The Spoke unbroken for fifty years

Meredith Oldham, Staff Writer

The year was 1964. Gas cost 30 cents per gallon. The Beatles were embarking on their first world tour. Americans were fighting the war in Vietnam. Neil Armstrong had not yet walked on the moon (and wouldn’t for another five years).

 Where the Ann Richards School is today stood a race track. Red Lobster was a cedar yard. Less than a mile down the road stood some flat land with a nice big oak tree, where a man– fresh out of the military after being stationed in Japan– decided to build a dance hall.

That man is James White and that dance hall is the Broken Spoke, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary this past fall.

The Broken Spoke is considered to be “a gem” in the heart of Texas, however, it would never have been possible without someone like James White behind it. James and his wife, Annetta, are the kind of people who could talk about anything, and people would listen. Together, they carry stories of times and places that we can only imagine.

While James leans back in his cheddar-colored suit with matching boots, he tells stories of starting “the Spoke.” He’s quick to dispel any notions that he bought the Broken Spoke building and instead shares stories of building the Broken Spoke himself,  and the trials and tribulations he’s faced over the years.

 

 “We knew a guy who ran a gas company, and so we asked one of these guys we knew and he said sure I’ll get you gas, so he just pumped it across the street,” says White.

 “Water wasn’t out there either, and when I got the water, it just ran from the city limits across the road. Then it froze in the winter and some guy was riding his horse and it stepped on a pipe— water went everywhere. That’s when we decided to get it legal and everything,” White adds with a chuckle.

 James and Annetta poured their souls into the Spoke– both because they loved it and because they had to.

“You invest everything you got into it, because you know you got to make it, even if you’re working 20 hours straight,” James says.

 “And I had to learn how to cook,” Annetta adds. “Customers helped– they would say here’s how you peel potatoes, and so on.”

 James is quick to explain how he started “the Spoke,” in a different time, and starting a business today would be very different.

 “I remember the first time someone asked me what the address of the Spoke was, and I just made one up.” Annetta laughs and remarks that the notion of doing that today would be ludicrous.

 “And then there was the septic tank,” James adds, his eyes shifting to the side as he recalls the memory. “We had to hand dig the septic tank, and it was real hard dirt over there. And then some guy sunk his beer truck into our septic tank!”

 James and Annetta add to each other’s stories, sometimes talking over each other, and their voices evoke the same old-timey feel of the Broken Spoke. Their stories toss around names like Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Queen Elizabeth, Lloyd Doggett, Robert Duval, George W. Bush, and Ann Richards. They speak fondly of “the old days,” but also of the “new” in a different way.

 “There was a lot less traffic, lot less taxes, we’ve seen a lot of prices go up. Seemed like you knew everyone, it was more of a sleepy little town. Lot easier to get around. Austin’s so high tech now, and that’s why people like the Broken Spoke, ‘cause we haven’t changed it. They like to see the hats and the boots. We’re kinda like the Alamo. You see all the big buildings, but once you get inside, it’s the Alamo. Same in the Broken Spoke, you walk across the parking lot, throw open the door, through the old red building, and it feels like you’re back,” James says.

Austin sure has changed a lot from the fields and cedar yards from the 1960s, and James and Annette had a lot to say about the recent development around “the Spoke” and the changing dynamic of the area.

 “They gave us a lot of headaches while they were building– worst two years of our life. But now we get some of their business,” Annetta says.

 “And there’s more people from all over coming in now. We have people from over 10 countries some nights. James spent some months in Okinawa while in the military, so he spits out his Japanese at ‘em. And they’re always so surprised! One time, someone even told us they saw a Broken Spoke bumper sticker in India,” Annetta adds, James smiling while she speaks.

 Although James and Annetta weren’t yet married when the Spoke opened, they had their wedding reception there, as did their two daughters.

 “We met early in 1961. I went overseas for 18 months, then I came back and we started dating,” James says. “When I was at the army, I was thinking ‘bout what I wanted to do when I got out, so I thought about a lot while I was there. I decided on a dance hall because I loved going to them growing up and had nice memories from ‘em. And I was thinkin’ I wanted something real Texan for the name. I was thinking about some Jimmy Stewart movie from the 50s called Broken Arrow, and I thought well wagon, boot, spoke, and I got Broken Spoke,” James said.

 Since “the Spoke” first came to be in 1964, its acquired its own list of what Annetta calls “colorful characters.”

 “We have colorful characters. They’re some regulars whose elevators don’t go all the way up. They want their own tables, the don’t want no competition,” Annetta says, then adding that they’ve also had more than their share of great people over the years.

“Ann Richards came out several times. We had what we call speaker nights from the state capital. All the people who worked at the capital started coming down. She ran for county commissioner and I think she held a fundraiser with us. She came in dressed like Dolly Parton in costume and said not to tell anyone it was her.” Annetta turns to James to see if he has anything to say.

“She taught history at Fulmore when I was there,” James adds. “She was real nice, real witty–she had a great personality– everybody loved Ann. And she was there when they pulled the first lottery ticket in Texas too.”

Despite their ripening ages, James and Annetta are no less involved with the Broken Spoke now than they were when it started fifty years ago.

“We still make gravy twice a day– 3 or 4 gallons,” Annetta says. “And I still train all the cooks.”

“People retire after working for thirty years; we’ve had fifty, but we’re not out on the rocker,” James says before turning to Annetta. “But she wouldn’t like rockin’ on the porch– she’d get bored. So we ain’t stopping any time soon– the Spoke is part of who we are.”

Annette nods before opening her mouth to speak.

“We ain’t fancy, but there’s something special.”

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Polaris Press reporters Meredith Oldham, Georgia Oldham, Guadalupe Galvan, and adviser Sarah Walker pose with Annetta and James White, owners of the Broken Spoke.