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Old West Reborn

Destination: Sonora

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 3.25 hours /
  • Brownsville - 7.5 hours /
  • Dallas - 6 hours /
  • El Paso - 6.25 hours /
  • Houston - 6 hours /
  • San Antonio - 3 hours
  • Lubbock - 4.25 hours

Formerly a gunslingers’ haven, Sonora now draws tamer travelers in search of starry nights, cool caves and a rocking chair with a view.

Prickly pear cacti, native grasses and gnarled live oaks rim the limestone edge of an abandoned quarry within Eaton Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sonora. Two young boys, out for an afternoon hike along the trails, take turns throwing long spears fashioned out of dry sotol at a rusted tin can set on a rock.

“They’re playing ‘Texas darts,’” explains Jimmy Cahill, a West Texas businessman who helped found the 37-acre sanctuary five years ago. While the pair continues their game, Cahill picks up a coiled rope that is next to a jagged tree stump, twirls one looped end over his head, and then tosses it around the stump. “They can also practice their roping skills,” he grins.

Or pretend they’ve snuck up on a trio of armed outlaws bedded down beneath the oaks. Cahill, who’s well versed in Sonora’s early gunslinging days, set up several replica campsites in the sanctuary that depict how bad guys Will Carver, Ben Kilpatrick and their cronies might have cooked and slept while hiding out from the law.

If I’m to believe the countless tales I hear during my brief visit in Sonora, then “wild and woolly” would certainly describe life here at the turn of the century. In fact, one infamous murder case involves the town’s first water well.

Sonora was founded by rancher Charles G. Adams, who settled on four sections of grassy but dry land in 1885 and named the site after a family servant from Sonora, Mexico. Two years later, he drilled a water well and offered free lots. His abundantly flowing well, located on a proposed courthouse square, attracted a large enough population for Sonora to become the county seat of Sutton County in 1890. (A historical marker marks the original well’s site.)

Tragedy connected to the public well befell Sonora in 1891. It seems Isaac Miers, who lived with his family in a board-and-batten house on the square (now the Miers Home Museum), feuded with neighbor John Q. Adams over watering livestock at the well’s trough. Though eyewitnesses gave different reports, the most-told version puts Miers wielding a knife and then Adams shooting him in the abdomen. Miers died, and Adams was found guilty of murder. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals later reversed the judgment.

Legend has it that Adams mysteriously vanished soon thereafter. However, to this day, many residents believe he hid in his home and ventured out occasionally at night, dressed as a woman.

Over a hefty-sized Caesar salad, I listen to one yarn after another at the Sutton County Steakhouse, a popular eatery frequented by both locals and harried travelers pulling off Interstate 10. After we finish lunch, my hosts escort me to a front dining room, where dozens of vintage photos from Sonora’s early days cover an entire wall. Even pages from the town’s first telephone book, dated April 1920, are displayed.

An afternoon tour of Sonora starts at the newly renovated Sutton County courthouse, designed by architect Oscar Ruffini and built in 1891. During restoration, contractors uncovered a gold-stenciled border believed to have once lined the courthouse’s rooms and halls. Based on that discovery and old photos, conservators meticulously hand-stenciled and -painted Victorian-style motifs in gold and copper. The borders beautifully accent the courthouse’s sage green walls, not to mention the original pine floors, wooden railings and furnishings in the upstairs courtroom.

On the square also stands the two-story Sutton County jail, constructed in 1891 of native stone. Although the jail’s four upstairs cells offered the latest in plumbing fixtures, Sonora’s water pressure wasn’t strong enough to get water up to them until 1895, when the waterworks were moved from the square to a nearby hilltop. The now-empty jail housed prisoners until 1980.

Next, we drive south along Water Avenue for a look at the Old Rock School. On the way, I experience a local rite of passage known as “the dip” thanks to our driver, who guns the accelerator just enough to give me a thrill as we speed down and across a low bridge, then back up to street level. “My mama’s car would have sparks flying out when I’d bottom it out,” confesses Cahill from the back seat.

Up ahead we see a pair of red-roofed, limestone buildings that served as a school from 1904 until 1950. In 2003, Sonora’s citizens passed a $1.55 million bond to restore and update the school. Today, prekindergarten and third-grade students, in addition to computer labs, fill two levels of classrooms, which feature original hardwood floors and woodwork.

