Written by Texas Highways
Playful objects take center stage at the Dr Pepper Museum
Waco's Dr Pepper Museum and Free Enterprise Institute––which offers an entertaining look at the history of the soft-drink industry and the American free-enterprise system—amps up the fun this summer as it hosts a traveling exhibition called Toy Tech. With eight interactive stations, the 2,000-square-foot exhibition allows visitors to learn about the history and development of their favorite toys. Displays that encourage disassembling various toys to understand how they work prove popular with all ages.
Visitors can play with mechanical, optical, and acoustic toys such as model cars, Etch A Sketches, Magna Doodles, kaleidoscopes, and music boxes, and then discover the inner workings of each one by investigating cutout models. You can create your own cone-shaped paper helicopter and test it in a wind tube. At the construction table, get creative with inexpensive household materials such as cereal boxes, straws, and paperclips, and create a toy or musical instrument of your own.
An area dubbed the Doll Display features popular dolls and action figures throughout history, such as Raggedy Ann and GI Joe. The Air Tower offers throwing toys, such as boomerangs and Frisbees, as well as kites. Put it all into perspective by visiting the Toy Timeline, which notes when well-known toys were invented, such as Silly Putty (1945) and Beanie Babies (1993).
The overall exhibit
emphasizes the importance of play in encouraging creativity in adults as well
as children. Toy Tech runs through September 11. Dr Pepper Museum at 300 S.
5th St. in Waco, opens daily. Call 254/757-1024; www.drpeppermuseum.com
By Randy Mallory
Nearly 20 years had passed since I last visited Ben Wheeler, the tiny East Texas town named for a 19th-Century mail carrier. Back then, I spent a good two hours perusing denim overalls and ribbon-cane syrup at Moore’s Store, one of the region’s remaining general stores. I hoped the best for the 1933 mercantile, but it closed shortly after my visit, and downtown subsequently all but died.
Recently, I heard that Moore’s Store had been reincarnated (of all things) as a lively music venue and restaurant. In fact, I was told, all of Ben Wheeler is on a roll. There’s even talk that it’s on its way to becoming an arts destination. I thought: I have to check this out!
From our home in Tyler, my wife, Sallie, and I head west on Texas 64, then sidetrack onto the old Highway 64, now FM 279. The serpentine backroad winds through the artists’ community of Edom, past Texas Longhorn ranches, and into a Ben Wheeler I hardly recognize. Gone is the boarded-up look of the past. Instead, refurbished wood-and-brick buildings from the 1930s house shops and eateries in the two-block-long downtown. We park beside a red and yellow mural featuring a gargantuan, freckle-faced boy holding a Moon Pie and an RC Cola.
The mural’s greeting, “Welcome to Historic Ben Wheeler,” sprawls across the brick wall of Scoots ’n Scoops, a combo motorcycle museum and ice cream parlor. The motorcycles belong to a 65-year-old former road racer, entrepreneur, and all-around Renaissance man named Brooks Gremmels. In unincorporated Ben Wheeler, he’s the de facto mayor.
Flush with profits from his oil and gas business, Brooks and his wife, Rese, moved from Dallas “back home” to East Texas and began buying up local property three years ago. Some $3 million later, they had acquired 40 acres in the heart of Ben Wheeler. To secure the town’s revival, they created a foundation that renovates historic structures and then rents them to artisans for $1 per month. Already, nine structures have been spiffed up as artists’ studios or galleries. Some were moved in from nearby communities or rural areas; others sit on their original sites.
“At first we just wanted to turn Moore’s Store into a great place for food and music,” Gremmels tells us while holding court on a bench in front of Moore’s. “The good feelings we got from local folks made me realize that bringing Ben Wheeler back had become my personal calling.”
Sallie and I spend the rest of this bright and sunny Saturday sauntering back and forth across FM 279—careful to watch for the occasional tractor or pickup truck—to witness firsthand a small-town revival.
We waltz into knifesmith Dan Harrison’s shop as a regular customer recounts a recent Colorado hunting trip. “Yep, and that guide couldn’t believe your hunting knife, Dan,” we hear. “He said it was the sharpest blade he’d ever used!”
“And probably the most beautiful,” I think to myself, having followed Harrison’s career for years. The nationally respected craftsman takes hardened D-2 tool steel and freehand-grinds custom blades for curvaceous kitchen, hunting, and collector’s knives. He then fits the blades into exotic wood or horn handles. Pulling out an ornate, nine-inch blade with a handle fashioned from a woolly mammoth tooth, he tells us, “In 60 years of work, this is my most unusual knife. My wife says that if this goes, she goes, too!”
Artistic metalcraft is something of a local specialty.
