Snake Farm’s Charms Still Casting Spells

from the Friday, July 15 southwestern edition of the New York Times via the Texas Tribune

 

Tomorrow is World Snake Day, meaning a large number of vehicles will be veering off of southbound Interstate 35 at Exit 182, between New Braunfels and San Antonio, to pay their respects at the Snake Farm.

Before there was Sea World or Six Flags Fiesta Texas, there was the Snake Farm. Since 1967, when the main highway out front was still Route 81, parents of a certain age have viewed the Snake Farm as the only truly irresistible roadside attraction on the iconic car trip to the Alamo. Inner Space Cavern, Aquarena Springs (which featured Ralph the Swimming Pig), Wonder World Cave and the Natural Bridge Caverns could all be ignored. But if there was a herp freak in the back seat, you had no choice but to pull over at the Snake Farm.

Those carloads add up — and it’s not just families. Even after four-plus decades, the Snake Farm manages to attract 400,000 visitors of all ages annually. At $9.95 per person ($6.95 for children 2 to 12), it’s a tidy little business.

In the late 1970s, the iconic New York punk rockers The Ramones stumbled upon the Snake Farm while on tour between Austin and San Antonio. The band subsequently began to wear Snake Farm T-shirts as part of their stage and offstage personae. Snake Farm shirts, replicas of those worn by the late Dee Dee Ramone, have been available online for $49.95.

Five years ago, Ray Wylie Hubbard (the singer-songwriter who performs on the other side of New Braunfels tonight at Gruene Hall) paid homage with “Snake Farm,” a song about a guy in love with a stripper who works the counter at, yes, the Snake Farm. The engaging sing-along refrain: “Snake Farm, sure sounds nasty. Snake Farm, pretty much is. Ewwwwwww.”

A persistent legend among many young Texas males is that if you asked for change for a 20 at the Snake Farm, your double sawbuck would be kept and you’d be directed to one of the trailers out back, where a lady of the night would be waiting, in the tradition of the Chicken Ranch in La Grange.

The reality is snakes, and lots of ’em. More than 200 species are on display inside a no-frills cinder-block building. Stickers on some vivariums identify the Snake Farm’s Top 10 Most Venomous Snakes. The No. 9 King Cobra and No. 2 Black Mamba appear far more threatening than No. 1, the Inland Taipan, a small, rust-colored snake.

In addition to snakes, there’s a petting zoo, outdoor cages with lemurs, hyenas, parrots, monkeys, kinkajous and peacocks, and a pond filled with crocodiles and alligators. This explains the official name, Animal World and Snake Farm, even though the souvenirs all say Snake Farm Exotic Animal Park.

For the past eight years, the staff, led by Jarrod Forthman, the director of outreach, has overseen daily animal encounters at noon and 3 p.m., offering lizard talks and bringing out a huge python for photo ops. The big ’un is the Sunday 3 p.m. Croc Feed, in which the resident family of crocodilians have their once-a-week meal of raw chicken parts.

Mr. Forthman, 30, describes the weekly feeding as the most dangerous show in the country. “I have some job security, if you know what I mean,” he said with a sly grin. Mr. Forthman added that the farm was not regulated like most zoos. “So we’re able to do things normal zoos cannot,” he said. “You can get up close and personal.”

You can also get bitten. Mr. Forthman, who has been featured on the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” has 100 stitches in his right hand from one croc bite and is missing half a thumb from another.

With the recent purchase of 45 acres behind the present three-acre footprint, Mr. Forthman envisions more snakes, more animals and a drive-through safari. But it’s the old-fashioned cheesy aura and staff members’ willingness to risk digits and limbs in the name of putting on a good show that will keep drawing the crowds.

“I get no greater thrill than having to handle some of the deadliest snakes,” Mr. Forthman said. “Call me crazy, but I’m doing what I love.”

Joe Nick Patoski is a regular contributor to these pages.

