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Hit the Road

Hill Country Gem

Mason combines history and natural treasures for a laid-back getaway

Mason retains a quiet charm, minus the crowds of visitors that flock to other Hill Country destinations.

My partner and I start our visit on the town square in the 1910 Classic Revival Mason County Courthouse.

We meet County Judge Jerry Bearden, who gives us a quick tour. The courthouse is in line for a grant from the Texas Historical Commission’s preservation program. In 2013, an emergency grant allowed for roof repairs and new paint for the porches and porticoes. “Our courthouse is the focal point for our citizens and tourists alike,” Bearden says.

After a tasty lunch of sandwiches and German potato salad at the Square Plate Deli across Fort McKavitt Street, we stroll the square. First stop is the Mason Square Museum, a well-appointed repository of colorful local lore. The area was settled after Fort Mason was built in 1851. Gen. Robert E. Lee served at Fort Mason before the start of the Civil War, just one of a long list of distinguished generals who served here. The mid-1870s brought bloody strife between German immigrants and American settlers over cattle rustling, defining a little-known chapter in Texas history called the Hoodoo War.

Mom-and-pop stores line much of the square, along with the restored Odeon Theater. This 1928 gem is one of the oldest continually operating movie theaters in West Texas. In 1957, it hosted a premiere of the Disney movie Old Yeller, based on the novel by Mason native Fred Gipson. Residents rallied when the theater was almost sold in the early 1990s. The Odeon Preservation Association was born, and the theater has been rejuvenated. First-run movies still play once a month, and live music often emanates from beneath its neon sign.

A few blocks from the square, the Reynolds-Seaquist House, a remarkably lavish Victorian residence built in 1891, embodies one of the best examples of Italianate architecture in the Hill Country. It features 22 rooms, 15 fireplaces, a third-floor ballroom and glowing stained glass throughout. The house, like the entire Mason courthouse square, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 2014, Seaquist House was named one of the most endangered historic structures in the state by Preservation Texas. Once again, Mason residents rallied. The Seaquist House Foundation was created, and the structure is now on the road to restoration. Jan Appleby chairs the Mason County Historical Commission and is spearheading the effort to reopen the mansion for tours.

“Longtime residents of Mason remember coming to dances here back in the day,” she says. “We’re working to make these memories come alive again and share them with visitors to Mason.”

Mother Nature is also a big attraction around Mason. Paddling the tranquil Llano River provides a more restful experience than navigating rivers closer to Texas cities and interstate highways. Stargazers are also drawn here; Mason has joined with the cities of Llano and Fredericksburg to partner on a dark-skies initiative that is designed to reduce light pollution and keep night skies dark.

We end our Mason visit with a thrilling wildlife viewing experience: watching the dawn return of millions of Mexican free-tailed bats to the Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve. The Nature Conservancy property is stewarded by Vicki Ritter, whose knowledge of bats is surpassed only by her enthusiasm for them.

She offers an opportunity to view the bats’ early-morning return on the third Saturday of every summer month. Visitors also can view the bat emergence at dusk Thursday through Sunday from May to October.

“This is such a different experience than a bat emergence,” Ritter says. “It’s like the cave is vacuuming the sky!”

Mason may be a bit off the beaten path, and that’s what makes it special.

Lydia Saldaña is a Fort Worth writer.