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Collin County Then And Now

Defining our present by the roots of the past

Imagine America’s most famous cities in a scrapbook. If you flipped back one century, you’d still be able to accurately identify each one. New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago — compared to now, the bones of their streets and the silhouettes of their landscapes haven’t changed to an unrecognizable degree. 

Enter Collin County and its cities, which are rapidly climbing the ranks to become our nation’s most noteworthy hubs. It’s easy to imagine a city like Frisco being discussed around the globe, but its evolution has been drastic, even over the last ten years. Many county residents still remember a time when the views out of their bedroom windows were open fields with coyotes rummaging through the grass. Now, those same spots are bustling with top-notch eateries, sprawling parkways and corporate headquarters. So let’s take a look at the transformation of our county, where the only constant has been change itself.

FOOD: The Gastronomic Glow-Up

Ask anyone to associate a word with Texas, and most answers will be unified: barbecue. Collin County has no shortage of smoked briskets and sausages crafted with locally raised meats. Renowned spots like Hutchins BBQ, Local Yocal and Lockhart Smokehouse never miss when it comes to flavor and tradition. For those curious about the journey from farm to table, establishments like Cornerstone Farms in McKinney offer plates of the freshest barbecue, plus a chance to purchase meat for home cooking, all while offering insights into how they raise their livestock.

Beyond that, we’ve got an array of immigrant-owned restaurants that serve a mix of authentic dishes and family recipes infused with Texan flair. Tourists are always pleasantly surprised to see the number of options, including Indian, Austrian, Turkish and Cuban eateries, among others. This might be one of the only scenarios in which the term “melting pot” takes on two meanings. 

Our county was mainly farmland in the 1800s and the majority of the 1900s, and it’s no surprise that wheat, corn and cotton were some of the top-produced crops. Haggard Farms in Plano, established in 1856 by Clinton Shepard Haggard, is a testament to our heritage. Impressively, it continues to thrive under the guidance of its fourth and fifth generations of Haggards, preserving a piece of American history by being one of the longest-running businesses in the United States.

An unexpected twist in our agricultural narrative was the fame of “Collin County sweets” — not the confectionery delight one might envision. Instead, these were onions so renowned that they earned Farmersville the title of “onion capital of North Texas” in 1935. Their aromatic scent was said to waft through the town during harvest season, and 1,000 carloads of onions were sent out annually via the railways.

Notable restaurants back in the day included Woods Cafe in McKinney, which is said to have hosted Bonnie and Clyde on more than one occasion. If you want a more interactive “then and now” experience, you’ll want to visit Bill Smith’s Cafe, which opened its doors in 1956 amid the cotton fields of McKinney. It became a quick success and served countless customers until its closing in 2022. However, that moment was (luckily) short-lived, as 83-year-old owner Bill Smith decided to reopen in Van Alstyne this year.

Fun Fact: Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were invented in Plano in 1989 at the Frito-Lay headquarters. They are a true American staple snack, packed with a side quest of removing neon red dust from your fingertips.

EDUCATION: Our Grade-A Transformation

Picture walking over to your new neighbors’ doorstep, pie in hand, taking guesses at what brought them all the way here from out of state. If you assumed that the school districts were a top factor, you’d probably be right. Families from around the country have caught on to the fact that Collin County has excellent schools, and the proof is in the numbers. Combine just Plano ISD and Frisco ISD schools, and you’ll already be looking at over 100,000 students — then, you’ve still got Anna, McKinney, Prosper and a handful of others to count. Unlike many cities, which only have reputable private schools, our public school system is defined by its ability to offer a wide range of opportunities and a college-ready curriculum.

Students interested in STEM programs can rest assured that their interests will be fostered. McKinney’s award-winning Mercenary Robotics offers students a chance to create competition-ready robots as early as second grade. The nonprofit organization was originally a part of McKinney High School but has since branched out to serve students from a variety of school districts, even accommodating those in home-school environments. Additionally, our community college system is ever-evolving to meet changes in student interest. In the last year, Collin College began increasing the number of its medicine-related courses and announced a new esthetician program.

One might think of the early days of education here as a patchwork of one-room schoolhouses sprinkled across the prairie like bluebonnets. The first school was the Wilmeth School in McKinney, which opened in 1848 and was associated with some of our earliest settlers, the Wilmeths. The school was housed in a simple log cabin where Joseph B. Wilmeth and his daughters offered free education. Author Joy Gough’s latest book, Early Schools of Collin County, Texas, 1846-1960, describes its start and offers an incredibly detailed picture of our early academics. Read about just a few of those schools, and you’ll see why we were headed down such a trailblazing path.

