Indigo, Texas, was founded in 1872 by Shelton Dobbs and named in honor of his daughter, Indigo Dobbs Crockett. The prairie around Indigo, about fifty miles east of Austin, was suited to the growing of cotton, and the town soon became a banking, ginning, and shipping center for area growers. But commerce began to decline when the boll weevil destroyed the cotton, and the stores started closing during the Depression. As highways bypassed the community, its death warrant was sealed. The most recent census shows that the population has dwindled to 27 hardy souls, all of whom swear that they would rather die in Indigo than live anywhere else.
"Notes on Some Notable Texas Towns"
The Enterprise, Pecan Springs TX
The man died fast and hard and in true Texas style, stepping
into a shotgun blast that lifted his feet off the ground and
slammed him backward through the door he'd just opened, into the
powdery dust of Indigo's main street. Nobody actually saw him
die, but the report of his passing was loud enough to be heard by
the amateur players in a make-shift theater across the alley,
just at the end of the Friday night performance of Indigo's Blue,
or Hard Times on the Blackland Prairie. The cast and most of the
audience rushed out into the October night to see what had
happened, followed by the San Antonio television crew that had
come to shoot the performance.
That's why, on the following evening's TV newscast, you might have seen a dead man staring blankly up at the night sky, surrounded by a crowd of wide-eyed, open-mouthed women in the long skirts and puff-sleeved shirtwaists of the 1890s, a gaudy whore in red-white-and-blue spangles, and a country doctor in a frock coat and top hat, groping inexpertly for a pulse. But from the gaping hole in the victim's chest and the amount of real blood that had soaked into the dust around the body, it was clear to the assembled crowd--which included Mike McQuaid, Ruby Wilcox, and me, China Bayles--that we might as well skip EMS and phone the sheriff.
But I'm getting ahead of the story, which begins (for me, anyway) several days before the man opened that fatal door and ended up dead in Indigo. So I'll start when I first learned about the problem, on a sunny Monday afternoon in early October, as I was giving Allison Selby and Ruby Wilcox the two-bit tour of my back-yard garden. That's when Allie told me about her uncle Casey and his plan to see the town of Indigo dead and buried.
I live in the Texas Hill Country, in a big Victorian house on Limekiln Road with my husband McQuaid and our thirteen-year-old son Brian. To get to our place, you drive south on Brazos Street past the elementary school, where you turn right onto Limekiln Road and head west about twelve miles. Slow down when you see an old shed on the right, half-smothered under a mound of enthusiastic honeysuckle, a wilding planted by a passing bird. Just past the shed, you'll see a wooden sign that says Meadow Brook, decorated with faded bluebonnets. Turn left, and drive down the gravel lane about a quarter of a mile until it dead ends at a two-story white Victorian with a green roof, a wrap-around porch, and a windowed turret. The house is surrounded by pecan and live oak trees and a couple of acres of grass that always needs either watering or mowing, depending on whether it's rained lately. September had been much wetter than usual and Brian (who is the chief lawn-mower in our family) had spent the last couple of weekends with his mother. The grass was ankle-high and lush and generously decorated with dandelions.
"Chiggers?" Ruby inquired dubiously, as we stood on the back porch, surveying the yard.
"You bet," I said. "Ferocious ones. I eat a lot of garlic, though, so they leave me alone." I reached for a small bottle of the herbal bug repellent that I sell at the shop. "Chiggers hate this stuff almost as must as they hate garlic." I handed it to her. "Want some, Allie?"
Allison shook her head. "Chiggers don't seem to like me," she said. "Guess I'm just not tasty enough." She leaned against the porch railing, gazing out across the yard. "Gosh, China, it's so green--and lush."
I grinned. Lush was a polite way of saying that the garden had gone back to the wilderness. "It's amazing what a little rain will do," I said.
