By Rebecca Rose
Killeen Daily Herald
LAMPASAS - It's seen everything from a legendary gunfight showdown to the rise of Wi-Fi. Through it all, one thing about the square in downtown Lampasas remains constant: It's still home to some of the area's most thriving locally-owned small businesses.
Today, more than 30 such businesses are nestled along the square that cradles the Lampasas County Courthouse.
Since opening in 1883, the courthouse has been the center of county business, as well as the scene of some famous events. On the west side of the courthouse, a marker tells the story of the infamous 1887 shootout on the square, when members of the notorious Horrell family gang opened fire on their rivals.
Today, what remains of the former frontier town-turned-railroad depot is a collection of restaurants, antique galleries, and law and municipal offices, all of which still cater to the busy crowds who gather to conduct business at the courthouse.
Fueled by tourists and visitors traveling along U.S. Highways 190, 183 and 281, and local residents determined to support homegrown enterprises, business on the square continues to be good.
Square attracts crowds
Ernest Goodwin has owned The Trading Post, an antique store, for eight years. Goodwin offers a hodgepodge of collectibles and antique items; copies of Revue magazine with Brigitte Bardot rest alongside photos of Lampasas High School cheerleaders from the 1930s, while limited-edition Barbie dolls still in the box share shelves with tea cups from the late 1800s.
"The advantages of being on the square are that you have so many people who come to look and shop," said Goodwin. He gets customers who stop by after visiting the bank or courthouse, or doing business with his fellow merchants. Day-trippers also pass through his door.
"A big part of our business is people from Copperas Cove and Killeen," he said. "They're looking to get out of town for a day trip or something like that."
In an era when many town square businesses have closed because of a lack of customers, the square in Lampasas remains busy. At lunchtime, crowds flock from the courthouse to diners such as Eva's Café. Shoppers come looking for a taste of Americana, patronizing shops like The Trading Post.
One reason shopkeepers like Goodwin say the downtown area has retained its small-town essence is population stability. Despite growth within the county, the city itself hasn't annexed much property in the past 20 years, said Goodwin.
The city's population was listed as 6,330 in the 2010 census, down slightly from 6,786 in 2000. In contrast, the county population was 19,721 in 2010, up from 17,323 in 2000 and 13,520 in 1990.
In-town traffic hasn't waned, however.
"We have a lot of people coming by because they're traveling," he said. "We get a lot of customers who are on the way to Austin, Abilene or the Panhandle."
M.J. Baxter came to Lampasas in 1937, when she was 3 years old. Her father ran the Lampasas Drug Company on East Third Street for more than 35 years. She now lives a few blocks away from the drugstore where her father worked for most of his life.
Baxter was one of the original "square kids," a term coined decades ago to describe the children of local business owners on Lampasas' historic square. As their parents toiled in the shops by the courthouse, catering to the ever-evolving needs of Lampasas residents and visitors, the square kids would romp through the city's streets, playing games and visiting with shoppers.
When the Leroy Theater was downtown, Baxter collected quarters from her father to join the other square kids for movies starring Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart.
Baxter said Rutland's, a square mainstay for the past 45 years, was originally a men's store called Cox and Shanks. "We had a J.C. Penney's, Mulligan's Department Store and Mott's," she said. "There was a saddle shop, two beauty shops and a hardware store."
Gallery on the square
Baxter's family-owned drugstore, which once sold its own homemade ice cream, is now a law office. Her memories of life on the square she still visits almost every day are bittersweet; her father's drugstore burned to the ground in a fire in 1974, a month after he made his last mortgage payment.
A seamstress and painter, Baxter is now part of the Lampasas Art Gallery, a co-op of area artists who display their work regularly in the gallery on the square. It's just a few doors down from where her father's drugstore was located. Today, she and other artists sell paintings, photographs and other handmade goods, offering classes and special exhibits to shop-goers.
Rising gas prices have caused a notable decline in the number of travelers stopping by to peruse work, she said. But the gallery's troubles pale in comparison to what other towns' businesses have endured, she said. "When I look at other smaller towns and things that have happened there, I think that we have been very fortunate."
Another big factor that's added to the economic well-being of the square is the presence of Fort Hood. Despite being more than 45 minutes away from the main gate, shop owners say downtown Lampasas is a popular destination for soldiers and their families looking for a quick getaway or day trip. Even Elvis Presley patronized shops on the square, when he was a soldier stationed at Fort Hood, local merchants said.
"That is regular income that helps supports the business," said Goodwin. "They get a steady paycheck every two weeks, and we can count on that regularly."
When farming and ranching faded from their predominance on the area's economic landscape, the presence of Fort Hood shoppers helped alleviate the loss," Baxter said. "Our town would not have stayed the way it is, had it not been for the people of Fort Hood."
As the needs of those shoppers changed, so did the businesses they patronize. J.C. Penney's, once the top destination for young girls selecting formal wear or men looking for suits for church on Sundays, is now home to a Dollar General, the only national chain business on the square.
Baxter attributed Lampasas' success to a a unique blend of modern thinking from new, younger residents and the old-fashioned ways of longtime residents.
"They invested their money in things like redoing our old buildings," she said. "None of us who lived here had the money to do that, and the ones who did weren't interested in that."
Dianna Hodges is the chairperson of Vision Lampasas, a nonprofit offshoot of the Lampasas Economic Development Corporation.
In addition to putting on two community events annually, Vision Lampasas also funds murals throughout downtown. One notable mural, a birds-eye view of the water routes that feed into the city, is called "Water is Life."
Vision Lampasas also offers façade grants funded through the Lampasas Economic Development Corporation of up to $5,000, and provides matching grants to local business owners of up to $1,000.
Hodges said the key to the success of Lampasas' downtown is strong community support of local businesses.
"I think that a lot of towns have ignored their downtown," said Hodges. "I've seen a lot of small towns dry up and blow away."
Geography also plays a role, she said.
"We have to do business here, because most things are just too far away," she explained, adding that Lampasas has managed to remain vital mostly with locally-owned stores.
"I think we survived the economic crunch as well as anybody could have," Hodges said. "We hunkered down, and traded locally. ...The mom-and-pop businesses are still vital here."
Hodges said she is optimistic about riding out future economic changes.
"I see us thriving in the future," she said.
Ultimately, for shop owners like Goodwin, the allure of the square has less to do with profit margins, economic trends or government initiatives than history.
"I grew up here. I've been here all my life; this is just home for me," he said.
"This is a labor of love," he said. "The people who come in here are really wonderful. They have interesting lives. They're exciting to meet and talk to."
Contact Rebecca Rose at firstname.lastname@example.org or 254) 501-7548. Follow her on Twitter at KDHBusinessNews.