On the West Texas road again: 10 must-see spots to visit in historic San Angelo

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
San Angelo is an oasis of sorts for singular sites, including the International Waterlily Collection, where new strains of water lilies are cultivated.

SAN ANGELO — Every time I drop by this small but spirited city on the Concho River, I learn more about its people, places, culture and history.

On a recent road trip to West Texas, a traveling buddy and I — with the advance help from "Think, Texas" readers — picked out 10 indispensable sites to visit in San Angelo.

I share them here in no particular order:

Felton Cochran, Cactus Book Shop owner, watches over his store from the front desk at 4 East Concho Ave.

1. Cactus Book Shop

Hands down, this is the state's best book store for the Texana and Western genres. Owner Felton Cochran started by building up his own vast collection. Then he sold a selection in a storefront on East Concho Street that grew and moved next door as other serious collectors discovered Cactus Book Shop.

A longtime friend of prolific Western author Elmer Kelton, whose classic "The Time It Never Rained" is often listed among the best Texas books, the shop owner helped drive the campaign to raise a statue of the San Angelo resident, who served as farm-and-ranch reporter for the San Angelo Standard-Times, at the Tom Green County Library System's downtown location. 

I made three purchases: John H. Jenkins' "Basic Texas Books," a surprisingly snappy annotated bibliography of essential Texana resources; Gus Clemens' helpful and well-illustrated "The Concho Country," which Cochran recommended as the best single-volume history of the San Angelo region; and a fresh, new copy of Kelton's classic. 

Everything is priced as it should be, therefore the rare books, mostly out of my price range, are dear. Upcoming: I hope to profile shop owner Cochran. (www.cactusbookshop.com)

2. International Waterlily Collection

When I first heard of this place, I thought it was some kind of geographical joke. San Angelo, after all, is located not all that far from the Chihuahuan Desert, depending on how you define that seriously arid area.

Yet this crossroads city — built on trails, railroads and highways — is also none too distant from other Texas ecological regions, as defined by Texas Parks and Wildlife, such as the Rolling Plains, High Plains, Crosstimbers and Prairies, and the well-watered Edwards Plateau.

In addition, it rises among the many springs that feed the branches of the Concho River.

More:Texas history: Forts evoke a rough and isolated, but well-ordered, frontier life

So this water garden, snug in the folds of Civic League Park, is not so incongruous. It consists of a half dozen well-tended tanks where old and new breeds float in tandem. Ken Landon is credited with creating the "Texas Dawn" variety, designated by the state legislature as the official water lily of Texas in 2011.

The garden is free and open to the public 24 hours a day. Perhaps that's why signs posted to prevent guests from picking the valued blooms insist that to do so is considered a felony. 

After exploring the lilies of the ponds, we wandered down through the park to a glade where we were met by a magical flock of migrating monarch butterflies, our second such blessing of the trip. We then marched up to a lovely rose garden that needs some tender loving care.

The Railway Museum of San Angelo, run by volunteers, is packed with railroad memorabilia. Upstairs, find amazing miniature train landscapes.

3. Railway Museum of San Angelo

We almost skipped this museum. Many Texas towns operate a railroad museum, often, like this one, located inside a renovated depot. We were glad to ignore signs that it might be closed to visitors this day. (Volunteers, who run the place, were decorating for a scary seasonal event.)

The main galleries in the 1910 Santa Fe station — restored in 1996 — are packed with railroad memorabilia, including a fully outfitted telegraph office. I learned here that the standard width of railroad tracks came from the chariot ruts in British Roman roads, and that the American rail industry imposed the current four time zones in the Lower 48 after the previous confusing or overlapping zones caused deadly train wrecks. The U.S. Congress followed their lead.

Upstairs one finds a half dozen rooms outfitted with detailed miniature train landscapes. A warning about the full-scale train counterparts parked outside: You can examine them, but they sit on the other side of an active track.

Outside, volunteers Bruce R.R. Partain and Linda Bond filled us in on San Angelo rail lore, as well as living history produced by the museum, and I later learned more from Partain on social media, almost enough for another trip. (www.sanangelorailway.org)

4. San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts

I wrote about this gem of a museum soon after it opened in the 1990s. Its three stories, set high above the Concho riverwalk, were designed to look like a Conestoga wagon — not a saddle as I had once guessed. 

Although art activities kept the bottom floor busy on the Saturday we visited, the two upper-level art galleries were mostly bereft of visitors. Upstairs, we lingered at a sweet show of fabric art; downstairs, we took in a retrospective by Maurice Schmidt, a South Texas artist who employs vivid images, some taken from Judaism. Good news: Schmidt has gifted this art to the museum.

In advance, several readers urged us not to miss the "CASETA" exhibit at this museum. Yet none of the staff or volunteers that day had ever heard of CASETA, which stands for Center for the Advancement and Study of Early Texas Art. A call to a CASETA contact later solved the mystery: This active group had indeed put together the two shows we had seen.

Be sure to go out on the upper deck, which offers a priceless view of the city. (www.samfa.org)

The Chicken Farm Art Center in northern San Angelo was a real chicken farm. For decades, however, it has been home to dozens of artist studios and a funky collective culture.

