Texas History: Readers offer hundreds of tips for a West Texas road trip

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
Daniel Garza,, left, and Edgar Garza have their photo taken inside the newly-refurbished visitors center at Fort McKavett State Historic Site on Jan. 13, 2017.

I asked. You answered.

Readers were not shy about responding when I asked, in a Sept. 14 "Think, Texas" column: "What should I see, do and eat on a road trip to West Texas?"

Hundreds of tips poured in through social media — few readers stopped at one suggestion. One single reader shared 31 ideas.

Although I will not be able to make all these cool stops on this particular road trip, I was determined to share a healthy sampling of your travel advice.

I've divided the tips into four categories:

I will do this in West Texas

Several readers suggested that I add two 19th century military bases en route to Fort Concho in San Angelo: The very well preserved Fort McKavett, a state historic site in Menard County, and Fort Chadbourne, located on a private ranch but open to the public in Coke County.

In this photo taken in the late 1930s, Olivet College President Joseph Brewer talks with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writer Katherine Anne Porter.

Author Stephen Harrigan reminded me that the grave of Texas great writer Katherine Anne Porter can be found at Indian Creek Cemetery south of Brownwood. No way I'd miss that.

John F. Henley thinks that the nearby hamlet of Indian Creek is worth a stop: "Look for images of it. If the old school and church still stand — and they were very solid — then it’s a very 'Last Picture Show' kind of experience."

Maline McCalla suggested St. Joseph's Catholic Church in San Angelo: "Years ago  the church  was able to undergo a renovation. I was hired to repair — not feasible — or re-create — which I did — the large ceramic tile mural — 8 feet by 10 feet as I can best recall — on the outside of the church on 17th Street side." 

Among other gems, Bobby Earl Smith convincingly urged an extra San Angelo stop: "Though it may seem like an odd recommendation, the Calvary Cemetery at 1501 W. Avenue N is fascinating to me. My friend Albert Tijerina is buried there. He was the drum major and I was band president our senior years. He got shot down in Laos at a time when our government was denying our presence there. San Angelo integrated its school in 1955, but the cemetery is testament to folks in one part of town buried in one place and folks in another, another. It is a colorful funeral garden contrasted with the old staid cemetery immediately adjacent, separated by a fence."

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Rosemary Moore recommended some San Angelo attractions already in our sights: Fort ConchoHattie's Bordello, Cactus Hotel, Tom Green Country Courthouse and Chicken Farm Art Center. She insisted, too, that I eat at Twin Mountains Steakhouse, "probably the best steakhouse in Texas — maybe the world. Be sure to order 'Scraps.'" 

Blooms in the International Waterlily Collection attract bees as caretakers prepare for Lilyfest on Saturday, Sept. 15.

Lisa Harris, who visited San Angelo not long ago, hoped that I would take in the Danner Museum of Telephony and International Waterlily Collection: "Early April turned out to be too early in the year to see a full waterlily display; now would be a much better time to see that." Ellen Jeschke agreed that this flowery attraction was a must-go: "People come from all over the world to see it."

Laure McLaughlin was among readers who recommended a special exhibit at the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts: "Asked my father, Mark McLaughlin, if he had anything to add — he’s lived in San Angelo 50+ years and is 90 now. He suggested an exhibit put together by Howard Taylor at Fort Concho, 'Caseta,' that is now housed at the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts (as part of) the Center for the Advancement and Study of Early Texas Arts. Paintings from the early 1900s are collected and displayed."

Jackie Martin, who has served on several community boards in San Angelo, sent in more than 10 sterling tips.

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My favorite: "At the risk of shameful self-promotion, I will introduce our company, Anodyne Wool. Our four-generation, family-owned business sources and processes 100% of the wool used in all U.S. military dress uniforms, as well as providing wool to companies worldwide. You would be welcomed to tour our warehouse for a sense of how wool is processed and shipped."

I am so there.

Sam Young had a similar suggestion: "You might be interested in visiting the Aermotor factory at 4277 Dan Hanks Lane. The history of Aermotor windmills is quite a story. If you go there, they will give you a tour and if you mention my father's name, Peck Young, they will know who you are talking about."

Multiple readers, including Micky Dorsey, Harry Olmsted, Bobby Earl Smith and John T. Wende, recommended the Cactus Book Shop in San Angelo. Dorsey: "Great collection of Texana and Western history."

If there's a bookstore anywhere — I found three in tiny Glen Rose on an earlier road trip — I'll be there.

I hope to do this in West Texas

Clearly, there is no way to take up all the marvelous tips. If convenient, however, I'd add these:

Fred Fuchs advised three food and drink stops: The town of Eola, which beckons with a brewpub in an old schoolhouse; Wines of Dotson-Cervantes located in Pontotoc, a stop that comes with the life story of an African American football player named Alphonse Dotson; and chicken fried steak at Henry's in San Angelo. "May be the best in Texas." 

Many steakhouses made our readers' lists. Gene Bates, who attended college at what is now Angelo State University sent me an enthusiastic endorsement along with football lore: Western Sky Steakhouse "is the place to chow down, at as well as the Angry Cactus."

Mel Daniels shared a very particular tip: "I never go through Brownwood near meal time without eating at Underwood's Cafeteria. My wife and I order one meat, and then put on several vegetables — at no extra cost — and have more than enough for a 90 year-old-man and his wife. Clearly the best bargain and best tasting food in Texas."

Jack London has a special reason to send me to the Dove Creek Battlefield, located near the village of Knickerbocker southwest of San Angelo, where Confederates fought Kickapoos: "An ancestor of one of my high school classmates named Keahey was killed in the battle."

A Black Chinned Hummingbird is displayed after being banded during an event at the Hummer House in Christoval on Saturday, March 27, 2021.

