Hidden in Plain View
Travel time from:
Austin – 3 hours
Dallas – 3 hours
El Paso – 11 hours
Brownsville – 6 hours
San Antonio – 3.5 hours
Lubbock – 7.5 hours
Growing Conroe retains woody respites and small-town charm.
By John H. Ostdick and photos by Earl Nottingham
Just steps into the heavily shaded, soft-pack sandy trail at John Burge Park at Shadow Lakes, the solitude that attracted Ed and Robin Bartholet to Conroe 53 years ago swallows me.
The hullabaloo of a surrounding neighborhood fades under a leafy hood, slowly replaced by the twitter of birds, the buzz of insects and the crunch of fallen pine needles yielding underneath my boots.
The Bartholets today routinely lap the mile-long loop at this 39-acre park on the city’s northwest side to prepare for more ambitious hikes far and wide. When the younger, Houston-based Bartholets were looking to start a business and family in 1964, they chose the one-stoplight burg of Conroe (9,000-plus population at the time).
“We saw it as an up-and-coming town with a bright future,” Ed says. Conroe provided an ample playground for a family that liked to hike, camp and hunt.
Ed and Robin Bartholet hiking John Burge Park at Shadow Lakes
They opened a furniture store at a former Goodyear site six blocks from the elementary school and quickly put down roots — three sons spaced a year apart. Although urban creep eventually blurred the space between Houston and this town, the rich pockets of nature persevere.
I asked the couple to show me the burgeoning city that they made their own.
The Heritage Museum of Montgomery County offers a fruitful Conroe history primer. Conroe-born executive director Sally Copley greets us at the door of the 1924-constructed Grogan-Cochran home, which was moved to its current site in 1987.
Two names dominate here — Isaac Conroe, who arrived in 1881 and soon bought a sawmill two miles east of present-day Conroe, and a young wildcatter, George W. Strake, whose elliptical 1931 oilfield discovery five miles south of Conroe brought Humble Oil (which became Exxon) and the Texas Company (Texaco) rushing in, transforming the area.
The lumber business brought prosperity, and the railroad. Oil summoned jobs, the nickname “Miracle City” and an infusion of new money.
Briefly in the 1930s, oil profits here spawned more millionaires per capita than any other U.S. city. Oil tax revenue paved the town’s streets, updated and built its schools and constructed its first hospital. The museum in June held a grand opening for its newest addition, the Strake-Gray House, which illuminates life in the Strake oilfield.
But many others had a hand in the local history and culture, and their story is told here as well — through displays, a research room and the oral histories of county residents. Robin shares an image of Mary McCoy and Elvis Presley, from when they sang together locally in 1955 as part of a Louisiana Hayride tour.
McCoy, who grew up in humble circumstances, is quite a story. She got her first job at 11 as a local disc jockey, later performing and recording on her own. In 2010, after 59 years on the air, she was inducted into the Texas Radio Hall of Fame. In her 70s today, she still co-hosts a country classics show on K Star Country (99.7 FM).
Just a little south of the Heritage Museum off Interstate 45, the Lone Star Monument and Historical Flag Park honors Conroe’s intimate connection to the Texas state banner: A Montgomery County doctor who later served as the first secretary of state to the Republic, Dr. Charles B. Stewart, is credited with designing it (the Texas congress approved the flag in 1839).
The Lone Star Monument and Historical Flag Park
The park’s core features an orbit of 13 Texas Revolution battle flags (from more than 50 possibilities, 13 were selected to symbolize the number of colonies of Texas at the time and the 13-day siege at the Alamo). It also honors the Texans who carried them. A 14-foot bronze, The Texian, by local sculptor Craig Campobella, portrays a veteran of the Texas Revolution. Campobella also created a Stewart bust here.
The Bartholets fiddled with a bit of history downtown, building a furniture showroom in the 1980s from the ashes of the burned-down Conroe Hotel, the town’s first (early 1900s).
“The boys brushed off all the bricks from the demolished hotel, and they were used in the reconstruction,” Robin says.
The family sold furniture here from the late 1980s until Ed and Robin retired in 2011. The property backs up to the Crighton Theatre on North Main, built in 1934 when Conroe’s oil-boom mayor sought a movie palace to rival the Majestic Theatre in Houston. The venue flourished for years, but closed in ill repair during the mid-1960s. A massive fundraising drive and restoration later, the acoustically acclaimed theater reopened in 1979.
As we enter the beautiful theater, rattling drills overwhelm us — stage workers are preparing the set for a run of Mary Poppins. Executive director James Bingham explains that the theater is booked year-round (the new Mel Brooks musical Young Frankenstein begins Oct. 20). For those interested in the theater’s history, a 20-minute documentary and walking tour are available free of charge by appointment.
