BBQ and Texas Tea

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Like most people looking for some adventure, the Crazy Train often overlooks the little gems that are closer to the homestead. Yesterday, the clouds had finally cleared, the sun appeared after several depressing days of cold and dampness, and we had a few hours to kill. So we set our sites on the towns of Lockhart and Luling. Lockhart is famous for Texas BBQ, and Luling for Texas Tea—OIL. We decided to squeeze in both.

Since I’ve been avoiding shopping for the past way-too-long, our cupboards were bare, so we jumped in the SSPhelps and hit the road, our sites set on Caldwell County. Our first order of business would be food. Rumbling tummies always take top priority.

In Lockhart, there are four Q joints, three of them rising to the coveted status of the Texas Monthly Top 50 List. Kreuz (pronounced “Krites”), Black’s, and Smitty’s. (If you’re not a friend of the Crazy Train, then you should know that one of the driving forces of the Train is Texas BBQ, and we’ll drive for hours to stand in line for the good stuff!) We’ve recently been to Black’s and Kreuz, so we decided on Smitty’s—and we were NOT disappointed.

My first foray into Lockhart BBQ was back in the early 1990s. As a photography major at St Edward’s University in Austin, we’d occasionally trek to Lockhart for lunch and picture taking. Back then, I remember two choices: Kreuz and Black’s. The only differences between them (that I could remember) were that Black’s had plates, sauce, and silverware, and Kreuz had butcher paper, no sauce, and no silverware—but they had knives that were chained to the tables. I think we usually ended up at Black’s because of the whole silverware thing, but the knives-on-chains thing at Kreuz was always fun too.

So when the Crazy Train hit Kreuz a few months ago, I was confused. It was NOT like I remembered. NOTHING. Not on the square, it was new, and it was WAY big. And where the heck were the knives on chains? Clearly I’d lost my mind.

Having graduated from college and no longer living nearby, I was unaware of the events that had unfolded in my absence. Since I HAVE to know, I nosed around and got the skinny.

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In 1900, German butcher/grocer Charles Kreuz Sr. set up shop in Lockhart. Refrigeration being what it was (and Germans hating waste) Kreutz devised an alternative to trashing unsold meat—he made sausage from the lesser cuts and smoked the better ones, then slow-cooked it all over BBQ pits he built out back. He sold the meat wrapped in butcher paper, and customers often ate it with nothing but a pocket knife and their hands.

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In 1948, Kreuz Jr sold the whole kit and kaboodle to his longtime employee, Edgar “Smitty” Schmidt. Smitty kept the status quo until the 1960s when he closed the grocery, keeping only a few “side” items that customers enjoyed with their meat. In 1984, he sold the business to his sons, who ran things just like dear old Dad. Until 1997, that is. Word on the street is that one son decided to retire, and a kerfuffle arose as to how to proceed. After some in-family negotiations, one son got the building and the other son’s kids got the then 99-year old business name “Kreuz.” The Kruez kids hauled some of the original hot coals ¼ mile north where they built a ginormous BBQ palace. The kids with the building kept the original pit fires roaring, re-christened the historic joint “Smitty’s,” and the Health Department 86’d the chained knives. Some baloney about sanitation and safety.

2015/01/img_1481.jpgAnyhow, the Crazy Train (minus Mags) decided on Smitty’s. We arrived just before the lunch rush, and I am giddy that we did! The ribs were unbelievable. I’m usually a brisket and beef ribs girl, but the pork ribs were fanfreakingtastic. Still no silverware, still no plates. The atmosphere was great (as I remembered!) and the employees made us feel just as at home as Tootsie and Kerry do in Lexington. I chatted with one employee about how I hadn’t been in since my college days and that I wanted to take some pictures. She told me to make myself at home, and if I wanted a tour or to go into the kitchen or ANYWHERE, to just let her know and she’d take me ANYWHERE. Love, love, LOVE.

