken over, its route had been around the Ft. Crockett area.

William Lightower, a former trapeze artist with the Sells-Forpauch Circus, lived in Old No. 25 and through its windows he sold candy bars, gum, risque postcards, cheap souvenirs and can goods to the tourists. Even with his gray whiskers, Irish cap and corn cob pipe, Galvestonians didn't pay much attention to him. After all, Lightower had been born in 1860. The sum total gave him his place as a Galveston character.
Trapeze Artisit Only Only of Galveston, Texas
An unindentified child standing next to the mailbox of "The Only Only." Photo courtesy Bill Cherry
His nick name was "The Only Only." It was the name he'd used when he performed. Don't ask me why or what significance it had.

When he'd go into his story to a wise guy about being the oldest living trapeze artist, invariably the wise guy would say, "So why aren't you still flying?" Never mind that by now Lightower was well into his 80s.

Without breaking cadence, he'd reply, "I'd still be flying if it weren't for a drunk. I was known as a leaper. Well, the fellow who was supposed to catch me had been drinking all day. When I leaped, he saw two of us coming at him. He caught the wrong one, and I crashed to the ground and broke my leg. I wasn't able to work again, so I moved to Galveston. I had liked the town the moment I saw it when I came to perform in 1891 with the Trewey Transcontinental Co. Circus."

One evening just before dusk Lightower started thinking about how much he'd like a bit of whiskey himself. Wouldn't you know he looked up and saw a ship flying the Puerto Rican flag from its mast anchored just off shore. After dark he heard a lot of loud talking in Spanish among the sand dunes at the shore's edge, and then it got quiet.

Lightower snuck down to see if they'd been there for what he thought. Sure enough, there were several croaker sacks hidden in the dunes, and they were all filled with fifths of Seagram's VO. He took one of the sacks back to Old No. 25, opened one of the bottles and filled up his tin coffee cup.

By morning he was plenty soused. Then there was a knock on the window. He looked out and it was Fatty Owen. Owen saw Lightower's condition. Without saying a word, Owen held out his hand. Lightower passed the croaker sack to him through the window.

"That's not all," said Owen. Lightower then opened the cigar box and gave Owen six quarters. Satisfied, Owen put the quarters in his pocket, then bought a pack of Chesterfield's and then he put the sack in his car with the others. Within moments he was at the kitchen door of the Hollywood Dinner Club where he delivered the goods to the Maceo boys.

Bill Cherry's Galveston Memories
May 1, 2007 column
Copyright William S. Cherry
All rights reserved
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Bill Cherry, a Dallas Realtor and free lance writer was a longtime columnist for "The Galveston County Daily News." His book, Bill Cherry's Galveston Memories, has sold thousands, and is still available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com and other bookstores.
Bill Cherry's Galveston Memories
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