Life & Art

By Kevin Tankersley

Bed-and-beer and more down the road in Clifton

In an essay he wrote in 1889, Irish playwright Oscar Wilde said that life imitates art. It might be a stretch to call “The Andy Griffith Show” art, but life has imitated the stories seen in that series.

Much of the action of the show was set in the courtroom and jail in Mayberry, where Otis, the town drunk, wanders in after having a few too many. He lets himself into one of the cells, sleeps it off and is on his way the next morning, using the set of keys that hangs on the wall between the two cells.

Kaye Johnson saw that same scenario unfold in Clifton, though it was years ago.

“I have two friends who I will not ever name, and they have both spent the night” in what was at one time the city jail, she said. “They were driving, too drunk. It was back in the day. All they did was bring them in here and tell them they had to go to sleep and put the keys up here, and they’d leave.”

Johnson now owns that two-cell jail, and has turned the building into the Cell Block, a one-bedroom inn a block off downtown at 120 Clifton Art Alley. One cell is now the bedroom, while the adjoining cell has been converted into a bathroom. The concrete floors and bars on the cells and windows are all original, Johnson said. A small table outside the bedroom cell holds a bottle of wine and a small decanter of white Texas whiskey, both of which are free to guests.

“There’s not breakfast. It’s a bed-and-beer,” Johnson joked.

The space also has a record player and some vinyl for guests to play. The music is, of course, all jail themed: “Jailhouse Rock,” “Back on the Chain Gang,” “Folsom Prison Blues” and others. There’s no TV, but Wi-Fi is usually available through a neighboring downtown business. There’s a fire pit and a shaded space on the roof of the building as well. Nightly rates at the Cell Block begin at $175, and more information can be found at StayAtTheCellBlock.com.

The Cell Block is the newest addition to Clifton Art Alley, an outdoor venue for street art. On the walls of Clifton Art Alley are several large, colorful murals, all there due to the influence of Johnson, a former high school teacher. Several of her former students have contributed to the artwork in the alley, and she’s happy to explain the meaning behind each one.

The wine Johnson provides for her guests is from Red Caboose, a winery in Meridian that also has a tasting room and deli in Clifton at 903 South Avenue G. Most of the wines Red Caboose produces are “big reds,” said owner Gary McKibben, an architect who has designed 16 other wineries in Texas. One of its biggest sellers is a white wine, Blanc du Bosque, named in honor of the winery’s home county. One of Red Caboose’s most impressive wines is its port, which has won numerous national and international awards, McKibben said. The port sells for $59 a bottle, while most of the other varieties are priced from $10 to $24.

McKibben said that Red Caboose will produce about 3,500 cases of wine this year, 7,000 next year and 10,000 the year after that. He and his son Evan, the winemaker and caretaker of the vineyard, use all the grapes they grow in Clifton and Meridian and also buy grapes from three local farmers. At the moment, Red Caboose handles each aspect of its operations, from growing the grapes to making and bottling the wine to getting into stores, though McKibben will probably have to partner with a distributor when the winery gets to that 10,000-case mark.

The public will have a chance to help out with the winemaking when Red Caboose hosts a grape stomp at its Meridian facility from noon to 10 p.m. on September 26. More information on Red Caboose can be found at RedCabooseWinery.com.

While the Cell Block offers one type of throwback experience in Clifton, the Cliftex Theatre, at 306 West 5th Street, presents another. The single-screen movie house, built in 1916, shows current films Thursday through Sunday each week, and admission is $5. Though the theater underwent a complete renovation in 2008, the wooden seats date to the 1930s as do the side lights in the auditorium and many of the decorative features throughout.

To complete the feel of a movie-going experience from the past, each showing features a brief intermission — formerly used to change film reels, but unnecessary now — including the playing of the “Let’s All Go To The Lobby” jingle. More information on the theater can be found at CliftexTheatre.com.

There’s a casual fine dining option available in downtown Clifton, and it’s Mitchell’s Grille, which is also co-owned by the Cell Block’s Johnson. She and Roger Mitchell — “my good friend,” she said — opened the restaurant in 2011 on the site of an old Sinclair gas station. They kept the building’s original foundation, rafters, tin and garage door location. The restaurant is located at 215 West 3rd Street and is open from 5:30-9:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Entrees range from $12 to $38. Selections from the California-heavy wine list begin at $5 a glass. A complete menu can be found at MitchellsGrille.com.

There are a couple of antique malls in downtown Clifton. A recent stop at the Bosque County Emporium — 121 North Avenue D — found a Baylor University literary magazine from 1896 at the price of $15 and a book dealing with the history of the Baylor mascot was being offered for $40. Across a courtyard an annex of the store houses used furniture, most of it not of the antique variety.

The Clifton Antique Mall — 206 West Fifth Street — is housed in a building that was once part of Clifton College, which was founded as Lutheran College of Clifton in 1896. The college’s main hall is now the Bosque Arts Center, which is at 215 College Hill Drive. Country singer Hal Ketchum is the next big show scheduled at the center. He’ll be performing at 5 p.m. on October 24 as part of the Texas Troubadour songwriting competition. The Roland Jones Memorial Gallery at the center houses a permanent collection consisting of pieces from established as well as up-and-coming artists. Information about the center is at BosqueArtsCenter.org.

The Bosque Museum, at 301 South Avenue Q, houses a large collection of Norwegian artifacts and Norwegian language books, reflecting Clifton’s Norse roots, which can be traced back to 1845, when a group of Norwegian immigrants settled northwest of town in an area that is now known as the Norse Historic District. The museum also contains collections relating to Native Americans, firearms, primitive Texas furniture and materials from early Bosque County schools, doctors and hospitals. Admission to the museum, which is open Tuesday through Saturday, is $5 for those 10 and older. More information can be found at BosqueMuseum.org.

And the Meyer Observatory, on FM 182 between Clifton and Turnersville at the Turner Research Station, offers night-sky viewing events for the public once a month. The observatory is owned and operated by the Central Texas Astronomical Society, which recommends using driving directions on its website — CenTexAstronomy.org — rather than depending on GPS devices, which have often left visitors “very lost,” it says. The public viewings are free.

Life and art — it’s part of what makes Clifton a destination, one “Far enough away to relax … close enough to drive,” proclaims the city’s website. And since it’s only 40 miles down state Highway 6, it’s an easy trip too. For more information about what to do and see in Clifton, go to VisitClifton.org.

Join the Conversation