Last heard from, the Empty Nesters were headed south from Adamsville on U.S. 281. Normally, the drive from Dallas to San Antonio is a 4-5 hour affair, but loyal readers will recall that full exploration of the route called for an entire weekend. So in the early evening of the second Friday in July, we found ourselves in Lampasas, Texas. For those with no use for high-brow literary conceits like foreshadowing, I will cut to the chase: “the second Friday in July” turns out to be key to the story, as it is smack in the middle of Spring Ho!
Lampasas generally is known as the hometown of Johnny “Lam” Jones, the fastest Texan there ever was, with apologies to the late-in-life arriving Carl Lewis, Bob Hayes and Trayvon Brommell. Johnny was a high-school sprinter extraordinaire and Longhorn football legend. In Austin, Coach Fred Akers gave Johnny the “Lam” nickname to differentiate him from his almost equally as fast teammate, Johnny “Ham” Jones of Hamlin. Nicknames were one of the very few coaching innovations that ever worked for Akers after his famous “give the ball to Earl” playbook failed to work quite as well without Earl.
As great as Lam was, it is a shame his hometown is not more widely known. Lampasas High, home of the weirdly-named Badgers, sits only 68 miles from DKR War Memorial Stadium, 117 miles from the Alamo and 177 miles from Northpark Mall. One would think Lampasas’ reputation would extend at least as far as these other cultural landmarks. Fear not, Spring Ho! and the Nesters are here to rectify that oversight.
First, we had to answer the obvious question that was at least as important to the Spring Ho! Queen as it was to us. What, exactly does Spring Ho! celebrate? Spring Ho! refers not to the season, but to the landmark sighting of Lampasas’ natural springs by its original settlers. Which is as good a place to start as any.
If you have ever driven through Lampasas on US 281, your attention was likely drawn to the west side of the road on the way out of town. Hancock Park, with its beautiful limestone “Hostess House” and lush municipal golf course, make great use of Sulphur Creek for a truly picturesque setting, as well as a spring-fed pool. On the east side of the road is Hart’s Firehouse BBQ, which we have yet to sample. Judging by the crowds, something good is going on in those pits. A morning round of golf, followed by an afternoon of barbecue with feet dangling in the creek sounds like a good reason for a return trip.
This time, however, we were there for the celebration. As is our custom, we started downtown on the square. The Nesters are developing a highly precise set of criteria for judging county squares. Three key components are: a beautiful courthouse, high-quality eateries and abundant retail focusing on vintage and quirky items. With a nod to Meatloaf, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad. The fact that a Dollar General is on the square is slightly off-putting. We could only window shop The Trading Post, a large antique store that looked to have good picking potential. It could use some more robust competition in the retail department.
Still, the pros far outweigh the cons. Lampasas claims its courthouse is the third-oldest still in operation in Texas, and one can imagine the To Kill a Mockingbird-version of Atticus Finch doing justice inside. The limestone exterior topped with red Mexican tile lets you know exactly where you are and it is all maintained in pristine shape.
Even more delightful was our stop at “Eve’s Place,” an authentic German cafe on the square. The Empty Nesters know their way around a spaetzle, having spent three years in Germany. Eve’s offering tasted just as good as any we had in our time overseas; the jagerschnitzel and bratwurst were equally as impressive. Beer on tap was colder than they serve it in Germany but just as full-bodied. And you know what? Germans do many things well, but give me the cold brew.
What really made Eve’s Place, however, was Eve. We were ready for the story of how husband Steve won her over while stationed in Germany, a not uncommon accomplishment for servicemen. Not quite. While Eve is in fact 100% German and Steve did serve, the wooing took place in El Paso, of all places. Ask her the story when you visit. Anyway, Eve charmed us into trying her specialty dessert, a slice of Nutella cheesecake. Nutella is in fact an Italian brand of Hazelnut spread that my daughters recently turned me onto. Let’s just say there is a reason for “World Nutella Day” (February 5); the stuff is addictive. Eve’s Nutella cheesecake may be the best use yet for the substance the Italians call supercrema.
Also on the square is The County Seat, a traditional diner-cafe tending ever so slightly to the upscale side of the spectrum. Its menu and reputation begged for a visit, but our caloric intake at Eve’s argued for exercise. We got plenty of it in the form of the Spring Ho! street dance to the sounds of the Tejas Brothers. If you are looking for the essence of a small town, you could do much worse than a street dance. This year’s Spring Ho! (always the second weekend of July) had the advantage of a temperate climate and a clear night sky filled with stars. Dancers ranged in age from 3 to 83, it was a family event.
