Small Town Renaissance in Hill Country North

by Jessica Dupuy

When it comes to Hill Country getaways, the Fredericksburg area—with its welcoming German heritage, myriad bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants and wineries—has long taken the lion’s share of attention. While other spots like Marble Falls and Boerne have also lured a loyal following, there’s still much to be found throughout the far reaches of Central Texas as well. Down the maze of winding roads, a rich fabric of soul and character waits to be discovered in some of these less-trafficked yet blossoming small Texas towns.

At the far northern ceiling of what can officially be called the Hill Country, along Texas Route 190, sits San Saba—a town in the midst of a renaissance. For much of its history, San Saba has been a ranching and agricultural town in an area considered Comanche territory throughout the 1800s. Most of the downtown area was built in the early 1900s, but in recent years, San Saba has seen an uptick in popularity from out-of-town visitors—credited, in large part, to an astonishing growth in farms, wineries and purveyors in the agritourism industry.

Which is where Mike McHenry comes in. After retiring in 2000, in search of a slower-paced life, he and his wife moved to a plot of land near San Saba where they had already been growing grapes as a hobby. It wasn’t long, though, before McHenry’s productive nature drove him to become a vineyard-management consultant to a number of vineyards throughout the Hill Country. He sold most of his grapes to nearby Alamosa Wine Cellars and joined his wife, Lynn, working in the tasting room there for something fun to do.

If asked 10 years ago if he’d be starting up a winery, McHenry would have laughed. But there was something about San Saba and the prospect of starting something new that piqued his interest. With input from trusted friends like Jim Johnson of Alamosa Wine Cellars, Rick Naber of Flat Creek Estate, Gary Gilstrap of Texas Hills Vineyard and Seth Martin of Perissos Vineyard and Winery, McHenry spent the better part of a year forging partnerships for a business and laying out a design for a midsize winery in the heart of the historic downtown district. Finally, he brought aboard master winemaker Penny Adams (one of only a few females in the trade) and now Wedding Oak Winery, named for the 400-year-old oak tree in town, is one of the newest additions to the list of more than 250 bonded wineries in the state. Their tasting room is open on a daily schedule, including Sundays. “Before we opened, hardly anything here was open on Sundays,” says McHenry. “But a lot of shops and restaurants see the benefit that weekend travelers bring to this town and are now opening with us on Sundays.”

Harry’s is a classic example. Originally established in 1939, the San Saba landmark recently undertook a major facelift on the two early-1900s buildings it encompasses. Today, it’s one of the most popular San Saba stops—specializing in a wide range of western wear, hats and boots.

While plans are in the works to develop a 50-plus-room hotel in downtown San Saba, a weekend stay at Burnham’s Lodging is a refreshing down-home experience right across from the courthouse, and the hotel offers a modest array of comfortable rooms built within old storefronts along Wallace Street (U.S. Route 190). For recreation, the nearby San Saba River Golf Course and the San Saba River Nature Park both offer excellent ways to enjoy the outdoors.

In addition, San Saba is known as the “Pecan Capital of the World,” with multiple pecan orchards throughout the area that attract a steady flow of visitors in the fall. There are at least five pecan companies along Wallace Street, and a few, including The Great San Saba River Pecan Company, a few miles outside of the main district. All offer a variety of products from raw and spiced pecans to pies, fudge and other confections. And the recent addition of the San Saba Olive Oil Company offers visitors yet another opportunity to sample the region’s local treasures.

The rekindled spirit of San Saba as a center point along the main Dallas and Austin thoroughfares of Texas Route 16 and U.S. Route 190 prompted McHenry to collaborate with seven other area wineries to create the Top of the Hill Country Wine Trail, consisting of Wedding Oak Winery, Alamosa Wine Cellars, Pilot Knob Vineyard, Pillar Bluff Vineyards, Perissos Vineyard and Winery, Fiesta Winery and Texas Legato Winery. While most of these wineries are technically part of the sprawling Texas Hill Country Wine Trails, as well as the Way Out Wineries trail, this core group draws a focus for visitors to this particular northern part of the Hill Country.

Wedding Oak Winery isn’t the only one in the area ramping up to welcome more visitors, though. Seth and Laura Martin of Perissos Vineyard and Winery near Inks Lake have spent the past few years making a name in quality, estate-grown wines. A fraction of their grapes come from the High Plains; everything else is grown on-site. “The problem is,” Seth notes, “we’ve been running out of space.”

