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!





What a Blessing! Hotel Blessing Serves Up Tradition

Who could resist pulling over to see this amazing hotel?

Danish-born Jules Leffland, the most famous architect in Victoria during the Victorian era, designed the the historic Hotel Blessing in Blessing, Texas.  He adapted his take on Mission Revival style into wood construction instead of the traditional adobe or plater over brick.

Amazingly, the original blueprints drawn and signed by Leffland were discovered in the attic of the historic Abel Pierce home in Blessing in 2005.

The town of Blessing was established on property belonging to Jonathan Edwards Pierce, who granted a right-of-way to the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railroad to increase commerce.

So why isn’t the town named Pierce?

The businessman was so relieved to get a town to ship his cattle that he had suggested the name “Thank God,” but postal authorities considered that somewhat blasphemous. Blessing was suggested and the post office opened in 1903.
Between 1903 and 1905 a library building was attached to the train station, and in 1905 the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway also built through Blessing.

One of the oldest remaining buildings in town, Hotel Blessing has served as a community gathering place since it opened in 1907 when G. H. Crandall from Wisconsin was the manager.

Pierce and his son Abel built the hotel to provide lodging for new settlers, traveling salesmen and as a home for himself. The elder Pierce resided on site until his death in 1915.

The hotel was refinished and painted in the 1930s. During World War II wives and girlfriends of soldiers at Camp Hulen in Palacios would often stay at the inn. After the war ended the camp closed, freight train service stopped and eventually the hotel stopped renting rooms in 1972.

In 1977, Able Pierce, Jonathan Pierce’s grandson, and his wife Ruth renovated and reopened the hotel. The hotel was deeded to the Blessing Historical Society, which currently takes care of its operation. The hotel has 25 rooms, most which have a semiprivate or shared bathroom in a hall.

These days Hotel Blessing is widely known for food rather than overnight stays. Walk past the original registration desk, down a hall lined with screen-doored rooms and across the creaky floors, and enter the dining room You can count on bountiful breakfasts and a famous $10 lunch buffet with immense trays and pots of chicken fried steak, chicken, green beans, corn, breads, and more. Going away hungry just isn’t an option!

Generations of visitors and locals have spent countless hours in the dining room/coffee shop enjoying tasty, home-cooked meals and discussing local events.

The hotel is rightly proud to be the first building in Matagorda County ever listed on the National Register of Historic Places, earning that honor in 1979.

If you’re within a couple of hours of Blessing treat yourself to a leisurely lunch and then go down to the nearby shore to sit back and let your meal settle. It makes a great daytrip for family or friends.

Stay at a Texas Christmas Tree Farm

     Ah, the smell of fresh Christmas trees can sure get us in the mood for the holiday season. This year why not take the experience of choosing a tree to the next level by staying overnight at a Texas Christmas tree farm?

Photo by @tamaragoesto

     Yes, you actually can!

     Holiday Acres Christmas Tree Farm in Manvel offers not one but two “tiny houses” you can book for overnight (or longer) stays through Airbnb.

     I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of tiny houses, so I was excited about checking one out for myself. Both options at Holiday Acres look equally charming nestled beside the pond and fire pit, but I chose the Bluebonnet for its simple, more traditional design.

     Walking into the Bluebonnet I was immediately surprised at how well the limited room was used to create a cozy space.

     Though it was admittedly much smaller than most people who stay at hotels might be accustomed to, it included all of the necessities: a bathroom with shower, kitchen with sink and microwave, kitchen utensils, coffee maker, mini fridge, small fold-down table top with two chairs, television, WiFi, heating/air conditioning, and towels.

Photo by @tamaragoesto

     A futon style sofa folds down to provide extra sleeping space, though it would work better for two small children than adults. A roomier, fluffy mattress with pillows is tucked into a snug loft area, reached by ladder leading from the living area.

     The diminutive porch with chairs and table invites guests to enjoy their coffee outdoors while enjoying nature.

