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Daytripper with Chet Garner: Smithville

Small-town Smithville Goes Big Time
Written by Chet Garner.

Daytripper, Smithville

Smithville calls itself the “Heart of the Megalopolis” because of its proximity to Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and Bryan-College Station. However, beyond mere convenience, there are plenty of reasons to take a day trip to this little town on the Colorado River.

10:00 a.m.  Strolling Main Street, with its old storefronts and fading murals, I felt like I had been dropped straight into a Norman Rockwell painting. The bustling boulevard is chock-full of antiques shops, but back in the day, the businesses offered everything a small railroad town needed to survive.

10:30 a.m.  To get a glimpse into the Smithville of yesteryear, I visited the James H. Long Railroad Park and Museum at the end of Main Street. Smithville’s boom began in the late 1800s when the famous Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad line (“M-K-T” or “Katy” for short) decided to build a headquarters in town. The museum and park feature a number of old railcars and cabooses that gave me a sense of what it was like to ride the Katy line.

11:00 a.m.  Right beside these relics is a piece of Smithville’s modern history—“Smitty,” the giant gingerbread man. Standing 20 feet tall and weighing more than 1,300 pounds, Smitty claimed a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “World’s Largest Gingerbread Man” when created in 2006. The monstrous monument standing today is the metal cookie sheet used to bake ol’ Smitty, as I’m sure the real Smitty was just too tasty to go to waste. 

11:30 a.m.  Back on Main Street, I stepped into Tom-Kat Paper Dolls, owned by world-renowned paper-doll artist Tom Tierney. Tom has honed his craft for decades and authored more than 500 books containing dolls representing everyone from Marilyn Monroe to President Barack Obama. Tom assured me that even boys can play with paper dolls, so I picked up a collection titled Famous Texas Men with Davy Crockett and Willie Nelson. 

12:30 p.m.  Lunchtime led me to Zimmerhanzel’s BBQ, a spot so popular with locals that when the owners tried to close the doors in 2008, the hiatus only lasted six weeks before residents demanded the owners reopen. My whopping plate of brisket, ribs, and homemade beef sausage was so good, I’m surprised the closure lasted even a week.

1:30 p.m.  Hunger gone, I decided to check out the latest buzz in Smithville—movies, lots of them. Smithville has become a hotbed for Hollywood and independent films looking to capture small-town America. Movie-making has become so common, in fact, that seeing the likes of Brad Pitt or Sandra Bullock around town is no big deal to locals. I took a self-guided movie tour past the homes featured in Hope Floats and Tree of Life and then headed to Pocket’s Grille for a slice of homemade apple pie and an up-close look at the local movie memorabilia on display. 

3:30 p.m.  I then headed to Buescher State Park, which was amazingly spared by the wildfires that nearly destroyed its neighbor, Bastrop State Park. After spending some time hiking beneath some of the remaining “Lost Pines,” I rented a canoe and paddled around Park Lake. At sunset, a chorus of frogs began its nightly chants, creating an amazing symphony of sound.

7:00 p.m.  I made my way back to Main Street for dinner at the Back Door Cafe. Owned by avid mountain biker and chef Rob Remlinger, the café specializes in “handmade” food and offers only a small selection of items every night. I couldn’t pass up the chicken-fried steak (with home-style bacon gravy), and never even touched my knife as I savored every tender morsel.

After a day in Smithville, it’s clear why movie-makers flock here to capture small-town America. As Megalopolis grows all around it, Smithville remains an un-changed utopia. So, whether you follow my footsteps or forge your own path, I hope to see you on the road. 

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