Best small towns in Texas | London, Hext, Doss


best small towns texas

A dorper is a type of sheep.

I learned this yesterday on my drive to London, Texas, which we had first passed when moving our oldest son to Ruidoso, New Mexico, over the weekend. “Twin County Dorpers” is a sheep breeding concern and lies ten miles north of Harper, where part of my wife Karen’s family lives. Okay. Enough talk of dorpers. I just like the word the more I write it.


my trip to london and back
My round-trip to London and points north looked a bit like a tadpole. A Texas-sized tadpole. Now you can’t un-see it, right?

My drive:

When a state in our Union boasts within its borders a “Paris,” a “Rhome” (yes, pronounced like the place in Italy), a “London,” and even an “Iraan” (pronounced differently than the country), then you know we are talking not only about the largest state in the Union — no, Alaska doesn’t count — but we are talking also about satisfying our wanderlust with trips to each of those without having to leave the comfort of our cars or RVs.

Yesterday I checked off the second of four. (Iraan was the first, this past Sunday.)

A “No-STOP sign” town

I’ve tried to categorize the towns I visit in Texas and around the country by “large” and “small,” but it occurred to me this morning that while cities can be large or small, many towns are not small or even “little bitty,” and they are not ghost towns. Many are defined only by whether there’s a STOP sign or not.

London is of the “no-STOP sign” variety. So we were zipping through London last Friday en route to Ruidoso, and I promised myself I’d be back soon.

All I saw on Friday, since I was driving, were a few dilapidated buildings, but they intrigued me, since at least one had six-inch cedar siding that was bleached light grey from the sun and heat. (Of course, what provokes poetry in me might provoke wistfulness in another.) One building had collpased on itself but was left as a disheveled heap like a pile of dirty clothes on a laundry room floor. Another had a faded “Dayton Oil Co.” sign in raised metal letters on its façade.

best small towns in texas
“That’s my next project,” he told me, in London, Texas.

London, Texas…formerly one of the best small towns to live in

And maybe soon again.

London once benefited from the cattle trail, which a few miles south included the “Old Beef Trail Crossing” of the Llano River. (“Beef” trail, lest you think we’re merely leading Ferdinand the Disney bull across town, and the “LAN-oh” River.) The 19th century and Kerrville-based mogul Captain Schreiner herded cattle through here and as far as Dodge City. Word is that the cloud of dust kicked up by this half-day crossing could be seen for miles.

Yet Schreiner’s most “clever” business was his wool and mohair warehousing. You can read more here on Joe Herring Jr.’s site.

looking toward beef crossing
Looking down at the “Old Beef Trail Crossing.”

Among other things, London once had an active dance hall, as has Sisterdale yet, for instance, though it’s typically used for events, and which Crider’s in Hunt has during summer Saturday nights. If you’ve not been to Crider’s for their rodeo and dance with live music, or their catfish night on Friday’s, treat yourself.

Dayton Oil Co.

As you approach London from the south and if you look right, you’ll see an aged mesa. One day it will be even more rounded, but some time in the past it must have looked more like those we’re used to seeing more west of us, in Arizona or Utah. Certainly, deep in the heart of Texas is geological history, and plenty of dinosaur blood waiting to be extracted by the wildcatters in Houston and sent pulsing through our highway-hungry SUVs.

best small towns in texas
A mesa sits to the right, just south of London town center.

Not half a mile to your left then is Dayton Oil Company.

Dayton, Texas, is located northeast of Houston, and its oil and gas production effectively zero’ed out only last year. Oil production peaked in 2007 and gas in 1999. It’s unclear to me whether this abandoned service station was connected to Dayton Oil here or Dayton Oil in Ohio. Either way, the property is valuable enough that a hotelier couple from Austin bought the building.

Or so I learned from a local.

Yes, a local. (I saw a total of seven residents at the restaurant — three of them working there — and three more walking.)

Not exactly a “local”

As I entered London, a man wearing a light beige shirt, jeans, and ballcap waved to me. As a resident in a town this size, why not wave to everyone who passes through? It might be the one time that hour you raise your arm above your waist.

I waved through my windshield. Stopped a couple places to take photos — post office (closed at 1pm); Dayton Oil — and then drove 100 yards to stop in front of a beautiful cedar-siding structure, a 30-foot cube on your left. That one I saw on Friday.

As I was taking photographs, the waving man was to my left and crossing the street toward me. He waved again and shouted hello.

“Hi!” I waved again, and paused my shoot. Was I in trouble? Years ago and living in a known Mafia neighborhood in Brooklyn — a friendly area so long as you abided by local ways — I had nearly got myself in hot water when taking night photos of a changing street light on the corner. I wanted to capture all three colors so needed to use a small aperture and long shutter speed. Since I didn’t have a tripod and to steady the camera, I rested it on the hood of a car. Two different cars within a couple minutes of each other drove by and said to me out the passenger window, “Joey wouldn’t like that if he saw you,” and “Hey, that’s Joey’s car.”

I didn’t want to meet Joey, so I wrapped up my photoshoot.

This guy might be the Joey of London, just real friendly up until the point he opened a can of whoop-ass. I had no idea.