Pamala Mathison efficiently sent me a spreadsheet on San Angelo-area attractions, including "Hummer House in Christoval is special, too ... the hummingbirds migrate through in May, but I'm not sure when they migrate back." In fact, the hummers are in full migration right now!

Walt Wilkins intuited that I'd need to take a break from history, nature and art: "There is a completely unique bar and live music venue in downtown San Angelo called House of FiFi Dubois. Cool hang, and surprising maybe. There is a boot company based downtown, too, called Ranch Road Boots. Cool owner with a cool story. I’ve bought two pair so far."

Similarly, Teresa Drisdale recommended refreshments in Brownwood, along with means to find out more: Teddy's Brewhaus (on Facebook), Tr3s Leches bakery (on Facebook), Baked Artisan Goods (on Facebook), and the Turtle Restaurant (on Facebook).

Brownwood native Patti Halladay also focused on Brownwood hotspots, including: Steves’ Market and Deli, located at 110 E. Chandler St., is owned by two delightful guys, both named Steve, and provides amazing healthy, tasty food. They are only open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., so plan accordingly. Phone number is 325-646-6676."

Alice Adams sent me scintillating stories about football legends, polio patients and World War II prisoners of war in San Angelo and Brownwood. Had to share this one, which relates tangentially to Hattie's Bordello: "When a tent city sprung up on the river bank, opposite Fort Concho, one of the most popular and frequent guests of this pop-up 'Sin City' was Lottie Deno, a humdinger of a poker player, who began her legendary journey from Fort Worth to San Antonio to Fort Concho and up to Albany — north of Abilene — before marrying her long-time boyfriend and went with him to New Mexico, where they became respectable citizens of the town.

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"Lottie could beat the hound outta Doc Holliday at the poker table, but remained friends with Doc's gal, 'Big Nose Sally.' Lottie may have worked for the local madam in St. Angelus — before it became San Angelo — when card tables were slow."

Mrs. Lou Dove Wirht provided me with a tantalizing prospect: "My uncle was one who helped build Camp Bowie in Brownwood. He then became a member of the 36th Division, serving in the European theater of World War II. I must say I have not visited the site of Camp Bowie and understand that not much is left to remind one of World War II days. It does hold an important place in our history, however." 

Wayne Walther of Lockhart had several tips ready for Runnels County, located in the middle of our planned itinerary: Rowena for the To Our Liberty monument, the Horny Toad Brewing Co., and the latest iteration of the Lowake Steak House. Also Ballinger for Pompeo Coppini's statute of cowboy Charles H. Noyes: "The young man pictured was killed when his horse stumbled — on a prairie dog hole? — and his parents commissioned the statue as a memorial."

I likely won't get to these West Texas spots this time

Several readers suggested their favorite haunts in Alpine, Marfa, Big Bend National Park, Fort Davis, Balmorhea, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, McKittrick Canyon (for fall colors) and Big Spring. Alas, these top attractions lie far out of the range for this particular trip's itinerary. 

The lobby of the Hotel Settles in Big Spring, Texas, where Lyndon B. Johnson and Herbert Hoover both stayed.

Since we are visiting historic hotels in Brownwood and San Angelo, readers such as Mary Paige Huey urged me to head further up the road to Big Spring to see the beautifully restored Hotel Settles: "It was quite a place back in the day. My father, Paige Benbow, was the general manager in 1931, and it was a hub for special area events. I have a lot of memorabilia from his days there; my sister, Ann Benbow, was born there in 1933 where the family resided in the penthouse."

Huey passed along some charming pictures of the Settles Hotel, always appreciated.

I probably won't make it up to Cross Plains on this trip, but have noted what Jeb Boyt said about the author of the "Conan the Barbarian" series and that whole fantasy subgenre: "Visit the Robert E. Howard Museum. ... REH’s grave is in Brownwood. On Main Street, the library has some of REH’s manuscripts and correspondence. Across from the library is mercantile with some great early 20th century architecture."

A young Robert E. Howard (right) and friends do an early attempt at "cosplay" as pirates in this photo.

On the other hand, a side trip to Cross Plains is starting to sound pretty attractive.

Jay Simpson recommended the Regency Bridge, a one-lane suspension bridge over the Colorado River in San Saba County. I once tried to find this "swing bridge" while tracing 50 Texas rivers, and could never pinpoint its location. Maybe now with better maps loaded onto mobile devices the magic will happen.

Not actually in West Texas, but super tips for road trips down the line

Just the term "road trip" excited some readers, who kindly sent me toward points that are actually north or east of Austin. You can bet that I will spend more time in these spots, and I hope you do, too.

John Bernadoni, for instance, is a big promoter of his ancestral Galveston. He sent in no fewer than 31 tips for time spent there: "I can think of no other city in Texas with a richer history than this extraordinarily unique island. ... Would be happy to expand on these elements and more should you need my help. Tally ho!"

Suzanne Madley told me about the New Zion Missionary Baptist Church’s Barbecue in Huntsville. Wish I'd known about that joint this June, when I visited the unsettling Texas Prison Museum in that East Texas city. (My Instagram joke attached to a picture of my sainted mother smiling below a barbed wire fence: "I put my mom through the Scared Straight program at the Texas Prison Museum.")

Advertising wizard Tim McClure urged a detour northward to Corsicana: "Site of the first oil well west of the Mississippi and Fruitcake Capital of Texas, thanks to the Collin Street Bakery’s legendary deluxe fruitcake — I know, I know, fruitcake? Need more? I’m from there, a.k.a the Adman Who Coined the Legendary Anti-Litter Battle Cry, 'Don’t Mess With Texas!'” 

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

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