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Where is the Heart of Texas?

Destination: Eden

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 3.5 hours /
  • Brownsville - 7.25 hours /
  • Dallas - 5 hours /
  • El Paso - 7.5 hours /
  • Houston - 6.5 hours /
  • San Antonio - 3.5 hours
  • Lubbock - 6.5 hours

In the Lone Star’s Garden of Eden, paradise means rock art, horny toads and deer sausage.

One traffic light blinks red-amber-green in the rural community of Eden. At the busy intersection, two popular stopovers beckon to travelers. Those longing for creamy sustenance turn into the Dairy Queen. Other drivers in-the-know, or those who are perhaps just plain curious, pull up to the business with the unusual name: Venison World.

As for me, I choose the latter because I’m on a mission to explore the region generally known as the “Heart of Texas.”

I use the word “generally” because determining the state’s precise center depends on whom you ask. For instance, the Texas Society of Professional Surveyors — measuring by satellite the exact distance between the state’s four borders — places the “geodetic” center of Texas 18.5 miles west-southwest of Eden.

On the other hand, the Texas Almanac says that the state’s “geographic” center lies about 15 miles northeast of Brady (on private property) in northern McCulloch County. Hence, Brady bills itself as the official “Heart of Texas.” Folks there even put up a “heart” monument on the courthouse grounds (there’s an arrow-pierced heart atop the courthouse, too).

To the west, in Concho County, Eden markets itself as the “Garden of Texas.” You might assume the town was named after the Biblical garden of paradise, but not so. Actually, Frederick Ede donated land for a township in 1882 but didn’t want the place named for him. Someone suggested adding an “n,” and Ede apparently approved this variation on his name.

At any rate, I park in front of Venison World, where a life-size replica of an axis buck stands guard on the building’s roof. Inside the glass doors, a spicy aroma leads me to a small round table laden with samples of venison summer sausage, buffalo jalapeño/cheese summer sausage and other meats, as well as sugared pecans, salsas and dessert toppings.

“People who travel this highway stop regularly to restock their freezers with our jerky and sausage,” owner Max Stabel says.

Venison World Inc. opened in 1992 after a group of game ranchers near Eden decided it’d be an ideal way to market their axis deer products. Over time, other exotic game meats such as buffalo, elk, nilgai antelope and fallow deer were added. The retail store also sells a variety of seasonings, jellies, candy, cookbooks, kitchenware and even furniture.

After some tasting and browsing, I head over to the Don Freeman Memorial Museum, located next to City Hall on the town’s oddly shaped square.

Several years ago, Concho County judge Allen Amos told me the grassy, tree-shaded plaza, which encircles a white gazebo, was designed to accommodate a courthouse. Though Eden for years coveted the county seat, the little town of Paint Rock further north held on to that designation. To this day, county residents still do business at the 1886 courthouse — designed by Frederick Ruffini — on the Paint Rock square. (Its architectural twin is the 1885 courthouse in Blanco, now used as a community center.)

At the museum, exhibits trace the county’s history, starting with the Lost Iron Shoe Sole. This rusty metal sole may have belonged to a soldier from Coronado’s army, but Museum Director Carolyn Moody explains, “we don’t know for sure.” Other exhibits tell about military highways that crisscrossed the area as early as 1849, the arrival of cattle and later sheep and the advent of farming. A collection of military displays honors the late General Ira Eaker, an Eden native and pioneer aviator who helped devise an aircraft level instrument later known as the “artificial horizon.”

Throughout the region, farming and ranching — producing primarily cotton, sheep and beef cattle — rank among the leading industries. So a locally produced steak seems in order for an evening meal. I choose Jacoby Cafe in Melvin (located between Eden and Brady), a family-owned business that also includes an adjacent feed store and a nearby cattle ranch. My tasty, medium-rare ribeye comes with a salad and baked potato.

“Our beef is born here and never leaves the place,” says owner Jason Jacoby. “We don’t use any hormones, and all our meat is aged 14 days before it’s cut up.”

The next morning, I have an appointment with ranchers Kay and Fred Campbell, caretakers of the Indian pictographs for which Paint Rock is named. I’ve always wanted to visit this place, and, for some reason, I assumed there’d be a grueling hike involved. Wrong.

I meet the Campbells at a ranch-style house, where Kay tells the story of how her grandfather, D.E. Sims, discovered the crudely drawn pictures in the late 1870s. “He decided to stay so he could protect them,” she says, standing in a room furnished with family heirlooms, photographs and Native American artifacts. “He and his family guarded the pictographs all their lives, and they taught us how, too. So that’s our heritage.”