Cut to 35 years later. McKinney opened up its first (more traditional) public school, Central Public School, which was located on the corner of College Street and Louisiana Street. The early years of schooling across the nation created plenty of racial disparities due to segregation. However, strides were made by minority educators to ensure that segregation didn’t equate to a lack of knowledge. Edward Sewell Doty was an African American professor at McKinney’s Black school, initially named, according to Collin County History Museum, the Fred Douglas School; later, the name was changed to the E.S. Doty School to honor him. Doty taught for an astounding 50 years, helping the school to gain accreditation, which paved the way for students to transition to Black colleges. 

Ever wondered about the namesake of Lovejoy ISD, which serves parts of Fairview, Allen and Lucas? Carrie Lovejoy, a socialite and activist for children’s education, worked hard to encourage literacy among children. She believed that every child should have access to books regardless of their background and traveled throughout the county to distribute them. After the stock market crash of 1929, she realized that most girls would be cut off from education and decided to turn her home into a place where they could continue their studies.

Fun Fact: One of the nation’s first bilingual schools was founded by Jose and Maria Luisa Vega in McKinney in the early 1950s after they realized that the children of Mexican immigrants were struggling to understand both English and Spanish. The school allowed the students to integrate into the culture and grow into successful leaders within their community. 

TRANSPORTATION: Freight Trains and Freeways

Say hello to left exits, freeways atop freeways and commuters who think they’re training for the Indy 500. Texas truly is a vision of car-centric living, but when you’ve got sweltering summers that last as long as ours, any other mode of transport seems agonizing. Although most Collin County households own at least one vehicle for their daily needs, some of our cities do have public transit, which includes buses and trains. Notably, the Dallas Area Rapid Transit, known as the DART, can take you from Plano to Dallas within one hour — zero road rage included.

Plano’s transportation manager, Brian Shewski, recalls early projects that he worked on to shape Plano’s streets and public transit.

“When DART first started in the 1980s, before it ever got to Plano, I was part of the design team that was putting together construction documents,” Shewski says. “Plano is actually fortunate in that we are the hub for the end of the Red Line, Orange Line and soon-to-be Silver Line.” 

The Silver Line will run from east to west and connect Plano to DFW Airport. Shewski states that, although Plano is currently the only city in our county that is connected to a variety of rail lines, the rapid growth of our other cities has opened up serious planning discussions. When the DART was first implemented, areas like McKinney were relatively small, and residents didn’t feel the need to have a connecting line. They felt that the time it would take and the tax money it required were better spent on other projects. 

If you’ve ever hopped onto the DART at the Downtown Plano Station, you’ve probably seen the well-preserved rail car parked permanently outside of our Interurban Railway Museum. Starting in 1908, Plano became the home of one of several stations along the Texas Electric Railway, which traveled from Denison to Waco daily, totaling 226 miles of railway track. This unique system truly was all electric, with overhead wires powered by DC converters connected to converter stations. The Interurban Railway Museum is now a protected landmark and the last electric substation along that route, so be sure to stop by and learn about the way that electric transit began.

Going way back, the first sense of public transit to reach us was the Houston and Texas Central Railway in 1872, which allowed Plano and McKinney to be on a line that went through various Texas towns and down to Houston. The connection between these cities encouraged farmers to move north and began the slow and steady growth of our county.

Fun Fact: Famous racecar driver and automobile designer Carroll Shelby (who lived in Dallas) started the first World Championship Chili Cook-off in Terlingua back in 1967.

FASHION: A Stitch in Time

Present-day Collin County is a tapestry of trends, where local boutiques and international brands offer everything from bespoke suits that whisper “Wall Street” to artisanal jewelry that screams “boho.” A walk around Legacy West radiates the energy of Rodeo Drive with its lineup of luxury brands that attract those who love to park their exotic cars out front.

Although some transplants might expect us to be wearing ten-gallon hats and cowboy boots with spurs, our identity has evolved to be more eclectic and less discernible over the years. Of course, we still cherish our Western wear, but we mainly choose to display Texan pride with our sports teams’ logos.

Yet, our influence on the fashion scene is undeniable. Nationwide luxury retailer Neiman Marcus was founded in Dallas in 1907 and quickly began influencing American fashion. By 1939, LIFE magazine featured multiple spreads on the brand, acknowledging its impressive winter fashion show. That same year, Collier’s magazine noted that they felt the fashion industry’s eyes were drifting away from Paris and New York to look toward Dallas. The publication believed that Dallas was the forecaster of upcoming trends. 

The iconic styles shown on the TV series Dallas, which often used Collin County as its backdrop, reverberated far beyond the screen, contributing to popular 1980s styles. The show captivated audiences worldwide and played a significant role in defining perceptions of American culture. Now, more than 30 years after the final episode aired, Southfork Ranch in Parker continues to attract international visitors eager to embrace the Texan looks they grew to love on the show — from dungarees and oversized belt buckles to suede jackets and pointy-toed boots. And, of course, they go to great lengths to keep their souvenir cowboy hats unwrinkled in their luggage.

