More Than Pecans

By Kevin Tankersley

Drive friendly through San Saba

The phrase “Drive Friendly” has shown up on bumper stickers and signs around Texas since at least 1972. As drivers cross into the Lone Star State, big signs beside the road say “Drive Friendly – The Texas Way.”

And that might be the best advice for drivers wanting to cross the Regency Bridge, located between Goldthwaite and San Saba, at the intersection of Mills County Road 433 and San Saba County Road 137. The bridge — a one-lane wooden structure — is the last suspension bridge in Texas open to vehicles.

On a recent Saturday afternoon as we eased onto the Regency for our initial crossing, we saw the top of a truck cresting the bridge and heading toward us. We backed up and moved over and let the other guy pass, with us both giving a friendly Texas wave. And then it was our turn.

We slowly approached the bridge, with some of us in the car being a bit nervous. The tires rolled rhythmically over the wooden slats, and we could feel the bridge gently swaying beneath us and the waters of the Colorado River lazing by slowly, hundreds of feet below. (At least, it felt like hundreds of feet, with the thin metal cables providing a panoramic view on both sides.) We made it safely across the 400-foot-long bridge and parked. After waiting for another couple of cars to pass, we walked onto the bridge to get a close-up view. It was a bit nerve-wracking to look over the sides of the bridge. Those metal cables are maybe shoulder-high on our kids and about waist-high on the grown-ups. And a 9-year-old boy jumping up and down on the bridge can make it sway!

Regency Bridge was built by hand in 1939 and was an important agricultural route linking San Saba and Brownwood. The bridge was restored in 1997, with then-Governor George W. Bush in attendance at the rededication ceremony. A fire in 2003 burned some of the bridge, but it was repaired and has been open to traffic ever since.

The bridge is located about 18 miles outside of San Saba, a community of about 3,100 folks that’s a two-hour drive from Waco. It’s home to several lovely outdoor spaces with fun features, including a beach, a centuries-old oak tree and a football field that’s sometimes inhabited by ghosts.

Tony Guidroz is the director of economic development and tourism for San Saba, and his enthusiasm for the town is contagious. We met Guidroz for lunch at Oliver and Co., a soup and sandwich restaurant at 320 East Wallace Street. Over sandwiches and desserts of housemade ice cream, Guidroz talked about his time in Waco, when he did some radio work for various stations, including KWTX and KHOO. He also recalled when he was a drummer for blues singer/guitarist Classie Ballou. Later Guidroz started his own band, Steppin’ Stone, and played classic Waco venues such Sue’s #2 and Booter’s Broken Promise.

A few years ago downtown San Saba resembled the central districts of many small towns. Most storefronts were boarded up, and there just wasn’t much happening. A new city manager worked to bring businesses back to the area and has succeeded nicely. Oliver and Co. is on the first floor of the Dofflemyer Hotel in the old San Saba National Bank building. The second floor of the building was a “gentleman’s social club” in years past, with billiard tables, a player piano and a reading room. That space is now occupied by the Dofflemyer’s five rooms and one suite, where rates start at $149 a night. Around the corner from the hotel and Oliver and Co., at 318 East Wallace, is J.C. Campbell and Company Mercantile, a two-story shop featuring antiques, gifts and women’s clothing.

Next door to Campbell is Wedding Oak Winery, at 316 East Wallace, whose signature wine is a 2014 Tioja — a Texas Rioja — made from grapes grown in the Hill Country. Wedding Oak’s winemaker is Penny Adams, who has degrees in horticulture and plant science. Wedding Oak acts as an incubator winery, offering space and mentorship to wineries entering the market, which in this case is Old Man Scary Cellars at 302 East Wallace Street. Its signature product is a 2014 Dolcetto, a “light-bodied dry red wine with hints of fresh red berries [and] a slight smoky and spicy flavor profile,” Old Man Scary’s website says.

A block away, at 403 East Wallace, sits Harry’s, a western boot and clothing store. There is so much leather inside Harry’s that the aroma hits visitors before even opening the front door. Step inside and you’ll see more than 6,000 pairs of boots along with an upstairs hat room and clothing for men, women and children.