Using her forearm as an easel, Kay demonstrates how primitive artists blended pulverized iron ore with animal fat to create paint. Then Fred runs a short video that shows another archeological site’s “sun daggers” (pointed shafts of sunlight made by passing through rock formations) moving across specific pictographic images during the winter solstice.

We load up in vehicles and ride a short distance on the ranch to a grassy meadow that’s paralleled by a high slope topped with slabs of limestone. Kay hands me a trail guide that describes the drawings we’re going to see. We’ll see the paintings from a trail that runs beneath the rock face, because the Campbells forbid climbing up to the rocks.

The paintings — predominantly created in a red pigment and believed to be at least 200 to 500 years old — depict a multitude of characters, including animals, human hands and figures, stars and corn stalks.

“My uncle brought some of his friends here for a party,” Kay says, sniffing with disdain when we pause midway along the trail. She’s referring to a scrawled “W. I. Sims 1907” on a low rock that’s nearly hidden by a clump of prickly pear cactus. “He’s the only person who’s ever disgraced our family name.”

After lunch, I head east to Brady to explore the downtown square. Right away, an intriguing sign that’s painted on the side of a two-story building grabs my attention: “See Horny Toads Inside.” Naturally curious, I step inside Evridge’s on Commerce Street and ask the first lady I meet: “Where are the horned toads?”

Elegantly dressed and genteel in manner, the woman smiles and leads me through a showroom of upscale furniture and accessories, past a display of fine china and shelves of Christmas decorations until we stop at the jewelry counter.

Jewelry?

“We have dangly earrings and lapel pins,” Susan Evridge drawls, peering at a glass case filled with tiny gold and silver critters. She glances at me and grins mischievously. “Well, the sign didn’t say ‘live,’ did it?” I laugh.

Since it opened in 1937, Evridge’s has sold everything from beds and grandfather clocks to tires and air conditioners. Upstairs via a lime-green-carpeted spiral staircase is an unusual work of art entitled “Family Tree.” The stained-glass dome, crafted by founder I.G. Evridge (Susan’s late father), bears the initials of 12 family members and a beloved rat terrier, Ramona.

The next day, I’m bound for the Heart of Texas Country Music Museum, an extensive collection of music memorabilia housed in a brick building on South Bridge Street. “We have a lot of entertainers who got their start in our area,” explains Tracy Pitcox, a Brady disc jockey. “About 10 years ago, we started collecting stage costumes, and we didn’t know what to do with everything. So we decided to raise money and build a museum.”

George Strait, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash and Charley Pride are among the many country music artists who donated clothing, hats, boots and other personal items to the museum. Stage dresses worn by Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette and Minnie Pearl hang in glass showcases.

Parked outside stands “Big Blue,” a 1956 Flxible (yes, that’s how it’s spelled) Tour Bus owned by the late country music star Jim Reeves and his band, the Blue Boys. “We bought that for $3,000 from the Jim Reeves Museum after it closed in Nashville, then it cost us $3,100 to haul it to Texas,” Pitcox says, chuckling.

To wrap up my jaunt through the heart of Texas, a tour of the Heart of Texas Historical Museum — housed in the old McCulloch County jail — seems fitting. The stately, red brick edifice stands at Main and High streets, a block off the town square.

The Southern Structural Steel Co. of San Antonio built the prefabricated, three-story jail in 1909. It remained in use until 1974, when the county built a new jail and sold the old one to the museum for five bucks.

According to museum president Bert Striegler, the sheriff in those bygone years kept an office on the first floor, where he and his also wife lived. Part of her job was to cook meals for the inmates in the jail’s kitchen. The kitchen is now a museum exhibit outfitted with assorted antique utensils and cookware from the period.

Other museum exhibits include historic photographs, family mementos, military memorabilia and rifles, along with historic papers, including an authentic land grant signed by Sam Houston in 1860.

For the grand finale, Striegler ushers me to an iron staircase, which leads to the second floor. I immediately meet the “hanging noose,” a coil of rope suspended over a trap door. Evidently, the noose successfully deterred inmates from causing any further trouble, because “no one was ever hanged there,” Striegler says.

As for me, I’m ready to break out and head home. From an eerie jail to spicy venison sausage and mysterious Indian drawings, the Heart of Texas — wherever it may precisely lie — has definitely left its mark on me.

Details:

  • Venison World, (800) 460-5326 or <www.venisonworld.com>.
  • Paint Rock Excursions, (325) 732-4376 or <www.paintrockpictographs.com>.
  • Jacoby Cafe, (800) 329-2080 or <www.jacobyfeed.com>.
  • Eden Chamber of Commerce, (325) 869-2211 or <www.edentexas.com>.
  • Brady/McCulloch County Chamber of Commerce, (325) 597-3491 or <www.bradytx.com>.

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