Discover rich Lone Star State history, eclectic cultural flourishes and vibrant and artistic treasures in Salado, Texas.
By Chantal Rice
In the 1860s, the route that would become known as the Chisholm Trail, the major north-south passage out of Texas for livestock, was dusty, perilous and lonesome frontier land. But Texas cowmen and bone-weary stagecoach passengers found solace along the trail in the tiny town of Salado, Texas, so named by Spanish explorers centuries before for the salty mineral waters that flowed through the area. Indeed, it was the gurgling springs of the creek, along with the area’s tremendous oak and pecan trees, that made Salado a favored stomping and camping ground for Native Americans thousands of years before the Spanish arrived.
Though Salado didn’t officially become a town until 1859, it’s said buffalo hunters erected a log cabin near the former Native American village in the 1840s. Just two decades later, one of the town’s earliest settlers opened the Shady Villa Hotel on the former site of a Tonkawa village, and local lore claims such of-the-time dignitaries as Robert E. Lee, Sam Houston and General George Custer, along with cattle baron Charles Goodnight and even outlaw Jesse James found welcome respite at the boarding house, the latter of whom may have been attracted by the legend of Spanish gold hidden in a small cave on the property.
In the early 1940s, Dion and Ruth Van Bibber purchased the old Shady Villa Hotel, restoring the building and renaming it the Stagecoach Inn, which became a famed landmark known for its charming hospitality. They also opened an on-site restaurant, where the day’s fare always included a unique take on hush puppies, as well as favorites like banana fritters and a meringue-embellished dessert known as the Strawberry Kiss.
Throughout the decades, the Stagecoach Inn, a member of the Historic Hotels of America, became legendary, even gracing the pages of national publications like Life magazine and Time. But despite the hotel’s and town’s fascinating history, it’s Salado’s renaissance that beckons modern-day Texas travelers from near and far.
As part of a multiphase renovation, the Stagecoach Inn is adding a pool bar adjacent to its newly refurbished pool, set to open this spring, as well as a massive catering-and-banquet space and a retail building for local shops, both opening in the summer.
While these additions enhance the overall property, it is the little details that abound at the Stagecoach Inn that render it so enchanting. The 48 guest rooms combine modern amenities such as free Wi-Fi and smart TVs with a more contemporary, refined and subtle Texas style you’d expect to find in more trendy locales like Marfa, Texas, rather than in a small town like Salado. Alongside thoughtfully chosen touches, including the addition of locally made artisan curios, the beautifully designed interiors and striking grounds would delight any finicky visitor. The semiprivate porches adorning each guest room, ornamented with canvas sling chairs and vibrant climbing vines and flora, and the palm-lined pool area are delightfully reminiscent of a 1950s-style motor court. These amusements, combined with the enchanting, historic air of the neighboring Stagecoach Inn restaurant—which features a modern menu of delectable cuisine, along with its cherished classics (The hush puppies, cast-iron pimento cheese dip and chicken-fried steak are must-try dishes!)—make even a day trip to Salado worth the easy hour drive north from Austin.
But don’t make the trip just for the Stagecoach Inn; Salado, though home to only about 2,300 residents, flourishes with unexpected charm, history, culture, local artisans and public art, and plenty of entertaining activities, among them a visit to Salado Glassworks, a mystical shop where artist and Owner Gail Allard sells his stunning, delicate, colorful glass art pieces, but also welcomes visitors to try their own hands at this fiery craft through the shop’s regular experiential Blow Your Own events. With the help of an expert resident artist, you’ll create from scratch a magnificent work of glass art in the on-site workshop using specialty tools to shape, tweak, heat and form everything from glass heart paperweights to handblown glass bowls and even handblown glass beer mugs. It cannot be underscored enough how truly extraordinary this wondrous art experience is.
Once you’ve had such a glass- and mind-blowing experience, it is clearly time for beer. Luckily, a variety of neighboring watering holes abound. And since Salado covers only about 2 miles and most must-visit spots are located within a several-block radius, it’s easy and quite enjoyable to walk among the galleries, eateries, bars and shops. Try a seasonal beer (or better yet, a flight of beer) at local craft-beer joint Barrow Brewing Company, housed in a former grain-and-feed warehouse, then trip on over to Lively Coffee House & Bistro for a scrumptious house-made open-face bagel topped with gourmet ingredients or a specialty sandwich and a fresh double espresso to help carry you on to an array of fun and funky antiques shops.
There’s lots to discover and even more to enjoy in Salado. That’s probably why this small village is known as “a jewel in the crown of Texas.”
Must-visit Spots in Salado, Texas
• The Shed