They say that Cameron Park Zoo is “the happiest surprise in Texas.” If you’re a fan of zoos (and who isn’t?), then you’ll find another pretty happy surprise by traveling about an hour south of Waco to the Franklin Drive Thru Safari.
This family-owned park sits on over 100 acres of land and features about 90 species of animals from around the world — including some 10-12 endangered species, said Kenneth Soles, the son of owner Jason Clay. A space like this offers something larger city zoos simply don’t: the opportunity for a truly immersive, up-close-and-personal experience with the animals.
As you drive along the safari’s clearly marked trail, zebras, llamas, emus and more come right up to your car windows, anticipating a snack. Buckets of feed, which can be eaten by all the animals on the reserve except for the giraffes and the monkeys, are available for purchase at the safari gift shop. Most of the animals, which are well acclimated to human contact, will eat right out of visitors’ hands. Others are even bolder and stick their heads right into the bucket itself. At one point, there were two zebras simultaneously poking their heads into my car through the driver side window — these are the sorts of unique moments that the Franklin Safari enables.
The animals are curious and, especially in the case of one certain llama that enjoyed standing in front of my car, very persistent about getting to know their human visitors. However, they are also friendly, gentle and happy to be petted. Even small children can safely enjoy this experience (my 2-year-old son loved interacting with the animals).
The front section of the park, before the drive-through portion begins, also has plenty to offer. Multiple enclosures house animals that visitors may feed and touch: goats, a young camel and some kangaroos, among others. A family of giraffes, including a baby giraffe born this past Christmas, can be viewed and fed lettuce leaves (also available for purchase in the gift shop) from a platform overlooking their outdoor yard and from a side window peering into their indoor area. In addition to the general feed buckets for most of the animals and the lettuce for the giraffes, the gift shop also offers the option to buy special treats for the various species of monkeys that live in the park. (By the way, all the prices for buying food for the animals are comparable to or better than similar options at any large zoo, without the hassle of constant crowds, and for an overall experience that’s more personal.)
The definite highlight of my visit, though, was by far the baby room. This special, separate room offers what is perhaps the most hands-on part of an experience that was, for me, already head and shoulders above any other zoo I’d ever visited. For 15 minutes, assisted by a staff member, you can hold, pet and play with several baby animals (the types of animals inside vary, so no species in particular can be guaranteed). My visit included a tiny (and teething) baby monkey, a very sweet zebu and a feisty otter, along with a few others. Access to the baby room is a separate fee from the rest of the safari but certainly well worth it.
So how does a place like this come to be?
“My dad has always been a little bit weird,” Soles said with a laugh. Growing up, he said, the family kept acquiring different and unusual pets and often traveled around the country delivering the animals to zoos. About six years ago, they settled in Franklin and received a license to operate the safari.
The Franklin Drive Thru Safari is located at 4324 West Highway 79 and is open from 9 a.m. through 5 p.m. daily, except for a few holidays and in case of inclement weather. Closings due to rain or other weather events are posted on the safari’s Facebook page. For additional information, including admission prices, call 979/828-5256 or visit franklinsafari.com.
About a dozen miles from the safari down Highway 79 lies another happy Franklin surprise: DeZavala Vineyard, owned by Lawrence DeZavala, a World War II veteran with a special connection to Texas history.
“Lorenzo de Zavala, the first vice president of the Republic of Texas, was my great-great-grandfather,” DeZavala said. He and his wife, Rachel, bought the property over 40 years ago, and at the time it had 5 acres of grapes and about 300 peach trees growing on it. Unfortunately, the peach trees did not last due to climate issues and a lack of manpower, and the grapes, according to DeZavala, are “a lost cause.”
“I came out here with the idea of making wine and found out that you can buy good wine a whole lot cheaper than you can make it,” he said. “I’m an engineer, not a farmer.”
Still, the grapes he does grow he sells to local wineries. These days, however, the vineyard’s most prolific crop is blueberries, with about an acre of blueberry bushes.
“The only way we sell them is if you pick them yourself,” DeZavala said, noting that the cost of paying someone to harvest the berries would outweigh any profit gained by selling them. Usually around June 1 is when the berries ripen and DeZavala gets out his scale to prepare for a wave of blueberry pickers. Visitors to the vineyard can enjoy the peace and quiet of the grounds with a small picnic area. There is also a pond on the property and fishing is welcome, although any fish caught must be released back into the pond, DeZavala said.
DeZavala Vineyard is located at 394 De Zavala Lane. Call 979/828-4767 before your trip to ask about the availability of the berries.
The city of Franklin also displays its commitment to family and community recreation in the recently built Franklin Ranch Community Park. Though the park is owned by Franklin Independent School District, “We believe the district facilities belong to the community,” said Bret Lowry, Franklin ISD superintendent.
“When we build new facilities in Franklin, we do it with the thought of how will this strengthen the partnership between the school district and the community of Franklin by providing a service to both.” In the case of the park, he said, “The district saw the need to support its community by developing a setting that would not only provide our youth organization a place to perform but also a place that offered an experience to all age groups of the community.”
The park has served neighboring communities as well as Franklin.
“Other schools come here for field trips as well,” said David Hudspeth, park manager. “We host a water conservation field trip for fifth graders and several schools attend that event.” Many community events have also taken place at the park, including weddings, concerts and an annual fireworks show in celebration of July 4, “but mostly baseball tournaments,” Hudspeth said. These the park is well-equipped to host, having six baseball fields.
The sloping grounds, with a country club-like elegance, also boast several nature trails, multiple playgrounds, picnic areas and even a splash pad. Visitors can also fish in the pond, as long as they catch and release. The entire property is beautifully groomed and a very pleasant way to pass an afternoon. The park is located at 2925 North FM 46 and is open to the public every day from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Besides having great options for family recreation, Franklin is also full of history. Familiar brown signs with “Historical Marker on right, 1 mile” abound here. Most notably, however, the town sits directly on the original El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail, a series of paths and roadways first traveled by Spanish colonists beginning as early as the 1680s and 1690s.
“[Franklin] just got signage for the trail,” said Melanie Redden, director of the Franklin Carnegie Library. And while Redden acknowledged that now there isn’t much offered in the way of lectures or tours to highlight the history of the trail, she and others in the community are working to change this.
“Eventually the library is trying to be an information center on the trail and have brochures and books [about its history],” Redden said.
And then there’s the library itself. It’s a Carnegie Library, meaning that the city applied for and received a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to build the library, which was completed in 1914. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, it’s one of only four Carnegie libraries in the state of Texas (out of 31 total built) that are still in operation as libraries today. This summer the library will have a full schedule of summer programs and activities for the community, including a presentation by Waco’s own Dr Pepper Museum, a talk by representatives of Blue Bell ice cream about how they make their flavors and a visit from a turtle rescue group.
Finally, if you’re looking for a place to eat out in this small town, Redden has a couple of suggestions.
“You’ve got to go to New Baden General Store. They have gigantic hamburgers,” Redden said. The location used to be a general store, she explained, but now does business as a restaurant. New Baden General Store is located at 3550 Main Street in New Baden. Redden also recommended Pioneer Cafe.
“Everything is homemade, and the owner is very friendly and community-oriented.” The fish, Redden said, is a particular favorite: “It’s even good cold!” Pioneer Cafe’s address is 106 Highway 79.