Stories from the past

The Believe-it-or-not Café

        In the early 1930’s, if one had traveled down Highway 35, now 59, a long narrow stretch of road that weaved through the piney woods of East Texas from Houston through Nacagdoches, they would have passed through the small sawmill town of Diboll just three miles north of the Neches River. Diboll was the home of the Believe-It-Or-Not Café and the people who were involved in this little piece of history. The proprietors shown in the photo left to right were Emmet Bush and Buster Jackson (probably proprietors after this story happened, but I do not know), two men who were destined to be friends as they had met earlier in life while playing baseball for the Springfield Midgets of the Minor Leagues before Emmet married Buster’s sister. The young man sitting on the stool is unidentified, possibly Ed Nelson, the 19 year old counter boy who worked there..  

        The café was built in 1928 and located on Hwy 35 just north of Lee Estes' garage and filling station. It was a gathering place for many of the people in town. They could get a quick lunch or sit with a cup of coffee, chewing the fat with friends while waiting for their car to be worked on next door. On Sunday, a special meal consisting of fried chicken with trimmings was served for only 50¢. Interesting reading was that of the political posters on the wall promoting votes for Thompson as Governor or C.V. Terrell for another office. A sign hanging outside offered sandwiches, cold drinks, tobacco, and curb service.

        "One particular morning, a sedan pulled into the café parking area and sat idling loudly in the sand.  Two of the passengers got out and walked toward the entrance of the wood frame building, stepped up onto the shallow porch, and pulled open the door to the dining area.

        There might have been another passenger in the auto but no one noticed at the time.  There was nothing unusual about the vehicle other than the noise from it's broken muffler and even with that the car hardly deserved a second look.

        It's very likely that the men paused a moment before entering the Cafe on the edge of town.  The Believe It or Not may have been out of the center of Diboll but it wasn't isolated.  Highway 35 fronted the building and a fair amount of traffic on it.  A short block to the south ran Hines Street which carried motor, animal, and foot traffic from the east side of town to the west past the mills, offices, and the Commissary.

        When the Strangers looked south toward Hines Street they saw Lee Estes' garage and filling station where a few men sat and talked in the cool of the early evening.  We can't say for sure whether they saw Ike Green, the town Constable, there at Estes' or if Ike noticed them.  The two buildings were a little ways apart and the men hadn't done anything to deserve Ike's attention so nothing happened.  The group at the garage continued to jaw and the hungry men opened the door to the Café.

        As they entered the room Ed Nelson, then a nineteen year old counter boy, and E. T. Clause, the cook for the Café, looked up from their conversation.  E. T. and Ed were leaning against the cabinet running along the south wall.  It held things used at the lunch counter which ran parallel to it a few feet away.  Ed didn't know the new customers and turned to take up the conversation.

        E. T. recognized one of the men from his days up in Paris where he'd grown up.  The fellow greeted E. T. but just got a nod in reply before the cook turned and hurried back into the kitchen leaving Ed with no one to talk to.  Ed didn't think anything of it and fiddled with the radio on the shelves above the cabinet.  He finally got a go station on the shortwave and went about his work.

        The two men walked down the length of the counter to take the last two stools at the far end by the kitchen.  On the way to their seats they passed "Buster" Jackson who sat at the other end of the counter reading the Houston Chronicle.  As the new customers sat there the one who had said hello to E. T. explained how the radio worked to his friend.  The broadcast had changed from music to a news bullitin about a prison break north of town involving Clyde Barrow and Raymond Hamilton.

        The rest of the Café was empty.  The four-top tables opposite the counter were unoccupied.  Ever since the restaurant had been broken into earlier that year the small room next to the kitchen at the back of the building had been used to bunk a night watchman but there was no one there yet this night.

        When Ed turned back from the glass polishing he was doing he saw the mill workers in the kitchen get up and go quickly out the back door without finishing their food.  Even stranger, E. T. was with them.  As Ed turned back to the dining room he noticed Buster looking from the front page of the Chronicle to the two men at the other end of the counter and back again to the paper.  Buster stood in a hurry to leave, tossed a few coins on the counter, and nearly ran out the front of the Café.

        Now it was just Ed and the two men at the counter drinking their coffee.  The radio continued to give the details of the daring prison escape of one of the Barrow Gang with the aid of Clyde himself.  The men were     quiet now and began to look around more frequently and kept looking out the windows and doors into the night beyond.

        Buster Jackson had left the Café and high tailed it over to the Estes' garage to tell the Constable who the men were sitting at the counter.  Evero9ne else had left by then with the exception of Ed Nelson and those two customers.  Even though the radio reported the details of the escape from prison, and the paper had Clyde and Raymond's pictures on the front page, Ed stayed to get payment for their food and coffee without knowing who they were.

        I suppose Ike Green had a moment to consider the situation after Buster told him who was in town that evening.  We'll never know now what thoughts crossed his mind before he decided to do nothing.  I like to think he deeded the advice given in the Bible that it is better to be a living dog than a dead lion.  By the time of this latest breakout everyone knew the Barrow Gang wasn't shy about killing people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It's a tribute to the Constable that he decided to live.  None-the-less, I'm sure the heat of the conversation at the garage increased even as Clyde and Raymond's coffee cooled.

        Back at the Café the coffee didn't get too cool before the precipitious exit of the other patrons got to Clyde and Raymond.  Even with the on-going lecture covering the mechanics of radio operation the two men couldn't help but get a bit nervous.  That they had stayed alive this long indicated they were capable of both blood-thirsty slaughter and sensibility to their surroundings.  After all, they didn't always blast their way out of every building they entered.  And the coffee wasn't that  bad either.      

        Clyde gave the high sign to Raymond, stood up, and left some change on the counter for the eats.  Perhaps saunter isn't the best word to describe the pace of their withdrawal from the café but they didn't run out nor did they stop to inspect the other tables and chairs.  Ed got the money from the counter but we have no record of what kind of tipper Clyde Barrow was.

        The sedan out front got even louder as the men pulled out onto the highway and headed out of town.  Ike and the boys at the garage surely noticed their departure and headed over to the café to see what was left of Ed and any other unfortunate.  Of course, nothing had happened to Ed except a moment's confusion over why everyone had left so rapidly a few minutes before.  Once the identity of his patrons was revealed Ed got a little heated, as any young man might in face of a famous guests gone unrecognized.

        That visit by Clyde Barrow ended much as any momentary tourist's might.  Having come into town he passed out again leaving a little change behind and material for a story or two.  Come to think of it, not many tourists get to leave a legacy of stories after they leave.  Perhaps Clyde was a different sort." [TEMPLE ARCHIVES NEWS by Mark E. Martin, used with permission...1993]

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