Up Close With a Fort Worth Historian

Mike Nichols

| photography by Alex Lepe |

Mike Nichols, former columnist and travel writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and author of Balaam Gimble’s Gumption, Lost Fort Worth, and Live from the Boneyard (not yet released), describes himself as a journalist by training, a slacker by inclination, a talented procrastinator and a Texan by providence. Born a sixth-generation Texan on the East Side of Fort Worth, Nichols’ family tree includes Gen. Edward Burleson, who accepted the surrender of Col. Juan Almonte, one of Santa Anna’s highest ranking officers in the Battle of San Jacinto.

Five years ago, at age 62, Nichols moved to the West Side where he began rediscovering his hometown history on a bicycle. From those adventures on a hand-me-down, entry-level Trek 820, Nichols created an almost daily blog. Hometown by Handlebar now contains 900 posts (500,000 words), 7,200 images, and 109 videos about Fort Worth.

Nichols loves history but says he did not know he loved it five years ago. “I grew up on the East Side not knowing anything about the West Side, and really not caring,” he says. “I went to work for the Star-Telegram, traveled all seven continents, and I came back home thinking that Fort Worth is a really interesting place. I did not know 99 percent of what I know when I first got on a bicycle. I was rediscovering my own hometown one neighborhood, one greenbelt area, one church or school or commercial building at a time.”

Nichols discovered the grand homes of Elizabeth Boulevard and Park Hill, the great sitting porches of the Near Southside, and the classic public buildings designed by Sanguinet and Staats, Hedrick, and Clarkson. He discovered pocket lakes and obscure cemeteries, the buildings that in a past life were fire halls and lodge halls and city halls. “Suddenly I felt like an explorer,” Nichols says. “Picture Vasco da Gama on a ten-speed. Picture Lewis and Clark on a bicycle built for two, if you dare. The more I saw, the more I felt as if I had been blind for my first 60 years. There is history everywhere if you are willing to dig.”

Nichols spins a tale that explains why he became a writer. During his youth, veterinarian and musician were at the top of his vocational wish list. “I eventually had to admit I don’t have the fortitude to be a vet,” he says. And eventually, he realized he did not have the talent to be a musician. “Oh, I had played clarinet as a youth,” he says. “I could read music. I could play what I heard in my head. But that musical muscle atrophied with disuse. Years later I took lessons on the six-string guitar. But I was, at best, mechanical. Brain and fingers were emotionally estranged. They refused to communicate except through their lawyers. Thinking I’d do better with one fewer string, I tackled the five-string banjo. I love bluegrass. But again, no luck,” he continues. “So, reasoning—again—that one fewer string would do the trick, I took up the ukulele. Just four strings, for crying out loud. But again I failed. Then I tried the three-string balalaika. Again I failed. What was left: lessons on the erhu, a Chinese two-stringed instrument? You can see where this ever-diminishing line of reasoning was headed: It would be just a matter of time before I was taking lessons to learn to play dental floss,” Nichols says laughing.

“So, in lieu of being a vet or a musician, being a writer has been my consolation prize. In game show terms, writing is my year’s supply of Turtle Wax.”

Nichols gives advice to aspiring writers: “Read what you want to write. If you want to write history, read history.”

Nichols says if he could climb into a time machine and just go back and visit, he would go back in Fort Worth’s history. “The time machine is one of my favorite mechanisms for writing about Fort Worth, to focus on a particular block downtown and take it back in history and then come forward and show all the changes.”  

Nichols is not married, although he says it is still a possibility someday. His companions are two rescued senior cats, Midnight and Miss Kitty. 

As to his legacy, Nichols says: “I would like to be remembered as someone who lived so quietly that after I die my next-door neighbor will read my obit and exclaim, ‘I thought ol’ man Nichols died years ago!’ ”

To read Nichols’ blog or more information about his books, visit hometownbyhandlebar.com.