Texas: Myths, Legends, and the Real Deal
Part Twelve, A Town Named for a Coin
When I was a freshman at Sam Houston State University, my then-boyfriend and I often left out on a Friday afternoon for a weekend at our parents’ homes in San Antonio. Anything to get away from Huntsville, even for 48 hours. (I understand the atmosphere in Huntsville has improved a lot since then.)
Going about 200 miles from East Texas to South Central meant taking back roads. Invariably, we came upon guys on tractors moving at maybe 10 mph. We also drove through pleasant, small towns, Bastrop, Brenham, Navasota, the kind that had more churches than gas stations, and where folks sat on front porches and waved to the cars going by.
Every time we went through Giddings, I made note of a sign at an intersection, Dime Box—12 miles. I always wondered about that town. Why had the people chosen the name? Did some child keep a collection of dimes in a box? Twelve miles wasn’t much of a detour, but Boyfriend was driving. He wasn’t interested and besides, we were in a hurry to cover the miles to San Antonio.
So I never had the chance to satisfy my curiosity and naturally, there was no internet to simply look it up and get answers. Now, here we are, years later, with the internet at our fingertips.
And this is the real story of Dime Box.
Sometime in the early 1870s, a pioneer named Joseph Brown traveled to Texas and found the Blackland Prairie in the eastern/central part of the state to his liking. He claimed land and built a sawmill which he named with great originality, Brown’s Mill. There were other settlers in the area, but little in the way of a town. In those early days, farmers had to take their wagons to Giddings for supplies and other needs. Since they had no Post Office, a box for mail was kept at Joseph Brown’s mill. If folks wanted to send a letter, they put it in the box, along with a dime for postage. Weekly deliveries were made to Giddings, I suppose, by whomever happened to be going there.
In 1877, the Federal system agreed to open a new Post Office. When asked the name of the town that would be used for this postal location, the people submitted just what they’d been calling it, Brown’s Mill. However, post office workers in other parts of the state either mis-read or misunderstood the handwritten address. Over and over, mail intended for Brown’s Mill was sent to Brownsville! Apparently, the situation caused a ton of complaints!
The Federal postal administrators were furious. Their policy was to reject new town names that could be confused with existing ones. Somehow, this Brown’s Mill/Brownsville thing had been missed. I can imagine a little man with piles of paperwork in front of him, harried and stressed beyond measure. He gives a one-second glance to the newest submission and grabs the rubber stamp OK.
At any rate, Brown’s Mill people were ordered to pick a different name. Someone suggested their other uniqueness, the box for letters and dimes. Thus, Dime Box was born.
It wasn’t exactly a boom town. Farming never attracted scads of settlers in the way that a discovery of gold or silver did. In 1904, the population of the area was just 127. Then, in 1913, Dime Box’s fortunes changed. The Southern Pacific Railroad came through and built tracks three miles from the fledgling town, which by then did have a passable number of businesses on a main street. The folks didn’t want to lose the commerce from the railroad, so they up and moved their town to be located near the tracks. This was “new” Dime Box, as opposed to “old” Dime Box, where a handful of locals chose to remain.
As expected, the new Dime Box did indeed grow. By 1925, the population was up to 500, a huge increase in twelve years.
Through the decades, Dime Box has gathered a few claims to fame. In 1944, the March of Dimes prepared to open the yearly campaign. Because of the town name, the planners chose Dime Box, Texas, to hold the first day ceremony. A reporter and photographer were dispatched by Life Magazine, putting the little town in the national spotlight.
In 1973, the town was supposedly the setting for a western movie starring Dennis Hopper and Warren Oates. But, from watching the trailer, it’s clear the move-makers only used the name Dime Box. Not a single scene was filmed there. The background landscape shows high mountains and rocky cliffs, rather like eastern Wyoming or maybe Colorado. Texans know the east/central part of the state is prairie. No mountains at all.
Central Texas prairie in April
Today, the population of Dime Box is around 300. It has a handful of businesses and its own independent school district. It must have been a fine place for kids to grow up. Those who did, then went off to big cities for higher schooling and professions, enjoy coming back now and again for reunions and reminiscing with old friends.
If I ever again happen to be driving the back roads of central Texas and come to Giddings, I’ll watch for that sign and make the detour to Dime Box.
Originally, this was the Balcar Saloon. The name was changed to the Wolff Place and in the 1950s, locals came to play dominoes twice a week. Photo by Paula Foster.
Oversized replica of a vintage dime hanging in a glass box in downtown Dime Box.
Photo by Chris Smith