This is the fourth in an occasional series exploring Texas locales near and far that offer uncommon sights and experiences.

If you happen to have an extra $425,000 lying around, there’s a choice piece of property available in Llano. You’d need a bit more in your reserves to get the building’s contents along with it.

Thousands of vinyl records form the core of the collection of sundry oddities inside Records and Things Strange (nicknamed “RATS”), housed in the former Llano Frozen Locker Plant built in 1893.

Owner Charles Slocumb wouldn’t put a firm price on the collection of records, books, posters, paintings, Wedgewood china sets, old typewriters, antiques, and boxes of old “lad mags” tastefully covered by a pristine white sheet in a back room, but he’s looking to retire and has listed the property on Craigslist.

“It’s a white elephant,” Slocumb admitted of his collection, saying he hasn’t yet fielded any serious offers.

Records and Things Strange in Llano, also known as RATS, is for sale. The former Llano Frozen Locker Plant building is listed for $425,000, but the price of the collection inside is undetermined.
Records and Things Strange in Llano, also known as RATS, is for sale. The former Llano Frozen Locker Plant building is listed for $425,000, but the price of the collection inside is undetermined. Credit: Nicholas Frank / San Antonio Report

As noted in a previous Get Outta Town story, I am an avid acquirer of vinyl records, and came away with gems by Gal Costa, John Cale, Everly Brothers country songs, A Taste of Honey, and a 1971 curiosity by a metal band called Alamo, with a poor rendering of the iconic San Antonio landmark filling its cover.

Beyond old records, the town of 3,325 just two hours north of San Antonio holds plentiful possibilities for antiquers and other curiosity-seekers, with shops along its main downtown thoroughfare, a quaint sculpture and butterfly garden downtown, a railroad museum, a lovely public park along the river, and the much-ballyhooed Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que restaurant.

The river

The Llano River is dammed under the trestle bridge that connects downtown to Llano’s north side, creating a broad lake popular for swimming and fishing, and a waterfall that sends the river trickling gently through ancient rock formations.

Along the northern shore of the lake is Badu Park, a public green space suitable for picknicking and RV camping, though the public restrooms have been closed due to COVID-19.

The park is named for a prominent mineralogist who identified the unusual properties of llanite rock, also called opalene for its sparkly opal flakes. Prominent sculptor Frank Teich, who supervised the building of San Antonio’s City Hall and once had a granite yard next to the Alamo, made his home in Llano in part because of its rocky bounty.

By no coincidence, Llano remains popular among artists who use rock as their main material. Each March, the outdoor Llano Earth Art Fest (LEAF) welcomes rock stacking artists from around the globe to its World Rock Stacking Championship, where feats of height and balance are recognized, and artful arches are prized.

Remains of their efforts can commonly be found scattered around the prominent undulations of llanite cresting out of the Llano river valley, viewable from walking trails that also play host to more permanent sculptures created for LEAF.

Stacked ceramic sculptures by Llano artist Lynda Hallmark Gammage welcome visitors to The Depot Garden in downtown Llano. Credit: Nicholas Frank / San Antonio Report

No human creation quite compares to nearby Enchanted Rock, identified by rock stackers as “the coolest, awesomest, and greatest rock in the world.” The popular state natural area limits visitors and can fill up fast, so reservations are recommended.

From the path to the pit

A more formal sculpture garden is situated just across the bridge, where the Llano County Master Gardeners Association created The Depot Garden fronting the defunct S&P Austin Northwestern railway station.

Amid butterfly-attracting Pride of Barbados, esperanza, and crossvine, a gravel path winds around several permanently set sculptures of stone, glass, ceramic, and metal. Visible from the street are Llano resident Lynda Hallmark Gammage’s Messages, which continues the stacking theme with a set of human-height ceramic sculptures, and the granite Rock Sphere by Maine artist David Allen.

The garden sits in the shadow of Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Caboose #3304, a historic remnant of the 30-mile railway that once connected Llano to Fairland.