5. Chicken Farm Art Center

No San Angelo site received as much advance love from our readers as this little post-hippie complex dropped from heaven. Echoing the Orange Show in Houston or the Cathedral of Junk in Austin, the complex, established in 1971 at 2505 Martin Luther King Drive, looks like an explosion in a folk art factory.

On closer look, the varied art is highly skilled if idiosyncratic. 

"Originally founded as a place for artists to live and produce art work, the Old Chicken Farm Art Center flourished throughout the '70s and '80s, and housed 22 studios and a bronze foundry in addition to Allen's Clay Studio," reads a sign at the site written by Roger Allen. "In 1991, the back half of the property was sold and the foundry closed. The scaled down Art Center continues with the ebb and flow of the artistic world, with the '90s seeing a focus on ceramic classes. A diversity of major events keep the resident artists and friends busy."

Regular studio tours and open houses turn into small-scale festivals around the hallucinatory courtyard. A café and inn await out back. 

The nearly treeless, blue-collar neighborhood that spreads out around the center deserves a closer look, too. We tooled around to see Maline McCalla's mural at St. Joseph's Catholic Church not far away on 17th Street. (www.chickenfarmartcenter.com)

6. Pop Art Museum

I don't know who masterminded this large, informal grouping of pop art imagery inside a roofless downtown San Angelo building, but the place is inspired. The jarringly hued courtyard — most of old San Angelo dresses in desert brown — is not precisely graffiti and not exactly mural art. Instead, it is an eye-opening homage to the pop art era.

While we were at the site, several groups of young people gathered to take selfies, and I can see why; this is Instagram central. Like some other Texas cities and towns, San Angelo has clearly encouraged outdoor art in recent years. I'm ecstatic to see so much of it well-maintained. (sapopartmuseum.com)

House of Fifi Dubois is an excellent club in downtown San Angelo with a laid-back vibe.

7. House of Fifi Dubois

This is the best club I've visited in years. Also, the first during the pandemic. Man, I missed a good nightclub.

Long and deep, House of Fifi Dubois fills an old commercial structure downtown. Warm and welcoming, its crowd easily mixed old and young; gay and straight; country and city; Black, white and Hispanic. To tell the truth, I can't think of an Austin club this supremely laid back.

According to the host at the door, it was once a place to sell antiques, then a place to drink beer among the antiques. Now it's a place to drink, chat and dance. (www.fifidubois.com)

8. Cactus Hotel

On our first day, we raced to downtown San Angelo to make an appointment with Nancy Gant, who runs the special events business at this 1928 looker of a hotel, built by chain founder Conrad Hilton. The first floor lobby and the second floor ballroom were decked out for what looked like a grand wedding. 

These railroad-era West Texas hotels often stand empty, or half empty. The Hotel Settles in Big Spring has been famously redone. Work on the Baker Hotel is underway, my sources in Mineral Springs tell me, and a redo of the Brownwood Hotel in Brownwood is in the works.

Built with steel-cage technology and necessary elevators, the Cactus is still, at 14 stories high, the tallest building in town. Gant took us and some prospective clients to the top floor, which offers inspiring views. She told us that almost every floor is now filled with offices, residences and retail businesses.

That topmost room, however, showed water damage. Gant said that a new roof is high on the owner's agenda.

During our trip, we dined at two nearby eateries that came with a lot of character and gratifying food: Miss Hattie's Restaurant and Cathouse Lounge and the Angry Cactus. (www.cactushotel.net)

The Pop Art Museum in San Angelo is an open-air collection of murals, sculptures and other valentines to the Age of Pop Art. As you can imagine, it's also an Instagram magnet.

9. San Angelo State Park

I'd visited this large, beautiful park once before while tracing Texas rivers over the course of 10 years with another traveling buddy. Draped along the western shores of O.C. Fisher Reservoir west of the city, the park can be accessed through multiple entryways. Nearby one can see meadows reserved for longhorn and bison herds, but on both my visits, the iconic ungulates remained well hidden.

We took the 3-mile Roadrunner Trail, which led through thickets of mesquite, prickly pear, agarita and wildflowers. We birded a bit, and were rewarded with the sight of a flock of a dozen or so magnificent scissor-tail flycatchers, which I normally see solitary or with just one partner. Later I read that they gather in pre-migratory groups of up to 1,000! (tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/san-angelo)

10. Fort Concho and more

Although I covered Fort Concho in last week's column on West Texas forts, I didn't want to leave it off any list of essential San Angelo sites. If you are a pedestrian, it can be reached on foot from downtown, not far from the San Angelo Art Museum and Rail Way Museum of San Angelo. (fortconcho.com)

Like many West Texas cities, central San Angelo feels half empty. Heck, Austin was almost that way a few decades ago. But this city and others are coming back. Over the course of two days, we discovered all sorts of churches, courthouses, historical markers, pocket parks, street festivities and pop-up events.

Texans who race by San Angelo along its wide highways, or even those who venture into town along its seven-lane spoke thoroughfares, might be tempted to think that nothing much is going on here.

Scratch beneath the surface.

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