Did you say pie? Well, I don’t mind if I do! (And who could resist these smiling faces even if you tried?)
At the Lost Maples Cafe in Utopia food is the first order of business, but the friendly, fun ambiance definitely makes it a favorite with tourists and regulars. The decor is country tongue-in-cheek, but the welcoming atmosphere is genuine.
You know how I love historic buildings, and this one definitely comes with a colorful story. Built before 1904, it has served as a Masonic Lodge, a doctor’s office, a drug store and a classroom. The cafe has been serving up Texas-sized roadhouse fare here since 1986.
Grab a table when you arrive and – if you’re in the mood – prop this sign on your table to invite some chatty company to sit a spell with you.
At any given time of day the tables surrounding yours are likely to be serving a combination of ranchers, leather-clad bikers, tourists and church ladies. It feels like a wonderful combination of community center and diner.
Since it was a slightly chilly night when we visited, my friend and I ordered a patty melt and a BLT sandwich. Thumbs up to both, but what I really had my eye on was the pie safe.
Deciding which slice to order was one of the biggest challenges of the day (these things are important, ya know!), and I finally decided on fudge pecan. The choco-holic in me was definitely not disappointed! The portions are overly generous (if that’s possible), and if you’re a fan of meringue pie you’ll especially fall for the mile-high toppings.
While we were there we visited with a handful of the locals who went from table to table visiting friends and sharing the latest local news. We also heard one of the adorable waitresses exclaim what a busy night it had been with five to go orders to prepare.
Yes, things really do stroll along at a slower pace in Utopia, and thank heaven they do.
If you’re staying in the area of Vanderpool or Utopia, you’ll need to remember this cafe out of necessity as well since it’s pretty much the only “real” restaurant around, and stays open past 5:00 p.m. when the streets “roll up” in the area.
If the photos of this cute little cafe look a bit familiar, it’s probably because you saw it in the movie “Seven Days in Utopia,” starring Robert Duvall. As neat as that is though, its enduring fame will be for the tasty food rather than its acquaintance with Hollywood.
And what to do after you stuff yourself with all of this goodness? Well, just waddle across the street to Sarah’s Utopia, a charming gift shop with an equally charming proprietress.
I dare you to go in there without leaving with a bag of cute items and a smile on your face. Pun-ny sayings on signs and dish towels, yummy smelling candles, seasonal decorations, yard art, and . . . well, take my word for it and stop in. This is one adorable shop.
A little comical for a town motto perhaps, but it reflects a pride in the heritage of this little town.
Settlers first arrived in the area of Rice, Texas in the late 1860s, and by 1872 the Houston and Texas Central Railway was built through the area.
The town was named for one of the railroad owners, William Marsh Rice who was the namesake of Houston’s Rice University as well. Rice also donated land to the community for a church and cemetery.
By 1890 Rice boasted a cotton gin, steam gristmill, two grocery stores, three general stores, a blacksmith shop, two wheelwrights, druggist and about 75 citizens. Pretty impressive, right?
Unfortunately almost half of downtown was destroyed by fire in 1901. The side of charming buildings that survive on the north side of what was once a busy street are shuttered, but charmingly picturesque. Step up onto the raised brick sidewalks to get a glimpse through the windows of interiors that have surely seen more than their share of stories.
At the corner is the local bank building, where some locals say the infamous Bonnie and Clyde carried out a bank robbery. Though rumors of the criminal duo robbing the local bank may have more to do with spinning a good yarn, they reportedly did stay at the hotel that used to be downtown. Photos in the Pioneer Village in Corsicana evidently offered proof of that part of the tale.
With roofs caving in, restoration looks doubtful. Rice isn’t a true ghost town but many of its residents work in nearby Corsicana as local businesses have shuttered.
Take the time to visit remnants of vanishing communities like Rice before the opportunity disappears. Walking in the steps of those who lived before us gives us a unique glimpse into their lives you won’t want to miss.
Driving through Central Texas recently, I made a detour to visit a Fairy . . . and the tiny town named after her.
In a state that likes to brag that “bigger is better,” the town of Fairy Texas in Hamilton County named themselves after a surprisingly diminutive member of their community.
Originally known as Martin’s Gap it was named after James Martin, a settler killed by local Indians in the 1860s while driving cattle through a “gap” between two mountains in the area. He was buried at the foot of one of those mountains.