Sculpture seekers can be forgiven for feeling pangs of hunger, the fault of drifting smoke from nearby Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que. The original home of the six-city Cooper’s franchise earns its popularity year after year throughout Texas by sticking with recipes forged by lifelong Llanoites Terry and Karen Wootan, who bought the restaurant from Tommy Cooper back in 1962.

(Full disclosure: Not only is my wife related to the Wootans on her mother’s side, but her grandfather, Roy Oatman, is a member of the Oatman family who donated the original acreage for the town of Llano. She used to spend summers visiting Oatman Street and Oatman Creek, and still remembers her near escape from the flood of 1998 that nearly washed her into the river. I first visited Llano and Cooper’s before she and I knew each other, and in fact, she told me that my having visited her old family home scored big points with her when we were dating.)

Cooper’s is also said to have originated the open-pit barbecue concept, where diners stand in line outside to select slabs of meat — there’s no menu — that pitmasters plunk on a tray to be taken inside and joined with traditional Texas barbecue sides.

Terry Wootan said their success comes from cooking with direct heat, an unusual move in the barbecue business, where most pit masters use indirect heat to emphasize smoky flavors. “We cook it just like the cowboys did on the range,” Wootan said.

He favors the meats’ natural flavors over smokiness, and savors the beef ribs and pork chops in particular.

During hunting season in the “Deer Capital of Texas,” any Cooper’s guest not dressed in full camouflage will stand out like a sore thumb. Hungry hunters there prove to be as friendly as they are curious, and will no doubt politely inquire from where you hail.

Baby heads??

Having fed both art appetite and belly, I ventured 10 miles north of Llano on Highway 16 to visit the Baby Head Cemetery.

After studying up on the uncertain history of the place, which includes a town and mountain once bearing the same unfortunate name, I wanted to see for myself why any location could earn such a horrifying moniker.

As if the name itself is not creepy enough, some modern-day visitors pay homage by leaving plastic baby doll heads on gravestones and the entrance fence.

As dusk descended, the worn imprints on some century-old grave markers became hard to discern, but I made note of an inordinate number of buried infants and toddlers. The year 1890 proved to be a bad one for the town’s residents, with Eugene E. Clary living to see only 65 days of that year, the baby of H.E. and E.F. Hall living only 48 days — not long enough to receive a name — and another unnamed infant who “borned and died” on the same September day.

Thoroughly chilled, I left the site in my rear view window and headed back through town, reflecting on the day. During several hours poking around RATS contemplating how much money I’d need to buy the whole shebang, I overheard a customer tell Slocumb, “This is a really cool spot, I could spend days in here.”

Slocumb dryly replied, “I do spend days in here.”

Charles Slocumb, the 78-year-old owner of Records and Things Strange in Llano, seamlessly repairs cracked vinyl records with nail polish. Credit: Nicholas Frank / San Antonio Report

If You Go

How to get there

Two main routes connect San Antonio to Llano: the most direct way is U.S. Highway 281 to Route 71, slightly longer is Interstate 10 to U.S. Highway 87 to Route 16. Both are equally scenic, with a few quaint towns along the way. Route 16 runs near the Enchanted Rock State Natural Area.

Where to stay

As a popular tourist spot, Llano abounds with hotels, bed and breakfasts, and Airbnb options — many of which currently require a two-day minimum stay. The Mustard Seed Bed and Breakfast on the Llano is a favorite, tucked in near the scenic south bank of the Llano River with its walking pathway, and in the shadow of the historic Red Top Jail.

Where to eat & drink

Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que is ultra-casual, open every day, with a takeout option available. Llano’s Hungry Hunter is a classic Central Texas diner, open for breakfast and lunch daily except Tuesdays. Joe’s Bar downtown offers classic pub fare and a hometown atmosphere. The fine dining option Badu 1891 is an unfortunate casualty of the pandemic, with a “Closed Until Further Notice” sign on the front lawn.

The Llano Beer Company down Main Street features a selection of 55 craft beers and ciders, with a staff much friendlier than the bar’s grumpy-faced hop logo would suggest.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...