     While you’re there you’ll definitely want to wander through the tree farm acreage filled with Virginia pines, Leyland cypress, Murray Cypress and Arizona cypress, and take one of the best scents of the season.

 

    A visit to Holiday Farms can be a great getaway for some personal, couple or family time. Take a hayride to look for a tree, enjoy a complimentary cup of hot chocolate or mulled cider by a cozy campfire and a watch the kids wear off some of that holiday energy on the natural playground. 

     Then stroll back to your tiny house digs and grab some marshmallows to roast over the campfire to make my favorite treat…s’mores!

Photo by @tamaragoesto



     Where else can you stay and take home your very own hand-chosen Christmas tree? And a stay here is definitely less expensive than a hotel room, and offers a lot more atmosphere for the season.

Photo by @tamaragoesto

Click here for a sneak peek inside the Bluebonnet Tiny House!

     Holiday Acres opens for Christmas tree cutting on November 23 this year, but the tiny houses are available for stays year-round. You can find the booking listing here: http://www.airbnb.com/rooms/14282082 and more details about the farm, here: www.theholidayacres.com.

Baby trees!

 

Cozy Cottage with a Historic View

I recently learned that the former Ranger’s Cottage at Varner-Hogg Plantation in West Columbia is now available to rent for overnight stays. I didn’t hesitate to make a reservation immediately!

The Varner Hogg Plantation is a State Historic Site featuring the original plantation home and several outbuildings. See my previous post for more about it:  https://bit.ly/2Nxki0L

Though the website had basic information about the cottage, the photos online don’t do it justice. Being a Girl Scout leader, I know that the word “cottage” sometimes means extremely rustic and bare bones. While that won’t scare me away, I was pleasantly surprised with this location.

Built in the 1920s, the Ranger’s cottage sits slightly back across the site road from the main house, beneath large pecan trees that probably predate my grandmother.

Rocking chairs and a bistro table and chair set wait on the porch, inviting guests to linger and enjoy the immense trees, heavily draped with Southern moss. I honestly wasn’t sure I’d get much further, since I have in incurable weakness for porches, but I’m glad I did.

 

 

 




The entire cottage has been updated and decorated with comfortable, modern furnishings. No detail has been overlooked in making each room a welcoming space. The living room even has a basket of monogrammed blankets so family or friends can curl up on the sofa to enjoy an evening movie.

 

To the right of the living room is a brightly colored, spacious master bedroom with space enough to do a little dancing before bedtime. The master bath has a dressing room with sink and mirror, and a separate room with shower and toilet. The amenities (towels, shampoo items, gels) are more who I would have expected from a hotel than a historic cottage on a state historic site! 

The kitchen was the next pleasant surprise (and by the time I saw it I was regretting not bringing a group of friends with me!). Stocked with serve ware and basic cookware, it features a full size refrigerator/freezer, microwave, range and coffeemaker. It would be such fun to stay here with family or friends and gather on the barstools at the counter to chat while fixing a meal! The attractive concrete counters, by the way, were made by one of the site employees (and I wonder if he would mind stopping by my house to make some for me!).
Just outside the kitchen door is a small back porch big enough for a couple of chairs. It would be a relaxing spot for a chat and cup of coffee or cocoa.

A stairway from the rear of the cottage leads to the second floor, and an additional full bath and two large bedrooms. Again, I was surprised by the size of the rooms, considering the age and original use of the cottage!

The yellow bedroom with twin beds and floral bedding seemed bright and cheery even on the dreary rainy day that I arrived. 

The second upstairs bedroom was decorated in a lovely shabby chic violet, with full beds.

The cottage was so comfy, it would have been easy to just nest inside, but of course one of the major advantages of staying on site at the plantation is being able to explore the grounds even after visiting hours. Everything on site is within easy walking distance, including the main house, the ruins of the sugar mill and slave quarters, picnic grounds, the old family cemetery and more.

It was a special treat to wander around after an evening rain taking in the beauty and history while being serenaded by the frogs in Varner Creek.

