Pate, The Early Years
Pete Reinthaler is one of the seasoned veterans of the Pate Swap Meet and has been there from the beginning.
At the Pate Swap Meet in 2006, my Company sent me, as an assistant, a very young man who had never been away from the Middle Atlantic States. I suspect that this was some sort of initiation, in that this kid was not only being sent to an area as remote from the Northeast as one can get without a passport – where the folks talk funny and eat strange foods – but also to accompany Old Pete, who runs a most unorthodox show.
I am employed by a major antique auto insurer, to publicize their wares at swap meets across the country. It’s tough duty to be paid to attend swap meets, but somebody has to do it, and I was fortunate enough to be elected.
This young man called me and asked what sort of clothing he should bring, and that set off the speech that I have made annually to myriad car clubs in the Early Spring. “The weather at Pate will be extreme. At the present, we don’t know extreme what! Bring shorts and light shirts for extreme heat. Bring winter wear for extreme cold. Bring lots of rain gear. Be prepared for high winds and mud. Bring it all, as you may need all of it in one weekend !” For about twenty years, I told the folks that I had seen everything there but snow, and then it finally snowed!
In fact, the kid didn’t listen (what kid does ?) and arrived prepared for Saharan heat, and ended up borrowing cold-weather gear from me, before the tornados hit. That wasn’t our first bout of tornados either and set me recollecting, as an old man will, about Pate in its early days. To begin with, it wasn’t originally called ‘Pate’. It was the South Central Swap Meet and was organized by Barney Calvert of the Gulf Coast Region AACA out of Houston. The Gulf Coast Region had its own swap meet, as did many of the other clubs that now participate in hosting the Pate meet, and the thought was that if we could just combine our forces, we might establish something in Texas that could well rival the AACA meet in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The Houston club had to admit that they did not have a proper venue for this activity. If you draw a 500-mile circle with Houston as its center, one really ends up with an effective semi-circle, as the fish in the Gulf of Mexico make very poor customers for our vendors. Accordingly, Barney started canvassing the North Texas area and eventually sought assistance from a number of car collectors in the area, one of which was Aggie Pate, President of the Texas Refinery Company, that owned an Employee recreation ranch southwest of Fort Worth, near the village of Cresson.
Pate Swap Meet (South Central Swap Meet) Circa 1970s
Cresson is a village of a few dozen hardy souls, a church or two, a post office, gas station, and Jody’s No. 2 Grocery (never did find Jody’s No. 1), which had a meager selection of dusty cans of foodstuffs, and lots and lots of beer. The Texas Refinery Company Recreation Ranch also housed Mr. Pate’s private automobile collection housed as the Pate Museum of Transportation, and his family chapel, as well as living quarters for the Pate family and staff. These buildings were fenced off from grazing grounds for Mr. Pate’s herd of longhorn cattle. Mr. Pate and Barney arrived at an amicable arrangement, and in 1972, following two years of work to organize the various clubs, the first swap meet was held in a rough semi-circle across from the Museum, near the chapel, with about three hundred fifty vendors. The Houston Club was joined by sixteen other like organizations in Texas (we stretched a point to admit the Tex-Ark Club in Texarkana) and in very short order, the South Central Swap Meet quickly outgrew its initial location near the museum and relocated outside the fence line into the cattle pasture.
Regardless of the Official Name, everyone started referring to the swap meet as either “Pate” or “Cresson” and it wasn’t until Mr. Aggie Pate’s passing that the Swap Meet was renamed in his honor. It was almost immediately, however, that the severity of the weather began to be appreciated From its inception, it was decided that the Swap Meet would begin on the last Thursday in April, and continue through the weekend. That would mean that we could always miss conflict with the Easter holiday, and still try and maintain some hope of cooler spring weather before the normal Texas heat would set in.
Being established in a cow pasture meant that it behooved participants to watch more carefully where they walked or camped. It also allowed our survey team to establish permanent markers so that the meet could be set up annually with minimal difficulty. With the help of some seventeen car clubs, with total membership exceeding a thousand persons, we needed all the help we could muster, as the swap meet experienced very rapid growth.
I have a large family, and all of my sons and a few of the daughters were somewhat raised at Pate. We would initially pack the lot in a borrowed motor home and head north from the Houston area, having first checked the kids out of school. I told the Principals that I thought that the kids could actually get more education at the swap meet than they might in class, and in most cases, they agreed. We did stipulate, however, that everyone must be in good standing with his or her grades, and as our space was limited to five kids, there was a lot of competition to determine who could go to Pate. My wife has long maintained that the boys got their sex education at Pate, and I’ve never quite convinced her that there was nothing really evil about the goings-on, but the kids could see that a bunch of middle-aged and older men was acting just like a bunch of kids, but somewhat larger. (I also told them that if they didn’t understand some of the jokes, they should just ask me later and I would explain.) They also learned how to help with campfire cooking for 12 to 20 persons, and campfire cleanup, lots of questionable tall tales and jokes, and a fair amount about old cars. Kids 13 to 14 years of age usually ended up with the remains of a car that they might rebuild to their own wishes well before they were licensed to drive. Then in the early 1980s, we acquired Moby Dick, a white High-Cube moving van. The High Cube Van has a floor only 30” off the ground (Most commercial trucks have a 48” clearance to meet most loading docks) and while we originally used it as a car hauler, we soon installed a toilet, sink, shower, refrigerator, and six beds hung on the side walls. It had all the home comforts of the average submarine, and I told the kids that it would be best if only one got dressed at a time, else they might end up better friends than anyone had intended. Moby had everything but space and privacy (if one were sitting on the toilet, his left flank was against the warm back of the refrigerator, and his feet were in the shower pan). By this time, we had laid claim to about six swap meet spaces right in the center of the meet, in what ended up being way off to one side, as the swap meet grew and grew.