The downtown area also hosts the Conroe Cajun Catfish Festival, the town’s biggest annual event. Twenty-eight years running, the three-day festival include nonstop music on two stages, food vendors offering festival and Cajun favorites, arts and crafts vendors, a professional carnival, assorted community and educational exhibits and an annual Catfish Pageant.
The mention of catfish turns our attention to a local mainstay — Vernon’s Kuntry Katfish. Multiple generations fill the restaurant Vernon and Mary Bowers opened in 1984. Vernon has passed, but business still is booming. Many a local has earned college money waiting tables here.
New faces have adopted Vernon’s Kuntry Katfish as their own as well. Conroe’s current population is more than 82,000. It was the fastest-growing large U.S. city (population of 50,000 or more) between 2015 and 2016, at 7.8 percent, more than 11 times the nation’s growth rate, according to a May 2017 U.S. Census Bureau report.
After lunch, the “Varmint Hunter” tire cover on the back of Ed’s Jeep disappears into traffic, and I spend the rest of the day wandering.
As evening arrives, I seek out the neon-sprinkled Red Brick Tavern.The family-friendly venue serves tweaked-up comfort food and craft beer, and regularly provides musical acts — including a lauded weekly songwriter Thursday evening. My friendly waiter Allen suggests some dynamite Santa Fe chicken on penne pasta, and I muse about ghosts of lingering conversations past.
F.A. Talley opened the men-only Talley’s Domino Hall here in 1932. During the boom years, men gathered in the rear booths to make deals. Bartenders worked three shifts a day to keep the bar open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, according to reports by Larry Foerster, Montgomery County Historical Commission chairman.
The hall was in decline by the time Talley died in 1982. It was soon sold and used as a warehouse before being renovated and opened as Red Brick Tavern in 2012.
The next day, I set out to play in some of the Bartholets’ favorite places. They belong to the Woodlands Hiking Club and the Lone Star Hiking Trail Club (which hikes only the trails in Sam Houston National Forest, about 20 miles north of Conroe).
I head to the W.G. Jones State Forest, one of the nation’s largest working urban forests, on Conroe’s southern edge. The state purchased the 1,722 acres of clear-cut forestland 91 years ago. Replanted during the Great Depression by Civilian Conservation Corps crews, towering pines now shroud this outdoor classroom from the condos and strip shopping centers lipping its edges.
While Ed had lamented earlier that the 80,000 people who visit the forest annually make it a vastly different place than they once knew, they still come to hike and look for the red-cockaded woodpecker, a federally listed endangered species unique to the pockets of older-growth pine forest ecosystems such as these.
The small black-and-white woodpecker with distinctive large white cheek patches is slightly larger than a bluebird. Its unique high-pitched, squeaky call can be recognized at considerable distances. In a collaborative effort, the Texas A&M Forest Service and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department are working to help the woodpecker thrive here.
An approaching afternoon storm cuts short my visit, but I press on to Lake Conroe, playing hide-and-seek with the rain.
The 22,000-acre lake, built in 1973, stretches 26 miles long, and is about 6 miles wide at its widest. Since the 157 miles of shoreline are largely private property, the marinas dotting the lake and nearby restaurants are particular hot spots.
Less commotion is today’s goal, however, and Sam Houston National Forest borders the lake on its less-trafficked north end. Here, the Stow-A-Way Marina is home to Larry Mason’s North Lake Conroe Paddling Co.
With 157 miles of scenic shoreline, Lake Conroe is popular for lakeside homes and recreation.
For 14 years, Mason has been accommodating all levels of kayaking experience about 350 days a year (phone appointment only). Paddle travel to as much as 50 miles of undeveloped shoreline, and into tributaries, is the rock star here.
“The tributaries are particularly rich in nature and wildlife — on the land, in the water or air,” Mason says.
Water-savvy paddlers who want to venture farther afield can easily extend the two-hour minimum trips via text (dry bags provided).
The threatening weather dissuades me from gearing up, so I stop at the King’s Kitchen at West Tabernacle Church for a down-home lunch. Church members and volunteers prepare comfort food for the public.
About 20 guests sit in the modest cafeteria here, munching on their choice of smothered chops, Salisbury steak, chicken and dumplings, barbecue, fish and shrimp. Greens, black-eyed peas, corn and mac-and-cheese round out the fare.
When I ask what kind of fish he’s serving, the proprietor smiles.
“This is the South,” he advises. “We fry our catfish down here.”
I choose the chicken-and-dumplings, with black-eyed peas and greens as a side. Cornbread. Carrot cake. All for just $6.
Note: Hurricane Harvey has impacted the Conroe area, so please call ahead before you visit or check with the Visitors Bureau at www.playinconroe.com.
More Info:Conroe Convention and Visitors Bureau Heritage Museum Lone Star Monument and Historical Flag Park Crighton Museum Conroe Cajun Catfish Festival North Lake Conroe Paddling Co.
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