At Flying Fish Gallery, Randy and Sherri Martin transform castoff metal parts into fantastical creatures. Gears, springs, and rods become a graceful water bird. Rebar, plate steel, and cross-sections of a metal sphere become a kinetic fish. Bats hammered from copper sheets spin frenetically in the breeze.
At Rave Art Gallery, Dallas architects Craig and Jan Blackmon put their design talents to sculptural use. I especially like their “pipe balls,” two-foot-diameter globes comprised of tack-welded “noodles” cut from plumbing pipes. A blue light glows from the Blackmons’ heavy pieces, which contrast with the delicate copper and silver necklaces of jeweler Dyan Johnson, who shares the gallery space.
A short stroll away, we find Lonnie Robinson pumping bellows to stoke the fire at Wagon Wheel Forge. The affable blacksmith tells stories as he shapes a calla lily for a wall sconce. “He can make anything his mind can conjure up,” his wife, Linda, remarks. The Robinsons’ son and apprentice, Jodie, is busy working on another piece.
The late blacksmith Howard Walker spent 50 years fixing plows and buggies at Ben Wheeler’s other forge, now transformed into the Forge Bistro. Walker’s forge and hammer mill stand beside the eatery’s rustic bar, which, along with the tables and chairs, was made from cedar trees cut on the Gremmels’ ranch. There’s no more gumbo—a specialty here—so I pick a tasty panini with grapevine-smoked tenderloin, caramelized onions, and Swiss cheese.
After lunch, we browse the vintage furniture and handmade gifts at Antiques and Texas Heritage. Next door, the eclectic boutique WhimZee cracks us up with its adult-sized rubber cowboy boots and little girls’ angel-winged tutus.
Up the street at Sojourn Gallery, we like the representational portraits and landscapes of native Texas painter Mary Hortman. Like some other Ben Wheeler artists, Hortman also hosts classes at her studio and elsewhere in town.
We end the night on a boisterous note at Moore’s Store listening to the Magills, a rockabilly band from Tyler. Behind the band, a mural painted by Tyler artist Brent Hale (who also created the RC Cola mural) depicts a quieter scene: Ben Wheeler of the 1930s. The spacious joint is jammed, so we sit on the patio and split a righteously rich burger and fresh-cut onion rings, while sipping Shiner Bock and chardonnay. We recap some of the interesting things we heard about today—the country school and church the Gremmels are restoring downtown, the Feral Hog Festival held each October in this, the official Wild Hog Capital of Texas, and other big plans for this little town.
Based on one day’s sampling—and one couple’s vision—Sallie and I agree that Ben Wheeler is definitely on a roll.
Ila Loetscher changed the face of coastal conservation
By Haley Dawson
It often takes something spectacular to spark a worldwide interest in change, and for the conservation of the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, that spectacular something — or someone — was Ila Loetscher (1904-2000), who founded South Padre Island’s Sea Turtle Incorporated in the 1970s. Many people first learned of the turtles’ plight during Loetscher’s daily sea turtle shows, where she both amazed and educated her audiences.
Barely standing five feet tall, Loetscher would scoop a 90-pound sea turtle into her arms and coo into its bonnet-covered ear before leading it across a stage with a few of its similarly clothed companions. Though her methods seem antiquated by today’s standards, Loetscher dedicated her life to the turtles’ appreciation and preservation, and with her turtle “fashion shows,” she aimed to instill public awareness of their precarious position.
Ila Loetscher, born Ila Fox, grew up in Iowa. Her family spent frequent winters in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, and they took occasional trips to the South Texas seashore. But at the time, Ila Fox’s head was in the clouds, literally. Flying fascinated her, and as a young woman, she spent time interacting with the pilots at the airport in Davenport, where she eventually took flying lessons. In 1929, Fox became the state’s first licensed female pilot and soon joined an elite group of female pilots called The Ninety-Nines, whose first president was Amelia Earhart.
In the early 1930s, Ila gave up flying to move to the east coast with her new husband, David Loetscher. According to biographer Evelyn Sizemore, when David died of cancer in 1955, Loetscher decided to return to her childhood vacation spot in the Rio Grande Valley.
She soon moved to South Padre, where she learned of the sea turtle poaching occurring on the beaches of Rancho Nuevo, Mexico, some 225 miles south of the United States-Mexico border. At the time, this was the only major nesting spot of the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, and poachers were harvesting nearly 100 percent of the population for their skin, shells, and eggs. In 1966, Loetscher joined forces with Dearyl Adams, a Brownsville contractor heading up Project Ridley, an experiment to increase turtle nesting in Texas.