Studying for your real estate exam?

I was wrong. He’s a local developer/investor who lived south of here.

“That’s my next project!” he said with a smile when he was about twenty feet away. We didn’t shake hands. COVID.

I showed genuine interest and we small-talked about the building. I mentioned I was from New York and quickly added my wife was from Kerrville. That’s usually my get-out-of-jail cheap card. (Never “free.”)

When I mentioned the city, he examined my attire. “I see you’re wearing a western shirt,” he said.

“Yeah. I’ve loved snap shirts for twenty-something years.”

“Me, too. So easy.” I nodded. “I wear all-cotton, long sleeves to keep off the sun.”

I did a quick mental check on mine: 60/40 blend, short sleeves. No wonder I was sweating and he wasn’t. He wore a UTSA ballcap. The lid was frayed at the front and naturally so. Through wear. (You can tell.)

He told me there were photos of the old London in the Post Office.

“I missed its closing at 1pm.”

“Oh. The door’s unlocked. I own the building. You should go look at them.”

It was he who told me about the Dayton Oil Company, the building I was standing in front of, the collapsed building across the street (he owned the plot), the dance hall. After a 15-minute chat, I thanked him and went across to London Grocery and Grill for a bite.

Fourteen dollars an hour, but all the jobs are taken

The inside of London Grocery and Grill was nothing special. Having lunch at a table was a group of four — obviously not only locals but also a group that perhaps ate there daily. Maybe they were even family, evidenced by their familiarity with one another. They were the only diners. I asked a lady behind the counter if the grill was still open, being 1:45pm and 15 minutes from closing. It was.

I ordered a BLT and onion rings. No drink; I had waters in the car.

The woman preparing my food was on her first day here. I asked how it was going.

“It’s going ok. This is kind of full-time. I’m hoping to make some money here. They opened up a factory nearby, but I couldn’t get a job there. All the positions got taken pretty quickly.”

“What does the factory make?”

Hand sanitizer. They’re offering fourteen dollars an hour and they guarantee you forty hours a week.” She spoke it with a certain awe and envy.

I paid with cash and ate outside on a concrete stoop under a shade tree.

After lunch I forgot to go to the Post Office to look at the photos and instead got on the road heading north.

Next: Hext

best small towns in texas
Hext Trading Post & Cafe

Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

Hext, Texas, is 15 minutes north of London. It’s a pretty drive, as most everything around there is. Lots of ranches, mostly with single letters on the wrought iron gates that enclose the long drives up to the main house. One gate said “Bar Nothing” Ranch.

Siri told me to take a right turn at the STOP and I would “arrive at [my] destination.”

And so I did.

The Hext Trading Post & Cafe had no fresh coffee. It was about 2:30pm.

An older couple — late 60s? early 70s? — held down the fort, which consisted of a cash wrap to the left, four or five tables in the middle, and behind a voluminous and sleeping man, an 8-foot table piled high with clothes, magazines and ballcaps. On the corner of the table behind the man’s right shoulder and within his reach were perhaps a dozen or more pill bottles. His head was tilted back; his mouth open to a sideways oblong.

He awoke as I asked the lady whether they had any coffee. When he spoke I barely understood him because he seemed to be missing his upper row of teeth. This was compounded by an unusually heavy accent.

“Bit of coffee in that pot to the left. You could take the rest and we could put it in the microwave for you.”

I looked over at the pot. It was as low as one of the river crossings after a very dry June and looked like runoff from the red dirt bluffs.

“Umm. I think what I really want after all is a Coke.” Meaning a soda of some kind. I pulled a Diet Dr. Pepper from the refrigerated case, and after that ensued a conversation with him about caffeine. This turned to politics. (No idea how we transitioned.) We spoke openly about Trump and Biden now and Clinton in ’16. He shared his opinion and without malice, as I did mine. He also shared how they voted, speaking for his wife. We had plenty in common, except for our dental bandwidth.

Doss, and home

After paying for my coffee, he said, “Come back around 10 or 11 in the morning, and we’ll have some coffee for you!”

best small towns in texas
Grit, Texas. There is no “Grit School Road” despite Siri telling you so.

I exited and before getting back in my car, I looked again at the entrance. Wisteria wrapped around thin cedar trunk posts holding up dirty white aluminum that served as the awning. Hanging from the eaves on the left were six hummingbird feeders, and one or two birds flitted around, not staying still for me to capture them on film or otherwise.

GRIT – not one of the best small towns in Texas

On the way to Doss, I wanted to be sure to see Grit, Texas.

I do not exaggerate when I say that I couldn’t find much more in Grit than two run-down RVs on the left and a schoolhouse on the right that had a “Grit School Road” that no longer existed where Siri told me it did. Its alternate entrance on the other side of the school, on US-377, does not exist. You can check for yourself if you don’t believe me.


Karen and I had been to Mason as well as nearby Art, so I circumvented the town square and continued south, toward Hilda and then Doss.

best small towns in texas
“Wilkommen” to the Hilda Church

The Bethel M.E. Church in Hilda (a No-stop sign town) was the “second church of any faith” in Mason County and also housed the county’s first school.

