My mother used to tell me that she’d saved thousands of dollars in therapy simply by driving her convertible on lovely days. After spinning my wheels through the Hill Country on a recent glorious weekday, I think I finally know what she’s talking about. The drive to San Saba is beautiful, but the place as a destination makes the trip a real treat.
When I reached San Saba, I knew I had picked the perfect getaway spot from the hustle and bustle of city life. The main street looked like it came right off a western movie set: tractors and pickups shared the road; stores with colorful facades boasted inviting names like SugarBaker’s, Harry’s Department Store, or the Little Variety Store; and barrels overflowed with colorful flowers. Storekeepers chatted across the street to one another, and everyone greeted me, an obvious newcomer, with a smile and a big hello. I stood out like a sore thumb but was invited to share in the life of San Saba without hesitation. I made fast friends with Elsie Millican, a native of San Saba who took me on a town tour.
“You might be nervous to be in the car with me driving,” Millican told me. “I’m ninety!” Millican took me straight to the San Saba County Historical Museum, which was closed for the season, but of course, she had the key. The museum is set up like an old town—a country store, two 100-hundred-year-old barns, and a doctor’s office, all of which house San Saba artifacts dating back to 1854, when the town was founded. Millican pointed to the writing on the walls: “And here is the history of my family.” Millican’s grandfather, E.E. Risien, started the biggest economic boom in San Saba’s history. Risien moved from England to the middle of Texas, and in 1874 began growing and harvesting pecans. Ever since, the pecan industry has flourished and has become a source of local identity and pride. In fact, San Saba calls itself the Pecan Capital of the World.
One pecan business, the Great San Saba River Pecan Company, sits in the middle of a beautiful pecan orchard. Over the past sixteen years, the company has taken the pecan to a whole new level. Its catalog features delicacies like pecan toffee or wagon wheel pie, a version of pecan pie with chocolate morsels and coconut shavings. The peach, pecan, and Amaretto preserve recently won an award at the International Fancy Food and Confection Show in New York, and my personal favorite is the pecan pie in a jar—all of the pie’s fillings in one container that makes for easy baking. I left the store weighted down with all sorts of gifts for family members: pecan pies and spreads, pecan-flavored coffee (with actual nuts in the mix), and turtles, caramel-covered pecans dunked in chocolate. It’s amazing how many of those “gifts” I ate on the way home.
Even if you aren’t a pecan lover or Texas history buff, San Saba is still appealing. The town puts a lot of time and energy in maintaining its scenic eighteen-hole golf course that borders the San Saba River, and San Saba is also known for its Hill Country vineyards and ranching industry. The main attraction, though, is hunting season, which begins in November. “That brings in a lot of business,” Mayor David Parker told me. “Some people come from as far as Louisiana.” Regardless of whether you hunt, hunting season is definitely the best time to visit. The stores open more frequently and for longer periods of time, and the town is super energetic, hosting community projects and fairs. San Saba does not, however, let tourists dictate its hometown feel. “We’re a growing town,” Mayor Parker said. “But slow growing, not fast growing. And we like that.” Chuck Little, of the Little Variety Store, is one local who embodies San Saba’s kindhearted spirit. The Little Variety Store, founded by Chuck’s father in 1953, is a town favorite, right on main street. Framed with hardwood floors and tall ceilings, this shop has everything from sowing equipment and gardening tools to greeting cards and schools supplies. Little dropped everything to show me around San Saba, pointing out his favorite spots like the football field, the quaint neighborhoods, and the white-marble Methodist church built in 1914. As much as I enjoyed the sights, it was his sincere pride in his town and his relentless generosity that impressed me the most. Today, it is hard to come by places like San Saba, with its hometown feel and emphasis on community. I’m sure glad I found it.