best small towns texas

A dorper is a type of sheep.

I learned this yesterday on my drive to London, Texas, which we had first passed when moving our oldest son to Ruidoso, New Mexico, over the weekend. “Twin County Dorpers” is a sheep breeding concern and lies ten miles north of Harper, where part of my wife Karen’s family lives. Okay. Enough talk of dorpers. I just like the word the more I write it.

Dorpers.

my trip to london and back
My round-trip to London and points north looked a bit like a tadpole. A Texas-sized tadpole. Now you can’t un-see it, right?

My drive:

When a state in our Union boasts within its borders a “Paris,” a “Rhome” (yes, pronounced like the place in Italy), a “London,” and even an “Iraan” (pronounced differently than the country), then you know we are talking not only about the largest state in the Union — no, Alaska doesn’t count — but we are talking also about satisfying our wanderlust with trips to each of those without having to leave the comfort of our cars or RVs.

Yesterday I checked off the second of four. (Iraan was the first, this past Sunday.)

A “No-STOP sign” town

I’ve tried to categorize the towns I visit in Texas and around the country by “large” and “small,” but it occurred to me this morning that while cities can be large or small, many towns are not small or even “little bitty,” and they are not ghost towns. Many are defined only by whether there’s a STOP sign or not.

London is of the “no-STOP sign” variety. So we were zipping through London last Friday en route to Ruidoso, and I promised myself I’d be back soon.

All I saw on Friday, since I was driving, were a few dilapidated buildings, but they intrigued me, since at least one had six-inch cedar siding that was bleached light grey from the sun and heat. (Of course, what provokes poetry in me might provoke wistfulness in another.) One building had collpased on itself but was left as a disheveled heap like a pile of dirty clothes on a laundry room floor. Another had a faded “Dayton Oil Co.” sign in raised metal letters on its façade.

best small towns in texas
“That’s my next project,” he told me, in London, Texas.

London, Texas…formerly one of the best small towns to live in

And maybe soon again.

London once benefited from the cattle trail, which a few miles south included the “Old Beef Trail Crossing” of the Llano River. (“Beef” trail, lest you think we’re merely leading Ferdinand the Disney bull across town, and the “LAN-oh” River.) The 19th century and Kerrville-based mogul Captain Schreiner herded cattle through here and as far as Dodge City. Word is that the cloud of dust kicked up by this half-day crossing could be seen for miles.

Yet Schreiner’s most “clever” business was his wool and mohair warehousing. You can read more here on Joe Herring Jr.’s site.

looking toward beef crossing
Looking down at the “Old Beef Trail Crossing.”

Among other things, London once had an active dance hall, as has Sisterdale yet, for instance, though it’s typically used for events, and which Crider’s in Hunt has during summer Saturday nights. If you’ve not been to Crider’s for their rodeo and dance with live music, or their catfish night on Friday’s, treat yourself.

Dayton Oil Co.

As you approach London from the south and if you look right, you’ll see an aged mesa. One day it will be even more rounded, but some time in the past it must have looked more like those we’re used to seeing more west of us, in Arizona or Utah. Certainly, deep in the heart of Texas is geological history, and plenty of dinosaur blood waiting to be extracted by the wildcatters in Houston and sent pulsing through our highway-hungry SUVs.

best small towns in texas
A mesa sits to the right, just south of London town center.

Not half a mile to your left then is Dayton Oil Company.

Dayton, Texas, is located northeast of Houston, and its oil and gas production effectively zero’ed out only last year. Oil production peaked in 2007 and gas in 1999. It’s unclear to me whether this abandoned service station was connected to Dayton Oil here or Dayton Oil in Ohio. Either way, the property is valuable enough that a hotelier couple from Austin bought the building.

Or so I learned from a local.

Yes, a local. (I saw a total of seven residents at the restaurant — three of them working there — and three more walking.)

Not exactly a “local”

As I entered London, a man wearing a light beige shirt, jeans, and ballcap waved to me. As a resident in a town this size, why not wave to everyone who passes through? It might be the one time that hour you raise your arm above your waist.

