Texas Hill Country

February 28, 2007
Filed under Travel

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Texas is the only state that came into the Union by treaty. And it retains the right to secede at will. I don’t know enough about Texas to know if it has ever threatened to leave the rest of us, to secede. But I know a sufficient number of Texans to be convinced that if they really wanted to, they would. Texas is a nation in every sense of the word. There is a cohesiveness here that is perhaps stronger than any other section of the country. When you see the American flag flying — and you do often here — the Texas flag is usually right under it. If a place has two flag poles, Texas gets one. Like the 13 colonies, Texas fought for its independence. It was a brave band of native sons who wrested their freedom from Mexico — Remember the Alamo! — so, believe me when I say that freedom and liberty are holy words here.

While visiting Brady, a town of 6,000 that’s at the geographic center of the state, I had ice cream and cake on the lawn of the county courthouse, where they were celebrating Brady’s 100th anniversary. The late Mayor Jesse McAnally was the only participant at the ceremony wearing a tie — no coat. Obviously, formality in dress here in the Hill Country is not important, but formality and decorum in conversation certainly are. In fact, it’s true throughout Texas. I am consistently addressed as “sir.” And it’s not the gray hair that prompts this show of respect. It’s apparently inbred; it comes with being a Texan. West of the Mississippi, towns that are 100 years old are in the minority. Texas is the oldest state in the West, having joined the Union in 1845. So, I expect to wade through tradition and stumble on the old ways of doing things as I explore the Hill Country, where every third town seems to be a county seat.

San Saba is one such city. It’s about 40 miles east of Brady, near the San Saba River. Known as the “Pecan Capital of the World,” mature pecan trees are everywhere in San Saba, including Courthouse Square. With every county seat comes a courthouse — always the ornate centerpiece of a park-like square from which the towns expand in concentric squares. Traditional “Main Streets” don’t exist. The town’s major stores and shops surround the square. Curious about pecans, I stopped at a house on Wallace Street with a sign out front: Millican Pecan Company. There, Kristen Millican and her mother sell pecans in every form — from pies to pralines. Kristen’s husband Winston’s great, great grandfather started here in 1888 with a “mother pecan tree.” It’s still producing. “Artificial pollination of the ‘mother tree’ went on for years as he tried to develop new varieties,” Kristen told me. “He would ride horseback for miles seeking suitable ‘father trees,’ gather the pollen-laden male blossoms and bring them back here in his saddle-bags.” It took 10 years before he knew if he had anything new or better.

On the square, at the corner of Commerce and Cherokee, is the G & R Grocery. It’s been here since 1946. The front is part window and part sign for “Bill’s Season All,” which is set against an outline of Texas segmented in red, white and blue. Stacked in front are bags of Miracle Grow potting soil and mulch — both cedar bark and pine bark. “No, we never move those. Rain won’t hurt ‘em,” Ed Ragsdale was telling me. He’s the owner. “Ever lose any bags?” I asked. “Not that I know of. People take them when they need them — particularly Sunday when we’re not open — and pay the next time they’re in. Many customers charge everything they buy. We write it down. They pay once a month. “We used to deliver. I liked that. I could visit with folks. But there’s no time for that any more. And people were beginning to abuse it. But I still deliver to the nursing home, the jail and Headstart.”

The only place he has ever worked, Ed bought the store in 1972. Most of the fixtures are original, including a walk-in cooler. “The compressor has always been noisy, but we’re used to it.” Years ago he bought a big safe. “Don’t know why, except that it was cheap. Never have put any money in it.” “Have things changed in 60 years?” I asked. Ed laughed. “Who would have thought that I would be selling drinking water? I have three shelves full of that bottled water right next to the Dr. Pepper — we still sell a lot of that. And I sell a ton of fish now. Comes from Louisiana. People used to catch their own. We have rivers on both sides of us, you know. Kayaking is big out there these days. “People buy every day now. Used to be once a week. They run out of something and come and get it. Even with $3 gas, they don’t care.”

He does a big meat business and sprinkles every steak with “Bill’s Season All” before he puts it out. The seasoning was concocted right here, many years ago. He showed me the tin bowl it was mixed in. Ed started in the store when he was nine, 61 years ago. “Today they’d call it child abuse,” he said, “I worked Saturdays from 7 in the morning ’til 11 at night for 2 bucks. My daddy worked here, and got the owner to hire me by promising to pay half of what I got.” Looks like that gentleman’s agreement paid off in the long run.

Bill’s e-mail address: roadscribe@aol.com

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