The plat of Denison was established with streets running east and west and avenues running north and south despite the fact that some insist all are streets. In recent years, it’s been a little harum-scarum as contractors have established housing additions with circles, cul-de-sacs and what have you.
Armstrong Avenue once was the well-traveled Highway 75 through Denison and coming from the south, it turned on Main and went down to Houston Avenue, where it turned back north and headed on into Oklahoma. That was before the day of the Denison Dam, so Tone Avenue’s primary destination was the MK&T Hospital and Fairview Cemetery on the north side of town. This was long before there was a Texoma Medical Center that now has been demolished since a new TMC has been built at the intersection of Highway 75 and Highway 691.
In the 1940 Denison City Directory, there were a number of residences beginning at Main Street going south on Armstrong Avenue. Since it was the highway, there were a lot of filling stations and grocery stores and a business district of several blocks known as “Sugar Bottom.”
Sugar Bottom is still there, but it’s different from those earlier days. But let’s back up to Main Street at the intersection of Armstrong. Melvin Sharp, Wm. J. Mathis, John M. Hancock, James W. Harris, Mumford J. “Buck” Williams, George L. Johnson and James W. Tipton had filling stations north of the railroad tracks between the 500 and 600 blocks of south Armstrong in 1940. A few years later, one of those filling stations was operated by Ben Hillerman, father of television actor, the late John Hillerman who was better known here as Jackie Ben. John became well known for his role in the original “Magnum P.I.” as Higgins.
In that same area was St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, three grocery stores and two restaurants, the Tom Tom and White Pig restaurants and Jack Barnett had a motorcycle shop.
Cross the tracks and there was another world that called itself “a city within a city” — Sugar Bottom. It included a “help yourself” laundry, a furniture and moving warehouse, several grocery stores, a Venetian blind shop, Brigman’s Shoe Shop run by Charles Brigman, known at the unofficial mayor of Sugar Bottom. Joe Newcomb had a furniture store, there was the South Side Creamery owned by Bill Lindsey, a U.S. Post Office substation, Wertz Hardware and Furniture Store and more filling stations. A lot of these were way before my time.
A couple of blocks further was Bird Miller’s barber shop in 1940. It was Billie Evans’ father-in-law, Virgil Evans, who bought the property in 1917 when he came to Denison as a deputy sheriff. He also operated the little old grocery store that was on the back of the property at that time with a barber shop on the side. Then in 1961 he built a new grocery store and barber shop and operated the store until and including the day that he died of a heart attack.
His son, Glen “Jack” Evans, Billie’s husband, began operating the barber shop in 1950 and she later joined him. Billie spent almost 50 years in the little shop. She once said various barbers had worked there through the years, including Buddy Northcutt and Pearl, who were well known barbers in the community.
After the grocery closed, there were several different businesses in the location, including a heating and air conditioning firm.
A little further south there were several cabins and rooms for those traveling through town. The Den-Tex Tourist Court is still located at 1101 South Armstrong as Las Casitas apartments. There also were cabins at the Camp Denney Tourist Camp, the EEEE Courts tourist camp and Bill’s Cabin tourist camp, all in the 1200 and 1300 blocks of South Armstrong.
While the tourist camps were all small overnight cabins for tourists, the Den-Tex Tourist Court was built in the Spanish Mission Style as a comfortable stopping place for tourists. The building still resembles Texas’ famous Alamo in San Antonio to catch the eye of passing motorists and it did a bustling business. The Den-Tex was affiliated with United Motor Courts and AAA.
In the 1950s, the Den-Tex Court was owned by Donna and Bill Waddelow and later by Matt Simmons. It still is operating under the name of Las Casitas apartments, but the gleaming white Alamo look has been replaced with some boarded up windows and drab paint.
Many years earlier, in 1911, there still were a lot of families living on Armstrong Avenue and St. Joseph’s Catholic Church already was open. There were several grocery stores, a shoemaker, a barber shop, real estate office, cleaners and presser, furniture, lawyers, a blacksmith and other businesses already operating in the area that became Sugar Bottom.
It’s not known who built the Denison Alamo Courts, but the concept of the Alamo designed courts or apartments was founded by E. Lee Torrance and Drummond W. Bartlett in 1929 when they opened their first Tourist Apartments in Waco. It’s not known whether Torrance and Bartlett had a hand in building the Denison courts.
Their concept was different from the more formal hotels and the roadside cabins that were otherwise available to travelers. The back of the familiar façade were the nicely furnished comfortable rooms that travelers could rent and not spend all their travel money for a good night’s sleep.
Torrance and Bartlett soon built a lot of Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts in Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, Arkansas and Indiana.
In later years — like the 1950s — Armstrong Avenue was part of “the Drag.” Main Street was the real attraction, but those with cars or who had friends with cars not only cruised Main Street, but Armstrong Avenue, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. There was a root beer stand (the Vel-Mar Drive-In) at 901 South Armstrong. Cruisers would “drag” Main, then go to either the root beer stand or the White Pig, circle the business on the large parking lot to see who was there, then head back to Main Street.
Times change through the years. Some things change for better and others change for the worse. Let us hope that Armstrong Avenue and its many stories will retain its charm and maybe more of that past charm can even be restored.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat with her bi-weekly column, which appears in the Wednesday and Sunday editions. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.