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BOOM TOWN

In 1974, Texas Utilities decided to build a nuclear power plant near Glen Rose. Overnight, a sleepy Texas hamlet became a BOOM TOWN
By Rowland Stiteler |

It begins as a trickle of headlights moving down Texas Farm Road 201. Soon the trickle becomes a steady stream. And the stream turns into a torrent, an endless line of vehicles racing through the dusk. By 5:45, the procession has taken on the look of a motorized stampede. Cars. Pickup trucks. Campers. Buses. More than a thousand of them speed down a two-lane highway that was little more than a dusty trail four years ago. For about an hour, the normally placid plateau along which the highway runs becomes an almost violent place, as hundreds of drivers race to the small Central Texas town of Glen Rose.

The daily race toward Glen Rose is like nothing the people of this quiet hamlet have ever seen before. But few of the townspeople object to the onslaught, especially today. Because today is Thursday, payday at the Comanche Peak Steam Electric Station six miles north of town. And the cars that race across Somervell County and into Glen Rose are bringing something else its citizens have never seen much of before: Money. Each Thursday, 4100 workers leave the power plant construction site with about $1.5 million in paychecks, more income than the residents of Glen Rose used to see in a year. When the construction workers complete their project in 1983, they will give Texas its first nuclear power plant. They have already given the state its newest boom town.

By 10 minutes of 6, the first cars of the afternoon procession will have reached the end of Farm Road 201, its intersection with U. S. 67 on the edge of Glen Rose. Cars quickly fill the parking lot of the Pronto food store, one of 13 retail beer and wine outlets that have sprung up in town in the past few years. Inside the Pronto, the workers head for the beer cooler, then begin lining up at the checkout counter. Quick-service food stores in Glen Rose double as branch banks on Thursday afternoons. Buy a six pack of beer; sign over your paycheck and get back anywhere from $200 to $700 in change, depending on your job at the construction site and the number of hours you’ve put in this week.

“This is our economy right here,” the owner of one of the stores tells me as he holds up a can of Pearl Light. “We’ve had several other types of stores close up downtown since the construction started in 1974. But beer. . . it’s done real well.” Sales tax revenues in Glen Rose have jumped from $25,000 in 1974 to $60,000 in 1978, an increase of 140 percent. In that same four years, sales tax revenues in Dallas, which has a growing economy by anyone’s standards, have increased 63 percent. The source of the financial good fortune of the city of Glen Rose has been the six-pack of beer. Every time one is sold, the city gets two cents.

The cash the workers receive after signing their paychecks will find its way to a number of other Glen Rose institutions. Tonight the county’s only two bars, Leslie’s Pub and the Country Club, will be jumping. Tomorrow will be a big day at the bank. The First National Bank of Glen Rose, the only bank in Somervell County, has had only one problem in the past four years: too many customers to fit into the lobby during rush periods. Assets have jumped from about $4 million in 1974 to about $14 million now. That growth looks paltry, however, compared to the revenue increases enjoyed by the county and the local school district.

When Texas Utilities Co., parent company of Dallas Power & Light, Texas Electric Service Co., and Texas Power & Light, announced in 1972 that it planned to build a $779-million nuclear power plant in Somervell County, the tax assessor of that tiny county must have gone briefly delirious. The announcement meant that the county’s tax base would be increased 30 times by a single construction project, not to mention any businesses the plant might attract.

But in the years since the project was started, the deal has grown much sweeter for the Somervell County budget. As environmentalists have continued to hammer away at the potential dangers of nuclear power, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has increased the safety design requirements for the plant. A single design change in the plant’s turbine system, for instance, has increased the price by $20 million. When the plant is finished in 1983, its owners can boast that it contains as much concrete as the entire Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. In addition to that distinction, it will have a somewhat inflated price tag. Current projected cost for the plant: $1.7 billion.

All this may be bad for utility customers in Dallas, Fort Worth, and a few smaller cities, who will ultimately pay for the project through their electric bills. But it is very good for Somervell County. At the current tax rate of 20 percent of market value, the $1.7-billion plant will have a tax valuation of roughly 64 times the total value of all taxable property in the county in 1974.

