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Step Back in Time

Cleburne celebrates its past with museums, architecture and a CCC-built state park. 


Block letters etched into the concrete have worn away with time. I brush away some dirt but still can’t decipher the words.

If only I could read his name. Then I could whisper “thank you” to the man who, among many Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the late 1930s, built this earthen dam and tiered spillway that intrigue my husband, James Hearn, and me at Cleburne State Park.

The hand-constructed marvels are among the many reminders of the past that linger in Cleburne, located south of Fort Worth and home to nearly 32,000 residents. Museums, old-time cafes, historic homes, the downtown square and even our hotel harken back to bygone days.

Our exploration starts downtown with a burger and fries in a faux leather booth at the 1920s Chaf-In Restaurant. A 15-minute drive later, we’re hiking at the state park on the White-tail Hollow Trail. We follow the winding dirt path through woods thick with ashe juniper and non-native Quihoui privet (which is targeted for eradication). Passionflower vines, white avens and pearl milkweed vines pop up here and there.

The canopy opens, and we step onto fresh mulch spread beneath more junipers. Above us is the dam. Are we still on the trail? Nope. We laugh. But soon we’re back on track.

Atop the dam, we admire panoramic views of Cedar Lake, rimmed with cattails, buttonbushes and sycamores. Nearby is the three-level spillway, shouldered with stair-stepped stones. No water’s splashing over the spillway, thanks to dry skies. I clamber down and cross a low concrete wall that holds a backwater lush with cattails.

From 1935 to 1940, the CCC Company 3804 of 200 men labored hard at Cleburne State Park. They used jackhammers, pry bars, sledgehammers and brute strength to build the stone spillway. A few signed their names in the concrete. They also constructed the park’s log-and-stone Camp Creek Bridge, Park Road 21 and numerous other structures.  

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We’re game for another hike since the park offers more than 11 miles of trails. On the Camp Creek Loop, we pass junipers and oaks, then transition into denser woods understoried with American beautyberries and frostweed.

After our hike, we motor past the park’s six screened shelters and five campgrounds. At the lakeside day-use area, we plop down on a wooden bench on the covered fishing pier and enjoy more lake views.   

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Overnight, we’re booked downtown at the red-brick Liberty Hotel. Built in 1924, the four-story hotel touted Cleburne’s first elevator and 69 guest rooms with telephones. In the middle of the century, the hotel’s popularity spiraled downward. In 2004, new owners gutted the Liberty’s rundown interior and rebuilt the property. Its original terrazzo flooring still graces the lobby, a grand space that’s accented with a crystal chandelier, dark wood trim and period furniture.

From the Liberty, we walk downtown to the 1912 Johnson County Courthouse. Inside the building, designed in Classical Revival style with Prairie-style elements, we crane our necks to take in the six-story-high rotunda, domed with colorful stained glass. Pearl gray marble wainscoting and ornate wood trim line columns and walls on every floor, each connected by an iron staircase.   

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Around a corner, historian Darlene West welcomes us to the one-room Johnson County Courthouse Museum. She shares exhibits about a variety of topics of interest: the county’s war heroes, hangings, paper bills issued by the Republic of Texas in 1839 and Patrick Cleburne, the Confederate general for whom the city of Cleburne is named.

A block away stands the Layland Museum of History, a former 1905 Carnegie Library. We wander through three galleries that focus on the area’s prehistoric past, early settlers and the 20th century. One case houses a Columbian mammoth tusk and two mammoth teeth found in Johnson County. Talk about old — the species lived more than 10,000 years ago.

It’s a short drive to the JN Long Cultural Arts Complex, housed in a former 1915 elementary school. Curator Alden Nellis invites us to vote in an interpretive art show featuring artwork, photographs and creative writing. Upstairs we watch vintage model trains clack along tiny tracks. Across the hall, the Texas Woodcarvers Guild Museum displays more than 400 carved pieces. My favorite depicts cartoon-like golf players in a tournament. One’s about to break her club in half.

Downstairs, James senses the gift shop used to be the principal’s office. He’s right!

Back on foot downtown, we share a chicken-fried steak with fixings at the R&K Cafe II, a longtime local favorite. On the square, we step into The Published Page Bookshop. Never have we seen so many books in one space. Thousands fill towering shelves and boxes stacked on the floor of the 1880s building.  

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“A bookstore is full of things you didn’t know you wanted,” owner Jim Hart quips behind his desk. “We have a little of everything.”

A block away, Trovato Street, a nostalgic candy and root beer bar on East Henderson Street, piques our interest. Behind a counter, Cassie Keefer divvies out chocolate samples and tells us about the renovated 1881 building that once held a car showroom.

One block later, we land in the antique district on East Henderson Street and poke around several stores housed in vintage storefronts.

We’re in for a fun evening with the Plaza Theatre Company. The nonprofit performing arts group funds a family-friendly theater and acting academy, and we head to their Dudley Hall for a musical show. Every plush seat’s a good one in the arena-style theater.

Surprise — James wins tickets to an upcoming production but donates them back.

Our itinerary ends at the Chisholm Trail Outdoor Museum. The replica pioneer town on Lake Pat Cleburne depicts the early days of Johnson County, established in 1854. The complex sits on the original location of Wardville, the first county seat. From 1867 to 1884, cattle driven along the Chisholm Trail passed through the area.

Docent and museum CEO David Murdoch — dressed in western wear and a cowboy hat — greets us inside the complex’s Big Bear Native American Museum. The museum contains hundreds of Native American artifacts largely collected by the late Leonard “Big Bear” Beal, a former police officer who had Cherokee ancestors. Exhibits give an overview of how Native Americans lived in North America.   

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Outside, Murdoch tours us around the re-created town of Wardville. Inside a wood-framed shop, blacksmith Bryan Castille hammers a red-hot iron hook on an anvil. Across the way, a primitive log barn once sheltered exhausted mules that served the local stage line. Nearby gravestones replicate the Wardville cemetery, long buried beneath the lake.

The stone-clad Terry Home Dog Run House stands not far from Lake Pat Cleburne. One room honors Johnson County law enforcement officers, most notably Deputy Bill Hardin with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office. At 99, Hardin, one of the world’s oldest officers, still investigates cases. The other room serves as headquarters for Terry’s Texas Rangers, a group of Civil War re-enactors.

We also peek inside the one-room Nolan River School, the jail and the original Johnson County Courthouse, built from logs in 1855 when Wardville served two years as the county seat.

Murdoch invites us to return for some bluegrass music, performed every third Saturday. One thing’s for sure, the Cleburne Railroad Museum, which was closed for renovations during our stay, will top our itinerary next time. So will the huge Steam Engine 3417 at Hulen Park. From trains to trails and antiques to arts, Cleburne’s got us hooked!  

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