The Traveling Man in Deep Ellum

Deep Ellum has seen both rise and fall—several times over. What began as a warehouse and factory area just east of downtown Dallas evolved into many different things—sometimes repeating previous incarnations.

It’s now a waning entertainment and arts district, having seen a night club and urban residence resurgence in the 90s that quickly devolved into incidents of street crime and a heavy handed police crackdown. The result is that there are now many storefronts vacant, and the real estate for lofts and apartments that were already overpriced are now empty and overpriced.

There remains pockets of activity. Monica’s Aca y Alla is still my favorite restaurant in all of Dallas. (I hate, though, that they’ve removed Enchiladas Angél from their menu, a delectable ambrosia of soft steamed red potato vegetarian enchiladas with a chipotle cream sauce.)

I don’t have a pic of my favorite now departed enchiladas, but the taco salad pictured above is wonderful. Not overlarge and laced with that same chipotle cream sauce.

Deep Ellum was originally settled as a “freedmen’s town” by former slaves after the Civil War. The central location has Elm Street running through it, hence the name of the area—it’s generally believed that Ellum was the local patois pronunciation of Elm. 

A 1905 map of Dallas. Deep Ellum is the northern and western part of Section 5. Note that the sinuous Trinity River at the western edge of downtown is now much further west, redirected in a levee public works project constructed in 1932 and 1960 as a response to the devastating floods experienced in 1908 (yes, most of the people affected by the floods were poor, so progress to prevent flooding was indeed slow). Map © 1905 by John F. Worley and currently in the public domain found here: History of Dallas.

There was a confluence of railway lines coming together in Deep Ellum including the Texas Interurban Railway Company, a passenger line which ran toward east Texas where King Cotton was farmed. Appropriately there was an early industrial site and factory for manufacturing cotton gins in the early days. And coincidentally, the Interurban saw it’s demise with the rise of the automobile. It’s believed that tracks were pulled up at the behest of the nascent industry in order to enhance sales of the soon to be ubiquitous horseless carriage. The coincidence becomes apparent with the establishment in 1913 of an assembly plant for the Ford Motor Company on Canton Street—four floors in a narrow low rise with huge elevators that connected the assembly lines. They built the Model T there. That building is now an upscale 90-unit loft condominium after a previous incarnation as the Adam Hat Company.

Good times and bad continued. By the 1920s the Deep Ellum area was a retail and entertainment mecca for the Black community. There were rows of pawn shops and mercantile retailers. Scattered among the cafes and domino parlors were 12 nightclubs. It soon became the destination for jazz and blues musicians and their patrons. Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sam “Lightnin’ ” Hopkins, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, Texas Bill Day, Lonnie Johnson, Little Hat Jones, Emma Wright, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Benny Moten began or furthered their careers in Deep Ellum. You could catch a performance by Robert Johnson when he came through town. It was a hopping, happening place.

Texas Bill Day wrote and performed a popular song of the time, Deep Ellum Blues.

Ellum Street’s paved in brass,
Main Street’s paved in gold. 
I’ve got a good girl lives on East Commerce
I wouldn’t mistreat to save nobody’s Soul.
These Ellum Street women, Billiken,
Do not mean you no good. 
If you want to make a good women,
Have to get on Haskell Avenue.

So after the manic Gen-X nightclub Deep Ellum era ran its course, the area has fallen on hard times once again. But there is some hope on the horizon, mainly fueled by the recently opened Green Line, the Light Rail extension that will range from far northwest Dallas and suburbs beyond, though downtown and then to Fair Park in southeast Dallas. The Light Rail is part of the DART system—Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

Before the economy tanked, and luckily for a pair of local artists, DART spent $1.3 million on a three part oversized whimsical sculpture series. The installations feature The Traveling Man, an homage to the early jazz roots and culture of the Deep Ellum area. 

The Traveling Man is 28 feet tall. He was conceived by the artistic geniuses Brandon Oldenburg at Real FX Creative Studios in collaboration with Brad Oldham. The story of is revealed in part here, as told to the Dallas Observer’s Robert Wilonsky.

The Story

Since 1884, when the first industrial business opened in Deep Ellum, the land has absorbed an overrun of business, great entrepreneurial ambitions and industrial parts, along with the next-to-arrive restaurants, art galleries, retailers, bars and visitors. Many feet, tires and tracks have packed the earth of Deep Ellum. It is the culmination of all these elements in this entertainment-district that was borne from an industrial heritage that provided the materials for creation of The Traveling Man.

The story goes that some time before 1900, an old steam train was buried near the intersection of what today is Main Street and Good Latimer. A majestic elm tree grew nearby in a grassy area, providing a shady spot for visitors to gather and shelter for many song birds. As the roots of the elm tree grew closer to the buried train, magic started to happen. The surrounding dirt, fertilized with all that is Deep Ellum, created a womb. The Traveling Man was conceived late one night when a splash of gin spilled onto the dirt reached the tip of the elm tree root that rested on the train – and his gestation is nearly complete. This incredible man will be born in the summer of 2009…

You can read the rest of the story on the Dallas Observer web site found hereand here.

Here’s the Traveling Man waiting for the train, playing with his banjo. He’s resting against part of the tunnel pictured at the top of this post, preserved as a legacy element hearkening back to that earlier time.

This is the first part of the series, and shows the Traveling Man’s birth, conceived from gin and elm tree roots fertilized by a long forgotten buried steam train. You’ll note that his “ears” are actually tuning pegs.

We can’t forget the Traveling Man’s companions, the birds that are part of the modern folklore story.

Me and the bird
Rain on the bird’s back

I love the Traveling Man, though there has been some local complaining about the art and the cost, I think it’s a wonderful addition to Deep Ellum. I also love the invented story of his birth and the tribute and homage paid to all that has passed before.

Here follows some other public art found in Deep Ellum. The street art on the walls is not nearly as well paid as what the artists got for The Traveling Man, but it all does add to the bohemian atmosphere. Of course, there are signs plastered everywhere reminding would be taggers that graffiti is prohibited. I’m assuming that the exterior wall art was commissioned and paid for—modestly.

This is a tribute to Blind Lemon, and shows the early railway being interrupted by the new automobile age. The artist is Brandon Oldenburg, of the same Traveling Man series. Note too, that there is a painted version of the later bird companion sculpture in the wall art.

Stevie Ray Vaughn?

Lisa Loeb on the left, a local Dallas high school graduate—The Hockaday School.
Norah Jones, graduated from the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts on the western edge of Deep Ellum. For you old-timers who don’t already know, she’s the daughter of Ravi Shankar.

Robert Johnson
Carter Albrect

John Lee Hooker
A fatal snack

Thanks so much for visiting. If I’m not back before Thanksgiving, I hope you all have a blessed time with family and friends. I’m thankful for my friends here among many other blessings. 

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  1. iamthesunking · May 13, 2020

    Deep Ellum sounds like a place in Lord of the Rings!


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