Even though the plant is only about half finished, the taxable value of the construction which has been completed has already had a staggering impact. In 1974, county taxes totaled $53,536. Last year the county collected $415,483; about $365,000 of that was paid by Texas Utilities. The Glen Rose Independent School District, which has a higher tax rate, has made out even better. The district’s revenues came to about $80,000 in 1974; last year they totaled $911,000. When the plant is finished, tax revenues for both the schools and the county will be at least twice what they are now. Not surprisingly, salary increases and construction of new facilities (like a high school and a fire station) have been principal items of business for both governmental bodies.



One of the reasons the power plant’s effect on the county has been so dramatic is that it had pitifully little to begin with. Somervell County covers roughly 200 square miles of semi-arid sand, clay, and limestone, dotted with scrub cedar and an occasional live oak. In area, it is the third smallest county in Texas. Before the plant came along, it was one of the least populated, with only 2700 people, enough to make a mid-size crowd at an SMU basketball game. The county was also one of the state’s poorest, with a median family income in 1970 of $5950 per year, compared to a statewide average of $8490 and a Dallas County median of $10,680.

The last real prosperity the county had known was around the turn of the century, when cotton grew in abundance in the valley of the Paluxy and Brazos Rivers, which wind through the county. By 1910, the county’s population had reached about 4000, a fair number in those days. Nineteen public schools were scattered around the county, and there was even a small college in Glen Rose. But 1910 was the peak year for the county. The prosperity built on cotton faded quickly as the farmers continually overplanted, draining the soil of its nutrients. Somervell County lost population in every census between 1910 and 1950, and by 1970 there were a thousand fewer people in the county than had lived there 60 years before.

With the soil drained of its ability to produce, residents of the county had to become opportunists to make a buck. By 1920, they had learned the seclusion of the cedar breaks was an excellent place to distill a little whiskey. With Prohibition, Glen Rose had a cash commodity that drew customers from as far away as Dallas, about 80 miles to the northeast. But in 1923, the moonshine business also drew a group of Texas Rangers who smashed all the stills and arrested those involved in the liquor trade, including the town sheriff and the county attorney. Some 40 Somervell residents were brought to trial, but the chief prosecution witness was murdered, shot in the back with a shotgun, and the bootlegging went unabated for the rest of the decade.

The only other industries the county has known in the past 60 years have been based on a combination of religion and folklore. To call the Paluxy a river is a generous misnomer. But it is a picturesque little creek that winds its way through Glen Rose. Residents of the community have tried their best to market the Brazos River’s tributary. Spas and sanitariums sprang up in the Twenties, luring city dwellers to come to Glen Rose for the healing powers of mineral waters drawn from wells along the Paluxy. Religious encampments have been built along the banks of the river, drawing summer visitors from Methodist and Baptist churches all over the area. But Glen Rose’s most distinctive tourist attraction is the fact that 100 million years ago, a group of dinosaurs walked along what are now the banks of the Paluxy, leaving their tracks in the mud. The mud hardened into rock, and the footprints became fossils. In 1954, the tracks were made known to the world in a National Geographic article by Roland Bird, a fossil specialist from the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Since then the tracks have drawn a small but steady flow of tourists, who come to visit Dinosaur Valley State Park, where you can pay $2 and see a half-dozen tracks and a rather grotesque collection of giant fiberglass dinosaurs. The aging statues were donated by the Atlantic Richfield Co. a few years ago, after it bought out Sinclair Oil, which had used the dinosaurs for advertising.

The 20th century largely skipped Som-ervell County. It never got a mile of railroad track. The main highway that passes through the county, U. S. 67, skirts Glen Rose, leaving the town out of the view of passing motorists. What there is of the business district nestles into a small area between the highway and the river. Every building in town could be fitted onto the Texas Stadium parking lot with room left over. Before the plant came along, the town’s population consisted of about 1500 people, the vast majority of whom valued solitude. There was plenty of it in Glen Rose.