As you can see from the map, it isn’t “on the way” to anywhere particularly…but it’s worth a road trip diversion.
When a post office was requested for the town in 1884, locals renamed it “Fairy” to honor Fairy Fort Phelps (1865-1938), the daughter of Sallie and Battle Fort, a former Confederate Army Captain and lawyer.
One of the smallest Texans ever, Fairy was just 2’ 7” tall and weighed about 28 pounds. Her size didn’t stop her from leading a somewhat normal life and becoming one of the most beloved people in her community.
Her namesake town once had a cotton gin, school, general store, café and businesses to serve the ranchers in the area.
Fairy had four younger brothers: Henry; Hugh Franklin; William “Battle,” Jr; and Walter Herbert – all of whom were average heights.
Fairy and her father taught area children at a school in their home for many years. One story reflects how respected and well liked she was by her students. The tale states that it became necessary for Fairy to paddle an unruly student, but she couldn’t high enough. The student himself lifted his teacher onto a chair so she could paddle him.
The petite young lady even married twice, once to William Y. Allen in 1892 and again to T. J. Phelps in 1905, but both marriages ended in divorce. Probably not surprisingly, she never had children, but she did live into her 70s and is buried with her parents at…yes…Fairy Cemetery. The sign on the gate alone is enough to back you look twice.
Fairy’s post office closed in 1947, and the school consolidated with Hamilton schools in 1967. A Baptist church, community center, volunteer fire department, a few homes and one historic cemetery are all that endure.
The stories of a petite woman who lived life to the fullest remain with the residents, and those who stop to visit her gated grave.
The tiny town’s cemetery is interesting on its own for a variety of style of distinctive, handmade grave markers. Many exhibit expert stone carving skills, but others include one constructed of petrified wood and another meticulously covered with sparkling, local minerals.
Oh….and if you’re curious what locals are called, they are “Fairians.” How cute is that?
It’s impossible to roam the halls of Mineral Wells’ 14-story Baker Hotel without uttering the stories of its hauntings. And while I look forward to sharing more about the history and state of the hotel itself in my next post, Halloween calls and insists that we revisit their stories once more.
Now closed to the public the once luxurious Baker was one of the most popular resort destinations of its day.
Now the graffiti covered walls with their flaking paint and the crumbling walls and ceilings create what seems to be the ideal home for the numerous phantoms that are said to roam the premises.
Climb the front stairs, turn on your flashlight and join me for a visit with the Baker Hotel ghosts.
15-year-old Douglas Moore earned a job as a passenger elevator operator at the grand hotel two years after his family moved to Mineral Wells.
On January 16, 1948 Douglas arrived early for work and went to the basement to catch up with his friends working maintenance shifts. Teenage talk turned to horseplay and Douglas began to play with the service elevator at the base of the stairs, jumping in and out when it was in motion.
Mind you, this was in the days before safety features would keep doors from closing entirely if something (or one) was in the way.
You see where this is going…and it can’t be good.
One of his friends notice that Douglas hadn’t jumped quite far enough to get his body totally inside the elevator compartment on one attempt, and pulled the young man’s legs to try to get him out. Tragically, he wasn’t quite fast enough and Douglas was caught between the doors and floor of the rising elevator, crushing him at the abdomen.
Even more gruesome, it was half an hour before help could dislodge him and get him to the hospital, where he died of his injuries.
As if his fate wasn’t horrific enough, lore states that he had actually been cut in half and that apparition of merely the top half of the unfortunate teen has been seen throughout the basement. According to his death certificate was an exaggeration of his fatal injuries, however.
Visitors have said that those who call the young man’s name aloud will feel a cold rush of air push by them…but it’s best not to tempt him while standing too close to the elevator shaft. The teen might just be lonely for a bit of company after all these years.
In an odd coincidence, his only brother Thomas was also killed as a teenager in a horrific accident while at his job in Mineral Wells.
BAKER, BUT WHICH ONE?
Earl Maynard Baker, nephew of the hotel’s found Theodore B. Baker, managed the Baker Hotel for over 40 years and lived in its Presidential Suite. After a string of contentious years with his family, spouse and even the community, Baker had a heart attack in his suite and subsequently died in the local hospital.
