“BEAUTIFUL, BEAUTIFUL TEXAS/WHERE THE beautiful bluebonnets grow . . .” wrote the late governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel. “You can live on the plains or the mountain/Or down where the seabreezes blow/And you’re still in beautiful Texas/The most beautiful place that I know.” Well, not having grown up in Texas, I could easily debate whether it’s the most beautiful place that I know, but a recent trip to Llano this past April certainly made a strong case: Seas of bluebonnets enveloped the Hill Country and explosions of Indian paintbrush conquered the highways, leaving me speechless. Beautiful, beautiful Texas, indeed.
My husband, my sister, and I had decided to take advantage of the warmer weather and spend a day exploring the Hill Country. Having been to Llano only once before, and that only in passing, I singled it out on the map as our destination. The local history and art made us appreciate Llano in ways that we hadn’t envisioned.
Our first stop was the courthouse square. The Llano County Courthouse rises up in the center of town, an imposing brick-and-granite structure surrounded by trees. Blocks of commercial buildings line the square, facing the courthouse; most of them have brick facades and date to the late 1800’s. We read historic plaques and admired the wide porches of the old Southern Hotel, which now serves as the offices of Buttery Hardware; the Corner Drug store, which has been in business since 1898; and Masonic Temple’s impressive stone front. Lodge members meet on the second floor, and we discovered that the building’s hand-cranked elevator is still in use. On the square we also came across the Hill Country Wildlife Museum, with stuffed animals displayed in its windows (a little unnerving), and the Llano News building, which was interesting because it once housed the Bon Ton Barber and Bath, the only place in town that offered commercial bath facilities.
Our walk then took us toward the Llano River, where a group of teenagers in rolled-up jeans splashed in the water. As we followed the river a short way east, we came upon the old Llano jail, which was built toward the end of the nineteenth century out of gray granite. Nicknamed “Old Red Top” for its red roof (although in the bright sunlight we couldn’t quite make out the red), the jail still has its old gallows in place. We went in search of happier thoughts and crossed the river to explore the Llano County Historical Museum, which is housed in what used to be a drugstore. Cool and quiet, the museum transported us to the days when people wore top hats and petticoats and listened to phonograph records. That wasn’t so long ago, of course, but we got a sense of Llano in its heyday, when the steel and granite industries propelled the town to prominence. Particularly delightful (especially for my husband, who is a history buff) were the “self-fitting eye-testing machine,” a contraption to test one’s own vision, and the “croquignole,” a frightening octopus-looking device used for hair permanents. A pink marble soda fountain reminded us of the building’s history.
For lunch we returned to the courthouse square and stopped at the Acme Dry Goods, on Main Street. The store has been in operation since the early twenties. The pretty pressed-tin ceiling under the porch awning, visible just before you go inside, is a remnant from the old days. Acme Dry Goods sells everything from clothes and shoes to garden decorations and knickknacks. It also serves great sandwiches on homemade bread: We sat and people-watched as we ate at one of the tables in the corner.
Our brush with Llano architecture and history had satisfied some of our curiosity about the town, and as the afternoon shadows grew longer, we considered driving home. But we were not done with Llano yet. As we strolled back outside, a sign taped to a nearby streetlight caught our attention. “Fine Art and Wine trail,” it announced, with an arrow pointing east on Main Street. Given Llano’s small-town feel, we were surprised by this hint of sophistication. Intrigued, we set out to investigate.
What we happened upon was the eighth stop along the Texas Hill Country Art and Wine Trail. Organized by artists around the Hill Country, the trail directs people to art studios, galleries, and vineyards in Llano, Lake Buchanan, Burnet, Marble Falls, Liberty Hill, Lago Vista, and the Spicewood area. At each stop on the itinerary, participants can admire the artwork (which includes painting, metalwork, sculpture, and blown glass), talk to the artists, and taste local wines.
Llano has three stops on the trail; stop number eight is the Gridiron Gallery, the studio of Jack Moss, who specializes in Western painting. Horses, cowboys, and Indians hung on the walls, and there were a couple of old saddles on display. The doors to the gallery had been left wide open so that people could wander in and out freely. Jack sat painting at a table toward the back of the room, and the whole space, with its natural light, high ceilings, and Western scenes, gave us the peaceful feeling of life at a slower pace. We chatted for awhile with Jack, who told us that he had converted his studio space from an abandoned historic building (the before-and-after pictures are impressive), and then headed next door to stop number seven (we were going backward on the trail, apparently), the gallery and studio of Mike and Janet Mason.
Art on Main, as the Masons’ gallery and studio is called, displays Janet’s paintings on one wall and Mike’s on the other. The gallery is actually the couple’s living room (the rest of their rooms are in the back), and they graciously open it up for people to come see them at work. Janet, who was one of the people who originated the idea for the Hill Country Art and Wine Trail, was working at her easel when we walked in, but she stopped immediately to offer us some wine and tell us about her paintings (the Masons use mostly watercolor, acrylic, and oil). While the Masons’ work includes Western art, it is not their sole focus; their paintings use high concentrations of color and incorporate contemporary themes.
Thoroughly enjoying this unexpected taste of Hill Country art, we agreed to visit stop number nine on the trail, also in Llano: the Nailhead Spur Company. We were greeted by Charles Wendt, who offered us more wine and then let us wander around and admire his metal signs, fire screens, gates, and famous spurs. His work space is next door, and we peered in from the outside to catch a glimpse of the metalworking process.
Happy and more cultured than when we arrived, the three of us finally decided to leave Llano behind and drive back home to Austin through the bluebonnets.
For more information on the Hill Country Fine Art and Wine Trail, go to texasfineartandwine.org.