People have been stopping at the Stagecoach Inn since before there were roads. Dating back to 1861, it’s the second oldest hotel in Texas, behind the Menger in San Antonio, and the town of Salado built up around this historic stagecoach stop.
It was one of dozens along the Chisholm Trail that fed and housed travelers — some of them famous, like Jesse James or Robert E. Lee, most of them simply weary from making the long haul from Dallas to San Antonio or Houston.
At a recent visit to the newly reopened restaurant — the first phase of a complete renovation of the nine-acre property — my taste buds were traveling through time, and so were my eyes.
Director of operations Jacqueline Nation showed us the balcony from which Sam Houston is said to have given a speech and the boards on the wall where you could still see the 1880s-circa newspapers that originally lined them.
The trees that surround the building date back even further, and the building surrounds one tree. There’s a cave where you can see the roots of the trees growing through the cool underground air.
Nation and her husband, general manager Joshua Palmer, have taken their role as caregiver of the property and its history seriously, moving from Austin to Salado to become the new keepers of the inn.
They told stories about how Salado has been a retail town since the mid-1940s, which is when the most recent iteration of the Stagecoach Inn opened, and how the owners Ruth and Dion Van Bibber fed and housed celebrities, local residents and everyday travelers. By the 1970s, when the Van Bibbers’ nephew Bill Bratton was running the place, few people left without eating hushpuppies and a bite of the strawberry kiss dessert.
Justin Holler, the chef who transformed the old menu into modern dishes that are still rich with history, told a story about the first night of service after reopening, when the mayor of Salado, Skip Blancett, pulled all the cooks together in the kitchen.
Thank you for what you are doing for this town, he told them. You have no idea what this means to main street. After a nearby bridge collapse, which caused months of highway construction, and the closure of the Stagecoach during renovations, the town suffered, with dozens of downtown businesses closing as drivers were reluctant to exit off Interstate 35.
Now that the restaurant is abuzz and the reopening of the adjacent hotel is on the horizon, Salado’s economy is poised for a renewal.
To encourage more retail shoppers to return downtown, the new owners of the Stagecoach Inn are closing off the entrance from the highway so that guests have to come through main street.
The restaurant also is buying bread from the local bakery and hosting countless groups, parties and meetings that otherwise didn’t have a space to gather. They employ cooks and servers, some of whom have grandparents and parents who also once worked at the restaurant.