Martin McLean will tell you he’s a farm boy, that he was never really interested in politics. Gladys McLean, his wife of 61 years, has a slightly different take on life with the now-85-year-old Marble Falls resident who served as a municipal judge, justice of the peace, county judge, school board trustee and president, chamber president, and Lower Colorado River Authority board member. In fact, she takes it back even further.
“You were student body president in high school,” Gladys reminded him. “And when we moved to Dallas, you were elected to a position in the Sheet Metal Workers.”
Now retired, Martin sits under his carport puffing on his ubiquitous cigars, remembering Marble Falls as “small-town America.”
“When I moved here, there was not a single red light in Marble Falls,” he said. “The only pavement was Highway 281 and part of Main Street. The roads to Granite Shoals and Smithwick were gravel roads.”
As a young man in the mid-1950s, McLean lived on his family farm in Oakalla and graduated from high school in Lampasas. Four years of drought brought the family to Marble Falls looking for work. Martin hired on at the Mathes Company, a fan and air conditioner manufacturing plant on the banks of a new lake. His father got a job at Pure Stone of Marble Falls, which processed limestone at its plant on Avenue N. The plant is still in operation under a different company. His two younger brothers went to school in the old granite schoolhouse in which The Falls on the Colorado Museum now resides.
Martin met Gladys at Mustang Tavern, about 7 miles south of the river on U.S. 281.
“It was a Sunday afternoon and hardly anyone was there,” Martin said. “Gladys’s mother and I worked together at the Mathes plant and had gotten to be good friends before I even knew she had a daughter.”
Gladys lived on a farm in Cypress Mill just outside of Johnson City, land she still owns and has bequeathed to their three children, Kevin, Brenda Belk, and Scott.
Martin began hitching a ride to Mustang Tavern every Wednesday so he could call Gladys and set up a weekend date. The tavern was a local exchange for Johnson City.
“It cost money to make a long-distance phone call, and we didn’t have any money,” Martin said.
After three years of weekend dates, the couple married in Johnson City and went to live in the Darraugh House, now home to My Texas Home Broker. It was being rented room by room at the time by Rosa Darraugh, who had it built of free granite pieces from the mountain her late husband had owned.
Not long after, Republic-Transcon Industries bought Mathes and closed down the Marble Falls plant. The McLeans followed the work up to Dallas, living in Euless for the next three years.
As a young union leader, Martin received an invitation to meet President John F. Kennedy at a luncheon on Nov. 22, 1963, at the Trade Mart in Dallas. The luncheon invitation said the event would start at noon.
“(President Kennedy) was supposed to be there at 12:30,” Martin said. “He was going to come through this door over to my right, and, if I was lucky, I would get to shake hands with him, but he never got there.”
Martin heard the news that the president had been shot from the radio of a police officer standing next to him.
“I heard it at the same time all the police officers heard it,” he said.
Martin and Gladys missed the Hill Country and wanted to move back but couldn’t decide between Johnson City and Marble Falls. Following the advice of Curtis Mathes, the former owner of the Mathes plant and a good friend, they bought Highway Food and Ice and renamed it McLean’s Food and Ice in 1965.
“Curtis said traffic was really going to pick up on 281,” Martin said. “He said it would be a good idea to have a business there.”
They ran the store, which, for 26 years, was also the Greyhound bus station. Birdie’s Market and Home Decor now operates out of the prime location, right next to Blue Bonnet Cafe.
Clayton Nolan, who was mayor of Marble Falls and a Realtor, helped them sell their first home in the city and buy the one on Avenue E, where they’ve lived for 51 years. Nolan then asked for a favor.
“He said, ‘I need a municipal court judge in Marble Falls, and I want that to be you,’” Martin recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t want that to be me.’”
Martin finally agreed to hold the position until Nolan could find someone else. Twenty years later, Martin was both municipal court judge and justice of the peace.
Martin made history as a municipal court judge, holding the first Blue Law jury trial in the state. When he didn’t have enough jurors, he sent a sheriff’s deputy to Blue Bonnet Cafe to round up a few more people. Testimony lasted most of the day, but the jury took only five minutes to render a verdict of not guilty against Lakeland Mall (where H-E-B is now), which was charged with selling the same banned item — men’s socks — on a consecutive Saturday and Sunday.
“The foreman said it took them so long because they had trouble deciding on who the foreman would be,” Martin said. “Once they had a foreman, it was just a matter of a few more minutes.”
A lifelong Democrat, Martin was appointed to the Lower Colorado River Authority board of directors by Republican Gov. Bill Clements. He served six years on the board. Three years after stepping down from the LCRA board, he was elected Burnet County judge, a position he held for 12 years.
“Again, I really didn’t want to do that,” Martin said. “I really never thought about being a politician. I was a farmboy, but, eventually, I decided to give it a try.”
Marble Falls and Burnet had squared off over the location of a hospital, Martin explained. The decision rested in the hands of the Burnet County Commissioners Court. Then-County Judge Chester Kincheloe lived in Burnet and voted for Burnet as the location.
“People down here (south Burnet County) did not like that, pretty big time,” Martin said.
A group of local leaders asked him to run against Kincheloe in the next election. Martin won the race with only a 50-vote margin, though it was still many years before a hospital was built in the southern half of the county.
While Gladys “held down the fort and ran the store,” she said, she also volunteered in the community. In fact, both McLeans volunteered for years for The Helping Center, right up until the pandemic sent them home last year.
“We’ve been associated with The Helping Center since 1987, which was its first year of existence,” Gladys said.
They were also instrumental in setting up Bluebonnet Trails Community Services, a mental health facility.
As for the farmboy claim, it’s hard to say that of someone who can say this: “I’ve run for election 14 times, and I won all 14.”
Then again, politician doesn’t really seem to fit either.