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John Mueller delays opening, moves to a trailer

On the week he was supposed to open a new place in East Austin, John Mueller, the Taylor-raised barbecue cook, called to say he’s been in Taylor with his mother Trish, who suffered a heart attack, that his East Austin location at Shady Lane has fallen through (“I don’t want another Manor Road situation,” he said cryptically, inferring his backers and him were not on the same page), and that instead he will open a trailer on South First Street in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, Aaron Franklin has almost finished building new pits, meaning the lines out in front of the East 11st Street location of Franklin’s BBQ ought to start thinning, and that Franklin’s will likely have barbecue to sell past 1 pm, which is when he’s been running out.

A BBQ nut from New York, Jason Schramm, recently made a Centex run, hitting City Market in Luling, Smitty’s and Kreuz Market in Lockhart, and several other joints, before working his way through Austin. His nickel review: “Franklin is indeed the best barbecue of the trip. Everything about it, short of the line, was unbelievable. We also got out to Salt Lick (you were right). I was really impressed with Sam’s, though you do have to like mutton to like their mutton; and look forward to getting back there and checking out some more spots.”

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Barbecue’s New Battle Breaks Out In Austin

Aaron Franklin cutting it up - photo by Jacob Villanueva for the New York Times

The Great Texas Barbecue Road Trip from Austin is hereby declared endangered.

[Expanded coverage of Texas is produced by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news organization. To join the conversation about this article, go to texastribune.org.]

It’s not that pilgrimages to Lockhart, Luling, Taylor, Llano, Lexington or even Driftwood, home of the Salt Lick, have stopped. It’s that the Austin joints are becoming so storied that ravenous out-of-towners who formerly used the capital city as a point of departure are lingering there instead.

Austin’s latest recipient of BBQ love is Franklin Barbecue (900 East 11th Street), which Bon Appétit magazine just named the best in the country. Lines form outside the front door an hour before the 11 a.m. opening, and the “sold out” sign usually goes up around 1 p.m. Customers from as far away as China have been packing whole briskets in their luggage.

Aaron Franklin, 32, and his wife, Stacy, represent a new generation of barbecue cooks who are elevating a food tradition once thought to be timeless and at the same time fading away. Franklin opened as a food trailer in December 2009, quickly becoming one of the stars (along with Torchy’s Tacos) to emerge from Austin’s trailer boomlet and transition to brick-and-mortar locations.

Franklin has recently been joined in East Austin by another market-style, bare-bones establishment, Live Oak Barbecue (2713 East Second Street), overseen by pitmaster Tom Spaulding, while Sam’s BBQ (2000 East 12th Street), a beacon of African-American East Texas wet-style barbecue that has been run by the Mays family since the 1940s, remains the only joint in town with mutton ribs on the menu.

Critical mass will be reached in mid-July, when Mr. Franklin’s former employer, John Mueller, returns to East Austin after a five-year absence. JMueller BBQ will occupy a restored clapboard house (1109 Shady Lane) just off Airport Boulevard.

Mr. Mueller, 42, is something of a barbecue legend. He is the grandson of Louie Mueller, the namesake of Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, 40 miles from Austin — one of the oldest and most celebrated barbecue restaurants in the world. In 2001, Mr. Mueller broke away from the family business, set up shop in a cinder-block building on Manor Road and raised the bar for barbecue in Austin, bringing the Taylor style of slow smoking to the city. When Mr. Mueller called it quits in 2005, Mr. Franklin bought one of his pits at auction.

“My goal is to put out some of the best barbecue in the state of Texas,” said Mr. Mueller, who is making his own beef sausage and sticking with brisket, beef and pork ribs, pork loin and turkey breast. (Prime rib will be saved for Fridays.)

And if he reaches that goal? “That’s happiness,” he said. “This is what I was born to do. East Austin is home. I want to finish what we had started there.”

Since 2006, Mr. Mueller has catered events from Taylor while watching the trailer boom that started Mr. Franklin’s career. Mentor and protégé claim mutual respect. “When I’ve been doubled up on catering, I’ve called Stacy,” Mr. Mueller said. The Franklins have returned the favor.

Interestingly, both Mr. Franklin and Mr. Mueller use post-oak wood and a half-salt, half-pepper rub for their brisket. But there are nuanced differences. Mr. Franklin slow-smokes briskets for up to 18 hours and uses natural beef from Montana. Mr. Mueller prefers more direct heat and cooks a brisket “until it’s done,” meaning he doesn’t use a thermometer but thinks his cooking time is somewhere around six hours. “Dad taught me to look at the flame and go from there,” he said.