While Ruby Wilcox is slathering on the repellent and Allison Selby is contemplating the overgrown landscape, I'll introduce the three of us. My name is China Bayles, and I'm the proprietor of Thyme and Seasons Herbs in Pecan Springs, a small town halfway between San Antonio and Austin, on the eastern edge of the Texas Hill Country. I came to Pecan Springs seven or eight years ago, single, approaching forty, and running from the law--from my career as a Houston criminal attorney, that is. I opened an herb shop, made friends, and settled into small-town life. Just about a year ago, I married Mike McQuaid and his son Brian, who looks like his father, without McQuaid's broken nose. Brian came with a pessimistic basset hound named Howard Cosell and a varying assortment of footloose and fancy-free lizards, frogs, and spiders, which are supposed to live in his bedroom but have a habit of showing up elsewhere, especially where you wish they wouldn't. Howard Cosell has the good taste not to eat these items of botanical bric-a-brac, but he's not above letting them think he might.
Ruby Wilcox is my best friend and business partner. She's slim and tall (six-feet-two in the open-toed blue slides she was wearing today), with frizzed henna-red hair, a liberal smattering of sandy freckles, and a generous mouth, lips firm and full. And if her height and coloring doesn't attract enough attention, she has her own unique--some might say outlandish--sense of style. Today, she was decked out in an empire-waisted, ankle-length, scooped-neck dress tie-dyed in various shades of indigo blue, with a matching indigo scarf twisted around her red curls, blue eyeshadow accenting her blue eyes (she likes to wear contacts that match her outfits), and blue polish on her finger- and toe-nails. A sight to make you sit up and take notice.
Ruby owns The Crystal Cave, the only New Age shop in Pecan Springs--not a surprise, for she's fascinated by things like astrology, tarot, divination, and channeling. Right now, for instance, she's teaching a six-week class on how to enhance your intuition--Tuning in to Your Right Brain, she calls it, because the right side of the brain is the switchboard where all the intuitive connections are spliced together. When she teaches a class, Ruby does all the exercises that she asks her students to do, which means that right now, she's working on sharpening her own intuitive skills.
But the left side of Ruby's brain works just fine too. She's a very sharp businesswoman, and we're partners in a tearoom called Thyme for Tea, located in the same building as Thyme and Seasons and the Crytal Cave. This enterprise has been a challenge since we opened a little over a year ago, but we're finally beginning to settle into a more-or-less comfortable routine, with a light luncheon menu, afternoon tea, even the occasional catering job. Our shops and the tearoom are closed on Monday. That's why the two of us could stroll around the garden this afternoon and try to fool ourselves into thinking that we're ladies of leisure, which of course we're not. Being self-employed has a great many advantages, but leisure is definitely not on the list.
Allison Selby and I have been doing natural dye workshops together this summer. Nobody would ever call Allie pretty, for her face is too narrow, her nose too long, her chin tucked back too far into her neck. But her dark eyes flash with a vibrant electricity, her short, mahogany-colored hair is glossy, and her movements are energetic. Today, she was her usual casual self in worn jeans, scuffed leather sandals, and a T-shirt that announced the name of her business, Indigo Valley Farm.
Allie lives an hour's drive to the east and north of Pecan Springs, on beautiful Indigo Creek, near a tiny town which is also called Indigo, in Dalton County. Our workshops, which we call Colors to Dye For, take place on her farm, in her outdoor dye kitchen. I bring the dye plants and talk about them, and Allie teaches the students--some of whom come from as far away as Dallas and Houston--how to use them.
The four or five workshops we've given over the past several months have been fun for me, and I've certainly learned a great deal about using plants for dyeing. Even though I've studied herbs for years, natural dyes are a recent interest, and I'm continually amazed at the variety of plants that have been used throughout history to create color. Until the discovery of aniline dyes, fibers and fabrics were colored with plant and animal dyes. But in 1856, an 18-year-old British chemistry student named William Perkin stumbled over the first synthetic dye--the color mauve--when he was trying unsuccessfully to make quinine from coal tar. People were anxious to synthesize quinine, the herbal medicine that was the only successful treatment of malaria, because the bark of the cinchona tree, its natural source, was very difficult to obtain. (Quinine wasn't synthesized until World War II, when the Japanese seized the world's supply of cinchona trees.) Willy Perkin's mauve not only sparked a new color craze but became the first step in the development of modern organic chemistry.