We were particularly impressed with a couple probably in their late 60’s. He in a straw hat, pressed jeans and western shirt; she also in denim and both in boots. They glided through the street with ramrod postures and silky footwork, regardless of whether the song called for a waltz or a two-step. They had a done this a thousand times, but if it were not for the fact their grandson was with them, you would have thought it was their first date from the way the looked at each other. The Tejas Brothers provided more than able accompaniment; fresh takes on old standards as well their own funny and poignant tunes. Just about a perfect night. I imagine the next evening, featuring Jason Boland and the Stragglers, drew an even bigger crowd.
The following morning we made our way to Hanna Springs to see what turned out to be an impressive sculpture garden. Hanna Springs was also the finish line to the Spring Ho! parade and home to a huge barbecue cook-off. Had we stayed we could have entered the washers or horseshoe contest. On the other side of town was a craft fair that we visited briefly and a small carnival with rides just the right size for the pre-teen set. In other words, Spring Ho! and Lampasas offer something for everyone. Once again, we could have stayed the weekend. As it is, you will have to settle for our Facebook album of pictures.
From Lampasas we made the short drive to Burnet. The Farmer’s Market on the square was just closing shop when we arrived. Acting quickly, we grabbed a jar of homemade pickles from Cherokee Creek Farms and they have been a welcome lunch treat ever since. The square itself is initially disappointing, as the courthouse is unimpressive and the retail seems lacking. The stores we visited, however, had some great finds. The All Mixed Up Boutique and vintage store had great apparel for cowgirls of all ages through its Cowboy Girl Rerides line and Sassy Ann’s Boutique featured women’s apparel and accessories hip enough for South Congress Avenue in Austin. It was early afternoon and we chose Post Mountain Barbecue over Tea-Licious (a sandwich and wraps establishment). Post Mountain had ambiance and its sides were excellent. The brisket was good, not great, with more than generous servings. We might try Tea-Licious on a return trip.
Burnet’s main attractions are actually off the square. Near the Highland Lakes that are finally on the mend following years of drought, there should be fishing and water sports again in the immediate future. Nearby Fort Croghan offers frontier history brought to life. Coming from Austin, the Steam Train Association offers a variety of rides via the rails that let you enjoy Burnet in style. Haley Nelson Park offers outdoor movies and concerts of all type throughout the summer.
Our favorite stop in Burnet, however, was on the way out of town. On the east side of US 281 was “Finds … of all Kinds” a large store offering an endless assortment of vintage furniture, collectibles and decorative items. M’Lissa was ready to purchase a restored metal glider. I had my eye on an old restaurant menu board. Decorators will have a field day in this place. Since we started Empty Nest we have visited scores of vintage stores; Finds…of all Kinds ranks at the very top.
The last leg of the “Austin portion” of the US 281 trip is Marble Falls. Driving into Marble Falls you could be in any Austin suburb. As the road bends towards the Colorado River (technically Lake Marble Falls) the elevated view from the Hill Country to the water transforms the town. Situated a block west of US 281, downtown Marble Falls has a vibrant and eclectic collection of galleries, stores and restaurants that can easily consume several hours of window shopping or more if you are in a buying mode. Space limits the ones we can discuss, but do not miss “It’s All Goode” a terrific kitchen and dry goods store with out-of-this-world treats. Butterfly Babies had some great outfits for little grandchildren and Ciao Bella can make grandma look good. The hamburgers at Bill’s smelled outrageous and the customers reported a deep satisfaction with Bill-it is on the must visit list for next time. The Facebook album has more suggestions.
We abstained from Bill’s for two reasons. First, the barbecue was in the recent past. Second and more importantly, the Blue Bonnet Cafe is in Marble Falls just on the east side of the road, slightly north of the lake. Given the pie-centric nature of our journey, any Texas diner open for the last 86 years and featuring a “pie happy hour” (Monday-Friday, 3-5) was in our cross hairs. Because the shock absorbers to the Honda Pilot can only take so much, we shared a slice topped with cream and a side of tea. Given that this may be the quintessential Texas pie experience, we went with the quintessential Texas pie-Pecan. Blue Bonnet lived up to its billing and then some. How this place is not on Texas Monthly’s list of best small town cafes, I have no idea. It is certainly on the Empty Nesters’ list.
Lampasas to Marble Falls is just a 35-minute drive. Do it the right way and it takes all day. The summary: Lampasas the second week of July for all manner of fun; one of the best vintage stores in Texas is in Burnet; scenery, shopping and most, of all pie, in Marble Falls. One more thing. If you want to sound Texan, next time somebody comments on the speed of an athlete, just nod knowingly and say “He’s fast alright. But he ain’t no Lam.” Get out there, Nesters!