Together with other scientists working on the project, they transported the eggs from Rancho Nuevo to South Padre Island, where they could be monitored and protected until they hatched, imprinted on their new home base in Texas, and swam out to sea. Then, the scientists waited. If the plan worked, the female turtles would return as adults to nest at South Padre Island. Because sea turtles can take up to 10 to 15 years to mature and return to nest, they knew the wait would be a long one. But in 1974, a lone turtle returned to the beach of South Padre Island to lay her eggs. Loetscher and others were hopeful that this adult turtle was one of the original South Padre Island hatchlings, though there was no way to be sure. After 52 days of protected incubation, a member of the next generation emerged from the nest in the sand and headed out to sea. The cycle continued.
As the scientists continued to monitor the turtles’ activity, they would sometimes discover injured turtles, and they would send them to Loetscher, who nursed them back to health in her backyard. Soon, she became known as “The Turtle Lady.”
Loetscher’s influence made an international impact. She campaigned tirelessly for recognition of the plight of the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, making television appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and Ripley’s Believe it or Not!. Despite her lack of scientific background, she gave sea turtles a voice during a time when conservation was not a household word.
“Ila was a champion at creating public endorsement,” said Jeff George, Curator of Sea Turtle Incorporated. “She did it in unorthodox ways at times, but she made a splash.”
In 1978, the United States and Mexican governments joined forces to further Adams’ and Loetscher’s efforts, transporting eggs from Mexico to Padre Island National Seashore, some 70 miles north of South Padre Island. In 1979, the program’s first turtles were released into the Gulf of Mexico. Donna Shaver, Chief of the Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery at Padre Island National Seashore, who has led efforts since 1986 to detect, investigate, and protect turtles that return here to nest, explains how Loetscher contributed to sea turtle recovery efforts.
“She educated a lot of people and inspired a lot of people to care about sea turtles,” Shaver says. “It was very important at a time when awareness of sea turtles was much less than it is today.”
Thanks to conservation efforts, the sea turtle population—the Kemp’s ridley in particular—has made a significant comeback since it dropped to near extinction in the mid- 1960s, but the work is far from done.
“Thanks to efforts of many, many people working very hard, the numbers are increasing,” Shaver says. “It looks promising for the eventual recovery of the species, but we need to continue our conservation measures to try to help continue that increase.”
Ila Loetscher died in 2000 at age 95, but the staff and volunteers at Sea Turtle Incorporated have made it their mission to carry on her legacy. Visitors can tour the facility Tuesday through Sunday to see rehabilitating turtles of several species and to learn more about ocean habitat.
“Every penny we generate goes toward sea turtle conservation,” says Patrick Burchfield, Chairman of Sea Turtle Incorporated’s advisory board. “Sea Turtle Incorporated was built and dedicated for one purpose and one purpose only, and that was to conserve the Kemp’s ridley and other sea turtle species.”
Ecologist and sea explorer
Jacques Cousteau once called Ila a “wave maker.” And just as a wave’s ripples
grow as they continue from their origin, so does Loetscher’s influence on
By Anthony Head
Wherever I travel, I make a point of dropping a few dollars at independently owned new and used bookstores. It helps me check off the volumes on my ever-growing “To Read” list, plus my money supports the local economy. In April, however, I learned that one of my favorites, Prospero’s Books, had closed after two years of business in downtown Marshall.
Independent bookstores face stiff competition. Fortunately for bibliophiles like me, Texas still boasts many exceptional indie bookstores—it’s a matter of knowing where to look. To find Berkman Books in Fredericksburg, for example, look for the lavender-colored house on Washington Street, southeast of downtown. This former bed and breakfast feels cozy—it occupies about 1,000 square feet and is filled with mismatched bookshelves, original art, and plenty of comfortable seating. The hardwood floors creak, and the aromas of vintage books and fresh coffee fill the air.
“I’m as much about the bookstore experience as I am about the books,” says owner David Berkman, sitting among several tall stacks of Texas history books that he recently purchased from a private collection. Rather than competing with chain stores and online merchants to sell new books, Berkman’s emphasizes collectibles, such as signed copies of novels, first editions of important history books, and volumes of Texana lore.
Berkman tells me that he recently acquired a first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but it remained in the store less than 48 hours. The overjoyed woman who bought it said that for years she’d visited bookstores wherever she traveled in search of just such a treasure.
“These books are beautiful commodities,” Berkman says. “It’s fun selling rare books person-to-person, but it’s also hard seeing particular books leave the store.”
Never knowing what literary gems I might find is the main reason I seek out indie bookstores—but it’s nearly impossible to miss Recycled Books in Denton. This 100-year-old former opera house, painted purple, anchors Denton’s downtown square and remains as much a city landmark as it is a book lover’s destination. With 17,000 square feet of bookshelves inside, Re-cycled boasts more than 300,000 books, the vast majority of them second-hand (or third- or fourth-hand), representing nearly every genre imaginable—from world history to children’s literature, religion to cooking, contemporary science fiction to classic poetry.
