Skip to content

Written by Texas Highways

Becky and Otis Rogers shortly before her trial. (Photo courtesy of San Antonio Light Collection)

Bank cashier Frank Jamison thought very little about the slight young woman, looking to be only seven-
teen or eighteen, who came into the Farm-
ers’ National Bank in Buda in December 
1926. She said that she worked as a reporter for the Beaumont Enterprise, and she spent the morning talking to local farmers about cotton crops and government policies, jotting down their comments in a loose-leaf binder. Politely she had asked permission to use a typewriter inside the tellers’ cages. As lunchtime approached, Jamison stepped inside the walk-in vault for something. “As I came out she was standing five or six steps away with a gun pointed at me,” he said. Within a week, newspapers across the nation were describing the thief, Rebecca Bradley Rogers, as the Flapper Bandit. During the 1920s, “flapper” referred to a young woman who showed disdain for conventional dress and behavior.

Salvatore

Galveston became the largest city in Texas between 1830 and 1860, when shippers exported more cotton from its wharves than from any other American port. Italian brothers Rosario “Rose” Maceo and Salvatore “Sam” Maceo in time brought big-time gaming to the port city.

Dr. Brinkley standing at the right of a patient. (Photo courtesy of Kansas State Historical Society)

Born in North Carolina in 1885, Brinkley attended a legitimate medical school in Chicago before dropping out and “finishing” his degree at the Eclectic Medical School of Kansas City. In 1917, he settled in the town of Milford; after a few months, a young farmer came to Dr. Brinkley lamenting that he had been unable to father another child, then the conversation drifted to farming, rams, and buck goats. Brinkley reportedly joked to his patient that “you wouldn’t have any trouble if you had a pair of those buck glands in you.” The farmer unexpectedly responded, “Well, why don’t you put ’em in?” A year after Brinkley implanted slivers of goat testicles in his patient’s scrotum, the farmer and his wife became parents of a healthy son.

This plains city’s 
attraction draws on its 
rich cultural experiences

Children delight in the hands-on exhibits in the Grace Museum, where a hidden bird’s nest awaits in a two-level Texas pecan tree and a sound wall produces musical notes. (Photo by Kevin Stillman)
By Melissa Gaskill

If you draw a big circle on a map of Texas connect-ing the dots of San Antonio, Austin, Dallas/Fort Worth, Lubbock, and Midland/Odessa, Abilene appears smack in the middle. The town’s mid-Texas location didn’t happen by accident, but it came about thanks to the path of the Texas and Pacific Railway, completed in 1881. Abilene’s rolling landscape and mild weather account for part of the city’s appeal today; its friendly, hard-working citizens deserve credit for developing a weekend-worthy list of things to do and see.

I started my exploration of Abilene at Frontier Texas, where interactive exhibits explore the century (1780-1880) when the area transformed from wide-open prairie where buffalo roamed into the community that would become modern Abilene. The frontier-fort-style facility tells stories through the voices and images of “spirit guides,” including a Native American, a soldier, a buffalo hunter, a cattle driver, a former slave, and a frontier woman, as well as Cynthia Ann Parker, the mother of the last Comanche chief, Quanah Parker. You’ll see 360-degree movies and life-size replicas of buffalo, tipis, soldiers, and Longhorns; listen in on period music and conversations; and witness dramatic frontier battles. Visitors can climb into a chuckwagon or stagecoach, see where trail drives went and forts were located, and watch fireflies blink overhead. Outside, kids can run on the wide-open parade ground, climb into an enormous buffalo skull sculpture, and let their inspired imaginations go wild.

Downtown contains several museums worthy of a long visit, all within walking distance of each other. The National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, or “the nickel” as locals call it, occupies a handsome brick building on the corner of 1st and Cedar streets. I didn’t have any children along, but I enjoyed the current exhibit, Raúl Colón: Tall Tales and Huge Hearts, on view through March 29. Colón illustrated more than 30 children’s books employing a combination of watercolor washes and pencil to create rich colors and texture. In addition to viewing his original illustrations, you can also buy Colón’s books, as well as those of other beloved children’s authors, in the center’s bookstore.