Mr. Franklin, who grew up in Bryan, where he worked for a couple of years at his father’s barbecue joint, said he learned a lot in Mr. Mueller’s employ about greeting customers, cutting meat and offering complimentary burnt ends — but did not get pit training. “John did all the cooking,” he recalled.

He credits time spent experimenting with an Old Smokey portable cooker with leading him down the path. He clearly figured something out, because his fatty brisket is consistently some of the finest anywhere.

As competition heats up, so does the kitchen. Mr. Franklin is building more pits to expand capacity and eliminate the lines outside the door. “We work 22 hours a day to cook food that lasts two hours and spend the rest of the day explaining why we ran out,” he said. His goal is to remain open into the evening.

Is this the start of Texas’ newest barbecue war? If so, bring it on. And bring extra napkins while you’re at it.

Joe Nick Patoski is a frequent contributor to these pages. He has judged the World Championship BBQ Goat Cook-off in Brady for more than 20 years.

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Fun (Actually in the Water!) on the Trinity

from Friday, June 17th edition of the Texas Tribune and New York Times

By JOE NICK PATOSKI
Published: June 16, 2011

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The scene near downtown Fort Worth was surreal. On a Thursday night in early June, several hundred people, mostly young adults, stripped to their swimsuits and floated atop inner tubes on the Trinity River clutching soda and beer cans while listening to Josh Weathers & the True Endeavors playing on a stage on the west bank above a sign that read “Trinity River Vision.”
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Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Floaters stay cool at “Rockin’ the River,” a free event sponsored by Trinity Vision, featuring live music.
The Texas Tribune

Expanded coverage of Texas is produced by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news organization. To join the conversation about this article, go to texastribune.org.

It was as if the Guadalupe River had been magically transported 250 miles north.

The Trinity has never been much-loved like the Guad, the San Marcos or the Frio — the state’s most popular recreational rivers, all of which are fed by artesian springs bubbling out of rocky Hill Country limestone and run relatively swift and clear. The Trinity is wide and muddy for most of its 710-mile journey from the northern prairie to the Gulf of Mexico northeast of Houston. By the time the Clear and West Forks reach Fort Worth, dams, channels and levees give the river an industrial look even when there is no industry nearby.

The Trinity wasn’t always this way, and for the first time, both Dallas and Fort Worth are making efforts to revitalize it and make it a destination for recreation.

A $4 million kayak park, called the Dallas Wave whitewater park, below the confluence of the Elm and West Forks, is one element of Dallas’s Trinity River Corridor Project, a $2.5 billion undertaking approved by the city’s voters in 1998 to transform the historically neglected Trinity flood plain into the nation’s largest urban park. So far, the most visible signs of the makeover, the largest urban development in Big D’s history, are the 400-foot-tall arched tower of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge and the $37 million Trinity River Audubon Center, the gateway to the 6,000-acre Great Trinity Forest, the largest urban hardwood forest in the United States.

In Fort Worth, the $909 million Trinity Vision venture is centered on the creation of a Trinity Uptown addition to downtown, with residential and commercial developments clustered around a San Antonio-inspired river walk.

Both cities’ efforts have come with criticism and stumbles. Cost overruns and expensive add-ons like a toll road inside the levees in Dallas — now all but dead — have bogged down the Trinity River Corridor Project, while Trinity Vision has been attacked for its use of eminent domain to the benefit of private developers.

The planned opening of the Dallas Wave was delayed in May because of public safety concerns about its design, although some paddlers appear more concerned about pollution in the river. It’s cleaner 30 miles upstream in Fort Worth but still urbanized enough that worries persist about the fecal coliform count in the water and elevated levels of highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyls that have led to a ban on fish consumption.

Still, the Trinity project has forward momentum. A low dam constructed west of downtown Fort Worth has created a standing wave for kayakers and surfers since 2006, and there’s a new wakeboard park, Cowtown Wakepark, with cable tow lines built on a five-acre, artificial lake adjacent to the Trinity on Fort Worth’s north side.

