What should I see, do and eat on a road trip to West Texas?

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
Reenactors fire a ceremonial artillery shot at Fort Concho on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020.

"Think, Texas" is overdue for a road trip.

This time, I'm planning a long weekend in October around historical sites in San Angelo, Brownwood and Paint Rock. Two of those three communities — San Angelo and Brownwood — are homes to sibling newspapers in our USA Today chain.

I need your help.

After making a list of historic sites to visit, I realized that, almost always, readers have even better ideas than I do about what constitutes Texas history on the ground.

They tend to recommend, often after a column has already been published, scrumptious food and drink offerings available near the sites I'd visited, as well as local characters whose stories would have been worth recording.

This time, I'm collecting the tips in advance. Send yours to mbarnes@statesman.com.

Here's what I've got on my list so far:

Fort Concho: I've visited this pristinely preserved frontier fort in San Angelo twice before, but always in a hurry. Research in the archives of the San Angelo Standard Times indicates that, in fact, the outpost on the Concho River bustles with activity year-round — reenactments, demos, all sorts of living history. 

Established in 1867, Fort Concho was at first home to the H Company of the Fourth U.S. Cavalry. The quartermaster's commissary and storehouse, built in 1868, is the oldest building in San Angelo. Soldiers from this fort mapped much of West Texas and periodically fought against Native Americans, which in this area would have been primarily Comanches and Apaches.

"By 1879, Fort Concho was an 8-company post with some 40 permanent structures built of locally quarried limestone around a parade ground that measured about 500 by 1,000 feet," the Handbook of Texas online tells us. "The fort's stone buildings included stables, blacksmith and carpenter shops, a forage house, an ordnance storehouse, a guardhouse, a powder magazine, a pump house, a bakery, a hospital, an administration building and a schoolhouse that was used also as a chapel."

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Historic downtown San Angelo: This spot on the Concho River started out in 1870 to service Fort Concho, but it grew into a small city primarily because of railroads. Like many other rough frontier towns, it was characterized by saloons, gambling and prostitution. I've lunched at a popular downtown eatery called Miss Hattie's Restaurant and Cathouse Lounge, whose history is somewhat muddled, according to a recent report in the Standard Times.

The Cactus Hotel in San Angelo.

The Santa Fe Railroad arrived in 1888, and the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient in 1909, cementing San Angelo's place as a trade center. Besides the railroads, ranching, farming, military bases, and the oil and gas industry have contributed to the city's growth. At one point, it was a major nexus for goat and sheep ranching that supplied the military with wool for uniforms.

This trip, I'm particularly interested in the ornate Cactus Hotel, built by Conrad Hilton in the 1920s, now mostly a wedding venue according to its website. Like so many other railroad stops in West Texas, its tower can be seen for miles before you reach town by car.

Chicken Farm Art Center: The first few times I heard about this arts magnet, I confused it momentarily with a certain famous former bordello outside of La Grange. Opened in 1971 by artists Roger Allen, Bill Rich and Richard Ramirez, this communal center that includes studios and display space also doubles as a music venue with food and drink. I've never been, but from images published online, it looks like a heavenly bit of hippiedom dropped onto the arid plains of West Texas.

San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts: I wrote about this lovely spot, built roughly in the shape of a saddle, soon after it opened in 1999. At the time, it was superior to any permanent visual arts space in Austin. Long before these bright, airy galleries opened, the museum was housed in the quartermaster's building at Fort Concho.

I'm intrigued, too, by a place called the Pop Art Museum, an open-air gallery located a few blocks away from the Museum of Fine Arts in an empty, roofless building. It's not far from the imposing Tom Green County Courthouse, built in a classical revival style that makes it seem more suited to Washington, D.C., than West Texas.

Railway and Heritage Museum of San Angelo: Makes sense to open a railway museum in a city built chiefly by the railroads. It is housed in a handsome 1910 passenger depot that also served as the Texas corporate headquarters of the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railroad. It operates as the local history museum as well.

Old Concho County courthouse in Paint Rock: This severely beautiful building stands like a frontier French villa in a tiny town of fewer than 300 residents. I've always wanted to talk my way inside the restored 1886 gem, but I've come through Paint Rock on holidays or weekends in the past. Rare for Texas, it is built in the Second Empire style.

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Indigenous pictographs: Outside of the town of Paint Rock on private land, one can tour some of the most striking pictographs in the state of Texas. Hundreds of images of humans, animals, handprints and strange geometric shapes adorn limestone bluffs overlooking the Concho River.

The place is open year-round, but guided tours must be scheduled in advance. I've seen the pictographs at Seminole Canyon near the Pecos River, but not these, considered at least 1,000 years old and among the largest Native American sites in North America.

In a paper given to the American Astronomical Society in Austin, archaeoastronomer R. Robert Robbins of the University of Texas Astronomy Department reported on his observations of an unusual seasonal interplay of sunlight discovered among many of the Native American pictographs found at Paint Rock, Texas.

Barrow Foundation Museum: I ran across the name of this place while hovering over Google maps. It's out in the middle of nowhere near Eola southwest of Paint Rock. Established by Ernest and Dorothy Barrow, it includes memorabilia from ranching life, including a tractor-powered 1930s sheep-shearing machine, and items picked up on world travels.

Santa Fe Depot and Harvey House Museum in Brownwood: We know who you are: Right now you picture Judy Garland dancing along the railroad tracks in the 1946 Technicolor movie musical, "Harvey Girls," while blasting out "On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe."

That merry and highly romanticized show is built around the uniformed women who ran the historical Harvey Houses, which included restaurants, dorms for the workers and guest rooms. I've never seen one. This particular restored complex also serves as Brownwood's visitors center.

Brown County Museum of History: According to its website, this Brownwood museum takes the guest from the days of the "Penateka Comanche and the earliest Texan settlers to the World War II-era Camp Bowie military collection and modern soil and grass conservation at the Colonel Burns Ranch." County history museums in Texas are sometimes just for hardcore history buffs, but this one looks to be thorough and well-curated.

The Brownwood Hotel

Historic Brownwood Hotel: OK, these relics of the railroad era have fascinated me my entire life. You are driving across the wide open spaces of West Texas and you spot on the horizon a curiously tall tower. Some of the more famous ones are in Big Spring, Mineral Wells and Sweetwater.

(The book to read is "Historic Hotels of Texas: A Traveler's Guide" by Liz Carmack.)

Some of them, like the Cactus Hotel in San Angelo, were built with steel-cage technology by Conrad Hilton, who started his hotel empire in the railroad town of Cisco, where you can visit the Conrad Hilton Center housed inside the first Hilton Hotel.

The 12-story Brownwood Hotel was built in 1930. According to a series of stories in the Brownwood Bulletin by Steve Nash, the vacant place is structurally sound and developers remain interested. It is closed for safety reasons, but maybe your columnist can talk his way into a tour.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.