Reports say that he (or perhaps his uncle, the original resident) endlessly paces the rooms, now only a shadow of their former elegance. When the hotel was available to guides of ghost tours it was customary to knock before entering the suite as a form or respect…or perhaps to avoid his fiery temper.
Visitors to the area have claimed to smell cigar smoke, and to have small items from their purses or pockets come up missing…only to be found on the premises by tour guides later.
Whichever Baker may remain, he certainly has a sense of humor!
The most famous spectral resident of the Baker is the lovely apparition of a ghost with red hair and green eyes. A porter of the hotel first saw her in the 1960s.
Known as the “Lady in White” she is believed to be the former manager’s mistress Virginia Brown, she flirts with men whom she finds attractive and resents the intrusion of other women in her suite at the southeast corner of the 7th floor.
Apparently the woman, distraught from the affair, committed suicide by jumping to her death from the window of her room (or the roof, depending on which version of the tale is told).
Her distinctive lavender perfume wafts throughout the floor; a red lipstick was even found by a maid on the rim of a glass when no one was staying in the suite.
The most restless spirit in the hotel, she refuses to be confined to one floor as she was in life, and the clicking of her high heels can be heard on the lobby floor.
I couldn’t find a Virginia Brown that would fit her age range and profile living in Mineral Wells at the time, though there were three others with the same name.
Whatever the name of the permanent guest, she is not to be taken lightly.
HIGH DIVE DURING COCKTAILS
The parties held in the Cloud Ballroom on the 12th floor were legendary, and guests often enjoyed themselves to excess.
One intoxicated woman actually tried to jump from the ballroom balcony into the pool below and naturally died in the attempt. Versions of the story say that she may have been racing her boyfriend who fled down the stairs to the pool deck and others that perhaps she may have received an unfriendly push.
Now she paces along the balcony considering her fate.
The Cook and the Maid
One of the persistent tales linked with the Baker is that of a hotel cook who was having an affair with one of the chambermaids. The legend states that the hotel’s cook was having an affair with one of the maids. The story goes that the woman threatened to expose their relationship to the cook’s wife, causing him to fly into a fit of rage and stab her to death in the kitchen pantry.
It’s said that female visitors have reported hearing a woman’s voice telling them to leave when they entered the kitchen.
Not surprisingly there doesn’t seem to be any evidence to support that such a murder too place – though the hotel’s food was reputed to be “to die for.”
Considering the fact that many visitors to Mineral Wells came in search of thee curative properties the local spring waters were said to possess, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that not all cures were successful.
The spirit of a little boy about six-years-old plays in the hallways of the hotel, accompanied by his large, shaggy dog companion. A visiting medium claims that the boy communicated to her that he passed away in 1933, when his parents brought him there seeking treatment for his leukemia. He tends to be watched over by the spirit of an older woman who remains nearby, and try to gain visitors attention by bouncing his rubber ball.
Any hotel that has had some many people pass through its doors has seen its share of tragedies, and the Baker is no exception.
In 1944, a federal civil investigator – probably assigned to Camp Wolters- threw himself out of a window from Room 919. The FBI is said to have investigated, but no foul play was found.
In 1952, a man rented a room, went upstairs and cut his throat.
In the 1940s one man murdered another man in the lobby, reputedly over a private parking space. The murderer was found guilty, but released…enough of a reason for any victim to roam in anger.
Stories have also circulated about a spooky, secret network of tunnels beneath the hotel. There is one known passageway that leads from the hotel the pool on the property, and it’s possible that originally extended northeast to the original water tower (now a parking lot for a Methodist church). No other tunnels have been discovered but just the possibility can cause a shiver.
Although it doesn’t have stories of specific haunting attached to it, the hotel spa on the second floor is unarguably one of the creepiest areas on the property. It’s difficult to say whether that feeling is due to the archaic equipment crumbling in place or the general atmosphere.
The “Brazos Room”
When a group of World War II veterans and their spouses toured the hotel, multiple people in the group heard voices chatting, orchestra music playing and the sound of dinnerware and utensils being used. This occurrence seemingly had not happened before or since that day. Maybe their recognized their contemporaries?
With the Baker Hotel now receiving long overdue renovations and restoration, the ghosts of the famous inn will hopefully have plenty of living company very soon.
Which floor would you choose to stay on?
