Texas Plains Trail
Bibles, Boots, and Beef in the Big Country
Women of Leadership Texas 2014 sing along to Abilene's unofficial anthem on the stage of the historic Paramount Theatre, 2014
Women there don't treat you mean, and neither do the men for that matter. Abilene, Texas, is a cheerful destination for business and leisure alike. Maybe it owes some of that charitable character to its three denominationally affiliated universities -- Hardin-Simmons (Baptist), McMurry (Methodist), and Abilene Christian (Church of Christ). Abilene newsman A. C. Greene once called Abilene the buckle of the Bible belt, and he couldn't have been far wrong.

Why, you can even visit the Bible Hardware store here. Founded in 1939 by R. A. Bible, the business is now in the hands of the Bright and Purser families. On a tour through the numerous interconnected departments, Jennie Bright points out with pride the updates they've made to one of Abilene's oldest businesses. Paints, toys, kitchen wares, and Bible Hardware-labeled preserves and pickles are displayed, along with bits and bolts. Those updates also included hiring a few new staff of experts --with an average age of 70. Need a part? Bible Hardware knows exactly where to find it. And I'll bet they could even track down a brass buckle for that Bible belt.

Bible Hardware_ Abilene
Bible Hardware
Pliers, plumbing, pickles -- Bible Hardware's got it.

At H. V. Chapman and Sons on North 3rd Street, Tim de la Vega and his team of about a dozen carry on the family tradition of book and Bible binding and conservation begun here by Stan Chapman in 1947. De la Vega, himself a product of a multi-generational printing family, feels called to this work like a mission -- and his staff share that passion for books. Though they have integrated digital and offset printing into the mix these days and, according to business development manager Jody Rood, are looking to grow and fine-tune their operations, the firm earns its loyal following through the ancient craft of the book bindery. Here is the domain of the letterpress, the stamping foil, the book press, and all the arcane tools thereof. Besides its business serving local organizations with custom print runs and stamping the Bibles used in the state capitol, HVC bound some 25,000 books last year the old-school way. Stop by and say hello -- HVC's current location is a fine example of historic preservation and adaptive reuse, and the old building's a veritable museum and archive as well.

TIm de la Vega_ Abilene
"We're all about the books": Tim de la Vega runs H. V. Chapman Bookbinders with the care and craft that have characterized the operation since 1947.
Carl Williams_ Abilene
Amid cases of metal type, HVC master binder Carl Williams stamps gold foil lettering on the case for a dictionary to be rebound.
Abilene boasts an impressive array of preserved and repurposed downtown buildings: the Grace Museum, the National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature (fondly known as the Nickel), and Vleta's Candies are but a few. While you're strolling brick-paved Cypress Street, you can lunch at Cypress Street Station, shop for books and Texas-styled gifts at Texas Star Trading Company, rest in the pocket park, indulge your sweet tooth at McKay's Bakery, enjoy a latte while you check your email at Monk's Coffee, all before catching a show under the sparkling lights of the Paramount Theatre. Whew. All this is to say, there's lots to see in do in Abilene for all ages, and I haven't even mentioned the zoo and the parks and the Storybook Sculptures and all that good stuff. You can learn more about those from the Convention & Visitor Bureau, located in yet another historic building - the Texas & Pacific Railroad Depot on First Street.

Yes, it's true, Abilene got its start as a railroad town. But let's return to US Highway 83.

Debbie Jones_ Abilene
Debbie Jones, a veteran boot maker who learned the art from the late James Leddy, shows how it's done
Coming from the north, most visitors these days zip around on the wide main route, which will take them to the mall, hotels, and restaurants on the city's southwest side. But the old US 83 Business has its own character. Industrial, blue-collar, gritty. It's no coincidence that some of Texas's premier boot makers are lined up along this stretch of North Treadaway Boulevard: Bell; James Leddy; Leddy's Legacy. They'd have been among the first and most necessary destinations of cowboys coming in from the ranches on the Plains.

