Ninety minutes from the Metroplex, this town along the old Chisholm Trail boasts attractions beyond its rich Western heritage
By Tyler Sharp
Not far from the Oklahoma border, about 40 miles west of Gainesville, Nocona lies among the cattle ranches and scenic rolling hills that lead toward the Red River. The town’s history speaks of Comanches, the Chisholm Trail, the railroad, and leather goods from artisan cowboy boots to hand-stitched baseball gloves. Today, Nocona’s 3,200 residents celebrate that heritage, along with a budding downtown renaissance.
Nocona was founded in 1887 by cattleman D.C. Jordan to entice the Gainesville, Henrietta, and Western Railway (soon to become the Missouri-Kansas-Texas line) to extend the railroad across his ranch. The town, which lay along the historic Chisholm Trail, was named for Comanche chief Peta Nocona, husband of Cynthia Ann Parker and father of Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Quahada Comanches.
Present-day Nocona enjoys an acclaim that goes beyond its Old West roots, thanks in part to its proximity to the Metroplex, whose residents have discovered it as a weekend getaway. “We’re only an hour and a half away, in the middle of some really pretty country,” says Nocona native and local contractor Dan Fenoglio.
“We’re the ‘Hill Country of North Texas.’”
Fenoglio and several other preservation-minded residents have enhanced that appeal in recent years by bringing new life to 16 downtown buildings, most of which date from 1889 to 1923.
“A decade ago, these structures were falling down,” says Fenoglio. “Tracy White, a jewelry artist, got the ball rolling in 2000 when he turned two buildings on Clay Street—a former grocery store and an old theater—into his home and studio. I got involved by accident. I just hated to see historic buildings dilapidated like that and wanted to fix a few of them up.”
The first buildings Fenoglio bought—two adjoining structures on Clay Street—evolved into personal projects. After discovering that one of the buildings had been his grandparents’ grocery store, he transformed them into special-event venues, naming one Daddy Sam’s Saloon and the other Gertie’s Dance Hall, after his grandparents, Sam and Gertrude Arnold. (He later bought another adjacent building, which he’s using to expand the dance hall.)
Nocona Nights, a popular Texas music series, takes place here October-May. With performers like Johnny Bush, Dale Watson, and Sunny Sweeney, season tickets to the series usually sell out in advance.
Just down the street from Daddy Sam’s and Gertie’s is Times Forgotten Steakhouse, a former bank building that Harold and Sandra Reynolds, two other Nocona natives, bought and remodeled in 2008. The restaurant boasts its original tin ceilings and intricately carved woodwork, and an antique player piano provides music on Saturday nights. From the rawhide map of the Old Chisholm Trail to the photographs of the area during the oil boom of the 1920s, the decor draws from the rich history of Nocona.
Times Forgotten serves American fare like steaks, burgers, and salads, as well as its popular chicken-fried steak, and offers fried catfish on Friday nights. There’s a turn-of-the-20th-Century-style bar upstairs that serves alcohol to patrons who sign up for a membership. Harold and Sandra recently renovated the building next door, where they now offer a ’40s-style ice cream parlor in front and a large private dining room in back, complete with a fireplace and outdoor patio.
Other downtown buildings have been repurposed as office space, residences, and a beauty salon. A former hardware store and drycleaners now provide storage for a local businessman’s car collections. Dan Fenoglio says residents have plans for at least a dozen more buildings, including transforming several into retail space. “We wanted to bring downtown back, and it’s really exciting how things have turned out,” he says.
One of Nocona’s must-see sites—the Nokona factory—also lies on Clay Street. Owned and operated by three generations of the Storey family, the Nokona company has made baseball gloves since 1934. “We’re one of the last companies, if not the last, that still make gloves by hand in the United States, and we’re proud of that,” says Vice President Rob Storey.
The staff offers factory tours on Mondays and Fridays at 10 and 1:30, but Storey recommends that groups call ahead. The hour-long tour shows the entire process of making each glove by hand. “Seeing a baseball glove turned inside-out fascinates some visitors,” says Storey. There’s a small museum of company history in the lobby (look for a replica of Nolan Ryan’s first glove), and a merchandise showroom nearby offering gloves, bats, bags, and some apparel.