After filling our tummies with delicious Q, we strolled around downtown for a bit before heading south to Luling.

One thing about Luling is that you know you’re getting close because you can smell it. So whenever we’re headed that way, I start singing “it’s beginning to smell a lot like Luling!” to the tune of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” The kids hate it, which makes me sing it louder and more enthusiastically than I would if they’d just keep their yaps shut.

2015/01/img_0043.jpgBefore the railroads and cowboys arrived, the heavily wooded land where the San Marcos River and Plum Creek converged was the place where the warlike Commanche Indians set up their winter camps. Here, they fought with other tribes, Mexican silver miners, and Republic of Texas settlers. In 1874, the advance crew of the Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railroad came to a halt when they had difficulty building a bridge over the steep gorge of the San Marcos River. This bottleneck forced a town to spring up literally overnight, leaving no time for the sheriff, located 16 miles away in Lockhart, to establish adequate law enforcement.

The shantytown quickly descended into chaos, becoming infamous as a place of lawlessness. Like moths to a flame, outlaws, gamblers, felons, gunmen, desperadoes, cardsharps, bandits, and other ne’er do wells were drawn to “The Toughest Town in Texas,” a town with more than 40 saloons—more than twice the number of other businesses—and no churches.

By 1877, the sheriff hired some no-nonsense deputies, and quickly, Luling became a law-abiding community. When the great cattle drives ended in the 1880s, cotton farming took over as the leading source of income.

Enter Edgar B. Davis. In the 19teens, this eccentric millionaire businessman sold off his majority shareholdings of the United States Rubber Company, gave most of his fortune away, and came to Luling to manage his brother Oscar’s oil leases. Edgar was religious, and believed that God sent him to Texas to save the town from its one-crop farming oppression and to lead it to prosperity through oil. In 1921, Oscar died, and Edgar bought up his oil leases. Although geologists told him there was no oil in Luling, Edgar insisted on listening to the advice of the bluebonnets instead. Seriously. Legend has it that he got down on the ground, put his ear to the bluebonnets, and the flowers told him the geologists were wrong.

Turns out that the bluebonnets were right. The first six of Davis’ oil wells were, in fact, dry. However, oil gushed from the seventh. On August 9, 1922, the Rafael Rios No.1 opened up the 12×2 mile long Luling Oil Field that immediately produced tens of thousands of barrels of oil. In 1926, Davis made what was, at the time, the biggest oil deal in Texas history. True to his generous spirit, he gave huge bonuses to his employees and made considerable philanthropic contributions throughout town. The Depression was unkind to this generous man, and he spent his final years paying off debt. Edgar B Davis died in 1951, and was buried beside one of his former homes in Luling—the same site where, 15 years later, a hospital would be built and named in his honor.

I’m sure you want to know why I spent all this time telling you about Edgar, don’t you? Well, here you go:

2015/01/img_1490.jpgOn June 11, 1926, just after completing his legendary oil deal, Edgar B Davis threw the biggest and most lavish appreciation picnic for his employees and friends. The BBQ drew an estimated 30,000 guests, and cost about $5 million. That’s upwards of $35 million in today’s dollars. At the picnic site, Edgar had a Bath House constructed as a gift to the City. The Bath House’s thick, steel-reinforced walls would provide a cool shelter for swimmers and parents, be a great gathering place for teenagers, and be sturdy enough to withstand temperamental flooding of the San Marcos River.

At the big picnic, Mr Davis supplied a bazillion bottled drinks to accompany the gazillion tons of BBQ he had served up. Unfortunately, a jillion of these bottles ended up smashed in and around the river, leaving enough broken glass to bloody visitors’ feet for decades.

2015/01/img_1489.jpgThis pillbox of a building, cool in the summer, and perfectly perched between the park, the golf course, and the river, fell into ruin, unusable for all the broken glass. In the 1940s, the decorative wrought iron was cut away and scrapped for the war effort. Vandals began to deface it, creating an eyesore. The decision was made to raze the Bath House, but, Mr Davis’ brilliant construction saved the structure from becoming a footnote in Luling’s history. They COULD NOT BULLDOZE IT. It was impenetrable.

