Down on the Rio Grande 1

My final trip to the Rio Grande Valley had begun. As of Sunday, August 10, 2014, my grandparents and I set off, headed for Texas’ southern extremity. Starting just south of the Hill Country and just southwest of San Antonio, stretching all the way to the southern border with Mexico, was a region of fifteen counties left to visit. I’d had my eyes on them ever since my first trip to South Padre Island during Summer 2013. On that trip, I’d gone to my first seven courthouses in South Texas.

In early July 2014, my family and I went back to South Padre for a second time. As we traveled the long stretch of highways from San Antonio to Padre, I was reminded of how much I needed to get back down here to complete the region. To be honest, I dreaded it. This and West Texas are the two furthest regions to which I’ve traveled for courthouses from home in Hood County. Each time, the drives have been long, but in West Texas I was enamored with the mountain/desert terrain to care much.

In the case of South Texas, the terrain is not as unique. This drive, I knew, was going to be more monotonous than West Texas. While it did lack mountains, I would come to enjoy the area. Rather than put it off anymore, I decided on the drive back from Padre that I would make it a goal to knock out South Texas before the summer ended on August 20. I held true to that objective, beginning to accomplish it ten days before school.

Unlike every other overnight courthouse trip I’ve taken (except for West Texas), we did not get an early head start on the first day. Day 1 was more relaxed, our drive starting at noon. We weren’t looking to get too far for our first night’s stop.

From Granbury, we began our trip south, headed to Glen Rose and then Hico, in order to get on Highway 281 for San Antonio. 281 passes through several counties in between home and San Antonio, and several county seats as well. Finally, after a year of redoing courthouses, I was going to able to revisit the courthouses in Lampasas, Burnet, Johnson City, and Blanco.

When we reached Lampasas around 2:30, we took a left off of 281 for the historic downtown district, located a few blocks to the east of the highway. I’ve frequented Lampasas often, but usually I was just passing through, on trips to San Antonio. The last time I’d seen the courthouse was January 2011. Perhaps the oldest of renowned architect, Wesley Clark Dodson, the Lampasas County courthouse was completed in 1884.

DSC_2680Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 10.45.14 PMWhile here, I noticed another courthouse photographer on the square. I’ve only encountered a “competitor” one other time (while I was at the Rockwall County courthouse last December). I didn’t recognize him from any other courthouses websites I know of, so I don’t know if his goal is to travel to all 254 or just a few. He might have wanted to just visit this one. It’s easy to believe. Lampasas’ courthouse and downtown square are hard to beat.

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 10.44.42 PMThis courthouse certainly beats its neighbor to the south, in Burnet County. Like Lampasas, the county seat of Burnet lies on Highway 281. I had past through it more than once the past summer, but hadn’t stopped for redoing the courthouse until now. I hadn’t been to it since February 2011, and had almost forgotten what it looked like. I almost wish that’d been the case.

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 10.48.08 PMAccording to an old photo of the courthouse I found, when it was constructed in 1936, there were no trees planted in front. The least Burnet County has done for the community over the years has been to plant these nice additions to the lawn. That way, the view of the courthouse is partially blocked.

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 10.49.41 PMIn an effort to brighten up the square, a statue of large bluebonnets was placed out in front of the Chamber of Commerce. I didn’t remember this from last time, but I probably wasn’t looking.

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Half the ancestry on my paternal grandmother’s side dates from Burnet. Not only was she born here, but a good majority of her father’s family lived here at a time. After leaving the courthouse square, we paid a quick visit to my great-great grandfather’s house. I’d never seen it.

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From Burnet, we kept down 281 until reaching Johnson City, the seat of Blanco County. The town was named for the area’s prominent Johnson Family. Definitely the most famous of the Johnsons was the United States’ thirty-sixth president, Lyndon Johnson. He was born in the nearby town of Stonewall, just a few miles down the road, but spent his boyhood years just down the street from the Blanco County courthouse.

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 10.51.18 PMScreen Shot 2014-08-14 at 10.42.41 AMAs we left the courthouse square, trying to get back to 281, we passed by LBJ’s boyhood home. Last summer, we took a weekend trip to Fredericksburg and went to his ranch (now a national historic site) in Stonewall. Until stumbling across this find, I had no idea he had ever lived within the city limits of Johnson City.

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 10.51.48 PMFurther down 281 (still in Blanco County) is the original county seat. It shares its name with the county.

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In 1890, Blanco ceased to be the center of government when the decision was made to relocate to a town farther north, founded by James Polk Johnson (LBJ’s uncle). Luckily, the courthouse remaining in Blanco after the move, was not demolished. Nor did the town of Blanco shrivel up (as has been the case most times county seats have moved in Texas History). A picturesque design of F.E. Ruffini now serves as a community center on the Blanco square. I wanted to revisit it as well.

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 10.53.17 PMScreen Shot 2014-08-13 at 10.53.32 PMI’d come through here in February 2011 first, but it’s just too pleasant a building not to return to. The fire escapes do draw away from its appeal though.

Once we’d left the “Lavender Capital of Texas”, we followed 281′s course to San Antonio where we stopped for dinner at Dewese’ s Tip Top Cafe in the Los Angeles Heights district of town. My grandmother had read about it in Texas Highways shortly before starting this trip, so we decided to stop here. It was also featured in the Food Network TV Show, Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives hosted by celebrity chef Guy Fieri. We watch the show sometimes and always enjoy visiting restaurants he’s been to on the program.

After dinner, we navigated past both the inner and outer loops of the Interstate and headed out into the countryside, west of San Antonio. Before long, we crossed into Medina County, destined to be #186 on my list. We had a hotel reservation at the Best Western in the county seat, Hondo, but before checking in it was decided to go and “scout out” the courthouse grounds first. I planned on photographing it in the morning. Driving through Hondo, we passed this unique welcome sign.

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 10.54.14 PMA bit of research reveals that it was first put up by the Hondo Lions’ Club in 1930. Originally, it read: “This is God’s Country. Don’t Drive Through It Like Hell.” The “please” was added in the 1940s after some local residents were displeased with the “tone of the sign”. It’s semi-famous, having been covered in several printed publications, most notably National Geographic.

When we pulled up to the courthouse downtown, I discovered it was undergoing renovations of some kind.

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 10.54.33 PMLuckily, it didn’t look like any alterations were being made to the building itself, just the lawn. This would not interfere with my pictures much. At that time of day (roughly seven o’clock), there were no landscaping workers to be seen, but I wasn’t positive the grounds would be clear in the morning. I decided to photograph it that night, even with the un-desired lighting conditions. I figured that if I waited until morning, I might have to work around landscapers roaming the lawn. If I did at least some photography that night, I would have pictures without any workers in them. 

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 10.54.50 PMAfter the courthouse, we checked in to the Hondo Best Western for a night’s rest, preparing for the very long day tomorrow. We’d have a lot of ground to cover in one day.

When I opened the hotel room’s large window’s blinds, I was greeted with a surprising landscape. I’d been expecting a parking lot.

Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 8.09.43 PMIt’s no “ocean front property” but you just can’t beat that view!

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