Hot coffee and a laid-back atmosphere attract hunters to one-of-a-kind shops and cafés around the state.
By Kendal Hemphill
There was a time when goin’ huntin’ meant taking the gun down from the mantle and walking out the back door of the house. Today, with most hunters living in urban areas, hunting generally involves a trip to a hunting lease. The distance fluctuates, the accommodations range from primitive to opulent, and the game varies with the seasons. The one constant is the fellowship and camaraderie of friends and family on a hunting trip together.
The average hunting camp is a cabin, trailer house or old farmhouse provisioned and furnished to serve as a home away from home. Hunters use camp as a home base — a place to sleep, cook meals, play cards and dominos, and sometimes watch television. But after a day or two, the dishes pile up, the camp gets messy and the walls start to close in — which brings on another hunting camp tradition — Going to Town.
Since most hunting leases are situated in rural areas, “town” can mean anything from a small city down to a tiny hamlet containing little more than a post office, general store, church and a few houses. No matter the size of the burg, most seem to have one thing in common — a place where hunters can gather to visit, drink coffee, tell tall tales and just generally kick back and relax.
Hunter hangouts are usually feed stores, cafés or old-time general stores, the kind that sell everything from shovels to shirts to shaving cream. Some are in modern buildings, but the vast majority are old mom-and-pop joints, with wood floors, clapboard walls and tin roofs. Wood stoves and fireplaces provide heat in the winter, and the coffee is hot and plentiful year round.
One of the most attractive qualities of such places is that they’re not chain stores, identical to a multitude of others spread out across the country. Each hunter hangout is unique, offering a homey friendliness not available at the cookie-cutter style branch businesses. And most of the time the folks running these comfortable, congenial businesses are the owners.
One such café, located in Doss, about 30 miles northwest of Fredericksburg, was for many years a popular watering hole for deer hunters during the season. With a jukebox and a pool table in back, the Doss Store was a fine place for a group of friends to while away a long winter evening away from home.
The proprietor of the Doss Store, Joe Itz, had a black horsetail hanging on the wall near the pool table. Leather wrapped at the top made it look like a gigantic turkey beard which, of course, was the general idea.
One evening a young hunter, having a game of pool with friends and family, noticed the tail and his jaw dropped. Itz happened to be nearby, and the boy remarked that the turkey that grew such a beard must have been a monster.
Itz shook his head and, in a thick German accent that would dull an ax, said, “Na, he wasn’t too big. He only field-dressed 175 pounds.”
Sadly, the Doss store has closed, but the new Doss Country Store, opened in 2001, has become a gathering place for hunters in the area. It has a rock front, and there is a metal roof over the wide, spacious front porch, which is populated with dogs as often as people. Patrons sit on split cedar benches on the porch and watch cattle graze in a field across the town’s main street. Inside, the counter and tables are covered with glass plate, under which old newspaper clippings chronicle local events spanning almost a hundred years. And the hamburgers are worth a trip from Austin.
The Castell General Store, in Castell, Texas, 30 miles east of Doss in Llano County, is another place that speaks the hunter’s language. Housed in a century-old building a stone’s throw from the Llano River, the store was reopened by Randy Leifeste in 2001. Randy rents kayaks and tubes and sells groceries, feed, beer, fishing and hunting supplies, and antiques, but the real attraction of the store is its laid-back atmosphere and Randy’s attitude that everyone who shows up is a friend he has just not met before.
Every Saturday Randy fires up a pit beside the store, barbecues up some of the best brisket, chicken, pork and ribs in Texas, and serves it with a special, homemade sauce that, as the saying goes, would “make you want to slap your grandma.” The meat is supposedly sold by the pound, but in true country fashion, Randy has no scale, so he estimates. In Castell, there’s no use getting upset over minor details.
And then there is Cock-A-Roo, Randy’s resident rooster, famous in song and story. People often travel to Castell just to see the bird, which has been on television and may be the most popular citizen of the town.
Randy turns the rooster loose and puts a Billy Bass on the ground, the annoying fake mounted fish that sings the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” song. The fish starts to sing and Cock-A-Roo attacks it, pecking and scratching. For some reason he hates that fish, and has ruined several of them, which Randy then hangs in the store. Cock-A-Roo is probably the most famous chicken since Fred Gipson’s Trail Driving Rooster.
Waligura Taxidermy & Hunting Supplies in Llano not only offers feeders, deer stands and just about everything a hunter needs except guns, it is also a homey place with mounted game on the walls and a wall full of pictures taken after successful hunts. Run by the father-and-son team of E. J. “Wally” and Brian Waligura, this is a popular gathering spot for hunters year round. The Waliguras also maintain complete deer-processing facilities, and Brian offers his services as a taxidermist.
Hunters in McCulloch County have made the Hard 8 BBQ their unofficial headquarters for years. With its great food and friendly atmosphere, including mounted game, long, wooden family-style tables, and two large televisions constantly playing deer-hunting episodes of outdoor programs, the Hard 8 oozes hunting camp charm. Several tables sit outside under an awning for al fresco dining, and the tea dispenser is a galvanized “All Seasons Feeders” cattle feeder with a couple of outdoor-type water faucets mounted on the front. If a hunter doesn’t feel welcome at the Hard 8, he won’t feel welcome anywhere.
Of course, hunter hangouts are not just for deer hunters. Dove, quail and waterfowl hunters also frequent these simple retreats, and the stores sometimes vary their hours of operation and offerings to fit the current clientele. And they are located all over the state.
The town of Eagle Lake, for example, is blessed with a couple of eateries that cater to the duck and goose shooter. The Sportsman’s Restaurant is a popular spot for local and visiting nimrods alike, and many traveling hunters stay at the restored Farris Hotel, a turn-of-the-century establishment that has become a landmark in the town that is known as the Goose Capital of the World. The Farris has been called the Queen of Early Texas Hotels, and it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Since 1912 the Farris has been the area’s most distinguished destination for waterfowl hunters.
In the town of Blessing the place to stay and eat is the Hotel Blessing. Designed after a Spanish mission church and built in 1906 by Jonathan E. Pierce, the hotel has been renovated, but retains its rustic charm. It is also listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Hotel Blessing Café exudes an atmosphere of friendliness and welcome, and just walking in the door gives a sense of stepping back in time. It is no wonder waterfowl hunters have made the hotel and café their first choice for decades. And the plethora of good, wholesome, home cooking doesn’t hurt.
No matter where you hunt in Texas, if you poke around a bit you will find a hunter hangout, a place where the people are friendly and generous, the coffee is strong and fresh, and the game is only a short drive away. Once located, such havens make every hunting trip a pleasure. The only way to feel more at home is to stay at home.
- Doss Country Store
- 14394 RR 783 North, Doss, Texas 78618, (830) 669-2160
- Castell General Store
- P.O. Box 65, Castell, Texas 76831, (325) 247-4100
- Waligura Taxidermy & Hunting Supplies
- 304 W. Young St., Llano, Texas 78643, (325) 247-4272
- Hard 8 BBQ
- 2010 S. Bridge St., Brady, Texas 76825, (325) 597-1936
- Sportsman’s Restaurant
- 201 Boothe Drive, Eagle Lake, Texas 77434, (979) 234-3159
- Farris Hotel
- 201 North McCarty, Eagle Lake, Texas 77434, (979) 234-6500
- Hotel Blessing
- Blessing, Texas 77419, (361) 588-9579