All Earl Nottingham / TPWD
A Legend at 'Steak'
A Billy the Kid twist-up and the state's best steak make Hico more than a hiccup.
Most weekdays and many Saturdays, a smattering of cars dot the parking spots in downtown Hico, their passengers strolling its quiet sidewalks.
I’d always thought of the Central Texas town (population 1,341), known mostly for its contested connection to Billy the Kid and pies from a local cafe, as a hiccup for the traffic flowing into Hamilton County and south on U.S. 281 toward the Hill Country. Pass through on a particular spring weekend and you’ll find that Hico’s more than a hiccup.
On the third Saturday of May each year (but not 2020), Hico teems with several thousand visitors and more than 100 Texas Steak Cookoff competitors (canceled for this year). Amateur backyard chefs from throughout the Southwest (102 of them for the 16th annual event in 2019) compete for cash prizes and bragging rights for cooking the state’s best steak.
At midday on cookoff Saturday, Hico’s stone-building downtown proffers a friendly mix of aromatic cooker smoke on the wind. There’s a tempting array of appetizers from street-lined shade canopies, musical groups of various ilk (including polka and wandering mariachis), artisan vendors, local shopping, craft beer and Texas wine tasting.
The town of Carlton (population 70) lies 10 miles to the southwest, and their volunteer fire department serves nearby Hamilton, Erath and Comanche counties. Today, those volunteers are stoking fires as they man a food station.
A stream of visitors ($10 a shot for a feeding-frenzy-rights bracelet) snatches up delicate, halved egg rolls, one filled with cream cheese and jalapeños and another with caramelized onions that taste like baked apples.
A boisterous Danny Kennedy engages visitors popping the appetizers into their mouths as he bounds forward from the deep fryers in the rear of the booth to hawk his pork skins.
"Make sure you come back soon,” he entreats us. “I’m just about to start my swine hides. You don’t want to miss them!”
Navigating the downtown streets is akin to a lazy-river ride sans inner tube, floating along from one savory stop to another. Everything vies for attention, in bite-size nirvana or served in small boats. Jalapeño poppers. Smoked sausage. Petite pulled-pork sandwiches. Bacon-wrapped cheesy potato bites (Team Poncho & Lefty $1,000 category winner in 2019). Peanut butter and jalapeño on a cracker. Mudbugs boiled with corn, potatoes and sausage. Belts were loosened to make room for more.
The weekend festivities climax with a contestants-prepared evening steak dinner (for $25 more) and the announcement of the cookoff winners. (Temple-based J&J Cookers earns the top steak award and $3,500 prize money. The Kerr Cattle team nabs the “People’s Choice” award, serving an impressive 317 steaks in two hours.)
Finding cookoff lodging for the weekend, which includes a “taste of Hico” and street dance Friday evening, requires planning because of the town’s limited options (the nearby towns of Hamilton and Glen Rose may provide alternatives). Other weekends, opportunities to stay overnight in Hico will likely prove simpler.
The town, rebuilt in mandated stone at the turn of the century after a fire consumed most of its downtown, represents an intriguing blend of the old and reinvented.
The Old Rock House, located just a few blocks from downtown, is a restored 1874 abode nestled in a 100-year-old live oak grove. Guests have free rein of its three well-appointed bedrooms and two baths. During my stay, guest perks include breakfast coupons at the pie-centric Koffee Kup Family Restaurant (it bakes as many as 100 a day).
Early on a Friday afternoon, a here-again, gone-again breeze lightens a stroll through Hico City Park, about 50 acres that include playgrounds, a horseshoe pit and disc golf course.
The smell of freshly cut fields lingers in the air. High upon the front wall of converted grain silos, a sign hawks “Poultry & Eggs,” a vestige of days gone by. The Texas Central Line (part of the Katy Railroad) used to run through here when Hico was the Hamilton County rail shipping center.
