Llano is a great little town to visit, especially if you are from a big city or from another state. Modern conveniences may cause some to question the town’s slogan (“The way Texas used to be”), but it definitely contains elements of truth. Not only were most of the unique buildings constructed during the “Wild West” era, but the traditions and character of its people reflect that mostly-bygone era. In many ways, Llano represents the best of the Texas legend, and visitors will come away with a deeper understanding of what Texas was.
Llano was founded in 1856 to be the seat of a brand-new county; for its first 30 years, it was a tiny frontier outpost on the south side of the Llano River. Llano County’s last major Indian battle was fought in 1873, and gradually the town became the commercial center for surrounding cattle ranchers. But while the cattle business provided the town’s foundation, it was the county’s mineral wealth that made it into a boomtown in the late 1880s. The north side of the river turned into a city overnight, anchored by the fabulous Algona Hotel, which featured an orchestra pit and ballroom in a town previously known for fiddlers and square dances. The hotel’s manager had fresh sea turtles packed in ice and rushed from the Gulf Coast by rail to make the perfect soup for its distinguished guests. Famous industrialists and entertainers made Llano a destination.
The frantic growth stopped in the 1890s, and most of the fine buildings on the north side were destroyed by fire or tornado, but for the next several decades the citizens lived with the expectation that Llano was destined for greatness. Most of the commercial buildings on the south side of the river were constructed during that time; the whole downtown was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.
The town became more “practical” in its outlook during the mid-twentieth century, as the Depression, World War II and the drouth of the 1950s took their toll. Llano became a quieter, more stable town, known more for abundant wildlife and excellent BBQ than for dreams of instant wealth (Cooper’s BBQ is world-famous, but Inman’s recently won a listeners’ poll of central Texas BBQ joints conducted by KVET Radio in Austin; some locals will tell you that Laird’s BBQ is better than either of its bigger competitors. Everyone knows that Llano is the “Deer Capital of Texas”). So Llano’s appearance remained much the same while the rest of the world underwent dramatic changes throughout the 20th century.
Today, the town (a proud participant in the Texas Main Street program and Preserve America) is seeking to capitalize on its rich history. On the north side of town, the 1890 Badu House stands as one of the last reminders of the grandeur of Llano’s boom. But the restored Dabbs Hotel, the rebuilt railroad depot, the historical museum and assorted antique shops, art galleries and restaurants (plus the beautiful riverside Badu Park) make it a great place to stop and relax. On the south side of the river, the courthouse square and surrounding blocks are filled with historic buildings, including the beautiful 1893 courthouse, the 1895 “Red Top” jail, and the shops of East Main Street. Just two miles west is the excellent Robinson Park, with the rodeo arena, swimming pool and golf course on the south bank of the river.
Two wonderful live music venues attract well-known stars and large audiences to Llano: the Lantex Theater, on the north side of the square, not only shows current movies, but hosts the well-attended Llano Country Opry. And the Fuel Coffee House, with its “Llegendary Llano audience,” features Texas songwriters and musicians from obscure beginners to highly-acclaimed veterans at free concerts two or three times a week. It also offers free meals to passers-by at its Sunday evening “Free Burgers” event on East Main Street, another example of the warm welcome you’ll receive in Llano.
If you’re fortunate enough to visit on one of Llano’s festival weekends, the experience will be even more memorable. Events range from April’s “Crawfish Open” and May’s “Texas Proud” to July’s “Rock’n Riverfest,” October’s “Heritage Days” and “Chuck Wagon Cook-Off,” and December’s “Starry, Starry Nights” light display and activities. In between, there are events such as rodeos, concerts, kayak races, gem and mineral shows, soaring and aerobatics competitions at the fine municipal airport, “Starving Artist” shows and sales, western entertainment by the Brazos Bottom Cowographers, Red Top Jail tours, and much more.