A River Runs Through It
Travel time from:
Austin – 1 hour
Brownsville – 5.5 hours
Dallas – 4.25 hours
Houston – 3.75 hours
San Antonio – 1 hour
Lubbock – 6.5 hours
El Paso – 8 hours
Straddling the riverbanks, Blanco offers a quiet alternative to urban life.
By Cameron T. Dodd
Near Blanco on U.S. Highway
281, the speed limit drops to 35 mph. “Please Slow Down, Enjoy Our Town,” the welcome sign requests.
And things do slow down here. Headline news here was a proposal to put a statue of LBJ on the courthouse lawn and an audit that showed Blanco in good financial shape. In fact, Blanco is doing so well, it is remodeling an older school and building a new school.
I expected to find a quaint Hill Country town with an interesting history and some better-than-average baked goods. I found all that, but I also found thoughtful people who have purposefully chosen a life away from the big city, with a real sense of small-town pride and civic commitment. Culture and history are a priority in this town of more than 1,500. When I visited, Blanco residents were busily compiling a cookbook to help save their state park and throwing a party to help a neighbor overwhelmed with medical bills.
My first night, I camped under the stars at Blanco State Park. Several playgrounds, well-maintained bathrooms with showers and an abundance of campsites equipped with water and electricity make this park an easy family camping destination. A pavilion constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps sits overlooking the park and makes for a great — not to mention pleasantly shady — picnic spot. Several nature trails allow you to lose yourself in the woods along the water’s edge.
Blanco State Park attracts outdoor enthusiasts.
The park straddles the Blanco River, and several CCC-constructed dams create swimming holes that are the park’s main attraction on hot summer days. When the air stills and the temperature peaks in late afternoon, visitors enjoy the showers beneath the dams’ spillover and float in the cool pools. Kayaks, tubes and canoes can be rented in the park.
Perch, catfish and bass are abundant here, making fishing another one of the park’s draws. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department stocks the river with trout in winter.
I dedicated the next day to getting to know the town. Once the county seat of Blanco County — an honor lost to Johnson City in 1890 — Blanco is built around a historic courthouse, which now serves as a visitors center as well as an attractive centerpiece to the vibrant town square. On the third Saturday of the month from March to November, the courthouse yard is the site for Blanco’s Market Day, where local artisans and farmers come out to sell their crafts and goods.
In addition to fine antique stores and art galleries, some of the Hill Country’s best dining can be found on or near the square in downtown Blanco. For classic diner fare, try the Bowling Club, with staples like hamburgers and BLTs. The staff seems to know everyone in the lunch crowd on a first-name basis. On the square, the Redbud Café serves slightly more upscale sandwiches, as well as quiches, soups and salads, plus live music on weekends.
Haute cuisine is served up at the Uptown Blanco Restaurant on the west side of the square. Housed in the old prison and attached to the Uptown Blanco arts complex, the restaurant features a menu you’d expect to find in downtown Dallas or Houston but made with regionally produced ingredients for a local flavor you won’t find in the big city. After trying out Sunday brunch and tasting the prime rib, I understood why The New York Times last year recommended readers make a stop here. Dining under the pressed tin roof and looking out the front window at the historic courthouse, I couldn’t help but feel thrown back in time and upward in class.
The Uptown Blanco Restaurant serves up tasty fare.
The Uptown Blanco complex also serves as a cultural center for the town. With a theater, ballroom, art center and textile studio, Uptown Blanco makes it possible to attend a painting class, watch a play and dance the night away, all in the same building.
Blanco’s cultural interests extend beyond food, drink and art. The Blanco Pioneer Museum features a World War II exhibit of artifacts preserved over the years by Blanco residents. Former Blanco postmaster and veteran Roy Byars approached museum director Nell Krueger about displaying the photos he took during his tour of duty, which included the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. Krueger and fellow museum volunteer Linda Howard put an ad in the paper requesting more WWII relics. The response was enormous, and now the exhibit extends into the garage, where pieces of the USS Blanco County, which landed at Normandy during the invasion, can be seen. Inside, visitors can find everything from old front pages of Stars and Stripes to photos taken by Howard’s father from the back window of his fighter plane.
“On opening night, no one wanted to leave,” Howard recalls.
The Blanco Pioneer Museum features World War II artifacts preserved by Blanco residents.
After immersing yourself in art and history, you’ll find that Blanco is just the place to relax and to refresh. Just north of downtown on U.S. Highway 281, the Real Ale Brewery has drawn attention to Blanco for its variety of handcrafted beers that are lovingly served in every restaurant in town as well as distributed across the state. I stopped by for the brewery’s anniversary party and found folks there from all over Texas. On a tour of the factory, many enthusiasts asked about the craft of brewing and listened attentively for ways to improve their own home brews. Year-round, visitors can stop by on Friday afternoons for tours and tastings.
We strolled back through downtown, down through Bindseil City Park, and took a last dip in the river. We retired back to the Blanco County Inn, where co-proprietors Ralph and Deborah de Leon, who had kindly reorganized their reservations earlier to let me shower off my camping grime before lunch, gave us one last helping of their gracious Southern hospitality.
I can see now why so many people choose Blanco as a place to retire. Whether people are returning after living away for years or finding the place they’ve always belonged, no one could have a hard time calling Blanco home. As Nell Krueger told me: “People like the way of life here that they don’t find anywhere else. Maybe you’ll decide you ought to live here, too.”
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