In addition to helping me accumulate such fascinating oddments as the relationship between the cinchona tree and the color mauve, the workshops have also given me a chance to get to know Allison Selby better. She's a strong, intelligent woman with an ironic sense of humor, although she is often moody and private and . . . well, complicated. Our acquaintance goes back to our undergraduate years at the University of Texas (Allie was an art major while I was pre-law), but we lost track of each other over the intervening years, and I didn't even know where she lived until she got in touch with me last spring about collaborating on the workshops.
Ruby (who had agreed to help us with the next Colors to Dye For) finished fortifying herself against the chiggers and we waded through the grass, flicking off grasshoppers and pausing here and there to talk about the plants. My display gardens, which are designed to give people an idea of how various herbs look in a garden setting, are located on the grounds around Thyme and Seasons. Since they're open to the public, I am compulsive about keeping the beds trim and tidy. When you visit, you'll see squares and rectangles outlined with upright boxwood and principled brick paths, every weed (well, almost every weed) virtuously suppressed, as in a properly well-ordered English herb garden. If you are a gardener, you will appreciate that this takes time and dedication--a great deal of both, actually.
The gardens at the house get whatever time is left over. As a result, the herbs and flowers and veggies and weeds tumble together in a riotous anarchy that I fondly call my "cottage garden," but which might easily be mistaken for a stretch of impenetrable jungle. McQuaid refuses to go near it without a compass, a canteen, and a machete, and even I am careful about wandering through it, especially at twilight, when I can hear the plaintive cries of rain forest monkeys and the trumpeting of a distant elephant. At the far end of this tract of uninhibited chaos, I've planted some of the dye herbs we're using for the workshops--safflower, tansy, cosmos, marigolds, madder, woad--and I wanted to show them to Allie. I'd brought a basket, too, so we could gather some goldenrod.
We turned the corner. "And this," I announced, "is my dye garden."
I probably should have reconnoitered before I brought guests. Nobody said anything for a long time.
"Astounding," Allie remarked at last, in that half-ironic, half-amused tone of hers. "Would you look at that? I had no idea that sunflowers grew quite so tall."
Ruby craned her neck. "Somehow," she remarked, "they make me think of Jack and the Beanstalk. Maybe there's a pot of gold around here somewhere."
With all the rain we've been having, the Hopi dye sunflowers were taller and larger than usual, their orange-rimmed heads plump with purple-black seeds. The safflowers too, were vigorous and woody, while the unruly madder (a distant cousin of that all-important cinchona tree) was thigh-high and sprawling. The goldenrod had catapulted across the path and leapt like a shameless hussy into the iris bed. And there was the woad, a garden gorilla which some fastidious states have unfeelingly designated as a Class A noxious weed. My woad looked as fierce as the ancient Britons who terrorized the Romans when they painted themselves with it. The plants were obviously dead set on taking over Texas and were already eyeing the territory north of the Red River. It was going to take courage and determination, and maybe a legion of Roman soldiers, to bring them under control.
I sighed. "I think I'd better put in a call to the woad police. Before it goes to seed."
"I've got news for you," Ruby said, pulling off a dried seed pod and handing it to me. "What color do you get from woad?"
"Blue," Allie replied. "China's got enough woad here to body-paint a whole clan of Picts." She fingered a leaf. "In Europe, it was the major source of the color blue through the 1700s, but when the traders began importing indigo from the Far East, dyers sort of forgot about woad. If you want to know about blue, you need to ask Mayjean Carter. She's got quite a collection of blue-dyed textiles."
"Forget about woad?" Ruby asked nervously, gazing at my woad forest. "I don't see how they could. I'd be afraid to turn my back on this stuff, even for an instant."
As we paused to fill the basket with goldenrod blossoms, we talked about the dye plants Allie wanted me to bring to the workshop, which was scheduled for Friday.
"I've just finished shearing," Allie said as we started back toward the house, "so I've got some new fleece. And Miss Mayjean has promised to bring some of the pieces from her indigo collection."
"I'm looking forward to it," Ruby said. "How are your girls?" Ruby has never met Allie's family, but she's seen photos, of course. And she hears about them every time the three of us get together.