I waved through my windshield. Stopped a couple places to take photos — post office (closed at 1pm); Dayton Oil — and then drove 100 yards to stop in front of a beautiful cedar-siding structure, a 30-foot cube on your left. That one I saw on Friday.

As I was taking photographs, the waving man was to my left and crossing the street toward me. He waved again and shouted hello.

“Hi!” I waved again, and paused my shoot. Was I in trouble? Years ago and living in a known Mafia neighborhood in Brooklyn — a friendly area so long as you abided by local ways — I had nearly got myself in hot water when taking night photos of a changing street light on the corner. I wanted to capture all three colors so needed to use a small aperture and long shutter speed. Since I didn’t have a tripod and to steady the camera, I rested it on the hood of a car. Two different cars within a couple minutes of each other drove by and said to me out the passenger window, “Joey wouldn’t like that if he saw you,” and “Hey, that’s Joey’s car.”

I didn’t want to meet Joey, so I wrapped up my photoshoot.

This guy might be the Joey of London, just real friendly up until the point he opened a can of whoop-ass. I had no idea.

Studying for your real estate exam?

I was wrong. He’s a local developer/investor who lived south of here.

“That’s my next project!” he said with a smile when he was about twenty feet away. We didn’t shake hands. COVID.

I showed genuine interest and we small-talked about the building. I mentioned I was from New York and quickly added my wife was from Kerrville. That’s usually my get-out-of-jail cheap card. (Never “free.”)

When I mentioned the city, he examined my attire. “I see you’re wearing a western shirt,” he said.

“Yeah. I’ve loved snap shirts for twenty-something years.”

“Me, too. So easy.” I nodded. “I wear all-cotton, long sleeves to keep off the sun.”

I did a quick mental check on mine: 60/40 blend, short sleeves. No wonder I was sweating and he wasn’t. He wore a UTSA ballcap. The lid was frayed at the front and naturally so. Through wear. (You can tell.)

He told me there were photos of the old London in the Post Office.

“I missed its closing at 1pm.”

“Oh. The door’s unlocked. I own the building. You should go look at them.”

It was he who told me about the Dayton Oil Company, the building I was standing in front of, the collapsed building across the street (he owned the plot), the dance hall. After a 15-minute chat, I thanked him and went across to London Grocery and Grill for a bite.

Fourteen dollars an hour, but all the jobs are taken

The inside of London Grocery and Grill was nothing special. Having lunch at a table was a group of four — obviously not only locals but also a group that perhaps ate there daily. Maybe they were even family, evidenced by their familiarity with one another. They were the only diners. I asked a lady behind the counter if the grill was still open, being 1:45pm and 15 minutes from closing. It was.

I ordered a BLT and onion rings. No drink; I had waters in the car.

The woman preparing my food was on her first day here. I asked how it was going.

“It’s going ok. This is kind of full-time. I’m hoping to make some money here. They opened up a factory nearby, but I couldn’t get a job there. All the positions got taken pretty quickly.”

“What does the factory make?”

Hand sanitizer. They’re offering fourteen dollars an hour and they guarantee you forty hours a week.” She spoke it with a certain awe and envy.

I paid with cash and ate outside on a concrete stoop under a shade tree.

After lunch I forgot to go to the Post Office to look at the photos and instead got on the road heading north.

Next: Hext

best small towns in texas
Hext Trading Post & Cafe

Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

Hext, Texas, is 15 minutes north of London. It’s a pretty drive, as most everything around there is. Lots of ranches, mostly with single letters on the wrought iron gates that enclose the long drives up to the main house. One gate said “Bar Nothing” Ranch.

Siri told me to take a right turn at the STOP and I would “arrive at [my] destination.”

And so I did.

The Hext Trading Post & Cafe had no fresh coffee. It was about 2:30pm.

An older couple — late 60s? early 70s? — held down the fort, which consisted of a cash wrap to the left, four or five tables in the middle, and behind a voluminous and sleeping man, an 8-foot table piled high with clothes, magazines and ballcaps. On the corner of the table behind the man’s right shoulder and within his reach were perhaps a dozen or more pill bottles. His head was tilted back; his mouth open to a sideways oblong.

