At the intersection of an empty stretch of highway, along US-180 and State Hwy 70, there’s a town that looks as if it’s completely abandoned. At just under 700 people, you wouldn’t necessarily think Roby, Texas was a bustling town, and you’d be right. But, for a brief shining moment in the mid 1990s 6% of the population of this small Texas town became overnight millionaires, when 42 locals purchased winning lottery tickets to the sweet tune of $46 million. But the story of Roby, Texas doesn’t begin there, and even though the town’s seen better days, it’s story is also far from over.
The story of Roby begins way back in 1885 when Fisher County was first established, by developers who hailed from Mississippi. In the early days, Roby was a modest town that housed a courthouse, school, post office, and a humble thirteen houses. By 1890, the population swelled to 300 people, a veritable boomtown, sorta but not really. By then, the town boasted two general stories, a hotel, both Baptist and Methodist churches, a restaurant, and even a weekly newspaper called “The Fisher County Call.” Roby was certainly on the up-and-up.
In 1892, the town built its first jail, out of stone, and then upgraded to brick in 1926. I know this is all terribly fascinating, but it’s actually pretty cool because that same jail had been in use until 2010. What’s weird though is that Roby has built three different courthouses. Why is this weird, you ask? Well, because most Texas counties pride themselves on retaining use of their original historic courthouses. Roby’s last courthouse was built in 1972, thereby making it a more modern courthouse compared to their county courthouse counterparts. (Try saying that last part three times fast…and with a sandwich in your mouth.)
A bank and school soon followed, and the population again rose to over 700 residents. In 1907, just over 4 miles of railroad track were laid down, and then telephone service came in 1914, the same year WWI broke out, and that same year Presbyterian and Nazarene churches were also established in the area. By 1940, Roby had over 900 people living there, unfortunately, during WWII the railroad line that ran through the town was scrapped for the war effort. Roby’s peak came shortly thereafter when it was home to a respectable 60 businesses and topped 1,000 residents in 1950. Unfortunately, that’s when things began to go south for the good people of Roby, Texas.
For several years, the town suffered from a lengthy drought, and this started the slow decline in population. By 1970, merely 20 years after its peak, Roby was down to 800 residents and only twenty-two businesses. Then by 1990 it fell to about 600, where it’s hovered for the past 25 years. So, it may look like Roby was just a little Texas town that never really made it, but simply survived the changing times, but all that changed in 1996, when 42 residents became overnight millionaires.
In November of 1996, Roby became the center of national and international intrigue when 42 local farmers who worked at the town cotton gin, had each put $10 into a lottery pool, and won the entire $46 million jackpot…on Thanksgiving, no less. What that did was make 6-7% of the population instant millionaires. This was an incredibly fortunate turn of events for a town whose mayor receives a salary of just $35 a month, and has to hold down three jobs just to make ends meet.
The story is nothing short of incredible. The day before Thanksgiving, Peggy, the cotton gin’s bookeeper convinced a some guys at work to throw in $10 and she took $420 to a liquor store in Sweetwater (the first time she’d ever step foot in a liqour store), and the store owner tossed in another $10 and they purchased 430 Quick Picks. The winners were all local farmers who were facing a devastating drought, that was forcing many of them to file for bankruptcy. The town itself had been suffering for decades, businesses were shuttered, and Main Street was a veritable ghost town.
Yet, all that changed when in a town of 600, 43 were multi-millionaires, which a TV news program noted was more millionaires per capita than the uber-wealthy Kingdom of Brunei. It was the stuff of dreams, and the Roby millionaires won worldwide renown. But, what happens after the camera crews leave, and the country moves on to the next news story that captures the nation’s attention? Well, not too much. Which is really weird.
Roby didn’t rebound after the Texas Lottery Commission dished out a check for $46 million and change. There was still the drought that was hurting local farmers, and businesses were still shutting down. What’s interesting is that some have posited that the lottery win may have even cursed the poor little town. According to Texas Monthly, “For each winner in town who came out ahead, another was visited by inexplicable misfortune.” One Roby winner has even gone on record to say “For all the trouble the lottery brought on me, I don’t know whether to be happy I won or sorry I didn’t.”
On a lighter note, Roby was a pretty Christian town at the time, and very proud to uphold Christian moral values, which included not gambling. So, it was a bit funny when no less than three deacons from the Roby Church of Christ were named among the winners:
[T]hree families left the church in protest and parishioners debated whether the gamblers in their midst should be required to tithe their winnings. “That was the only uproar we had,” said church member Foy Mitchell. “Our preacher told us that Sunday that the Good Book says not to judge, and that’s the last he spoke of it.” – Texas Monthly
So, why didn’t Roby bounce back? A small town full of millionaires should surely be able to recover from an economic downturn. Well, actually, the jackpot netted each winner $1,085,162, which, after taxes, was paid out in 20 yearly installments of $39,000:
Any money was a blessing, of course, but for farmers who were sometimes half a million dollars in debt, having leveraged their land to plant cotton that yielded little in return, the lottery did not exactly afford them the extravagant lifestyles of millionaires. Except for Shad Rasco—a farmer’s son whose splurge on a $48,000 Mitsubishi 3000 GT Spyder convertible. – Texas Monthly
Texas Monthly has done an amazing job of compiling first-hand accounts from those who were around back in the day of lotto-madness and its tumultuous aftermath. From Gene Shipp, a Roby man who was stung by a massive swarm of bees over two hundred times and then had two heart attacks at the hospital, to Albert Barrera, a winner who totaled his brand-new truck 6 days after getting his first lottery check in the mail. And the bad luck didn’t end there.
One winner’s house burned to the ground, another lost 1/4 of his fortune in a failed cottonseed processing plant, and a vengeful ex-wife accused her winner husband of molesting her daughter (a trial found his stepdaughter not competant to stand trial, and the allegations were dismissed, but the belief in the town is that this is just another example of the lottery’s curse). Most of the winners cut deals with “lottery buyout brokers” who in exchange for their annual payments, offered them a lump sum of cash up front, which left them with only about a third of the total amount they had won.
But, the most unfortunate winner was, sadly, Peggy, the woman responsible for getting everyone to pitch in for the lottery Quick Picks. She was diagnosed with brain cancer exactly one year to the day that she hit it big by winning the lottery. Texas Monthly notes that Peggy “died a few weeks after her diagnosis, at the age of 49, leaving behind dozens of farmers who owed their livelihoods to her, children who would attend college because of her, and an entire town consumed by mourning.”
Every year the Roby tax base continues to shrink, and Main Street looks like a post-apocalyptic town, the likes of which you’d see in The Walking Dead, but trust me on this, there’s a charm and magic about Roby, and you’d be remissed to just drive past it without taking a closer look. There’s a palpable history in every building, and a won’t-quit attitude by the few businesses that remain open. I hope lightening strikes twice, for this little Texas town, and hopefully bright days are still ahead.