Skip to content

Uvalde, The Genuine Article

Written by Rob McCorkle. Photographs by J. Griffis Smith.
If the cappuccino bar inside Casa Mortell had been around in 1891, patrons could have enjoyed a latte after performances at the new Grand Opera House next door. Uvalde’s placement at the time—on the edge of the Texas frontier—makes the opera house all the more remarkable.

Beneath Uvalde’s bustling, 21st-Century veneer of shopping centers, fast-food joints, and highway traffic beats the heart and soul of the rough-and-tumble Old West. Today, this off-the-beaten-path home of the infamous Newton Gang and “Cactus Jack” Garner straddles a cultural crossroads, where cell phones and cappuccino meet cowboy boots and home-style enchiladas.

Situated in southwest Texas, an hour’s drive from the Mexican town of Ciudad Acuña, and at the junction of two of the nation’s longest highways—US 90 and US 83—this town of 17,000 is not unlike some weathered but proud wrangler in an Elmer Kelton novel, struggling to make peace with the present while steadfastly clinging to his old cowboy ways.

Tourists heading to such Hill Coun­try magnets as Fredericksburg and Kerr­ville might overlook it, but Uval­de strikes the first-time visitor as the genuine article. Spend a few days in this slow-paced ranching and farming town, and you’ll congratulate yourself for having discovered a jewel of a destination. Community leaders have done an ad­mi­rable job of preserving the town’s colorful Wild West roots, while of­fering the kind of amenities today’s traveler expects.

Originally founded as Encina in 1855, Uvalde grew up two miles north of Fort Inge, a U.S. Cavalry post established in 1849. The town’s name dates to 1856, when Uvalde was designated the county seat of newly formed Uvalde Coun­ty. The name is thought to derive from Cañón de Ugalde, a canyon area near the fort shown on early maps, which itself was named for Spanish comandante Juan de Ugalde, who defeated a large band of Apaches there in 1790.

Uvalde exudes nostalgia, from its tree-shaded downtown plaza ringed by turn-of-the-20th-Century buildings to its charming neighborhoods of graceful live oaks, quaint stone-and-stucco bungalows, and picturesque Victorian mansions.

Downtown must-sees include Cody’s Hat Shop (offers lively demonstrations of the owner’s specialty, blocking and re­storing well-worn Stetsons and Resis­tols), Market Square Antiques (carries a large selection of cowboy mem­orabilia), and the Rexall Drug (serves malts, burgers, and other tasty dishes from its 1950s-era soda fountain). Also, be sure to look up Joe Peña inside Uvalco, a farm-and-ranch supply company on US 90 East. For more than 60 years, Joe has been crafting saddles, belts, and other leath­er goods for celebrities and other folks all over the world. The amiable crafts­man may even pull out his photo album of satisfied customers, who in­clude several Texas Rangers, actors Nick Nolte and the late John Wayne, and country-music legend Kenny Rogers. (Joe’s hand-tooled saddles start at $1,200.)

Community leaders have done an admirable job of preserving Uvalde’s colorful Wild West roots, while offering the kind of amenities today’s traveler expects.

The gloriously restored Grand Opera House, on the northeast corner of the old town plaza, reigns as Uvalde’s old­est and most distinctive landmark. Built in 1891 at a cost of $13,600, the ornate, Romanesque-style struc­ture sports a tin roof and a turreted bay whose conical roof is topped by a dragon. The original aluminum dragon fell prey to town rowdies’ bullets in the 1890s and to weathering over many decades. The opera house offers musical, dance, and theatrical performances throughout the year.

On the ground floor of the Opera House, the Briscoe Visitor Center, a time cap­sule of fascinating local mem­ora­bilia, serves as an ideal starting point for a town tour. Named for Uvalde’s most pro­mi­nent citizen, rancher and former Gov­er­nor Dolph Briscoe, this mini-museum packs a load of information into one room.

