Field Notes

McDade Watermelon Festival, Saturday, July 8, 2000

Samantha, Andrew, and I drove out to McDade for the Watermelon Festival on Saturday morning. The event started with a street dance on Friday night, which, judging from the number of Porta-toilets, drew a sizeable crowd.

Unlike festivals such Round Top's Fourth of July, the day's activities started with more of a murmur than a bang. Round Top runs its parade at the spectator friendly hour of 9 a.m., while McDade waits until the heatstroke hour, 4 p.m. Kid-favorite contests such as seed spitting also take place late in the afternoon. We had to settle for listening to the fiddlers contest under the old oak trees and a visit to the museum in the Old Rock Saloon. This is one of my favorite museums, if only for its role in the Christmas Eve Shootout of 1883. It is so unimproved inside that it's not hard to imagine yourself transported back in time 100 years, except there's no beer in your hand. The museum features quite a few pieces of McDade Pottery, included some of the distinctive salt-glazed crocks and jugs. You can also read your fill of the area's interesting history, including the feuds here and at the Knobbs. You may visit the museum almost any time by appointment, but its only regular hours are the Saturday of the annual Watermelon Festival.

BBQ beef sandwiches go on sale at 11 a.m.; BBQ plate dinners at 5 p.m. Based on the sandwiches, I can heartily recommend the BBQ. The festival ends Saturday evening with free watermelon for all, but since we had other places to go, we purchased a few slices to eat there, and bought more melons at the McDade General Store, including a couple of exotic, orange-colored Persian-type melons with a pale-yellow flesh that tastes like a cross of Cantalope and Honeydew with something else thrown in. Beer sales begin at noon.

At the weigh-in for biggest melon, winner was a 93-lb. Jubilee variety, long and fat.

There were carnival rides, but these are more appropriate for the tykes than for 9- and 11-year-olds, like Andrew and Samantha.

Verdict: If you can stand the heat, best time to visit is from 3 p.m. through dusk.

From McDade, we went to Bastrop, via Camp Swift.


We enjoyed fresh-squeezed lemonade at the turn-of-the-century Lock Pharmacy soda fountain, while on a stroll of Main Street. Most of the storefronts are occupied now (compared with 10 years ago) with restaurants, gift and specialty shops and such. I was sad to see Bastrop BBQ and Meat Market gone from Main Street, but its reincarnation as Cartwright's BBQ on Highway 71 near the Wal-Mart is pleasant enough and the meat hasn't suffered any in the move, although the sides are strictly pedestrian. Love that runny, vinegary sauce, though.

Fisherman's Park on the Colorado River, across from the LCRA's Conference Center, is a good spot to park and take a stroll up the river walk.

Tubing the San Marcos River, Friday, July 14, 2000

We arrived a little after 11 a.m. at "Toobing" HQ (run by the local Lions Club), which is just off Aquarena Springs Drive. We were among the day's first tubers (rentals begin at 10 a.m.) and it wasn't yet unbearably hot. Stream flow was 150, which is enough to slowly drift you along. The water was pleasantly cool, while falling short of the brisk chill of Barton Springs or Deep Eddy in Austin. For kids weaned on Schlitterbahn, the float can be boring, until the end at Rio Vista Park, where they can run the chute.

Estimated float time is one hour, but we lingered along the way, taking in a rope swing before shooting the chute several times. We caught the River Taxi back to HQ a little after 2 p.m. By then, most of the tubes had been rented. Seems the teens and young adults favor the afternoon for floating; families and more sensible, older folk like me opt for morning and evenings. Tube rentals cease at 5:30 p.m.; the River Taxi makes its final pickup at 7 p.m. Total tab for the three of us came to $15.50, including tube rentals and taxi ride back. If you bring your own tube or floatee, the taxi ride back is $1.50 per person. The Lions Club will fill your tube for a slight fee if you don't want to do the huff-and-puff yourself. For more information, call 512-396-LION or visit the following URL:

