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Trip to Bountiful

Venture beyond the scenic vistas around Bosque County to find art and history museums, a winery, an historic theater, and tasty barbecue.
Written by June Naylor. Photographs by J. Griffis Smith.


A series of limestone ledges partially surrounding the small lake inside Meridian State Park has long been my go-to place when I need to disconnect with the hectic world and enjoy a quiet interlude with nature. Just over an hour’s drive from my home in Fort Worth, the park’s cedar thickets, rocky hills, and serene water, tucked away in the landscape that gives way to the Hill Country, restore me when city life wears thin. 

On my most recent trip south to Bosque County for a hike, however, I budgeted time to indulge my growing curiosity over the buzz surrounding an art center, barbecue joint, and winery down that way. It turns out, more than pretty scenery awaits in Clifton and Meridian, the pair of towns sitting about halfway between Stephenville and Waco.

Though my journey lasted just one very full day, I quickly saw that a return visit with an overnight stay—providing more time to investigate the historic attractions, poke around in creaky antiques shops, taste a little more wine, and study the night sky over the Bosque and Brazos rivers—makes a lot of sense. Here’s how my future adventure might unfold.

Stopping first at the Bosque Arts Center in Clifton, I’m reminded that the legendary cattle-drive path known as the Chisholm Trail cut through this terrain nearly 150 years ago. As part of the center’s focus on representational art, the gallery draws plenty of attention to its Western artworks, paintings, and sculpture. Together, they reflect the cowboy heritage of the region and represent a growing colony of artists calling Bosque County home. An annual art competition and exhibition in September attracts an admirable collection of work portraying realistic subjects. The arts center is home, as well, to a regional artisans’ guild, whose jewelry, pottery, metal art, furniture, gourds, and quilts are displayed at various times.

The Bosque Museum showcases furniture used by Norwegian settlers.From the arts center, it’s a two-block walk to the Bosque Museum, home to the Horn Shelter Exhibit, an archeology display depicting life here from the Paleo-American culture some 11,000 years ago. My personal favorite at the museum, however, remains the Norwegian Collection, which traces the Norse community settlement in Bosque County. I’m fascinated anew each time I look at the beautiful hand-painted furniture and study the history of Cleng Peerson, considered the Norwegian immigration leader, who established this area for his people, forging a deep cultural home that remains strong today—especially at the nearby Norse settlement I’ll visit later.

Buzzing a few blocks away to downtown Clifton, I look to see what movie will show that evening at the Cliftex Theatre, billed as the state’s oldest movie house in continuous operation. Opened in 1916 as the Queen Theater, it moved a few doors down in 1927 to show talkies. The theater features a 1930s look (in-cluding Art Deco side lights and wooden seats in the auditorium) and was refurbished in 2008.

Around the small downtown, I find a handful of antiques shops in which to dawdle. Temptations include delicate, handstitched tea towels, vintage water pitchers, a well-worn cast-iron Dutch oven, and old cookbooks that make me miss my grandmothers.

At Bunk- house BBQ, Rickey Countryman slices sausages for lunchtime diners.Lunchtime means a short drive to Bunkhouse BBQ, a Clifton restaurant that friends in Fort Worth claim is worth a daytrip in itself. The serving line takes me aback, as the selections can overwhelm: Smoked-meat choices include beef brisket that’s sliced or chopped, sausage, pork ribs, pulled pork, ham, turkey and chicken wings, with all the usual sides. Bunkhouse goes the extra mile by offering baked potatoes stuffed with any choice of barbecue, as well as wrap sandwiches filled with barbecue, cheese, grilled onion, and a salad mix. I’m happy with a chopped-beef sandwich and a side of potato salad, leaving room for liquid treats next door.

Just a few steps away, Red Caboose Winery offers a tasting room where folks can sample libations produced right here in Bosque County. I’ve been mightily impressed with the wines Red Caboose has made available at Texas wine events in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and it’s been interesting to watch as various high-end restaurants around the state have added Red Caboose to their wine lists. Here, at the Clifton tasting room, I try the tempranillo and then the syrah-cabernet blend and decide a trip to the winery, a few miles away in Meridian, is a must.

But first, I make a stop at one of my favorite places in Bosque County. Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, known as the center of the Norse Community, sits just outside of Clifton on County Road 4145, and its peaceful setting instills in me the quiet I seek on these escapes. Updates over the years to the 1875 wooden church have included adding red brick to the exterior in 1907, but it’s the humble wooden interior and carefully tended cemetery, found outside the church’s front door (and containing the grave of Cleng Peerson), that bring me solace.

In Nearby Cranfills Gap, the Horny Toad Bar and Grill guarantees a good time.

When I’m ready to toast the very essence of this indulgent escapism, I point my car north about 15 miles to Red Caboose Winery, just outside of Meridian. Winemaker Gary McKibben, a train buff who honors the local railroad heritage with his winery name, first planted grapes here in 2003. He opened the winery at Meridian in 2007 and the Clifton tasting room three years later.

The beautiful limestone winery building—resembling a small resort, with a magnifi--cent view and tree-filled setting—brings in between 200 to 400 visitors each month. From February through October, there’s a monthly Cork and Fork event, with dinner and wine pairings, and there’s a music event on the last Friday evening of each month.

But on a quiet afternoon like the one I’ve chosen, I’m content to sit on the stone patio and try short tastes of the Range Rider Tempranillo blend, which recently took home several medals at competitions in Houston and New York, and the merlot, winner at recent contests in San Francisco and New York. 
I ask the host about some of these winners, only to get dizzy at the list of awards Red Caboose has brought home. In the end, I purchase a bottle of La Reina Tempranillo, partly because I love the rich ruby color and tart finish, but also because the label artwork—depicting a San Antonio cathedral by local artist George Hallmark—steals my heart.

Before I head back into Clifton for a comfy night’s stay at the Screen Door Inn, a seven-room B&B in an historic downtown building, I head just west of Meridian to revel in some of that nature I find myself craving time and again.

Just as I love the lake at Meridian State Park in the early morning light, I also enjoy it in late-day sun. I make my way past pecan-filled river bottoms and through the brush and trees to the limestone ledges forming a semicircle around one side of the water. I watch a fisherman trying for a last catch, and I listen to cicadas sing a summer song. And I think how glad I am that Bosque County’s quiet restoration awaits just a little more than an hour from home.

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