"They're having the time of their lives." Allie brushed a gnat off her arm. "Shangrilama is keeping an eye on things, and Buckeye and Bronco are fat and sassy. I'm getting rid of Rambo, though. He sneaked up behind me the other day and knocked me tail over teakettle. I told him it's time for him to hit the road." Her grin seemed tight. "I don't like to be knocked around."
I remember Allie saying something very similar during a painful divorce five years or so ago. She left her job as an art teacher in the Austin public schools and moved to a piece of land where her mother's family had lived for generations. Since then, she has painstakingly bred a small herd of white and colored angora goats--the "girls," she calls them affectionately, although the herd includes a fiercely protective guard llama named Shangrilama, three conscientious angora bucks, and an assortment of rowdy kids. The angora is an ancient Turkish goat that is valued for its soft, luxuriant mohair. Colored angoras, however, have been bred only in the last few years. Their fleece is sold mostly to handspinners, who love the handsome dark colors of the fiber and the astonishing softness and strength of the spun yarn.
As a shepherd and fiber artist, Allie is one of the most talented and busiest women I know. She hand-shears her entire herd twice a year; washes, cards, spins, and dyes the fleeces; and weaves scarves and rugs and blankets that she sells, along with her fleeces and animals, at shows around the country. She also displays her hand-dyed items in various Hill Country shops, including Thyme and Seasons and the Crystal Cave, where she's developed a dedicated following. And she offers a variety of workshops and classes at her farm and in Austin and Pecan Springs. Most of the year, this woman has more work than she can possibly do and mostly she thrives on it. But like many artists, Allie chooses to live on the margin, investing her time and energy in return for the pleasure of her animals' company, the delight of her fiber creations, and not much money. Making ends meet must be a constant juggle, but, as I say, she seems to thrive.
Today, however, I had the unsettling notion that Allie was not thriving. She seemed taut, like a rubber band that's almost ready to snap, and there were blue shadows under her eyes. Her normal irony also seemed sharper than usual, less funny, more barbed. Her relationship, maybe? She'd been living with someone for the past couple of years--perhaps they'd split up. A failed love affair, coming after the divorce, would certainly be enough to turn her life sour.
Or maybe she really had taken on too much. She'd just gotten back from a fiber arts show in Colorado, and there was the Colors to Dye For workshop coming up on Friday and the Indigo Art and Craft Festival on Friday night and Saturday. Ruby and I had taken a booth, and we were planning to drive to Allie's place on Thursday afternoon, to set things up for the workshop. Allie had invited us to stay at her farm on Thursday and Friday nights--a good thing for us, since Indigo has no motels. But maybe it wasn't a good thing for Allie. Maybe she ought to get some rest, instead of worrying about guests.
"Look," I said. "It's really kind of you to invite Ruby and me to stay with you and the girls at the farm this weekend. But maybe we should commute. It's only an hour's drive and having company just means extra work for you, on top of everything else."
Behind Allie's back, Ruby gave me a surreptitious thumbs-up, and I knew she shared my concerns. She and I have been friends for so long that we occasionally seem to read each other's minds--a process which indicates, she claims, that I am finally beginning to develop my right brain. My biggest shortcoming, in Ruby's view, is that I am too rational, too logical. Linear, she calls it. I should learn to think in circles.
Allie lifted her head. "You can see right through me, huh?"
She sounded irritable. "Allie's ready to snap?"
"Well," I said, "you do seem a little . . . edgy. Troubled, maybe."
Allie made a low sound in her throat. "You'd be troubled too, if you knew what's going on in Indigo."
"So what's going on in Indigo?" I sat down on the old wooden swing that hangs from the live oak tree and patted the seat beside me. Allie sat down and stretched out her long legs. She didn't answer right away.
Ruby pulled up a green-painted lawn chair, brushed leaves off the seat, and sat down. "There can't be much going on there," she remarked, "aside from the festival, that is. It's got to be the smallest living town in Texas. Why, it doesn't even have a post office any more."
