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Monday, February 2, 2015

Which Way to America's most confusing town? Lake Jackson, Texas

In these times of tumult and upheaval, it is easy to feel bereft. But where should you go when you’re sure you’ve lost your way?

You might want to start in Lake Jackson, Texas.

One peek at the local map and you realize, truly, Lake Jackson’s the way to go.

We have This Way, That Way, Any Way, Circle Way, Parking Way, Winding Way and we have His Way, which runs behind a church,” says long-time city manager Bill Yenne.

About 50 miles south of Houston, Lake Jackson, pop. 26,849, is to sensible civic planning what Abbott & Costello are to baseball play-by-play schtick.

“It’s not uncommon to give people directions that include some variation of, ‘Take This Way three blocks and make a left on That Way until you get to Any Way,’ which invariably provokes the confused response, ‘Which way?’ Yenne says. “That’s when you have to correct them and say, “No, that would be the wrong way.’”

Blame the harried secretary to town planner Alden B. Dow, a visionary man who once dreamed of insulating homes with hair. Dow (1904-1983) was the son of Dow Chemical founder Herbert Henry Dow. 

As the senior Dow’s business was rapidly evolving into the multi-national corporate behemoth it was destined to become, the founder knew he’d need a company town where his employees could work and thrive. He asked his son, by then an accomplished architect who’d interned with iconic designer Frank Lloyd Wright, to do the job back in 1941.

Ande Larsen is an assistant at the Lake Jackson Museum (www.lakejacksonmuseum.org) on Circle Way. She says, like his mentor, Dow enjoyed including grand curves in his designs.

“In Lake Jackson he did so to preserve all the stately, Spanish moss-draped trees already on the site and because he believed it encouraged motorists to always look forward to what was up around the next bend,” Larsen says.

But Dow was stumped about how to name the streets and instinctually resisted common names from conformity-bound grid cities; In Lake Jackson, there are no Main, First, Second, etc. streets. After determining that street names should all connote plants, trees or flowers, Larsen says Dow asked his secretary, Mrs. E.D. Collerain, her thoughts on naming the winding roads radiating from the center of town.

“The story is she said, ‘Don’t ask me. You’ve got all these streets going this way and that way. I don’t know what you’re going to call them.’ He said, ‘Perfect! This’ll be That Way and that will be This Way!’”

Larsen says it was a typically playful decision on the part of Dow, a man who designed and wore futurist one-piece formal wear and spent the energy crisis of the 1970s trying to replicate a shaggy animal fur suitable for insulating homes.

The Alden B. Dow Home & Studio (www.abdow.org) in Midland, Michigan, is today a National Historic Landmark.

Bob Sipple remembers getting hopelessly lost when, as an executive with Wholesale Electric in 1981, he first visited Lake Jackson.

“I drove around and around and kept seeing those same crazy signs and didn’t think I’d ever find my way out,” he says. “I completely lost my sense of direction. I said to my wife Lori, ‘Honey, you better get used to this place. I don’t think we’re ever getting out of here.”

Thirty years later and the one way Sipple never found in Lake Jackson was a way out. The Sipples never left and he’s been mayor since 2006.

The confusion, he says, is an accepted way of life in Lake Jackson.

“I’ve never heard a single complaint about it,” Sipple says. “People think it’s quaint and have really come to identify with it. It’s really become an essential part of Lake Jackson’s charm.”

It’s not too confusing for a man who at his very core is a staunch proponent of fiscal clarity. Yes, Libertarian darling and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul calls Lake Jackson home. It’s where he practiced OB-GYN before becoming turning to politics.

His congressional office is on West Way, which used to be Which Way, until the mid-1980s when bankers interested in locating a branch there persuaded officials that a financial institution on a street named Which Way might breed concern with customers seeking stability.

Yenne laments some of those charms have fallen by the reverse of what otherwise should be known as the wayside.

The street that tracks past where the town’s little regional landing strip used to be is now Abner Jackson Parkway in honor of the town’s namesake.

Yenne says he preferred it when the old airport road was Run Way.

The loss of Which Way and Run Way, also due to precautionary business considerations, chagrins the mischievous banter of Yenne. Still, he says opportunities abound.

He dreams of a day when he can ceremonially sever ribbons on splendid tree-shaded thoroughfares with names like My Way, Your Way, Our Way, Yonder Way, High Way, Park Way, Right Way, Out Of The Way and By The Way.

Clearly, he’d find a kindred spirit in a long ago motorist whose creativity nearly earned him bureaucratic liberation from a careless driving citation.

“The guy was caught going the wrong way up a one-way street and said he thought the signs were just typical of Lake Jackson,” Yenne says. “There are parts of that defense I can’t help but admire.”

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