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In Central Texas, Bartlett goes from ghost town to artist enclave

Bartlett downtown Contemporary eateries and boutique shops have breathed new life into the historic downtown in Bartlett, Texas. | Photo by Fossum Studios/Courtesy of Jennifer Welch

When Hollywood filmmakers need a ghost town, they head to Bartlett. Crews shot the 2010 version of True Grit here, as well as an episode of AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead. But while this historic city with the picture-perfect downtown can still pass for abandoned on film, in reality, the place is staging a comeback.

Located an hour north of Austin, the town of Bartlett was established in 1881. A year later, the Katy Railroad added a stop here. Bartlett expanded while cotton was a major cash crop, but by the end of the Great Depression, the town had shrunk to a shade under 2,000 people (a population that has stayed relatively steady to today) and had lost its importance as a shipping center.

In 2019, Bartlett launched a revitalization campaign aimed at attracting young artisans and other “makers.” And sure enough, those old buildings along its main drag have begun to spring back to life, with woodworkers, markets, and artists moving in. As a result, the town now makes for a great getaway. To visit Bartlett today is to straddle two counties (the town sits on the Bell and Williamson county line) and two eras: Bartlett’s storied past and its intriguing future. Here are some ways to experience the duality of Bartlett.

Revisit Bartlett's ghost town past

The Bartlett National Bank Guest House is a two-bedroom vacation rental with authentic, ornate details. | Photo by Fossum Studios/Courtesy of Jennifer Welch

The Bartlett National Bank Guest House is a two-bedroom vacation rental with authentic, ornate details. | Photo by Fossum Studios/Courtesy of Jennifer Welch

If Bartlett has a star reclamation project, it is the Bartlett National Bank Guest House. Almost 90 years after the bank’s closing, the building has found a second life as a two-bedroom vacation rental, with the living room taking up what was formerly the lobby (and teller windows separating the kitchen). With its penny tile floors and its Beaux Arts–inspired ceilings, the building wears its age well, and with room for seven guests, it makes for a unique base to explore central Texas.

Can you tell the real history from the fake? Thanks to its well-preserved downtown, Bartlett is a fertile hunting ground for ghost signs. Faded advertisements from other eras attract history buffs looking for the markers of a time gone by, but in Bartlett, only one is authentic; the others are replicas created for movies and TV shows. Authenticity aside, they all make great photo fodder. 

No ghost town is complete without a guided tour, and Jennifer Welch’s Bartlett Secrets tour functions as a way to see the town’s sights and to dive into Bartlett’s history. Welch, a real estate agent and the preservationist responsible for the bank building’s latest incarnation, takes guests through the town, pointing out landmarks like the city’s jail and telling stories, such as the one about a bank robbery planned by out-of-towners in the 1960s—about 30 years after the bank had closed.

The Austin-based ICOSA art collective launched the multidisciplinary, site-specific installation “The Bartlett Project” in early 2021. The installation honors the town’s Black population with an homage to their stories, and ICOSA plans to launch a low-power radio station that will broadcast oral histories. Artist Aimée Everett is creating a large woven artwork intended to link Bartlett’s past with its future.

Trendy new shops and eateries at Bartlett

Woodworking art from  2303 Décor, by Matthew and Vicky Fashbaugh. | Photo by Matthew Fashbaugh/2303 Décor

Woodworking art from 2303 Décor, by Matthew and Vicky Fashbaugh. | Photo by Matthew Fashbaugh/2303 Décor

While the downtown revitalization is still in progress, a number of artisans are finding success on East Clark Street. At 2303 Décor, husband-and-wife team Matthew and Vicky Fashbaugh combine woodworking talent with a sharp eye for art; the pieces here are functional and gorgeous. The appropriately named Ghost Town Goods features leatherwork both expected (wallets) and rare (lighter holders for key chains). And Bartlett Liquor Store, a block off of Clark Street, specializes in Texas spirits, especially whiskys.

The weekends-only Bartlett Sausage is the vision of third-generation ’cue chef Josh Perez; his grandfather’s stand, Perez BBQ, was known for its links, and people would drive from far-flung locales to buy them by the pound. The family affair is a lunchtime favorite today—order in advance and be prepared for a line.

Later this year, visitors to Bartlett will be able to jump-start the morning with caffeine and pastries at Austin coffeehouse import El Tigre, which specializes in ethically farmed coffee. Started in a trailer in 2019 by an Austin couple, the java joint will soon bring its in-house blends an hour up the road.

While Bartlett continues to develop its dining options, the Cotton Country Club in Granger, 5 miles south, offers chicken-fried steak, burgers, and other roadhouse favorites, along with live music, including a Sunday jam session with local act The Can’t Hardly Playboyz. A few blocks away, the Granger City Brewing Company makes a great stop for a pre- or post-meal beer.

Robert Spuhler is a freelance writer whose work has been published in the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.

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