I enjoy getting lost in Recycled’s stacks, surrounded by the wonderful, slightly musty aroma of old books. During my last trip, I discovered a tattered paperback of the excellent 1954 novel Lucky Jim by the late British satirist Kingsley Amis. It cost three bucks, and unearthing it stoked my curiosity about what it’s like to work at a bookstore.
“It is a wonderful job, of course,” admits Recycled employee Lauren Tift, whose areas of expertise include children’s books, women’s studies, and photography. Tift says the majority of customers come in just to browse, but many arrive with a mission to find a particular item. This is especially true of the store’s extensive music section.
“Because of Denton’s reputation as a music town, I think our music section is one of the best in the state that’s not directly tied to a university,” Tift tells me. “Whether you’re looking for sheet music, country and western biographies, music-history texts—we have great selections.”
Recycled also carries music by local bands, and on some evenings the bookstore becomes a performance space for local musicians, which is a novel way for stores to connect with new customers and stay relevant within a community.
More traditional events, such as author talks and book signings, remain mainstays of independent booksellers like Austin’s BookPeople. This beloved downtown store features a regular lineup of national and local writers. In February, mystery fans gathered on BookPeople’s second floor to meet Texas author Milton T. Burton and learn about his latest release, Nights of the Red Moon (Minotaur Books, 2010), a crime novel set in East Texas. After Burton answers several questions covering plot, characters, and the writing process, I ask if he likes the public side of being an author. “Writing is a mostly solitary endeavor, but I enjoy coming out to meet my readers,” Burton answers, his bearded grin widening as he faces the audience. “I like seeing the shining eyes of my admiring throngs.”
Later, on the phone from his home in Tyler, Burton explains that even with the convenience of having booksellers on the Internet, bookstores—especially the independents—remain vital for getting his books into readers’ hands. “The people who work at the independent stores go out of their way to read and follow the careers of local authors,” he says. “When I meet them at an event, like the one at BookPeople, I like knowing that they’ve actually read my books.”
Having access to such intimate knowledge of books and authors is another reason to support independent bookstores, where well-read employees act like liaisons between customers and authors. That’s certainly the case with Claudia Maceo Sharp, manager of The Twig Book Shop in San Antonio. “As an independent bookstore, we’re especially mindful about which books we order, and that comes from always keeping our customers’ interests in mind,” she says.
Established in 1972, The Twig relocated from its former Broadway Street location to its current space at “the Pearl” (a redeveloped, mixed-use development at the historic Pearl Brewery site) nearly two years ago. The sunny, airy space benefits from plenty of drop-in foot traffic, but customers also return for The Twig’s specialties. “We have a wonderful Texana collection,” says Sharp. “And we have a very well-attended Friday-morning children’s event—Miss Anastasia’s Storytime.”
When I tell Sharp that I like hearing that the younger generation not only reads but also loves going to bookstores, especially in this digital age, she assures me, “I can’t imagine a time when books as we know them will disappear. We have such support from avid readers and collectors. We are going to see the book around for a few more years.”
Hopefully, that means Texas’ independent bookstores will be around for a few more years, too.
Reader Mail ~ Reader Recommendations
Trip to Beautiful
Thank you for including Ennis’ Bluebonnet Trails in April TH.
Enjoyed our day trip—so beautiful!
TH Twitter Follower
I was utterly delighted to read Gene Fowler’s story about San Pedro Springs Park [Speaking of Texas, April]. My grandmother and my father told so many stories of the park, including buggy races down San Pedro hill into the park. I grew up visiting there, especially the library; my “intended” and I courted there; and my children thoroughly enjoyed the pool and park and attended the Montessori school overlooking the park. I visit every time I return to San Antonio. Thank you for the good news about the restoration.
Taylor Lake Village
We would certainly nominate Frisco Bakery in Plainview [806/296-2611] for Charles Lohrmann’s and Lois Rodriguez’ lists of wonderful Texas panaderias [TH Taste, April]. My husband first discovered the bakery in 1985, and we most recently enjoyed it in 2009. It retains the same charm of long ago. Tray upon tray of galletas, fruit-filled empanadas, and delicious pan dulce fill the displays. And the aroma … oh my. It’s almost as good as Plainview’s own Spudnut Shop [now Spudnut’s Coffee and Bistro; 806/494-3493]. We’d hate to pick between the two in a taste competition.
ROSE ANN SPARKS
TH Reader Recommendation
We went to Lavender Ridge Farms near Gainesville for the 2010 Lavender Festival. We enjoyed the cut-your-own lavender, antiques vendors, and the café—I ordered the lavender-honey chicken salad with rosemary green beans, lavender lemon-ade, and lavender cheesecake. Beautiful farm, great food, and fresh lavender!