When Texas Utilities management decided to go forward with a nuclear project back in the late 1960’s, it began a search of the river watersheds in its service area: the Trinity, the Brazos, and a handful of others. The basic requirement was a place to build a lake to provide the plant’s cooling water.

“The Brazos watershed in that area was the least spoken for,” says Texas Utilities official Dick Ramsey. “People were either building lakes or had development plans for most of the other areas we looked at, but the Brazos watershed in the Glen Rose area was pretty much open.”

Another reason the plant came to Glen Rose is an accident of geography. While the 20th century was passing by Somervell County, it was certainly not passing by the Dallas-based Texas Utilities Co. Its service area sprawls from East Texas, north of Houston, to Wichita Falls, to Odessa. Glen Rose just happens to sit almost dead center in Texas Utilities’ extensive maze of high voltage power lines. By building a power plant at Glen Rose, the company was able to minimize the need for more of the ultra-expensive transmission lines to link the power source with the cities.

Glen Rose residents like to snicker at the windfall manner in which the county’s good fortune came along.

“You had people in Dallas and Fort Worth busting their butts to get American Airlines down here,” says Glen Rose Reporter editor Dan McCarty. “What is it going to employ? Fifteen or sixteen hundred people? We got four thousand new jobs down here for a construction period of ten years, and how did we get it? It fell on us out of the sky. We just sat there and got it dropped into our laps.”

“When it finally dawned on me that our county budget was going to go from about $50,000 a year to maybe a couple of million,” says former County Judge Jack Cathy, “I said to myself, ’Holy shit.’ Hell, what would you have thought? It meant more money than most of these people around here even knew existed.”

The money has brought in a group of out-of-town entrepreneurs. It has also brought out the old-time Somervell opportunist in some of the citizens of Glen Rose.



Hugh and Helen Leslie are originally from Colorado. Leslie is a career hotel professional, having spent 17 years with the Hilton chain before joining the management of the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas. Leslie has always liked the hotel business, but felt it would be better for him as an owner rather than an employee. Glen Rose gave him that chance. Three years ago Leslie and his wife bought the rather dilapidated Hotel Glen, a relic from the health-spa days of the Twenties. Leslie won’t say exactly how much he paid for the hotel, but admits the price was next to nothing. There was good reason.

Before the plant came along, the hotel grossed as little as $250 a month. Most of its 50 rooms were vacant and sealed shut; their doors had not been opened in decades. The Leslies opened all the rooms, cleaned them, and quickly filled them with tenants. Now the hotel has an occupancy rate of 98 percent. The private club the Leslies opened in the hotel was the first place in Glen Rose to sell liquor legally in 70 years.

“In a good month,” Leslie says, “we’ll gross about $15,000. And we clear about 48 percent of that.” The boom has been good to the Leslies. “By the time that construction is over in 1983,” says one of the Leslies’ competitors, “they could just walk away from the building and leave it there and they would have cleared a fortune from it.”

The Leslies found out quickly that the Hotel Glen is a long way from the Fairmont. “It has been,” says Mrs. Leslie, “what you would call a real experience. It took a little while to get used to the fact that when some of the construction workers would lose their room keys, they’d just kick the door in. When we first bought the place, I put up some nice pictures on all the walls in the rooms and some really nice bedspreads. It was kind of a shock when they stole the pictures and the bedspreads and left our rooms filled with dirty magazines and beer bottles.” There is no way to telephone the hotel for a reservation; the Leslies took the pay phone out of the lobby because the tenants would bang on the family’s apartment door at all hours of the night when they were too drunk to complete a phone call. Now one gets a room by showing up and asking for it.

The only competition for the Leslies’ private club comes from the Country Club, a rather inappropriately named honky tonk at the end of a farm road a few miles out of town.

Interviewing the owners of the Country Club was not as easy as talking with the Leslies. Ricky West, half-owner of the club, was convinced I was an agent from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. When I approached West at his service station and asked if I had indeed found Ricky West, he just stared at me for a while.