Tubing is the latest recreation option added to the mix. Last Thursday’s event was the first of six Rockin’ the River tube floats scheduled for this summer by Trinity Vision, featuring live music, lifeguards and discounts at nearby bars in the newly hopping West Seventh district just west of downtown.

Judging from the photographs that Wendy Stane of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram posted on Facebook, most of the participants enjoyed themselves — and the stereotypical urban river experience was nowhere in sight

“We never encountered any bloated bodies or trash or other weirdness in the area we floated,” said Ms. Stane, a veteran tuber. “Other than sticks, leaves and mud, we had no problems.”

While she wishes for more sand in the launching area and portable showers so floaters can rinse off when they leave the river, Ms. Stane’s critique is one that city officials will be glad to hear. “I would definitely do it again,” she said.

Joe Nick Patoski is a frequent contributor to these pages. His first swimming hole experience was on the Clear Fork of the Trinity River in Fort Worth.

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These Big-City Mayoral Runoffs Are Civil, Too Civil

The Texas Tribune
These Big-City Mayoral Runoffs Are Civil, Too Civil
Stuart Palley for The Texas Tribune

David Kunkle spoke at a Dallas mayoral debate in April flanked by Mike Rawlings, left, now his runoff opponent, and Ron Natinsky.
By JOE NICK PATOSKI
Published: June 11, 2011

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Joe Nick Patoski wrote this column for The Texas Tribune.
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Expanded coverage of Texas is produced by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news organization. To join the conversation about this article, go to texastribune.org.

It would be nice if the two largest cities in Texas’ largest metropolitan area were fired up about the June 18 runoffs that will determine their next mayors. But about the only thing voters in Dallas and Fort Worth have been engaged in is a collective yawn.

Actually, maybe that’s not so bad.

In Dallas’s first-round elections in May, Mike Rawlings, a former Pizza Hut chief executive, finished first with 41 percent of the vote; David Kunkle, a former Dallas police chief, came in second with 32 percent. But fewer than 70,000 votes were cast, representing only about 14 percent of the city’s eligible voters. Thirty miles west, Betsy Price, the Tarrant County tax assessor-collector for the past 10 years, took 43 percent and Jim Lane, the former city councilman, got 26 percent in the closest mayor’s race in Fort Worth in 30 years. Yet only 33,860 of 326,623 registered voters participated.

Why the apathy? Blame both cities’ weak mayor systems, in which the real power lies with their city managers. Blame the absence of a pitchfork-brandishing Tea Party candidate in either race. All four candidates have been exceptionally civil, keeping mudslinging to a minimum.

Most important, while both cities face infrastructure problems and budget challenges, the North Texas economy has led the nation in job growth over the past year, at 2.9 percent compared with 1.1 percent nationally, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Times are relatively good.

In Dallas, the prevailing narrative pits Mr. Rawlings’s promise to do big things to put the Big back in Big D and run the city like a business — a mantra that has been gospel for nearly a century there — against Mr. Kunkle’s pledge to focus on repairing city streets, fighting crime and improving quality of life in neighborhoods.

In Fort Worth, Ms. Price’s fiscal conservatism is being contrasted with Mr. Lane’s experience on the council and in his current position on the board of the Tarrant Regional Water District.

There are twists to each race. Mr. Rawlings, who has served as Dallas’s homeless czar and as the director of the Dallas Parks Board, has spent more than $2 million on his campaign so far — at least 10 times as much as Mr. Kunkle spent in the general election. Mr. Rawlings, despite being tagged as the candidate of North Dallas, has logged considerable time campaigning in underserved South Dallas, calling it the city’s “greatest untapped resource.”

Historically, Mr. Kunkle has stronger ties to South Dallas, where he patrolled as a Dallas beat officer 40 years ago and worked his way up to the chief’s office. On his watch, Dallas’s crime rate dropped 36 percent to its lowest rate since 1970. His campaign manager is former State Representative Steve Wolens, the husband of former Mayor Laura Miller, who appointed Mr. Rawlings as homeless czar.