Long touted as the Leather Goods Capital of the Southwest, Nocona was home to both Justin Boots and the Nocona Boot Company. In 1879, H.J. Justin started hand-making boots for cowboys on the Chisholm Trail, setting up shop in Spanish Fort, north of Nocona. He moved to Nocona 10 years later. After his death in 1918, the business continued here until 1925, when his sons moved the company to Fort Worth. His daughter Enid Justin stayed and started the Nocona Boot Company that same year.
The Nocona Boot factory closed its doors in 1999; however, the tradition of artisan boot-making in Nocona continues, thanks to the Montague Boot Company, which opened here in 2000. The company makes boots for Cavender’s Boot City retail stores under the Larry Mahan label.
More stories about Nocona’s leather legacy await at the Tales ‘N’ Trails Museum on the eastern edge of town. Opened two years ago, the museum focuses on the elements that shaped Nocona—Native American culture, Western heritage, agriculture, oil and gas, and leather. For example, the leather industry is reflected in the Nocona boot exhibit, which features some of the earliest pairs of Nocona boots, as well as the last pair made in 1999. A short film narrated by cowboy poet Red Steagall introduces each of the five areas.
The displays here include items from many local donors, most notably the family of the late rancher and oilman Joe Benton, whose massive collections of books, letters, photographs, and artifacts form the backbone of the museum. During the first half of the 1900s, Benton, who had a passionate interest in Texas history, amassed a huge array of items from the Red River Valley, including French and Spanish artifacts from the mid-1600s and 1700s, as well as Native American grinding stones, pottery, beads, arrowheads, and spear points.
The museum’s first permanent exhibit, on Native American culture, is slated to open early this summer. It includes several Paleoindian points that date to 10,000-8,000 B.C. An outdoor exhibit on the oil and gas industry features a 1923 Wichita spudder (an early oil-field drill) and a 1920s pumper’s house, where a pumper (an employee who was responsible for keeping the pumps operating) and his family lived during the area’s oil-boom days.
“Most of our exhibits are temporary exhibits, which rotate every four months,” says Nell Ann McBroom, the museum’s collections manager. The museum also offers speakers, book signings, musical guests, and crafts programs, including basket-weaving seminars.
Also in the museum building, the Nocona Chamber of Commerce provides a brochure for a self-guided tour of area historic sites. The staff can also arrange a tour, complete with a knowledgeable guide and shuttle van.
Lake Nocona, eight miles northeast of town, also bears checking out. This 1,323-acre public lake with 40 miles of shoreline offers RV and tent camping along its oak-lined banks, boating, swimming, and excellent bass fishing.
An overnight stay at the Veranda Inn (29 rooms, each with a different decor, ranging from Western to safari) offers visitors additional activities. The inn organizes horseback rides for guests in association with local ranches. Guests can also hire a limousine (with space for 10 people) that will chauffeur them to area wineries such as Blue Ostrich Winery & Vineyard and Arché, both north of Saint Jo. A nearby restaurant called Ancient Ovens serves five-course, gourmet Italian meals featuring wood-fired pizza and artisan breads.
Back in Nocona, Fenoglio’s BBQ & Station offers dining with down-home appeal. A local favorite, Fenoglio’s has served savory Texas barbecue for more than two decades. The daily offerings include barbecued chicken, pork, beef ribs, brisket, and sausage, as well as potato salad, beans, and hand-cut fries.
In a time when many small towns are trying to redefine their identities, Nocona has done so with a thoughtful balance of old and new elements. So whether you’re a history buff, a weekend adventurer, or just in need of some good barbecue, head to Nocona and enjoy this small-town gem. TH
Dallas photographer and writer Tyler Sharp has spent a lot of time in Nocona, exploring his family heritage. “I’ve been fortunate to see the historic renovation process from the very beginning,” he says.
See Nocona Essentials for more information.
From the June 2012 issue.