If you’ve had enough shopping and are ready for some outdoor time, there are lots of opportunities for that in San Saba. The town is home to three city parks: Mill Pond Park, Risien Park and San Saba River Nature Park. Mill Pond includes a waterfall, swimming pool and Sunny Beach, a long, narrow strip of sand adjacent to a spring-fed lake that is about 65 degrees, a welcome respite on a recent hot afternoon.

Risien Park was named for Edward E. Risien, an amateur horticulturist who settled in the area in 1875 and donated the land for the park. Risien, looking to capitalize on all the pecan trees in the area — San Saba calls itself the Pecan Capital of the World — offered a $5 prize for the best-tasting pecan. A fellow brought him one he liked, and Risien bought (without seeing it first) the land around the tree that produced that pecan. The problem was that every branch but one had been cut off that particular tree. But Risien worked for many years to develop several varieties of pecans, and that original tree, now known as Mother Pecan, is still alive, though it’s on private property owned by Risien’s ancestors.

Many products made from San Saba pecans are available at Alamo Pecan & Coffee Co., at 601 East Wallace Street. Pecan coffee, which is rich and decadent, is made by roasting pecans with coffee beans, and there are several varieties available, including mocha, butter pecan and caramel. Alamo also sells many types of flavored pecans, as do several other outlets in town, including Millican Pecan Company, which is owned by Edward Risien’s great-great grandson, Winston Millican.

A magnificent tree accessible to the public is Wedding Oak on China Creek Road. Legend has it that Native Americans were married under the branches of the tree, which is several hundred years old, maybe even a thousand years old, Guidroz said. The tree’s nearby historical marker says three weddings took place under the tree on December 24, 1911.

After all that time outside we needed cold drinks, so we made a stop at G&R Groceries & Meat Market, where four bottled waters cost $2. G&R, a small store that’s a throwback to the days before grocery chains dominated the market, is owned and operated by Edward and Linda Ragsdale. It has a butcher on staff to custom cut any variety of meat you would want (bring a cooler, maybe) and a bicycle with a basket for deliveries.

It also sells Bill’s Season All — another San Saba product — a blend of chili peppers, garlic, onion and a bunch of other spices. Billy Ray Eden started making seasonings when he worked in the meat market at G&R in the 1970s and eventually bottled them for retail sale. After he died in 1988, his wife, Faye, took over the company and still operates it with her children and their spouses. We were going to buy a small bottle of Season All, but Guidroz said we would hate ourselves after we ran out, so instead we went with the 30-ounce container. Mr. Ragsdale himself, at 79 years old, was manning the cash register that day.

Guidroz suggested we stop by San Saba First United Methodist Church, at 204 West Brown Street. It lays claim to the fact this it’s the only all-marble Methodist church in the United States. It was established in 1856 “in an area so wild that the Church gave a missionary a $50 revolver and a $125 horse,” the church website says. The beautiful current building was constructed between 1914 and 1917 and was given a state historical marker in 1965.

Next door to the church is Rogan Field, where the San Saba High School Armadillos play their football games. The field was built in 1935 over a cemetery, and it’s been said that as opposing players have been running for a sure touchdown, they have simply tripped and fallen. The spirits of those buried below? Who’s to say?

Our day was topped off with dinner at Pepperbelly’s, a Mexican food restaurant at 517 East Wallace, where the signature appetizer is the Pepperbelly, a grilled jalapeño stuffed with cream cheese and wrapped with bacon. As yummy as it sounded, I couldn’t bring myself to order the El Patron, a burger consisting of “triple meat ground beef patties” and topped with cheese, bacon, more Pepperbellys and vegetables, served on a jalapeño sourdough bun with a side of fries. At $12.99, “this one is for the big boys,” the menu says.

From its historic suspension bridge to downtown shopping to parks and wineries — and of course, pecans — there’s something for everyone to enjoy while visiting San Saba. For more information, visit sansabachamber.org or call 325/372-5141.

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