Fun Fact: Chestnut Square Heritage Village just started a new YouTube channel that showcases remnants of the past. Their first video is all about Texan fashion in the 1800s, featuring intricate dresses, the styles of which still inspire designers today. 

POLITICS: A Remix of Perspectives

Collin County’s ability to draw individuals from all walks of life has cultivated a unique political landscape, fostering a community in which diverse perspectives converge in the pursuit of common goals. This array of ideas may be unexpected to outsiders, who would be surprised to see our residents’ capacity for open-minded discourse. While conservative views have dominated historically and still remain the majority, our county is a broad spectrum that maintains its share of moderate and liberal views as well.

Decades ago, the Democrats and Republicans were “swapped,” in a sense. The Democratic Party encompassed both liberal and conservative factions, with conservatism being the more dominant. However, the 1960s marked the beginning of a shift, as the Democratic Party increasingly aligned with liberal ideologies, prompting a gradual realignment of conservative Texans toward the Republican Party. Keeping this in mind, it’s not a surprise to hear that our county did not have a Republican judge until the 1970s.

Judge Nathan White took office in 1974 and speaks fondly of that time.

“The Commissioners Court was composed of three Democrats and two Republicans, and I have to say that one of the proudest things of my administration was the way we were able to work together,” White says. “The three Democrats were very receptive to my leadership.”

White was born in Dallas in 1941, but his father’s dry goods business venture brought his family to Plano in 1948. He remembers a time when the local school only had around 40 children, and everyone in town knew one another’s names, families and professions. In fact, White is currently working on a project to help document more information on Planoites of that time. He is determined to preserve the memory of those who formed our cities into what they are today.

“Plano had 2,000 residents when my family moved,” White says. “It was a fantastic community to grow up in — everybody knew everybody.”

Fun Fact: Collin McKinney signed (and contributed to the writing of) the Texas Declaration of Independence, meant to declare Texas’ separation and independence from Mexico.

COST OF LIVING: From Pennies to Prosperity

We’re going to need non-Texans to remove the phrase “for that price, you could get a mansion in Texas” from their vocabulary. Our real estate market has changed dramatically, and many of the most significant surges are from the last four years alone. Visit the Zillow listing for a house that’s valued at $650,000 today, and you’ll be shocked to find that the same home likely sold for $400,000 back at the beginning of 2020.

Despite the financial podcasters who have chanted the term “housing bubble” over the last few years, homes in our county still sell at a rapid rate as inventory remains low. High interest rates haven’t stopped buyers from waiving both appraisals and inspections or creating bidding wars that have forced the sales of some properties as high as $100,000 over the asking price. In 2022, home builders like Pulte saw such an increase in buyers that they resorted to asking them to bid on available lots, which were gradually released over several months.

A large portion of the homes in Collin County were built in the 1990s, when a brand-new home might set you back around $150,000, compared to prices that start at $500,000 for new construction today. Our county also has many classic Victorian homes, several of which have been restored and preserved in our downtown areas. In the 1800s, homes ranged from $500 to $2,000, a price range that’s hard to imagine, even when adjusted for inflation.

There are quite a few documents on display at the Collin County History Museum that paint a picture of price tags from the past. Written transactions from the Stiff Hotel (which no longer exists) show that customers could purchase a dinner for 35 cents in 1923. Ketchup bottles were offered as a bundle of two for 45 cents in 1930.

Fun Fact: Coca-Cola was only five cents from 1886 to 1959 because it was easiest for vending machines to accept one coin.

Collin County History Museum

300 E. Virginia St., McKinney

Experiencing a taste of the past doesn’t have to end here. Our county’s history museum, located right in downtown McKinney, just updated its exhibits this year. The museum is housed in an ornate building that first served as a post office and bank back in 1913. Admission is free, and the museum operates through the kindness of donors and dedicated volunteers who task themselves with digging up lost stories of the past — both literally and figuratively.

Museum director Kristin Spalding says that one of her largest and most recent projects revolves around Ross Cemetery, where numerous African American veterans, community leaders and teachers are buried. Unfortunately, many graves have no headstones to pay tribute to the deceased, so Spalding has tasked herself and a group of volunteers with the research. If the family members of veterans can provide evidence of their loved one’s placement in the cemetery and their military service, the Veterans Administration will provide the headstone free of charge. So far, the group has helped to add eight new headstones. 

Spalding has been in her role at the museum for seven years and was led down the path through her decades of work in genealogy. “I like hunting the documents that back up the facts,” Spalding says. She’s even taken on the project of restoring a traditional Victorian home down the road from the museum and is connected with the families who lived there previously. Spalding states that, although she did not grow up in Collin County, her 30 years of residence have made her a true local. “We are home. We are all connected, and I don’t know a lot of strangers in town.”

The Collin County History Museum is open on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

This article was featured in Local Profile's latest magazine

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