Downtown Sonora has enjoyed a similar resurgence over the years. As a member of the state’s Main Street Program, the community has restored 39 buildings, costing more than $3 million in private and public funds. The Mercantile building, constructed after a fire in 1902 destroyed the east side of Main Street, today houses offices and the Ranch Women/Veterans From All Wars Museum, a three-room exhibit filled with local memorabilia.

After hiking at Eaton Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, some of us meet in the evening at La Mexicana Restaurant, where we unwind over appetizers. On one plate, chicken fajitas, refried beans, and guacamole, along with sautéed mushrooms and onions, top an order of Tejas nachos, a twist on the standard Tex-Mex melding of beef, beans and cheese. I’m also surprised to discover that the chicken flautas come blanketed with shredded cabbage, tomatoes and jalapeños. Delicious!

I’ve set aside the next morning for an excursion to the Caverns of Sonora, a spectacular showcase of underground formations located some 15 miles west of town. Gerry Ingham and daughter Louise Ingham-Moore, third- and fourth-generation co-owners of the National Natural Landmark, welcome me back. Even though I’ve visited here once before, the cave’s gravity-defying helictites, delicate “soda straws” and halls. Based on that discovery and old photos, conservators meticulously hand-stenciled and -painted Victorian-style motifs in gold and copper. The borders beautifully accent the gleaming cave coral still amaze me. The cave’s most famous formation — called “the Butterfly” — consists of a pair of symmetrical fishtail helictites that form a butterfly shape.

Family roots also run deep at X Bar Ranch Nature Retreat, a 7,100-acre spread in adjacent Schleicher County where I’m scheduled to stay next. Live oaks, mesquite and juniper dot the rugged, rolling hills where Stan Meador and his family have ranched for generations. In 1997, they diversified into nature tourism by offering such activities as hiking, biking, birding and stargazing.

Six comfortable cabins accommodate overnight guests, who also enjoy unlimited access to a furnished kitchen at the lodge (plus there’s a family area with satellite TV and a conference room).

I settle into one cabin, then meander over to the back deck at the adjacent Live Oak Lodge to visit with Meador. “We check people in, and then they’re on their own,” he says. “A lot of people come just to enjoy the quiet here.” Meador pauses, then nods toward a pair of inviting rocking chairs behind us. “A lot of folks sit in those and talk about what they’re gonna do next, but then that’s as far as they get!”

As for me, I later slip on my walking shoes and head for the hike-and-bike trails. Four well-marked, interconnected loops totaling 16 miles crisscross X Bar. For the rest of the afternoon, I explore the 3-mile trail, an easy hike that meanders over rocky slopes, across grassy pastures and through oak mottes. Colored ribbons, keyed to each designated loop and knotted on tree branches, keep me on the right track.

That night, a dark, clear sky twinkles with millions of bright stars. I easily spot the Big Dipper, which hovers right over my cabin. The Meadors keep outdoor lighting to a bare minimum to enhance an already pristine stargazing location. (Each October, amateur astronomers gather at X Bar for the annual four-night Eldorado Star Party.)

After sunrise the next morning, I’m back on the trails for an hour-long hike. Then it’s time to load up and meet Meador in nearby Eldorado, where he takes me on a quick tour around town. There’s not a lot to see, unless you count the Hysterical District, a roadside park decked out with dozens of quirky signs, all hand-painted by resident eccentric Jim Runge. As we drive by slowly, I read a few and groan: “2,000 pounds of Chinese soup equals won ton,” “Coffee ... the person who is coughed upon,” and “Bad spellers of the world ... UNTIE!”

All in all, I’ve learned a lot during my visit to Sonora and Eldorado. As I head east toward home, I ponder playing a round of Texas darts with an oak branch from our backyard. And who’d have guessed that “lymph” means — according to Mr. Runge — “to walk with a lisp”?

Details:

  • Sonora (325) 387-2880 <www.sonoratx-chamber.com>
  • Caverns of Sonora (325) 387-3105 <www.cavernsofsonora.com>
  • Eaton Hill Wildlife Sanctuary (325) 387-2615
  • X Bar Ranch (888) 853-2688 <www.xbar ranch.com>
  • Eldorado Star Party, Oct. 19 (public night), <www.texasstarparty.org/eldorado.html>

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