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Glen Rose attracts tourists with pristine water, dinosaurs, books and Texas history

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
Museum tour guide Dennis Moore hands out dinosaur hunting licenses to a family from Harlingen at the Somervell County Museum in Glen Rose, Texas.

GLEN ROSE — This historic Texas town's first tourist attractions were formed about 100 million years ago. 

Several types of dinosaurs left their huge tracks in the limestone beneath the often pristine Paluxy River, another longtime tourist attraction in these parts. Discovered in 1908 by Ernest "Bull" Adams, they were considered novelties until decades later, when layers of excavated tracks were sent to the American Museum of Natural History and Texas universities for further study.

At one point, local citizens carved human footprints into the same layer of limestone to suggest that people lived in the time of dinosaurs. Experts say they were either fake or from another time period.

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The real dinosaur tracks became part of the area's identity as "Dinosaur Capital of Texas." You can spot the shapes of dinos almost everywhere, including in Dinosaur Valley State Park and the fanciful Dinosaur World roadside attraction. These spots compete — or complement, depending on your beliefs — with the nearby Creation Evidence Museum.

In Glen Rose, which includes the remains of petrified forests that decorate area buildings, it is perfectly OK to be a tourist. Unlike its neighbor, Granbury, it has not sprawled out. It remains a small, mostly walkable town of 2,500 folded into the canyon of the Paluxy River, one watery reason tourists have been drawn here to escape the heat of bigger cities during the summer. 

The Somervell County Museum on the historic Downtown Square is a treasure trove of artifacts and information about Glen Rose and Somervell County.

Historical, not prehistorical Glen Rose

While the evidence of dinosaurs remains a magnet, this valley has been inhabited for thousands of years for a variety of reasons. Tonkawas, Comanches and Caddos, driven out of East Texas, camped by its many springs. Ranches and farms arrived in the 1860s, especially attached to the grist mill built by Charles and Juana Cavasos Barnard directly on the Paluxy. This mighty stone building still stands, along with the adjacent cotton gin and a later sanitarium. Barnard's Mill now serves as one of the town's two main museums.

Cultivating cotton, once the primary cash crop, lasted only so long as Somervell County's hardscrabble soil held out. As early as the 1870s, medical tourists arrived to imbibe the mineral waters from a multiplying number of artesian wells. For that reason, the town, whose slogan once was "Glen Rose for Health and Pleasure," was home to hotels, sanitariums, parks and tourist camps, quite a few of them still alluring for tourists and locals.

The core of the Barnard's Mill complex in Glen Rose is a grist mill built by Charles and Juana Cavasos Barnard in the 1860s. It and the attached building are in excellent condition.

"Folks could stay in cabins and relax under under massive oaks, elms and pecans," writes Gene Fowler in the pictorial paperback, "Glen Rose." "Visiting Glen Rose for 'health and pleasure' indeed became a substantial part of the local economy."

During the 1920s and early '30s, moonshine joined the mix, thanks to Prohibition. The rugged hills around Glen Rose — and the distances from bigger places such as Waco and Forth Worth — translated into another sobriquet, "Moonshine Capital of Texas." In 1923, Texas Gov. Pat Neff sent the Texas Rangers with undercover officers into town to break up the business and 50 people were arrested. The town fought back.

My time in historic Glen Rose

I arrived in Glen Rose on an early June Saturday morning via scenic U.S. 67 from Stephenville. After the heavy spring rains, the bluffs, valleys and meadows of this region radiated green. I pulled off the highway briefly to photograph the first petrified wood structure I encountered along the way, what looked like a former gas station turned into a residence or studio.

I hung around the courthouse square, where a dinosaur track is on public display, and chatted with a woman selling sprigs of peppermint and other heady herbs at a farmer's market. A nearby truck advertised "Eggs" and "Ammo." A morning walk took me through neighborhoods and parks along the river, which despite the swift current, looked inviting.

