Thursday, April 14, 2011

Waco, Texas

Our first real weekend trip of the year and we decided to revisit Waco, Texas. Waco, of course, is the massive home of Baylor University. How about those Baylor Women’s Basketball Players? (Go Bears!) and the Texas Rangers Museum. If you like guns, this is your place. We had been there once before on the way back from our first trip to the State Capitol of Austin, Texas. It was late afternoon and a Sunday, so all we got to do was check out the Dr. Pepper Museum and walk across the Waco Bridge. We knew we were coming back some day.

Prior to the founding of Waco in 1849, a band of the Wichita known as the "Waco"(long ‘A’, Spanish: Hueco or Huaco) lived on the land of present-day downtown Waco. Thats OK, Patty, our Tom Tom GPS device, called out "You've reached your destination, Waaco" (short 'A')", not Waco (long 'A'). It's just a regional thing.

A guy named Neil McLennan settled in an area near the South Bosque (pronounced Boskee...yeah, I know, it’s a Texas thing) River in 1838. A former Texas Ranger (they show up in a lot of these stories) and surveyor named George B. Erath was chosen to survey and lay out the town. Property owners wanted to name the city Lamartine, but Erath convinced them to name the area Waco Village, in honor of the Native Americans who had lived there. Kudos to George for making the right call on that one. Later on, George gets another Texas County (Erath County established 1856) named after him.
Waco was an important transportation stop on the Brazos (pronounced Brasas, yeah, same as earlier) River. A relatively wide river when it’s running high, it could be very hazardous and time consuming to run ferries and flat boats between the banks so the Waco Bridge Company was formed in 1866 and built the first brick and steel single-span suspension bridge with a main span of 475 feet. The biggest and longest at that time. It was designed and built by John A. Roebling who then went on to build the Brooklyn Bridge in New York in 1870. Opened in 1869, it contains nearly 3 million bricks and put Waco on the map bringing increased commerce and especially cattle to the city.

Best part was that the investors created a monopoly by getting the City to sign an exclusive contract eliminating any competing flatboat or any other bridge builder from building until the bridge had been paid off. At 5 cents a head (including cattle), the bridge paid its $141,000 cost off pretty quickly and by 1889 the tolls were removed. It was used as a vehicle/pedestrian bridge until it’s retirement in 1971 when it was designated an historic monument and continues as a pedestrian bridge between two parks on opposite banks.

Some of you may know that in 1885 Dr. Pepper was invented in Waco at W.B “Wade” Morrison's Old Corner Drug Store. Charles Alderton, a young pharmacist working at Morrison's store, is believed to be the inventor of the now famous drink. Alderton spent most of his time mixing up medicine for the people of Waco, but in his spare time he liked to serve carbonated drinks at the soda fountain. Once established, the now famous drink was ordered by asking him to shoot them a "Waco."
Natural springs ran through Waco and Alderton and his new partner, Robert Lazenby, formed the Artesian Mfg. & Bottling Company, which later became Dr Pepper Company. The original factory in Waco is now a  museum and you can see the brick lined well in the floor of the factory floor where they got the water from. Lazenby and his son-in-law J.B. O’Hara then moved the business to Dallas. It’s headquarters is now in Plano, Texas and resides in the same business park where Dianna works at Bank of America’s mortgage center.

The mystery over the name has many variations. The most romantics believe the drink was named after a real Dr. Pepper. One candidate is Dr. Charles T. Pepper of Rural Retreat, Virginia, who might have been honored either in order for Morrison to obtain permission to marry the doctor's daughter, or in gratitude to Pepper for giving Morrison his first job. That’s been pretty much debunked but another possibility is a Dr. Pepper of Christiansburg, Virginia. U.S. Census records show a young Morrison working as a pharmacy clerk in Christiansburg. This Dr. Pepper also had a daughter who would have been his age at the time.

The more practical theories about the origins of the soft drinks name is that the "pep" refers to pepsin, which was an effervescent treatment for stomach problems, back then. One recipe in a book of recipes is titled "D Peppers Pepsin Bitters", a medicinal recipe for a digestive aid. Like many early sodas, the drink was marketed as a brain tonic and energizing pick-me-up (sound familiar?), so another theory holds that it was named for the pep it supposedly gave to users.