Five more bronze Seuss characters will join the “Cat in the Hat” in the Storybook Sculpture Garden on April 11. (Photo by Kevin Stillman)At the next corner along 1st Street, the four-story Grace Museum occupies the Mission Revival-style 1909 Grace Hotel. A neon sign glows on the rooftop, and the museum hosts an interesting collection of permanent and traveling exhibits. Check out the third-floor permanent history display, with an authentic 1940s-era boot shop, early-1900s kitchen, late-1800s parlor, and other period rooms. Second- and third-floor galleries host traveling exhibits of works by various artists. The current main exhibit on the first floor, Wild Things (through Jan. 26), features Texas flora and fauna painted in vivid colors by Billy Hassell and rendered in unusual sculptures by David Everett. A hands-on children’s museum on the third floor includes a sound wall, where touching different spots produces musical notes, meaning kids can make a joyful noise doing what they do best: wiggling. Kids can also explore a two-level pecan tree, watch a Texas tornado, and create an original artwork.

Catty-corner to the Grace and next to the restored Texas and Pacific Railroad Depot, Everman Park’s Storybook Sculpture Garden houses a whimsical collection, including a pig on wheels and the bronze “Childhood’s Great Adventure,” based on William Joyce’s book Santa Calls. A bronze “Cat in the Hat” was dedicated during last June’s inaugural Children’s Art and Literature Festival, which spotlighted the works of author and artist Dr. Seuss. And, on April 11, Abilene will unveil five additional Seuss sculpt-
ures, including Horton, Grinch, and The Lorax, all by artist Leo Rijn.

Farther afield, the Abilene Zoo in Nelson Park houses snakes, birds, lions, tigers, rhinos, zebras, and alligators. Highlights for me included a bridge over the giraffe enclosure, where I bought crackers and fed the long-necked—and long-tongued—creatures by hand, and the flock of pink-feathered, stilt-legged flamingoes. In 2012, the birds produced their first two chicks. Director Bill Gersonde attributes that success to the addition of 12 members to the flock (the birds prefer large groups) and perfection of a clay mixture for their nests. Flamingoes use their prodigious beaks to build mud towers on the ground, upon which they incubate a single egg. This requires clay hard enough to hold up to rain and web-footed traffic, but pliable enough for the birds to work with. The zoo hit on a flamingo-friendly dirt formula, Gersonde says, and he hopes to see more chicks this coming summer.

In West Texas, chowing down on a big, juicy steak is a must, and I had mine at Perini Ranch Steakhouse, a former hay barn on a family ranch 10 miles south of town near Buffalo Gap. In addition to steaks, a Sunday lunch offers Southern-style comfort food such as fried chicken, smoked ham, and chicken-fried steak at picnic tables on the tree-shaded patio. Save room for the Perini Ranch Bread Pudding—the bread is sourdough, and the sauce includes Jack Daniels whiskey.

See giraffes up-close from an elevated walkway at the Abilene Zoo.  (Photo by Kevin Stillman)Locals also rave about the steaks at the understated yet elegant Beehive Restaurant and Saloon downtown, but a shish kebab is also a good choice; owners Ali and Nairman Esfandiary emigrated from Iran, where skewered meats are a specialty. For barbecue fans, Betty Rose’s Little Brisket’s two locations serve mesquite-smoked brisket and pork ribs with all the sides and all-you-can-eat catfish on Friday and Saturday nights.

When you’re ready to rest for the night, interesting lodging options include the Main House at Perini Ranch, a restored 1885 farmhouse that sleeps five, or the three-person Camp House. In nearby Abilene State Park, hit the hay in a yurt, a round, Mongolian-style tent (with modern touches such as beds and electricity). Or, stay close to downtown Abilene in one of the nine upscale Sayles Ranch Guesthouses, which have one to four bedrooms and Western furnishings.

During the week, I recommend hav
ing lunch at Bogie’s deli in the heart of downtown, where sandwiches named Key Largo (turkey) and The Caine Mutiny (corned beef) make ordering something almost as much fun as eating there. If you’re into craft beers, Cypress Street Station and Abilene Brewing Company, a single establishment in an airy building with brick walls and high, pressed-tin ceilings, offers flights of four brews. That makes for a relaxing finale to an amaz-ing Abilene weekend.

Secrets of New Braunfels' Gruene Historic District

“I love traditional music— old songs that cross time and space to tell you what the people cared about,” says Austin-based singer-songwriter Owen Temple. (Photo by Michael Amador)

By Lori Moffatt

Seated at an oak-shaded picnic table overlooking the Guadalupe River, I’m digging into a tenderloin-and-spinach salad at the Gristmill Restaurant in the Gruene Historic District of New Braunfels and wondering what it must have been like here at the turn of the 20th Century. No composed salads or Herradura margaritas, I’m betting—but there would have been plenty of cotton in the area, and all of it would have been ginned right here in Henry D. Gruene’s gristmill, the bones of which today form the restaurant.

