Free Fossil Hunting in Mineral Wells…Can Ya Dig It?

     When I was a kid I wanted to be an archaeologist when I grew up.

     Now mind you, this was in the days (dark ages) before the Indiana Jones movies, so my parents didn’t quite know what to do with this aspiration, other than try to direct me elsewhere.

     I’ve never quite gotten over my fascination with archaeological dig sites, and recently I went to the Mineral Wells Fossil Park where visitors can dig for and keep fossils over 300 million years old!

   Think of it as the fossil equivalent of searching for seashells along a beach.

     Mineral Wells Fossil Park is a primitive, unique site that’s a fascinating place to explore by yourself or with your family. Offering eight acres to comb, the park used to be the city’s “borrow pit,” which is an area where dirt is taken from to fill other areas. The resulting pit eroded over the 20 years it was used, exposing thousands of fossils from the Pennsylvanian Period.

     It’s one of the few parks in the nation where visitors are legally allowed to remove fossils from the site, taking home true treasures.

     There is plenty of parking in the gravel parking lot, where you’ll also find clean, portable toilets, but no running water. If you’re going to want to wash your hands or rinse off a bit after your outing before you re-enter your car bring an extra jug of water.


     Take time to read the informational signs in the parking lot. They’ll help you to identify things you might otherwise overlook.

     If you’d like to take along a “cheat sheet” click this link to find a handy, printable reference sheet of fossil types, courtesy of fossilcentre.com.

     The park is primitive in more ways than one. You may encounter dangerous insects or animals (it IS their turf, after all) so keep a sharp eye out for them. And once you descend into the pit, don’t expect your cell phones to work. See? Magic – time travel.

     Follow the path to the pit (there’s one way in and one way out to minimize damage to the site). A chain handrail will help steady your balance on the rocky soil as you follow the walkway into the search area.

     My visit was on a day after a light rain which was ideal, since it washed the top layer of dust off of things and revealed new items in the channels where water runs down the sides of the pit. I had been told that I wouldn’t really need to “dig” for the fossils since most of them would be laying right on the surface, but I was skeptical. I was wrong . . . and it was amazing.

     You might find fossils of ancient sea species like trilobites, crinoids (urchins), brachiopods, pelecypods, (clams and oysters), corals, plants, and even sharks.

     The type I found with the least effort were sea lilies (which sound much more impressive when referred to as crinoids). Sometimes called “Indian beads” or “Indian buttons” (what my great-aunt used to call them) in reference to their button or bead-like shape, people used to collect and string them into necklaces. Not to get to “science-y”, but this illustration will show you what where in the plant (columnal) they were originally. Fossils from the other parts of the plant can be found as well.

 

     Who would have thought a big pit could be so much fun?

   Bring a picnic lunch or snacks and PLENTY of drinking water. Even in non-summer months, there is no shade in the actual digging area and you’ll need to stay hydrated. There are no nearby places to eat, so if you’re planning to stay at least a couple of hours (and you should!) your hard-working archaeology crew might get the munchies.

     There is a shaded table area as you enter the park that makes a nice place to give yourself and your family a break from the sun. If your visit will be in the summer months, it would be wise to plan to be there early in the day, or late in the evening.

     Yes, it’s basically a dirt pit, so dress appropriately. C’mon, that’s half the fun!

     You’ll want to make sure everyone has rubber soled shoes (old tennis shoes are perfect) to help with footing on the loose-soiled slopes. (Say THAT 3 times fast: loose soiled slopes, loose sloiled slolpes . . . never mind!)

     Other take-along suggestions: baggies or nail aprons to hold your finds, small hand garden trowels to loosen the dirt, an umbrella for extra shade, a wide brimmed hat, sunblock, bug spray, a bucket to carry tools and water bottles, and a small rubber gardening knee pad to sit on (it’ll feel a lot cushier than the hard ground). As always, please keep a first aid kit in your car to take care of minor boo-boos. Even adults need antiseptic and bandaids, ya know.

     Oh, and did I mention water? Water, water, water.

You’ll also want to bring along your sense of adventure and patience. Once your brain adjusts to what it’s searching for the fossils seem to become more and more abundant.

     Here’s a quick photo I took of the surface at the side of the pit. No, I didn’t even disturb it by beginning to dig! How many fossils can you spot?


You may even see a few “future fossils” during wildflower season.

     The park address is 2375 Indian Creek Road, just northwest of Mineral Wells, Texas. From Mineral Wells, head west on Highway 180. Turn north on Indian Creek Road and drive approximately 2 miles to the Mineral Wells Fossil Park entrance.

     It’s open daily from 8 a.m. until dusk and is admission free, which fits my travel budget just fine.

     Personally, I can’t wait to go back. Who’s up for an archaeological adventure?

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.




The Bent Door Cafe’s Quirky Origin

BENT DOOR Café & (Phillips) Midway Station

 

     Can you see it? Yep, the door is actually bent but not because it is damaged.

    There’s nothing cooking in the kitchen of Route 66’s Bent Door Café in Adrian, but it’s still one of the most recognizable stops along the Mother Road. A highly frequented photo stop along the Texas Stretch of the route, it had a bustling business during its heyday when it was a 24-hour café and gas station.

     Parts of the building have been on this site since the 1920s, but it was during the 40s that it gained its unique appearance.

     When Robert Harris returned from serving in the military in World War II, he put his efforts into wheat farming. After a particularly successful year in 1947, he used his profits to buy the original small structure and began looking for a way to turn it into one of Route 66’s unique attractions.

     The answer came from an unlikely place. Nearby Dalhart Air Force Base began selling surplus military in 1948 after being decommissioned. The imaginative Harris purchased the top portion of the air control tower that included angled windows for viewing the airfield. He incorporated the tower into the northeast section of the building, replacing one of the angled windows with a door been to fit the slanted walls of the structure. How’s that for an unusual vision?

