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May 2009 cover image eastern screech-owl

Destination: Granbury

Birds over Broadway

Travel time from:
Austin – 2.5 hours
Brownsville – 8.5 hours
Dallas – 1.25 hours
Houston – 5 hours
San Antonio – 4 hour
Lubbock – 5 hours
El Paso – 9.75 hours
by Wendee Holtcamp

In addition to great birdwatching, Granbury offers a surprising number of entertainment options.

I never thought I’d have to walk the plank, but walk the plank I did. It was a Friday night, and I strolled right down a wooden plank off the Lake Granbury marina and onto the Granbury Riverboat, a 96-foot double-deck authentic sternwheeler, for a Friday night Murder Mystery Cruise. I drove up from Houston, joining my friend Laurie for a three-day weekend trip full of entertainment, nature and a fascinating regional history that includes the famous outlaws Jesse James and John Wilkes Booth.

A lively crew dressed in distinctive character costumes welcomes us on board, seats us at our table, and then starts telling a tale of what to expect in this “middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition … The Starlite Zone.” We’re about to be swindled, wined and dined on a murder mystery cruise, but first, the wait staff pops the cork from the pinot grigio we brought on board (the cruise is ‘bring your own libations’), and pours Laurie and me each a glass.

The Granbury Riverboat started in 2004, and they run several cruises per week, each with a unique flavor. They offer a fun Thursday Ports O’ Call party cruise with a Texas barbecue buffet, and weekend brunch cruises and afternoon scenic cruises. After enjoying a meal and drinks, go upstairs to listen to the live musical entertainment and dance under the open air deck. For daytime cruises, the captain guides the boat by a blue heron rookery, with views of Comanche Park and the tall clock tower that sits in the middle of the historic Granbury Square. The Riverboat also has a romantic Saturday night cruise and the Friday night murder mystery cruise which we’re on, both including a delicious filet mignon dinner.

The murder mystery begins as our salad arrives, and we sip our wine. I won’t give away the evening’s secrets, but each table gets a weapon and information that must be deciphered as the night goes on. People who pay for the cruise earliest get to participate as actors in the mystery drama, dressing up and performing mini-skits for the rest of us in the Blue Heron Dining Room. They change the plot of the murder mystery about four times per year. By the time the cruise ends, two hours later, we’ve devoured an 8-ounce filet, a baked potato and a yummy cherry cheesecake drizzled with chocolate, and laughed heartily.

After the evening ends, we head back to the Hilton Garden Inn, a posh new 106-room hotel which has 2 restaurants, the Great American Grill and a separate lounge, all set right on the 8,500-acre Lake Granbury, a reservoir created when the Brazos River was impounded in 1969. Each of the Hilton’s rooms has a Garden Sleep adjustable bed with beautiful linen duvets, a refrigerator, mini-bar and microwave, and high-speed Internet. Arriving late from our fun evening on the riverboat, we didn’t get a chance to soak in the Jacuzzi or swim in the pool, but I did take a peaceful stroll out on the back porch, where tall old-style lanterns line the deck along the lake.

The next morning we awake and head to Granbury Square for breakfast, choosing the quaint Nutshell Eatery & Bakery. I had driven through the quaint square yesterday on the way to the hotel and, having driven through my share of “old town squares” in Texas, I have to say that Granbury’s charming appeal impressed me, and stood miles apart from others. The white brick Hood County Court House, in the center, sets the tone with its tall, gray, three-tiered clock tower, which can be seen all the way from Lake Granbury. Prominent buildings around the square include the old jail, now a museum still bearing the foreboding hanging tower, the native-stone Nutt House Historic Hotel, and a brick red bank building. The square originally was built starting in 1871, and in 1974, it actually became the first Texas town square listed under the National Register of Historical Places.

Over 40 antique and specialty shops line all four sides of the square, along with two places for live family-friendly entertainment, the Granbury Opera House and Granbury Live theatre. We walk all around the square for a little while, spending some time looking at trinkets and books at Pamela & Co. I buy a quarter pound of fudge, before taking a short road trip to spend some time outdoors. The 528-acre Cleburne State Park lies just 30 miles south.

siloette of horses in barn

Granbury and nearby Cleburne lie in the Cross Timbers and Prairies’ ecoregion. Early travelers through north Texas coined the name “cross timbers” because it once had swaths of dense forest that slowed or prevented easy travel on the open prairies to the east and west. George Wilkins Kendall wrote in 1841, “The growth of timber is principally small gnarled, post oaks and black jacks, and in many places the traveler will find an almost impenetrable undergrowth of briers and other thorny bushes.” At Cleburne State Park, some of these dense timbered forests remain, bordering the 116-acre, spring-fed Cedar Lake.

We park the car and head down the White-Tail Hollow Trail, a 3.2-mile loop that leads alongside the lake before dipping down off the levee and into the woods, zigzagging back and forth through juniper, oak, elm, mesquite, sycamore, ash and sumac trees. The weather is warm and the lake has not a ripple, only reflecting the clear blue sky and the handful of scattered puffy white clouds.

