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Small Town Charms of San Saba

May 20, 2022 Texas, Texas History, Member Spotlight

One of the best kept secrets in Texas may be the small-town charms of San Saba.

Situated on the northwest fringes of Hill Country, San Saba is a two-hour scenic drive from Austin, and a refreshing step back into time with plenty of outdoor activities and a historic downtown worth visiting.

“Stroll past charming 19th-century brick and stone buildings, get lost in one-of-a-kind stores, and sip a glass of award-winning wine made right here in Texas,” says Tour Texas. “Welcome to Historic Downtown San Saba, a quaint area home to a wide range of restaurants, cozy hotels, and fascinating stores centered around the beautiful San Saba County Courthouse.”

If San Saba had a face it would be the weathered western look of actor Tommy Lee Jones, who was born in San Saba, and who stays true to his roots, reportedly owning a 3,000-acre cattle ranch in San Saba County.

While the dust kicked up by the great cattle drives of the 19th century (expertly portrayed by Jones in the iconic miniseries Lonesome Dove) are just a memory, one constant remains from those frontier days as the landscape is still rich in pecan trees leading to its title as “Pecan Capital of the World.”

San Saba: Deep in the Heart of Texas

San Saba, nestled along the winding banks of the San Saba River, has not changed much in size over the years, adding just over 1,000 residents between 1920 and 2020 to reach a population of just over 3,000.

The town, county and river all derived their name from 18th century Spanish explorers who established the San Saba Mission in the area, named for a spot chosen on Holy Saturday (Santa Sabado) in 1755.

The area had long been a camping ground for native American tribes including the Lipan Apache, Comanche, Cherokee, Waco, Caddoe and the Kickapoo.

The Spanish mission did not take root and was eventually abandoned, leaving the area untouched until western settlers rolled along the San Saba River in 1854, establishing the town.

San Saba flourished quickly, becoming the county seat for the newly minted San Saba County, carved out from Bexar County, in 1856. A courthouse, post office and hotel made of stone followed by the next year.

By 1876 a second courthouse replaced the original, this one made of local stone. San Saba was thriving enough by 1984 for its 800 residents to have 4 churches, 2 schools, a sawmill, a gristmill, and a bank.

Life on the frontier was hazardous and San Saba survived a series of tests:

  • 1896-99: San Saba “Mob Rule” era where local mobs, originally formed to fight lawlessness, were eventually pitted against other local citizens and the Texas Rangers in years of violence.
  • The great flood on the San Saba River in July 1938 saw the river crest at a record 45 feet above flood stage. A third of the city was under water with 30 homes washed away and 300 left homeless.
  • Even worse was the prolonged drought of 1953 to 1956, a time in Texas when the locals said “the skies ran dry”.

How San Saba Became the Pecan Capital of the World

San Saba is the Pecan Capital of the World today because an Englishman, Edmund E. Risien, travelling to California, ran out of money along the trail and settled in San Saba in 1874.

Risien helped develop the first water system for San Saba and he had a particular interest in pecans.

“Then he got interested in pecans and the rest is pretty much history,” Winston Millican, great-great-grandson of Risien, told the San Angelo Standard-Times.  "The majority of the pecans planted from San Saba to California are the Western Schlye. That's the one he developed out at his orchard at the mouth of the San Saba and Colorado River."

Millican is owner of Millican Pecan Company in San Saba, which boasts six pecan companies including:

  • Alamo Pecan & Coffee Company
  • Millican Pecan Company
  • Oliver Pecan Company
  • R.B. Bagley & Sons
  • San Saba Pecan, Inc.
  • The Great San Saba River Pecan Company

By 1919, San Saba was producing 3.5 million pounds of pecans a year and today the annual production is estimated annually between 2 and 5 million pounds.

Planning a Getaway to San Saba

A getaway to San Saba can include touring the historic downtown, playing a relaxing round of golf, or making a trek to the iconic Texas Wedding Oak tree.

Areas to explore in San Saba:

  • Mill Pond Park: Three-acre Park features waterfalls where six million gallons of artisanal spring water flows daily. There is also a sandy beach, swimming hole, athletic and picnic facilities as well as the San Saba County Historical Museum.
  • Regency Bridge or “Swinging Bridge”: This bridge spanning the Colorado River, is the last working vehicular suspension bridge in Texas. This photo op was built in 1939 after the original collapsed in 1924.
  • Risien Park: 80-acre park along the San Saba River offers walking trails through mature pecan trees. This park is home to the annual Catkins Ball fundraiser, a community fixture.
  • San Saba River Nature Park: Next to Risien Park is another 38 acres of San Saba River greenbelt which features two miles of walkways, bridges, bird blinds, and fishing stations.
  • Wedding Oak Tree: Just outside of town is an ancient oak, which has been popular with lovers and the sight of numerous weddings for more than 100 years.
  • San Saba River Golf Course: Challenging course has tight fairways hemmed in by some 2,600 pecan trees and several water hazards.
  • San Saba County Courthouse and Historical Downtown: The brick-and-limestone courthouse, with a domed clock tower, has stood for more than 100 years. A walking tour downtown can include stops such as Harry’s Boots, which has been outfitting locals since 1939, and the County Jail, built in 1884 with native blue limestone, with a claim to being the oldest continuously operating jail in the United States.

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