Traveling south on Interstate 35 is an adventure.
Sometimes the landscape slides gently; sometimes all you see is the back of an 18 wheeler; and sometimes you have a lot of time to look around because the highway has become a parking lot, thanks to the construction.
On a recent trip, we sometimes found ourselves going slower than the two to five miles an hour the stagecoaches were doing on the average on the route.
Our first night stopped at a historic stagecoach inn in Salado, TX.
Even before Salado became a town, stagecoaches passed through here on their way from Austin to Waco.
But the city’s roots go back much further – to the 1820s – when Stephen Austin and Sterling C. Robertson contracted with Mexico for land grants in what is now Texas.
In 1836, the Texas War of Independence ended Mexican rule. In the 1850s, part of Robertson’s grant was sold to his son, Elijah Sterling Clack Robertson, who first saw the grant at the age of 15 in 1835.
In 1854 ESC Robertson began to build a house in Salado. Recognizing the need for a stop on stage, he established one. Passengers seeking accommodation, however, had to depend on the hospitality of the Robertsons’ home.
In the late 1850s, Robertson, along with other citizens, planned the construction of a college and officially established Salado as a town. The two things happened simultaneously.
Robertson donated 10 hilltop acres for the school and 90 acres for sale to raise money for the school. One of the lots was sold to Thomas Jefferson Eubanks for the purpose of building a hotel.
Thus began the saga of the stagecoach inn, built in 1861 and known as the Hotel Salado. In 1870 the name had been changed to Salado House. Subsequently passed through several owners, in 1908, the property was called Shady Villa.
The hotel survived the Civil War, the end of the herds of cattle on the Chisholm Trail and would survive the Great Depression.
But the writing was on the wall. The city was reduced to a single store and a gas station.
In the early 1940s, Dion and Ruth Van Bibber, won over by the history and location of the abandoned Shady Villa, purchased it.
Over the next 47 years, renaming it The Stagecoach Inn, the Van Bibbers transformed the old ruin hotel into full-service accommodation, gaining national attention for its restaurant excellence.
They have survived a series of crises, from the construction of I-35, which supplanted the freeway through Salado, to structural problems and culinary disasters.
Over the past few years, nephew Bill Bratton had made things work. After Ruth and Dion died, he kept the inn for nine years before selling it.
The golden age of the hotel industry was over. Attempts to revive it have been minimal and catastrophic.
Although quite a few of us remember the stagecoach inn from Van Bibber’s time, more contemporary visitors have had a much less pleasant experience.
This fall, the hotel changed management, which relaunched the property under the new name Shady Villa Hotel.
Jack, my daughter Zoe and I recently spent several nights there. Our room overlooked a welcoming, crystalline and well-appointed swimming pool. Spacious and comfortable, our room featured mid-century modern decor.
As a fan of showers, I always review this feature in any hotel. Our shower here got an A + – perfect pressure and a nicely angled rainfall showerhead. The park is a pleasure to stroll, in the shade of hundred-year-old trees.
After a hearty breakfast we toured parts of the inn dating back to 1861. Low ceilings with thick beams, original wood floors, enough authentic materials complemented by a well done reconstruction to give an idea of the old inn as experienced by stagecoach travelers. The facade of the hotel looks a lot like the original hostel, although parts of it have been reconstructed for added security.
Myths mingle with facts in the telling of the story. An undocumented, but often told, story is that Sam Houston spoke from the hostel’s balcony, delivering a passionate speech against the secession of Texas.
Other guests may have included General Custer, Shangai Pierce, and Jesse James. Since the guest register has been missing for many years, positive evidence is elusive.
A definite visitor in the 1950s was culinary author and national columnist Duncan Hines, whose name graces boxes of cake mixes today. Its praise for The Stagecoach Inn fare has made the Inn a destination for foodies.
Having last stayed at the old hotel in 1973, a visit to Shady Villa was the main focus of my trek in Texas. But there is much more to the small town (population 2,126, no red lights) than the hotel.
First of all, Salado Creek, a beautiful stream, attracted not only Native Americans and cowboys to the Chisholm Trail, but artists and entrepreneurs as well.
The college, once the raison d’être of the city, is today a picturesque ruin, of interest to history buffs and photographers and those just looking for a nice stroll or a place of contemplation.
The small museum in the town’s visitor center offers good history and a gift shop with lots of Scottish material. Founder Robertson was an ardent Scotsman, and Salado celebrates the legacy with an annual Scottish Gathering and Highland Games, this year scheduled for November 12-14.
Art galleries range from contemporary works at the Griffith Gallery to Western art and wildlife at the Prellop Gallery and the Wells Gallery.
Watch live demonstrations at Salado Glassworks and Uniquely Salado. After watching Bryan Fritch wrap semi-precious stones with silver thread, I purchased my own special unique Salado Malachite keepsake.
There were too many stores to see them all. Choices ranged from boutique clothing and home decor at one of our favorite stops, Shoppes on Main Street, where we laughed at X-rated socks and enjoyed the pancakes at Marketplace Café so much that we ate two there. times.
Breakfast at McCain’s Bakery and Café is a must. Be careful, if you order the Guatemalan pancake, ask for the small one; the large one should be the size of a pizza. For fun, food, and beer (60 taps), check out Chupacabra.
Salado might be a small place on the map, but it offers big rewards for those who take the time to escape the freeway. Dip your feet in the clear stream, shop till you drop or kick back and relax. Salado is a good place to do it.