My Sunday Journey Down Butternut Street
By NANCY PATRICK
I have lived in Abilene most of my life—and that’s a long time. Excluding the times I lived elsewhere because of career moves, I have lived here forty-one years. I grew up here in the fifties and sixties, attained my education here (first grade through M.A. in English), and have made my home here since 1990 when my husband began his ministry at Hendrick Medical Center as a chaplain.
I say all this to support my thesis that I know this city pretty well. Anyone else who has lived here that long would agree that the city differs greatly from its fifties’-sixties’ character and has continued to change through the decades.
During my childhood and adolescence, my family included my younger sister and our parents, who lived to celebrate their sixty-fifth anniversary. In a lower middle-class family, Dad worked as breadwinner and Mom as homemaker. Most of my peers had similar childhoods.
Obviously, the old social structure has changed dramatically. Not educated in the social sciences, I cannot explain the trends in family structures, educational systems, religious inclinations, economic fluctuations, or health and medical advances.
I do know that my life is sadder now than it was then. That may result from age and enlightenment, but I think much of it results from grief at losing the innocence and faith I had as a young person.
I don’t want to mislead anyone. My childhood was far from rosy with some pretty volatile relationships in our family. My mother suffered from chronic depression that affected all of us.
In spite of the anxiety in our home, I felt secure. I never thought my parents would divorce. I never thought of running away. I knew I would have food and shelter, so the idea of homelessness (living on the street) never occurred to me.
If Abilene had a homeless problem in the fifties and sixties, I did not know about it. Unfortunately, I now realize the homeless problem in Abilene. I see it in much of the downtown area, but I especially notice it on Butternut Street every Sunday morning as I drive to church via Butternut.
According to the National Library of Medicine, homelessness in the United States in the thirties and forties had decreased to the point of optimism that it would disappear by the 1970s. Most homeless people then were old men living in cheap hotels or skid rows. By the eighties, homelessness had evolved to include younger people, minority groups, derelicts, and women with families.
Poverty contributes greatly to the issue with homeless people along with the accompanying unemployment. Mental illness pervades the homeless community as well as alcohol and drug addiction.
My trip down Butternut Street sobers me greatly. Maybe my sadness relates to my memories of Butternut in my childhood. Most Sunday afternoons included a family outing to a drive-in located on Butternut. Even after searching old Abilene phone books, I was unable to find the name of that drive-in, but it was the kind with walk-up windows for orders. We got ice cream cones or fountain drinks, and my sister and I looked forward to those afternoons.
The Bible Book Store, located at 610 Butternut, provided most of the supplies needed by local churches. Barnard Smith, an accountant, owned and operated the store and ran his accounting business from the back office. Mr. Smith’s daughter, Sandra, was one of my classmates throughout the Abilene ISD’s school system. Later several other religious bookstores established themselves in Abilene.
A Thornton’s grocery store is occupied the current Dollar General, which desperately needs repair. Herrera’s Heating and Cooling (1601 Butternut) occupies the former spot of a dry goods store, but Dixie Pig on the corner of Butternut and South 14th remains an Abilene landmark and still serves diners.
Unfortunately, many of the buildings are now unoccupied or non-existent. Some are used to store junk, and many are in disrepair and provide space for the homeless people to camp out with their worldly possessions. Some have grocery carts with wagons hitched to them to hold additional possessions. A few even have their dogs with them.
Many walk around aimlessly or lie on sidewalks and bus benches with blankets wrapped around their bodies while some lucky ones have sleeping bags. Some of the walkers use vacant lots to pace and mumble, talk to themselves, or gesticulate to no one.
At 1756 Butternut sits a permanent safety net for scores of Abilene’s homeless. Our Salvation Army, as the name suggests, forms a mighty force that provides food for the hungry, warmth for the cold, and air conditioning for the those stranded in the sweltering West Texas heat.
I will remind long-time Abilenians that 1756 Butternut used to be the Metro Theater. That building was razed to build the Salvation Army, but I well remember going to movies there.
My husband Mike and his Hardin-Simmons roommate once walked from the Metro all the way back to their dorm room in Anderson Hall on campus after watching a John Wayne movie. Neither of them had a car, so they walked everywhere they went.
In spite of the many charitable organizations Abilene provides, we still have scores of seemingly lost people wandering our streets. I don’t know how to fix it, but it breaks my heart.
I long for the world I had as a child. My adult mind tells me it was not as innocent and benign as my childhood memories tell me, but I miss the naiveté that shielded me from pain that I see on Butternut Street.
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing
So true… the innocence is gone and it is sad.
The safeness is gone too and that is so sad….. we could walk everywhere and be safe, not so today‼️
Our world is changing at a much faster pace, and I’m glad I’m old‼️