Cotton was once King in Gruene, as it was in much of Texas, and cotton is what inspired an ambitious Henry Gruene—the second son of German immigrant Ernst Gruene—to bring in dozens of families in the 1870s to sharecrop the 6,000 fertile acres his family bought along the river. Eventually, Henry Gruene built homes, a post office, a general store, a bank, and a dance hall to cater to the men and women who provided the muscle for his cotton enterprise. By all accounts, the town thrived (and H.D. made a fortune) until the boll weevil blight made a wreck of things in the 1920s and ushered in a 
slow decline.

Today, though, the entire community—the 1878 dance hall and iconic Gruene water tower, dozens of shops and restaurants, a few hotels and B&Bs, a small winery, a day spa, and a serpentine, captivating stretch of the Guadal-
upe River—is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The entire historic district is easy to explore on foot; 
you can amble from one end of the district to the other in less than 15 minutes. In fact, Gruene still doesn’t have (or need) a traffic light.

“We don’t have a museum here in 
Gruene,” says Dee Buck, co-owner of Buck Pottery, “so I always tell people to go over to Gruene Hall and look at the photos of all the people who have played there.” Dee and his wife, Terry, arrived in Gruene in 1982 and transformed H.D. Gruene’s storage barn into a pottery and retail shop. “That old dance hall is the heart and soul of this place,” he says.

Pink feathered boas and bedazzled Harley-Davidson sun visors are as easy to come by as vintage cowboy boots and 1930s apothecary jars.

Dee Buck speaks the 
truth. Push open the squeaky screened door of Gruene Hall into the bar area, in fact, and you’ll find at least 100 signed photographs of musicians who have played the hall over the years. Here is a veritable collage of country-music and rock-pop royalty, including publicity stills of Jimmie Vaughan, Lucinda Williams, Buddy Guy, Merle Haggard, Lyle Lovett, Rosie Flores, Little Feat, Jerry Jeff Walker, Chris Isaak, 
and a young George Strait, who first 
played here with his Ace in the Hole band 
in 1975, when the hall reopened for 
business after a long slumber.

The entire Gruene Historic District is easy to explore on foot.  (Photo by Michael Amador)Gruene visionary Pat Molak kickstarted the district’s recovery in the mid-
1970s when he and business partner Mary Jane Nalley bought the dance hall and began to restore the surrounding buildings, including the old gristmill. “We had our big coup in the fall of 1975,” Pat says. “We had been having dances for four months, and we were hearing about a band in San Marcos called the Ace in the Hole band, led by a fellow named George Strait. We hired them for 150 bucks. They played here until the early 1980s, when George got his contract in Nashville.”   

“That was an interesting time,” says Dee Buck. “Terry and I happened to visit Gruene in 1982, and we met Pat and Mary Jane, who had been buying up buildings and starting to lease them. They had already restored the gristmill and opened the restaurant, and of course there was Gruene Hall. We eventually decided to take a look at the old barn. There’s a connection to history in Gruene that mirrors why we’re attracted to the craft of pottery, which speaks of how people lived their everyday lives.”

There’s a comforting and invigorating juxtaposition of old and new in Gruene, where pink feathered boas and bedazzled Harley-Davidson sun visors are as easy to come by as vintage cowboy boots and 1930s apothecary jars. And despite the historic district’s lack of a formal entity dedicated to telling its history, it’s easy to find evidence of 19th-Century Gruene if you know where to look—and listen.

Since most of the buildings here were built more than a century ago, wooden floors throughout the district squeak pleasantly beneath your footsteps; outside, gravel pathways trimmed with purple plumbago and lantana crunch rhythmically as you stroll from shop to shop. Inside the Gruene General Store, along with Davy Crockett coonskin caps and dis-
plays of personalized license plates, you’ll find a stack of vintage mailboxes that attest to the structure’s beginnings as a post office.