In Fort Worth, the Seventh Street Gang, a group of business leaders, hand-picked Ms. Price, a long-distance cyclist and avid hunter, to run. Mr. Lane, who was endorsed by police and firefighter associations, is a good old boy who favors western hats and is responsible for creating the Herd, the longhorns that parade on red-brick Exchange Avenue in the Stockyards daily for the benefit of tourists. Both candidates attended Arlington Heights High School on the city’s west side.

“From my perspective, the interest in the two elections is about the same — which is not very much,” said Tammye Nash, a senior editor at Dallas Voice. But Ms. Nash acknowledged that the comity between candidates in both races had been refreshing. “It seems they’re all moderates, and they’re moving towards the middle,” she said.

Indeed, if state politics have taken a hard-right turn, city politics are a different animal, as both runoffs demonstrate. Annise Parker of Houston is the first openly gay mayor of a major American city. Austin is, as ever, proudly liberal. Mayor Julián Castro of San Antonio is being touted as the great brown hope of the state’s Democratic Party. Dallas, Harris and Travis counties all voted for President Obama in 2008, the first such hat trick in a presidential election since Lyndon B. Johnson ran in 1964.

While Dallas turned blue a few years back, Fort Worth remains staunchly Republican. But both cities maintain tolerant, welcoming and inclusive visions. If this keeps up, by next election, they’ll be singing “Kumbaya” and joining hands across Interstate 30.

Joe Nick Patoski is a frequent contributor to these pages.

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Texas Writers Month Author Interview

from literary publicist Stephanie Barko’s website: http://stephaniebarko.com/2011/05/16/texas-writers-month-author-interview-series-joe-nick-patoski/

Celebrating Texas Writers Month with us today is Joe Nick Patoski (Wimberley).

Comment by May 26 to win a copy of Patoski’s 2011 release, Generations on the Land: A Conservation Legacy, courtesy of Texas A&M Press. Increase your chances of winning by subscribing to this blog through Feedburner. Giveaway for U.S. residents only.

Joe Nick’s most recent biography is Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, released after his earlier biographies of Selena and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

In 2003-4, Joe Nick recorded the oral histories of B.B. King, Clarence Fountain of the Blind Boys of Alabama, Memphis musician and producer Jim Dickinson, Tejano superstar Little Joe Hernandez, and 15 other subjects for the Voice of Civil Rights oral history project, some of which appeared in the book My Soul Looks Back in Wonder by Juan Williams, and rode on the The Voices of Civil Rights bus tour, a 70 day journey across the nation where personal oral histories on civil rights were collected for the Library of Congress.

UT Press has published his coffee table books–Texas Mountains, Texas Coast, and Big Bend National Park. He spent 18 years as a staff writer for Texas Monthly and more recently has written for the Texas Observer, National Geographic, No Depression, People magazine, Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, Field & Stream, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Big Bend Sentinel, Southwest Spirit, American Way, the Austin Chronicle, Harp, and TimeOut New York, among others. He also contributed an essay to the photo book Conjunto by John Dyer.

Joe Nick serves as a Grammy Crafts Committee Judge for the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.

An avid swimmer and kayaker, the author is currently collaborating with Eddie Wilson, founder of the Armadillo World Headquarters, on his memoirs.

Q. Are you a native Texan or did you get here as soon as you could?

A. I was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania. My family moved to Fort Worth when I was two. I’ve been trying to figure out Texas and Texans ever since.

Q. How did you end up writing nonfiction?

A. I always did well in English composition in junior high and high school. With encouragement of my teachers and the appearance of publications such as Rolling Stone, Creem, and Crawdaddy, I got it in my head to pursue music journalism as a career path, such as it was, two years out of high school, while knocking around several colleges and also pursuing a career path as a radio disc jockey. So it started with music and has expanded over the years to a larger canvas. Music is one of the paths to getting into a culture. So are food and sports.

Q. What book marketing activities made you a bestselling author?

A. I’m not sure if my website, blog, and Facebook activity have much to do with whatever reading audience I’ve cultivated. I attribute it more to working as a staff writer at Texas Monthly for 18 years, Rolling Stone for six years in the 1970s, and writing for other publications, most with Texas somewhere in the title.