I’ll admit that because Irish (my maiden name is Shanahan), I loved the town of Shamrock even before I arrived just for it’s cute name. What I found is a place that’s adorable for much more than just the moniker it’s had since its first postmaster named it in honor of his Irish mom at the turn of the last century.
TOWER STATION & U-DROP INN
Of all of the unique stops we made along Route 66 in the Texas panhandle, this small town just 15 miles west of the Oklahoma border had one of the most recognizable buildings to fans of the Pixar movie “Cars.”
The Conoco gas station and diner at the corner of Highway 83 and Route 66 inspired the design of Ramone’s “House of Body Art” paint and body shop in the film. If you’ve seen the movie, you’re sure to recognize it immediately.
This Art Deco-lover’s dream was designed by Pampa architect J. C. Berry and built by James M. Tindall and R. C. Lewis in 1936, for a whopping $23,000. Quickly nicknamed the “Tower Station,” it was the first commercial business Shamrock had on Route 66.
Made up of a streamlined gas station and office, a diner named “U-Drop-Inn” (get it?), and a retail space that was soon incorporated to expand the popular diner.
The brick and concrete building sculpted with curved Deco relief curves has two side canopies, and two obelisks sitting on top. The tallest tower over the service station and is almost 100 feet in height. Topped with a metal tulip and adorned with letters spelling “Conoco,” it succeeded in luring in passing tourists. Glazed green and gold terra cotta tile walls and blazing neon light trim added to the attraction, day and night.
Reported to be “the swankiest of swank eating places” and “the most up to date edifice of its kind on the U.S. Highway 66 between Oklahoma and Amarillo” it quickly became one of the most fashionable stops on the Texas stretch of 66.
In addition to drawing tourists in from the road, the U-Drop was the place local parents would sit and visit on Saturday nights while their kids were at picture show at the Texas theatre down the street.
Open 24/7 it had a reputation for friendly waitstaff and delicious food, and was surely a welcome sight for tired, road-weary travelers.
John Nunn, the original owner, passed away in 1957 and the structure changed hands a few times. In the 1970s the station was converted into a Fina station. But the new era had begun when traveling was more focused on the destinations than the adventure of traveling itself, and Route 66 sights took a back seat.
James Tindall, Jr., the son of one of the builders, purchased the landmark in the early 1980s, but closed it in 1997. Ironically that was the same year it was added to the national Register of Historic Places.
Two years later the First National Bank of Shamrock purchased the iconic building and donated to the town of Shamrock. A careful restoration was completed in 2003 recovering its Art Deco charm.
Repair of the station included the use of 508 linear feet of LED lighting to replace the original neon, which was often damaged by harsh Panhandle weather.
Luckily for today’s travelers, the Tower Station complex has been turned into a Visitor Center and small memorabilia museum where you can get a feel for what it was like in its heyday, and sit in Elvis Presley’s favorite booth! They even have era hats to use as props in your photos. The shop also carries a small assortment of Route 66 souvenirs.
Travelers now come from all over the world once again to visit the Tower Station. One of the ladies volunteering in the shop pointed out that they has already had people there from over 100 countries this year alone.
What you might not expect to find is a row of Tesla car chargers in the side parking lot, but the juxtaposition of old and new is pretty darn neat.
Kiss It, It’s Irish!
One of Shamrock’s biggest claims to fame is that it has a piece of the actual Blarney Stone from Ireland.
If you aren’t familiar with the original Blarney stone, it is a large piece of limestone built into the battements of Blarney in Cork. According to legend, kissing the stone will endow the kisser with the “gift of gab.” As a writer, I think that could come in pretty darn handy!
In a tiny strip of property named Elmore Park on East 2nd Street, sits an allegedly theft-proof, crash-proof (for wayward trucks, I assume) concrete cylinder with a neatly cut piece of the legendary stone embedded in the top. The landmark is Irish green – of course – and has a depiction of Blarney Castle painted on the side by a talented local artist.
A bronze plaque explains that the stone was placed there on March 17, 1959 (St. Patrick’s Day) by Texas Secretary of State, Zollie Stearley. According to the Shamrock official who brought it to town, the segment of stone was accidentally knocked off of the original at Blarney Castle. Local lore says that the chunk’s arrival was so important that Shamrock’s mayor called out the Texas Highway Patrol and the Texas National Guard, who reportedly stationed a sub-machine gunner atop the drug store as the stone was wheeled into town. If it isn’t quite true…well, it sure makes a good tale.