One wall of the center displays historic photos of the town’s early buildings and unusual mix of Victorian and hacienda-style residences tucked amid oak-lined boulevards in the older neighborhoods. Another exhibit pays tribute to Uvalde’s famous and infamous former residents: Dale Evans, queen of Western movies; Pat Garrett, who gunned down Billy the Kid; John King Fisher, a reformed gunslinger who became a Uvalde County dep­uty sheriff (see “King of the Road,” De­cem­ber 1998); and the Newton brothers.

Over-size newspaper and magazine articles tell the amazing story of the notorious Newton family, who robbed 87 banks and six trains, mostly during the 1920s. Willis Newton had his “last fling” with bank robbing in 1960 at the age of 76. The septuagenarian holdup-man and an accomplice were captured trying to knock off the First National Bank of Rowena. In 1990, the last surviving member of the Newton Gang, Joe, passed away as a respected resident of Uvalde. (Movie fans may recall the four brothers as the subject of the 1998 film The Newton Boys, which starred another Uvalde native, Matthew McConaughey, and Dwight Yoakam.)

While in town, be sure also to stop by the First State Bank, which houses an extensive art and antiques collection acquired over more than 25 years by Gov­ernor Briscoe and his late wife, Janey. Displayed in a museum-like setting of polished oak paneling, ornate antique furniture, and Oriental rugs, the collection includes original etchings and paintings by Rembrandt, Thomas Gainsborough, and Joshua Rey­nolds, as well as dozens of bronze sculptures and oils by prominent U.S. Western artists. Several of the originals have been duplicated by the National Park Service to showcase at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Impressive sites for a town this size? You bet, but civic leaders have even more plans for downtown. The West Main Resource Center, scheduled for completion in 2003, will house the El Pro­gre­so Memorial Library, a regional ar­chive, and a museum dedicated to area history and culture. “This un­usual combination will allow us to tell the story of not just Uvalde, but of southwest Texas as a region,” says Nancy Feely, president of the Uvalde Historical Commission, Inc., “and that’s a story that needs to be told.”

As the geographic and cultural center of nine counties, Uvalde attracts its share of shoppers. The town’s plaza and adjacent North Getty Street offer an array of stores selling antiques, stained glass, crystal, vintage and modern West­ern wear, and handcrafted mes­quite furniture. For reasonably priced pottery, pewter, and furniture from Guadalajara, check out La Tienda. Mi­guel Zamora, a native Uvaldean, operates his Mexican-import business out of a picturesque cobblestone residence on US 83 North.

If you’re in the mood for a cappuccino and dessert, stop by the coffee bar in the rear of Casa Mortell, a home-decor shop on the plaza that specializes in Mexican furniture and glassware. “It was purely selfish that I decided to open a coffee bar,” says Chicago transplant Grace Mortell of her five-year-old venture. “I couldn’t even think of living in a place without a cappuccino machine.”

You say your taste buds are a bit less cosmopolitan? Well, take heart. Uvalde boasts a number of restaurants serving traditional Texan favorites—like Mexi­can food and barbecue.

In fact, Wylie Walden, a former Uvalde County school superintendent who now sells cowboy and Western collectibles inside Market Square An­tiques, touts his town as the “enchilada capital of Texas.” He bases his opinion on the quality of the Mexican food—made according to old Uvalde family recipes—offered at local restaurants. Menus at eateries like the Town House Restaurant, Vasquez Res­tau­rant, and Mr. C’s Restaurant Drive-In specialize in traditional-style, meatless enchiladas made with cheese and gravy. At Mr. C’s, which occupies an old drive-in restaurant, three generations of the Cano family welcome customers and serve time-tested favorites, as well as the Kimi Special, which features Portuguese tortillas (deep-fried strips of corn tortillas with a piquant queso). Experience suggests it’s hard to contest Wylie’s claim: “Any place in Uvalde on Highway 90 that serves Mexican food is great.”

For barbecue, try Evett’s Bar-B-Q, also on US 90 (Main Street), or Pichardo’s, where on Thursdays locals and tour­ists alike line up to tackle the $6.95 rib-plate buffet.