He awoke as I asked the lady whether they had any coffee. When he spoke I barely understood him because he seemed to be missing his upper row of teeth. This was compounded by an unusually heavy accent.

“Bit of coffee in that pot to the left. You could take the rest and we could put it in the microwave for you.”

I looked over at the pot. It was as low as one of the river crossings after a very dry June and looked like runoff from the red dirt bluffs.

“Umm. I think what I really want after all is a Coke.” Meaning a soda of some kind. I pulled a Diet Dr. Pepper from the refrigerated case, and after that ensued a conversation with him about caffeine. This turned to politics. (No idea how we transitioned.) We spoke openly about Trump and Biden now and Clinton in ’16. He shared his opinion and without malice, as I did mine. He also shared how they voted, speaking for his wife. We had plenty in common, except for our dental bandwidth.

Doss, and home

After paying for my coffee, he said, “Come back around 10 or 11 in the morning, and we’ll have some coffee for you!”

best small towns in texas
Grit, Texas. There is no “Grit School Road” despite Siri telling you so.

I exited and before getting back in my car, I looked again at the entrance. Wisteria wrapped around thin cedar trunk posts holding up dirty white aluminum that served as the awning. Hanging from the eaves on the left were six hummingbird feeders, and one or two birds flitted around, not staying still for me to capture them on film or otherwise.

GRIT – not one of the best small towns in Texas

On the way to Doss, I wanted to be sure to see Grit, Texas.

I do not exaggerate when I say that I couldn’t find much more in Grit than two run-down RVs on the left and a schoolhouse on the right that had a “Grit School Road” that no longer existed where Siri told me it did. Its alternate entrance on the other side of the school, on US-377, does not exist. You can check for yourself if you don’t believe me.

MASON AND POINTS SOUTH

Karen and I had been to Mason as well as nearby Art, so I circumvented the town square and continued south, toward Hilda and then Doss.

best small towns in texas
“Wilkommen” to the Hilda Church

The Bethel M.E. Church in Hilda (a No-stop sign town) was the “second church of any faith” in Mason County and also housed the county’s first school.

Doss was a 4-way STOP sign town that was as manicured as any Lutheran would be on a Sunday morning attending what seemed to be the town’s only house of worship. Well maintained and colorfully cheery, Doss’s STOP sign corner was crowded with shade trees that invited one to stay awhile.

best small towns in texas
Doss, Texas

I-10

Yet back to Kerrville I must.

I-10 is the kind of road William Least Heat Moon eschewed and found ways around. For the most part. But I needed to do a work call, which actually I was able to find better reception for in Doss than I have on parts of I-10.

Texas is filled with more small towns than anywhere else in America, by virtue of the Lone Star State’s size if no other reason.

A drive here clears the mind and fills the soul.

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About Author

Husband, father, traveler, writer, surfer.

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2 Comments

  1. Love the website Howard! The black and white photos are striking–they really draw my eyes to the site. You have a great way with words–a book might just come out of this venture! I love Texas, what little I’ve seen of it. Never been in you area of the state, but four years ago when Lisa’s brother and I were driving the moving truck back to GA from California, we spent the night in a little town called Shamrock, TX, located in the panhandle area of the state. What a cute town– it boasts the largest water tower in TX! I’d love for you to do a story and some pics of Shamrock if your travels ever take you that far north. I grew up in small town, around similar people and attractions you describe, so I find that really appealing. Keep up the great work! We have good friends spread all over TX (Georgetown, College Station and Denton) and we’d like to take a trip out there some day and add you folks to our itinerary! God bless you brother!

    1. Thanks for reading, Mark! So great to hear from you.

      And, yes, I think that Texas boasts the “biggest” of everything. Because if you’re gonna do it here, you’re gonna do it big. My mother-in-law was born in Amarillo, which appears to be only a 90-minute drive away. So when we visit one, we’ll visit the other!

      Big hi to Lisa. Talk soon, and thanks again for reading!

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