Happy New Year!
So many of us start off each new year by looking back, so I thought it was only appropriate to begin 2020 by sharing a place that brings us back to the beginning of Texas: San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site.
Open since April 2018 the San Felipe de Austin Museum is simply one of the most beautifully interpreted historical sites I’ve seen, especially considering there is virtually nothing left of the original settlement. Inside, visitors can interact with touch screen displays to learn details about the settlement, and outside they can walk in the steps of settlers and explore the townsite.
Sitting on the bluff of the Brazos River on the actual site of the former colony it honors the spirit of early Texas pioneers.
San Felipe de Austin was established in 1823 by Stephen F. Austin, known as the “Father of Texas,” as a headquarters for his colony in Mexican Texas. The town had four public squares: Commerce, Constitution, Military and Campo Santo Cemetery.
The first area to visit after paying admission in the gift shop/reception area is a small viewing area for a short film that gives an overview of the history of San Felipe de Austin. Interesting and beautifully produced, it puts the history of the site and people who lived here in context as you continue through the property.
Entering the museum space, the first thing you’ll encounter is a replica of a log cabin. Displays like a spinning wheel and dress-up corner give a bit of information about pioneer life, but make sure you stand for a moment in the space and realize that this small cain would often house an entire family.
A corner across from the cabin holds a field desk that actually belonged to Stephen F. Austin, and display cases contain examples surveying equipment that would have been utilized in laying out the colony and surrounding land grants.
Other displays showcase artifacts recovered during archeological excavations that give visitors a peek into the everyday lives of early Texans.
One of my favorite things about the museum is the number of interactive displays. Adults enjoy them, of course, but as a parent and Girl Scout leader who has traveled with children of all ages, I know how these fascinating exhibits can draw people into history through high tech applications.
Walk up to a lighted, multimedia illustration of the settlement and touch key numbers to learn more about the different buildings (offices, the school, individual homes) and people who once existed there. (And yes, you know that I touched every single one!)
Turn around and walk up to a tabletop display to learn about some of the big decisions the officials of San Felipe de Austin had to make. Once you’ve made a decision about the issue, you can cast your vote, and see the results.
A colonial printing press like one used to print the Texas Gazette, at times renamed the Mexican Citizen, in San Felipe from 1829 to 1832 stands proudly in its own corner, along with a printing plate that . . . yes, really . . . visitors are encouraged to touch.
The display explains the vital role the press played both in the community and in the history of the state:
“The first book published in Texas, written by Stephen F. Austin, was printed by the Gazette press in 1829. In 1835, the Telegraph and Texas Register began operating under the guidance of Gail Borden, Jr. and soon became the unofficial voice of the Texas revolution movement. It also printed many other important Texas documents, including the Declaration of Independence.”
Impressed? I was, too.
I encourage you to take your time and read the descriptions that accompany seemingly small fragments and objects in cases that line the walls. There are priceless treasures and surprises among them.
William B. Travis was a town resident before his death at the Alamo, and he sent his famous “Victory or Death” letter from the Alamo to San Felipe. A ring thought to have belonged to him was excavated from his homesite and is now on display.
After exploring inside the museum, it’s time to expand your discoveries by venturing out the side doors, and into the townsite itself.
A bronze plat map sits on a platform on a covered patio, providing a frame of reference for how the settlement was laid out on the property. From here visitors can follow a mown path through the mown native grasses to visit specific sites within the former town. San Felipe was one of the most culturally diverse communities of its time in Texas. Farmers, explorers, politicians, enslaved and free people of African ancestry, intertribal delegations of local Indians, cattlemen and businessmen populated the thriving settlement.
A tavern, bakery, stores, homestead sites and more await visitors who will quite literally be walking in the footsteps along the same paths these brave citizens did almost two centuries ago.
The Texas Revolution caused the demise of San Felipe de Austin, when the residents burned it to the ground during the evacuation known as the “Runaway Scrape” in 1836. After the fall of the Alamo, Mexican General Santa Anna and his forces briefly occupied the ruins of the town just before their defeat at the Battle of San Jacinto.
Just across the road from the museum are a few more sites you’ll want to explore. A commemorative obelisk marks the exact spot of Stephen F. Austin’s own cabin – the only home he ever owned in Texas. There is also a stoic bronze statue of the Texas hero, a replica dog trot log cabin, active excavation sites, and the original well for the colony.