Afterwards, we ate BBQ at Fuschak's. It was 3 p.m. by then and I knew we were taking our chances, since this hour is the dead zone for many places. Not surprisingly, the meat was off its peak. No unpalatable, but when the pitman said the meat had been pulled an hour ago, with my first bite I knew he had told me the truth. Extra points for honesty. Beef was lean but dry, the pork ribs tasted slightly "used," the chicken wasn't as dry as I feared, the sausage ring was plump and juicy, but alas, of a fine grind. I prefer a coarser grind of meat, myself. I was told it comes from a meat packer down in Yorktown. The pintos were OK, the potato salad was too vinegary for my taste. Sauce is sweet and thick.

Dirt Roads and Back Ways, Friday, July 21, 2000

I set out at dawn to drive out to Enchanted Rock. First thing that caught my eye was the little shed at the corner of Highway 71 and RM 3238. Most of the advertising signs have been removed from its exterior. The "Post Office" sign hanging from the front porch of the little house in front is the only clue to this corner's interesting past.

As I crossed the bone-dry Pedernales on Hamilton Pool Road, my worst fears were confirmed: this is indeed the most brutal summer I've seen in 30 years of living in Central Texas. The only two creeks with any flow were Cypress (at Cypress Mill) and Honey (on Click Road). Even the Llano at the Slab near Kingsland had only one thin channel with enough water in which to dogpaddle around a bit. Onion Creek was just a string of water holes. Sandy and Comanche creeks were dusty.

At Willow City, I stopped in at Hohmann's Store and Harry's before doing the Loop. Harry, with much relish (including a just-picked tomato) served me a bowl of his much-vaunted beans and brisket bits. While brilliant in concept, the reality in my bowl was beans and bris-quets, as in carbonized brisket qubes. The sauce had only partially rehydrated the bris-quets. After a while, I gave up searching for a merely well-done bris-quet and concentrated on the beans and 'mater. I did have an enjoyable chat on BBQ with a Harry's regular, who says he worked as pitman at the original Coopers in Llano in the 1960s. After half a heaping bowl of the beanznbits, I was afraid to ask for any BBQ proper, and so walked into the blazing sunshine only $7 poorer for the experience.

Rabke's Smoked Meats has survived the recent deaths of its founders, Leroy and Geneva Rabke. The meats are as good as ever.

At Crabapple Community, I ran into a local woman who had rented the hall adjacent to the old schoolhouse. The local 42 club plays here the first Monday of each month at 7 pm, for a potluck dinner, followed by some serious dominoes until 9 or 10 pm. I'm still trying to get a date for the annual St. John Lutheran Church homecoming, which I'm told still occurs even though services haven't been held here for nearly 40 years.

The little cemetery at the end of Crabapple Cemetery Road offers a nice panoramic view of the Crabapple Creek valley to the east.

Trailing the Mormons, Sunday, July 30, 2000

I took advantage of a rare summer cool front to retrace part of the Mormons' route through the Hill Country. The gentle, intermittent rain made for an enjoyable drive along RM 1431. I stopped for a quick look at the LCRA's Gloster Bend recreational area on Lake Travis. Because of the low lake level, the boat launch here is closed, and the area was stone deserted at 9:30 a.m. But because the boat launch is closed, there was no LCRA ranger present to collect the $5 entry fee to Gloster Bend.

There were few changes to make as I drove along; Michel's Drug Store in Marble Falls is now an antique shop/lunch room/soda fountain, and City Hall seems to have moved from 2nd and Main. Of course, there are more people as well. The reference hotel for the Mormon Mills Road turnoff is now a Ramada Inn. But the intersection is better signed than before and the Mormon Mills Road sign is easily glimpsed.

I had toyed with the idea of stopping at Cooper's in Llano, but at 11:15 a.m., there was already a line eight-deep at the pit waiting to choose their meat, so I reluctantly pressed on, since I had to go another 200 miles before the day was done.

