On my way to visit Cranfills Gap I stopped for gas in Valley Mills, and while I waited for the woman in front of me in line to finish a rather extensive lottery ticket purchase, I chatted with the guy behind me. I told him I was on my way to Cranfills Gap, or as people sometimes call it, “the Gap.”
“Phew-ee,” the guy whistled. “Now that’s a small town.”
I couldn’t help but smile. Valley Mills with its population of 1,200 people is not a town most would call large. But Cranfills Gap only has 280 people, so even to a resident of Valley Mills, Cranfills Gap is a small town. I spent nearly a decade living outside a town called Mosheim, which can barely scrape together 50 people, so compared to that, Cranfills Gap is a big town and Valley Mills is a metropolis.
The woman in front of us was flip-flopping on one last decision, a Super Loteria scratch or a Golden Nugget. The hot dogs rolled in the cooker, a person to my right began to fill an 80-ounce cup with ice, prepping for soda.
“They have a real good burger in the Gap,” the guy commented after a moment. And I thought I detected a little envy in his voice.
“They definitely do,” I responded without envy. I was planning to have one of those burgers for lunch.
Cranfills Gap has other things going for it besides a great burger. The town is located in western Bosque County, which may not mean much to you unless you are from Bosque County or you know a bit about Central Texas geography, so I’ll translate. Western Bosque County = head-shakingly beautiful.
Shaking your head while you talk to yourself — “My goodness, this is a beautiful view.”
Shaking your head while you question yourself — “Why did I take so long to come out here and look around?”
Shaking your head while you compliment yourself — “At least I got out of town and came to see it today.”
The drive from Waco to Cranfills Gap is about an hour, a little more if you get in line at the gas station behind someone who woke up feeling lucky. But the hour doesn’t feel like an hour. The day before, my son had mused to me, “Mom, sometimes when I am playing Legos it seems like I build a whole castle in three seconds.” The blissful, quick passage of time a 5-year-old feels while constructing a stronghold out of miniature plastic pieces is what you can experience along the drive. The highways are sidelined by open, sprawling pastures filled with cattle and picturesque hillsides in the distance. And as you drive toward Cranfills Gap on Highway 219 you start to see signs of what the area is known for beyond the beef — their rich Norwegian heritage.
In the mid-1800s eight Norwegian families came to the area looking for land. Their influence — as well as some of their original buildings — can still be seen today. Special events like the Lutefisk dinner, held annually in Cranfills Gap, show that their Nordic roots are still close to the surface. Many of the historical homes require a drive off the main highway, as they were built closer to water sources. But one home with exceptional history can be seen on Highway 219, The Ringness House.
Jens and Kari Ringness were one of those eight original families who came to the area. In 1859 they built a six-room home in Norwegian dobbelthus style, with a central passageway separating two identical floor plans on either side. Until a church could be constructed for the settlers, this house was often used as a worship center. Today the Ringness House Museum only opens for special events and large tours, but don’t let this stop you from seeking out the house.
There is actually a very nice space where you can pull off the main highway to study the structure of this historical house, and an information placard is there to fill in details so you can give Google a break. Look beyond the house and you will see the blacksmith shop, which is particularly important because in that very shop Jens’ son, Ole, invented the disk plow. (Again, I’ll translate. Disk plow = device that revolutionized farming).
The town of Cranfills Gap is just a few miles beyond the Ringness museum, and if you aren’t hungry yet, stop and run around in the bluebonnets for a while because when you get to town you are going to need your appetite. One other place you can stop en route to The Horny Toad Bar and Grill (where you can finally put your paws on this much-discussed burger) is Gap Ranch Supply. This tiny but mighty shop holds a wide variety of, as the name suggests, ranching equipment. If you need mineral for your cows, they have you covered. Or if your ranch supply needs run more along the lines of candied jalapenos to serve on a cheese plate (it’s a rustic cheese plate!) and steak seasoning, well they also have your back.
The Horny Toad is located on the main street, and when I arrived I thought it was going to be a quiet lunch. No one was parked in any of the parking spots on the road, and the town had the feel Hollywood always likes to give small Texas towns — like at any moment a giant tumbleweed might blow through. Along with a bandit and someone who only has two teeth.
But once I opened the doors to this bar and restaurant I saw it was a different story. Four regulars sat with drinks du jour at the bar. A group of five women had a table full of salads (so that you know you don’t have to get a burger), and a family of four ate quesadillas and buffalo wings. Music was playing, and people were happy, talking and laughing. A lot more satisfied than Hollywood would ever let life in a small town play out.
The Horny Toad burger comes loaded with every vegetable that belongs on a burger, and if you like, you can get the bun with the one vegetable that belongs in a bun: jalapeno. I’m not sure what makes it so delicious — the patty is juicy with just the right amount of grease, but there are places in Waco who execute that and still, if I had an afternoon free, I would choose a trip to The Horny Toad over the rest.
While you wait, or while you digest, you can play pool or sit on the patio and watch as the bikers roll in for a pit stop on their afternoon drives. I chose to spend my idle moments in conversation with one of the locals at the bar. Conversation was relaxed and earnest, without any of the pressure I sometimes feel when I am a tourist — as though I should pretend I’m anything but a tourist. In Cranfills Gap the locals know who the locals are, and they know you aren’t one of them. This frees you up to pull a map out of your fanny pack and ask questions (for starters, what exactly is Lutefisk?) like the tourist you are.
When I asked where to go before leaving town, I got the answer I expected: the Old Rock Church. This is a stop not to be missed on a trip to Cranfills Gap. Anyone at The Horny Toad can point you to the Old Rock Church road, which leads to this church that was built in 1886 with stones quarried from surrounding hills. The church still holds worship services today for special occasions but, like the Ringness House, you can see the outside of the church any day you drive there. It stands simply and beautifully with a small cemetery to the side. A reminder, if you wish, of what endures and what doesn’t.
On my way home, as I passed the gas station in Valley Mills I thought about that woman with her lottery tickets. Had her Golden Nugget paid out? Even if it had, given the hours I got to spend exploring the small — or big, depending how you look at it — town of Cranfills Gap, I decided I was actually the big winner of the day.