MR. AND MRS. RYAN GARRETT
Lavender Ridge Farms is at 2391 CR 178, 940/665-6938; www.lavenderridgefarms.com. The 2011 Lavender Festival will be May 28-30; you can cut fresh lavender from the field usually through mid-July. There are other pick-your-own flowers and vegetables in the summer. Hours: Fri-Sun 9-5 (café opens 11-3). Gift shop and café open until mid-November.
Canyon of the Eagles resort reconnects guests with nature
By Ramona Flume
Ben Franklin once famously said that the bald eagle was a “bird of bad moral character” and dearly wished that it would not be chosen as our national bird. His suggestion? The turkey. I’m not an expert on the moral fortitude of eagles, but I am glad they won the vote for our national symbol, if only because Lake Buchanan is all the more special because of their majesty.
The sun dipped low in the sky as I arrived at Canyon of the Eagles Resort near Burnet, where I had booked a room at the lodge for the weekend. Designed by Lake|Flato architects of San Antonio, the 64-room lodge occupies a wooded hillside on the north shore of Lake Buchanan, the centerpiece of the Lower Colorado River Authority’s 940-acre Canyon of the Eagles Nature Park. My room offered a panoramic vista of the water, and I settled into the rocking chair on my private porch and let the twilight settle around me.
The only problem, I quickly realized, would be deciding what to do first on my exploration of the resort the next day.
I could explore the 14 miles of pet-friendly hiking trails, where I might spot an eagle or migrating butterflies. I could fish from one of the wooden piers jutting into the lake below the lodge, or try my luck at kayaking or paddleboarding. Or I could try to spy an American bald eagle, a creature I’d seen only in books and on television.
The next morning, with eagles on my mind, I arrived early at the Vanishing Texas River Cruise loading docks for the popular Saturday-morning “American Bald Eagle Cruise.” Winter months are prime for eagle watching, but visitors can spot red-tailed hawks and other raptor species throughout the year.
I settled into the rocking chair on my private porch and let the twilight settle around me.
Gusty November winds made for a chilly start, but thankfully, the double-decked cruiser had an enclosed lower level in addition to an open-air viewing deck above. I happily spent the first half of the voyage indoors, learning about the lake’s winter bald eagle population. Each year around November, the captain told me, more than 50 bald eagles migrate to the shores of Lake Buchanan and remain until March. Like many bird species, bald eagles mate for life and return each year to the same nesting site, typically near a large body of water with fish and waterfowl to prey upon.
By the time I left the enclosed viewing area and ascended to the second story, the wind had subsided. The elevated perspective of the top deck offered an unrestricted panorama of the Colorado River and the trees along the banks, which blazed in fall colors. I had been standing outside for only a few minutes when two eagles appeared above the treetops.
The pair flew closer to the boat and started to swoop in synchrony in front of our slow-moving vessel, soaring in graceful loops while we glided gently upriver. Forty-five minutes later, we arrived at one of the area’s most picturesque attractions, a dramatic waterfall known as Fall Creek Falls. According to local historian C.L. Yarbrough, the wooded area surrounding the waterfall and swimming hole was a favored campsite for Native American tribes centuries ago. It’s easy to see why: The cascading falls create a crystal-clear pool surrounded by a semicircle of sheer cliff walls and towering trees.
There are often hundreds of people splashing around in this idyllic swimming hole throughout the spring and summer, but our cruiser was the only boat on the water that morning. Later in the day, I returned to the falls via kayak in an excursion led by guides with Buchanan Adventure Tours. I appreciated the tranquility of the off-season as I paddled alongside the limestone cliff walls. In fact, I pulled up my paddle several times to lean back in my seat and relax, spotting eagles overhead without distraction.
Back at the resort, I found the chefs at The Overlook Restaurant busy preparing such Hill Country specialties as pepita-crusted pork chops, sweet corn succotash, and an unbelievably juicy venison tenderloin served with a blueberry-jalapeño reduction. The glass-walled dining room affords spectacular views of the lake; it’s common for diners to spot deer grazing in clusters of wildflowers or a hawk perched on a nearby cedar elm.
My waiter recommended that I visit nearby Fall Creek Vineyards, where owners Ed and Susan Auler have been creating award-winning wines since 1975. So on my final day at the resort, I hopped on a boat to cross the lake for a tour of the vineyards and an afternoon wine tasting. I enjoyed several of the Aulers’ wines during my visit, including the popular table wine dubbed Ed’s Smooth Red and a perfectly balanced Cabernet, but I favored the full-bodied Meritus (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec) overall. I learned that all of Fall Creek’s wines are available for sale online—so I can take a taste of the Hill Country with me anywhere I go.
Suddenly, my last night at the resort had arrived, and I didn’t want to leave. I decided I would plan another visit, maybe in the summertime. The eagles would be gone, but this weekend’s surreal avian experience would sustain me for a long time. Besides, summer would be the perfect time to finally take a dip in that cliffside swimming hole.
