Photography by Mary Kaitlin Artistry
Words by Tui Snider
This Bluff Dale venue invites you to follow your art.
The North Texas countryside is dotted with charming-but-neglected old buildings. I often wonder what their history was and what their future holds, especially those with petrified wood facades. Will they ever be repaired? Or will they simply fade into the landscape? Recently, one such building in Bluff Dale was transformed into a cozy event space by local designer, Shelbie Miller-Gaddy.
Shelbie calls her new venue “Cow Smith” as an homage to “Cal Smith,” the fellow who, along with his wife, ran a highly regarded mercantile there for over 20 years. The building was erected in the late 1920’s or early 30’s and has had many incarnations, from gas station, grocery store, barber shop, antique store, cafe, and even a lawn mower repair business.
Although Shelbie grew up in the area, she’s quick to admit that, “I’m not a true Bluff-dalian.” Her husband, Sam, on the other hand, “is 4th generation Bluff Dale through and through.”
Despite her ties to the local community, Shelbie’s decision to purchase Cow Smith took a circuitous route, with serendipity at the helm. The adventure began when she decided to follow her heart, or in this case, follow her art. “In 2016, I started taking oil-painting lessons at Judy Crowe’s studio in Bluff Dale.”
Something stirred in Shelbie when she learned the studio building was for sale. After making sure Judy wasn’t going to buy it, she made her move. “It just felt right,” Shelbie explains. “I’d been doing a lot of projects for other people, and I was ready to be my own boss.”
Once Shelbie made up her mind, things moved quickly. “It was amazing how everything fell into place. I bought Cow Smith in December 2016. Demolition started in January – right on my birthday,” she adds. “I finished up by mid-March.”
With every property she renovates, Shelbie is drawn to and guided by its history. She truly enjoys the research process. Even so, she hit a brick wall with Cal Smith. There were several people in the area with that name, so her research didn’t add up. “It was puzzling,” she explains. “I’d go do deed research and all that, but there was no property in Bluff Dale with Cal’s name.”
Several months later, a clue arrived in the form of an anecdote. “During my first spring antique show at Cow Smith, a fellow came by who remembered when it was a mercantile.” The man regaled her with his Bluff Dale childhood adventures.
“He told us about a big old fight he got into out front, and which he subsequently lost,” Shelbie adds with a laugh. “So I asked if he remembered the owners.” Not only did the man recall the friendly couple, but he remarked that, “Cal’s wife, Zella, mostly ran the store.”
This was Shelbie’s aha moment. “Cal” may be a common name, but “Zella” is certainly not. Sure enough, when Shelbie researched “Zella Smith” she struck pay dirt. Even though locals knew him as “Cal,” Shelbie soon learned that Zella’s husband had “John Calton Smith,” as his full legal name. Armed with this information, she quickly confirmed that the pair operated a mercantile in her Bluff Dale building.
Finding Zella also helped Shelbie discover a surprising link in the chain connecting her to this Bluff Dale property. Back in 2002, Shelbie and her mom dropped by a graveyard near Pony Creek Church. Although a petrified wood monument was the first thing to catch Shelbie’s eye, it was the grave of a 14-year-old girl that made the most lasting impression.
The girl’s headstone features a porcelain photographic portrait. “She’s the cutest little girl,” Shelbie explains. “She looks just like Shirley Temple. After that, I’d visit her grave whenever I passed by. I always wondered about her story, but never looked into it.”
Flash forward to 2017: While researching Cal and Zella Smith, Shelbie noticed that the 1930 census lists the couple with a son named C.J. and a daughter named Lahoma Juanita. Later records, however, only mention the son. So what happened to Lahoma Juanita?
On a hunch, Shelbie visited the Findagrave website to see if there were any photos from Pony Creek Cemetery online. Within moments, chills ran down her spine as she found the answer. Sure enough, the little girl who’s grave Shelbie had been visiting for the past 15 years was Lahoma Juanita Smith, the teen-aged daughter of Cal and Zella.
Besides research, Shelbie lets the property guide her through the renovation process. “I have my own ideas, but I also like to let the building speak for itself,” she says. For instance, with Cow Smith, “I was originally going with brighter whites, but looking through all the layers of old paint, led me towards using browns, greens and reds, instead.”
This new palette helped Shelbie give Cow Smith, “that cozy old gas station feel.” The result is a comfortable space that can easily host up to 50 guests. According to her, “Cow Smith has its own lived-in charm. It’s not like rental spaces that have plain white walls and no personality.”
Rental at Cow Smith includes the use of vintage chairs and tables. There’s also a small kitchenette that caterers can use and space for a live band to set up, or you can just use the jukebox. And while rustic charm is wonderful, Shelbie’s venue includes important modern conveniences, too, such as air-conditioning and heat.
To experience Cow Smith for yourself, drop by during Shelbie’s twice-a-year Bluff Dale Junk & Antique Show, when regional vendors set up shop, creating a fun, festival type of vibe. The venue is also available to host private events: birthday parties, showers, rehearsal dinners, pop up art shows, fundraisers – you name it! Shelbie even has a membership plan that lets people rent Cow Smith at a tremendous discount.
Shelbie is not out to erase Bluff Dale’s past, but to showcase it. Take the old pickup parked in front of Cow Smith. It was her father-in-law’s truck and came from his nearby farm. “People who drive by tell me they remember that truck when it used to run,” she says. “It’s fun to bring back memories for the locals.” The family’s Bluff Dale farm is also where Shelbie found all the petrified wood and native stone she used to enhance the existing rock facade at Cow Smith.
Although Shelbie has added a pantry, two bathrooms, covered patio, and a kitchenette, she has done her best to keep as much of the original construction as possible. At this point, it’s challenging to tell what is new versus what was pre-existing as you walk through Cow Smith, but that’s exactly what Shelbie hoped to achieve. “I want people to feel welcome here,” she says, “to walk in and put their feet up. I want them to feel right at home.”