As a rule of thumb when planning a trip, most of us consider the destination first and then select places to stay and eat. Rockdale, about 65 miles north-northeast of Austin, is one of those spots that inverts that approach: the food and the lodgings are the destination.
Visitors travel to Rockdale specifically to feast on barbecue—at both Brett’s Backyard in town and Snow’s in nearby Lexington (a recent Texas Monthly readers’ choice bracket put them head-to-head for the best in the state, with the latter coming out on top)—and to stay at the historic Rainbow Courts Motel. There’s not much else to do.
Tell big-city Texans you’re going to Rockdale, and some will ask you where it is, while others will jokingly tell you “don’t go back to” Rockdale. (By the sixth time you hear this reference to an old REM tune from a friend, your polite smile will be frozen in place.) Sadly, the song’s plaintive “You’ll wind up in some factory” lyrics likely hit too close to home for many Rockdale natives.
For about fifty years, Rockdale was a company town. Specifically, Alcoa. The company’s aluminum smelter, along with the huge nearby Luminant coal-fired power plant built to keep that humming along, doubled the town’s population (from about 2,500 to today’s 5,500 or so) soon after opening in 1952 and provided high-paying manufacturing jobs for the next 56 years. The smelter’s closure in 2008 and the subsequent shutdown of the coal plant early last year have left the town reeling in search of a new economic engine.
They’ve tried everything from a stab at Bitcoin mining to a hail Mary pass to Jeff Bezos, but today Rockdale is neither a cryptocurrency hub nor the home of Amazon’s HQ2. Instead, those who haven’t moved away now work in oil patches far from home or undertake long commutes to jobs in Austin or Bryan-College Station. Signs of decline are visible: vacant houses abound on some backstreets, the old City Cemetery is overgrown with weeds (though it’s also filled with beautiful Victorian headstones), and since 2005, there’s been an H-E-B-sized hole in the strip mall on Highway 79/Cameron Avenue, Rockdale’s main drag. (Locals now have only Brookshire Brothers and a Walmart Supercenter for groceries.)
Rainbow Courts, one of oldest motels in Texas, was already an institution when Alcoa came to town, and it will likely live on to see whatever comes next for Rockdale. When it first opened, as World War I was drawing to a close, Rainbow Courts was more of a campsite, just an oak-shaded spot on the side of an unpaved road on the edge of a mining town. Founder Monroe Bullock first described it as an “oasis.” By the late 1930s, Monroe’s brother Ira had taken over (Ira’s granddaughter Joan Ratliff owns the place today with husband Dan), and canopied picnic tables had evolved into cottages. Over time, detached cottages with carports melded into rows of rooms. The old oaks that the dwellings were built under and around grew mightier and were joined by pecans. The trees cast long shadows over the deep green lawns now dotted with prize-winning lilies. Highway 79 got a blacktop, but the little driveways of the motel are still gravel. Even as Rockdale boomed with Alcoa’s arrival, Rainbow Courts never lost its essential identity.
Meanwhile, the nature of motor hotels across America changed dramatically. Forested grounds were paved over as cities swallowed old tourist courts whole and spat them back out as havens for all manner of illicit behavior. Tall fences were built around them, both to conceal the identities of these “no-tell motel” guests and to protect them from parking lot thieves. Common areas came to be dreaded, and for the sake of convenience and safety, most postwar motels opened on the outskirts of towns.
So today we have the United States of Expedia, one nation of generic low-rise motels with names like Budget Suites Guest Lodge Best Inn. Guests of such places count themselves lucky to find a Waffle House or truck stop travel center within walking distance on the same side of the eight-lane highway, amid acres of anarchic parking lots and pedestrian-averse streets with names like “Conference Center Boulevard,” “Fulfillment Lane,” and “Target Way.” To be sure, there are benefits to this new order: in-room cable TV and WiFi, clean sheets and comfy beds, cold AC and hot showers, complimentary toiletries, and cheap rates.
And here is the magic of Rainbow Courts: it is on the short list of motels not just in Texas but across America that offers all those amenities and historic charm. Did a bourbon-sweaty Bob Wills ever trade a stack of 78s for a room at your nearest Hampton Inn? Did Tennessee Williams ever pace the floor of room 108 at the Scottish Inn off the Interstate? Nope and nope, but both of those American legends did spend the night at Rainbow Courts.
Its character is of the same uniquely Texan tin-roofed, pecan-shaded, granny-and-ice-cream-on-the-front-porch variety seen in one of those vintage, soft-focus Blue Bell commercials from back in the day. Small wonder that this January, for the fourth consecutive year, Rainbow Courts was named one of TripAdvisor’s 25 best bargains. (The Shamrock Country Inn, where rooms are only $38, was the only other Texas hostelry to make the cut.)
Again, aside from the barbecue, there’s not a whole lot to do in Rockdale. The old International & Great Northern railway depot has been restored, and it’s a beaut. (Open only on weekends, it’s the town museum and visitors center.) The town was the birthplace of bluesman/early rock-and-roller Pee Wee Crayton and the hometown of both L. Ron Hubbard’s widow and George Sessions Perry, whose hardscrabble agrarian novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand won a Texas Institute of Letters award in 1941 and was similarly lauded the following year by the American Booksellers Association. (The late, great Texan man of letters Don Graham praised Perry’s now-all-but-forgotten work and discussed his tragic life in our pages in 1999.)