by Michael Gos
Someone who has never locked a door in his life probably did not grow up in Gary, Indiana. It is far more likely he grew up somewhere like Montell, Texas.
I heard about Montell only because a friend of a friend had grown up there. I listened to stories about this guy for several months and was intrigued. When I finally had a chance to meet him I was amazed at how similar our worldviews were. Yet to hear him tell it, our upbringings couldn’t have been more different. He said he was just your typical product of Montell. I knew then I had to see the place.
Montell used to be a booming place. In the 1700s the Spanish built the Mission Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria there. It would come to be important as the Lipan-Apache began using the mission as protection from white settlers, the Mexicans and their strongest enemy, the Comanche. While the Spanish priests thought they were Christianizing the Indians, the Lipan were using the mission as a staging ground for their raids. By 1765, however, the Indians realized this was no longer safe as the settlers and the Comanche moved ever closer. Without the Indians, the mission soon closed.
Today, it’s not much of a town, and there is nothing visible from the road. There is a cemetery with a much larger population than the town itself. But if you know where to turn, you can drive down a dirt road, into the deep woods and eventually you will come upon two tiny churches and the “Montell Country Club.”
I had come out here to do some photo work. I had heard the country club was a one-of-a-kind place. If it hadn’t been for the sign out front, I would have missed it. It turned out to be an old one-room schoolhouse. There is no pool, no golf course, no restaurant, none of the usual country club amenities. Essentially it is an old community building used for private gatherings. There are two tiny churches on either side of it and it has views of the backside of the cemetery in one direction and woods in the other three.
I noticed a half dozen or so cars parked helter-skelter in the area, but saw no people so I got out of the Jeep and pulled out my camera equipment. Just as I was lining up my first shot, the door of the building opened and a woman came out. I thought “So much for that photo.”
I fully expected her to inform me that this was private property and then politely ask me to move on, but it turned out we had the great good fortune of coming upon the place when an extended family was having a get-together. She was surprisingly friendly and invited us in. Because it was the middle of the afternoon, we had already missed lunch but she said they had plenty of iced tea and desserts we could share. We were somewhat overwhelmed and embarrassed by the hospitality, but we felt it would be rude not to accept.
The room held about 25 people ranging in age from grade school to great-grandparents. They had just completed a team scavenger hunt and were busy tallying the results. We tried to stay as invisible as possible as they awaited the announcement of the winners. We went to the counter that carried a vast array of desserts, made our choices and took seats at a vacant table.
We no sooner sat down than our hostess started bring people over for us to meet. In the next 15 minutes we met about 20 people and learned what a small world it was. One of the women there was an alumna of my university back in Indiana. She had graduated from college when I was in junior high.
As more and more people pulled up chairs around us, the conversation turned to what I was photographing and why. I told them I had come out to shoot the country club building but now that I was here, I found I was really more fascinated with the two tiny churches I hadn’t heard about. When our hostess asked if I’d like to see inside one, I jumped at the chance. She called to her husband who she said could “reach the key.” He got up and said, “Let’s go then.”
I am convinced that places and character are inextricably linked. We are formed by our places and our experience in those places. Grow up in a city like I did and you grow up essentially helpless. You can’t produce your own food or power. Finding potable water is generally beyond your abilities. On the other hand, if you grow up in the country, you probably don’t lock your doors, you act friendly towards strangers and even make eye contact—things that might get you killed in a city.
Instinctively, we all know the importance of place in character development. Many of us choose the places we live largely for the ways the place will contribute to the character formation of our children. We often say, “It’s a good place to raise the kids.”
The place we grow up, while not of our own choosing, may have the most profound effect of all on who we will eventually become. But all the places we associate with have their effects on us. In fact, I think we are so influenced by our places that it is really impossible to truly get to know someone without getting to know their places as well. The choice of where we live is one of the most important decisions we make. It reflects who we are.
Of course, there are other factors that contribute to character development besides place. The people in our lives have a lot to do with how we form our character. But when you think about it, the people with the greatest influence on who we will grow to be generally are the people who were around when we were growing up—people also from the same place as us. Like us, they are formed by their places. Growing up then, we are doubly affected by that place; it feeds off itself. The people around us reinforce the power of that place in our lives.
We left the country club building and headed toward the church. As we got a few yards from the building, our guide stopped and then turned toward an ancient oak tree. I swear I am not lying about this—he started to climb it! He went up a ways and then looked around one large branch for a minute until he found the key. He climbed back down and we walked up to the building. He opened it and we went inside.
After a few minutes for photographs, we thanked him and went on our way.
I drove to my favorite bar in Camp Wood and spent a few minutes there enjoying a beer and going over my time in Montell. I thought about the man I know who came from here. I think I understand him better now. And I think I may have even gotten a bit of insight into me. It seemed fitting that I would know where the “church key” is.
All the people in the country club, the invitation to join them, the man climbing the tree for the key, and me—all that stuff now fit. As I turned back on to the highway, I said to myself, “Only in Montell.”