And if it IS true, I bet it made for a great show.
If you didn’t know the Blarney Stone was in the park, you might stop anyway just to snap photos of the cute signs depicting St. Patrick and a leprechaun. But since it is, well…what harm can a kiss do?
Shamrock is also home to a different sort of “tower” – the tallest riveted water tower in the state….and you know how we Texans like to build the biggest and best. I must admit I’ve never seen such attention and documentation given to a town water tower. It’s definitely worth a few minutes to wander the lot where it stands downtown and take in some of the old photos, informational plaques and murals that explain how they constructed this monster. Taking into consideration that it was built in 1915 and cost just over $6,000, it’s pretty impressive..
Shamrock also still has a handful of motels that have survived several reincarnations since the days of Route 66, and a beautifully restored 1926 Magnolia gas station.
You’ll thank your lucky stars – or clover – if you take the time for a stop in Shamrock.
Watch out, it’s about to…huh…maybe not.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Leaning Tower of…Groom?
It’s not everyday you see a water tower leaning this precariously. There are stories that it was side-swiped by a tornado (not unheard of in the Panhandle), shaken by a tremor (not so likely) or even struck by a wayward aviator. But the real story behind the popular roadside attraction in Groom, Texas is much more inventive.
Ralph Britten, owner of a restaurant and truck stop along Route 66 purchased the water tower from the nearby town of Lefors, about 35 miles away. After hauling it all the way to his land he learned that the tower couldn’t serve its intended function because it didn’t meet code requirements.
Considering his options, Britton came up with the idea of using the power as an attention getting gimmick for his business. He had “Britten USA” painted on the reservoir and, using only a bulldozer to lift the tower into place buried one side part way in the ground while leaving the other appearing to be suspended in midair. Yep, two of the tower legs are actually hanging above ground, with the tower itself leaning at an 80-degree angle to the ground.
Pretty neat trick.
For those of you who appreciate the physics and engineering aspect of this feat, you’ll be interested to know that Britten partially filled the tower with water, which put its center of mass near the base directly above the two supporting legs. If the tower had been either fully filled or left empty, the angle would have caused it to topple over.
Even if the mechanics of it don’t interest you, it’s hard to resist stopping to take a look at the popular roadside attraction. It served its purposed drawing customers to the café and fuel stop until they were destroyed by fire a few years ago. All that remains is the tower and the remnants of the Tower Truck Stop sign.
The tower is still holding its ground, though and is one of the most photographed Route 66 oddities in Texas.
The leaning tower isn’t the only claim to fame in the small town of 535 people though. It also is home to a short stretch of the original Route 66, and the seventh-largest freestanding cross in the world (190 feet tall)…both of which travelers could zoom past if they weren’t on the lookout.
Groom was also the inspiration for Cross Canadian Ragweed’s song “42 Miles” which basically laments about a car breaking down in the town just 42 miles from its intended destination. If you’re curious, you can hear the song here.
The leaning tower is just off the interstate, and a photo opp will only take about five minutes of your traveling time – well worth the stop before heading out to see the next offering of Route 66.
Out of all the stops we made during our Route 66 trip, one was hands-down my teenage daughter’s favorite. She got to spray paint, explore and take lots of fun photos having the place all to herself almost the entire time we were there.
So many travelers pass up the Slug Bug Ranch in Conway, Texas without even knowing it’s there and they’re definitely missing out.
If you’re looking for a cuter, smaller scale roadside attraction than the famous Cadillac Ranch, the Slug Bug Ranch in Conway, Texas is for you.
Also known as the Bug Ranch, VW Ranch and Bug Farm, it may be less famous and quit a bit smaller than it’s Cadillac Ranch inspiration, but it’s just as fun…maybe a bit more. It’s certainly less crowded!
But it didn’t always look this way.
The Longhorn Trading Post and Rattlesnake Ranch and gas station was opened by the Crutchfield family in 1967 on I-40 to lure tourists traveling down Route 66. The abandoned Conway Motel and Café sits on the next lot.
Unfortunately by 1970 more than half of the population of the small town moved away. In 200 Conway only had 20 citizens, and two years later Love’s Truck Stop was built on the opposite site of I-40 taking away much of the business the Crutchfields depended on.
