A day-long or weekend trip to visit Cleburne is one of our favorite road trips. My husband and I first discovered how much Cleburne has to offer soon after we emerged from pandemic-related travel restrictions in 2021. Cleburne was attractive for several reasons, the first being that it’s less than an hour away from our Dallas home. We were happy to discover that the historic county seat of Johnson County offered a wide variety of attractions, good food, and lovely scenery. Best of all, Cleburne is filled with outgoing, friendly people who made us feel immediately welcome there.
Our first visit was hosted by the Cleburne chamber, with a packed schedule of educational and fun things to see and do. We saw a matinee performance by Plaza Theatre Company, dined at three great restaurants, and drove around Pat Cleburne Lake. We quickly became fans of the community, and knew we’d have to return several times to explore more of the local attractions.
Since that first visit we’ve returned to Cleburne for several daytrips, usually stopping back by the Trovato Street Candy Store, an old-fashioned candy and root beer store. My husband stocks up on their Gene Autry Root Beer that he can’t find anywhere else, while I head for the old-timey Root Beer Bar for a root beer flight. We usually try to have breakfast or lunch at R&K Café II, where they specialize in down-home Southwestern style food and small-town hospitality. I love their breakfast served all day, while my husband switches between chicken fried steak and chicken fried chicken with three sides, all priced very affordably.
On a recent weekend visit to Cleburne, we stayed downtown at the elegant Liberty Hotel. I had been eager to see inside this four-story hotel, built by A. J. Wright in 1924 with 50 guest rooms and the first elevator in Johnson County. Back in its heyday the hotel boasted a grand ballroom, where Lawrence Welk and other celebrated musicians performed.
Entering the massive hotel lobby, with its 30 foot ceiling, grand chandelier, and original terrazzo flooring, was like taking a step back into another era. From the warm welcome we received from managers Nathan and Cara Leising, we felt like the only guests at the hotel. So it was a surprise to learn the hotel was fully booked, with the minor league Fargo Redhawks baseball team staying there. They were in town to play the local Cleburne Railroaders in the season opener that Friday night.
Cleburne was a booming railroad town in the 1920s and 30s, but a major railroad strike and the advent of automobiles, with I-35 diverting traffic around Cleburne, caused a sharp decline in travelers. The once-thriving hotel fell into decay, changing owners many times, until Cleburne businessmen Howard and Scott Dudley bought the hotel in 2004.
The Dudley family restored the hotel to its former elegance, keeping only the terrazzo floor and red brick exterior while installing modern luxuries and state-of-the-art technology like high speed internet and a sophisticated energy management system. They thoughtfully added a hotel parking lot with covered parking for their guests. The Liberty Hotel, Ascend Hotel Collection, is located at 205 S. Caddo Street in Cleburne, in easy walking distance from many downtown attractions and restaurants. For more information, please VisitCleburne.com.
Cleburne Depot Stadium
Our gracious hosts and tourist guides from the Liberty Hotel, the Villarreals, took us to the Railroaders game at the Cleburne Depot Stadium Saturday. They introduced us to several friends and civic boosters, like June Bates of Bates Travel agency, who invited us to watch the game from her company suite. While the hometown team lost that game, it didn’t keep their fans from cheering enthusiastically throughout the game. Team spirit runs high in Cleburne, and it’s demonstrated by everyone we met on our visits.
We also met Railroaders owner John Junker and his wife, Dana, after the game. They have been actively involved in the community since moving to Cleburne with their three children in 2018, when John became co-owner of the minor league baseball team. In 2020, he was named Cleburne’s Man of the Year. Everyone in Cleburne is especially proud of the beautiful Depot Stadium that opened in 2017. Members of the community pitched in to help build the stadium through a number of fundraising activities, and many of them are season ticket holders who wouldn’t dream of missing a home game.
Several exciting additions to the Railroaders schedule fell into place for the 2022 season. The Cleburne Railroaders are playing under a different name, Lone Star Railroaders, every Sunday during the season. The Wild Wild West League, a collegiate wood bat league, expands to Cleburne for the summer. Four Texas teams are joining this season: Fort Worth Rodeo Cats, Joshua Trees, Cleburne Eagles, and the Burleson Boxers. The Wild Wild West league starts playing at the Depot Stadium in Cleburne in June. For information, visit IloveTexasbaseball.com.
Instead of being competitive, all the local merchants we met seem to go out of the way to support each other. On the way back to the hotel, Carrie Villarreal insisted we stop off at the Johnson County Distillery. The new blended bourbon whisky distillery is located in the Jacob Weldon Old West Saloon, and we’re told they also serve delicious pizza—something to try on our next visit. The owners are also planning a number of live entertainment and family-friendly activities this summer. Visit johnsoncountydistillery.com.
Touring the historic Chisholm Trail Outdoor Museum was another enjoyable excursion on our weekend visit to Cleburne. That unique, historic museum deserves a lot more space than we have available for this article, so that’s a story for another week.