Were it not for the colossal higher education center that is Texas A&M University, you might think that the Brazos River Valley area of Central Texas is truly the land that time forgot. In fact, if you’re neither an Aggie nor someone who grew up within 20 miles of towns like Navasota, North Zulch and Madisonville, you may not even know where these places are.
But steadfast links to the past make them worth visiting, and the same can be said for College Station. You can see them all on a 50-mile driving tour, easily done on a leisurely, daylong trip. From Navasota, headquarters for Mid-South Synergy, you’ll head up Texas Highway 6 to College Station, about 16 miles altogether. Next you’ll take FM 1179 to FM 2038 to U.S. 190/Texas 21 for the 22-mile trip to North Zulch, staying on 190/21 another 13 miles to Madisonville.
It was founded around 1822 on a bend in the Navasota River close to where it is crossed by La Bahia Road, a famous old Indian trail. As many as four stage lines would stop in this area, and the town grew when the Houston and Texas Central Railway came through town. Antebellum and Victorian homes fill the downtown neighborhood, and elaborate 19th century architecture distinguishes the business district, which bears a marker for its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Be sure to look downtown for the statue of French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who was murdered nearby by one of his own men. If you’re hungry, check out the lunch buffet at the Wrangler Steakhouse, known for good chicken-fried steak and pot roast.
Navasota Grimes Chamber of Commerce, 117 S. La Salle; (936) 825-6600, 1-800-252-6642; www.navasotagrimeschamber.com
The capital of Aggieland wasn’t incorporated until 1938, in spite of serving since 1871 as home to the Agricultural and Mechanical College. Eventually outgrowing sister city Bryan, College Station bursts at its seams with the university’s enormous enrollment. To get at its heart, however, is to go on campus. While there, visit the Bill and Irma Runyon Art Collections at the MSC Forsyth Center Galleries inside the student center. Within you’ll see a magnificent collection of English cameo glass and other art glass. What’s more, there are also paintings by Cassatt, Remington and Russell on display. Also on campus, there’s the Sam Houston Sanders Corps of Cadets Center, a museum telling you the whole story of the Aggie Corps. Don’t overlook the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, reopening in early November after an $8 million renovation.
Texas A&M University, (979) 845-5851; www.tamu.edu
George Bush Library and Museum, Texas A&M campus; (979) 691-4000, http://bushlibrary.tamu.edu
Who doesn’t want to say they’ve been to Zulch? Found on U.S. 190/Texas 21, this community took its name for German immigrant Julius Zulch, who opened a store at what had been called Willow Hole. He enticed more of his countrymen to move to his settlement, and he eventually built a school and donated land for the Bethlehem Lutheran Church. Now you’ll just find the odd sign and a historical marker that tells you this ghost town was actually a thriving community at one time.
Although it sits right on El Camino Real, the royal road that linked Mexico City with Natchitoches, Louisiana, this town’s greatest claim to fame is its hilarious Sidewalk Cattlemen’s Association, founded in 1941 in response to a local newspaper column criticizing people who walked around in cowboy boots but didn’t own any cattle. The organization—which sponsors a popular summer rodeo—has gained national attention for years with its list of tongue-in-cheek rules regarding the wearing of cowboy boots. In October, the town celebrates its official designation as the Mushroom Capital of Texas with an annual mushroom festival. Regardless of when you hit town, you don’t want to miss a visit to the Woodbine Hotel and Museum, a 1904 boarding house that’s been lovingly restored. It’s a bed-and-breakfast inn and restaurant today, serving plate lunches as well as grilled salmon and rib eyes at dinner.
Madisonville Chamber of Commerce, (936) 348-3591; www.madisonvillechamber.com
Woodbine Hotel and Museum, 209 N. Madison St.; (936) 348-3333, 1-888-966-3246; www.woodbinehotel.com
June Naylor wrote Texas: Off the Beaten Path.