"You don't know the whole story," I said, pushing the swing with my toe so that we swayed back and forth. "People are really committed to bringing Indigo back to life." Allie had introduced me to several village leaders when we started giving our workshops early last spring. Shortly after that, the Historical Indigo Restoration Committee, HIRC for short, had invited me to meet with them as an informal advisor, since I'd been involved with a similar group in Pecan Springs. I was impressed by the energy the group had brought to the task of enticing visitors to Indigo, scheduling events like the Festival for almost every weekend. This fall, they had already staged an antique car rally and a bicycle race and were planning a folk music fiesta, a farmers market, and a holiday festival. If they kept coming up with good ideas like these, they were bound to succeed.
Five years before, nobody would have given a plugged nickel for Indigo's chances for surviving into the twenty-first century. It had been a lively little town once, with a busy cotton gin, a bank, a railroad depot, a two-story hotel, a grocery store, a feed store that also sold ranching supplies, a hardware store, a handful of saloons, and the Dalton County Jail, which provided overnight hospitality for the saloons' rowdier customers. It had been a pretty town, too, with pecan and willow trees along the streets and a large park that bloomed with colorful wildflowers in the spring and summer.
But times change and towns change. Indigo lost its vitality when the boll weevils chewed up the cotton, the Depression closed the stores, and the new highway swung ten miles in the opposite direction, taking the county seat with it. This sad business of dying towns, we've seen it happen all over Texas, from the oil-patch towns that dried up when the crude stopped flowing to agricultural towns killed off by drought and the loss of cheap farm labor. People with money in their jeans climb into their pickups and drive to the city, where they get cheaper prices and a greater variety of goods and services. People without money go elsewhere to look for work. When their customers and their labor force disappear, the town's businesses fold. Once they're gone, the schools go too, and with them the sense of community. That's what happened to Indigo. In the end, there was nothing left but a few old folks, living on their Social Security checks while they watched Indigo die around them.
Until Allie, her friends, and HIRC began to bring Indigo back to life, that is. A dozen artists--spinners, weavers, dyers, potters, a wood-turner, even a blacksmith--formed the Indigo Arts and Crafts Co-op. They rented the dilapidated cotton gin from Allie's uncle, who owns most of what's left of the buildings on Main Street, and renovated it into studio space and a gallery where they could display and sell their work. Somebody opened a coffee shop across the alley, somebody else opened a gift shop, and everybody chipped in to buy planters for the main street, which they filled with redbud trees, herbs, and native plants. In April, when the bluebonnets were blooming, they held a successful Spring Arts and Crafts Festival, and now they were about to do it again. Indigo had died once, but Allie and her friends had put their hearts and souls into the effort to resurrect it.
"The population is growing," Allie said, "but I'm afraid that's not going to make any difference." There was a bitter twist in her voice. "Looks like we've reached the end of the road."
"You can't mean that," I exclaimed. "Why, just think how hard you've worked to bring the town to life! And with all the events you've scheduled--"
"We'll get through the festival okay," Allie said, "and the events that are already on the calendar. But after that, there won't be any more town. The girls and I will have to move, too." She made a hopeless gesture with her hands. "No more Indigo Farm."
"Wait a minute," Ruby said, frowning. "I thought your farm belonged in your mother's family. I thought you were leasing the land from your uncle, or something like that."
"Right," Allie said sourly. "It does. I am."
"Then what's the problem?" I asked. "Why can't you--"
"The problem is called 'mining rights.'" Allie leaned forward in the swing, her elbows on her knees, her head down. She looked angry and discouraged. "In another year or two, the town of Indigo will not only be dead, but buried, and so will the farm. Every building, every tree, every blade of grass, even Indigo Creek--it'll all be gone. Bulldozed, ripped away, dug up, diverted. What's left will look like a moonscape. The astronauts will be able to see the scars from space."
"Oh, no!" Ruby exclaimed. "That can't be! You can't mean it, Allie!"
"Oh, hell," I said, beginning to understand. "It's that strip mine, isn't it?"
"Right the first time," Allie said. She turned her head so we couldn't see if there were tears in her eyes. "And it's all Uncle Casey's fault, damn him!"
© 2002 Susan Wittig Albert