Q. Tell us about your latest release. Is it set in Texas?

A.Two of the nine families profiled in my most recent book, Generations on the Land: A Conservation Legacy (Texas A&M Press) are in Texas. My next book, an unauthorized cultural history of the Dallas Cowboys, is all about Texas. My writing is pretty much informed by Texas.

Q. Where can we pay you a virtual visit?

A. www.joenickp.com or friend me on Facebook.

About the author

Stephanie Barko, Literary Publicist is a boutique book marketing service for publishers and authors. Clients include both award-winning and debut authors of nonfiction and historical fiction.

 

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Bootmaker sets up shop in Marfa

from BigBendnow.com

Boot maker sets up shop in Marfa

May 12th, 2011 under Top Stories

By EMILY JO CURETON

MARFA – The human foot consists of 20 muscles and 28 bones. An indefinable mix of reason, emotion, pride, vanity and God only knows what else make up the human psyche. When western boot maker Colt Miller sets to work his unusual task is to fit for both the foot and the person attached to it.

Hunched over a cluttered table in his workshop on South Highland Avenue in Marfa, he patiently tools a pair of custom cowboy boots for his girlfriend of the past five years. The complex inlay depicts her namesake, Mt. Logan, in tri-colored calfskin. In the end he’ll spend upwards of 60 hours working on this pair.

It starts simple enough. He traces the outline of each foot and takes down certain measurements: instep, toe box, width, length and the like. But Miller’s handiwork brings dirt kickers to another level – replete with a whole spectrum of colors and different types of leather, intricate inlays and embroidered designs laden with highly specific, personal symbols.

“I’ve noticed that it’s a lot of the cowboys who want the most flamboyant boots,” Miller says.

But of the 50 or so pairs he has crafted in the past seven years, only about half went to cow folk. The rest outfit concrete dwellers, those concerned less with rattlesnakes and mesquite thorns than with fashion.

Since cowboy boots appeared in the late 1800s, (a close cousin of military boots designed specifically for riding on horseback all day long), they have been subject to the whims of every generation, from polyester paisley to Ralph Lauren.

Despite, or perhaps because of this enduring demand for western wear, one-man operations like Miller’s Cobra Rock Boots are a rarity these days.

Colt Miller at work in his workshop. (staff photo by ALBERTO TOMAS HALPERN) 

At the Justin boot factory in El Paso a computer-programmed embroidery machine replaced 100 workers who used to do the ornate stitchings. The factory churns out 1,000 pairs of boots a day.

Miller averages one pair of boots a week, on a good week.

While still an enduring symbol of Americanism with a capital A, modern cowboy boots are predominately manufactured overseas: another commodity in an ever-globalizing economy. In all, the value of US production of men’s western style boots fell 40 percent between 1997 and 2002, according to the US Census Bureau.

Roughly 35 to 40 percent of the Tony Lama line is outsourced, while between 75 and 80 percent of the Justin Boots brand are crafted in China and Mexico.

Cobra Rock Boots are made from start to finish by 30-year-old Miller, who grew up in Borden County, Texas, about 70 miles south of Lubbock, the son of a cowboy and a schoolteacher. The nearest town to his family’s ranch boasts a population of 180 and a Main Street full of shuttered business, save the post office.

After studying geography and financial planning at Texas Tech, Miller returned home in search of a job he could hold down while still playing guitar in a touring country band called the Thrift Store Cowboys.

Then he met a boot maker in Post, who taught him the time-honored trade in exchange for guitar lessons. After a yearlong apprenticeship, Miller made his first pair of handmade boots for his granddad.

“It was finally something where I could be creative. I was always too self-conscious to do anything in school,” Miller says.

He moved to Marfa in August and now spends much of his time either working on boot orders or touring with Thrift Store Cowboys, whose fourth studio album came out in October.

A pair of Cobra Rock boots runs $600 for an all custom design and fit; $525 for a standard fit, designed to suit; and $300 for custom lace-up western ankle boots.

The design aspect of Miller’s work is time consuming and totally personalized, but he says it’s a good fit that makes or breaks the deal, often after 40+ hours of labor:

“You do a lot of sweating just measuring someone and shaping the last. You won’t really know until they try them on”.

Cobra Rock Boot Company is located at 207 South Highland Avenue, just north of Marfa National Bank. Samples of Miller’s work can be seen online at cobrarock.com.

