“Most people still don’t believe that there are mountains in Texas,” says Larry Francell, the just-retired director at the Museum of the Big Bend in Alpine, Texas.
Yet the mild climate amid the Davis Mountains is precisely what made Fort Davis—population 1,400 today—a popular summer resort in the 1900s.
Under Francell’s leadership, a 1935 native stone building was restored as a Texas Centennial project to house the museum. And he created a permanent exhibition of Big Bend history and art, with his most noteworthy acquisitions being the diversified Texas maps in the Marty and Yana Davis Map Collection. The ever-capable Elizabeth Jackson moved up as director in September.
At his home in Fort Davis, Francell prefers porch sitting to work. (At least, that’s what his byline reads when he contributes to The Big Bend Gazette.) He knows all the good spots in town and nearby, and he shares them with us here.
Good Cowboy Bar: That’s an interesting question, since we only have one bar in the entire Jeff Davis County. I suppose the 1884 Hotel Limpia’s bar counts for cowboy bar, fern bar and sports bar all in one.
Popular Local Hangout: Besides my front porch on the Fourth of July, that fern bar might be it.
Favorite Local Cuisine: Anytime our local newspaperman Bob Dillard cooks barbecue; and the local Mexican restaurant Cueva de Leon, where they make a mean chili relleno.
Best Art Gallery of the West: Like bars and traffic lights (of which we have none), galleries are rare. One will have to head off to Santa Fe, New Mexico (only 430 miles), to find a good Western gallery.
Best Bookstores of the West: The Hotel Limpia has a good bookstore with local titles, and Front Street Books in Alpine (only 20 miles away) is excellent.
Best Spot to View Wildlife: The Lawrence E. Wood Picnic Area on the Davis Mountains Scenic Loop. The Nature Conservancy of Texas maintains a hiking trail that starts and ends at that point.
Historic Site Schoolchildren Visit: The 1854 Fort Davis National Historic Site, which is certainly the best preserved Western fort in the National Park System.
Do-Not-Miss Attraction: The University of Texas McDonald Observatory, where, at night, the stars come out to play.
Popular Local Event: The coolest Fourth in Texas, our old-fashioned Fourth of July celebration, but get your reservations early.
Where to Go in October: The Retreat to Tattoo barbecue at Fort Davis NHS, on the Saturday of Columbus Day. The retreat offers a late afternoon barbecue (by Bob Dillard) and a lantern light tour of Fort Davis built around actual events that took place on the post in the 1870s and 1880s.
Radio Personalities Locals Listen To: Like bars and traffic lights, we don’t have a radio station either.
Best Time of Year: Most people visit in the spring, but the fall is actually best (don’t tell anyone).
Avg. House Cost: We have a little of everything, from high-end subdivisions to small, fix-up adobes in town. Regardless of what you buy, if your street isn’t paved when you buy it, it will never be paved, so remember that.
Avg. Temperature: Perfect year round, with four seasons you can count on. Denver might be the Mile High City, but Fort Davis is the Mile High Village. Fall is 85 to 54; Winter is 62 to 29; Spring is 75 to 50; Summer is 90 to 61.
Who knows Fort Davis history best? Besides me, Lonn Taylor, retired deputy director of the Smithsonian, and Mary Williams, the park service historian at Fort Davis.
Who’s the person in Fort Davis everyone knows? County Commissioner Curtis Evans, because everyone wants to know what he will do next.
Preservation Project: The restoration of the Veterans of Foreign Wars post for county offices. This building is on the old Main Street, which was the Butterfield Overland Trail; it’s the only section of that 1858-61 mail route that has not been paved over.