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One Corner of the Square

Architectural preservation and economic development are bringing new life to Stephenville’s square

It’s dinnertime at Greer’s Ranch Café on the southeast corner of the Stephenville square, and chef Phil Greer is making the rounds. Backlit by the large front windows that frame the historic Erath County Courthouse across the street, Greer chats with a man inquiring where he bought the horseshoes now used as hooks for the cowboy hats that walk in the door. The waitresses, many of whom attend nearby Tarleton State University, approach him with questions, like they are seeking advice from a favorite uncle.

Greer, who moved here in 2014 to launch this homestyle eatery after 30 years in the food industry in Fort Worth, helms more than a restaurant; he is now a star player in the Stephenville community. As I bite into his No. 1 appetizer—fried deviled eggs—I realize that Greer’s Ranch Café is bringing the Stephenville square back to what it once was: the town meeting place, where people shake hands and share news.

It is historical symmetry that Greer’s is now the social heart of the Stephenville square. In its first life, the building was W.A. “Billy” Dawson’s saloon, built in the early 1890s. Dawson, mustachioed and dressed in a three-piece suit, still presides over the dining room in a large black-and-white photo. After Dawson’s death in 1901, the saloon became a restaurant, then a tobacco shop and in the 1950s, a department store. Before Greer’s Ranch Café opened, it sat empty for at least five years.

Catty-corner to the old saloon sits the handsome, two-story limestone First National Bank building, which dates to 1889. It and the courthouse that reigns over the square were designed by renowned Texas architect J. Riely Gordon. With a Rapunzel-style turret and second-story windows filled with light, the former bank is an eye-catcher. When United Cooperative Services member Michele Dunkerley moved to the area after 30 years in Austin’s tech industry, she was smitten. She bought the building in 2008 and embarked on a detailed restoration process.

Dunkerley wanted to renovate a historic treasure and also wanted everyone to see the beauty of the square. “I’ve always thought the square in Stephenville was beautiful—really, truly beautiful,” she says. “And I learned that in order to bring people to see it, you need three things: something to eat, something to see and something to do.” So then she bought the old Dawson’s saloon with the intent to bring it back as a gathering spot.

While Dunkerley was working on these projects, the Texas Legislature established the Texas Historic Preservation Tax Credit Program, which offers a 25% tax credit for costs of restoration to eligible properties. When you add that to the 20% credit from the federal historic tax program, 45% of a project is reimbursed. The state program went into effect in 2015 and helped Dunkerley and her team complete the restoration work that would gain historic designation for both properties.

Following Greer’s success, other businesses have taken root on the square. Blue-Eyed Buffalo, a furniture store that opened in 2014, is now thriving, and the Thousand Miles gift and clothing shop opened in 2017 next to Greer’s. Also in 2017, two Tarleton grads transformed the 1890s Rexall Drugstore into Slim Pickins Outfitters, an outdoor shop selling high-end gear. They host yoga, fly-fishing and cycling events, and owner Jahmicah Dawes believes it may be the only African American-owned outdoor store in the country.

“We love our town,” says Ashleigh Feuerbacher, assistant director of the Stephenville Economic Development Authority who’s lived there for 18 years and worked closely with Dunkerley to extend the town’s restoration work. “We love our red brick streets, we love who we are, and Greer’s has been a catalyst to show ourselves what we can do as a community.”

Dunkerley may have kicked the restoration wheels in motion, but the revival of the Stephenville square has been a community collaboration. Kenny Weldon, the mayor of Stephenville from 2012 to 2018, and Metta Collier, vice president of the Collier family’s nearby Diamond C Ranch, worked with Dunkerley to access grants from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Depart-ment and Texas Department of Transportation to build a walkway around town and along the Bosque River. Feuerbacher worked with preservationist Mary Saltarelli to achieve the listing of Stephenville’s downtown district in the National Register of Historic Places in 2018.

“This kind of work is slow; it happens in inches,” says Dunkerley, “but I do it because I love old buildings. They tell stories. There are shared histories. These small Texas towns came to life because of these downtown districts. The life of the town was there at the courthouse square.”

But buildings can only tell stories if there are people around to hear them. At dinnertime in Greer’s, you’ll witness ranchers, grandparents and young families digging into Greer’s signature home cooking, catching up on the week’s events. With the courthouse as a picturesque backdrop, you can see what happens when one corner of the square brings beautiful old buildings and people back together.

Clayton Maxwell is a travel writer, born and raised in Texas, who lives with her family in Austin.