We met J.C. while passing through what was once the town of San Gabriel. Well, technically it is still a town, at least it shows up on the county map, although there’s not much left of it but a few empty buildings, some residences, and two – yes, two! – active churches. J.C. told me there were maybe 100 people living in the area.
Anyway, back to J.C.—
“About ten year back” J.C. purchased a decrepit, collapsed-roof, school and a corner general store/gas station. He reopened the store as a place to buy cold (nonalcoholic) beverages and “refreshments.” Rather than selling gas, J.C. built a car wash large enough for big rigs next to the store: “Takes less work. Someone has to tend to the pumps.” Between the school and the store, he created a BBQ joint out of two old gin silos and a shed. One silo served as the smoke house, the other— an outhouse. Picnic tables outside served as the dining room. “Closed it down. Too much work and I had other things to do,” J. C. volunteered. The car wash, by the way, still operates, although when we showed up J.C. had it closed down and was mucking in a large puddle in a concrete well. “The drain,” he said.
Here, I must interject, that although we arrived unexpectedly (stopped to take a photo of a donkey), J.C. stopped what he was doing and graciously offered to show us around.Those “other things to do,” meant the school. J.C. and his wife were living in a lively old farm house next door. J.C., however, seemed to think that the school would make for a better home. That’s why he purchased it in the first place.
Even in its decrepit state the building was absolutely enticing, a school building architecturally ahead of its time, an architectural gem. A large school, built in 1936 to serve San Gabriel when it was a bustling town. Thick fieldstone exterior walls with delightful follies – a heart shaped stone, a stone in the shape of Texas, a pond, a stone picnic table and benches, a few whimsical cutouts on the front (added by J.C. himself) – which J.C. delighted in helping us discover with hints.
If I were J.C. I’d probably want to do the same thing.
The conversion was a work in progress. When J.C. spoke of his plans you could tell that the process of change was a work of love. The rear of the school featured a walk-in basement with the main floor above (the rest of the school was one story). Here, on the facade J.C. has created a Swiss chalet look with an overhanging roof. Inside this rear portion is where J.C wants to refit as his home. Still a long way to go. For the time being, J.C. has created three rooms. To one side is a room where he added a bay to create a greenhouse of sorts for his wife. To the other side is a room with an added upstairs. In the center, a large open space at present being used to dry elephant garlic. A thick stone wall separates the rooms from the school proper. To do so, J.C. had to clear out the main floor which had collapsed into the basement. As J.C. envisions it, this will be the new home. As the main floor is no longer existent at the rear of the building there is no structural access to the rest of the school.
What are J.C’s plans for the remainder? “We’ll see,” is what he said.
I have to admit, his plans are pretty cool. I was impressed. However, what was around the corner form the basement in the play yard was even more impressive. J.C. had created a peach orchard. In an l-shaped alcove, against one wall were planted neat rows of peach trees. Along the other wall, more peach trees along with other trees. The entire play area was being transformed into a garden!
Up to now I’ve written about what J.C. has done, or is doing. I’ve held off describing him, in part because he is an unique somewhat eccentric character whom I am having trouble finding words to describe, and in part I don’t know how he would feel about my description. In spite of J.C.’s gracious hospitality in showing us around, you could tell he was also valued his privacy.
J.C is a bit of a “collector,” especially of old trucks and machinery. We were discussing the galvanized overhanging roof that he had built over the front of the school when he pointed at a bucket lift. “That’s why I bought that. I’m strong but I couldn’t lift those sheets by myself. So, I got me a helper.” With little extra help he did it all by himself.
Did I mention that he is 80?
“My wife,” he told us, is off teaching. With a big grin he added, “I married a much younger woman.” For J.C.’s wife, as the descendant of some of the towns earliest settlers, the return to San Gabriel was a return home.
Something else comes to mind, that is J.C. As we wander around the outside of the school J.C. points at a plant. “Do you know that that is?” It’s poison oak. “Stay away from it and watch out for bobby-traps!” “People wanna get into the school. Never know what dame they’ll do. Don’t want them to get hurt.” In the same breath that he points a bobby-trap out, he says, “Some guy wants to come here put up some sort of lighting to make a spooky video. Hasn’t been back.” I have to smile at the bobby-traps. They just piles of branches set in a way for people to trip over them.
Can’t think of a better way to describe J.C. than with these stories. Yet, in s real sense they’re only side notes. There’s much more to J.C. than his intrepid determination to accomplish things. As I’ve already mentioned, we showed up unannounced. J.C. didn’t know us from a hill of beans. Yet, he took the time to share his time – 1 1/2 hours worth &;#8211; and not only did he share his time, he shared some of his plant bounty with us. but more importantly he took the time to share himself with us. Something that so few of us are apt to do as we rush from here to there.
Before I wrap this up I want say a word about the photo of J.C.
I wanted to get a photo of J.C. by his 69 White dump truck before we left. He agreed, with one condition: I would photograph with his hat off. I took several, yet for me, J.C. was “J.C.” when he was wearing his hat. That’s the only way I had seen for the entire time before I took his photo. I asked again, reluctantly, J.C. agreed. When I give him prints, I know which one he won’t like.
[More photos (with history) of San Gabriel, Texas]
Story first appeared in “Roadside Stories” on July 7, 2015. “Roadside Stories” is part of my photography website.
Frank A. Mills
Round Rock, Texas