The name San Angelo conjures up visions of a place filled with lore and legend. Let’s take a trip into the past to see San Angelo’s early days and the things that created those legends. As everyone knows if you plan to do any time travel, you need to stoke up on the calories and carbohydrates. Some protein and wine never hurts either so let’s start off at Miss Hattie’s Restaurant and Cathouse Lounge.
There’s a reason you’re starting here besides the terrific food, interesting décor, and entertainment. This building was once San Angelo National Bank. You’ll notice the tin ceilings and brick wall in the main dining room and the rock walls in the bar and adjourning rooms. They date back to the late 1800s when the bank was built. If you go into the main dining room and tap on the floor, there’s a hollow sound near the center of the room. This is where one of San Angelo’s most interesting legends begins.
The story goes that back in the day, farmers and ranchers would come into town with their wives and children in horse-drawn buggies. The gentlemen would part with the wives sending them to go do their shopping while the men were busy with their banking business. The gentlemen would enter the bank and step down into the tunnel leading to the basement of Miss Hattie’s Bordello. The only connection to banking was money did change hands. After the gentlemen finished their deposits and withdrawals, they returned through the tunnel to the bank and rejoined the wives with reputations intact.
You can tour the bordello but not through the tunnel. You’ll have to return to the 21st century and walk down the street to Legends Jewelers where the tours begin. Legends Jewelers can tell you the story of the rare Concho pearl found only in the lakes and rivers nearby. Don’t go wading around searching for the mussels that create the pearls as there are said to be snakes in those waters.
Next to the Jewelry store there is a fittingly discrete doorway leading upstairs to the bordello. One of the “ladies” will lead you around and dish the dirt on everyone from Miss Hattie to each of the ladies whose rooms you visit.
Our guide was Miss Sunshine. She offered the females on the tour an application just in case we tired of travel writing. This is a very authentic museum but it’s not a stuffy “Don’t Touch” one. We sat in the parlor on authentic sofas and chairs.
Back in the day, this block contained many saloons and bordellos. The Hattons owned a saloon where the jewelry store is today. Miss Sunshine explained, “The Hattons divorced in 1852 and, of course, Miss Hattie’s reputation was ruined. She moved upstairs and opened the bordello. Being a shrewd businesswoman, she did well and had the first automotive in San Angelo.”
Miss Sunshine continued, “Miss Hattie was a good Christian. Every Sunday she would load some of her ladies in her automobile and go to church. She caused quite a stir. Now those ‘good Christian’ ladies were appalled. They didn’t want sinners in their church and they would hold up signs protesting. Miss Hattie started going to a different church every Sunday so the ladies didn’t know where to prepare for her.”
Miss Sunshine showed us the tiny kitchen and explained that all meals were catered as Miss Hattie didn’t want her ladies hot and sweaty. She reminded us there was full maid service, too, in case we were undecided about those applications.
She led us through each room and told the stories of the lady who occupied it. Most of the furnishings are original so there is a real feeling of authenticity.
The entire section of E. Concho Street feels like a step back to the turn-of-the-century era. The sidewalks are wood planks and buildings have historic plaques telling their history. There are antique shops, boutique shops and on the corner, Eggemeyers General Store. It sells gifts and food now but was built in the late 1800s as a buggy factory. The ceilings still have original tin and walls are the same block used to build the fort.
Down the block is M. L. Leddys Boot Makers. You can watch Texas footwear being custom made.
Murals on many buildings depict San Angelo’s history. Another unique idea related to the town’s history as “The Wool Capital of the World” is San Angelo’s Sheep Spectacular program. Life-sized fiberglass sheep are painted by local artists and placed around town at sponsors’ businesses. You may have noticed one in front of Miss Hattie’s Restaurant. That one is “Marino Antoinette.” The one at the Convention and Visitors Bureau is “Welcoming Ewe.”
One of the reasons this area developed was Fort Concho. The fort came first and anywhere you have a large population of young soldiers, drifting buffalo hunters and other unattached males, an “adult entertainment” section prospers. The area around Concho Street was first called “Across the River” for the good reason that the fort and more respectable “Old Town” was on the opposite bank.
When you travel across the Concho River, you need to step back farther in time. Fort Concho was established in 1867. The first thing you notice about Fort Concho is it isn’t the typical “John Wayne movie” fort. There are no walls and the buildings are stone.
You can do a self-guided tour or opt for a guided tour. The fort is open daily except traditional holidays. Guided tours are Tuesday – Friday: Every hour on the half hour from 10:30 to 3:30, Saturday – 10:30 am and 2:30 pm, and Sunday 2:30 pm.
Site Director Bob Bluthardt led us into many of the buildings and told stories of life on the Texas frontier. The infirmary was one of my favorite buildings. Better trust home remedies than pay these surgeons a visit. Fort Concho saw many famous regiments including all four of the buffalo soldiers and is reputedly haunted by cavalrymen and Indians.
Near the fort, stop and brows around Old Town. This is a collection of the more respectable pioneer buildings of San Angelo. One of them is A.J. Baker & Co. Bank Building designed by famous architect, Oscar Ruffini. It probably did a more staid form of banking than the one across the river. Another interesting building is the Zenker House also designed by Ruffini.
Another attraction in San Angelo that will take you back to an earlier era is taking a tour of Lake Nasworthy on the Tule Princess. She is an authentic reproduction of an American walking-beam steam engine on a side-wheel paddle boat. Mack Fox is the captain and can tell some interest tales about the construction of his ship and the history of the side wheelers that ran up and down the rivers of American in the 18th century.
Time marches on even in San Angelo. The city is filled now with cultural places to visit. A truly unique spot is the Lily Garden, home of the Official Water Lily of Texas and foremost collection in the United States. Ken Landon, who runs it, knows more about lilies than any encyclopedia. Many of the lilies are extinct in nature and can only be seen in collections like this. Ken has succeeded in creating hybrids that many people said couldn’t be created. The result is a stunning display of colors and scents. Bring a camera with a large media card as you will be snapping and snapping.
Next stop is the San Angelo Museum of Fine Art, home of the National Ceramic Competition. Laura Huckaby, assistant director there told us about some of the art there. There is a focus on early Texas art and Spanish Colonial and Mexican Religious Art. The ceramics there are impressive, both historical and world ceramics. My favorite is called “Lola”. It is of a senior citizen who was about 94 years old and the artist, Michaela Valli Groeblacher, posed her in a pink ballerina costume looking up to where her husband who had just passed away would have been standing. The piece won “People’s Award” in the annual National Ceramics Competition. The model was sad when the piece was bought by the museum. She said, “You mean I’ll never see it again?”
So the artist made another statue of Lola in a blue ball dress dancing and looking up towards her husband. Before the piece was completed, the real Lola passed away.
The museum’s back deck overlooks the Riverwalk and the city’s premier artwork, “Pearl of the Concho.” It’s a large bronze of a fresh water mermaid stretching out her hands holding a mussel containing a Concho pearl.
There is so much to see and do here no matter your interest. Its blend of old and new, rustic and sophisticated, make San Angelo a fun place to visit. You will just have to come see for yourself to get the full impact.