Lingering in Luling
The home of the Watermelon Thump is rich in history, barbecue and parks.
Today, those traveling on Interstate 10 through Texas may know Luling only as a favored Buc-ee’s pit stop on the highway. But for this big-city native, Luling offered a glimpse of small-town living at its finest at an impressionable age.
Mom loved to ship me off to stay with my oldest sister during the summer, and the first such “vacation” included a trip to the nearby Luling Watermelon Thump. At 9 years old, I was fascinated by the queen and the parade and the spitting contests, but most of all, by the slow pace and friendliness of small-town life.
People ate dripping slices of melon and fanned themselves on benches, passing the time of day, while wildly laughing children ran around like it wasn’t broiling hot, chunking watermelon rinds at each other. New friendships formed instantly, dissolving with pouting and tears when parents (and older sisters) dragged us reluctantly apart to leave.
I was enchanted and dreamed of such a casual life for myself one day.
Today, Luling’s the place where I turn to head to Houston, but every time I see that big watermelon water tower, I’m reminded of my childhood wonder and long to stay a spell. I left my tiny community one county over (that love of small-town life never waned) and headed to Luling, this time to linger for a while.
The WatermelonThump.com website counter ticks off the days until the annual Thump. It’s June 24-27 this year, after a cancellation due to the pandemic in 2020. It all started back in 1954 when a Luling principal offered up an idea to promote the Luling watermelon crop. A local high school student won a contest with a name for the event that conjures up fun: the Thump. The Thump now draws 30,000 visitors to 5,500-resident Luling each year.
How do you thump a watermelon, anyway? The name comes from the practice of hitting (thumping) the watermelon to listen to the sound for juicy ripeness.
As for the capital “T” Thump, there are too many activities to name. The newly crowned Thump Queen presides over the big parade. Other highlights of the four days of activities include a carnival, concert/dances, food booths, beer garden, children’s entertainment and a marketplace. There are seed-spitting and melon-eating contests and an auction of the biggest melons, weighing in at up to 80 pounds. So much fun for the whole family.
The history of the town itself began in 1874 as a railroad stop and gathering place for cattle-driving cowboys on the Chisholm Trail. Those hooligans were so unruly that Luling became known as “the toughest town in Texas” until the drives ended in the 1880s. Luling was a quiet cotton town until oil was discovered there in 1922. By 1924, the oilfield was pumping 11 million barrels of oil annually.
To acknowledge and embrace the importance of oil to the Luling economy, the town’s pumpjacks are painted with all kinds of characters, including a cow jumping over the moon and a little girl eating — what else? — watermelon.
Though the oil industry’s importance has faded in this crossroads town, Luling is more vibrant than ever. Luling Main Street is a community group that seeks to revitalize Davis Street and the downtown area with parks, signage, façade design, murals, planters, decorative crosswalks and more.
The highlight of my visit to the charming shops along Davis Street begins by following my nose to the original City Market BBQ. I’m thrilled to see no long line for this legendary joint and hurry on back to the pit room to place my order.
They keep it nice and simple: brisket, ribs and sausage (hot or cold). That’s it. I’m kind of woozy from hunger and that amazing aroma, so it probably doesn’t surprise the now wryly smiling server when he starts asking about “pickles, bread, onion, jalapeños….” that I answer weakly, “Yes. Just give me everything.”
Good answer, it turns out, because he takes pity on me. Soon my brown bag is stuffed with smoky pork ribs and fall-apart brisket (with a huge burnt end, to my delight), a stack of soft white bread, a whole dill pickle, a big slice of onion and sweet pickles/cauliflower he let me sample from the big jar. The sausage “links” are each their own little tasty ring. I don’t often categorize barbecue as “adorable,” but these sausage bracelets fit that description.
Each of Texas’ famed barbecue places has its own customs. Try not to look like a newbie and just follow along. At City Market, you pay for your to-go meat in the back, then return to the front counter to buy sauce, beans or a few other items. For some, it’s all about the sauce, and City Market offers my favorite style, that orange vinegary kind, not too sweet.
Best of all, the price for the whole feast is about half of what I paid at an inferior place only a week earlier. Blissful, I give the half-dollar coin included in my change to the cashier to show her kids.
The San Marcos River runs through Luling and its history. Early settlers harnessed the river’s power by building several mills along it to run the community’s gristmill. The Zedler Mill is the last surviving one, built in 1874 by three men from Tennessee who added a cotton gin and water wheel (to power their machine shop) to the stone dam. It was purchased by the Zedler family and other investors in 1885; Zedler bought out his partners in 1888.
Modernizations happened through the years, but as late as the 1950s, the mill was still turning out chicken feed for livestock and fine cornmeal for Luling's dinner tables. But the mill shut down soon after and fell into disrepair.
Around 2002, Luling bought the property; the Zedler Mill Foundation and the city invested more than $1.5 million to improve and restore the mill buildings in a new city park.
Today the park is a beautiful site for weddings, family and school outings and fun in the water. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and partners put together the Zedler Mill Paddling Trail, quite gentle but with a few fun riffles along the two- to four-hour trip. Examine the inventive mill components and marvel at how they used the power of the river so effectively long ago.
Southeast of Luling, but still along the San Marcos River, lies a tropical treasure of a state park, Palmetto. After you pass the aforementioned Buc-ee’s (pick up some trail snacks), drive past it a mile or two until you see the brown sign for Palmetto State Park. Roll down the windows to enjoy the cool-down — my car thermometer dropped five degrees instantly — as the two-lane road winds under shade trees that intertwine across the top, forming a canopy.
Don’t be puzzled by the signs of non-park life when you emerge from the shade — you’ll soon see park signage directing you to headquarters, the fishing dock, welcoming campgrounds and a variety of trails.
The friendly folks at headquarters tell me that the park stayed busy during the pandemic, thanks in part to widely spaced campsites. On this weekday, the campsites look about two-thirds full, and two families are having a blast at the fishing pier on the 4-acre oxbow lake. I have the hiking trails mostly to myself, even though the morning’s weather is sublime.
Dappled sunlight makes everything look photo-worthy, and I spend way too much time trying to capture perfect shots of turquoise-tinted dragonflies and curtains of Spanish moss. Delighted squeals interrupt my rapture, and I share a moment with a dad juggling two small children dashing down the wide, gentle path; oh, he’s also got a cherubic baby secured in a backpack.
“Way to start them off young,” I congratulate him.
“We’re having a blast!” he replies. The kids are already dragging him off to the next wonder they’ve discovered.
Riotous birdsong is Palmetto’s soundtrack. The 270-acre park has attracted 240 species of birds, including an invasion of hummingbirds each spring. In the fall, look for butterflies everywhere. Fox squirrels and a variety of wildlife inhabit the park due to the presence of the river nearby.
The park is graced by the presence of Civilian Conservation Corps buildings, including a refectory made of sandstone that seems to rise out of the ground and once had a thatched palm roof. A water tower on the park’s interpretive trail was unique for its time, supplying fresh water to all the campsites.
And, of course, everywhere you look are the park’s namesake plants, adding a tropical feeling unlike the surrounding Texas countryside. Dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) plants, from which the park gets its name, surround the park’s swamp. These palmettos grow in East and Southeast Texas, as well as much of the southeastern United States. The state park boasts the westernmost stand of dwarf palmettos in the country.
I have a feeling this won’t be the last time I linger in Luling rather than just passing through. After bringing home the leftover ribs and talking about
the incredible parks, I don’t think I’ll
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