The large white building is the J. J. Josey General Store, built on the townsite in 1847 and in continuous operation for generations before being moved here for preservation.
Visitor parking is available on site at the museum and limited parking is available across the street.
Allow yourself at least 60 to 90 minutes to enjoy the museum exhibits and the grounds, and be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes as the outside trails are unpaved and the ground is somewhat uneven.
San Felipe is just ten minutes east of Sealy, and the museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. , except for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Even, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
Admission – Adults, $10; Children (5-14), Seniors, Veterans & Austin and Waller County Residents, $5, Family ticket (2 adults and 2 children) $22. For other options and to find out more about he San Felipe de Austin Historic Site, click HERE.
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?
One of the least known and most fascinating museums in Houston surrounds a topic that not everyone is entirely comfortable discussing – funerals.
The National Museum of Funeral History isn’t only a great idea to visit around Halloween, though. The tasteful curation of a fascinating collection from across generations and cultures will soon have you roaming around wondering why you haven’t visited before.
I admit I hadn’t visited the museum since they were in their original, much smaller space so I was wowed by the 30,500 square feet of exhibit space is filled with fifteen permanent displays that explain topics from the lives and deaths of popes, to presidential funerals and the Day of the Dead celebration as well as visiting exhibits.
My favorite room is filled with historical hearses, which will especially amaze car enthusiasts. Rare horse drawn carriages from the 19th century sit beside the actual hearses that carried actress Grace Kelly and U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald R. Ford. There’s even a 1916 Packard funeral bus large enough to hold a coffin, pallbearers and up to 20 mourners.
The museum even has Roy Rogers and Dale Evans parade car…and you have to see it in person to believe it!
Around each corner are unexpected surprises, including a replica of Snow White’s glass coffin and displays of funeral details of the rich and famous.
A collection of fantasy coffins from Ghana, West Africa captures the personalities of the departed. Imagine being laid to rest in a wooden coffin carved to resemble an eagle, a chicken, an airplane or even a Mercedes Benz! They are truly pieces of art.
Other exhibits explain the history of topics like the history of embalming or 19th Century mourning. They’ll open your eyes to a part of history that isn’t often talked about, but can of course be bypassed if you’re with younger ones who you’d rather not have view them.
Rest assured though, there is nothing gory or blatant about any of the displays. And yes, there’s a gift shop with a great selection of conversation-starters to commemorate your visit.
Whether you’re looking for something you consider a bit creepy to visit for Halloween, or an unusual museum that your friends probably haven’t even heard of…this is the spot.
Find days, times, and other information to place your visit here: National Museum of Funeral History.
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.
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.
I thought that when people referred to Palo Duro as the “Grand Canyon of Texas” they were probably overstating things . . . until I saw it for myself.
The second largest canyon in the United States, Palo Duro is 120 miles long, 20 miles wide and up to 820 feet deep. It’s the second largest park in the state park system – 28,000 acres (over 45 square miles) with 28 miles of hiking, biking and horse trails. That’s a lot of territory!
People have inhabited the canyon for about 12,000 years, and its history includes exciting chapters like Comanches and the Goodnight Trail. But This time around our family just focused on the absolute beauty of nature.
Texas bought the land for the park in 1933. Civilian Conservation Corps workers spent five years creating the park, a cabin for their home base, the winding road to the canyon floor, the CCC Trail, and the El Coronado Lodge (now the Visitor Center). The craftsmen used local stone and wood for building materials and furniture, and forged decorative metal ornaments.
After our morning ride along the rim of Palo Duro Canyon (more about that in my last post) we headed to the state park, ready to see more of the stunning scenery. Initially, we intended to swing in for a short visit since we knew the clothes we were wearing (long sleeved shirts, jeans and boots) were perfect for riding, but not for hiking. Once there though, the views lured us further and further into the canyon, anxious to see what was next.
Just a couple of miles inside the entrance, we made our first stop at the visitor’s center (the original the El Coronado Lodge) that was built by the CCC, so it was fitting that exhibits included some fascinating relics of the Corps’ days in the canyon. There’s also a small gift shop, though I’ll mention a more “souvenir-y” option later in this post.
The vistas from the vantage point outside of the lodge were so enchanting, we knew we had to go at least a bit further into the park.