At the establishment of the late James Leddy, boot maker Debbie Jones shows me how she pegs the sole of the boot, ensuring sturdy build. Years of ledger books with measurements provide the custom fit that customers come back for, year after year. I'll make it a point to return someday with more time -- and more money -- for that privilege.

A little ways on, past roofers and scrap metal dealers and mechanics and what have you, US 83 spills into downtown at the railroad underpass, and delivers you to a great starting point for understanding the history of West Texas, the museum and park at Frontier Texas. You'll know you're there when you see the flying bison.

Abilene Courts
The Abilene Courts thrived when the Bankhead Highway was one of the nation's main east-west route in the first half of the 20th century.
The corner of Treadaway and South 11th Street isn't much to look at these days. But there's a lot of highway history here, for it's the crossroads of two mighty transcontinental routes: US 83 and the old Bankhead Highway, the nation's first all-weather coast-to-coast route, from Washington, DC, to San Diego. Two blocks west I find a vestige of that earlier era of auto travel, the 1930 Abilene Courts. It's a sad relic today, but the news is there's a new owner who's interested in restoring the property to its original purpose. I'll be back in Abilene in April to learn more, when the West Texas Historical Association returns to its city of origin for its 2016 annual conference.

Buffalo Gap

Buffalo Gap in midsummer
Buffalo Gap in midsummer
South of Abilene US 83 Business meets up again with its freeway cousin and threads a wide swath between mountain ridges and topping the Callahan Divide, the topographic boundary between the Brazos and Colorado River basins. Enormous bison herds once migrated through a break in the divide -- which came to be known as Buffalo Gap -- on their way to graze the high plains. "In the 1860s and 1870s," explains the Handbook of Texas Online, "buffalo hunters made winter camp and from there transported their kill to Fort Griffin and other convenient centers of trade."

In the ensuing years bison herds were decimated, in Texas and elsewhere. But citizens yearning for the days when the town of Buffalo Gap was a thriving "Athens of the West" reconstituted their community as a cultural and historical center. These days visitors can ramble the Buffalo Gap Historical Village or simply enjoy a laid-back family reunion, church camp, or holiday at one of several local B&B's and dining establishments.

Friends of the Texas Historical Commission gathering_ Perini Rach Steakhouse_ October 2015
Friends of the Texas Historical Commission gathering_ Perini Rach Steakhouse_ October 2015
Prime among those offerings are the Perini Ranch lodge, camp house, and steakhouse along Elm Creek. Though time won't allow on this trip, I'd go back again in a heartbeat -- for a luxurious night's rest, for the view of the pastures and hills, and not least, for Tom Perini's mouth-watering beef tenderloin and wife Lisa's inspired wine pairings.

Next along the trail -- since I've had to skip lunch at the Ranch -- a town with a chilly sports team; another with a heavenly garden; still another with a library donated by Andrew Carnegie. See you along the trail.
Barbara_s TrailBlazer Blog

Follow Barbara's TrailBlazer Blog throughout the next ten days of the Great US83 Whistle-Stop Tour. Looks like icy roads are expected to clear tomorrow, and I'll be heading out.

Barbara Brannon, PhD, Executive Director, Texas Plains Trail Region
[email protected] * Facebook * Twitter @TxPlainsTrail

Follow along on our Texas Fifty-Two-Step Tour
52 cards in a deck. The B-52 Bomber. The atomic number of tellurium. The number of white keys on a piano. The number of weeks in a year. The number of counties in the Texas Plains Trail Region. Travel our scenic highways and byways in 52 counties and 50,000 square miles of the Texas Plains and Panhandle in 2015 -- with our virtual tour guide. And see where it all happened.
Check out the counties we've visited so far in 2015
Traveling in the Lone Star State this winter? Be sure to check TxDOT's DriveTexas.org first!
Carnegie Library_ Ballinger
Carnegie Library, Ballinger
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Texas Plains Trail Region
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