South of Paint Rock, US-83 winds through another 40 miles or so of scrubby hills before reaching the fascinating old wool-products market town of Menard (pop. 1,491; pronounced “muh-NARD”), standing in a lush valley along the San Saba River. A trading post and stop on the old cattle trails, Menard was originally founded by Franciscan missionaries in 1757, and many of its early structures survive or have been restored.
It’s a picturesque little place, with huge trees, solid old brick storefronts, and a wide, wide bridge over the river. The Menardville Museum, housed in the old Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad depot, contains a 150-year-old wooden bar from the now-defunct Legal Tender Saloon. A block south of the old main drag, the Historic Ditch Walk follows a section of the 10-mile Vaughn Agricultural and Mechanical Canal, a fancy name for an irrigation ditch that has served local farmers since 1876. The canal features remains of the old waterworks and colorful flower plantings, and the walk passes the 1899 Sacred Heart Catholic Church and a vintage Sinclair filling station before finishing up, appropriately enough, at Menard’s summer-only outdoor swimming pool.
Several historic limestone buildings in town date to the turn of the 20th century. The Luckenbach Building (built in 1903) contains the Burnham Brothers Co. (325/396-4572), the oldest U.S. retailer of game calls, from simple wooden instruments to state-of-the-art computerized devices that lure turkey, deer, elk, ducks, and other animals.
During Menard’s annual Jim Bowie Days in late June, visitors and residents gather for arts and crafts shows, mock gunfights, live music, and the outdoor production of Song of Silver, a musical patterned after Bowie’s life story.
On the main highway, Sideoats Café & Bakery (509 US-83, 325/396-2069) serves up tasty, health-conscious baked goods and breakfast items. There are a couple of moderate motels, like the Motel 83 (325/396-4549, $45), which is attached to a popular bar, Shifty’s.