Dianna and I decided to make a weekend of it and stayed in a great bed and breakfast just north of the city in a place called Bed and Breakfast on White Rock Creek  in the Savannah Room. Dana and Retha Strickland run the place and have a great facility. It originated as a religious retreat for a Christian Fellowship group. Over the years, the group moved on but many of the flock stayed behind, subdivided the land and built homes on the property. The Strickland’s have approximately 4 acres consisting of three two story buildings Dana built with his own hands. The guys pretty handy and should do this for a living. His other job is as a massage therapist, go figure. We had our room with our own patio/veranda, private walkway and entrance.
Being sociable types, we especially enjoy joining the other guests and our hosts for breakfast, which Retha cooked fresh for us each morning. We met some interesting folks and were able to swap travel tales and suggestions on places to see while we were there. This is the rear porch of the main house overlooking the back yard.
One suggestion was the Waco Mammoth Site only 5 miles from the Bed and Breakfast. The original landowners donated the property as a gift to the City of Waco who runs the museum and maintains the park. When we got there, we decided to go with a guided tour (no extra cost) and had a great guide named John Butcher. As is often the case, John’s passion is not prehistoric animals but he knew his subject and gave us a very good tour. John is an Art major and really wants to be a teacher. John has an artist wife and three kids and the job is tiding him over until his next big break.

John explained that the Mammoth Site is the largest concentration of Columbian Mammoths and Ice Age period paleontological site in the world. Yeah, not you’re big Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius). They were up in the tundra, which extended down to about Kansas. Columbian Mammoths had shorter hair and smaller ears. Very much like their Indian Elephant relatives. Here in Texas apparently, we experienced a more milder Ice Age with temps only slightly cooler than they are today, maybe 7-10 degrees cooler which still gave us Texas style summers in the 90s. The area where the Mammoths were found had been an ancient riverbed, which periodically flooded and may have caught these mammals by surprise drowning the herd as it passed through drinking or foraging for food.

The story goes that in 1978 a couple of good-old-boy treasure hunters ( the pre-tour video)were walking the area in search of arrowheads and other Native American relics when they caught a glimpse of a really big bone sticking out of the ground. Paul Barron and Eddie Bufkin knew this wasn’t a cow or cattle bone and reported it to the nearby Baylor University Museum staff. Baylor staff came out and were stunned by the extent of the find.

By 1990, fifteen mammoths had been identified, their remains preserved and removed. During the clean up of the dig site, another bone was found which has led to the discovery of ten additional mammoths, a camel, and a young saber-toothed cat's tooth. Yes, Saber-Toothed CAT, not Tiger. The Saber Tooth Cat just happens to be the official California State  “Fossil” and has been found in the La Brea tar pits. That's the tooth on the left.

And yes, I said Camel. John informed us there was some pretty reliable evidence that many warm climate mammals like camels, bears and predecessors of the Elephant (Mammoths) had either originated or passed through Texas on their way to the more familiar places we see them today like Africa and the Middle East. It was all ice and land bridges across the continents that made it all possible.

As I said, the Columbian Mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) is an extinct species of elephant that appeared in North America (in the present United States and to as far south as Nicaragua and Honduras) during the late Pleistocene era from 2,588,000 to 12,000 years BP (Before Present) Because the "present" time changes, standard practice is to use 1950 as the origin of the age scale, reflecting the fact that radiocarbon dating ( no...not the kind you do at the club) became practicable in the 1950s. To account for the concern that the year 1950 has by now moved away from the present significantly, the abbreviation BP has also been re-interpreted to mean "Before Physics". Come on.
The Mammoth’s a big dude, 16 foot long tusks, stood about 16 feet tall at the shoulder and weighed about 8-10 tons. A herbivore, these males ate about 700 pounds of plants a day, that’s a lot of salad. You can imagine that a herd could pretty much clear cut a prehistoric forest pretty quick. Thus the need for the herd to keep moving to forage. That’s probably why they moved around the world so much. When you need Asian…you’ve just got to go. That’s Dianna standing at the lamp post (with her trusty iPhone around her neck not to miss a game, email or Facebook update) which has a bow tied at the approximate height of the Mammoth.

The City and Baylor’s Mayborn Museum partnered to build a state-of-the-art temperature and humidity controlled enclosure to protect the dig and provide a very unique experience for the visitors. They provided a series of elevated walkways so you can walk over the entire dig site and have a birds-eye view of the dig and location of Mammoth carcasses partially uncovered and still in the ground.

A little chill ran down my back when John reminded us that as we looked down, in the deeper trenches, we were looking at substrate that was laid down about 68,000 years BP to the higher level of the dig (where the camel and the cat were) which only go back to 16-18,000 years BP. It gives one pause to think you’re standing where mammoths, ancient camels and saber-toothed cats once roamed. They have recovered so many bones; Baylor had to stop digging because they ran out of warehouse space to hold them all. The problem is they are not fossilized and once unearthed almost immediately begin to break down and need to be encased in plaster for future study. Pretty cool place.

