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Hit the Road

Camp Verde

Like a mirage, the camels disappeared long ago, yet an oasis thrives in the heart of the Hill Country

Caravans of drivers, bikers, cyclists and hikers daily trek through Camp Verde, midway between Bandera and Kerrville at the junction of State Highway 173 and Ranch Road 480. Those who pause at the Camp Verde General Store & Post Office treat themselves to an oasis-like experience—relaxation, good food and trade in the form of a gift shop filled with art, candles, jewelry, candy, lotions, kitchen gadgets, dishes, casual footwear, souvenirs and made-in-Texas jams, jellies and salsas, to name a few.

Its roots go back to 1857 when the Williams Community Store was established to supplement the needs of soldiers assigned to Camp Verde, where the Army began testing camels from the Middle East as pack animals for lugging supplies to other forts on the Western frontier. A state historical marker on a pastoral lane about a mile west of the store marks the site where the camels outperformed horses and mules, but the Civil War and lack of funds ultimately doomed the experiment in 1869.

“The soldiers weren’t allowed to drink at the fort, so it’s believed that the community store might have been a Wild West saloon,” wrote Joseph Luther, author of “Camp Verde: Texas Frontier Defense” (The History Press, 2012), in his book about Camp Verde and Bandera Pass. The pass, 3 miles south of Camp Verde, has served for centuries as a natural gateway through the rugged hills for Native Americans, explorers, soldiers, Texas Rangers, settlers and, in more recent times, those eager to visit the picturesque limestone store and post office on the north bank of Verde Creek.

Today the Camp Verde store with its rustic décor attracts not only growing numbers of visitors but also locals who live on nearby ranches and drop by to pick up mail from the post office that opened in 1887. This is particularly true around lunchtime, when a restaurant built in 2012 that connects to the store turns out tasty plate lunches, salads and house-specialty sandwiches such as the Ooh La La, with roast beef, Swiss cheese and grilled onions. Guests have the option of eating in the airy dining room or on tree-shaded patios. They can complete their meal with frozen yogurt, gelato or sorbet and a choice of crunchy and sweet toppings.

Each December, camels play key supporting roles with sheep, shepherds and wise men in Nativity scenes telling the Christmas story, but the image of a camel gets top billing on innumerable Camp Verde shopping bags that leave the store filled with holiday gifts. Shoppers particularly enjoy generous discounts when the store sets aside a Saturday—December 14 this year—for a daylong open house.

Santa Claus patiently listens to wishes from kids of all ages, a band serenades on the patio and several thousand guests come and go during the day to take advantage of bargains. During their stay, they can sample complimentary food items such as snacks, sweets, soft drinks and wine.

Yes, the camels have gone away, but statues and images of the sturdy beasts permeate the store inside and out. They’re reminders of a unique slice of Texas history and the reason for a Hill Country oasis.

Bob McCullough is a writer in the Hill Country.