Explore both sides of the tracks in this former railroad town
By Mark Hendricks
Every October for four decades, chili chefs and assorted revelers from throughout Texas and beyond have converged upon the town of Flatonia for the popular Czhilispiel, a Czech-and German-flavored festival featuring chili cookoffs, barbecue competitions, a biergarten, and live music. But there’s more to this town than its annual fall festival.
Located on Interstate 10 midway between Houston and San Antonio, Flatonia not only celebrates its history as a 19th-Century railroad hub, but also offers visitors lodging in a restored hotel, eclectic shopping, a fine example of a Central Texas painted church, and a restaurant run by a Paris-trained chef.
My girlfriend, Robbe, and I recently trekked to Flatonia for a weekend getaway, and one of the first things we noticed was the rail line running through the center of town. This arrangement is no accident: While the original Flatonia settlement (named for pioneer merchant F.W. Flato) was originally a mile southeast of its current site, city leaders moved the town in 1874 so that it would be on the rail line.
Trains still frequently thunder by the downtown Flatonia Historic Rail Park, where a restored caboose and a 1902 switching tower are available for tours by appointment.
From a lookout atop the switching tower, rail workers operated manual switches that allowed trains coming from different directions to safely pass each other.
This function has long been automated, but Flatonia’s switching tower—moved from its original site and now one of the last in Texas—is a striking reminder of how important trains once were (and still are) to commerce.
A few blocks west, a shaded photo pavilion attracts rail buffs who enjoy watching trains roar through on north-south and east-west rail lines. Some 40 trains pass through on any given day, all within easy viewing range.
Robbe has local ties dating back generations, so perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that she is related to Judy Pate, curator at the E.A. Arnim Archives and Museum. “Brunner,” Judy said, on learning Robbe’s last name. “That’s a local name. Do you have family connections in town?” They quickly ascertained that they shared a great-great-grandfather, Xavier Brunner, whose grandson Felix ran the City Café, a popular Main Street gathering spot in the mid-1900s.
After the two women exchanged reminiscences, we toured the museum’s collection of photos depicting Flatonia from the 1880s to 1940s, farm tools, clothing, and other relics of late 19th- and early 20th-Century small-town life.
Judy’s favorite item is an upholstered settee made from cattle horns, which won first prize at the 1891 Dallas fair.
The Arnim’s collection of veterans’ memorabilia features photos of virtually every local who’s ever served in the military, as well as displays dedicated to major conflicts of the last century. Sure enough, we found a photo of Robbe’s father, R.E. Brunner, pictured in his naval aviator’s uniform from the Korean War.
We checked into the Olle Hotel, a two-story, 11-room lodging that dates to 1899. A Texas Historical Marker out front details some of its history as a railroad boarding house. Owner Kathryn Geesaman began an extensive restoration in 2005, and today, the Olle gleams with refinished longleaf pine flooring, modern plaster walls, and decor such as cowhide rugs, leather chairs, Texas-themed artwork, and recreations of the hotel’s original iron beds. The hotel’s central location makes for easy exploration of the town, so we set out on foot to explore further.
One of our first stops was Hairgrove Saddlery & Gifts, just around the corner from the Olle, where the gregarious Jeff Hairgrove holds court over a collection of saddles in various stages of repair. Hairgrove’s shop, a former wagon barn and cotton warehouse, dates to 1878. “In the old days,” he says, “there was a hotel across the alley. When ranchers came to town to trade cattle, or farmers arrived to sell cotton, they’d keep their wagons and mule teams in this building.” In addition to saddles and other equine gear, Hairgrove offers belts, holsters, knife sheaths, and unusual leather items such as potholders and flyswatters, along with wooden items (including hundreds of holiday ornaments) made by area craftspeople. By the time we finished chatting, it was time for a meal.
I’ve explored a lot of small towns, and few can boast a restaurant on par with Flatonia’s Red Vault Bistro, housed in an 1886 building that served as Flatonia’s first post office, and then as a bank. Chef Gabriel Martinot, who trained in Switzerland and France, and his partner, Elizabeth Muguira, stumbled across the building while shopping for antiques, and soon realized it would be a perfect site for their new restaurant. They refinished the longleaf pine floors, hung a teller’s window behind a hardwood bar, and turned the brick vault into a wine cellar stocked with more than 70 varietals. Our pork chops with mushrooms and Chilean sea bass with creamy caper sauce were excellent, and we’re eager to return sometime on a Wednesday night, when guest Chef Gerard Canales serves sushi to a packed house.
Like Martinot and Muguira, many visitors to Flatonia find treasures in the town’s antiques shops. We spent some time browsing the inventory of Lucky Find Antiques on South Main, a rambling shop stocked with antique furniture, glassware, artwork, and curios from around the world.
Modern decor has a presence here, too: At Floy Farm Interior & Gifts on the north side of Main, decorator and florist Victoria Duncan creates whimsical and striking decorative items, clothing, and accessories from recycled materials. Offerings range from skirts, purses, and scarves fashioned from vintage crocheted doilies to an antique tin table refinished in decoupaged green toile. “We repurpose old pieces into something beautiful and usable,” Duncan tells us.
Three miles east of town, our final stop was the local painted church, St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Praha, a stone Czech church that dates to 1895. Elaborately decorated by Swiss artist Gottfried Flury and others, the church’s ceiling depicts a garden with three angels soaring through a blue sky over the altar. Bibles, scrolls, stars, and other images float over wooden columns painted to resemble stonework. The church opens daily for self-guided tours.
As we bumped over the railroad tracks on our way home, we marveled at all that Flatonia has to offer—and all the things we had to miss on this visit. When we return, we’ll have a whole new set of places to see.