I’m already planning a girls’ trip to share this wonderful find!

For information about making a reservation for your stay at the Varner-Hogg Plantation, visit https://bit.ly/2oHdpkB

Have you ever stayed at a historic site? If so, which one and did you enjoy it?

Stepping Back in Time at Varner-Hogg Plantation

Don’t you just love visiting a place that makes history come to life?

The Varner-Hogg Plantation in West Columbia is one of those sites.

When most of us think of plantations, our thoughts go immediately to Louisiana or Mississippi. But just an hour south of downtown Houston an enchanting reminder of the past sits tucked backed on acreage covered by magnolia trees and a pecan orchard, beside a lazy, winding creek.

The Varner-Hogg Plantation Historic Site shares the story of three owners and their families.

Martin Varner came to the area in 1824 and was granted 4,428 acres by Stephen F. Austin. Along with the two male slaves they brought to the area, his family raised a small amount of livestock and established a rum distillery.

Ruins of sugar mill

Ten years later, Columbus R. Patton moved from Kentucky with a large number of slaves. He became active in politics and served in the Texan army. During the years the plantation was known as the Patton Place, between 40 and 60 slaves made bricks by hand, constructed a plantation house, smokehouse, sugar mill and their own living quarters.

Sugar mill boiling kettles

The two-story sugar mill, which sat across Varner creek within sight of the front porch (now the back) of the main house, made Patton highly successful.

View of main house from site of sugar mill.
The original front entrance now serves as a back porch.


His long-running, open relationship with a slave named Rachel was unpopular in the community. She had many of the rights a white wife would have, and was known to have ruled over the other slaves in a harsh manner.

Patton’s extended family also disapproved, and his nephew and brother were disinherited by Patton because of their actions against her. The extended family had Patton declared insane in 1854, and had him committed to an asylum in South Carolina where he died in 1856. After his death and a prolonged court battle, Rachel was granted her freedom and an annual stipend.

Between 1869 and 1901, the site changed hands several times. Many of the original buildings, including the slave quarters and sugar mill were destroyed during the 1900 hurricane.Governor Hogg purchased the plantation in 1901, convinced that there were oil reserves beneath the land. His 1906 will recommended that his children retain the mineral rights, and the discovery of oil a short time later made the family extremely wealthy.

His daughter Ima was a renowned collector of antiques and decorative arts, and furnished the main house with exquisite pieces before donating the plantation to the state of Texas in 1958.


 

 

A stairway leading from the second floor to the third floor, where the boys of families of former residents would have slept, is off limits to current visitors. Luckily, I was allowed access so that I could share these phots with my readers.

Stairway to third floor.

Though the quarter round windows would have originally allowed light into the space, it’s hard to imagine how the heat of summer would have been tolerable.

The original, covered quarter-round windows as seen on the third floor.

A much smaller set of stairs, tucked beneath what was possibly an original eave, then leads from the third floor to the glassed-in cupola atop the plantation house.

Stairs from third floor to the cupola.
View from cupola
View from cupola.

A feature of the plantation site that kids find especially fun is

“Governor Hogg’s Tub” and Swimming Hole.


Fed by a natural spring creating a small fountain from a pipe, the water is retained in a square, brick lined “tub” before continuing to a small lake. The well-maintained feature is now enjoyed by local wildlife.

One of the things this site does so well is to preserve the beauty of this time period and lifestyles, without romanticizing the sacrifices of others that made them possible. In the outbuidling known as Ima’s cottage, where she stayed on her visits in later years, a fascinating account has been gathered of what the lives of slaves on the plantation were like. Visitors can even listen to recordings of reminiscences of former slaves in their own words.


During your visit make sure you visit the barn, where you can see antique carriages. The yard to the barn is now used for special events.







The visitors center, immediately to the left as you enter the grounds, has a small exhibit room as well as a great selection of local history books and souvenirs.

In my next blog post, I’ll share a special place to stay overnight when you

visit the Varner-Hogg Plantation!