Reader Mail ~ Reader Recommendations
The Pinto Experience
Regarding Charles Lohrmann’s story on Pinto Canyon Road [February]: Fantastic drive! We discovered this gem of a road last year. We went unprepared with only one spare and no supplies except a cooler full of sodas and water, but we survived! No blown tires and those drinks were much appreciated! It was hot when we got to Chinati Springs, and that was the ambient temperature, not the springs. We highly recommend this drive from either direction (we went north to south), but not in wet weather … it might get too interesting then.
JANIE GRAYSON MASON,
TH Facebook Fan
Near the end of Pinto Canyon Road we picked up a stranded English tourist with several flat tires!
TH Facebook Fan
TH Reader Recommendation
We recently visited the Central Texas Oil Patch Museum in Luling. For a small town such as Luling, it is a fantastic museum. There are also other interesting things to do and places to visit while there: Take an audio tour at Zedler Mill, or grab a delicious barbecue sandwich at Luling Bar-B-Que.
MR. and MRS. GERALD CLANTON, Belton
Central Texas Oil Patch Museum is at 421 E. Davis Street, 830/875-1922; www.oilmuseum.org. The Zedler Mill complex and surrounding nine-acre park are at 1170 S. Laurel, 512/227-1724; www.zedlermill.com; www.cityofluling.net. Luling Bar-B-Que is at 709 E. Davis, 830/875-3848.
Officially, Llano is known as the “Deer Capital of Texas.” But what is a daytripper to do in this Hill Country hideaway when it isn’t deer-hunting season? I set out for the day determined to find out.
Slaton’s 1912 Harvey House offers visitors a glimpse of the golden age of American railroads.
As a frequent traveler from Austin to Lubbock, I always look forward to the sweeping views of the Caprock Escarpment that unfold along US 84 between Post and Slaton. On a recent trip, I explored the small town on the western side of the dramatic divide and found that Slaton has worthy attractions of its own.
Named for Lubbock banker O.L. Slaton, who helped persuade the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway to come to the area, Slaton originated in 1911 as a division point for trains passing through the Panhandle. A century later, Slaton’s last original Santa Fe building—a carefully renovated 1912 Harvey House—offers visitors a glimpse of the golden age of American railroads.
One of some 80 Harvey Houses that the Fred Harvey Company built along railroads across the U.S. from 1876 to 1949, Slaton’s two-story, Mission Revival structure provided railroad passengers and others with elegant meals and ef-ficient service for three decades. Trains telegraphed passengers’ orders ahead, and when the diners arrived, well-trained, impeccably groomed “Harvey Girls” served their meals around a horseshoe-shaped counter on the first floor.
I checked into the Harvey House late on a Tuesday evening. My room, one of four upstairs suites that share a large common area featuring Mission-style decor, proved more luxurious than I’d expected—soft linens covered a cushiony, queen-size sleigh bed, and the spacious, tiled bathroom offered a generous supply of plush towels. I thought passing trains might keep me awake—freight trains still run on the tracks alongside the Harvey House—but I found the rumbling noises strangely comforting, even sleep-inducing.
The next morning, I joined longtime Harvey House supporters Sue and Ernie Davis in the dining room. Over a spread of fluffy biscuits, blueberry muffins, bacon, and fruit, they shared the backstory of the building’s transformation from deteriorating landmark to historic treasure.
I learned that the Harvey House was almost destroyed in 1990, when a Santa Fe demolition crew arrived unannounced with the intention of tearing down the long-abandoned building. Had it not been for local plumber Bill Burks, who was asked to salvage fixtures and then quickly alerted city leaders, Slaton’s signature structure wouldn’t have survived.
After the close call, residents formed the Slaton Railroad Heritage Association, the organization that raised funds and spearheaded renovations for almost two decades. The Harvey House reopened officially in September 2007—this time as a museum, a community center, and B&B. The same year, it was awarded a Texas Historical Marker.
“We didn’t rebuild the dining counter that originally filled the room,” Sue told me. “We wanted to make the building more functional as an events center.But the newsstand on the west wall looks much the same as it did back then.” Later, she showed me a black-and-white photograph of the original newsstand: Periodicals hung across the top, and postcards, candy, and other items resided in a glass case below, just as they do today.
Other original features include the large, divided windows with stained glass at the top, which offer views of passing trains. “I never get tired of watching them,” said Sue. “My father was a Santa Fe engineer in the ’50s so they bring back a lot of memories.”
Later that morn-ing, I met another Slaton resident with ties to the railroad. Jolene Fondy’s parents both worked at Harvey Houses: As a teenager, her father was a butcher at the Slaton Harvey House, and her mother was a Harvey Girl at the Sweetwater lo-cation. “Everything was so elegant,” said Fondy, recalling meals at the Slaton Harvey House. “The desserts were always beautiful. There was fine china, and the linens came from Ireland, the silver from England.”
