This is the fifth in an occasional series exploring Texas locales near and far that offer uncommon sights and experiences.
The weekend of May 13-14 offered a glimpse into the renowned town of Lockhart’s past and future.
The central Texas city has long been famed for its barbecue, in part due to Black’s, the old-school family-owned pit barbecue restaurant that celebrated its 90th anniversary May 14.
Two blocks south on the edge of the town square sits Austin transplant Travis Tober’s Old Pal Bar, which celebrated its first birthday the day prior.
The two anniversaries sit at opposite ends of the spectrum for this fast-growing city of 14,000, as it looks to retain its signature charm while keeping the encroach of Austin’s careening real estate market at bay.
Cinco de Mayo
Visitors to town on May 5 might have been forgiven if they thought they were in a much larger city, with hundreds of revelers gathered in the streets for Lockhart’s annual Cinco de Mayo festival.
Food and vendor tents ringed the town square, with a music stage set kitty-corner to the venerable town hall overlooking the festivities.
First Fridays are already a big deal in Lockhart, just like art-centric First Fridays at the Blue Star Arts Complex in San Antonio, but the addition of the street festival gave the small downtown a Fiesta-like feel.
A sign just down the street reading “Lockhart Arts and Craft” seemed like a logical first stop, though what my travel companion and I assumed would be a craft center turned out to be a neighborhood bar — and a neighborhood craft center, book club gathering place, and event space.
Co-owners Sara Barr and Layne Tanner tended bar and explained that an odd vinelike conglomeration of cardboard, colored paper, straw hats, Japanese lamps, and fake dollar bills with Dolly Parton in the president’s spot was actually the remnant of a 2017 grand opening art installation in honor of Hayao Miyazaki, the animator and director behind Studio Ghibli.
Like many of the residents and business owners we encountered, Barr, Tanner, and co-owner Jessica Rutland relocated from Austin. “I grew up in Austin … and thought I would never leave,” Barr said, but Lockhart gave solid, affordable footing to her dream of quitting her software industry job and opening a business.
As recently as five years ago, Barr said, “the downtown was pretty much just boarded up,” but once other friends and Austin acquaintances started moving in and opening up coffee shops, restaurants, grocery stores, vintage shops, and art galleries, First Fridays grew more or less organically.
From a crawl to a run
Each month the town square comes alive with art-crawlers strolling from gallery to gallery, mainly the thoroughly contemporary Spellerberg Projects space and Commerce Gallery on opposite sides of the square, with myriad storefronts in between.
Most suspect in terms of Austin creep was the Soundwaves Art Foundation. The sidewalk come-on was a sandwich board that read “Come see original artwork signed by Willie Nelson,” with a little chalk drawing of a cowboy hat. Locations for the gallery gilded on the front doors read “Lockhart” and “London.”
Inside, indeed there was the signature of Willie Nelson, attached to a clever piece of art by “British-born, U.S.-based” artist Tim Wakefield, who converts the music of artists such as Nelson, Jack Johnson, and Nick Cave into visual soundwaves, then makes prints and has them signed by the famous personalities.
The cause is worthy, as proceeds go primarily toward supporting children in war-torn countries such as Ukraine, but the gallery — stacked to the ceiling with prints priced in the range of $1,000 to $4,500 — seemed a better fit for Austin’s deep pockets.
However, the more locally-focused Commerce Gallery on the square was packed with patrons, and co-owner Donna Blair cut an interview short to finish making what she said was a big sale, leaving me with her colleague Tamara Carlisle to ponder paintings by San Antonio’s own Cruz Ortiz in the back room.
Asked how Lockhart has changed over three years since the pair opened their gallery, Carlisle acknowledged the sizeable, boisterous crowd populating the gallery and said, “Well, I guess the secret’s out.”
Strolling or regular?
When asked for can’t-miss recommendations among the many available offerings, Lockhart locals universally mentioned “the woman at the antique store on the corner,” who, rumor had it, makes cheesecakes every month for the occasion.
That woman proved to be Karen Cernoch, an East Coast transplant who brought her thick Boston accent with her, as well as her pastry baking acumen. Cernoch’s employee Della Torres, working her first First Friday ever, pointed out the selection of 13 (!!) cheesecakes, slices of which were given away for free to all comers.
We chose half slices of the key lime and lemon cheesecake, recommended by Torres’ co-worker Brittany Wells as refreshing on a hot Texas day.
After 11 years in business, Cernoch has absorbed enough Texas culture to ask, when I inquired about the selection of bolo ties, “strolling or regular?” I chose a sweet strolling model with a turquoise slide and matching leather cord.