The owner plotted a parody on Amarillo’s Cadillac Ranch to bring travelers back across the overpass. Using off-road equipment, Crutchfield buried five Volkswagon Beetles nose down in the ground outside his shop.
He built it, and they came…at the ready with their spray paint cans. The new attraction drew the attention of media and tourists, but wasn’t quite enough to safe the business. The family abandoned the decades old business in 2003, but the VWs remained – bumpers in the air.
We pulled into the parking area at the Bug Ranch, avoiding the broken asphalt and potholes, to discover there was only one other person on site. A nice surprise after the crowds at the Cadillac a couple of days before!
As we piled out of the car getting our camera gear ready, the man came over to give a friendly warning not to climb into the Bugs and uttered the word that will always get me to take notice, “Snakes.”
He asked me if I wanted to see one, and of course I said yes! As we leaned slowly into the cab of the first car body we could easily see a slithering occupant that would prefer the tourists leave him alone. Enough said (and seen). We thanked the man for the heads up, and he drove away.
Luckily just because we weren’t going to climb inside the cars didn’t mean we couldn’t still paint on them (cautiously) and take lots of photos – which is why we were there.
We wandered around the VWs with a few leftover spray paint cans from our visit to the Cadillac, happy to take our time. Just like the Cadillac, the cars were mere shells without windows or tires. A few still had doors, though they were permanently open due to the combination of weathering and paint.
What is it about VW Bugs? Even when they are in scrap metal shape, they’re still so darn cute! And I think all of the colorful paint made them even more so.
After adding our little bit of color to the metal canvases, we moved on to the other antique car on the lot. This one was still in an upright position and had seats, though they aren’t ones that would have been comfortable to sit in for more than a moment. I carefully checked for slithering residents before hopping in for a quick photo – because I couldn’t resist. But please note, I’m not suggesting that you do the same!
There were three buildings accessible on the lot as well, and countless people have visited and left their marks. The one closet to the cars was in the most intact condition, but wasn’t very intriguing after an initial look around.
The two other buildings, which had served as a curio shop and gas station years ago, had obviously enticed more visitors to come inside and let their creative juices flow.
Barn swallows have nested inside the curio shop and swooped at us protectively if we got too close to their nests, so we gave them plenty of room. Someone’s note on an old table top that “Birds don’t exist” made us chuckle since we had just been dive-bombed by some feathered residents.
Earlier visitors had left artistic and not-so-artistic contributions, Bible verses, poems and jokes. It was obvious that some had come prepared with a plan and some (like us) just shot from the hip.
My daughter couldn’t resist spray painting some positive messages for others to find, and taking in the designs left by others.
There were more rooms past the main area, but due to the ceiling caving in and piles of what was probably insulation we didn’t venture back in that area.
While she was adding her graduation year to some old theatre seats outside, I spotted a family with young kids near the VWs and wandered over to share the snake warning with them.
Their horrified expressions told me they had already been inside the vehicles. They said they had put one child at a time inside the one where a snake was clearly visible if you looked, and taken several photos. Yikes! They considered themselves lucky, but decided to get the heck out of there and on down the road.
The abandoned gas station had the least graffiti, though there was quite a bit there including warnings of a zombie apocalypse. (Good to know!) There were also quite a few dangling electrical wires that, though I’m certain weren’t hooked up to anything any more, I would definitely not want small children (or distracted adults) around.
All in all, the three of us had a good time exploring the property and actually stayed quite a bit longer there than we originally planned. Even if you can swing in for a couple of minutes though, I’d recommend it. Where else will you see a field of VWs planted in a row?
These Bugs have fun written all over them – literally! To find the Slug Bug Ranch and leave your own mark, take Exit 96 off I-40 and turn south. It’s open and easy to find, just about 30 miles outside of Amarillo.
If you’ve heard one thing about the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, it’s probably about the challenge: eat a 72 oz. steak in an hour and your meal is free.
While that may sound like a deal to a hungry cowboy, there’s actually a specific list of eleven rules that must be followed. There’s actually a “full meal” surrounding the 72 oz. steak that has to be eaten including shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad and roll with butter. It’s a twin meal to the champion of the very first competition at the restaurant consumed.
Holy Heartburn, Batman!
