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Keeping a Town: Five Grown Women

June 28, 2011

Denison, Texas

The people in Denison get pretty upset when visitors to the town comment about all the empty buildings on Main Street. The buildings themselves are quite wonderful, so it is  hard not to notice that they are empty. Some folks say the town started to decline when in 1971, the huge Perrin Air Force Base1 nearby was closed. Others contend the fall began later, in the 80s when the Union Pacific Railroad bought the MKT line which had a major terminal in Dennison. Back "in the day" with the train line and the airmen, it was supposed to have been a raucous town full of bars and prostitutes. Some folks say the tales are exaggerated and others swear they are true.

Main Street

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Whitey, an unconstrained and wordy guy I met on Main Street insists the Vietnamese are driving everyone away. In any case the coming of Walmart out by the highway and the financial collapse of 2008 did further damage to the town’s sustainability.

Nelda, Nancy, Mary, Miss Ellie and Cat are five creative entrepreneurs.


Joy’s HairstylingRecently I got the best haircut I have ever had in my life from Nelda, the owner of Joy’s Hairstyling in Denison. Nelda’s  skills have been honed over forty-seven years of cutting, styling and dyeing. She started right out of high school and hasn’t stopped since. When I first entered the shop in the back of a deserted mini-mall on Main Street, I felt as if I had entered a museum re-creation. First of all, At 72, I am pretty sure I was the youngest client in a very busy salon. Most of the many ladies I saw being worked on were having their hair styled in the manner of what I call the Dandelion Head...white, tightly curled, but soft and ready to blow away...just like the women under them. The overall impression of the shop’s decor was that of the beauty parlors filled with memorabilia and product where I had my hair permed and thinned back in the 50s.(yes, thinned!) The lighting was warm and flattering unlike the sheik salons in NYC with their harsh overhead industrial lighting and mirrored, metallic and black walls. My shampoo with a 10 minute head massage was followed by Nelda giving me a perfect cut that just fell into place like a dream. The total price came to $27.00.

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Nelda goes to the nursing home twice a week to do her much older client’s hair and when it is time for a lady’s  final coiffeur she goes to mortuary to fix the hair of these old friends who have trusted her to make them beautiful for their final send off.

With the exception of the Country Java Coffee Shop it was the only busy place I saw on Main Street. (Wrong, I did see several cars drive through the Chase Bank ATM.)


Nancy’s Country Java Coffee Shop. NancyThere is great coffee at Nancy’s Country Java Coffee Shop. Nancy, ran a children’s ministry at the Victory Life Church in Durant, Oklahoma for 25 years, but now she is cooking and running a coffee shop and has plans to franchise a chain of small town coffee shops like her Country Java here in Denison. The small restaurant is charming, the coffee excellent, and the sweets and breads, baked fresh daily, taste wonderfully buttery, sweet and homemade. Along with an intimate seating area,  there is a porch overlooking Main Street and a drive-up window.  One of the best things I had to eat there was a Mini-quiche with pesto cheese and bacon. (Recipe for the mini quiche: coming soon).


There has been a small but steady flow of people coming in and out of Mary Karam’s Art Gallery (one of several still surviving on Main Street) whenever we’ve been there. Mary is still doing nude pictures of herself, but since, besides running the gallery, she is an abstract artist herself, one cannot be sure if she is nude or not. We take it on faith that she is and they are. Her gallery is a beautiful space and the art we saw there was quite wonderful. If we were ever to decide to retake our wedding vows, this would be the place we would do it...with any art she might have hanging.

I love Mary’s story about how she became a single women running an art gallery in Dennison, Texas. After over 30 years traveling the world with her husband for Texas Instruments, a five month trip by motorhome to Alaska truly changed her life. Like a good buddy, she fished, hiked and hunted on that trip. It was the end. Determined to live on her own terms and not sit and wait in a motorhome during a hundred more hunting and fishing trips, Mary decided to put down roots in a place she could call home. Having driven from Dallas to their second home on Lake Texoma for years, and fallen in love with the countryside in this area, she decided to stay. Her then husband wanted to keep on traveling and hunting and fishing. Mary bought an old building in Dennison and turned it into her home and an art gallery and has lived happily ever after.

Mary Karam self-portrait

Miss Ellie

No longer walking the sidewalks of New York City, Sully has grown much longer claws out here on the road. These claws had totally shredded the upholstery on our couch here in the camper. We decided Dennison was the place to get it reupholstered. A google search brought us to Miss Ellie’s Upholstery Shop and Miss Ellie, herself. A no nonsense women. she quickly steered us to the fabric we had to use on our couch. (Micro-Suede! {Fortunately the same material Liz told us we needed to use}) She ordered the fabric on Friday, it came on Monday, we dropped off the sofa and on Tuesday morning it was done and ready to be put back in the camper. Inspired by her efficiency, we decided to recover the dinette cushions as well. The fabric was ordered, we dropped off the cushions and two days later they were done. It only took her longer because her husband is very sick and she had to drive back and forth to Dallas (about 90 miles one way) for his doctors visit. It seemed like no matter who I spoke to in Denison, Miss Ellie had covered something for them as long as 20 years ago. “She did my mother’s dining room chairs when I was in high school.” Every time we entered the shop it seemed like she was covering another Victorian love seat.


Cat describes herself as a dichotomy of extremes. Cat came to Denison to work as a greenskeeper at a local country club. Prior to that she had never even mowed a lawn, but she impressed the owners, thought the property was beautiful and so she came. After living in Denison for a while, she discovered an empty, partially covered used car lot and decided it would make a perfect Farmer’s Market. It took her several years, but the Market opened this spring and each week there are more venders and more customers. We came every week for the grass fed beef, local wines, baked goods, free range chicken, fresh herbs and locally grown vegetables. All good. The market is a happy meeting place for locals, friends and transients like us.

We wish with these five entrepreneurial women, each creating a unique push towards recovery, that the town will grow again and truly become the Small Town Big Art destination it deserves to be.

Why Denison?

President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Birthplace and Bernie’s work with the Eisenhower Memorial Commission briefly brought us to Denison years ago, but these five women and many others we met and heard about kept us here for six weeks this time.

Denison is also proud of another son, Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger, captain of US Airways Flight 1549 that successfully landed on the Hudson River on January 15, 2009. The  guys his age at Country Java Coffee Shop say he was so smart he could have been anything in the world he wanted to be. He was a top student, but all he ever wanted to do was fly.

Of course there was John Hillerman, Higgins on Magnum, PI... also from Denison.

...and camping mostly alone on the banks of the beautiful Red River with all amenities was only $10.00 a night. (We no longer feel guilty about Key West.)


1. The school trained and graduated over 11,000 aircrew members including forty-nine United States astronauts.

Such great stories.  This is how America is shaped.

Ryan F

Fabulous chronicle. So very interesting. You testify to the fact that we create our own boredom. There is really nothing boring in life.... 


OMG we are sooooo upset. Met you in Key West last year and you promised to look  us up when you came to Texas. We could have taken you sailing, dancing, to dinner....ugh. I live in Frisco, which is soooo close to Denison. Maybe next time or in some other city. Hope you are both doing well.

Leesa Thomas and Michele Buckley

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