She appears to rise up out of the water near the Celebration Bridge; a mermaid sculpture holding a welcoming gift in her open palm that is a tribute to the unique freshwater pearls that are only found in this river, its branches, and its reservoirs.
It is a Concho pearl, symbol of the west Texas city of San Angelo.
Designated a 2019 “True Western Town” by True West magazine, San Angelo is a unique and surprising mix of creativity, appreciation for good living, and natural beauty. Here are some of the reasons I enjoyed a recent visit there….
A #SanAngeLove For The Arts
San Angelo is often called an oasis, and that includes its welcoming environment for artists and creative endeavors of all kinds.
Thanks to many years of foresight and thoughtful urban planning, the River Walk here was named a Great American Place by the American Planning Association. There are intriguing public art installations all along the northern Concho River; many of them putting a smile on your face thanks to the efforts of the local Art in Uncommon Places nonprofit.
To see them, park your car at the attractive Visitor Center, walk down to the river, and turn either left or right to get started.
One of my favorites is tucked under a bridge – Melodie McDonald’s “Art Bug.”
Colorful murals all around San Angelo depict stagecoaches, steam trains, local military history, a tribute to the wool and mohair industry in this part of Texas, the 1960’s Accurate Sound Recording Studio, and famous regional author Elmer Kelton….
For an intense dose of the local arts scene, you’ll love a visit to The Chicken Farm Art Center.
Yes, it used to be an actual chicken farm.
In addition to about 15 working artist studios in every medium, there is a wonderful restaurant housed in a former silo (see below under places to eat and drink.)
When I returned home from west Texas, I had to decide between these two gorgeous Roger Allen bowls for my morning cereal….well, I couldn’t leave his Chicken Farm shop with just ONE of them, could I?!
There are many, many events throughout the year at The Chicken Farm including First Saturdays every month from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Demo Days artist demonstrations the third Saturday of each month, plus concerts, a big Open House, and a Ceramic Weekend.
Follow the Chicken Farm Facebook Page Events for more details.
Like it all so much that you don’t want to leave? You’re in luck – stay in one of the variety of artist-decorated rooms at the Inn at the Art Center.
Great Places to Eat and Drink in San Angelo
I was not in town for as long as I would have liked, but what struck me about eating out in San Angelo is that even the simplest foods and meals were done really well.
For example, the Knosh Restaurant in downtown San Angelo was right next to where I was staying as a guest of the Flamingo Flatts boutique hotel. I’d heard that the Knosh steaks were good, but I just wasn’t up for anything heavy when I sat down that day to eat.
No matter; their chicken salad sandwich was perfect.
A favorite meal was back at the Chicken Farm, at the Silo House Restaurant (update – now called Helen’s Bistro & Bakery.)
It has a fairly fixed menu of soups, salads, and sandwiches for lunch, but the dinner menu changes every two weeks depending upon what’s in season and what the chef feels like whipping up.
Since it’s set in the middle of an artist colony, it’s wonderfully colorful inside, including even the tiny bathroom tucked into a silo and painted with a Tuscan scene from floor to ceiling.
My lunch of delicious ranch-style beans, cornbread, and a fresh salad was excellent.
Don’t miss a stop at family-owned Latest Scoop ice cream shop, housed in a former bus station.
They make all their own ice cream and waffle cones right there in the store.
There’s a solid craft beer scene in San Angelo, too.
Zero One Ale House downtown served up a really good burger, and I enjoyed their “Intermission” American Amber.
For breakfast, I loaded up at the down-home Roxie’s Diner, where a sign at the checkout counter says cryptically, “Many have eaten here. Few have died.”
If you’re a coffee drinker, order from the Longhorn Coffee Company. Their locally-roasted blends include Concho, Pecos, SnakeBite, and one with a touch of cayenne pepper, called Texas Heat.
A Big State Park Right Outside of Town
There are trails to explore, camping facilities (including camping with your horse, but you have to bring the horse,) fishing opportunities on the Fisher Reservoir, and possible sightings of some of the Longhorn cattle in the official state Longhorn herd that wanders around the park.
You might get lucky in a bird and wildlife observation blind. After only a few minutes of sitting quietly, here is the javelina group that wandered up to explore right next to where we sat:
Frontier History and Buffalo Soldiers in the Heart of San Angelo
A string of forts were built across western Texas in the 1800’s, and Fort Concho in San Angelo is one of the most impressive examples of those frontier outposts.
Now a National Historic Landmark, it was home to, among others, the famed Buffalo Soldiers – the all-black regiments of the U.S. Army’s 9th and 10th Cavalries and the 24th and 25th Infantries. Between 1870 and 1890, 18 of these African-American soldiers were awarded Medals of Honor for heroism during battles with American Indians on the western frontier.
The Fort is big, with 23 structures both original and restored, plus a giant parade ground in the middle that will take longer than you expect to tromp across.
Not every building on Fort Concho has been fully restored, but here is what one of the typical enlisted barracks looked like….
The mess hall (dining facility) behind Barracks 5 has been restored, too.
It looks like the men will be in to eat any minute now….
There is an oddity in Officer’s Quarters building #4 – the E.H. Danner Museum of Telephony. It’s several downstairs rooms filled with decades of telephonic devices and memorabilia.
General Telephone Company of the Southwest was based in San Angelo, before GTE Corporation and Bell Atlantic Corporation merged to form Verizon. How the telephone collection ended up in a Fort structure is just part of the sprawling history of how the various buildings were used, both publicly and privately, once Concho deactivated in 1889 and was no longer an active military base.
Behind Barracks 5 across a small parking lot and street is one very special area – the Living History Stables.
It is a full set of stables with eighteen stalls plus a classroom and storage spaces built to support the animals and gear that are a part of the Fort’s many living history events and programs staged during the year. A small, dedicated group of San Angelo locals keep the Buffalo Soldiers story alive by wearing period uniforms, caring for equipment, and answering visitor questions.
Building and maintaining the stables is a public/private partnership. Look for the placards on each stall that give a little history of the Texas ranching families who each donated funds to build the stables, like the Sugg ranches that by 1902 encompassed 425,000 acres near San Angelo.
What Are These Things Doing Out In West Texas?
If art, food, state parks, or frontier history aren’t appealing, maybe the city’s most surprising attraction will pique your interest – San Angelo’s spectacular water lily collection.
It is the passion project of Ken Landon, who worked with the city to develop a site in Civic League Park that displays water lilies year-round, despite the challenging high desert climate conditions.
Even if you don’t know your Brachyceras from your Anecphya (and I certainly do not) pay a visit to the Collection to admire the stunning shapes and colors of these plants. People travel to San Angelo from around the world to admire and study the lilies, especially during the annual LilyFest in September.
Mornings from mid-July to mid-September are best for viewing the maximum number of open flowers, but you’ll see something interesting any time of day.
Too often, it seems to me that media coverage of west Texas pretty much starts and stops with what I consider to be the overrated town of Marfa.
It is well past time to give some attention to a place like San Angelo that is also authentic, artsy, and has a lot to offer visitors. Do you agree? Let us know in the comments!
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