Around the corner, a newer, less vintage store called Magic Mirror had a curious sticker on sale visible right when you walk inside. It read “Don’t Austin my Lockhart.”
After some digging, I found the maker of the sticker: Jessica Wimpy, another ex-Austinite who found her place when she left her hometown.
“I was in Austin for 22 years, and I swore Austin was my town,” Wimpy said. “That was my city. I was never leaving.”
But, she said, in a common litany of ATX expats, “Austin started becoming not my Austin anymore.” With a new landlord, her monthly rent went from $1,600 to $2,500 in an instant.
She moved to Lockhart and is in the midst of realizing her dream of becoming a hatmaker, with several clients already lined up and her wares set to be sold in several stores downtown.
“Every single day this town melts my heart,” Wimpy said. “I am not saying no one from Austin needs to move here. I’m not saying that whatsoever … but I don’t want the community to change. If you’re going to move to this wonderful, beautiful town, and you are loving and sweet and great and giving to the community, accepting, and you have something to offer, then come on, let’s go, move here, that’s fine.”
The person keeping closest track of the inevitable march of time in Lockhart is Gene Galbraith, president of the Southwest Museum of Clocks and Watches, located on the town square and directly in the shadow of the historic Caldwell County Courthouse.
In addition to caring for a 1639 water clock from Southampton, U.K. displayed next to a mod vintage Coca-Cola clock, Galbraith has maintained the works in the courthouse’s sixth-story clock tower since 1991, climbing rickety staircases and ladders for the task.
Like many Lockhartians, Galbraith is Austin-born and raised, and relocated because the smaller town offered an affordable option for his museum, which is really more of a personal project collecting, restoring, displaying, and sometimes selling vintage clocks of all types, including a sundial or two.
He’d trained as a choral and orchestra director, but his wife Luella’s antique business led him toward clocks, and her confidence inspired him to apprentice with a clockmaker for five years before embarking on his second career.
Asked how he feels about the Lockhart he’s known since arriving 15 years ago growing and changing, Galbraith spoke like a true timekeeper. “Too fast. Too fast, but it’s good. Certainly, it’s a much slower pace than Austin.”
Kaye Askins, proprietor of Best Little Wine and Books and Tober’s partner, is taking her time with a soft opening stretching into weeks.
Her friend Taylor Burge, who runs Good Things Grocer and Chapparal Coffee near Old Pal Bar, clued Askins in on the cute little midcentury modern building for sale just off the square.
She made the tough decision to leave her service industry job in Fort Worth and take the leap into running her own shop, in part because the small-town pace of life seemed more appealing and fulfilling in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The fifth-generation Fort Worther said of her new hometown, “I think I have a different perspective … because I haven’t come from Austin, so this very much resembles an old school Fort Worth.”
In a sense, she said, the artists and musicians and creatives priced out of Austin are trying to recreate the quirkiness and lower-key vibe they miss from the old days. Askins said she and her fellow transplants are committed to protecting Lockhart from being overrun by real estate speculators and other finance-focused folks, in part by being involved in local discussions and decisions.
“The more involved you can be in your community,” particularly a designated historic district like downtown Lockhart, she said, “we have a little bit more say, and a better chance at keeping this protected, very art-centric and local-centric.”
If You Go
How to Get There
A mere hour from San Antonio, many roads lead to Lockhart. Our meandering route from Interstate 10 in Seguin to U.S. Highway 123 north to San Marcos opened onto picturesque Hill Country views. From there we rolled through Martindale and Maxwell to reach our destination.
On the way back we chose the State Highway 130 toll road and made it home at a good clip, for around $15.
Where to Stay
Airbnbs abound in Lockhart, which some residents will say is part of a growing problem. However, some local homeowners open their spaces to guests, such as the genuine artist’s loft a mere three blocks from downtown.
The Prairie Lea Carriage House is an entire house available for a bit more, also near the town square. Be careful on walks, though, this seemingly walkable community hasn’t quite figured out its traffic situation yet, with few formal stop signs at intersections.
Where to Drink & Dine
Little Trouble was the top spot on our list for newer places to try beyond traditional barbecue choices Black’s, Smitty’s Market or Kreuz Market. Old Pal Bar also offers burgers and other pub fare, the Market Street Café offered the names of its three chefs on its front door, and the Commerce Café fare ranges from grilled cheese and tomato soup to fried gizzards and pickles. The quirky Load Off Fanny’s is “currently updating its menu.”
Chaparral Coffee fulfilled our morning coffee needs.