All this pre-historic stuff made us (well, me) hungry. I had been given several restaurants to try in downtown Waco and we decided to try Ninfa’s Mexican Restaurant. I had the Ranchera Chicken Taco Salad which was very tasty and Dianna had the “El Jackie” chicken fajita plate which was waaaay too much food and came with a stack of their freshly made tortillas. The front entry is deceivingly small but opens up into a cavernous high ceiling room with lots of bright colors and accent lighting.

As we ate, we caught a glimpse of some very brightly attired women seated in a group and enjoying lunch together. It was the Ladies of the Purple Passion, one of two women’s service groups in Waco. Debbie, I had to snap a shot of them and their hats. The lady in the center with the “frilly” red hat was the “Queen” leader of the group. Debbie’d fit right in.

We then cruised through old Waco and stopped by the McLennan County Courthouse. Waco is the County seat and this is its fourth Courthouse built during the peak of central Texas’ cotton wealth. The renaissance revival design by J.Riely Gordon of Dallas uses steel, limestone, concrete, and marble, with Texas red granite in the “rusticated” base (I love that word “rusticated”). It is currently undergoing a major renovation.

After roaming around town, we always try to find a winery to visit. Our hosts recommended a friend’s winery, the Tehuacana Creek Vineyards (TCV) along State Highway 6 just east of town. I loved the website’s directions,” From I-35, head east on Highway 6 toward Houston. Once you pass over the Tehuacana Creek look for two tall radio towers. Find the second mailbox and turn into the driveway.” Problem was the winery’s mailbox (the second) was off the main road well onto the property, not easily visible from the road at 60 mph. Luckily, my eagle eyes caught sight of the Winery’s sign before we passed it (OK, it’s a pretty big sign).

The owners are from Sweden and Ulf and Inga-Lill (you can’t make this stuff up) Westblom were our hosts. I was a little caught off guard when Ulf told us he is a doctor who specialized in Infectious Diseases. Thus his interest in the chemical make-up of his wines. He had been making wine since his college days in Sweden and because of that, he claimed he was a very big man on campus (BMOC), if you know what I mean. He still has the first bottle of wine he ever made on display. He named it on the label as “KRĂ– KAR VIN” which, loosely translated means, “Wine to get drunk on”.

Ulf’s wines were OK but not something to write home about. I found them unremarkable and somewhat cloudy to look at. You can always get a pretty good sense of a wine by its clarity. Now Ulf did say he’s a stainless steel barrel guy not a Limousin, Alliere, Vosges, Nevers or American oak vintner. That might explain some of it. But I think Ulf is a frustrated chemist who threw together some odd combinations of flavors with his whites and reds. I had visions of a mad scientist (in black and white, of course) stooped over his boiling beakers mixing his concoctions on his Bunsen burner. Some of it was passable and we brought home one of his “Heart of Texas Cherry” and a “Harrison Plantation Port”.
Having spent the day wandering the back roads of Waco, we (well, I) was hungry again and we decided on a steak for dinner. I had heard good things about the Heitmiller Steakhouse at the I-35 and Loop 340. Dianna had a fine steak and I had the mushroom smothered Jack Chicken breast with a monster baked potato. Oh yeah, don’t forget the chocolate fudge brownie with vanilla ice-cream for dessert.

After another restful night, we made it to our last breakfast at the Inn and regaled our fellow travelers with tales of our visit to Waco. Once packed, we made our way north back toward Frisco after one stop at West, Texas (no, not the region of west Texas, that’s pretty big). The City of West is a small town with a long Czech heritage. When Texas was in its infancy, many European immigrants made their way here to own land, farm and ranch. Many Czech families got into the cotton industry, which flourished in the mid to late 1800’s and early 1900’s. West originally was a farming community centered around a fresh water spring and the area was originally known as Bold Springs.

A man named Thomas West settled in Bold Springs in 1859 and the railroad came through in 1881. Mr. West became a principal land owner, which led the town’s people to incorporate in 1891, and they renamed it West after Thomas. Descendants of the original Czech immigrant families still live and work in West today.

What is really significant is that when you think of the Czech people and traditions, you get...Czech bakeries. The Texas Legislature even signed a proclamation stating West was the “Kolache Capital of Texas”. West has about four real old European/Czech bakeries and restaurants in its old downtown. Unfortunately, it was Sunday and only two were open, neither was the recommended bakery but, hey, how bad can a Czech pastry be? We made it into the Little Czech Bakery just off the I-35 service road. It was about 11 a.m. and they were almost sold out but we were able to get some strawberry pastry rolls and some HUGE cinnamon rolls. Luckily there was a SONIC next door so we could get our RT 44 Strawberry and Cranberry Limeades to wash them down with.

Thus we returned home to Frisco rested and ready for the coming week. It’s clear we didn’t get to all the goings on in Waco and will have to make the return trip soon.

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