Fondy told me that while some Harvey Houses offered lodging, the Slaton one didn’t (until recently). The second floor ori--ginally included a small apartment for the manager’s family and eight tiny rooms and a shared bath for the Harvey Girls.
“Like all the Harvey Girls, Mother had to sign a contract when she was hired that she wouldn’t marry for a year. I also remember her talking about the strict curfews and other rules. They had to wear opaque, black hose, and black shoes, and the hems of their uniforms had to be eight inches from the floor.”
Later, as Fondy showed me around the building, she pointed out a mannequin wearing a replica of the starched, black-and-white Harvey Girl uniform. Other displays included historical photographs, Harvey House china and glassware, and advertising items, as well as Native American baskets and other artifacts that Fred Harvey collected throughout the South-west and sold in his gift shops.
A call to lunch cut the tour short, so Fondy and I joined the group that had gathered for the Wednesday buffet, which B&B managers Weldon and Sandy Self began serving last fall. On the day I visited, the menu in--cluded chicken enchiladas, salad, beans, and cornbread, with carrot cake for dessert.
At lunch I learned that Slaton was planning its centennial celebration July 1-4; the kickoff reception will be at the Harvey House. The Slaton landmark seems destined to come full circle—a gleaming symbol of the railroad’s glory days is now the site of a celebration honoring Slaton’s 100-year heritage.
Next, I headed downtown to another landmark—the 88-year-old Slaton Bakery. When you enter the bakery, you’re greeted by a glass case filled with an array of donuts, kolaches, cookies, candies, and cakes. Off to the left, there’s a small eating area where lunch customers can order salads and sandwiches. Bakery owners Sherrell and Robin Wilson and their son Chad told me what it was like to be in the bakery business in the same community for more than six decades. “We feel like we’ve raised a lot of our customers,” said Sherrell. “We’ve made 80th-birthday cakes for grandmothers who had their wedding cakes made here.”
Sherrell’s parents, Barney and Ollie Mae Wilson, bought the business from Barney’s employer in 1943. (The bakery’s origins can be traced to 1923.) A Texas Historical Marker on the building’s exterior states that the Wilsons introduced sliced hamburger and hot dog buns to the area. Later, when Sherrell showed me around the “Antiques Room’’—a large area displaying baking equipment from the company’s early days—he pointed out a slicing machine. “We downsized in the late ’50s,” he said, “and continued making donuts, pastries, and cakes, just on a smaller scale.”
Of the bakery’s dozens of items, the Wilsons told me that donuts are the most popular, followed by thumbprints and vanilla wafers. After sampling the thumbprints I understood why they made the cut; they’re lighter than most versions, with just the right amount of frosting in the center.
Customers also find a few nonedible items at the bakery, including a large collection of colorful cookie jars and a cookbook the Wilsons compiled—Baking With Memories: A Collection of Recipes by the Slaton Bakery. It includes 65 pages of anecdotes from customers relating their favorite memories of the bakery. “That’s what our business is all about,” Sherrell told me, “making mem-ories for people.”
If you count the bakery’s “Antiques Room,” Slaton will soon boast five museums. I didn’t have time for a proper tour of the Slaton Museum or the Texas Air Museum, but I stopped in at the Slaton Model Railroad Studio downtown, where Robert Mamlok and others have laid the groundwork for a model-railroad museum. They expect to complete renovations in time for a re-gional National Model Railroad Association convention in Lubbock this
June. The eclectic crew of artists, train modelers, and computer-savvy folks has begun converting a 1930s CTC (Centralized Traffic Control) machine that once ran the Santa Fe line between Slaton and Muleshoe into a control center for an HO scale model-train layout. The 120-foot by 40-foot layout, which runs the length of the building, mimics the old Santa Fe route, complete with tiny, historically accurate buildings alongside the tracks.
I made two other stops before I left town. The AT&SF 1809 Locomotive, which has resided on the east side of the square since 1955, played a key role in Slaton’s agricultural economy, making runs delivering bales of cotton from this area to ports on the Gulf. The Slaton Heritage Mural, which graces a building on the other side of the square, pays tribute to the town’s agricultural and railroad history. Painted by local artist Bill “Tex” Wilson, it depicts a Santa Fe train in the center, beneath bold, red letters spelling “SLATON.” After my brief stay in this friendly small town, the scene resonated with me, and as I drove away, the image seemed a perfect souvenir of my visit.
Reader Mail ~ Reader Recommendations
Had to see TH Photography Editor Griff Smith’s exhibit at Sam Houston Memorial Museum. I’ve never seen a show where each picture was absolutely amazing. What talent, and what a great place for the exhibit to be—the Sam Houston Memorial complex was so fun! As a reader who hangs on every word, I thank you for the great weekends I’ve had so far because of your magazine.