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After Fire, Wind and Drought, Something Good Will Follow

from the Friday, April 29 edition of the New York Times and Texas Tribune:

 

 

 

photo by Alberto Tomas (Beto) Halpern/Associated Press

 

Wildfires overran parts of Fort Davis, Tex., in early April, destroying more than 60 homes in West Texas and killing livestock and horses.

By JOE NICK PATOSKI
Published: April 28, 2011

These are strange days in Texas. A severe drought gripping the entire state, unseasonably high temperatures, unusually low humidity and exceptionally gusty winds have created a perfect storm for wildfires, which have erupted statewide like never before. Horrible images of homes burned to the ground, property destroyed, and livestock, wildlife and human fatalities are impossible to escape.
The Texas Tribune

Expanded coverage of Texas is produced by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news organization. To join the conversation about this article, go to texastribune.org.

Unfortunately, the greatest chronicler of such dire conditions — the person everyone in Texas turned to for perspective — is no longer with us to make sense of it all. It’s fair to ask, rhetorically: What would Elmer Kelton say?

Mr. Kelton was the farm and ranch editor for The San Angelo Standard-Times from 1948 to 1963. He was also the longtime associate editor of Livestock Weekly and the author of several dozen western novels. His finest work, “The Time It Never Rained,” published in 1973, focused on the historic seven-year drought of the 1950s as told through Charlie Flagg, the hard-headed, independent-minded protagonist.

If anyone knew about drought, wildfires and making a living from running livestock on the range west of the 98th meridian, it was Mr. Kelton. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2009. But his son, Steve Kelton, is alive and well and living in San Angelo.

Steve Kelton, who now edits Livestock Weekly, remembers clearly that his father considered the period of time spent covering the 1950s drought for the San Angelo newspaper the most traumatic in his life. “I’d long since run out of new ways to say ‘dry,’ ” the father had told the son.

What would the elder Mr. Kelton write about today’s news? That there is an upside — a silver lining. “Dad was always a firm believer that nothing was black and white, nothing was all good or all bad,” Steve Kelton said.

“Fire can be good for brush control, if it’s a good, hot fire; these should be pretty effective in that regard,” he said in droll understatement, referring to the so-called Wildcat fires that have raged over 159,000 acres north of San Angelo in the west-central part of the state, threatening to engulf the towns of Robert Lee, Tennyson and Bronte.

Indeed, for all its obvious negatives, fire was part of the life cycle of the arid western range long before humans settled the region and tried to tame the land, instinctively suppressing wildfires whenever possible. Today, when conditions are right, many landowners intentionally burn their property because, as Steve Kelton noted, “it will improve things.”

He cited the destruction of nuisance species like prickly pear, mesquite and ashe juniper — a k a cedar — and brushy undercover that compete with native grasses. “There are a lot of caveats to that,” Mr. Kelton added. “You have to have rain, but if it comes all at once, you lose all the topsoil.”

But if the rain falls gradually, the first land that will green up and spring back to life is that which burned. “A really hot fire brings out woody vegetation that deer, birds, and even goats and sheep like to eat,” Mr. Kelton said. “Their seed needs fire to germinate.”

He made the same observation about the Texas rangeland that critics have made about forest management in the American West: the human tendency to suppress fire at first sight has created a buildup of dry tinder that makes any wildfire that manages to break out “bigger than they ought to be,” Mr. Kelton said. “But we also have the technology and the people on the ground to fight them, so we’ve got a trade-off.

“During the 1990s and the early 2000s, we went 13 years with a really severe drought out here,” he said. “Then it rained.” The country was left so depleted, he said, that there were no cattle or sheep left to eat the grasses that sprang up; so in 2006, the worst year for wildfires in Texas on record until this year, “when it burned, it burned extra hot.”

Despite the horrific loss of property, livestock and wildlife this year, the longer view finds something to look forward to in the wake of the destruction.

“This is survivor country,” Mr. Kelton said. “It puts on its best clothes when it rains after a long drought.”

Joe Nick Patoski is the author of “Generations on the Land: A Conservation Legacy” (Texas A&M Press).

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