So rather than continue to watch the Bath House suffer further degradation, the city buried it. With dirt. Soon, the dirt sprouted grass and weeds and plants and trees and became a little hill in the park. The City of Luling had sent Edgar Davis’ gift to its grave by the river. But, the little Bath House wouldn’t go down without a fight. That brilliant construction that was intended to safeguard the Bath House from flooding ultimately allowed it to arise from the grave. As rivers in Texas are prone to doing, the San Marcos flooded and the dirt and grass and weeds and trees and most of that broken glass was just swept down stream out to the Gulf of Mexico.

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Now, Edgar Davis’ little Bath House is above ground—mostly. It’s covered in graffiti with trees growing out its windows, but it’s as strong as ever. With a little elbow grease (and maybe a little of the philanthropy that Mr Davis was so well-known for) the Bath House could actually be used for its original purpose. Maybe a staircase down to the water, some old-fashioned shoveling, and a power-wash, and Luling could use Mr Davis’ generous gift. (Personally, We’d like to see a Texas Historical Marker on it—it kinda deserves one.) But, until a Lulingite with a few extra coins takes the lead, the Bath House will sit there, waiting for people like us to find it and give it a little respect.

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The Most Awesome Photo-Op Ever! (Or Not.)

About six months ago, a tiny little dot on the map caught my eye.

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Deep within the Sam Houston National Forest in East Texas lies the town of Phelps.

I KNOW, RIGHT?!?!?! I was giddy. Like, pee-your-pants excited. The Phelps Family Crazy Train would have the most legendarily, awesomely, fantastically EPIC Christmas Card Family Photo in the HISTORY of staged family photo cheesiness, and absolutely ZERO Photochopping would be necessary.

Visions of this monumental achievement danced in my head. I was already deciding where I would hang the custom art wrap canvas print of the family photo at the homestead. I had outfits planned, and a date blocked off on the calendar for the Crazy Train’s most celebrated road trip to date. We were going to OUR TOWN!

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Photo Idea #1

Finding a town bearing your last name is pretty flipping cool. After almost 13 years of being asked if I’m married to Michael Phelps (spoiler: I am not) I’d finally found something non-Speedo related that we could commandeer and claim as our own. (Since our kids are swimmers, this is pretty fun during swim season, but I digress.) For all intents and purposes, it’d be OUR town, and when people ooohed and ahhhed over our magnificent family portrait in front of the Phelps city limits sign, I could haughtily chortle, “No… It’s NOT photochopped,” and everyone would be really jealous and when they were out of earshot, they would hurriedly whip out their phones and google their own last names to see if they could find their own namesake towns so they could attempt to replicate my brilliant idea.

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Photo Idea #2

Basic online research told me that Phelps, Texas had been established around a train depot and telegraph station in the early 1870s, and was named for the Phelps-Dodge Company, builders of the railroad. Within four years, there was a post office, a general store, a church, a hotel, and a school. When a spur of the railroad connected Huntsville, sawmills opened up and families poured in. By the late 1930s, the sawmills were closing up and the town dwindled to around 100 citizens, which is about where it was as of the last census.

Now, this is where I violated the first guideline in the Crazy-Train Bible of Road Tripping. If you have a very specific destination in mind, Google it first.

But no. The dream of the perfect family photo had its grip on me, and there was nothing that could penetrate my fantasy. So on a Saturday morning, we loaded up the Crazy Train and headed eastward into the rising Texas sun. Our legendary trip was beginning, and it really would be truly magnificent. Epic, even. We blew through small town after small town, speeding past historical marker after historical marker, and ignoring countless fabulous looking points of interest, making mental notes of all the places we would return to on another trip. We were too impatient to stop, and, well, we were burning daylight!