Doss was a 4-way STOP sign town that was as manicured as any Lutheran would be on a Sunday morning attending what seemed to be the town’s only house of worship. Well maintained and colorfully cheery, Doss’s STOP sign corner was crowded with shade trees that invited one to stay awhile.

best small towns in texas
Doss, Texas


Yet back to Kerrville I must.

I-10 is the kind of road William Least Heat Moon eschewed and found ways around. For the most part. But I needed to do a work call, which actually I was able to find better reception for in Doss than I have on parts of I-10.

Texas is filled with more small towns than anywhere else in America, by virtue of the Lone Star State’s size if no other reason.

A drive here clears the mind and fills the soul.

Special offer available on Volcanica Coffee.

Why do we live in small towns?

Greenport NY abstracted
Abstract expressionist painting of Greenport, NY, plan view. 2014. artist: Karen Freeman

Why do we love visiting small towns?

Whether it’s here in America or elsewhere, there’s something about small towns that draws us in and makes us feel…at home, right?

As I write this, I’m not sure how I’ll answer my question at the top, but I’m a restless wanderer, as maybe you are, and home is what I seek. In the end.

Small Town, Big City

I’m from New York City, and when anyone outside the city hears that, they immediately think of Times Square.

“How could you live there?!” they think or say. Meaning the city, but thinking of Times Square.

They’re not wrong. Nobody really lives in Times Square. New Yorkers themselves don’t even go there! Unless they have to.

We New Yorkers live in neighborhoods, just as you do who hail from small towns. I believe this is part of the answer.

Neighborhoods, Not Cities

I was born and raised on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

The Upper East Side is pretty much where “all the rich” live. Seriously. From our living room window on the sixth floor of our

Looking east at buildings along Fifth Avenue from a Central Park perspective.

pre-war building on 96th and Madison, I would watch as different U.S. presidents — Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama — went to a particular building across the street and halfway to Fifth Avenue to do fundraisers. That one building. My family even has a photo of FDR driving below our building to the same destination.

Historically, 96th Street was considered such a line of demarcation between the rich and the poor — the rich lived to the south of it and the poor to the north — that in the 1970s a friend of mine bought a penthouse duplex apartment on Fifth Avenue and 97th Street for $70,000. Fifth Avenue was where the rich among the rich lived. Down the street from this apartment, on 97th between Madison and Park Avenues, two adolescents had been kidnapped and held hostage for two days before police rescued them. It made the front page of newspapers. But a couple years ago, my friend sold his penthouse to a famous “Shark Tank” star for nearly $10 million.

My point here is that neighborhoods were clearly marked, and northeastern residents were stereotypically known to associate with people of different races and social classes, but they lived separately. Apparently the stereotype of the South was the opposite.

“Small towns” even in New York City

After college, I moved from the Upper East Side to the Park Slope neighborhood. In the mid-80s, there were still sketchy areas, but it was a true neighborhood: clear lines of where it started and stopped, with a variety of people living there and a variety of stores and restaurants catering to people of all races and social classes.

(Top row: lady walking with parasol on near the former American Bible Society; oranges in front of our local grocery store, Broadway Farms; yes, even the subway can feel “local;” Middle row: a friend of mine in Harlem who told me about the nature of growing up in his neighborhood; a kid with melting ice cream; last two photos are my friend Hans Honschar, who creates sidewalk art.)

Fast forward and I lived for a total of 14 years on the Upper West Side (with a 10-year exodus to New England), also a mash-up of different people. We all converged, though our kids, in the local public elementary schools, where our young children learned to see each other and make friends despite the differences we adults saw in each other.

It was all about having fun and being together.

This, too — fun, togetherness — is part of the answer to my question.

West 4th Street Court, "The Cage"
The West Fourth Street Courts, aka “The Cage.” A premier spot for amateur basketball in NYC.

Even the famous “Cage” basketball court on West 4th Street and Sixth Avenue feels like a neighborhood place. There is an aliveness to them.

“Alive” is another word to help answer my question.

The artistic composition of small towns

You may have noticed that the heading of this article was an abstract expressionist painting. (Full disclosure, there’s no coincidence between the artist’s last name and my own.)


wings and town

There is an artistry to small towns, both in the “plan view” from above and also at elevation (looking straight ahead). I’ve always thought that the organic growth of small towns — from the first humans to early civilized towns to European towns and now modern towns and cities — mirrored nature.

Nature itself has given us the model of how towns look when they’re healthy.

Artists over the years have picked up on this and portrayed them that way.

Why do we love visiting and living in small towns?

We love them — towns or neighborhoods in small cities — because we have always lived that way. Even before we knew we did. We have always gathered by clans and families, separated because of differences or opportunities or selfishness, and created a new part of the larger whole.

german street art
Building art in a German neighborhood. Photo: Velvet Escape

But each section of the whole did make the whole both larger and more cohesive.

Why do we love small towns?

Because whether we like to admit it or not, whether we live in a big city and boast about it — yours truly included — or live in a small town and feel suffocated, we have always lived this way.

It’s where we come alive.

Or, at least, it’s where we can.