A historic marker in the Glen Rose square reads: "Somervell County Courthouse: Built in 1893. Late Victorian style. Native limestone construction. County was organized in 1875 and named for Gen. Alexander Somervell (1796-1854), Texas soldier, colonist and statesman."

Next up: Not one, but two unrelated historical museums.

The Somervell County Museum on the courthouse square is run by the amiable, alert and genuinely amusing Dennis Moore. I don't think I've ever encountered a better docent at a Texas historical museum. He has even discovered his own dinosaur tracks! Oftentimes, small local museums are packed with assorted historical treasures, but no one is available to explain them effectively or efficiently.

This neat moonshine set-up, smaller than you might think, can be found in the Somervell County Museum.

Nevertheless, the clearly well-informed Moore passed along a shady legend — shared with several Texas and Oklahoma towns — that stage actor and presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth not only escaped a barn fire and fatal gunshot wound, he lived for years as the mysterious John St. Helen. The legend differs from town to town — he's a teacher in some versions — but I don't know a serious historian who backs it.

Still, don't miss this place, located in the rebuilt newspaper offices of the Glen Rose Herald, destroyed by a terrible 1902 tornado, or Barnard's Mill, found not far away on the banks of the Paluxy. Part of this complex serves as a museum of mostly Southwestern art, another is a transitional space that will soon house an exhibit on Comanche leader Quanah Parker. Yet the heart of the old mill with its massive timbers and ancient building techniques remains the main attraction.

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The shaded grounds are worth a stroll. Ann Carver, president of the Somervell History Foundation, was my guide here. She helpfully explained how the riverbed lay 25 feet below the mill's floor and that grinding was done on the second floor. The walls are 36 inches thick and, when the attached building was used for a hospital from 1936 to 1972, patients were lowered down into the mill's waterhole. 

Books and brunch in downtown Granbury

What a rapture, as an inveterate reader, bibliophile and history buff, to find three operating bookstores on or near the courthouse square in Glen Rose. 

Rhythm & Co. Books focuses on new books. Its smallish Texas section is amazingly well curated. I felt like buying out owner Janet Mills' whole stock of Texana.

Bone-anza Barn: Books and Antiques is, as the name indicates, about older objects, a good number of them vintage books. I found some rarities here and the well-informed clerk also warned me about the pricing of a book, which I hadn't double-checked and was way out of my range. I also picked up some local petrified wood for $3.

Storiebook Cafe started out primarily as a bookstore, but the soups and sandwiches that they offered on a limited basis were so good, it now serves three dining rooms and a patio. Owner Storie Sharp is a former newspaper reporter and editor — she wrote features for the Glen Rose Reporter, part of our Gannett / USA Today chain — and she's a firecracker. My sandwich of honey-baked ham and cheddar with chips and iced tea hit the spot.

I could totally see renting a cabin for a week in this sweet town. Plenty to do and plenty of peace to do nothing.

Glen Rose's bookstores

This small Texas tourist town is home to three very different bookstores located in and around the courthouse square: Storiebook Cafe, Rhythm & Co. Books and Bone-anza Barn: Books and Antiques. Your "Think, Texas" columnist purchased the following themed volumes there.

"Hard Scrabble: Observations on a Patch of Land" by John Graves (the great Texas author of "Goodbye to a River" lived nearby)

"Streets of Laredo" by Larry McMurtry (his sequel to "Lonesome Dove")

"Courthouses of Texas" by Mavis P. Kelsey, Sr. and Donald H. Dyal (a handy guidebook that comes in two editions)

"The Eagle and the Raven" by James A. Michener (a slim narrative about Sam Houston and Santa Anna by the author of the novel "Texas")

"The Face of Texas: A Survey in Words and Pictures" by Green Peyton (a 1960 travelogue that captures the state's transition rural to urban phases)

"The Glen Rose Moonshine Raid" by Martin Brown (the rugged land around this town was popular with moonshiners)

"Glen Rose Texas" by Gene Fowler and the Somervell County Historical Commission (well-penned paperback pictorial in a series from Arcadia Publishing)

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