ABILENE'S BIRTHDAY, OUR COUNTY SEAT
"The Future Great City of West Texas"
ABILENE FOUNDED ON MARCH 15, 1881
Abilene’s birthday over the years has been celebrated with parades, pageants and programs. Plus, the dedication of an air force base, the drilling of an oil well, and obligatory beard-growing contests.
The two biggest celebrations of Abilene’s March 15, 1881, founding, took place on its Diamond Jubilee in 1956 and its Centennial in 1981.
In Abilene’s early years, pioneers were still around to give first-hand accounts of the city’s beginnings. Many were published in a special edition of the newspaper on Abilene’s 50th birthday. Plus, legendary Editor Frank Grimes colorfully told the story of Abilene.
Fifty years ago today Mother Nature labored and brought forth a new City,
Thousands of people from all parts of the continent watched this event with unashamed and unrebuked interest. The squalling infant had a thousand godfathers and a hundred thousand well-wishers.
And they laid it in John N. Simpson’s cowpasture and called its name Abilene.
Actually, the Texas & Pacific Railway and some area ranchers were responsible for the new city – not Mother Nature. But for the “semi centennial” in 1931, W.M. “Uncle Bill” Slaughter, described as a first-comer to Abilene, led a program about the town lot sale.
Twenty-five years later, lots were still in the news as a building boom was going on and an air force base about to take flight. On March 15, 1956, the Abilene Reporter-News observed: “lots are still being sold at even a greater pace and buildings are going up faster and bigger.”
Another 25 years later, the Centennial celebration began with a “town lot” sale -- this one to raise money for Safety City, a Jaycees project to teach children traffic and pedestrian safety that opened in the fall of 1981. The re-enactment included a mock shoot-out, barbershop singing and people dressed in pioneer garb.
The Diamond Jubilee was celebrated belatedly in April to coincide with the dedication of the new air force base.
“Saddles to Jets” was the theme of the event and the name of a six-night pageant set on a 350-foot stage at Eagle Stadium at Fair Park with a cast of 1,100, horseback riders, a herd of cattle and a 20-foot oil rig. The pageant covered the history of the area from the Indians to a climax with a “simulated atomic blast,” followed by fireworks. Hopefully, the atomic blast was not how the history of Abilene is to end. The bomb fizzled during the second show, but apparently was a show-stopper during other performances. A bigger show stopper was the weather with high winds through much of the week. A reviewer noted that more than half of the first-night audience left before the end of the show, described as “full of color, spectacle and action down to the last Indian feathers, spotted cow and gun fight.”
The weather also caused havoc with a statewide model airplane show, listed among the festivities, at Municipal Airport. More than half of the remote-controlled planes crashed because of high winds.
Each day of the Diamond Jubilee had a topic. Since the celebration began on a Sunday, “Freedom of Religion Day” was the first. The next day, “Pioneer Day,” featured the opening of a carnival at Fair Park. Other days were “Frank Grimes and Industrial Day,” “Oil and Soil Day,” “Baseball and Antique Auto Day,” “Youth and Education Day,” and “Abilene Air Force Day.”
The final day was highly anticipated with the dedication of Abilene Air Force Base, later renamed in honor of Lt. Col. William Edwin Dyess. The event included flyovers by B-36 and B-47 bombers, a refueling demonstration by a KC-97, and a performance by the Thunderbirds, then a four-jet team. (The Thunderbirds also were a part of the Centennial 25 years later.)
An estimated 40,000 people were on hand for the Saturday morning dedication of the base and more arrived later just to see the planes and facilities. Anything classified was kept hidden away as people were allowed to bring cameras on the Strategic Air Command base.
One remnant of the overall celebration stands on the west side of what is known today as the 1915 Courthouse, then the courthouse. A Taylor County Memorial was dedicated on April 9. Noted Hardin-Simmons University historian Dr. Rupert Richardson unveiled the marker during a program presided over by Miss Tommie Clack, president of the John Hudnall Chapter of the U.S. Daughters of 1812. Mrs. Dallas Scarborough told of research and legislation to confirm the county was named after three brothers – Edward, James and George Taylor – who died at the Alamo. Lincoln Borglum, known for overseeing the completion of Mount Rushmore after his father’s death, sculpted the bas-relief memorial.
To tell the story of Abilene, not to mention to sell some ads, the newspaper published its biggest paper to date on April 8, 1956, using five railroad cars of newsprint. On the front page was a telegram from President Dwight D. Eisenhower congratulating the city.
Other events included an open house at the new Abilene High School, historical displays and a Miss Abilene pageant. The main parade on Monday lasted one hour and 18 minutes in 59-degree temperatures with 27 mph winds. An antique car parade was held Thursday and the city’s youth marched through the streets on Friday. Abilene’s minor league baseball team, the Blue Sox, were honored Thursday, and went on to win its season opener that night against the Lubbock Hubbers. Bandleader Spike Jones, who was in town to perform at McMurry College’s Radford Auditorium, also rode in the Thursday parade.
