Seguin’s Nutcracker Museum: All It’s Cracked Up to Be

     Most people only think of nutcrackers around Christmas but Kenneth Pape, owner of Pape Pecan House in Seguin, spent over 50 years collecting over 8,000 classic, obscure, comical and yes – even naughty – styles of the useful mechanisms.

     Since 1961, three generations of the Pape family have been involved in the pecan business. They sell everything from pecan trees to harvesting equipment, but most customers stop into the store for edible treats including several varieties of the freshest pecans you’ve ever tasted, chocolate-covered and candied pecans, pecan oil, and more.

 

     With a family legacy like that, it’s pretty clear how his interest in nutcrackers came about. Pape began collecting nutcrackers in the 1950s during his travels, with many of the classic styles coming from Germany. Over the years, friends and family would send them to him as gifts, and a fellow collector even willed his own gathering to add to Pape’s growing assortment. Estate sales, garage sales, antique stores, flea markets were his resources until her discovered ebay…and the collecting floodgates really opened.

      One of the largest assortments of nutcrackers in the world, this nutty collection is housed in a 3,375 square foot museum that spills from the front room of the store to an additional space lined with shelves from floor to ceiling.

   Nut picks, nut bowls and vices that would splinter the stubbornest nut; hand held and tables mount styles, of wood, metal, plastic and stone crowd every inch of space in view.

     Browse to your heart’s content and discover whimsical depictions of Santa Claus, sports figures, likenesses of politicians, sultans, bishops, snowmen, leprechauns, “Naughty Nellies” (shaped like ladies’ legs),  characters, movie characters, traditional soldiers, ballerinas, birds, alligators, rabbits, dogs and oh-so-many squirrels!

     Somewhat appropriately for the Texas store, a towering nutcracker cowboy guards a sample table.

Aurelia

     Pieces from the nutcracker collection aren’t for sale, but it’s unlikely you’ll leave without something tasty to take home. But before you drive off, be sure to take a photo with the world’s “Largest Mobile Pecan” just outside. It’s one of two giant pecan displays in town. The other sits on the courthouse lawn in town.

     Admission to the museum is free, so “nut-urally” you’ll want to add Pape’s to your list of roadside stops if you’re in the area.

     Kenneth Pape unfortunately passed away on October 8 2019. His wife Zee is now sole owner of the operation. Pape’s stepson passed away several months previous, and his daughter now lives out of state so it is uncertain who will take over. Hopefully someone with a love for the area’s nutty heritage will find his or her way to the helm.

 

 

     But before we hit the road, I’m curious…do you pronounce it:

pee-can

pi-kahn

pa-con

pee-cawn

     However you say it – they’re delicious!

Pape Pecan House

5440 S. Highway 123 Bypass, Seguin

Monday – Friday, 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., Saturday, 9:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m.





Somerville’s Lone Indian

     Driving down Highway 36, it’s a bit of a surprise to see a lone (quite large) Indian statue kneeling in a pasture. And when you do, ya just know there’s a story behind it!

     In 1936 a new restaurant opened at 6151 Main in Houston, across from the original Rice Stadium. Bill Williams’ Chicken House was one of the few places along Main near the campus, and offered students a place to eat on weekends when there was no food available at the dining hall.

     Word about the delicious fried chicken quickly spread, and it became one of the most popular places to eat in the area.

     The Chicken House had a dining room as well as a drive-in, and an upstairs banquet hall with room for 200 guests.

     When business declined due to competition ad the economy in the mid-1940s, Williams added an oyster bar and added seafood to the menu. Happy diners in 1946 could purchase a dozen oysters for 70 cents!

     Around the same time, Williams replaced a rooftop sign of two Native Americans cooking over a campfire with tall, fiberglass statues of the same scene. One Indian knelt on one knee holding a skillet over the fire, and the other supervised, sitting cross-legged across from him. At night, the campfire was lit with flickering lights to simulate flames. You won’t find depictions of Native Americans cooking in skillets in most history books, but the eye-catching display became one of the well-known roadside attractions of the day.

     Williams was also a generous philanthropist and supporter of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

     The restaurant closed in 1973, and Williams passed away eleven years later at the age of 72.

     James Wheeler was a member of the demolition crew that razed the Chicken House. He bought both of the Native American figures and moved them to his family’s property in Fort Bend County. When that property was divided, Wheeler used his money to purchase a home near Lake Somerville in Burleson County and took the figure holding a skillet with him. The other figure remained in Fort Bend, and its current whereabouts are unknown.

     Wheeler later sold his Somerville home, the new owners insisted that the Indian be left on the property, but later decided to dispose of it.

     Dennis Griffin and his wife made an offer on a whim, and ended up as its new owners, moving it to its current location. He’s considered a sort of a mascot in Somerville, whose school mascot is a Native American from a mythical tribe. Mysteriously appropriate, don’t you think?

     So the next time you’re cruising down Highway 36 through near Somerville, keep an eye out for this unusual piece of restaurant history that…at least for now…has finally found a permanent home.




Lost Maples Cafe – Pass the Pie, Please!

     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 Town So Nice, They named It Rice”

   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.

Brick sidewalks

   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.

Bank windows
Former bank building

   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.

The question remains…but the legacy is for sale.

   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.


Interior of building on main street.

   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.

Did You Say . . . Funeral Museum?

     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.

 

 

A Kiss for Luck: Shamrock Texas


     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.

BLARNEY STONE

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?

WATER TOWER

     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.





Groom – Leaning Tower

     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.

Vintage Postcard of the Tower Fuel Stop

     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.

Conway’s Slug Bug Ranch

     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.

The Trading Post as it originally appeared.

     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.”

Snackes in the Slug Bug Ranch
See anyone hiding in here?

     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.

Empty Trunks at the Slug Bug Ranch
Shadows of Empty Trunks

     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. 










Hey, ‘Mater – Check out Combine City!

     Rev your engines and head out to Combine City for a chuckle-worthy spoof of Amarillo’s famous Cadillac Ranch.

     
Even though I went in search of this unusual sight about ten miles southeast of Amarillo, seeing it in person brought to mind visions of Tow Mater and Lightning McQueen out tractor-tipping in the animated Pixar movie ‘Cars.’

 

     See the resemblance? Gotta love people with a sense of humor and the gumption to make a vision come true! And…just for the record…this installation began several years before the 2006 movie was released.

     If a Cadillac buried bumper-up in the ground is considered art…why not a tractor?

     In 2002 when Orville Ladehoff finished stripping the all the usual parts from his 1970 combine, he didn’t think it was worth the effort to cut the ‘carcass’ up to sell for scrap. His wife Gracie suggested that he just bury it…and that gave Orville an idea.

     After digging a hole with his backhoe, the farmer slid the combine in with the front end rearing upward. Since the two-acre field he executed this feat in is next to Farm to Market Road 1151, other locals quickly noticed, and began bringing their own worn out combines to add to Orville’s collection.

     He even purchased a few more, stripped them of parts and brought them to the ‘herd’ as well. The collection dates from the 1950s to the 1970s.

     The last of the fourteen combines from to be planted (Orville prefers that word to “buried”) was in February 2008. But visitors still come to take photos – even senior photos, writers still pen articles about it, and the field of up-ended combines is still bringing smiles to all those who seek it out.

      Read more about the Cadillac Ranch that inspired Combine City here.

 

 

Holy Cow, It’s the Big Texan Steak Ranch!

     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.

     I highly suggest putting the Big Texan Steak Ranch at the top of your to-do list when you visit Amarillo. Just be sure to bring your appetite!