Uvalde also touts itself as “The Honey Capital of the World.” Area beekeepers harvest the tasty, light-colored honey known as Uvalde Honey during a four-week period in March and April when bees feed on blooms of guajillo, a native South Texas shrub. Honey production aside, a recent proliferation of produce farms (car­rots, cabbage, spinach, beets, cantaloupe, onions, and jala­peños) testifies to Uvalde’s growing agribusiness role in an area of Texas dubbed the Winter Garden.

No trip to Uvalde is complete without a visit to the Gar­ner Memorial Museum and Vice Presidential Li­brary, which in 1999 became part of the Uni­versity of Texas at Aus­tin’s Cen­ter for American His­tory. The two-story, 80-year-old brick residence pays tribute to Uvalde’s best-known resident, John Nance Garner (see “The Sage of Uvalde,” November 1998).

“Cactus Jack” Garner, so-called be­cause he aggressively promoted the flower of the prickly pear cactus over the bluebonnet as the state flower, remains one of the nation’s most beloved statesmen. Garner, who died in 1967 just days shy of his 99th birthday, served as vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression and post-Depression years (1933-1941).

Garner proved a favorite of national cartoonists, whose caricatures of the hoary-headed, bushy-browed, cigar-chomping politician are omnipresent in the museum. Always good for a pithy comment or two, he once described the vice presidency as not worth “a bucket of warm piss.”

Like many Texans, Garner dearly loved the outdoors. And he lived in the right place. Uvalde County is part South­­west Badlands—purple sage, thor­ny cacti, and arid hardscrabble—and part Hill Country paradise—sparkling rivers, oak-covered canyons, and spectacular vistas. This ruggedly beautiful county, at the southwestern edge of the Edwards Plateau and northern fringe of the South Texas Brush Country, teems with wildlife. Hunt­ing—for white-tailed deer, turkey, white-winged dove, quail, and other game—pumps millions of dollars annually into the community.

Uval­de Coun­ty serves as the south­ern gateway to the popular Texas Hill Country River Re­gion, which stretches from northern Uval­de Coun­ty to the scenic Van­der­pool and Leakey area in adjacent Ban­dera and Real counties. Out­doors-enthusiasts love the many private river re­treats, as well as public treasures like Gar­ner and Lost Ma­ples state parks. Here, they can frol­ic in five pristine ri­v­­ers: the Frio, Dry Frio, Leona, Nu­eces, and Sabinal. (Uval­de Coun­ty has more miles of clear-run­ning streams than any other Texas county.)

Visitors also come here to ride horses, hike, bike, birdwatch, swim, canoe, and float beneath towering cy­press trees and starlit skies. Cabins, camps, bed and breakfasts, and other accommodations hug the cypress-lined riverbanks and perch on knobby hilltops.

A growing number of ranchers, who have traditionally augmented their ranching in­come with hunting leases, have begun to diversify even more by embracing ecotourism. Wright and Susanne Friday’s spread typifies such enterprises. About 20 miles northwest of Uvalde, the Fri­days manage not only a 7,000-acre cattle, sheep, and goat ranch, but also a nature-tourism business, on the Nueces River.

“We’re a little farther off the beaten path than most resorts, but we find that families like to come here because it’s quiet and uncrowded,” says Susanne. “We don’t want folks to come out here to experience nature and end up elbow to elbow with other people.”

The Friday Ranch offers gracious hospitality along with plenty of diversions and two types of accommodations—a spacious lodge on a bluff overlooking the serpentine Nueces and a charm­ing two-bedroom retreat tucked in the woods at a bend in the river. Guests can enjoy a variety of river activities, ride horses, and play tennis, but they can also observe, or participate in, ranching operations. If you happen to visit the Fridays during sheep-shearing season, you could find yourself up to your armpits in wool.