When Bob “R.J.” Lee opened the Big Texan Steak Ranch in 1960, on the iconic Route 66 touting “huge, Texas-size steaks,” many of his regular customers were cowboys who came for dinner after working in a nearby stockyard. Lee noticed that out-of-town visitors were fascinated while watching these Texans try to “out eat” each other.
As the story goes, one Friday night in 1962, Lee pushed several tables together in the center of the dining room, sat all the voracious cowboys together and told them he wanted to see who could eat the most one-pound steaks in an hour. The cost would be $5 per participant, and whoever won got to keep everybody’s entry fee.
These cowboys obviously had no intention of turning down the dare.
One fellow with a hearty appetite downed two steaks in just ten minutes…but he didn’t stop there. He requested a salad and shrimp cocktail with his third steak, and a baked potato and bread roll with his fourth and fifth. By the time the hour was up, he had devoured all the sides and four and a half pounds of steak (72 ounces).
In response to the cheering crowd, the excited Lee stood on a chair and shouted that from that day forward, anyone who could eat the entire 72 oz dinner in one hour would get it for FREE…and the famous challenge was born.
It became the restaurant’s biggest claim to fame and was advertised on billboards from Arkansas to Arizona.
In the early 1970s when Highway 40 replaced Route 66 as the major thoroughfare, Lee and his family purchased land alongside the new highway to build a bigger, expanded version of his steak house dream.
The original cowboy sign that greeted visitors for years was moved to its new location by helicopter! That would have been a sight!
If you take the steak-eating challenge today, you are seated at a table on a stage platform in the restaurant, so everyone can watch your progress as the large digital clock above you counts down the hour allowed. Want to see if anyone is attempting it right now? Check out the live stream of the challenge table here.
Now, I had no intention of attempting such madness, but I did want to check out the restaurant. I wasn’t prepared for how fun and HUGE it is!
Pulling in to park between the steak house and it’s Old West theme hotel next door, visitors are greeted by the legendary cowboy sign as well as a towering statue of a boot wearing dinosaur propped in two-story tall sticks of fireworks.
Wait….what? A dinosaur? Well, you just know there’s a story there too! Bobby and Danny Lee, “R.J.”s sons who now run the business share memories of seeing dinosaur statues on a special vacation that took their family across the historic Route 66. “Dino” smiles down on their patrons to remind them that “it’s not always about the destination, it’s about the journey getting there.”
When you venture inside, be prepared to wait for your table at this popular restaurant. Once they hand you your pager, don’t just sit and wait for heaven’s sake…explore!
Out back is a large covered beer garden (they have their own craft brewery on site) with live music, old-fashioned games, photo opps that include a stagecoach, huge rocking chair, 18-foot-tall cowboy boot and more.
Inside try your luck at a carnival style shooting gallery where you can take aim at western targets like rattlesnakes, bad guys and bobcats as well as Frankentein, zombies and Dracula. Who needs Halloween?
Outside be sure to check out the Texas-shape swimming pool, the motel, a horse hotel (yes, actually for horses), and RV park. And be sure to look down, because this attraction’s attention to details goes right down to imprinting cattle brands in the sidewalks.
The gift shop has every version of a kitschy souvenir that you can think of, and a few you probably can’t. The night we were there, it was so crowded with tourists looking for that silly something to commemorate their visit that we needed to scoot sideways down the aisles to make any progress. (These are the times a good sense of humor comes in handy!)
Once our pager alerted us it was time to chow down, the hostess lead my family into an immense, two-story dining room where chandeliers of antlers and wagon wheels hang from the ceiling.
We felt like we were walking onto a saloon set soundstage of Bonanza or Gunsmoke, complete with swinging doors, taxidermy mounts, spindle railings, and the cowboy-hat-wearing waitstaff.
Just about everything – including the margaritas – are garnished with some of the biggest jalapenos I’ve ever seen.
While we waited for our food we enjoyed the two gentlemen who strolled the dining room playing western classics tableside for the diners. I kept my fingers crossed they would come our way, and lucky for us they did, asking for requests. (A personal note here: please be sure to tip entertainment like this as the tips usually make up the majority if not all of what they are paid for the pleasure they bring!)
Kids meals are served in a cowboy hat that the kids can keep as a souvenir. My teenage daughter wasn’t hungry enough to eat one of the over-sized meals and asked if she could order from a children’s menu. The waitress smiled and said she could as long as she agreed to put on the hat afterward. Good sport that she is, she agreed and did…and no, she would NOT give me permission to post that particular photo.