To the adventurous few who have made it this far, I offer this heretofore undisclosed gem of a drive, from Crabapple Community to Cherry Springs, along paved, one-lane roads.

From RM 965, between Fredericksburg and Enchanted Rock, go west on Welgehausen Rd. In several miles, you come to an intersection with Keese Rd. Turn right onto Keese Rd. In about a mile, you will go left on Keese Sagebiel Rd. When you come to RM 2323, turn left and then right a few feet later, onto Cherry Springs Road. Soon you come to the Cherry Springs community described in the book. Outstanding drive, almost as good as Willow City Loop. And while I'm telling secrets, try County Road 315, between Oxford Community (Highway 16) and Click Community. This is on the other (north) side of the Willow City Loop, following Sandy Creek, downstream from Enchanted Rock.

Days of Clod and Brisket: Lockhart, Monday, July 31, 2000

Lockhart is casting about for new, Fall festival, and at this point, it's looking like a celebration of all that is barbecue, something like the Hill Country Food and Wine Festival at this point. I ate at the new Kreuz Market for the first time, a pork chop and some fatty beef, which more than lived up to its name. I should have gone with the clod. But I had clod the week before at Smitty's, along with a pork chop and sausage. Although the pork chop looked delectable, I decided to concentrate on the half-pound of fatty brisket, because it sure wasn't going to get better as leftovers. The pork chop could wait for dinner. I was surprised at the paucity of customers. Having arrived at 11:50 a.m., I didn't relish the anticipated wait in line. There were two folks ahead of me, turns out. I didn't even have enough of a wait to make up my mind as to what I wanted to eat. There were never more than 50 customers in the dining room at any given time during the noon hour. Quite a contrast to the line at Cooper's in Llano the day before.

I had enjoyed Smitty's pork chops the week before, found the sausage acceptable in that uniquely Lockhart way, and enjoyed the clod while it was fresh. But saltiness aside, its didn't have the smoky flavor it should have, and leftover, it was strictly roast beef. I gave the last little bit to the neighbor's dog. Smitty's beans are really good, and the cole slaw is above average.

I had stopped earlier at Chisholm Trail to inspect the smokers, which have the familiar clapper temperature regulator found on the smokers at Baker's Ribs in Dallas. They had just pulled 40 briskets off the pit for the lunch rush. Lots of Lockhart locals go to Chisholm Trail more often than Kreuz, because Chisholm Trail offers an all-you-can-eat buffet of vegetables and other side dishes, along with meat as good as you'll find anywhere in town.

And now, another secret drive tip, that takes you over a number of old bridges: Take FM Road 1322 from Lockhart, down to Brownsboro Community. Turn left on County Road 194. At Highway 86, continue east on County Road 146, which doglegs its way to an intersection with County Road 141. Go right here. After one short dogleg you come to an intersection with County Road 154, which leads you to the Hardshell Cemetery, filled with primitive, handmade tombstones. After another couple of doglegs, turn left on County Road 145A to reach Tilmon and FM Road 3158.

Luling, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2000

Lockhart may be the BBQ Capital of Texas, but when my heart yearns for ribs, it's time to smell my way to Luling and the City Market. Diana, brother Chuck, Linux guru "Papa" Joe Barr, and I converged on the market just before noon, for pork ribs, brisket and ring sausage fresh from the pit. While Luling ring sausage resembles Lockhart-style links, it's not nearly as beefy tasting (which is to my personal liking). Meat and sides of pintos and potato salad all generally lived up to our high expectations. And to my pleasant surprise, the locals in line behind me at the pit read out loud, and appreciated, the backside sentiment on my t-shirt of the day: "There's nothing wrong with Windows 2000 that Linux can't fix." When even towns like Luling "get" Linux, can the downfall of Windows really be all that far away?