This summer, the Martins completed an expansive tasting room and event space handcrafted in classic barn assembly style with a 40-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling using Douglas fir, cypress and other hardwoods to complete an old-school, artisan feel. In back, they added a storage room that will allow for about 280 barrels and 10,000 cases of finished wine.

“It became clear to all of us that this could easily be the Sonoma of the Hill Country to Fredericksburg’s Napa,” says McHenry. “And so far, it’s proving to be true. We’ve seen a tremendous increase in agritourism to this part of the region, and our projections for Wedding Oak have exceeded our expectations in less than a year.”

McHenry has wasted no time in fostering the winery’s momentum with a calendar of events that include a weekly Thursday women’s wine group (Les Dames du Vin) and Lagniappe Tuesdays, which celebrates customers with a gift of appetizers along with their wine tasting. He’s also partnered with different area chefs to host a series of seasonal dinners that feature the local farmers, purveyors and businesses in this part of Texas.

Last July, with the help of notable local, organic farmers Jimma and John Byrd, Wedding Oak hosted a farm-to-table dinner spotlighting produce and beef from area farmers with an Italian-inspired menu of dry-cured olives with fava beans, Caprese salad, rump roast with chimichurri, eggplant salad and ciambotta, an Italian dish similar to ratatouille. Dessert featured a fresh apricot tart with local lavender honey and San Saba pecans.

In August, Wedding Oak joined with Mary Stanley of the popular Turtle Restaurant in Brownwood, 50 miles down the road from San Saba. Sharing a similar passion to revitalize small Texas towns, Stanley and McHenry paired up for a special Top of the Hill Country dinner. Celebrating the east-to-west progression of the full moon that evening, Turtle chef Stephen “Bubba” Frank presented a menu of Thai curry soup with Gulf shrimp, warm Greek spinach salad with Dorper lamb from nearby Goldthwaite, an Italian housemade pasta and a dessert of chocolate ganache tarts with pears poached in Wedding Oak Winery Bridal Blush rosé.

Like McHenry, Stanley and her husband, David, have worked tirelessly for the last 10 years to revitalize their small town of Brownwood. And at their restaurant, visitors can find anything from burgers to curried pumpkin soup, to cranberry-mustard-crusted lamb, to Chinese cold noodles—the vast majority made using local products. “I like a slower pace to life,” says Stanley, with a nod to the name of her restaurant. “Our food specializes in not specializing. Our only commitment is to sourcing our ingredients locally. We make everything from scratch and let the seasons tell us what we should do next.”

This concept also applies to the Stanleys’ full-scale gelateria just next door to the Turtle—offering more than a dozen different handcrafted gelatos, including traditional Italian flavors like hazelnut and lemon as well as locally grown honey-lavender or syrah-gorgonzola-pear.

Stanley has also harnessed her love of European-style wines and, drawing upon her philosophy of supporting local producers, next opened Turtle Enoteca, which spotlights a healthy balance of Italian and Texas wines and a fine selection of pizzas and small plates.

But much like what’s happening in San Saba, visitors to Brownwood soon learn that Stanley’s ventures aren’t the only appeal to the town. Brownwood’s selection of shops and eateries stake a claim—including Hamilton’s gift and home decor store, the Runaway Train burger joint and the well-appointed antique stores Serendipity and Ricochet Oldies & Antiques. The Victorian-style Star of Texas Bed and Breakfast offers a handful of quaint guest cabins and rooms and remains a top pick for accommodations in town.

Stanley says that soon she’ll be adding two more ventures: a downtown bakery serving a host of fresh assorted breads and pastries, and a funky bar and bowling alley concept called Monty’s 1930 Social Club. Housed in a 1929 Montgomery Ward department-store building next to the restaurant, the venue will have a ’30s-style four-lane bowling alley, Skee-Ball and stadium seating for competitions. A grand bar on the first floor will serve refined bar food and craft cocktails designed by Tipsy Texan cocktail guru David Alan. The three-story building will eventually have two theaters on the second floor and a formal ballroom on the third for special events.

“There is a raised relief on the top frieze that depicts The Spirit of Progress statue, which was the symbol for the [Montgomery Ward] company,” Stanley says. The depiction of the symbolic figure, dressed in robes with a lit torch in her right hand and the caduceus staff of commerce and negotiation in her left, is a fitting one for Stanley, McHenry and others like them in this northern part of the Hill Country. Brownwood is a not-too-distant vision of what San Saba can look forward to in its future. Perhaps the old adage is true after all: build it and they will come.

Photography by Buddy Whitley and courtesy of Harry's and The Turtle Restaurant