People first passed near the present town of Paint Rock, in the rolling hills 30 miles east of San Angelo, perhaps a dozen millennia ago. The paintings they left behind would, centuries later, give the place its name, and they are one of the reasons—along with the scenery, local artisans, and easy pace—that folks stop for a while today.
One of the major rock art sites in Texas and a premier Central Texas site is a rock bluff a few miles north of town. The bluff, which is peppered with paintings, provided early peoples a natural shelter from winter winds and summer sun.
Here, beside the Concho River, approximately 300 different cultures lived for some 12,000 years, and they left hundreds of images in shades of black, white, yellow, and, most commonly, red. To create the red, the painters carried heavy hematite rocks—iron ore—some 100 miles to this area, ground them down, and mixed the resulting pow-der with animal fat. They painted a variety of subjects, from handprints and hu-man figures to birds, suns, and various symbols. Some of the images mark, with astonishing accuracy, the summer and winter solstices, which were important seasonal events for these natives.
Rock overhangs helped preserve the paintings, as did later owners of the land.
“There are about 1,500 images on the bluff,” says Kay Campbell, whose grandfather D.E. Sims first saw the paintings in 1870. “Some of them had already been vandalized when my grandfather found them, so he decided to purchase the land and protect them. I’m here to protect them now because he told me to. I’ve never touched one.”
Kay and her husband, Fred Campbell, provide guided tours of the painted rocks. The walks begin in a small building on the Campbell Ranch where Kay demonstrates how to make red paint and then draws on her arm with a red-tipped finger. She lets visitors handle genuine artifacts from the site, such as a hematite rock worn smooth from years of grinding. The former art teacher also hands out a guide she and her husband wrote and illustrated that examines possible meanings of the paintings. The image of a canoe, for example, could represent an actual boat seen on the Concho River, or a burial practice. A shaded circle may portray a solar eclipse. A turtle within a circle is likely a solstice symbol.
Kay’s lively narration weaves the history of the area with that of the Plains natives as her audience strolls along the bluff. A flock of turkeys often forages in the distance, and a bright vermillion flycatcher may perch on one of the pecan trees scattered along the river bottom. Birdwatching is another reason to visit Paint Rock.
In addition to saving the paintings, Grandfather Sims also brought the first sheep to Concho County, which reigned as the nation’s leading sheep-producing county until 1988. The Campbells still raise sheep and Angora goats, as do many of their neighbors, for their wool and hair. At the main intersection in town, Ingrid’s Custom Hand-Woven, Inc. takes advantage of the region’s abundant supply of those raw materials. Area rugs of all sizes are hand-loomed here using spools of wool spun around a string of jute, which results in durable, reversible rugs. Colorful specimens line the walls and form willy-nilly stacks around the rustic shop. Owner Reinhard Schoffthaler stays busy on custom orders for rugs up to 12 feet wide and any length, in any of 76 solid or pastel colors. “Our custom heathers are quite popular,” he says. “We can create endless combinations by blending together solid colors in different amounts, depending on the decor someone is trying to match.” The rugs feel extremely soft to bare feet, and small ones of about two by three feet cost less than $40.
It’s a short walk from Ingrid’s to the 1886 Concho County Courthouse, designed by F.E. Ruffini, who also created the Blanco County Courthouse in Blanco and the Millett Opera House in Austin. County Judge Allen Amos, whose office is in the building, gives tours to folks who drop in, if he isn’t busy. “It’s a beautiful and functional little courthouse, and there aren’t many of this Second Empire style,” he says. The second-story courtroom stretches all the way across the building, and before central air and heat were installed, Amos recalls, birds, butterflies, and even an occasional squirrel would come through the open windows when court was in session. Today, he performs a fair number of weddings in the spacious room.
South of the courthouse, in a cavernous shop called Kiser Iron Works, blacksmith Randy Kiser creates iron beds, custom hardware, fireplace screens, and other decorative and functional pieces for clients all over the country. His funky, one-of-a-kind wine-stoppers shaped like leaves and obelisks make fun keepsakes of a visit.
That’s the extent of the hustle and bustle in Paint Rock. In fact, peace and quiet runs deep in these hills, and it’s a shame not to soak up as much of it as possible. A perfect spot to do just that is Dry Hollow Hideaway, a guesthouse of native stone encircled by a 12-foot-wide porch on Charles and Nancy Becker’s 700-acre ranch. You can drop a line in either of two lakes on the property, hike, ride bikes, or just watch the birds ’til the stars come out.
If you’re headed to or from Paint Rock on US 87 around lunchtime, or on a Friday or Saturday evening, watch for the turnoff to the village of Melvin, where you’ll find the Jacoby Cafe. From a stool at the counter, you can watch the cook grill a steak from Angus cattle raised right here on the Jacoby Ranch. In addition to rib eye, T-bone, sirloin, and KC steaks complete with all the fixin’s, the café serves chicken-fried steak, two-fisted hamburgers, and fried catfish. Top it all off with a slice of chocolate, coconut, or pecan pie, if you have room. (Before dinner, you can browse the attached feed store, Jacoby Feed & Seed, where the Jacoby family sells its grains and custom livestock feeds and a hodgepodge of merchandise like bird feeders and horse halters.)
But if you can’t get to the café this time, make a mental note for the next trip. Because chances are, just like those early Americans, you’ll want to pass through Paint Rock again.
PAINT ROCK, seat of Concho County, is part of the Central Texas Hills & Rivers Region, www.texashillsandrivers.org. (Click on “Concho County,” then on “Paint Rock”.) The area code is 325.
Things to See
Paint Rock Excursions, located on the Campbell Ranch, is 3/4 mile north of Paint Rock on US 83, on the west side of the Concho River. Open most days, appt. preferred. Call 732-4376; www.paintrockpictographs.com. Tours: $6, $3 students grades K-12. Group rates available, arranged in advance (minimum $15).
Concho County Courthouse, 152 N. Roberts Ave. Call 732-4321; www.co.concho.tx.us/ips/cms.
Places to Shop
Ingrid’s Custom Hand-Woven, Inc., 141 S. Roberts Ave. Call 800/752-8004; http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~llama/ingrid.
Kiser Iron Works, 151 E. Moss St. Call 732-4740.
Places to Eat
Jacoby Cafe (attached to Jacoby Feed & Seed), 101 N. Main St., Melvin (between Brady and Eden just off US 87). Hours: Mon-Thu 8-2, Fri-Sat 8-2 and 5-9. Call 800/329-2080; www.jacobyfeed.com.
Where to Stay
Dry Hollow Hideaway, 7 miles west of Paint Rock on Texas 380. Call 325/732-4272; www.dryhollowhideaway.com.