After a leisurely lunch, we strolled down Davis Street toward Sarg Records, hoping to find Charlie Fitch in, so I could bolster my Adolph Hofner collection. But no such luck. We surveyed some of the damage from the great July fires before turning into to the Oil Patch Museum to see what was new. The Luling Newsboy and Signal is temporarily housed in the back, and we had a good visit. The musem does a good job of depicting life in the Oil Patch from about 1925 to 1950, and we were most impressed about its staying power. When we stepped back out onto Davis Street, we were hit with a good whiff of what made Luling famous: the sulfur-and-brimstone reek of Caldwell County crude. Turns out, you can still follow your nose to Luling.

Downtown Davis Street still retains most of its mid-20th century charm, down to the old "Stop" and "Keep Right" signs embedded in the middle of the streets at each intersection. Made 75 or so years ago in Lockhart, these low, round cast-iron mounds are a charming reminder of the days of Model Ts and open-car motoring in general. At the corner of Davis and Pecan, some one has removed enough stucco from the side of the Allen Building so that we may all enjoy the old painted advertisement for Battle Axe Plug Tobacco.

And after years of passing blithely by, I finally noticed that one of the little buildings collected by the ill-fated Texas Embassy project in far south Lockhart is a small railroad freight depot, signed "Luling." This depot, I learned, is indeed from Luling, and I think it's from the old SA&AP line, but it could be Southern Pacific; I'll be trying to find out in the future.

Old Lockhart Highway, Monday, September 14, 2000

I drove down to Lockhart for what turned out not to be a meeting. With plenty of time to kill, I decided to explore on the way home. With the advent of universal 911 emergency service, roads are better signed than ever. The signage has been a boon to explorers like me, definitively identifying the routes of the old pioneer and Victorian-era roads. A good example is the wandering path of the Old Lockhart Highway. You can pick up its path north of Lockhart, before Mendoza; look for the road sign and turn right (east). Then just keep following its twists and turns into southeast Austin.

Fredericksburg, Saturday, October 7, 2000

The weather was cold and wet when we left Austin for Fredericksburg just after 11 a.m., and things just got worse as we moved west. It seemed more like mid-January. Not exactly the beer-drinking weather that you expect this time of year in Texas. Which was a shame, since one of our planned destinations was Fredericksburg's Oktoberfest, a Friday evening through Sunday afternoon affair held at Market Square, replete with beer, food, and music.

But first, a rare (these days) Hill Country book signing at my favorite Hill Country bookstore, the Main Book Shop. Rainwater was flowing like rivers in the streets when we arrived, so we headed straight for the protective awnings of Main Street. The Nimitz Museum, three blocks distant, would have to wait, since we had found the last parking spot in town, one block back from Main Book Shop.

We killed some time in Dooley's 5-10-25 Store, one of the few old-time retail hangers-on in Main-Street Fredericksburg. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for this store, and I enjoyed this latest vist, picking up a 3-pair pack of classic, gray, Railroad-brand socks (still with a steam loco on the package) and otherwise gawking at the merchandise, which included lots of cast-iron cookware and Marshall, Texas, pottery. I relived a bit of my youth in the toy aisle, which featured Revell model kits unchanged from my youth (except for the prices), such as the battleships Arizona and Missouri. I bought Andrew a couple of Whitman coin collection folders, for pennies and the new states quarter series.

Following my own advice, "If you want a dog to look at a book, you better tie a porkchop around it," I had arranged for a platter of smoked meats and cheeses from Dutchman's Market, and bread from Dietz's Bakery, with which to tempt potential buyers and mere passers-by. I had remarkably few takers. With nothing else to do but stay inside somewhere, most of the book shop's visitors were already too stuffed from lunch to sample the Dutchman's excellent summer sausage, dried sausage, and ham. Their loss, our gain. A handful actually bought books.

By signing's end, it was still raining, and even colder. Oktoberfest, unfortunately, held little appeal, and the Nimitz was soon to close (drat that 9-5 schedule!), so we dashed for the van, turned on the heater and headed back for Austin. Even the lure of peach cider at one of the roadside peach 'n produce stands wasn't incentive enough to step out of that dry van.