I couldn’t resist getting the southern classic chicken friend steak and have to say it’s one of the best I’ve ever eaten. I was relieved that it wasn’t plate-sized as well, but still couldn’t finish it off.
The vintage look Route 66 / Texan Steak House pattern china was a great touch as well and didn’t go unappreciated.
If you have any room left for ice cream after all that…they have an ice cream bar in the main, too! Be sure to at least stop long enough to taste a sample…it’s worth it. Then you can wobble back to your car.
Generations of visitors have come The Big Texan and often share photos with the owners. It’s a tasty tradition. Bobby says he never tires of hearing their stories.
Just a note: one fun thing we didn’t find out about in time is a complimentary limo service to and from the restaurant! The Big Texan offers a complimentary limo pickup from most hotels, motels, and RV parks in Amarillo, as well as Cavender’s Boot City, and The Starbuck’s on I40 and Grand. Not just any limo, of course! A stereotypical limousine complete with longhorns mounted on the front. Pick-ups start at 4:00 and they drive customers home until everyone they brought is delivered safely back where they are staying. Check their website for the number to make a reservation for this unique shuttle.
For someone who, as a little girl, devoured anything having to do with the Old West the Big Texan was like stepping into a little slice of good-humored heaven…even before the food arrived. As a kid I would have eaten it up. But it was just as much fun as an adult.
When you hear “National Park Service,” you’re more likely to think of nature and hiking trails, but it also oversees other historic and natural landmarks, and national heritage districts as well. Surprised?
Amarillo is home to one of these unique designations. The U.S. Route 66 Sixth Street Historic District is a 13-block stretch between Georgia and Forrest Avenues that provides a perfectly “populated” break for your trip across the Texas section of Route 66.
Situated on a section of city’s Sixth Street (also called 6thAvenue…but that must not have been as catchy) that temporarily merged with the well-traveled Route 66, this stop is far from being your typical Route ghost town.
The district and its surrounding San Jacinto neighborhood was originally a streetcar suburb located west of Amarillo’s main business district.
A member of the National Register of Historic Places since 1994, it includes Amarillo’s most intact collection of commercial buildings from the Route’s heyday. Architecture lovers will spot elements of Spanish Revival, Art Deco and Art Modern designs.
The Bussey Buildings (originally home of the first licensed beauty school in Texas), and Borden’s Heap-O-Cream (one of a chain of dairy product stores) are just two examples of historic buildings that have found new life in the district that now includes over one mile of art galleries, restaurants, antique stores, specialty shops and bars.
The Natatorium, which is easy to spot because of its castle-like roof crenelations, was formerly an indoor swimming pool converted into a ballroom when Route 66 came to town. One of the hot spots in the area, it featured performers like Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey. It even had an underground tunnel to the Alamo bar next door. Now the large space offers shopping from over 100 vendors of antiques, handcrafts, jewelry and home decor.
My daughter and I love antique and vintage shops, so we started our venture at Antiques Plus (2712 SW 6th Street) at one end of the district with a plan to take them all in order. We were immediately charmed by this beautiful shop. Antiques for me, and vintage clothing for her…and a comfortable place for my patient husband to sit and wait for us! Her selection was reasonably priced, and the sweet, chatty manager behind the register had great recommendations for our visit to the district.
If you’re an antique lover, art collector or just love browsing interesting shops, you definitely want to add this district to your Route 66 itinerary.
There is no shortage of shops to visit and enjoy and we soon found that many were not only dog-friendly, but had official canine greeters as well. One of the most well-known is Lady at the Lile Gallery. You may have come to browse the inventive art (including items made from chipped off paint from the Cadillac Ranch), but Lady will certainly get the majority of your attention. Not surprisingly, the owner told us that many people come by just to meet or visit with the sweet pup.
Luckily, there are plenty of cafes and restaurants to choose from when your feet need a break: Mexican, burgers, pub grub, barbecue and more. And if your shopping hours take you into the evening, you’ll want to choose one of the venues that also offer live music.
The Blue Crane Bakery (2332 SW 6th) got a unanimous thumbs-up from everyone in our family. We stopped by this hip, family-owned bakery at the end of a long day to pick up a sweet treat after a long day of playing tourist. Their freshly made Italian sodas are worth the stop alone, let me tell ya!