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Unexpected Uvalde

Uvalde’s small-town hospitality and southwestern history intrigue and delight
Written by Rob McCorkle.

Talon Gonzalez and Jadon Tames relish a treat at the old-fashioned soda fountain in the historic Rexall Drug building. (Photo by Robert Gomez)

When Alan decided After 44 years  to retire and sell Rexall Drug in downtown Uvalde to a drugstore chain, he received a commitment from the new owner to keep the old-fashioned soda fountain open for two years. Five years later, the 79-year-old former owner of Uvalde’s oldest retail establishment and his coffee-drinking buddies still straddle stools at the iconic counter each morning in a city that clings tenaciously to tradition. And, like some scene out of a black-and-white movie, the old-timers’ cups of joe cost just 46 cents.

Though its population is pushing 16,000 and the city lies only 83 miles west of bustling San Antonio, Uvalde retains a strong sense of community born of agrarian and bicultural roots. Nonetheless, the small southwest Texas community exudes a progressive, can-do spirit. 

For tourists, Uvalde offers a low-key opportunity to visit museums featuring history, art, aviation, and the city’s influential residents; to shop and dine at distinctly local establishments; and to gear up for the wide range of outdoor recreation opportunities in the surrounding Hill Country river region and brush country territory.

Mi Vida stocks a colorful selection of boots. (Photo by Robert Gomez)

Founded in 1855 as Encina, the town became a county seat a year later and took its present name from Spanish governor Juan de Ugalde, whose troops defeated a band of Apaches in a nearby canyon in 1790. Almost a century later, the growing frontier town became a key shipping point on the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway. The town remains a regional hub; one of Uvalde’s nicknames—the Crossroads of America—is inspired by the local nexus of US Highways 83 and 90, two of the longest highways in the United States.

Today, vegetable farming, ranching, hunting, and nature tourism power Uvalde’s economic engines. More recently, oil and gas development in the Eagle Ford Shale to the south has helped fill city motels and restaurants, generating additional revenue. Driving through Uvalde on US 90 (Main Street), visitors encounter the $5.6-million El Progreso Memorial Library (which moved into a new, privately funded building in 2004), a recently opened Convention Center, and a new Uvalde County Fairplex, which houses the county jail, meeting facilities, and a rodeo arena. 
Uvalde is the birthplace of an impressive number of notable characters. They include actors Dana Andrews and Matthew McConaughey, movie queen Dale Evans, and the homegrown, Grammy Award-winning norteño band Los Palominos. Visitors can read about the celebrities on plaques mounted on the exterior wall of the Janey Slaughter Briscoe Grand Opera House, a downtown landmark.

Step inside the Romanesque-style building’s visitor center to view a timeline of the city’s history in photos and exhibits. Learn about such Wild West-era Uvaldeans as bandit-turned-deputy sheriff John King Fisher and lawman Pat Garrett, who killed Billy the Kid in New Mexico in 1881. The Newton brothers, the early-20th-Century bank robbers profiled in the 1998 film The Newton Boys, were also from Uvalde.

Another of Uvalde’s top destinations doubles as a museum and a working bank. The First State Bank of Uvalde welcomes about 5,000 visitors a year to tour the Briscoe Art and Antique Collection. The legacies and generosity of two of Uvalde’s most prominent citizens—late Texas Governor Dolph Briscoe and Depression-era Vice President John “Cactus Jack” Garner—are on display in the bank, a two-story, brick edifice adorned by large Mexican wrought-iron lanterns. Garner formerly held an ownership stake in the bank, and the Briscoe family still owns the controlling interest.

Governor Briscoe and his wife, Janey, amassed an impressive collection of more than 100 Western paintings and sculptures, dozens of French and English antiques, 60 Oriental rugs, and two 17th-Century Rembrandt etchings. The artworks and antiques are interspersed among the regular functioning operations of the bank, which moved into its current location in 1970. The bank offers tours to parties interested in learning more.