Driftwood, Saturday, December 2, 2000

Camp Ben McCulloch has been one of my favorite campgrounds since 1971, and it's a minor miracle that it has changed so little over the decades, given the relentless suburban sprawl that has all but surrounded it now. Campers now pay a modest fee, but cypress-lined Onion Creek is still as fetching as ever. The fall 2000 rains have been kind to Onion Creek, in contrast to the drought-induced dry creekbed we saw throughout the summer.

The old Driftwood Store and Post Office is a private residence now, but at first glance, little has changed at the junction of FM 150 and Elderhill Rd. The old multi-family sign post still stands at the corner. The 1922 limestone Masonic Lodge, now a private residence, was advertised for sale. The Methodists and Baptists still share the Driftwood church. But for how much longer?

Back down on FM 967, in Driftwood's "backyard," the planned, massive Rutherford Ranch housing development has been thwarted, but elsewhere on FM 967, closer to Buda, it has bespoiled the former pastureland.

Vanishing Texas River Cruise and Longhorn Caverns, Sunday, February 25, 2001

Samantha's Girl Scout troop got off to a late start and we had to rush out to Canyon of the Eagles to make the 11:30 cruise. The General Johnson was crowded but not loaded to capacity on this sunny cool day. We hoped to see eagles but the guide warned us from the beginning that most of them had already flown back north. We headed upstream on a lake now mostly full, quite a contrast to my last VTRC last May, when we were confined to Lake Buchanan because of low water levels where the lake ends and the upper Colorado River begins. Lake Buchanan was still two feet below capacity, but the countryside looked well recovered from last year's drought. A few Mexican plum trees were blooming, but the redbuds and wildflowers were still slumbering. The falls at Fall Creek were flowing healthily and dozens of springs and seeps were dripping on the north bank. No eagles, but we were treated to an osprey who flew from perch to perch paralleling our boat for quite a distance, seemingly accompanying us. This behavior was something new to our venerable guide, but none of us were complaining about this rare treat.

Our guide was well-versed in local history, having previously served as ranger at Blanco State Park. He spoke of the vanished communities of Bluffton and Tow as we passed over them far below near lake's bottom, as well as the dam and lake that did them in.

We picnicked in a plesant grove of trees near the dock and then it was time to speed on to Longhorn Caverns State Park, which is now managed by the same outfit that runs Canyon of the Eagles Park, a public/private venture that I highly recommend.

Our guide for the cave tour was pleasant but disciplined with the girls, taking questions frequently but only a few each time, to keep the tour at 90 minutes. He could not point out Dante's Inferno, one of my postcard views, but he did a good job of telling the cave's interesting history. The current headquarters/gift shop/lunchroom features some old photos and newspaper clippings that nicely complement the guide's commentary. At the gift shop, but a little geode (golf-ball size) and try your luck, but not with a hammer.

Enchanted Rock and McKinney Falls, Saturday, March 10, 2001

Andrew and I left with fellow Cub Scouters early on Saturday morning, to guarantee our entrance into Enchanted Rock. When we arrived shortly after 9:30, it was still overcast and chilly. The place was rapidly filling up with other Scouts and folks from all over the world, including a busload of Japanese tourists. The Rock looked better than I have ever seen it, with hundreds of vernal pools brimming with water and early signs of spring life. Water trickled down from all sides toward Sandy Creek below. The bluebonnets were still lying low and budless, given the coolest winter in several years, but there were a few, small early bloomers of other species. After reaching the summit, we explored the fracture "caves" before descending the west side, down a cleft that widened into a valley, with a little creek dodging and tumbling its rocky way down to Sandy Creek below. Click here to see some views of Enchanted Rock and surrounding territory over the years.