    Harris celebrated the completion of this dream with a huge dance with a live band and BBQ for the community. Oddly, the very next day he closed the business and went to Germany for two months. There is speculation that he just wanted to see if the project could be done.

     His mother took charge of the business, selling it to Manuel Loveless who turned it into Tommy’s Café in the early 60s.




   The attention-grabbing look was a success in luring travelers off the road for food, gas and souvenirs. A former waitress shared memories of the café being filled with stranded people during winter blizzards.

     But being unique couldn’t save business from declining when I-40 was built bypassing the small town.

     That era of the café closed in 1972, and the café and station were sold to a family that let the architectural oddity fall into disrepair, eventually losing for non-payment of taxes.

     When Harris got wind of the building being slated for demolition in 1995, he bought it back. The county gave him the ultimatum of having it back in operating order in just two months or the demolition would be carried out.

     Despite the heavy damage to the building, Harris wasn’t about to see it torn down. He worked around the clock for two straight months to restore his one-time dream. He set a reopening date for September 9, 1995, but he café never re-opened.

     Oddly the Bent Door Café was never the official name of the business.

     In July 2006 Roy and Ramona Kiewert purchased the property and began the process of gradual restoration that’s still ongoing. You can follow the progress on their Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/Thebentdoor/

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    The Kiewerts also own the Fabulous 40 Motel next to the Bent Door. Don’t you just love the name? If the motel doesn’t catch your eye, the old rusted pickup with a huge wooden “66” in the bed sure will.

    The motel was built by Kenny and Marjorie Callstrom in 1967. Ramona Kiewert explained the origin of the name to me this way:

     “When the building was being built, the original plans were for two buildings with 20 rooms each (40 total), and at the same time Interstate 40 was going in so…Fabulous 40s Motel on I-40.”

    The 20-unit motel closed in 2004 after the couple passed away, but luckily relatives kept the property in fairly good shape. After being shuttered for more than a decade, the Kiewerts came to the rescue. They are restoring the property room by room, but several of the guest rooms are open and receiving great reviews.

    A quick check on traveler review websites show just how much visitors enjoy the friendly family that hosts them, and the free continental breakfast served in the recreation room.

    As I walked beneath the carport at the Fabulous 40 to take photos further onto the property I was greeted by Ramona who was evidently alerted about me by a motion sensor. She was so sweet that I wished I was able to stay overnight, but I had to settle for a short chat and some photos.

    The Fabulous 40 is alive and well, making guests feel like a part of the Route 66 family.

     As if they didn’t already have their hands full, the Kiewerts have also rescued a 1920s Phillips station, moving it all the way from Vega to Adrian three years ago! It doesn’t appear on Google maps as of the date of this blog post because the Google images haven’t been updated, but it’s there. Once known as Knox’s Phillips 66, it patiently waits on their property for its turn at restoration.

 

Stay at 1890 Mae’s Hill Farm

     Growing up, my sister and I spent part of every summer (and some other holidays) at my grandparents Oklahoma farm which had been in the family since Indian Territory days. So when I recently received the opportunity to stay at an 1890 farmhouse in La Grange Texas, I couldn’t think of anyone else I would rather share the experience with than her.

     I had seen photos of this farm on the owner’s rental listing, but had no idea how much it would capture a part of my heart from the time I drove up the lane, past fields where cows lazily looked out way as we drove by.

     Mae’s Hill Farm was built over a century ago by the Steinmanns, a family of Germans who immigrated to Texas and settled in Fayette County. The home remained in the same family until the current owners purchased it several years ago.

   The farm’s new name “MAE’s” is a clever acronym created with the first initials of the current owners three children.

     The welcoming, buttery yellow home sits on a hill  just in front of a quaint red barn and outbuildings. Porches on three sides of the house provide peaceful places to enjoy the views and wildlife from sunrise to sunset.

     Stepping inside, visitors are greeted with a comfortably furnished living area that opens into a kitchen with a family style farmhouse table. It isn’t difficult to image generations enjoying meals together here.

     Vintage furnishings, including several wooden rocking chairs, and rugs fill the home and the beds are covered in layers of welcoming quilts and coverlets. Framed artwork from when the current owner’s children were little adorn the walls, adding to the charm and homey-ness.

 

     As we walked through the house exploring room after room, the original floorboards gently creaked beneath our feet. And surprisingly, even though the evening we arrived had close to freezing temperatures, the home was warm and cozy.

     There are two bedrooms downstairs and a large space upstairs with three beds and enough room to accommodate a number of extra cots and sleeping bags if the occasion called. It would be the perfect hideaway for children to enjoy late night giggle sessions

     Outside, the rustic barn still holds remnants of days gone by as well as the promise of a future life the owner hopes will be as an event venue. Wandering through the building and the fields, my sister and I reminisced about the barn at my grandparents’ place and the memories we shared there. The birds that sang little songs in the fields nearby even sang the same tune we remembered from those Oklahoma pastures.

     Mae’s Hill Farm sits conveniently between La Grange, hometown of the famous Texas band ZZ Top, and Schulenburg. Both are quaint, friendly towns with more than enough sites and mini-adventures than we could squeeze into the three days we spent there on this trip.

     I hope that every city kid (and adult) get the chance to find such a lovely spot as Mae’s Hill to slow down, enjoy the simpler things and wake up to a sunrise with a view that can’t be beat.

 

 

 

 

     To see a video tour of the interior of Mae’s Hill Farm, visit my Youtube channel at: 1890 Mae’s Hill Farm.

     Mae’s Hill Farm’s instagram account can be found at @maeshillfarm.