Grab a scoop of Blue Bell ice cream at the Gruene General Store, which used to be the com- munity’s post office. (Photo by Michael Amador)Across the street, amid the wooden boat pro
pellers, 1933 Chi
cago World’s Fair 
guides, malted-milk tins, and old 
postcards at the 
Gruene Antique 
Company, you can 
spy the gold-and-black Victor Safe & Lock Co. vault that remains from the building’s days as a 
bank. The two-story Victorian Gruene 
Mansion Inn—once the home of Henry 
Gruene and his family—boasts broad, 
wraparound porches and a vintage  Zenith radio in the dining room.

And down the street, the restored former home of Henry Gruene’s youngest daughter, now the site of Black Swan Antiques, is said to be haunted. “I’ve never encountered a ghost myself,” says shop owner Jim Benson, “but we’ve had quite a few reports. Most recently, we had an antique English kitchen scale in the back room, and customers told us the weights started bouncing. Another time, employees told me that they heard a bang, and that a 1920s minnow bucket appeared to have been thrown across the room.”

Perhaps that particular ghost simply wanted to go fishing: It’s hard to imagine that Gruene’s original founders would be unhappy with how things have turned out in their town. There’s live music here seven days a week, plentiful dining and drinking spots, river recreation in the warm months, and shopping opportunities to reflect nearly every aesthetic.

“Gruene is about rust and dust,” says Pat Molak. “Even as we expand, we use recycled and reclaimed materials, bury utility lines, landscape with native plants, and try to keep the old feel. If you sit on a bench in front of the dance hall facing 
the old mercantile building, you’ll forget what year it is.”

Big Bend (Search for the Marfa lights)

(Photo by J. Griffis Smith)

Since 1883, the year of the first recorded sighting of the famed Marfa Lights, visitors to the Big Bend region of Texas have tried to see them—and if successful—have tried to explain them.

The lights, those who’ve seen them say, pulse, twinkle, and move over the desert as you face the Chinati Mountains. They’ve been described as white, orange, or yellow. Are they ghosts? Space travelers from afar? Native American spirits? Moonlight reflecting on veins of mica?

The truth is that nobody really knows what causes them. On a clear night, park at the official viewing area on US 90 about nine miles east of Marfa, and look south toward the Chinati Mountains on the Mexico border. If you see lights of any color moving around, either near or distant, you may count yourself among those fortunate enough to claim they’ve seen the Marfa Lights.

No Marfa Lights? Then go with the natural kind. The stars at night shine big and bright in West Texas’ two major parks: Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park.

More Texas To-Dos

 Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston (Art in the cities)

(Photo by J. Griffis Smith)Nature crafted many of Texas’ treasures, but humans made some, too.
Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston all boast world-class museums.
In Dallas, the new Perot Museum of Nature and Science fills its halls with engaging multimedia exhibits, computer animations, interactive experiences, films, and, of course, big dinosaurs. While you’re in Dallas, also check out the nearby Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas Museum of Art, and the Crow Collection of Asian Art.

Then head over to Fort Worth for the Kimbell Art Museum, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, clustered on a triangle of land west of downtown. Lunch at the Modern’s sleek Modern Café, with tables overlooking a placid reflection pool designed (like the museum itself) by architect Tadao Ando, is the perfect midday break.

Houston holds the state’s largest museum district, where you can easily walk from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, to more than a dozen diverse institutions such as the Children’s Museum, the Houston Museum of Natural Science (with its new Morian Hall of Paleontology), and the newest entry, Asia Society Texas Center, which explores not only fine arts but also Asian politics, education, and health care.

More Texas To-Dos

 

 

 

East Texas (Explore spooky Caddo Lake)

(Photo by Joe Lowery)

Do ghosts dwell amid the murky, mysterious tentacles of Caddo Lake? Certainly Caddo offers a ghostly setting, its swamps and bayous studded with bald cypress trees shrouded with Spanish moss.

Straddling the Texas-Louisiana border in northeast Texas, Caddo, the state’s only natural lake, exhibits a dark beauty that a man-made lake could never summon. You might see a great blue heron or alligator as you explore the canopy in a canoe or kayak. Consider hiring a guide to help you through this serpentine tangle of waterways, or in the town of Uncertain, book a trip aboard the Graceful Ghost paddlewheeler, a replica of an 1800s steamboat.

Rumors persist that Bigfoot, whom-ever or whatever that may be, lives around Caddo Lake. No telling. But bass live here for sure, and you can fish for them (bring your own gear or borrow a pole) in Caddo Lake State Park’s Big Cypress Bayou. The park also offers hiking trails, and you can spend the night in a 1930s cabin. If you dare.