The park was created in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, who created the park around the natural lake. If you’re lucky you might spot wild turkeys, and in the spring you might even hear their mating gobbles. More commonly, greater roadrunners regularly dash across the road or the trail. Birders also come to spot rufous-crowned sparrow, which likes woodlands near rocky outcrops. Park Ranger Daryl Lacy says birders occasionally report seeing or hearing endangered golden-cheeked warblers, which are also found at nearby Meridian State Park.

After we finish the trail, we head back to Granbury square and get ready to be entertained at the Granbury Opera House. After checking out menus at several restaurants, including the famous Babe’s Chicken House with homestyle cooking, and the casual fine dining Stringfellows, we opt for dinner and martinis at Hank’s Casual Grill. Laurie has a lemon drop and I have a chocolate martini. The homemade salsa rocks my world, which we have with tortilla chips, followed by a pecan gorgonzola salad with raspberry vinaigrette. Laurie chooses one of their trademark hamburgers, which she says is great. I’m not sure quite what to expect from the Granbury Opera House show. Tonight’s live performance is Life Could be a Dream, a musical play about Denny and his high school friends who form a singing group, and all fall in love with the same girl. We sit down in the middle of the theater with an espresso we picked up from next door’s Coffee Grinder. The curtains open and out come the actors singing the fun bebop song, Life Could Be a Dream. The quality of the singing seriously impresses me, and the lighthearted play entertains throughout the hour and a half we watch. Plays at the Opera House are put on by Texas Family Musicals, a nonprofit organization to produce professional grade family-friendly theater while helping to launch the careers of young professionals in musical theater. One of the performers has performed on Broadway in New York City and several have theater degrees. Plays change every couple of weeks, so visitors are always in for something different. Recent plays include Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Ethel Waters’ His Eye is on the Sparrow, and It’s a Wonderful Life.

The play lasts nearly two hours, with a brief intermission, and I enjoy every minute of it. After the play ends, Laurie and I shake hands with all the actors, and then head down the road to the Groggy Dawg Grill and Marina, a local dive right on Lake Granbury that has live music. Laurie and I have a couple of Coronas with lime and enjoy some laughter and good conversation, before turning in for the night.

The next morning, we have breakfast at the Nutshell again, one of few places open for breakfast in the square itself. Today, we both opt for the delicious Sunday buffet with French toast, eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy, and grits. As we sit down, I learn about the place’s interesting history. Apparently, the man who assassinated President Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, may have escaped rather than being killed — as most history books tell it. Conspiracy theorists believe that Booth was set up to kill Lincoln and then helped to escape. He then may have lived in Granbury under the name John St. Helen, a man who tended bar in the very spot where we ate breakfast. Enough evidence exists that the TV series 20/20 and Unsolved Mysteries both ran episodes on the rumors. St. Helen gave what he thought was a deathbed confession on where to find the gun that killed Lincoln. The gun was found just as he said, wrapped in a newspaper detailing Lincoln’s assassination. St. Helen recovered from the illness, and promptly left town.

Turns out, Booth wasn’t the only man of notoriety rumored to have lived in Granbury. Many believe that the infamous outlaw Jesse James died in Granbury at age 103, where he had been living under the name J. Frank Dalton. Doctors documented on Dalton a scar on his neck that James would have had from the time he hung from a rope before making a miraculous escape, and burn marks on his feet which would corroborate the rumor that he was tortured to reveal the whereabouts of his fugitive brother. The death certificate for Dalton listed Jesse Woodson James. Anthropologists even exhumed the bones in 2000 for forensic studies. The last famous person to have lived and died in Granbury lived in quite a lot less notoriety: the widow of the Texas hero, Davy Crockett, Elizabeth. She moved to the Granbury area after his death at the Alamo, and her remains are now buried at Texas’ smallest state park, the Acton State Historic Site, a 12 by 21-foot burial plot not far from town.

Most of the stores in the square are not open on Sunday so after breakfast, we take a few photos around the square, grab another mocha at the Coffee Grinder for the drive home, give hugs and say goodbye. I have definitely found a charming little town to recommend to friends. I’d never heard of Granbury before I chose to head this way, but I was impressed with its restoration, warmth, natural beauty, and outstanding entertainment. You might just see a future Broadway star performing!

DETAILS
•   Granbury Chamber of Commerce (www.granburychamber.com, 817-573-1622)
•   Granbury Convention & Visitors Bureau (www.granburytx.com, 800-950-2212)
•   Granbury Riverboat (www.granburyriverboat.com, 817-279-8687)
•   Granbury Square (www.granburysquare.com)
•   Cleburne State Park (www.tpwd.state.tx.us/Cleburne, 817-645-4215)
•   Granbury Opera House (www.granburyoperahouse.net, 817-573-9191)
•   Granbury Live (www.granburylive.com, 817-573-0303)
•   Groggy Dawg Grill & Marina (www.groggydawgmarina.com, 817-579-9978)

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