With its limestone bluffs and juniper-covered slopes, Somervell County is a diminutive slice of Hill Country that somehow migrated to the rolling prairies southwest of Fort Worth. The state’s last undammed river, the Paluxy, winds its way through the hills, as does the Brazos, and they converge a mile or so downstream from Glen Rose, the only town in the tiny county. (At 187 square miles, it is smaller than many a West Texas ranch.) The geographical setting alone ought to have made Glen Rose a popular tourist destination, but for most of its history, the quiet town of around 2,500 people was overlooked by all except paleontologists searching for dinosaur bones, moonshiners who operated in the nearby cedar thickets, and occasional visitors to the Paluxy’s springs.
All those years of being ignored, however, have had the fortuitous result of preserving both hills and town much as they have always been. Glen Rose is about as unchanged by fast-food franchises, chain motels, subdivisions, and Wal-Marts as a town can get. Its courthouse square continues to be occupied by businesses that cater to locals, including Linda’s, an old-fashioned cafe. Its riverfront remains in its natural state, a perfect place for wading or clambering up massive rocks.
But Glen Rose has much more to offer than just a fossilized version of small-town Texas—real fossils, for example, at the Somervell County Museum on the square and in Dinosaur Valley State Park, where you can stand in pleurocoelus, iguanadon, and acrocanthosaurus footprints in the Paluxy shallows. Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, a drive-through park, allows you to get up close and personal with giraffes, wildebeests, rhinos, and several species of antelope. Sculptor Robert Summers, whose work includes the cattle drive in front of Dallas’ city hall and the John Wayne statue at the Orange County, California, airport, is the son of a former Somervell County judge; some of his works are in the collection of the Barnard’s Mill Art Museum two blocks west of the square. Dining options range from local favorites like Hammond’s B-B-Q to prix-fixe gourmet meals at the Inn on the River and Rough Creek Lodge.
I arrived in Glen Rose on a Friday afternoon in April with the eldest and youngest of my three teenagers, Janet and Barrett, in tow, somewhat under protest. But their complaints ceased when we pulled up at Big Rocks Park on the Paluxy. A pile of flat-topped boulders rose from the streambed over the top of the bank. I watched them climb down to the ribbon of water and splash happily. Afterward we drove around the town. Most of the homes and businesses are old and modest structures, as befits a community that was among the poorest in Texas for many years.
Then, in the early seventies, came the event that changed Glen Rose forever: Texas Utilities decided to locate a nuclear power plant five miles north of town, and suddenly the county had jobs and tax revenue and a railroad track. Today the frame houses and small family businesses have been joined by sparkling new facilities built with public funds, among them a huge air-conditioned expo center, an amphitheater for concerts and plays (including The Promise, a musical version of the life of Christ that attracts large crowds on summer weekends from June through October), and a public golf course (a second is under construction).
Helen Kerwin greeted us at Country Woods, the bed-and-breakfast where we were spending the weekend. A former mayor of Glen Rose, she is now a county commissioner, and she gave me the lowdown on the town’s history. Country Woods sprawls over forty acres bounded by the Paluxy on one side and hills on the other. It includes the main house, where she raised her three daughters, and several cottages, among which are two of the oldest homes in Glen Rose, which she moved there and restored. We stayed in the Cabin in the Woods, nestled against a hillside several hundred yards from the main cluster of buildings. It came with two TVs, a VCR, tapes, a generously stocked kitchen (microwave popcorn, chilled wine, and soft drinks), and Madeline, the resident cat. After a satisfying dinner at the Inn on the River, a 22-room B&B with a conference center and a cozy restaurant, we went back to the cabin, where Janet grabbed two quilts and announced that she was sleeping outside on the deck, and Barrett plopped down in front of the VCR.
The next morning, Helen served us a sumptuous breakfast of sausage casserole, fresh fruit, and homemade cranberry muffins on our deck, then we headed for Fossil Rim, in the hills southwest of town. We took the Behind the Scenes Tour, which meant that we had a driver and got to go off the main road into the “intensive wildlife management area,” for a closer view of cheetahs and wolves and Attwater’s prairie chickens, with their yellow eyebrows and throat sacs. Fossil Rim takes in endangered species and tries to breed them and in some cases return them to the wild; some species are all but extinct in nature and may spend their lives here or in zoos. The irresistible appeal of the park, even for normally blasé teenagers, is that you can feed the animals, and they don’t need much coaxing to approach your car. You are likely to find yourself surrounded by greater kudu and addaxes or encounter a giraffe stretching his neck in your direction. (On hot summer days the best times for viewing wildlife are early in the morning and late in the afternoon.)
The tour took three hours, and by the time it was over, we were ready to head for the Paluxy and Dinosaur Valley State Park. On the way we passed the Creation Evidence Museum, located in a pink metal building, but its challenge to evolution and the fossil record had to wait for another day. The state park has three areas of dinosaur tracks in the river’s limestone bed. At first glance they were indistinguishable from other depressions and fractures in the limestone, but on closer inspection it was easy to pick out the ones with three toes (thought to have been made 110 million years ago). Alas, the best tracks were removed 62 years ago by scientists from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where they remain today. If the Greeks and Egyptians can demand the return of their temples, why not Glen Rose?
I knew better than to drag Janet and Barrett to the art museum, so I left them at the park to wade in the clear river, which was not much deeper than the three-toed footprints, while I went back to town. From the museum’s windows, I could see Barnard’s Mill, the oldest structure in town, and the gunports from which early settlers could fire at raiding Indians.
We cooked at the cabin that evening and fed apples to one of Helen’s horses that grazed nearby. As night fell, we sat on the porch and watched a violent thunderstorm miss us to the north. Insulated by the woods, we could hear no sound except the wind in the trees and an occasional rattle of thunder. It could have been a hundred years ago. PAUL BURKA