“A writer, huh?” West asked me. “Sure you are. Let’s see some identification.” I showed him my press and business cards.

“You sure you ain’t the liquor board?”

“Positive,” I said, “I’m from D Magazine in Dallas.”

“You sure you’re not the guy from the Times Herald that got roughed up here last week?” (A reporter who was in town to do a story about a construction worker who had died in an accident at the job site got pushed around a little after he began asking questions of the victim’s co-workers.)

“No,” I told him. “I’m from D Magazine, not the Times Herald, not the liquor board, or Bob Bullock’s office or anywhere like that. I’m just doing an innocent story about what Glen Rose is like now that the plant has come here. I’d like to see what your club is like.”

“Sure you would,” said West. Finally, however, he agreed to take my photographer and me to the Country Club.



Inside the club it is very dark and, quite surprisingly, not very crowded. It is Friday. The day after payday.

“We don’t always have any big crowd in here,” West says. “Sometimes it’s like this. These are all local people in here. Usually when the people from Brown and Root” – the construction company building the plant – “are in here, the local folks just don’t show up. Besides, we’ve had bad weather this week. When the weather gets too bad, Brown and Root don’t work. And when they don’t work, they don’t get paid. They don’t have the money to spend in a honky tonk. I can usually tell when I cash their checks at the grocery store whether it’s going to be good out here. When the checks are big, I know we’re going to do some business.”

Our conversation is temporarily interrupted by a man, seated at the next table, doing an imitation of a train whistle.

“Like I said,” West says, “this is just a bar. Just a plain old bar, nothing more, nothing less.”

West summons his partner, Roy Lee “Peanut” Ice. In appearance, Ice is a contrast to his partner. West is thirtyish, bearded, relatively well dressed, and has the ability to at least look urbane. Peanut Ice is all country, dressed in coveralls, a work shirt, and a wool ski cap that engulfs half of his head and is rolled at the edges the way women rolled their stockings during the Twenties. When Peanut begins to speak, however, he is both articulate and polite.

Sure, he says, the influx of construction workers has put money into a lot of Somervell people’s pockets. But the boom hasn’t changed the old ways that made the county what it was.

“I know something you need to put in that article,” West says, interrupting Peanut. “You can tell people that we don’t allow no niggers in here.”

Peanut becomes indignant. “Don’t go shooting your mouth off like that,” he tells West. “There’s no call to be saying stuff like that.”

’Okay,” says West. “You’re right. We don’t allow any Negroes in here. This is a private club. We can let in whoever we want to.” Brown/and Root has black employees at the work site, West says, but they live in Granbury or Cleburne. Some traditions die hard.

Soon my barroom interview attracts one of the club’s members, former County Judge Jack Cathy, who saunters to the table, one hand clutching his western belt, the other clutching a beer can. Cathy has been at the bar a while. When he finds out that I’m a reporter, he apparently decides to deliver a message to the voters who turned him out of office last November.

“You can tell them all that they can just kiss my ass,” he tells me. “Put that in your paper.”

’You want me to tell my readers or your voters?” I ask.

“Huh?”

“My readers or your voters?” I repeat.

“That’s right,” says Cathy, grinning from behind his bushy red muttonchop sideburns. “You’re damn right.”

Peanut is nervous. He would be happier if we didn’t try to interview Cathy. The photographer begins to focus his camera on the judge.

“Uh uh,” says Peanut. “No. No. No. No. No pictures of him.”

Peanut turns to me. “We’re not any different from people in Dallas or anywhere else about most things,” he says. “Most people here want this town to grow and have nice things in it just like anybody else would.”

“How much,” Cathy interjects, “do you think the county judge was paid when I took office four years ago?”

“I don’t know. I know your county was very poor. I guess maybe. . . $7000?”

“You’re just about $5000 too high. ’Bout five thou too high.”

Somehow $2000 or so a year for the highest-ranking elected official in the county does seem a little low, even if it is a poor county.

“I pushed it on up there to $12,500,” Cathy says. “That apparently rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.”

