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The Britten Leaning Water Tower

Before that big, showy cross moved in down the road, Groom’s prime attraction was nothing but an old water tower. It wasn't exceptionally tall, it was never ablaze with blinding floodlights and it didn't dole out measures of spiritual guilt. Yet, travelers worshipped it all the same because it had a funny way about it: It listed a bit. You know, to the side.

Some thought it was nearly toppled by an earthquake, while others, obviously more familiar with the Panhandle’s geologic track record, chalked it up to a passing tornado.

The more imaginative placed blame on a clumsy aviator. Naturally, these were all just rumors and entirely unsubstantiated. If you had no shame, you might go for the cheap joke and say they didn't hold water.

No, the real force responsible for the tower's tilt was far more powerful, and purely intentional. That's right, the lean was deliberate, a direct result of the most formidable influence known to man: good, old-fashioned American marketing.

It worked like a charm, too. Passing motorists pulled off the highway just to make sure they saw what they thought they saw. Next thing they knew, they were finding themselves in the parking lot of Ralph Britten's truck stop and restaurant, where the as-long-as-we're-here factor would take hold.

Originally, the tower was meant to serve simply as the business's water supply. Somewhere around 1980, Ralph Britten purchased it from the nearby town of Lefors and transported it––in one piece––all the way to Groom. Finding a simpler solution for water storage, however, he decided instead to employ the tower as an attention-getter.

Britten and his crew, using only a bulldozer to lift the massive tank into place, buried one side partway in the ground and set the whole thing at an 80-degree angle, give or take. According to Ralph's son Chris, who now owns his late father's slanted structure, the tower stands today as it did then: no anchors, no concrete, no guy wires. It's just balanced there, two of its legs dangling mid-air.

Thanks to his father's brainstorm, says Chris, the Leaning Tower Truck Stop was the talk of I-40. Truck drivers' CB radios echoed with gossip about the tower leaning further and further over, ready to collapse any day.

People would come rushing in, yelling, "That tower's fixing to fall! That tower's fixing to fall!" Word spread and curious travelers filled the parking lot, while truckers lined up to take advantage of Ralph's diesel happy hour, when fuel was 20 cents cheaper by the gallon. Creative hype and a simple, off-kilter reservoir made the east end of Groom a hot spot of automotive activity.

It's just too bad there wasn't any water in the water tower. After five years or so of successful enterprise, an electrical fire closed the truck stop for good. Only the tower survived.

Amazingly, Ralph Britten's gimmick still works. The Leaning Tower of Texas, as it's come to be called, continues to attract tourists and unsuspecting passersby off the highway, most of whom grab a snapshot, posing in predictable fashion. –Wesley Treat

Weird Texas

 

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