When Jim and Betty Bailey bought a vacant building during the late 1980s in the old commercial area, some people thought they had it backward. Others had them down as plain crazy.
Businesses weren’t opening in Old Town, they were leaving, headed for newer digs along the Texas 174 corridor a few blocks to the north and west.
The Baileys, however, saw the value of historical preservation, and their dedication, along with that of other residents and city officials, to it paid off as the area redeveloped into a dining and entertainment hotspot. In 2005, the popular Babe’s Chicken Dinner House, which is known to have waiting lists at lunch and dinner, moved into their building.
Nowadays, the six-block area bounded by Renfro, Main, Eldred and Warren streets is a focal point rather than a forgotten place in this growing suburb that straddles Tarrant and Johnson counties. Restaurants like Babe’s, Grumps Burgers and Fuzzy’s Taco Shop have joined Babe’s, and events like the annual Boo Bash, Hot Sounds of Summer and Founder’s Day draw families by the hundreds. The city’s Christmas and Fourth of July parades also go through Old Town, which offers shopping and nightlife, too.
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The Baileys recalled what it was like to run a tea room and a beauty shop during the 1990s at a time when vintage was out of style. The building dates back to 1905. Back then, the Wilson Brothers Co. sold buggies, hardware, household furnishings and even coffins manufactured on the top floor where there was a funeral parlor at one time.
“Chicken-and-dumplings and bread pudding brought people back to Old Town,” Jim Bailey said, recalling how his wife prepared food in the tea room.
Old Town is home to two preserved rail cars that ran on the interurban lines connecting Fort Worth and Cleburne and Fort Worth and Dallas. The cars are on display at the Burleson Visitors Center.
“Burleson was a bedroom community,” Jim Bailey said. “People went to work in Fort Worth, and now the Old Town is the place to be.”
Old Town is also becoming a place for people who want to live in an urban village. One is Mayor Ken Shetter, who sold his house in another area of Burleson and is building a Craftsman-style home north of Renfro Street. Shetter and his family expect to move this spring.
Although there aren’t sidewalks going from his home to the commercial area yet, Shetter said he is looking forward to walking to the nearby restaurants and grocery store.
“I am excited about not getting into my car to do every little thing that I want to do,” he said.
Shetter praised the hard work of residents like the Baileys who refused to allow the old buildings to go by the wayside.
“I will give those folks credit because the new style of urban planning wasn’t in vogue,” he said. “There weren’t discussions of walkable neighborhoods. Those folks were ahead of their time. Their motivation was about saving our history.”
Burleson had its beginnings in 1881 when the Missouri, Kansas Texas Railroad planned a railroad from Fort Worth to Hillsboro and built a depot on the town site. Civil War Gen. Grenville Dodge, representing the railroad, purchased the land from a Baptist preacher, Henry Renfro, who named the depot after his mentor and friend Rufus C. Burleson, later the president of Baylor University.
In 1882, a post office opened in a saloon, and churches and stores soon located in Burleson.
During its first 50 years, Burleson flourished around agriculture and livestock, but the city began to attract more businesses as it became a southern suburb of Fort Worth.
Now, the city has a population of almost 40,000, and new businesses, including a Sam’s Club are coming.
Old Town continues to thrive under its new identity. The City Council recently discussed proposals such as widening sidewalks, improving alleys and putting banners on light poles in the district, Shetter said. The funding would come from a bond program that voters approved in November, a tax increment finance district and hotel/motel tax revenue.
Meanwhile, Jim Bailey said he is pleased with the progress he’s seen over the years.
“I think this is the beginning of something great,” he said. “We showed people that these old buildings could be used. Why tear stuff down when things can be used?”