Ten years later, Brownwood still offers small-town charm and a nature recharge.
As 2020 faded in the rearview mirror (hallelujah!), many of us thought of taking a little getaway (finally!) — someplace uncrowded and slow-paced, where we could recharge in nature, enjoy some good food, see a few sights.
For me, Brownwood came to mind.
I last visited almost 10 years ago, to write a story for this magazine. Revisiting my favorite places and seeing what had changed would be an added bonus to the much-needed respite.
The town remains open and welcomes visitors, but some things are a bit different than before. As with all things these days, this trip required a bit more planning — such as reserving a day pass at the state park and ordering takeout food online at mealtimes.
Many state parks regularly reached capacity in the past year as facilities limited crowds for safety reasons and more people spent time outdoors for reasons of their sanity. Lake Brownwood State Park was no exception, says Superintendent John Holland.
“We used to get most of our visitors from the west, but now we have a lot coming up from Austin, San Antonio, the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and even Houston,” he says, because places near those cities tended to fill up. “People need to make reservations ahead of time for day passes and certainly for campsites and lodging here. If you just show up, we may not have a place.”
Holland credits the park’s popularity not only to the pandemic, but also the fact that it offers a little bit of everything: historic Civilian Conservation Corps buildings (including 16 cabins, four lodges and two group facilities), hiking and biking trails and, in season, fishing and swimming in the lake.
The roughly six miles of hiking trails wind along the lakeshore and over rocky hills covered in prickly pear, Christmas and lace cactus, as well as Mexican buckeye, hawthorn and hackberry trees.
The lake attracts a variety of shore birds and water birds, and the woods house dozens of species of songbirds. Pick up a “Birds of Lake Brownwood State Park” checklist before hitting the trails.
The park currently limits capacity on its lodges and shuts them down on a rotating basis for cleaning. Reservations for overnight stays can be made up to five months in advance.
At press time, face coverings are required inside all state park buildings and six-foot social distancing remains in effect everywhere, with groups larger than 10 people prohibited, except for families or people living in the same household.
An outdoor option with no crowds and no need to plan ahead is Brownwood’s 22-acre Fabis Primitive Park, with eight campsites spread across an old pecan orchard, complete with picnic tables and fire rings ($10 permit required, contact the city parks department). The park’s boat ramp serves as launch point for the Pecan Bayou Paddling Trail. This wide stream flows languidly beneath the trees, making it possible to paddle a four-mile loop trail in either direction.
Paddlers may see bluebirds, great horned owls, barred owls, and golden-fronted and ladder-backed woodpeckers year-round, as well as resident kingfishers, herons and egrets. Anglers can chase largemouth and smallmouth bass, crappie, catfish
While I found both camping options appealing, I opted to check back with Star of Texas Bed and Breakfast, my home away from home on the previous visit. A stay here includes plenty of nature, too, with three cottages spread among 20 hilly acres.
The Oak Cottage, where I stayed before, still has windows that look out on stands of trees and a front porch perfect for sitting, and now sports a private hot tub and firepit, too. Breakfast is left outside your door every morning.
For those who discovered the joys of RV travel thanks to the pandemic, Brownwood has several places to park yours, including the Wild Duck Marina on Lake Brownwood, which also has cabins and a store with boating and fishing supplies, including bait. At Riverside RV Park on Pecan Bayou, enjoy disc golf, walking trails and access to the water for fishing or paddling.
Sufficiently steeped in nature, at least for a while, I headed downtown to pick up my takeout order at The Turtle Restaurant, a memorable stop last time that still celebrates “slow, fresh food.” Diners can order to-go online or by phone, or make reservations for limited dining in.
The restaurant offers extensive lunch and dinner menus, everything from burgers to beet salads, meatloaf, Greek pies, pasta and empanadas, as well as bakery, dessert and gelato menus. I ordered chipotle chicken empanadas and an apple hand pie and walked to Pat Coursey Park a few blocks away to enjoy them. This corner park has trees, a waterfall and walls that provide seating. My flaky empanadas overflowed with chipotle chicken, tomatillo salsa, black beans, onions, cheese and tomato (extra napkins required). The hand pie’s buttery crust contained generous chunks of perfectly spiced apple.
Another lunching option is the Pioneer Tap House, which opened in a formerly empty historic building on East Baker Street in July 2019. I felt comfortable in the structure with its spacious, two-story-high interior (featuring original pressed tin panels on the ceiling) and tall windows on two sides. I sat at the high, curving bar, and the owner himself, Micah Jaynes, was my server. The menu offers a selection of flatbreads and paninis, including the Pioneer Panini with turkey, bacon, avocado, red onion, provolone and chipotle aioli.
Jaynes tells me the building dates back to the late 1800s and has housed some 17 different businesses, including the Pecan Valley Bank, a grocery store and mailroom — and, on the second floor, a Knights of Pythias lodge.
A local businessman named Henry Ford (not the Henry Ford) built this building and the one across the street, which also was a bank. Legend has it that Ford was actually Jesse James, a story given credence by claims that members of the James family attended his funeral. A cool building and good food and atmosphere either way.
Murals have enjoyed a resurgence in these days of selfies and social media, and Brownwood did not miss that boat, with a dozen or so paintings scattered around town. Most are in the downtown area, including Cat and Fish, a colorful, large-scale piece on the back wall of Steve’s Market and Deli (a local favorite for lunch). Local artist Amanda Coers painted it in conjunction with the Brownwood Arts Council.
Farther afield, a sunflower mural gracing Mayes Park, which has a splash pad and skate park, was the winning submission from Coers to a contest held by Keep Brownwood Beautiful, painted in October 2018.
Another far-flung piece of wall art, an “I love you and wine so much” sign, resides on the covered outdoor patio at Spirit of Texas Winery. A new addition since my previous visit, it was started by Brian and Moira McCue in 2016. The couple built the tasting room with materials that were onsite when they bought the property, repurposing a small barn, animal pen and woodshed.
The Brownwood Lyric Theater has productions scheduled for April, July and September 2021, and several shows are on tap at the Brownwood Arts Center, which has plans for its very own mural.
Brownwood’s museums are open and include the impressive Lehnis Railroad Museum — by 1910, the town sat at a junction of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe and Frisco railroads — and the Brown County Museum of History, located in the very cool old county jail building.
Hours may be limited and subject to change — a summation of our new reality, perhaps. Check websites or call ahead. No restrictions on the great outdoors, though, so come on out.
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