Too soon, it was time for the mad dash to a birthday party at McKinney Falls State Park. Except we had to stop first at Ken Hall's BBQ on the far south side of Fredericksburg. It was good but not outstanding; I gave it a solid 3.5 stars (on a scale of 5). But on trips to Sanderson, we'll still be stopping in Cooper's at Junction. Spring was farther along at McKinney Falls, but the bluebonnets still hadn't shown their cones. Onion Creek was brimming full, fuller than it has been in years, and most of the kids got their feet crossing Onion Creek on an improvised log bridge. Despite its proximity to Bergstrom International Airport, it is still an enjoyable wilderness oasis in an increasingly unattractive Austin.

Blanco State Park, May 18-19, 2001

Samantha's sixth-grade class decided to end the school year with a short campout at Blanco State Park. We had several of the screened shelters right on the river and pitched more tents as necessary under the spreading live oaks. Brimming full and emerald green, it was a welcome change from this time last year, when there was already lots of bone-dry limestone riverbed exposed and folks began to wonder where their next gallon of water might come from. The kids swam in the river above the dam and in the rectangular pool below, where the water was refreshingly cool, not bracing like Barton Springs. After trying our luck (none) with lures and plastic worms, we took a tip from Emeril LaGasse and whipped out some pork fat from some BBQ loin that I had brought along. Soon the minnows and fingerlings were nibbling away, followed by the turtles; we probably reeled in five, gently and slowly so as to minimize damage. Luckily they all managed to slip the hook on their own, just before I got within range of helping them. I feel bigger, catchable fish would have come along, but it was time for us to pack it up and leave. We hadn't brought works and getting them would have necessitated a drive out of the park, which was jammed to the gills with beautiful old classic cars and motorcycles there for an annual classics show. The courthouse square was ringed with arts and crafts tables; I ducked inside for a look at the restoration progress. The floors upstairs are rough, but the court room now has a real 1880s feel and look to it again. On the way out of town, I hit the package store for a six each of the locally brewed Rio Blanco Pale Ale and Full Moon Pale Rye Ale, made by the Real Ale Brewing Company, located just off the square. I highly recommend them.

Central Texas Stew (Smithville to Weimar), May 26, 2001

Traveling on SH 71 from Austin to Bastrop becomes more unpleasant every month. This Saturday was no different. What a relief to finally get on SH 95, headed for Flatonia. The old SAAP railroad depot on SH 95 has been freshly painted and a number of commercial buildings on the south side of downtown are for sale. How surprising that no one from Austin has snapped them up yet.

Chudej's Saloon in Engle was shuttered, leading me to believe that it is permanently closed, and the first of the day's bad news. On into Schulenburg, and a drive by the Myrna Loy Apartments revealed that the sign is still missing, presumably forever. Our consolation was lunch and a shopping spree at City Market, where we sampled brisket, chicken and a thick pork shoulder steak plucked fresh from the pit and loaded up on pork/beef, pork, beef, and jalapeno link sausages, plus a dozen weiners.

We next headed for Dubina and Ammansville, where I hoped to down a Shiner with Innatz Toefel. The painted church and grounds were neat as a pin and local folk were busy preparing for a wedding later that afternoon. After a short visit to the 1885 "piano bridge," we resumed our trek to Ammansville. I looked for Toefel's, but in vain. Not just closed, the little box building has either been replaced or has been remodeled so drastically as to be unrecognizable. I could not tell by looking at the building now standing there.

At Weimar, we turned south to visit Oakland, home of Robert Lloyd Smith. Click here to read more about Smith and to see some pictures from Oakland. The old Oakland Normal School building still stands in good condition in "downtown" Oakland. The historical marker in front of the school reads:

Founded in 1882, the Oakland Normal School provided professional training for black schoolteachers for three decades. G. R. Townsend served as first principal, but for most of the school's existence it was directed by Robert L. Smith, a respected educator who also served in the Texas Legislature. Conducting classes during spring and summer vacation periods, Oakland Normal School provided educational opportunities to teachers from seven southeast Texas counties. It was considered one of the finest institutions of its kind in the state.