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Photo Idea #3

After almost three hours on the road, we entered the borders of the Sam Houston National Forest. My heart was pounding. As a documentary photographer, I was salivating over all the photographic opportunities I would have. As a mom, I was so excited and restless and overcome with enthusiasm about what I just KNEW would be the most sensationally unique family picture in the history of EVER.

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All five of us had our noses pressed up against the windows as we entered the forest. The tall dense trees and lush green foliage would make for fantastic pictures! It was even overcast—my FAVORITE weather conditions for portraits because the light is so pretty. We drove and drove… and drove… and… drove. No sign. And finally, Mark said, “You said 6 miles. We’ve gone 8. Check the map.” So I did. We had passed it? What? What the WHAT? Not possible.

So we turned around and I followed the blue dot on iMaps as it completely passed through the word PHELPS on the map.

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Fantasy                                             Reality

You’ve got to be FREAKING KIDDING ME. My heart sank.

We saw a side street, so we turned. Again, nothing. We crossed the railroad tracks. Nothing. We saw one church (that wasn’t particularly old or picturesque) and one street sign atop a leaning, rusty, stop sign.

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The ONLY building in Phelps

Ssssssssssssssssssssssssss…. (That’s the sound of the wind blowing out of our sails).

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The other picture I took in town

No town. No sign. No ice house, no gas station, no ruins, no ghost town, no bones of a former train depot. NOTHING. Nothing but a (maybe 30 year old) church and a dilapidated stop sign with a street sign on top. We drove down every street, every dirt road, every railroad access point. We checked iMaps and MapQuest and GoogleMaps and all of their satellite images. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Zero. Bupkis.

My family photo fantasy was completely annihilated. My plans for the deluxe custom printed art wrapped wall canvas were as wiped out of our future as the town of Phelps had been wiped off the map. Three hours of driving. All the places we bypassed without stopping. The envy-enducing Christmas cards that would not happen. All gone.

I was shattered. I didn’t even want to think about a Plan B. I wanted to salvage my Plan A! Just where was this town of Phelps, population 98? Where was the cool, rusty, roached out old city limits sign? Where was the pristine Texas Historical Marker? I wanted to fling myself onto Old Phelps Road and have an epic tantrum, complete with banging my fists in the dirt and kicking my feet.

The “Voice of Reason” behind the wheel made the executive decision that continuing to search the same roads and bit of railroad track over and over would be futile and a waste of time. So he began the journey out of what I now felt was the World’s Most Disappointing Forest.

As we drove along, I saw a sign that read “Dodge: 2 mi”

Me: “Honey, we must go there.”

Him: “Where?”

Me: “To Dodge.”

Him: “Why?”

Me: “So we can take a picture.”

Him: “Ok then…”

So we went to Dodge (which looked EXACTLY like what we THOUGHT Phelps would look like) and we took this picture and posted it on Facebook with this caption:

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 “We’ve gotta get the heck outta here!”

After we finished laughing hysterically at our really, really campy joke, (and our daughter informed us that we were totally stupid) we decided to head over to Huntsville so we could, I don’t know, check out the bail bonds offices and pawn shops and whatever else there was to offer in that po-dunk little prison town, famous the world over as the place where capital punishment is delivered in Texas.

But we were pleasantly surprised. Huntsville was amazing. It was a picturesque little historic town with so many charming old buildings, a cool old courthouse with a Town Square, tons of state historical markers, and Sam Houston State University (which is absolutely stunning). We spent awhile at Sam Houston’s historical estate and checked out some of the antique shops on the Square.

In the end, we had a legitimately fun day filled with so many places on our “return to” list.

And we learned an unquestionably valuable lesson: If you’ve got a specific destination in mind, never, never, NEVER neglect your preliminary research. And always, always, ALWAYS have a Plan B.

(Full post on Huntsville will appear in a future post. And oh yeah, stop laughing at my super awesome drawings. I am a photographer, not an artist.)