A Little Town To Call His Own

Washington lobbyist Carlton Carl, above, gives a tour of his recent acquisition: most of Main Street in Martindale. Although he has no firm plans yet for the town, population about 950, he envisions artists' studios in the old seed silos and a cafe downtown. At left, Carl examines a scale in the abandoned cottonseed weigh station, once the center of town life.
Washington lobbyist Carlton Carl, above, gives a tour of his recent acquisition: most of Main Street in Martindale. Although he has no firm plans yet for the town, population about 950, he envisions artists' studios in the old seed silos and a cafe downtown. At left, Carl examines a scale in the abandoned cottonseed weigh station, once the center of town life. (Photos By Sylvia Moreno -- The Washington Post)
By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 10, 2006

MARTINDALE, Tex. -- Carlton Carl was a young man, fresh out of graduate school and just starting his political career as an aide to the late Democratic Gov. Preston Smith, when he began exploring quaint little towns in central Texas.

He had grown up in big-city Houston, but fascinated by small-town life, he wondered what it would be like to get really involved in it. Better yet, what if he could even own a town?

Maybe one such as this little "hower-yew" place where everyone knows everybody, where the big annual event is the Martindale Fun Fest in April. A place where July Fourth is celebrated with a parade of men riding their power lawn mowers down Main Street, followed by a community covered-dish picnic on the riverfront.

A place where the city limit is marked by the "Martindale Baptist Church Welcomes You!" sign, and the Pak-N-Sak convenience store promotes the nearby Luling Watermelon Thump.

Today, Carl is a national-Democratic-aide-turned-liberal-Washington-lobbyist, with the spectacles and salt-and-pepper beard to match, and his dream has come true. He owns almost all of Main Street in Martindale, population about 950.

He found it -- of course -- on the Internet, and he bought it last year with the proceeds -- naturally -- from selling his 900-square-foot Capitol Hill rowhouse. He does not want to say how much the house sold for, but the sale did finance most of the purchase.

What else would a native Texan, who never let go of his daydream, do with a windfall from Washington's real estate boom? Carl, 60, bought 36,000 square feet of dilapidated buildings, 16 seed silos, a seed elevator and 300 feet of overgrown frontage along the San Marcos River, hoping he can revive the 151-year-old town.

"I have more vaults than working toilets," Carl says as he leads a tour of what was once the cotton capital of central Texas. He has four vaults -- two without doors -- and three toilets, only one of which works, in the buildings he owns.

Right now, most of downtown Martindale looks like an abandoned western movie set, which it is. Portions of Clint Eastwood's "A Perfect World," Richard Linklater's "The Newton Boys" and the 2003 remake of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" were filmed here. Carl's buildings -- some converted for the movies into a fake courtroom, a bordello and a Depression-era cafe -- once housed a bank, several dry-goods stores, a warehouse, a small restaurant and what used to be the center of life here: a cottonseed weigh station. That was in the days when Martindale produced a majority of the state's hybrid seed corn and when cottonseed, used to make margarine and cooking oil, was one of the biggest cash crops in Texas.

But central Texas cotton farms began to disappear in the middle of the past century, and urbanization along nearby Interstate 35, which connects San Marcos (eight miles northwest of Martindale) to Austin (30 miles north of Martindale), bypassed the little town. The schools closed; the downtown merchants and businesses left; people moved away. Martindale's children now attend San Marcos public schools while residents work, shop, bank, eat, launder their clothes, go to movies or see the doctor in San Marcos, Lockhart or Austin.

Carl hopes to change that, at least a little bit. He envisions artists' lofts and studios in the 19-foot-tall silos, an art gallery, and a few boutiques. He thinks a "destination restaurant," like other gourmet establishments that have sprouted in central Texas towns, would be great. He's sure a small but full-fledged grocery store would work.

But first he must finish meeting the residents to get a feel for what they want. "A good washateria," a cafe and a grocery store seem to be on top of many wish lists. A nursing home, a bank and a cafe, says Martha Nell Holmes, 85, the matriarch of Martindale and a descendant of the town's founding family. "I really feel Pollyannic about this whole thing," she said about Carl's plans. "I feel like we're at the phoenix stage right now."

Next, Carl needs to gauge what the mayor and the five-member City Council will support. A restaurant, a grocery store, a senior citizen nutrition site and a health clinic, says Mayor Lola Walker.

Then he must turn his lobbying skills to pitching Martindale so he can lure the kind of income-producing, tourist-attracting businesses that will help finance the restoration of Main Street's crumbling brick buildings.

And finally, he must convince city officials that he can help them shape Martindale's destiny and ensure its survival as subdivisions, a proposed toll road and other development encroach on several sides.

"Change is coming; it's inevitable. So the city can guide the progress or be shaped by it or be left behind," Carl said. "There's hundreds of great little towns in central Texas, and half of them are dying or dead. I want to make Martindale a more viable community again."

There can be two outcomes of this Mr.-Carl-goes-to-Martindale experiment. He may help transform the town into a magnet for day-trippers and for canoers headed to the pretty San Marcos River. Or Carl, who plans to retire from the bustle of Washington in a few years and settle down here, will end up with what he says would be "a 10,000-square-foot loft on a river in central Texas where I can invite friends and paint and write for the rest of my life."

"I do think it's a great investment," Carl said. "Just maybe not in my lifetime. I don't know."

For now, "Believe in Martindale" is Carl's motto. The bumper stickers that he designed, printed and planted on the SUV he drives around central Texas, exploring quaint little towns, say so.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company