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Hit the Road

Happy in Hico

Hints of history and legend pepper modern life in northern Hill Country town

Who among us would not wish to dwell “Where Everybody is Somebody?” That’s the happy motto of Hico, a gem of a town southwest of Fort Worth. In the mid-20th century, one old-timer there was really somebody. Brushy Bill Roberts, folks say, was actually a still-living Billy the Kid.

History contends that Pat Garrett dispatched the Kid to the Everlasting in 1881. But at Hico’s Billy the Kid Museum, you get the whole nine-lives yarn on how Billy escaped and rode with Buffalo Bill and Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.

Photographs of old Hico (pronounced HIGH-co) recall the days when it served as a cotton-ginning center. Resident historian Jane Klein says the town had several thousand residents in the early 1900s. “But then we had the boll weevil, a bad flood and finally the stock market crash,” she explains.

More vintage Hico images are displayed in the renovated Midland Hotel, which dates to 1896; in comfort-food diner Koffee Kup Family Restaurant, where “pie fixes everything”; and at Blue Star Trading, a sprawling furnishings store, art gallery and ranch outfitter.

Photographer Rufus Frank Wiseman came to Hico in 1886 and documented local life for decades, selling his photography business before his death in 1954. The new owner loaded up Wiseman’s archive and took it to the dump. Hico native James Hefner, who had worked for Wiseman as a boy, was able to rescue the archive.

Kevin and LaDonne Wenzel keep the photographer’s name alive today with Wiseman House Chocolates. The couple’s retail store, located in the home built by the lensman in 1903, sells handmade chocolate treats that, as their website states, offer “the same richness and flavor that inspired the Ancient Mayans to revere chocolate as the nectar of the gods.”

The Wiseman retail outlet occupies a historic house adjacent to the Koffee Kup, but the company makes its toffees, truffles, mocha crunches and pecan-caramel clusters in a Pecan Street storefront.

A stroll along Pecan leads to unique shopping and cultural experiences. I’m a softie for ghost signs, both restored and faded, and Hico has several of the bygone exterior wall graphics. A Star Tobacco advertisement adorns the side of Blue Star Trading. Others include murals for Bright and Early Coffee and Tea and Eveready Radio Batteries.

At Flacas Fitness & Brews, health-conscious visitors can wolf down salads, sandwiches and wraps then work off the calories with kickboxing and yoga. A bit south of downtown, you can get a workout ascending the innards of a former grain silo at Siloville Climbing Gym.

Kevin and Holly Stahnke escaped from Austin to bring “ag tourism” to Hico. Their Two Clay Birds Farm & Garden Market on U.S. Highway 281 offers organic produce from their small farm as well as from other area growers.

“The soil here is Bosque clay loam,” Holly Stahnke explains. “My brother, who is with the Natural Resources Conser-vation Service, just touched it and said, ‘Yes, buy that land!’”

Bridging Hico’s past and future, the Stahnkes bought a 100-year-old house that old-timers say was built on top of the town’s former railroad scales.

In the storied tradition of Brushy Bill, it’s not too hard to imagine another ancient resident whispering that he’s a still-living half of the notorious Bonnie and Clyde. Though the Hico Barrows were not among his kin, local lore holds that bank-robbing Clyde would visit them, hiding in furniture store caskets when he feared the law was wise.

Gene Fowler is an Austin writer who specializes in history.