Some guest ranches in the area cater to the women’s-spa clientele or to harried business executives seeking a bucolic corporate retreat. Other spreads play up the area’s West­ern heritage. The Johnson Ranch, for example, southeast of Uvalde on the Frio River, often features Wes­t­ern musical entertainment for its guests. For large groups, the owners can ar­range an authentic chuck-wagon meal. Stun­ning sunsets at all these places are free.

No matter what your interests, Uval­de’s twin personality is sure to win you over with country charm, citified pampering, and, above all else, a genuine friendliness that’s as rare in these harried times as a 76-year-old bank robber—and much more welcome.

Uvalde Essentials

Uvalde is 80 miles west of San Antonio, at the crossroads of US 90 and US 83. For a list of Uvalde restaurants and accommodations and details on events and attractions, write to the Uvalde Convention & Visitors Bureau, 300 E. Main St., Uvalde 78801; 830/278-4115 or 800/588-2533; Web site: www.uvaldecvb.org. The Uvalde Chili Peppers, a volunteer civic organization, offers group tours (call the CVB to make reservations; $3-$5 donation per person requested). Uvalde's area code is 830; the zip code is 78801 (unless otherwise noted). All sites listed are wheelchair accessible unless otherwise noted.

Events

Uvalde offers an impressive slate of annual events for a town its size. For example, the Sahawe Indian Ceremonials showcase Native American dances performed by elaborately costumed members of the local Boy Scout Venture Crew each Feb. and July (July 23-28, 2001). Summer performances take place at 8 p.m. at the Sahawe Outdoor Theater (intersection of S. Wood and E. Garden streets). Admission: $5, $4 age 55 and older, $2.50 age 12 and younger. Write to Bill Dillahunty, 117 Studer St.; 278-2016.

The National Soaring Competition is held at the Uvalde Flight Center (on Garner Field Rd., off US 90) for 10 days each Aug. (Aug. 7-16, 2001). This year's competition involves only gliders with 15-meter wingspans. Hours vary, depending on wind and weather; gliders usually fly around noon and right before dusk. Admission: Free. Call the CVB.

Hunters' Roundup, held on the Fri. of the opening weekend of white-tailed deer-hunting season (Nov. 9, 2001), offers a wild-game dinner, a hunters' expo, and a dance. For details, call 278-3361.

The annual City of Lights celebration begins the Fri. after Thanksgiving and continues through the first week in Jan. (Nov. 23, 2001-Jan. 6, 2002). Activities include a parade, caroling, evening shopping, and the arrival of Santa on the town plaza. Partially wheelchair accessible. Call the CVB.

Attractions

The Uvalde Grand Opera House, at 100 W. North St., hosts plays, musicals, concerts, and other performances. The Briscoe Visitor Center, a mini-museum on the ground floor, features Uvalde memorabilia. Hours: Mon-Fri 9-3. For information on upcoming events at the Opera House, or to arrange a guided tour, call the CVB.

The Garner Memorial Museum and Vice Presidential Library, at 333 N. Park St., is the 1920 home of former Vice President John Nance "Cactus Jack" Garner. Exhibits include artifacts from the colorful Texan's political career and his baseballs, including one signed by New York Yankee great Babe Ruth. Hours: Mon-Sat 9-5. Admission: Free. Not wheelchair accessible. Call 278-5018.

The First State Bank, at 200 E. Nopal St., houses an extensive collection of art and antiques selected by former Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe and his late wife, Janey. Hours: Mon-Fri 9-3. Admission: Free. To arrange a tour, call 278-6231.

The Lone Star Saloon, on US 83 North, stages a variety of musical performances (June bookings include Darrell McCall and Eddie Raven). Call 591-9191.

The Aviation Museum of Texas, at the Uvalde Flight Center (on Garner Field Rd., off US 90), displays World War II aircraft and memorabilia. The museum is a nonprofit organization that promotes preservation of local and regional aviation history. Hours: Thu 9 a.m.-noon, Fri 9-5, and by appt. Admission: Free; $2 donation per adult requested. Partially wheelchair accessible. Call 278-2552 or 278-7443.