Flat space seemed to disappear, and we laid out spaces around the rocket, and around the stables and graveyard, toward the steep decline and woods. A lot of the woods were cleared, and the parking area moved farther and farther to the Northeast into an area of grazing land that became decidedly swampy when it rained. Rain was far from unknown, and a select crew of members forming the setup crew arrived a week early in their own motor homes to seize the camping spaces offering utilities. The camaraderie was the name of the game, and this was decidedly a family venture with the set-up crew, rather than the usual swap meet campers, which, while they might have included a lot of fathers and sons, were about 95% male.
As the meet grew, we gave up handing out credentials from the window of Homer Bartlett’s Winnebago and acquired the famous Purple Trailer as a registration headquarters. In our case, with school-age children, I couldn’t join the early crew but had to come up on the Wednesday afternoon or Thursday when the meet began. If it was raining, we all had to wait outside the meet in a line-up on both sides of Highway 377, and indeed down Highway 171 several miles towards Cleburne before we would be allowed on the premises. The presence of rain also made the grass grow faster, and it only took one arrival to find knee-high grass and weeds, before I bought an old lawnmower to make the lots more livable. In one notable instance, one of my younger sons “borrowed” the mower and disappeared for several hours, returning several hundred dollars richer with an empty gas tank. He was rewarded with five gallons more gas. I always appreciated free enterprise.
More land was dedicated to Pate, to the North and East, and in a depression of scrub cedar to the East, Hippie Hollow was born, occupied by a group of friends and associates, with a continuing vapor arising redolent of a controlled substance. Spaces were sold on the steep decline to the old pasture/parking area and folks decided that they liked those spaces and kept renewing them. Neighbors in the area began renting parking spaces to the visitors and built these into big successful businesses. Some of their success was due to the free parking being restricted to the north pasture land, better known as the swamp when the rains came, and come they did! Local farmers made more income by arriving with oversized farm tractors to extricate mud bound trucks and motor homes and sold lots of hay bales to dry out vendor spaces. While the swap meet ended on Sunday, in one notable year, the Pate staff was still working to extricate vendors from the mud on the following Tuesday!
Poor weather never dampened the enthusiasm for the meet, and we generally sold out almost 7,000 vendor spaces every year. Once we were threatened with a lawsuit when one of the participants alleged that he had been burned by superheated water in the shower, and it caused universal hilarity by those that knew that there had never been even warm water in the showers to anyone’s memory. A shower was installed in Moby Dick, the old moving van. We carried 72 gallons of fresh water, which was three times what most of the professional motor homes carried, but with six of us in residence, we rationed to the proverbial one-gallon shower: Get wet with about a quart of water and shut off the supply. Apply soap liberally, and you are left with three quarts to wash off the soap. When Pate built a steam boiler to heat water for the showers, we reveled in the luxury and never returned to the one-gallon variety.
Streets were twenty feet wide – spaces were twenty-five feet long, and back-to-back and the streets were so crowded that one couldn’t walk down the center and see what was in spaces on both sides of the street, but instead had to cover one side of the street, and then return down the other side. Folks started coming in from Europe, Central and South America, and Australia, and we had to do some translating for foreign languages. It may have been hot. It may have been wet and muddy. It might have been freezing cold, but we all had so much fun that nobody really noticed it. The poor weather just gave the old-timers an excuse to exaggerate their hardships in years past.
It was in 1996 that we arrived to discover that we were being given the notice to vacate the premises the following year. The Pate family was intending to sell the Ranch! As it happened, several of us were already shopping for relocation space, as were by then out of any free parking space, and it appeared that the crowds were thinning out, there being no easy place to park. Reputedly several of the neighbors offered to buy the entire ranch and lease it to Pate to protect their parking revenue, but 1997 was the last year for the old cow pasture, and reluctantly for many of us, we moved to modern space within the confines of the Texas Motor Speedway.
The new location had better access, better showers, pavement, and many modern conveniences, but somehow it was all different. Along with missing the cliffs, the swamp, the tall weeds and the cow manure, we lost a lot of the spirit of the old swap meet, and Pate became a different sort of annual event.
This past year, we had tornado warnings again and had to get tens of thousands of people off the field and into relative safety under the Speedway grandstands. That evening, we retired to our nearby motel (along with the other changes, Moby Dick had been retired) and late in the evening, the tornado sirens started again. My young assistant and several others of the younger generation hurried to my room, where a few of us were enjoying an evening libation. “What do we do about the tornado ?” someone asked. “Have a drink” I said. “Not a lot you can do about a tornado anyway – if you hear a sound like an express train coming at you, get under the bed or into the bathroom, but until you hear that noise, sit down and have a drink. Now back about fifteen years ago, we had tornados at the old Pate, and a bunch of us decided that old Moby Dick, with a solid steel body, was about the safest vehicle on the site, so there were twelve of us jammed into that thing, holding on for dear life. Missed us then, too.”