The real conflict in Somervell County politics, West contends, is in the battle between the wet and dry forces. Beer and wine, along with mixed drinks at private clubs, were approved in the 1972 election, before the plant ever came.

“We have a highway patrolman here who’s a Baptist preacher on Sundays,” West says. “He sits outside our club here on Saturday nights and busts people who drive out of here with liquor on their breath. If he catches you, he takes your butt straight to the jailhouse. And the new judge – he’s a Baptist deacon – he’ll throw the book at you,” West says. He pauses a moment and then breaks into a sardonic smile. “Of course when Jack here was the judge and I was the justice of the peace, things were pretty smooth.”

“I’ll bet they were,” I say.

“You damn right,” Cathy adds.

“What you ought to do if you want to write about something is write about the damn cop,” West says. “You ought to take a picture of him.”

We drive up and down the farm road, but there is no patrol car to be found.



It was much easier to find the sheriff the following Monday. I went to the courthouse, and his secretary directed me across the street to the sheriff’s new restaurant.

Sheriff Frank Laramore and his wife own the Brown Bag, a downtown restaurant directly across the street from Leslie’s hotel. It is the daily breakfast and dinner spot for many of the construction workers who live in Glen Rose. The sheriff lets Brown and Root employees run a tab there and pay it off each Friday.

“I’ve never seen a construction worker yet,” he says, “who has a dime to his name past about Wednesday. Most of them are broke by Monday. They must be spending their money in Fort Worth or Dallas or somewhere, because they sure are spending it somewhere.”

The sheriff is taking measures to see that more of it gets spent with him. His restaurant holds about 60 people. “We are always having to turn people away,” he says. “It just breaks my ol’ heart to see that.” His new restaurant will seat 90. When I found the sheriff he was working diligently to get his new enterprise opened. “I guess I can stop and talk to you,” he says. “I deserve a break.”

Frank Laramore is a very candid man. “This has always been a real nice and quiet little town,” says Laramore. “I moved down here from Johnson County because there weren’t no niggers down here at all.”

He smiled as he said that, as if there would be nothing offensive about a public official making a statement like that. He doesn’t have to worry about offending his constituents. They are all white, and many apparently share his feelings about black people.

“Is it still a quiet town?” I ask. “How about your crime rate, has it gone up?”

“You betcha,” he says. “I remember a few years ago when one of the first of them construction workers from North Carolina drove in here. He came over to where I was sitting and said ’Sheriff, I seen something on the square here you won’t see a few years from now, a car with the keys left in it and a truck with a gun in the gunrack and the windows left down.’ We all just kinda laughed at him. But we ain’t laughing no more. Everybody locks everything up. Because if you don’t, they’ll steal you blind.”

The construction site attracts a lot of out-of-work drifters, he said, who think they can get jobs with Brown and Root. “If they don’t get a job, they just live off stealing until they get up enough money to leave town.”

Violent crime is still minimal by Dallas standards. And violence between construction workers and Somervell natives is rare. The last time it happened, almost four years ago, it was the Brown and Root worker who was the victim.

Larry Bone, the son of former Somervell sheriff Paul Bone, spotted a young construction worker sitting on the town square in his new car one evening, talking to Bone’s estranged wife, who was sitting in another car parked nearby. Bone went home, returned with a pistol, and shot the worker squarely in the heart.

Young Bone then made a fast trip to the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and boarded a jet for Atlanta. But he used his own name when he purchased his ticket, and Laramore had little trouble finding out which flight he was on. Bone was picked up at the Atlanta airport. After one hung jury, Bone was convicted and sent to prison. That was the last murder in the county. There have been several non-fatal shootings, but most of the crime has involved efforts to make a quick buck off the construction workers or the companies they work for.

And, as anyone might suspect, there have been attempts to set up prostitution enterprises in Somervell County.

“A few months ago this dude showed up in my office and told me he was going to open a massage parlor right here in Glen Rose,” Laramore said. “He obviously came in here from Fort Worth or somewhere. He was all slicked up in a flashy suit and had on bracelets and all that kind of shit.

