If you find yourself driving on US 290 in east-central Texas, you may see what looks like an abandoned town off to the side of the road. This apparent ghost town is actually a failed tourist trap known as Winkelmann, billed as the “smallest town in Texas.” While the town itself is fake, the buildings are actually quite old and historic, some having been used in previous incarnations as schools, bars, and stores in other parts of the state.
The fake town was built by Ray Winkelmann, Jr. He was interested in history and restoration, and as a result ended up buying many old buildings, eventually ending up with about 150 old structures. In 1983, he bought the lot near his family in Brenham and moved 19 of his collection to the new location with the idea to build a small town-like community. Winkelmann named the town after himself and personally managed the general store, restaurant, and saloon. The other buildings were leased out to locals to run their own businesses in, often selling crafts.
Though the town did attract tourists and supposedly employed 94 people at one time, it was foreclosed on in 1986, just 3 years after Winkelmann started his venture. Since then, it’s gone through several changes of ownership but has sat more or less abandoned ever since.
When first researching this interesting place and trying to figure out why it failed, I first ran into vague stories about “‘economic decline.” However, some further digging on other blogs written about the site had some comments that referenced some local opposition and homophobia directed towards the owner, who happened to be a gay man that died of AIDS in 1994. Indeed, I was able to track down some rather offensive references such as “Winkelmann, Texas: Homosexual Hotbed” that do suggest that at least a few locals were unhappy that Winkelmann happened to be gay, and were actively discouraging potential visitors from patronizing it.