BY SHAUN TREAT
Although Denton is often tiresomely compared to another Texas destination known for keeping it weird, we most certainly do have our own distinct pockets of quirky and kooky. With the coming of school year’s end and summertime beginning, here is a zany Denton bucket list of unique sights that even the old-timers may not know about. Prepare to have your minds blown like you're watching The Twilight Zone. Read on for more on this insane Back in the Day...
J.C. Payne of Denton started collecting barbed wire in 1966, but by 1997 the retired brick mason had accumulated enough to submit it to the Guinness Book of World Records. "The Guinness people don't have a ball of barbed wire in their book and they said they weren't interested in having one," a disappointed J.C. explained to Farm Show Magazine, "But we know ours is the biggest ball of barbed wire anywhere in the world.” The largest ball measures 11’6” in diameter and stands two stories high, made up of some 70 miles of over 600 different varieties of barbed wire and weighing an estimated 12 tons. "I get wire from anywhere they're tearing out fence,” Payne explained, “once traveling 180 miles to get a lot of large spools."
J.C. was profiled in a 2001 episode of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. He kept the big ball of rusted wire out behind the barn at his wife Elsie Ruth's request, which is where it remains still today after his passing in 2004. You’d need special permission to visit the rural private property, where these big rusty orbs are decorated with Christmas lights, but it’s a wild world-class monument to ambitious retirement projects.
Another wacky sight hidden along Bolivar Street north of University has caused many a car to slow to a rubbernecking crawl to glimpse this rarely-seen unofficial Denton landmark. “Texas Jack” is the 10’ tall 3,600 lb gargantuan Jackalope BBQ smoker pit of Joe Amyx, who won his first BBQ Cookoff competition in 1977 at Denton’s North Texas State Fair, taking the first place blue ribbon. Texas Jack’s tail opens for the fire pit, the belly opens for the meat, the smoke escapes from the ears, and the grease drips from a brass “appendage” (*ahem*) located between his back legs. Mechanics aside, “Texas Jack” barbeque travels the South and is said to be the stuff of legend. This bad boy champion sits atop a flatbed trailer, the envy of many a pit master, and has to be seen to be believed.
If Denton can quietly boast of numerous world-class treasures, at the top of the list would have to be the secret beauty of Mr. Jim’s Hidden Rose Garden. Jim Herbison lovingly grows an amazing rose garden of 400 rose bushes with completely unique-to-Denton varieties, which he competes in the Dallas Rose Show. Secluded on a dead-end Haggard Lane street, this scented eden is completely free and open to the public to view or even purchase a rosebush. Mr. Jim is the sweetest fella you could ever meet, and even allows picnicking under the cool shade for admiring paramours savvy enough to Google directions. This blooming oasis is definitely one of my favorite secret spots in Denton, a true gem.
But of course there are also some crazy remnants of Denton history from back in the day flung around our county backroads. One of these abandoned locations is the main reason so many longtime locals genuinely feared that Denton was a Soviet target for nuclear Armageddon during the Cold War. Y’see, Denton was home to a U.S. Army Civil Defense Nike Missile Base just a few miles north of town, which housed anti-aircraft missile batteries and nuclear warheads! Constructed in 1959, the base housed around 120 military personnel and was built as a regional deterrent to long-range Russian nuclear bombers. Apparently, around 4,000 locals (and several demonstrators) attended an open house at the missile base to tour some of the facilities, so it was definitely an open secret. The base was finally closed between 1968 and 1969, and few scattered ruins remain, but many have only vague recollections or rumors they recall from those times. As many remember, LBJ also broke ground on the Denton FEMA facilities in 1959, which was the very first protected underground federal-regional emergency operating center built in the United States. How’s that for making history?
There are a lot more Wacky Denton Sights to savor in future installments, and we’ve barely scratched the surface! But you tell us, dear readers, what are your favorite secret sights and hidden spots around Denton? Goodness knows Denton overflows with so many of our own uniquely original pockets of offbeat oddities!
Shaun Treat is founder of the Denton Haunts historical ghost tour. Doc has written about numerous local places and personalities at his Denton Haunts blog, and is forever indebted to the great work of the fine folks with the Denton County Historical Commission and local keepers of history like Mike Cochran and Laura Douglas at the Emily Fowler Library for their tireless work in helping preserve Denton’s intriguing past.