Dave Bradley is out front working amid the thick aroma of wood putty he is applying to some restored window frames. Bradley and his wife, Kathy, opened the Siloville Climbing Gym in 2015. (“Even a bad day of climbing is better than the best day at work.”) They restored four abandoned grain silos — which haven’t been used to store wheat, rye or oats since the 1970s — drilling hundreds of holes in the walls and then building the climbing anchor holds.
Climbing is available inside (the interior space is 16 feet by 66 feet) and out. The cash-only access is by appointment, or during open climbing on Saturdays. Kathy does a kids climbing course on Thursdays, and has offered women-only nights. The site has obstacle, ninja and zipline courses as well.
“While many people might think that they need tremendous strength to climb a silo, climbing is foremost a thinking sport,” Dave says. “You need to process, ‘How do I want to move?’”
A typical warm Hico afternoon is a tad somnolent, yet some earnest, industrious folks thrive.
Kevin and Holly Stahnke are such folk. Originally from Stephenville, they spent several years fighting Austin traffic before bringing their family here in 2016 to help “make the town funky,” Kevin says at the counter of their Two Clay Birds Garden Market.
The Stahnke crew (Holly is chief renovator) converted a 100-year-old structure that formerly housed an auto parts store into what they envision as an ag-tourism destination. The market is frequented by locals, farmers from surrounding counties and DFW-area folks who have become fans. All are encouraged “to sit a spell,” and share old family recipes if they like.
On one such day, local renowned chocolatier Kevin Wenzel and his daughter Olivia drop in for a tomato pie and some bread for the family lunch.
Olivia is along to make sure their food haul includes Stahnke’s delectable cinnamon rolls. Banter ensues between the two Kevins.
Wenzel, who grew up working at his family’s The Dutchman Hidden Valley Country Store in Hamilton (the elk and beef jerky are outstanding), is a small-town success story. Since 1996, travelers have devoured the artist/chocolatier’s world-class chocolate treats (Wiseman House Chocolates) in photographer Rufus Frank Wiseman’s historical house here. Wenzel also does chocolate classes in his downtown production studio.
The Stahnkes raise chickens and harvest what they grow organically from non-GMO seed on their nearby farm. Today, lunch is pork posole with corn muffins or tomato pie, and baby arugula salad. Fresh-from-the-oven bacon-filled sourdough and pecan-crusted cinnamon rolls are display-case temptresses.
“From the 1950s to 1980s, we as a society lost a generation of cooks to conveniences offered through mixes and processed foods,” Kevin says. He and Holly wanted a more connected, more organic way of living for themselves and five children.
“I’m a big fan of the slow-food movement because it gives me an excuse to be slow,” he says, chuckling. “My theory is to prepare Southern comfort food with a little more quality ingredients and care. And then, I get out of the way.”
Hico perhaps remains best known for its contested claim on Billy the Kid.
While Fort Sumner, New Mexico, has long held that lawman Pat Garrett killed the young outlaw there in 1881, Hico cast its lot with a longtime local, best known as Brushy Bill Roberts.
Late in his life, Roberts maintained that he was Billy and had escaped the Garrett shooting into Mexico. He later ended up in Texas as Roberts, dying in the streets of Hico not from a rain of bullets but rather a heart attack in his 90s.
The alternative saga has provided fodder for various books and publications, movies and the television show Unsolved Mysteries. There is no doubt, however, within the walls of the Billy the Kid Museum.
“Billy the Kid is Hico’s number one attraction,” says museum director Sue Land, with 9,000 visitors annually.
Land recites a litany of reasons why Roberts was the Kid, fortified by a stack of Pennsylvania writer Daniel A. Edwards’ 2014. Edwards conducted extensive research before concluding that the man who died in Hico in 1950 was indeed Billy.
In 2015, Edwards walked through the door of the Hico museum.
“We had never laid eyes on him before,” Land says. “He introduced himself and gave us a copy of his book.”
TEXAS STEAK COOKOFF
The 2020 Texas Steak Cookoff has been canceled. Organizers promise to return in 2021.
THE OLD ROCK HOUSE
SILOVILLE CLIMBING GYM
TWO CLAY BIRDS GARDEN MARKET
BILLY THE KID MUSEUM
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