Friday, February 24, 2017

It’s Itasca

Left to Right: Lina & Sol Smith, Hige & Fleda Smith -1948
When I was very young my grandmother, Fleda Starr Smith, talked about having friends a long way away in the big city of Itasca. Vince says he remembers going there to see them, but he doesn’t remember who they were or where they lived. He’d not been back since, and I’d never been, so we were off on the road to Itasca. This small town, at head of Richland Creek, is on a natural watershed that divides the Brazos River and Trinity River basins. It is named after Lake Itasca, at the head of the Mississippi River in Minnesota. Railroads played an important part in the creation of the town when a station for the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad was needed in 1881; four years later, Itasca was incorporated.

Grandmother did talk about going shopping at Hooks General store. It was was the first building erected in Itasca, followed shortly by the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in 1884.
Itasca Item printing press
Cumberland merged with the First Presbyterian Church in the early 1900s and was one of the leaders in taking care of homeless children. By 1887 there was a public school and a Masonic Lodge with a newspaper and a town water supply established within the next six years. Business and industry continued grow with the founding of the Itasca Cotton Manufacturing Company in 1901. The company supported the community with not only jobs, but by purchasing thousands of bales of local cotton each year. The mill processed the raw cotton by dyeing, spinning, and weaving it into finished fabrics, initially for construction of overalls and flour sacks. During World War I, the mill produced the cotton duck that was used to make army tents. Eventually, the mill also produced fabric for dresses, but by 1959 it cease to operate, put out of business by larger multipurpose mills in other areas.

In 1902, with the population a booming 2,500, the Switzer Woman's College and Conservatory of Music moved from Weatherford to Itasca. Along with public lectures, the
Downtown Itasca defunct
soda fountain
school provided classes in the liberal arts, sciences, and music for young women. The short lived Burney Military Academy was supposed to prepare young men for military careers, but operated for only two years before it closed. By the end of the 1920s Itasca boasted seven grocery stores, two furniture stores, two banks, two hotels, four cotton gins, and a bottling works. It became even more successful when Earl Farrow founded the Hill County Electric Cooperative in 1937 to provide electric service to the rural community. However, with the closing of the Itasca Cotton Manufacturing Company the town began to decline. And although farmers still produce some cotton, wheat, grain sorghum and cattle, many of the major businesses have also closed. The public schools are now one of the largest employers in town; but with the ease of commuting to larger cities, most people work elsewhere.

Three and one-half carrots
There are a couple of places to have a meal in Itasca, and we chose the Diaz Tex Mex Restaurant (140 W Main Street, Itasca, TX 76055, 254-687-9987). Although this eatery has only been in Itasca seven years, it is apparent that they have become a mainstay of the 
Left T to B: Menu logo, Chips and salsa
Right T to B: Monterey Chicken, Taco al Carbon
community. The husband and wife team, Carlos and Maria Diaz, who run the restaurant are friendly and very good humored, laughing and joking with us as well as their usual clients. I wondered why many people were stopping to look at the little local paper by the cash register, so when we went up to pay our bill I asked. Their son had just graduated from the fire academy and had become a fireman there in Itasca. It seems that the entire town was proud of his accomplishment. I was also surprised to learn that this is a family of restauranteurs. There are ten other restaurants associated with this one between Itasca and Galveston. The food was Tex-Mex, but not as blazing hot as some I’ve had; in fact, the salsa was very mild, but flavorful, particularly when paired with the fresh, warm tortilla chips. Dave and Vince had the Monterey Chicken that was a broiled chicken breast covered with sautéed mushrooms and topped with a wonderfully seasoned and still bubbling queso blanco. Since Vince wanted flour tortillas and Dave wanted corn, Maria brought both! I had the Taco al Carbon with beef fajita meat that was wonderfully cooked with interesting spices wrapped in a fresh flour tortilla. Vince and Dave really liked their meals, only commenting that the chicken was a bit dry and that Vince would have liked his to have been spicier. I was very happy with everything. The prices were incredible, particularly for the quality of food and the service. We’d all go back to this restaurant! (For information about my rating system, see Reading the Reviews.)

Itasca Fire Engine circa 1917
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