“Is it a museum with a bank inside, or is it a bank with a museum inside?” asks William Dillard, the bank’s senior vice president. “It’s about the same thing.”

The bank’s foyer and lobby have served as a mini-museum of its own the past few years, temporarily showcasing memorabilia and exhibits that tell much of the “Cactus Jack” Garner story. The items include vintage photographs, newspaper clippings, books, and other keepsakes of Garner, who also served as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Garner’s former home on Park Street previously housed the John Nance Garner Museum, but the building is currently under renovation. The museum is scheduled to reopen this spring as the Briscoe-Garner Museum, under direction of The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas in Austin.

One of Uvalde’s  most unlikely celebrities made his name right in town, far from the halls of power in Austin or Washington, D.C. Fernando Rodriguez owns what is arguably the best gordita and taco stand in South Texas, and maybe the world. Inside the cramped kitchen of Live Oak Gorditas, the 57-year-old former field hand, construction worker, and assembly line worker churns out mouth-watering Mexican staples that have attracted national and international attention.

On the second Friday of each month, downtown shops stay open late, serve refreshments and provide entertainment. (Photo by Robert Gomez)

Rodriguez’s fried corn pockets come stuffed with such common fillings as brisket, chicken fajitas, and carne guisada. But it’s Live Oak’s unusual tripas, chicharron, and mollejas (sweetbread) gorditas that prompted a 2008 visit from Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. Since then, Rodriguez’s gordita stand has been visited by foodie Rachael Ray, rocker Ted Nugent, and adventuresome gourmands from as far away as Sweden and Australia. Most customers take advantage of Live Oak’s drive-through, but there’s also a small, enclosed patio for dining at the restaurant.

Next door, Fiesta Bakery and Cake Shop serves up a variety of delectable baked goods, drawing on Mexican and American influences. Along with cookies and cakes, you’ll find donuts, pan de huevo, empanadas, and the top-selling campechanas—flaky Mexican pastries sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon.

Visitors may want to pick up a meal and dessert at Live Oak and Fiesta Bakery, and then cruise just a few blocks north to dine in the shade of Market Square’s giant pecan trees before exploring the nearby shops. On the second Friday of each month, dubbed “Four Square Friday,” the downtown merchants welcome shop-pers into the evening hours and serve refreshments. The monthly event derives its name from the fact that the original township was designed with four town squares.

Antiques on the Square anchors the southwest corner of the square in a sprawling, historic edifice featuring dozens of vendors. The ground floor and recently opened basement house a dazzling array of collectibles, such as antique furniture, metal signs, classic comic books, LPs, and vintage Western wear.

Pieces of Me and Vintage Market, on the north side of the square, offer still more antiques and collectibles, as well as items such as candles and picture frames.

During Four Square Friday, held the second Friday of each month, shops stay open into the evening.

Just a few blocks north of Market Square and across the street from Rexall Drug, a clothing boutique with a true Uvalde flair occupies one of the city’s many historic buildings. White-tailed deer and exotic animal mounts from around the world stare down on racks of eclectic women’s clothing at Huntson Clothing Co. The store is owned by Beth Johnson, daughter of Larry Weishuhn, a hunter and television personality known as “Mr. Whitetail.” While the women browse Johnson’s personally selected clothing and antiques, the men can duck into the adjacent room to pick up some of Weishuhn’s steak rub and peruse the camouflage T-shirts and other hunting apparel.

One block up North Getty Street, Julien’s, a Uvalde mainstay, carries more traditional adult and children’s clothing, as well as jewelry, dinnerware, and a variety of other merchandise. Next door, Mi Vida stocks crosses, santos, and specially designed purses made with colorful pieces of cloth.

Uvalde has picked up a number of nicknames over the years. Along with Crossroads of America, the city is called the City of Trees—some streets were routed around the much-loved oaks—and was formerly known as the Honey Capital of the World, be-cause of its historic production of distinctive honey by bees that fed on the huajillo shrub. By whatever name, Uvalde sits tall in the saddle, galloping toward a bright future while remaining firmly rooted in its small-town traditions.

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