Merchants got into the act with Diamond Jubilee specials, such as those at Thornton’s Food Stores and Grissom’s Department Store. “M” System Food Stores featured boots and bargains, giving away 12 pair of Leddy Boots made in Abilene.
For the record, Abilene geologist Jim Barker won the Most Repulsive category in the beard-judging contest for his cocklebur-infested whiskers.
The Centennial celebration in 1981 was much the same with many people getting involved with events spread over six weeks throughout town from the heart of the city to the Westgate Mall to the Mall of Abilene. Even the Easter Bunny’s arrival at the mall was listed as a Centennial Event, not to mention the Centennial Cat Show and the Centennial Flower Show at the Abilene Civic Center. Dyess AFB held an open house on April 4, a busload of city officials traveled to Austin on April 7 for Abilene Day at the Texas Legislature, and Hardin-Simmons celebrated its 90th birthday on April 9.
The big day was the Centennial Birthday Party and Homecoming on Cypress Street on Saturday, April 11. Cypress Street was blocked off for the festival featuring food, games, dancing and entertainment.
One of the stars of the Centennial was 99-year-old beloved educator Miss Tommie Clack. Miss Tommie, who had taken part in the Diamond Jubilee, was honored with her first airplane flight.
Like in the mid-50s, oil was doing well in the early-80s and oilmen put on a shallow well drilling exhibition at the Taylor County Fairgrounds. It struck oil.
Another oilman’s project didn’t do so well. Flamboyant Jack Grimm, who financed searches for Noah’s Ark and the Titanic, dedicated a project to sculpt a buffalo on a Buffalo Gap mesa. It never took shape.
Other festivals to celebrate Abilene’s birthday have come and gone. They include:
Abilene Frontier Days. In 1969, Abilene’s birthday was celebrated at the end of April in conjunction with the popular Hardin-Simmons University Rodeo. Since the festival was co-sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce’s retail committee, merchants across town were encouraged to celebrate with sales. They did with specials like a hot dog and a drink for 15 cents at the Westgate Shopping Capital, a mall where the police station is today, and “the best deals in 88 years” at Harold Crawford Firestone. The town’s 88thbirthday also was observed with an old fiddlers' contest at Showcase Square, now the home of the Abilene ISD, and the dedication of a historical marker on the T&P Lawn, now known as Everman Park. The festival was held annually until 1974.
Boomtown. A street festival started by the Chamber during Abilene’s Centennial and taken over by the Abilene Jaycees. The event was held annually in June until the mid-80s and featured a carnival, entertainment, food, crafts and street dances.
Abilene Railroad Festival. In 1991, Abilene’s railroad heritage was recognized on the town’s actual birthday. For the inaugural event, the world’s largest mobile model train exhibit chugged into town. The movie, “Union Pacific” was shown and a melodrama was performed. Trolley tours, a Hobo Stew cookoff and other events took place. The Ancient Order of the Hibernians held its annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade in conjunction. At one festival, Glenn Biggs, CEO of the Texas High Speed Rail Corp., told attendees at the Iron Horse Dinner about a $6.7 billion rapid rail system connecting Texas’ biggest cities. While that didn’t come to pass, there was a lasting impact from the first railroad festival. Union Pacific donated its T&P Depot to the city, which was renovated and now serves as home for the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Celebrate Abilene. In 1997 the railroad festival, sponsored by the Abilene Preservation League, and Buffalo Gap Art Festival, a fundraiser for the Museums of Abilene, merged into a downtown festival. The first, held in early April, was plagued by high winds. It was held until 2004, and was followed by the short-lived Abilene Founders Day festival, sponsored by the preservation league.
THE REST OF THE STORY
For the rest of the story on the town lot sale, here is more of Grimes’ story from 1931:
On that auspicious occasion the damyankee mingled with the unreconstructed rebel. The New England nasal twang mixed with the molasses-slow drawl of the Southerner. The brisk, snappy accents of California were heard in competition with the Elizabethan elisions of the Tennessee mountains.
Today you can’t tell the Northerner from the Southerner, or the Pacific Coasters from the mountaineers. They have all been molded into the semblance of that proud product of the Western plains, the Abilenian.
March 15, 1881, the townlot sale took place here. It is of record that lots were bought by people in all parts of the United States. The impression was general that an important town would come into people and this impression was eminently justified by subsequent developments.
Abilene stands on the fiftieth milestone and looks backward without regret and forward without fear. …
We like to think that those Abilenians of March 15, 1881, would be pleased to know that we Abilenians of March 15, 1931, have carried on and preserved at least a modicum of their persevering spirit.
And we trust the Abilenians of March 15, 1981, can be as proud of us as we are of those who stood at the bedside in John N. Simpson’s pasture fifty years ago.
2021 MARKS 140 YEARS
This year, 2021, marks the 140th anniversary of Abilene. Ten years from now, will there be a big Sesquicentennial celebration in 2031? That gives plenty of time to grow a beard.