CRAWFORD — If you plan to come here to visit the hometown of George W. Bush and learn all about the life and times of the 43rd U.S. president, the woman who answers the phone for the Crawford Chamber of Commerce has this advice: Don’t bother.
“There is no reason to come to Crawford” for those seeking Bush lore, said Marilyn Judy, a volunteer who answers the phone for the town’s inactive chamber of commerce.
If you are looking for Bush’s birthplace, go to New Haven, Conn. If you want to visit his boyhood home, go to Midland. If you are curious to see his current residence or want to browse mementos at his presidential library, head for Dallas.
George W. doesn’t live in Crawford any more. Never did, really.
Sure, there are still faded billboards proclaiming this town of 700 to be the “home of President George and Laura Bush,” but those are left over from the presidential years when the Bushes lived at Prairie Chapel Ranch 7 miles northwest of Crawford.
“He still goes out to the ranch about once a month, but we don’t know when he is there,” Judy said. “He doesn’t have any connection to town.”
Over the years, Radean Damon has seen the booms and busts of Crawford.
“We were named the No. 1 rural community in Texas in 1968,” Damon said.
By 1999, when then-Gov. George W. Bush bought about 1,500 acres of ranch land out at Prairie Chapel, most of the shops in Crawford were boarded up, she said.
The same year, Damon and her daughters renovated an old building that was a grocery and café in the 1950s. A high school art teacher, Damon aimed to turn the old building into a gift shop and gallery for local artists.
The Red Bull opened July 4, 2000. That fall, Bush was elected president, dubbed Crawford home and the town started to boom.
“That is when the notoriety started,” Damon said. Along with a swarm of journalists and the presidential entourage, tourists began to find the town.
“We were the first shop to carry Bush items then some of the other shops started to open,” Damon said.
The Coffee Station Café opened in a gas station, and Bush became its most famous patron. Tourists and curious locals packed the place for chicken-fried steak and a chance to glimpse the president or at least have their picture taken next to a life-size cutout.
The biggest of the new shops, the Yellow Rose, was the only one opened by an out-of-towner, Damon said. In addition to Bush trinkets, the store carried a full line of firearms and ammunition.
Shops run by the locals specialized in nonlethal items — T-shirts, caps, mugs, buttons, medallions, pictures, posters, stuffed toys and George W. and Laura action figures.
Trade goes ‘downhill’
When Bush left office in 2008, the tourist trade “started to go downhill,” Damon said. As gift shops closed, the Red Bull began to absorb their inventory.
After closing for more than a year, the Coffee Station reopened under new management. The young wait staff reports no Bush sightings. The life-size cutout of George W. with his mischievous smirk stands next to a blackboard touting the all-you-can-eat catfish special.
There is a “for sale” sign in the window of the Yellow Rose. The Red Bull is the last store standing for Bush memorabilia, along with Western artwork by Lajuana Westerfield and George Boutwell.
A few tourists, some as far away as France, still find their way to Crawford, Damon said. She will answer their questions about Bush and present the full array of presidential keepsakes. Then she will direct them to the one must-see destination in town — Tonkawa Park, a delightful oasis made popular by the Tonkawa Indians, residents who arrived sooner and stayed longer than George W. Bush.
Crawford is about 50 miles north of Killeen on State Highway 317.