Our Town


A Few Stats


I got to Somerville accidentally; well, more or less.  I came over from Bryan for a job interview although I really wasn’t looking for a job, just killing time: I was waiting on confirmation of a job with a pharmaceutical company in Houston.  I talked to the  school superintendent for about 30 minutes, signed a contract, and, as they say, the rest is history.  That was 1967: I’m still here. 


Somerville, Texas: 30 degrees 20 minutes latitude, 96 degrees 31 minutes longitude: a little place in a big state.  Population 1,376, about 1% more females than males, the way God intended. Surprisingly it has a smaller 65-and-older population than the state by about 5%; it has more married people than people who are single which is just the opposite of the state percentages and, once again, the way God intended.


It’s 57%  white, 31% black or African American, about 21% Hispanic or Latino, 1% American Indian, and about .1% Asian, no Hawaiians or  other Pacific Islanders.  A pretty good mix of races.  We seem to tolerate each other pretty well.  For the most part we like each other.  When we don’t, it’s probably  personal.  On the whole, I’d say we’re pretty kind to each other.


We can’t be accused of being wealthy: the median household income is just $26,208, almost $14,000 below the state average.  The per capita income is only $12,995, $6,600 below the state average.  We’ve got fewer folks in the labor force: only 55.9% as compared to the state’s percentage of 63.9.  Families below poverty level: 18.3%, over six percentage points above the state’s  level.


Our elementary has about 220 kids, and the junior high school has about 100 kids enrolled.  The high school has about 150.  Our school system has gone through periods of insanity but presently seems to be on pretty firm ground.  We have about 45 folks in college or graduate school.


We shine when it comes to high school graduates: 41.3% as compared to the state’s 24.8%.  3.8% have associate degrees as compared to the state’s 5.2%. 6.3% have bachelor’s degrees as compared to the state’s 15.6%.  We get a little closer to the state average of 7.6% with graduate or professional degrees with our own 4.5%.


As you would expect, our 757 housing units reflects the other stats:  The median home cost is $46,600, almost $36,000 below the state average;  of the 757 housing units, only 639 are occupied.  The persons per household is just about the state average 2.67/2.74.


Why We’re Here


Somerville began as a railroad boom town.   In 1880 the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway Company built the first railroad bridge over Yegua Creek. A new town site named after Albert Somerville, the president of GC&SF, was established.  A railroad yard, machine shops, and a roundhouse were built. In 1897 a group from Chicago built the Texas Tie and Lumber Preserving Company; Santa Fe bought it in 1905: Koppers Incorporated bought it in 1995. In 1900 a train depot was built for railroad men and passengers. Part of the railroad depot was a Fred Harvey Hotel and Restaurant. It became a social gathering place for Somerville folks and their neighbors from the area until 1940.


Folks from all over the United States came to Somerville to work for Santa Fe or start a business. By 1913 Somerville had grown to 3000 citizens.  The Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe became part  of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad in 1887. The first general store was opened in 1893; the first post office opened in 1894; the first community union church services were held in 1898.  The Somerville Independent School District began in 1903; in 1905 a two story brick public school building was built. It was still in use into the late 70’s.  Somerville incorporated in 1913.  The WPA built a stone gymnasium and football stadium in 1939.    The Corps of Engineers completed the Somerville Dam and Reservoir on Yegua Creek on the edge of town in 1966 producing a wonderful recreational area.


What’s Here 


Like most small towns, Somerville is not short on churches that serve the community: Zion Church of Christ, Somerville Church of God, Assembly of God Church, Little Flock Baptist Church, Second Street Baptist Church, First Lutheran Church, St. James Christian Church, First United Methodist Church, Mt. Zion Baptist Church, New Hope Baptist Church, First Baptist Church, and St Ann’s Catholic Church.  I’m sure I’ve left out some.  At one time there were three churches on the block my home is on.


Also like most small towns, it honors its veterans.  There’s an active American Legion and a veterans memorial on the Somerville Museum’s property and at Oaklawn Cemetery.


Somerville has been in decline almost from the day I arrived: I deny any personal responsibility for the decline.  The importance of the railroad here and all over the United States has lessened.  The businesses (Western Auto, Priesmeyer’s Department Store, Strickland’s Variety Store, Neinast Grocery Store, Harvey’s Barber Shop, Somerville Drug Store, IGA Grocery Store) on our one block of downtown, have disappeared. 


The funeral home, Strickland’s, hasn’t missed a beat over the years.  In fact it has expanded and improved.  Folks come home to be interred.  Other folks come to be buried less expensively.


At the present time we have the Burleson-St. Joseph clinic which is associated with the St. Joseph hospital in Caldwell which is associated with the St. Joseph hospital in Bryan.  What does this mean: it means we have a nurse practitioner, Martha, who services the local needs at our local clinic.  She does a nice job.  Somerville had its own physician for over fifty years, Doc Pazdral.  Doc Pazdral came here as a young fellow and made his career here tending to the needs of the locals: Doc passed away several years ago, but folks haven’t forgotten him: a local baseball field bears his name. 