Caddo Lake State Park, Karnack. Call 903/679-3351.

More Texas To-Dos

Dallas (Enjoy the State Fair)

(Photo by Michael Amador)The State Fair of Texas never fails to induce a state of exhilarated exhaustion, a happy condition achieved only by stuffing yourself with corny dogs and funnel cakes, whirling on rides, sitting in a just-off-the-assembly-line car, watching pig races, and joining thousands of fellow Texans to enjoy music as the moon rises.

Start with the beautiful Art Deco setting at Dallas’ Fair Park. Add a midway, farm animals, auto shows, music, cooking and crafts competitions, and this three-week festival starting in late September lives up to its more-than-a-century-old reputation. On October 19, 2012, the iconic 52-foot cowboy known as Big Tex, whose “Howdy, folks” has greeted fairgoers for decades, was destroyed by fire. At press time, plans are afoot to restore Big Tex, so the 2013 fair will be the perfect opportunity to welcome him back.

What’s the best part of the fair? Maybe it’s watching a toddler’s face as that first-ever ride starts to turn. Maybe it’s finding out what this year’s vendors have decided to deep-fry (last year: jambalaya). Maybe it’s seeing a 4-H kid asleep with his cow in the barn. The Fair has something for everyone.

The 2013 State Fair of Texas takes place September 27-October 20 in Dallas.

More Texas To-Dos

West Texas (Beat the heat at Balmorhea)

(Photo by Erich Schlegel)Balmorhea State Park’s 1.75-acre, spring-fed pool is nature’s answer to Texas’ summer sun, with a constant temperature between 72 and 76 degrees. Set against the deep blue West Texas sky in the yucca-dotted foothills of the Davis Mountains, it feels a whole lot like paradise.

It takes time to drive out to this spot in little Toyahvale, about halfway between Alpine and Pecos on Texas 17, but a dip in these clear, blue-green waters, with tiny fish nipping harmlessly at you as you float, will wash away any road fatigue. The pool, open year round and fed by San Solomon Springs, thrills scuba divers with its 25-foot depth.

Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, the park offers motel-style accommodations, some of which have kitchens.

More Texas To-Dos

The Panhandle (Check out Palo Duro Canyon)

(Photo © Laurence Parent)It’s hard to find a horned toad in Texas anymore, but you’ll have a decent shot during the summer months in Palo Duro Canyon, the gem of Texas’ Llano Estacado, south of Amarillo near Canyon. Here you’ll find Texas’ answer to the Grand Canyon—at 29,182 acres and approximately 120 miles long, Palo Duro is the second-largest canyon in the United States. Water erosion formed this canyon some 90 million years ago; today it’s 800 feet deep in places and streaked with red, yellow, and purple striations of clay, mudstone, sandstone, and gypsum.

In the 18th Century, when hundreds of thousands of buffalo roamed the Panhandle grasslands, the canyons were home to the Comanche and Kiowa. The best way to explore Palo Duro is the way they did, on horseback. Bring your own horse or rent one from the stables at Palo Duro Canyon State Park, then hit 1,500 acres of trails. You’ll find special camping areas for equestrians along with regular  campsites—some primitive, some with electricity—and seven cabins for rent, including several that were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

From June through August, you can also enjoy a performance of TEXAS, the musical drama staged outdoors in an amphitheater carved from a canyon wall.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Canyon. Call 806/488-2227.

More Texas To-Dos

Texas coast (See the sea turtles)

(Photo by J. Griffis Smith)

A magical thing happens up and down Padre Island from May through August. Kemp’s ridley sea turtles emerge from the Gulf of Mexico, dig nests, lay and bury eggs, then scurry back into the waves. It’s an awesome thing to watch as the mother turtle digs a hole, deposits eggs the size of ping-pong balls—more than 100 sometimes—then uses her flippers to cover the nest with sand, ignoring crowds that often gather to watch.

Because Kemp’s ridleys are endangered, local turtle rescue groups stand ready to quickly retrieve the eggs, incubate them for 45-50 days, and release the hatchlings back to the Gulf. To witness these releases, check release hotlines daily (because nobody knows exactly when the turtles will hatch).

On Corpus Christi’s North Padre Island, rangers at Padre Island National Seashore collect the eggs and release the hatchlings. Call the hotline at 361/949-7163. On South Padre Island, call the hotline of Sea Turtle Inc., 956/433-5735.

More Texas To-Dos

Back to top