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Daytripper with Chet Garner: Stephenville

Cowboy Up in Stephenville
Written by Chet Garner.

(Photo © Hogaboom Road, Inc.)

Few things are as intertwined with the image of Texas as the cowboy. Whether driving the long, dusty trail or riding a bucking bronco, cowboys epitomize the rugged, independent spirit of the Lone Star State. I decided to spend a day in the self-proclaimed “Cowboy Capital of the World” to capture some of that enchanting spirit for myself.

10:00 a.m.  To learn about this North-Central Texas town, I headed to the Stephenville Historical House Museum, which features a dozen, 19th-Century structures packed with artifacts and history. From the beautiful “Chapel on the Bosque” to the quaint ranch house of pioneer John Tarleton, the museum offers a glimpse into the founding of Stephenville. Ask about the creepy story surrounding the reconstructed log cabin of “Old Man Snow,” an Erath County farmer. Let’s just say I made an important “note to self” to never roast marshmallows on Old Man Snow’s hearth.

11:15 a.m.  Inspired to see the present-day results of John Tarleton’s work, I explored Tarleton State University. Founded in 1899, the university and its world-class agriculture programs have grown exponentially in recent years. Walking among the impressive red-brick buildings certainly worked up my appetite for some college-size grub.

12:00 p.m.   I followed the crowds of students and professors across the street to Beans and Franks. For generations, coffee and hot dogs have been 
staples of the college diet, but this local spot combines them into a single dining experience. I ordered a “Cool Bean” iced coffee and a “Big Nasty” dog, a plump jalapeño sausage topped with chili, cheese, onions, sliced jalapeños, and cayenne pepper. As delicious as the dog was, I was glad to have my iced drink on hand to ease the burn.

1:15 p.m.   Beyond its pride in the Tarleton Texans, Stephenville is also very proud of its “Cowboy Capital” title. To chat with real-deal cowboys, I headed to Chick Elms Grand Entry, a rodeo and Western shop founded by rodeo rider G.K. Lewal-len in 1956. The walls were cluttered with autographed photos of rodeo competitors who have ridden around the world. I found Chick (pictured above) in the back chatting with customers about bustin’ broncos and ridin’ bulls. He explained that Stephenville has more world-champion rodeo riders per capita than any other town in the world. While he looked much better in cowboy gear than I did, I was still eager to learn more.

2:30 p.m.  Next I drove downtown to the Cowboy Walk of Fame, which pays tribute to the local men and women who have made an impact on the sport of rodeo, from world champions like Ty Murray and Harry Tompkins, to local legends like Chick Elms. Though I don’t know much about rodeo, I recognized many of the names engraved in brass plates on the sidewalk.

3:30 p.m.  I went to Lone Star Arena on the outskirts of town. Almost every weekend and multiple times each week, cowboys and cowgirls fill this stadium to compete in rodeo events, from bull rid-
ing to team roping. I walked in to watch 
women’s barrel racing and saw 100-pound riders with complete control of 1,000-pound horses as they maneuvered hairpin turns and breakout sprints.                                

6:30 p.m.  Though I can’t ride an angry bull or drive a herd on the open trail, I can do one thing well with a cow—eat it. To partake in this Texas tradition, I headed to Jake & Dorothy’s Cafe, which has been turning out its signature chicken-fried steaks and waffle fries since 1948. I grabbed a well-worn seat at the counter and savored every bite of crispy-yet-tender beef as it melted in my mouth.

Some may think cowboys are a thing of the past. But after my day trip, I can confidently say that they’re indeed alive and well in Stephenville. So, whether you follow my footsteps or forge your own path, I hope to see you on the road.

Contact the Stephenville Chamber of Commerce at 254/965-5313.

Chet Garner is  the host of The Daytripper™ travel show on PBS.

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