We’ve got a B&B grocery store now.  It’s pretty big for our small community.  We’ve got a nice new lumber yard, Overall’s.  Hughes Lumber helped me remodel my house.  It was an authentic old fashioned lumberyard, friendly and helpful.  I still miss it and Mr. Hughes.  We’ve even got a first class car wash.  One real survivor for many years is Strickland Florist.  People still die, get married, celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, and remember Valentine’s Day.  Of course we have a liquor store.  Folks still drink, but probably not as much as they once did.  We once had a couple of shoe repair places, Seth Cromo’s and Charlie Wilson’s, but folks pretty much wear their shoes and throw them away when they deteriorate instead of having them repaired.  We even have two motels now, a Super Eight and Somerville Inn and Suites.  When I first came here, the old Somerville Motel was a series of railway boxcars, pretty neat.  We have two auto repair businesses, Gary’s Auto and Shoppe’s Auto.  Schoppe’s has been here forever and both are honest, which is more than you can say for many auto repair businesses.  The closest thing we have to a general store is Dollar General.  It does a booming business. There’s also Buck’s, another general store, not a chain.  We even have a professional photography business, York Photography.  The only industrial type business in addition to the tie plant is Rhodes Building.  They mainly build metal buildings.  They’ve survived good times and bad.  Of course we have a beauty shop, Best Little Hair House.  Women still want to look good.  We also have a barber shop, Somerville Barber Shop.  It’s operated by a lady barber.  She’s my first and does a nice job.  The bank, Citizen’s State, has prospered: in recent years it has opened branches in Deanville, Caldwell, Snook, Brenham, and Navasota and is undergoing a major makeover of the local branch.  Of course, there’s a feed store,   various quick stops, and other small businesses.  On the one block of downtown, businesses are gradually opening.  It was pretty deserted for a while.  Wights Insurance, the Jubilee Christian Center, the Windmill Cafe, a denture business, and the Somerville Museum was about it.  About three years ago, Art C’s, an art gallery opened (What?).  That business seemed to be a seed for other businesses to occupy the empty buildings; two antique stores, and the Somerville Library (still under construction).  There are still a few unoccupied structures, but there is hope.


Somerville is not a bad place to get a meal: a couple of big chains, Dairy Queen (A small town in Texas wouldn’t be a small town in Texas without a Dairy Queen.) and Subway: the locals include Mama's Kitchen & Game Room, Susie's Casita Restaurant, Windmill Restaurant, Las Fuentes Mexican Restaurant, Ricky's Catering Mantey Country, and Boondocks, our latest addition.  I hated to see the old Country Inn close; it was probably the best steak house in Texas.  Maybe Boondocks, which occupies the same building, will build as great a reputation as the Country Inn.


We have our share of nonprofit organizations: Rotary, American Legion, Somerville Historical Society (established 1979 and opened its doors in 1983), Veterans of Foreign Wars (consolidated with Caldwell some years ago), Arts at the Lake (only a couple of years old but prospering), Somerville Community Library Association (They’re on the brink of completing a wonderful remodel of an old structure.), Lions Club, Masons, Eastern Star, Chamber of Commerce, Knights of Columbus and the Altar Society for the ladies.


We have a local newspaper, the Burleson County Tribune.  A few years ago it was local to Somerville with an old hand set press.  It is now located in Caldwell, but does a great job for Somerville residents.


Somerville’s fire department is, of course, a volunteer group.  I must say that there are major cities that would be envious of our fire department.  When I first lived here, it was a shambles: as a matter of fact, the fire department burned down; the firemen barely saved the one engine.  Other disasters caused some of the locals to take the fire department more seriously: they got their act together.  Multiple times each week, they’re called out and do a professional job.


The police department is another story.  It’s gone through more changes than a baby’s behind.  For some time the town was a speed trap: you know, tickets pay for policemen’s salaries.  This unethical practice has been pretty well stopped.  One thing is clear, the locals want their own police department: when rumors that police enforcement may be turned over to the county, a groan goes up in the community.


On the Downside


Little towns are much more likely to get bad publicity than good publicity in news organizations located in nearby larger towns.  I guess it’s just the nature of the beast.  When something bad happens in a little town, it seems that the big towns jump on it like it’s a juicy steak.  Several years ago we had a local tragedy: six members of a local family were killed.  The family was respected and liked by just about everyone, and for a few days, their deaths were a great mystery.  It turned out it was a family dispute.  The news reports painted Somerville as the land that God forgot.  Recently there has been an ongoing claim that the local tie plant has caused various illnesses including cancer among those living here and those who have worked at the tie plant.  Numerous cases have been turned away by the courts, but it seems that it will never end.  News folks have used this to paint Somerville as nothing less than Chernobyl.  Whether the claims have any basis or not, I don’t know, but I’m not concerned about my own health, and I suspect no one else should be.


Little Towns Generally


Plato surmised that the ideal city had about “thirty thousand souls.”   Well, we’re way short of that number.  Although the number of positions to make the community work well rival the number required by a much larger city, the pool for qualified folks is quite a bit smaller.  One nice thing about a small town is that if one aspires to fill a position, be it elected or appointed, one has a pretty good chance of achieving it.  That’s also the bad news.  My advice to any one concerned is that if you get folks who do a good job, don’t let go of them.


Hope?


I imagine that I’ve laughed at Somerville more than most folks: well, damn it, you’ve got to laugh at some of the shenanigans folks pull, some of the attitudes, some of the beliefs.  I’m not a local and in spite of the fact that I’ve been here for well over half of my life, I never will be.  But still, it’s most folks’ natural inclination to wish to see things work well, and I’m no exception.


In spite of the fact that we rate pretty low on the economic scale, in spite of the fact that our general education level is not the highest, in spite of the fact that we’re not exactly racially homogeneous, I believe there is a brighter future for Somerville.  I think we hit bottom some time ago.  All I can see is up from here.

enough












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