“I told him. Friend, you in the wrong town. He pulled out a copy of an injunction he had got against the cops in Fort Worth so they couldn’t shut his massage parlor down up there. I told him, ’Look here, stud, this is Somervell County here. You can take that injunction and shove it up your ass. If you don’t get your butt out of town in about two minutes, I’ll throw it in jail.’ “

The man never came back. No massage parlor ever opened.

“What about the businesses like-yours?” I asked the sheriff. “Aren’t you worried about what’s going to happen when 1983 gets here, and the plant is finished? Instead of 4100 construction workers, you’ll just have the 200 people or so who will work at the plant. Isn’t that going to have a catastrophic effect on your business?”

“Hell,” said the sheriff. “They’re already talking about building another nuke plant on that same site. And even when Brown and Root does leave, we ain’t gonna lose nothing but trash.”

“Aren’t there good people who work for Brown and Root?” I ask.

“Sure,” he says, “there are a lot of good family folks who work for Brown and Root. They’ve moved their families here and taken a part in this community. We welcome them. But there’s, also a lot of just plain old drifters we get through here. Losing them won’t be nothing but a pleasure.”



Barbara and D.E.Simpson moved not only their two children, but every possession they own to Glen Rose three years ago. They live in a 14 by 70 foot mobile home, one of hundreds that dot Somervell County. They pulled their trailer to Glen Rose from Port Aransas, where Simpson, a carpenter by trade, had worked on another Brown and Root project.

I met Simpson one afternoon as he and Homer Gray, another Brown and Root employee, were working on Gray’s car at a trailer park just off Farm Road 201 near the plant.

“You’ll have to pardon me,” Gray tells me as I introduce myself. “I’ve been drinking a little whiskey. There ain’t a hell of a lot to do around here but drink.”

Simpson, who asks me to come inside, agrees. “My wife and I had quit drinking for nine years,” Simpson says, “before we came here. But I told my wife, Honey, we’re either going to have to go back to drinking or we are going to have to get the hell out of here. There just ain’t nothing else to do.”

Barbara Simpson hears the story as we walk into the living room. She agrees. “This place is just bad news,” she says. “Their main problem is that there just isn’t anything down here. Nothing. They must be putting our money in the bank or something, because they sure aren’t spending it on their town.”

Except for the new supermarket, the fast food stores, and the two bars, there is very little in Glen Rose that wasn’t there 10 years ago. Except, of course, for the ubiquitous trailer houses.

Simpson worked “seven twelves” in Port Aransas. In the jargon of the construction worker, that means seven 12-hour days per week. Eighty-four hours a week. Forty-four hours of overtime pay.

“The money was so nice,” Mrs. Simpson said. “We just went out and bought everything we wanted that we saw. We never were able to do that before.”

There was one drawback.

“My husband didn’t do anything but work and sleep,” she said. “And when he got up in the morning, he looked just as tired as he did when he went to bed at night. But the money sure was good.”

“Now they got us back to four tens here at Glen Rose,” Simpson said. “I make $9.56 an hour, but it’s hard to make anything on four tens. We spend every penny we make and just have to live from week to week.”

Gray has good news. “We’re supposed to go to five tens in a couple of weeks. That will be a whole lot better.”

Gray and Simpson have noticed the obvious: Most locals don’t like them.

“I would sure as hell like it if 1 could play dominoes with the folks who play down at the barbershop,” says Gray, a graying, haggard, fiftyish man, who without his hard hat looks identical to the old men who hold the domino games. “But I walk in the barbershop down there and they won’t even look at me, much less ask me to play with them. That’s just not right. I’m just people, like they are.

“But I guess I realize why some of them don’t like me and I can’t say that I really blame them. Those who don’t work at the plant are making minimum wage, two or three bucks an hour. I make $9.70 an hour. We pay the same amount for groceries. I guess if I was them, I wouldn’t like that either.”

Gray, the Simpsons, and a lot of other Brown and Root construction workers can’t help but look forward to the day when they can load their trailers and drive back down Farm Road 201 and out of Somervell County, leaving it as quiet and barren as it was before they came.