We took Park Road 5 which winds down to the canyon floor, circles clockwise in a 16 mile loop and slowly climbs back up to the rim.
The first, short trail we ventured out on was relatively easy, but it was quickly apparent that at 11:00 a.m. it was already too hot (in addition to inappropriate clothing) for us to take on any of the longer trails. We were still fairly close to the rim, and the canyon floor would be about twenty degrees hotter!
The view from even the least challenging trails are more than worth the effort and heat!
Each one we investigated offered increasingly impressive scenery.
Some of the trails were quite rocky and others were red dirt that I would have expected more in Oklahoma.
Four geologic layers are exposed on the canyon walls, that seem to change color depending on the time of day and season of year – just one of the reasons Palo Duro draws so many amateur and professional photographers.
Once I heard the erosion features referred to as “Mexican skirts” it was hard to get that image out of my mind. It’s really appropriate, don’t you think?
The park provides enough diversity in its habitats to be a comfortable home to quite a variety of wildlife, in addition to part of the state herd of longhorns. Coyotes, bobcats, white-tailed and mule deer, and many species of snakes and lizards. We saw several roadrunners darting across the terrain, which reminded me of living in El Paso when I was little – and the birds seemed to be everywhere.
You might even spot some wild turkeys. Did you know that a group of turkeys is called a “rafter?” There’s your trivia for the day!
Two threatened species also live in the canyon: the Palo Duro mouse (which only lives in three Texas counties) and the Texas horned lizard (the State Reptile of Texas).
Along our driving route we passed several picnic and camping areas. When I return for my next visit (and make no mistake about it…there WILL be a next visit!) I’d love to stay in one of the cabins on site. Imagine waking up to these views.
One of the most pleasant surprises we encountered was fields or wildflowers, as well as individual flooring plants that had stubbornly pushed their way up through the dry dirt. In central and south Texas many wildflowers were already past season in June.
Indian blanket, American basket-flower (shown in photo), sunflower, paperflower, blackfoot daisy, tansy aster, sideoats grama, buffalograss, sand sage, yucca and prickly pear cactus decorated the canyon floor and made the area appear to be more of a place for living creatures than desolate and empty.
Even though we traveled the majority of the distance by car, we drank a LOT of water. Staying hydrated in the canyon (which can reach 130 degrees in summer) is non-negotiable!
But if you think this vast canyon, however arid, couldn’t possibly be romantic I’m here to tell you you’re wrong. Sharing this grandeur (not a word I use lightly) with the ones you love is a memorable experience.
We pulled over one last time at the base of the canyon to check out the trailhead for the famous Lighthouse formation.
The Lighthouse Trail is the most well-known trail in Palo Duro Canyon. It’s considered a moderate hike ( 2.72 miles each way) but having arrived during the heat of the day without the proper shoes, we vowed to return at another time to venture off to see unusual 310 foot tall formation. I walked just around the initial bend of the trail to take a photo (though far away) of the lighthouse, which looked small in the distance.
The park has posted multiple warnings about the danger of heat and dehydration at the head of the trail, and even staffed a tent with a ranger to provide information and advice to people before they set out. Although I certainly didn’t envy her, it was impressive how seriously they took visitors’ safety.
By that time we had worked up an appetite and exhausted our water supply, so we headed to the Palo Duro Trading Post on the rim for a late lunch. They don’t serve anything fancy, but you know those times you’re so hungry everything taste like the BEST (fill in the food blank) ever? Yep, it was one of those days. The staff was friendly, service fast and tables clean. Hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches and hot dogs seemed like the find of the day. And the ice cream? C’mon…what do YOU think?
The Trading Post also offered a fun variety of souvenirs from T-shirts to mugs to jewelry, all very reasonably priced.
Happy with our visit and satisfied appetites, we left the park to go back to the hotel to take off those boots and give our feet a rest before heading out to see more of Amarillo.
If you only have time to visit one place in the Texas Panhandle (and that would be a shame), Palo Duro Canyon State Park should be that place.
When you go, remember to:
Bring and drink water
Wear sunscreen, a hat and protective clothing
Have your camera ready
Bring and drink water
Pick up a map before you head out
Wear comfortable, supportive shoes
And…you guessed it…bring and drink plenty of water!
Do you prefer to hike, bike or drive through sites like this beautiful state park? I’m interested to know!