Calaboose is a funny word.
I’m circling around this roughly 8-foot-by-10-foot shack made of rusty nails and rotted wood. This old jail — or calaboose — doesn’t seem like it would have been too hard to make a getaway from, even back in its heyday. My husband and two kids peer inside and then amble around it.
A railing keeps us from stepping inside and pondering life in the early 1900s, where perhaps a drunk might have gotten locked up in this old calaboose after a rough Saturday night. For now, we just mill around this tiny bit of history that is plunked in an outdoor space. A sign in front of it explains the word calaboose comes from the Spanish word “calabozo,” which means “dungeon.”
We are in a green open area. The warm air is not too stifling, and we are spending a few hours gandering at some modest sights in Rockdale, about an hour from Central Austin.
RELATED: In Elgin, come for the food, stay for the history, museums, shopping
After months of sitting on our couch, pestering the cat and earning frequent fridge mileage, my family needed to bust out of our house — safely. On a day trip to this small city in Milam County, it feels like we’ve made a quick escape from our own “calaboose” back home, where many folks like us have been holed up.
We hit the road to this city of about 5,600, expecting minimal contact with others as we strolled and drove around. In fact, while there, the only person I talked to besides family members was a woman who helped me with directions — from a safe distance. We ate breakfast at home, filled our water bottles and went to the bathroom before we left the house.
For our foray, we followed a user-friendly Historical Walking Tour brochure, which can be found at rockdalecityhall.com. It has a local map, pictures and brief descriptions of city highlights. There’s even a shorter driving tour.
In the quiet downtown area, some stretches are a bit fresher and perkier, while other blocks seem wearier. However, Rockdale has some novel finds, such as a renovated train depot, a restored old theater, a nicely redone motel, a few artistic murals, a couple of parks and numerous historical markers, as well as a couple of reminders of a segregated past. The city seems to have undergone a small rejuvenation lately, with several buildings having gotten face-lifts. History enthusiasts might notice signs for part of the El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail that passes through Milam County.
Not far from the calaboose (which came from Burlington, Texas, and likely was built in the early 1900s), I wander a bit further to check out two long bridges, displaced and planted — somewhat inexplicably, to this tourist’s eyes — in the middle of a grassy expanse of Bridge Park. These bridges of Milam County are like curious, giant knickknacks in the green space.
Elsewhere, the restored Rockdale International and Great Northern Depot Museum, originally built as a depot in 1906, also serves as the weekend Visitor Center. Though closed on our trip “until further notice,” the depot looks like it might have appeared back in its peak days, with a ticket window and what seemed to be an old telephone, lanterns and other displays. A Texas Historical Commission marker outside notes, “Rockdale owes its founding to the International and Great Northern rail line, along which the town was laid out in 1873-74. … Although the last passenger train left Rockdale in 1970, the railroad remains a significant part of the community’s heritage.” In back of the depot, indeed, is a Missouri Pacific Diner car and a classic red caboose. (A replica blacksmith shop is nearby, too.)
Over by city hall, visitors get a big “Welcome to Rockdale” from a sign on a “symbolic” rock. A nearby sign tells how the city got its name from a large rock that a Mrs. Ackerman “discovered north of present-day Rockdale.” The rock isn’t that remarkable, but when in Rockdale, why not go ahead and see a big rock?
Not far is the polished Kay Theatre, also recently reinvigorated. The building was made from a Quonset hut from World War II. The crisp facade is white with red lettering and doors, and a Coca-Cola sign up top. The back of the building reveals its long, curved structure.
A glance inside shows black-and-white checkerboard tile floor, and a poster for “Casablanca.” It opened in 1947, showing “Rolling Home,” starring Russell Hayden and Jean Parker, according to rockdalecityhall.com. Sadly, the theater closed in 1962, but a restoration effort began in 2004. Currently, it is available for special events, musical performances, screenings and more, the site says.
While in Rockdale, I was eager to check out the site where the rodeo sport of “bulldogging” was invented in 1903, according to the brochure. Bill Pickett, noted as the first Black man to be inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center, came up with this “while trying to subdue an unruly cow,” the brochure says. “The sport consists of jumping on a steer from a horse and wrestling the steer to the ground.” Unfortunately, we walked around the block a few times and never found any indication of this historic moment.
Luckily, not far away, a deep red “A Bit of Rockdale History” mural illustrates noted people and happenings of Rockdale. Right there on the wall shows Pickett with hat and cowboy gear. “Rodeo cowboy and Wild West performer Bill Pickett invented ‘bulldogging’ on Main St. in 1903,” the mural touts.
As an extra tidbit, the mural also lets onlookers know that “Milam County is the ‘Dewberry Capital’ of Texas.” Who knew? (That likely explains the annual Dewberry Jam Fiesta 5K in Rockdale.)
Just up a ways, another significant mural is inside the U.S. Post Office. “Industry in Rockdale” by Maxwell Starr features a man with a pickax and workers with baskets of cotton. The mural is one of many installed in U.S. post offices as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. “From 1934 to 1943, the New Deal murals and sculptures seen in Post Offices were produced under the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture, later called the Section of Fine Arts. … Art placed in Post Offices was intended to help boost the morale of people suffering the effects of the Great Depression,” according to the U.S. Postal Service.
Rockdale is also proud of home-towner George Sessions Perry, an author who lived in a Sears Roebuck and Company Mail Order Houses where he wrote many of his works. Perry was a World War II correspondent who was published in the New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post; he also took the 1941 National Book Award, according to a Texas Historical Commission marker.
Examining another side of the city’s history, we visited the Old City Cemetery, where some tombstones mark the graves of Confederate soldiers. Some unusual statuary graces the grounds, such as a tall treelike marker that says “Erected by the Woodmen of the World,” honoring a person laid to rest there. Next to that site is the Black Old City Cemetery (with a small number of graves marked) and the Jewish Old City Cemetery, according to the brochure.
For ambitious types, the walking and driving tour also lists many other places to drop by, such as churches with historical markers.
Visitors who want to stay overnight can check out the sweet, family-run Rainbow Courts motel. It’s a longstanding draw to Rockdale, as a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark. With its origins in 1918 as a “tourist camp,” nowadays the lodging offers lovely, plush rooms with a spacious community outdoor area for relaxing in white Adirondack chairs. The Tennessee Williams Cottage is named after the famous writer who visited there in 1940, according to its website. The front office is a small building, which had a sign out that said “On Property — Look for Golf Cart,” which I gather gets driven around the grounds.
Though we didn’t eat out, Rockdale streets seemed to have plenty of pickups parked at local eateries. And of course, there’s a Dairy Queen. Window shoppers might find a range of opportunities from a farm supply store to boutiques. Next time, it would be nice to meet some of the folks there and patronize their businesses.
The drive to Rockdale via FM 973 was pastoral; cows and huge hay bales scrolled past our car windows. We spent a couple of hours enjoying the motion of wheels turning and examining all the quirks and history of a place we might not have visited otherwise.
While Rockdale is humble, it makes a nice dalliance with the outside world. It felt good to get out again.