TH Facebook Fan
Please, please, travel Griff Smith’s Texas around the state. Griff—thanks for all you’ve done for Texas!
TH Facebook Fan
EDITOR’S NOTE: Griff Smith’s Texas will remain at Huntsville’s Sam Houston Memorial Museum through June 30, 2011 (www.shsu.edu/~smm_www/). Stay tuned to TH for details on future venues!
I enjoyed reading Jennifer Babisak’s article on Nacogdoches [March]; Kevin Vandivier’s photos were fantastic. Also, don’t miss the Stone Fort Museum on the Stephen F. Austin State University campus, housed in a replica of the building where all the history of Nacogdoches began, as travelers and famous people stopped there on the way to other historical places and events in Texas.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Along with various incarnations as a private
residence, trading post, church, jail, and saloon, the circa-1791 Old Stone
Fort was also the site of four revolutionary actions. The structure, rebuilt in
1936 on the SFASU campus with stone from the original, is now a historical
museum; 936/468-2408; www.sfasu.edu/stonefort.
Gene Fowler’s article on O’Neil Ford [Speaking of Texas,
January] reminded me of the 35 years I enjoyed teaching in the Ford-designed
Agnich Science Building at Greenhill School in Addison. The building, with its
central courtyard complete with a massive live oak tree, was a constant
reminder of our Southwest heritage. The physics lab, my home, stayed largely
unchanged through two major building remodels.
When I retired, the school honored me with a plaque just outside the lab, designating it the “Skip Kilmer Physics Lab,” and I am proud that my name is associated, however tenuously, with an artist like Mr. Ford.
TH Reader Recommendation
A+ Breakfast in CC
We had breakfast at Andy’s Country Kitchen in Corpus Christi. I am not a fan of blueberry muffins, but I was eating theirs before I knew what they were—they were that good. They offer the usual breakfast menu, along with Tex-Mex items. Two toy trains run a track around the perimeter near the ceiling. We had to wait for a table on a Sunday morning, but it was well worth it.
K. SMITH, Marquez
Andy’s Country Kitchen is at 5802 S. Staples; 361/993-0251; www.andyskitchen.com.
A new brochure encourages travel to learn about Texas heritage
As Texans begin celebrating the 175th anniversary of Texas’ Declaration of Independence, show your Texas colors by obtaining a “Passport to Texas History,” and have it stamped at seven sites associated with the Texas Revolution. If you collect stamps from all seven sites by December 31, 2011, you’ll receive a commemorative gift from the Texas Independence Trail Region, but the real value of the tour lies in rounding out your knowledge of Texas history.
At Gonzales, learn how a small cannon sparked the first skirmish of the revolution. At San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site, pay homage to the site of the first capital of the provisional government of Texas. At San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, retrace the footsteps of Franciscans and Spaniards who established five missions along the San Antonio River in the early 1700s. At the Alamo, remember the nearly 200 defenders of this Texas shrine. At Washington-on-the-Brazos, imagine the somber atmosphere when the 59 signers declared independence from Mexico. At Goliad, remember the fate of Colonel James Fannin and his 341 men at the hands of their captors. And finally, at the San Jacinto Monument, see the spot where Texans defeated the Mexican army near the San Jacinto River.
For details about all seven sites, or to download a “Passport to Texas History,” visit www.texasindependencetrail.com. Passports are also available at each site.
Two new tours highlight iconic Dallas buildings
If you’ve only toured downtown Dallas by car, chances are you’ve missed some of the details in the city’s rich ar-chitectural fabric. Thanks to the Dallas Center for Architecture; Downtown, Dallas, Inc.; and the Dallas Arts District, there’s now another way to see the sights. These organizations recently launched two new walking tours that showcase downtown architecture. Led by trained tour guides and held on alternate Saturdays, tours (broken into groups of 10 to 15 people) start at 10 a.m. and are held rain or shine.
Dallas Arts District tours offer highlights of the 68-acre, 19-block neighborhood in the heart of downtown with excursions that examine buildings from the 1890s to the present. The district boasts buildings by four Pritzker Prize-winning architects, as well as 19th- and early 20th-Century buildings that reflect the area’s diverse cultural heritage. The 90-minute tours begin at the entrance to the Dallas Museum of Art (at Flora and Harwood).
Main Street District tours focus on architecture associated with aspects of the city’s commercial development, from the arrival of the railroads in the 1870s to the growth of banking and other industries. The two-hour tours be--gin at the recently completed Main Street Garden (at Main and Ervay), which is within view of some of Dallas’ most important buildings.
For more details and to register for either tour, call 214/742-3242; www.dallascfa.com.