Fort Inge park, 1.5 miles south of Uvalde on FM 140, is the site of a former U.S. Cavalry post (no original buildings exist) listed in the National Register of Historic Places. On the banks of the scenic Leona River at the base of an 80-million-year-old extinct volcano, the park offers outstanding birding, hiking trails, fishing, camping, and picnic tables. Hours: Sat 8-8, Sun 12-8. Admission: $2, $1 age 11 and younger (or $5 per vehicle). Partially wheelchair accessible. Call the CVB.

The National Fish Hatchery, on FM 481, about 2 miles southwest of its intersection with US 90, offers visitors a chance to see endangered fish species. Hiking, picnicking, and birding allowed. Staff available to answer questions Mon-Fri 7-3:30. Admission: Free. Partially wheelchair accessible. Call 278-2419.

Outdoor Recreation

Uvalde Memorial Park & Recreational Complex, at 337 E. Main, beckons with shaded picnic tables, scenic hiking trails along the Leona River, an 18-hole municipal golf course (second 9 holes slated to open this month), and lighted tennis courts. Hours: Daily, daylight to dusk. Partially wheelchair accessible. For golf course hours and fees, call 278-6155. For other information, call 278-3315.

Jardin de Los Heroes Park, at 801 W. Main, is dedicated to Uvalde's Vietnam War veterans. The park features a covered pavilion, picnic facilities, playground equipment, and a jogging trail. Partially wheelchair accessible.

Five of Texas' most pristine rivers–the Frio, Dry Frio, Sabinal, Leona, and Nueces–cut through the heart of Uvalde Co. Many visitors camp at private campgrounds or in nearby Garner State Park (830/232-6132) or Lost Maples State Natural Area (830/966-3413). Accommodations in the area range from rustic cabins to resorts. For details on lodging and information on Uvalde Co. attractions outside Uvalde, write to the Texas Hill Country River Region, 311 N. Getty St., Uvalde; 830/591-1074 or 800/210-0380; Web site: www.thcrr.com.

Area guest ranches include The Friday Ranch, about 20 miles northwest of Uvalde on the Nueces River. Not wheelchair accessible. Write to Box 1, Uvalde 78802; 830/597-3257 or 877/374-3298; www.fridayranch.com. The Johnson Ranch is 10 miles southeast of Uvalde on the Frio River. Partially wheelchair accessible. Write to HCR 34, Box 1137; 830/591-1905; Web site: www.johnson-ranch.com..

Shopping

Downtown shops include Cody's Hat Shop (800/861-0490), which carries a variety of hat styles and Western accessories; Market Square Antiques (278-1294); and Casa Mortell (278-3455), which offers imported gifts, furniture, and linens and a cappuccino bar in the back. The Joe Peña Saddle Shop is inside Uvalco (2521 E. Main St.; 278-6531). La Tienda sells Mexican imports and furniture (partially wheelchair accessible; 1211 N. Getty St.; 591-0653).

Restaurants

Uvalde Rexall Drug (201 N. Getty St.; 278-2589) offers old-fashioned malts and burgers from a vintage soda fountain. Restaurants include: Pichardo's (501 S. Getty St.; 278-3915), which serves a weekly mesquite-smoked rib buffet and half-pound burgers, and Evett's Bar-B-Q (partially wheelchair accessible; 301 E. Main St.; 278-6204). Mexican-food restaurants along US 90 include Town House Restaurant (2105 E. Main St.; 278-2428); Vasquez Restaurant (partially wheelchair accessible; 601 W. Main St.; 278-5112); and Mr. C's Restaurant Drive-In (1296 W. Main St.; 278-6420).

Uvalde Honey can be purchased at the CVB and at a few local shops. To order from the company, write to Uvalde Honey, Box 387, Uvalde 78802; 877/94-HONEY; www.uvaldehoney.com. For location and hours of operation of Uvalde's farmers' market (usually open every Sat. May-Nov), call the CVB.

Back to top