“I slink down the alleyway looking for a fight…” – Stray Cats, “Stray Cat Strut”
A local merchant and I were leaning against the bar at his coffee shop, (once a lumber shed in the old days of Van Alstyne) talking about art and the process of how the wooden piece on his wall were created, titled “Wyatt Earp and His Immortals”. I had mentioned that Wyatt Earp had visited Van Alstyne before and in doing so, I motioned my hand toward the windows that gave a nice panoramic view of downtown. We both walked over to the tables at the windows and looked towards the old downtown across the street, as though we could see Wyatt Earp himself a block away. Noticing the iron staircase going up the side of the old building in the line of our gaze at the corner of Preston and Alley Court I said, “Speaking of Wild West lawmen, right there under those stairs in the alley occurred a gunfight.” The merchant reached for the door and said, “Seriously? Let’s go take a look and you can tell the story to me over there.”
I had only begun to research more about this gunfight I was about to narrate, and at that point was really basing what I knew off of what the old timers, who had remembered it happening in their lifetime, told me when I was a kid. I mentioned this and the merchant told me to just tell him what I knew so far.
Glancing both ways we bounded off of the sidewalk and speed-walked across the street , then down Preston. “Who was this guy, anyway?” He asked.
I raced through my mind for what little information I had read by that time and managed to say, “William Larkin Echols – City marshal, deputy sheriff, constable, chief of police of Van Alstyne from 1883 to 1929.”
“You mentioned under these stairs,” the merchant questioned me. “What happened here?” He stood underneath the stairs and looked out into his surroundings.
“At 2:40am on March 22, 1929 Chief Echols prevented four bank robbers from burglarizing two banks right here in this alley. He saw a suspicious character right there where you’re standing and confronted him with questions. The hijacker – as Echols called such criminals – pulled his gun and told Echols to ‘Stick ‘em up’.”
The merchant put his hand quickly in his pocket and then pulled it out quickly, and forming a gun with his thumb and forefinger and pointed it at me, “And then what?” He spoke halfway to himself and halfway to me, “Echols was standing right there where you are and then this guy was like…”
I continued and motioned as if drawing a gun myself and pretended to point it at him, “And then Echols said, so I’ve been told, ‘Over my dead body’ and a shootout commenced right here and Echols’ gun was shot. It jarred-out the pin. The gunfight ended with Echols sitting on the foot of these steps with two bullets in him as the four punks escaped in a car parked across the street behind me.”
“Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man” – 17 Nov 1996 episode of “The X-Files”
“Then what did Echols do? Did he die right here?”
“No. He walked through this alley behind you and…” I looked past the shop owner and saw a man inhaling a cigarette, leaning up against the brick wall of the alley there behind the Van Alstyne Hardware Store, which I still call Veazey’s Hardware out of habit.
The Smoking Man had apparently been listening intently to our impromptu one act play. “Where did Echols walk to after getting shot?”
Both the merchant and The Smoking Man were listening to me now. “He walked down this alley and took a left behind where the Aztec Theater used to be. He stopped beneath a streetlamp and saw his pin had been lost from his revolver.”
“Aztec Theater? I was wondering why there was a small empty lot in the alley and remnants of old tile at the sidewalk facing away from the alley towards Jefferson,” The Smoking Man interjected.
The Smoking Man continued, “Say, you guys like history apparently. I love history. You’re gonna love this. First, let me finished this cigarette.”
He directed us to the middle building on E. Jefferson, next to the Cleaners, across from City Drug. We walked around the block along Preston and The Smoking Man was standing inside of the glass door, unlocking it from the inside. “Check this out,” he motioned us inside.
“Transitional Romanesque architecture was neither transitional nor Romanesque. Discuss.” – Mike Myers, “Coffee Talk with Linda Richman”
The building was gutted of all 20th Century components to reveal the beautiful brick walls that date back to the 1890’s. “I’m restoring this building. I’ve taken out loads of plaster and modern ‘improvements’ and I came across this bricked-in archway that would’ve led to the building next door, which is now the Cleaners.”
There was a big archway filled-in with brick in the east wall. The merchant asked me, “What do the Sanborn maps say was here originally?”
The Smoking Man answered for me, “I was told a harness & buggy shop. That makes sense, as the buggies could be moved from one building to the next, if both this building and the Cleaners next door were both part of the same shop.”
The merchant stepped-off the width of the archway and said it was wide enough for a buggy or cart to be rolled through.
I agreed and said the archway appeared no smaller than the front door of the Alamo which accommodated wagons to pass.
“This was a harness & buggy shop in 1896 with a vacant building on the other side of this east wall, and the building next door, where Farmers Insurance is, was a tin shop in 1901.” I pulled out my mobile device and looked at the 1914 map that showed a harness & buggy shop had returned. “These two buildings were in fact both connected by an opening where the archway is and both buildings were part of the same harness & buggy shop.”
The Smoking Man smiled and nodded his head. “This is beautiful. I just don’t understand why subsequent generations would cover something like this up with sheetrock and stucco and think they’re improving upon what was originally there.”
Having thanked The Smoking Man we bounded off the sidewalk and back to the coffee shop on E. Jefferson with our imaginations filled with ideas and plans. Crossing the street and hopping upon the curb and walking back to lean on the coffee bar I could almost hear the horse-drawn carts and buggy whips that once passed on the street behind us.