Texas Heritage for LIving (Spring 2019): 7 Historic Downtowns of TExas
These seven towns provide a unique perspective on our state in all its curious splendor.
BY DAVID HOPKINS
People have called Texas home for a long time. Spanish explorations of the region predate the pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock by almost a hundred years, and the inexorable westward expansion of the frontier soon followed.
Something about this state has always held an allure for certain industrious, independent-minded people, and that’s resulted in a lot of rapid growth. But even as areas across Texas tear down the old to make room for the new, you can still find those quirky small towns fiercely holding on to their historic appeal.
Sometimes offbeat, occasionally endearing, and always interesting, these seven towns aren’t too far from more popular attractions — and they provide a unique perspective on our state in all its curious splendor.
Bluebonnets / Blue Bell
Most Texans know the picturesque town of Brenham as the home of Blue Bell ice cream. If you want to visit the creamery, tours are limited to the observation deck, though a visit to the Country Store and Ice Cream Parlor makes it worthwhile. Wildflowers are the other true highlight of this town. Visit in the blooming season for the full indigo splendor of the bluebonnet fields. Downtown, there’s no shortage of antiques stores, and the Home Sweet Farm stands out as a surprisingly hip destination.
Close to: College Station
Must see: Bluebonnets, Blue Bell Creameries, and Home Sweet Farm
Best time to go: March and April
Little known: Brenham is the homeplace of the “World’s Largest BBQ Pit.”
Martian Landscapes / Modernism
Canyon is the Panhandle’s front door to the magnificent Palo Duro Canyon. Downtown, find a variety of shops, restaurants, and seasonal activities. The recently revitalized courthouse square has become a trendy destination. You shouldn’t miss the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum on the West Texas A&M University campus for regional exhibits, either. But it would be a true waste if you visited Canyon and didn’t catch the Texas Outdoor Musical, which runs only during the summer. It’s an entertaining show with sentimental Texas kitsch and a breathtaking scenic backdrop.
Close to: Amarillo
Must see: Palo Duro Canyon State Park, the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, and the Texas Outdoor Musical
Best time to go: Fall and spring
Little known: Artist Georgia O’Keeffe lived here for two years and was greatly inspired by Palo Duro Canyon.
Arcades / Trails / Tiny Dogs
These small-town days are coming to an end as Austin continues to grow and residents look to nearby Buda (pronounced “BYOO-duh”) for a convenient escape. It’s a shame, because nothing matches the incredibly quaint small-town feel of Buda. For example, if you visit during the last weekend of April, you’ll catch the annual Wiener Dog Races, which is as adorable as it sounds. The trails of 51-acre Historic Stagecoach Park are worth the trek, too. In the evening, try your hand at classic arcade games and enjoy live music at Pinballz Kingdom.
Close to: Dripping Springs and Hamilton Pool Preserve
Must see: Historic Stagecoach Park, Pinballz Kingdom, and the Wiener Dog Races
Best time to go: Last weekend of April
Little known: Buda has been dubbed the “Outdoor Capital of Texas” due to its high percentage of parkland.
Irish Pride / Golf / The Birth of Soda
This town typifies so much of what we love about small towns. Dublin is a little out of place and out of step with the homogeneity of the suburbs and cities, but that’s not a bad thing. Once the home of the world’s oldest Dr Pepper bottling plant, the newly dubbed Dublin Bottling Works still exclusively makes sodas with cane sugar. Golf aficionados should pay homage to the legendary Ben Hogan, who grew up here, with a stop at the Ben Hogan Museum. And true to its name, Dublin has an epic, family-friendly St. Patrick’s Day celebration every year.
Close to: Stephenville
Must see: Dublin Bottling Works, Ben Hogan Museum, and the St. Patrick’s Day celebration
Best time to go: March 17
Little known: Dublin is the “Irish Capital of Texas.”
Antebellum Architecture / Hauntings
The border town of Jefferson has turned its local history into an oddly compelling reason to visit. The town is proud of its pre-Civil War homes, churches, and more bed-and-breakfasts than you would think possible for a town of its size. A mecca for ghost hunters, Jefferson boasts one of “the most haunted places in Texas” — The Grove — and the spooky Kahn Hotel, with its tragic, gruesome story of a bride-to-be and her disapproving father. Reserve a spot on a ghost walk on Fridays and Saturdays. Not too far from the Kahn, catch a beautiful evening stroll down the lighted train trestle.
Close to: Arkansas and Louisiana borders
Must see: Kahn Hotel, lighted train trestle, and canoe and kayak rentals
Best time to go: Fridays and Saturdays
Little known: Historic markers dot the main thoroughfare, with nearly 100 landmarks in the town.
Desert / Stargazing / Wild West
Just 20 minutes out from the popular far-west hipster destination, Fort Davis equals Marfa in stunning desert prairie. And it offers a bit more activity. Wait until dark and join the Star Party at the McDonald Observatory (on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays). The winding mountain road to the observatory is in itself something to remember. The downtown has an Old West charm without feeling like a tourist trap. The Fort Davis Drug Store & Hotel and the Davis Mountain Broom Shop are two of its quirky, memorable businesses. Also check out Texas native Robert Haspel’s photography at the Wild Rose Gallery.
Close to: Marfa
Must see: McDonald Observatory, Wild Rose Gallery, Davis Mountain Broom Shop, Rattlers & Reptiles
Best time to go: Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays
Little known: Fort Davis is the highest town in Texas, with an elevation of 5,050 feet above sea level.
Country Music / Cowboy Life
Amazingly, some people have lived their whole lives in Texas and never gone horseback riding. If you don’t want to be one of those people, go get your cowboy credentials at Bandera’s ranches and riding trails. You can easily start your day at The Alamo in San Antonio, drive for about an hour, and end it on the trail with a campfire. Check out Old West, pioneer, and prehistoric paraphernalia at the Frontier Times Museum and hit up the 11th Street Cowboy Bar for some good live country music. Wednesday night is “Steak Night.” Bring your own meat. They’ll provide the grill for you to use.
Close to: San Antonio
Must see: Frontier Times Museum, 11th Street Cowboy Bar, and Bandera Historical Rides
Best time to go: Wednesdays
Little known: Willie Nelson named an instrumental song after Bandera.
(Originally published in Texas Heritage for Living, © 2019 Texas Farm Bureau Insurance)