Retirement plans come in all shapes and sizes. Some folks plan to travel, others decide to take up playing bridge, but for Stephen and Melissa Russell — who must have been the coolest couple around — they decided to take their popular house concerts one step further by opening up a roadhouse.
Having lived in both Houston and Round Top the couple was already familiar with the area — along Highway 290 halfway between Houston and Austin — and settled on a trio of connected historic buildings in Burton, Texas. But life isn't always fair and, right around the time they began remodeling the structures, Stephen was diagnosed with stage four esophageal cancer and given months to live.
They wavered in their plans, but only for an instant, and Stephen said that he'd like to see the dream come true. Although he died early in January 2017, Melissa has followed through on their vision. She's struggled against all sorts of odds, found a sense of community after her husband's death and, quite possibly, has entertained a ghost or two.
The town is located just a hop, skip and a jump from nearby Washington-on-the-Brazos, the birthplace of Texas, and early history is murky. We know that a Dr. W.M. Mayfield owned one of the buildings in 1881 and a druggist administered tonics there; in 1906 it became the home of the Burton State Bank. The bank closed briefly during the Great Depression, but only for three days, and remained there until it relocated in 1965.
Burton was also sort of a Peyton Place, with its own share of jealousy, arson and general tomfoolery. One of the bank's board of directors was Herman Knittel Sr., an entrepreneurial sort of fellow who founded a church, dabbled in politics (in 1884 he was elected on the democratic ticket to the Texas State Senate), and who owned the adjacent Knittel Store (shown above), a barn and a magnificent three-story home in the center of downtown.
Knittel must have pissed somebody off — it could have been politics or jealousy — but in 1898 an arsonist started a fire at the Knittel barn and also at the Knittel Store. The flames took hold and the fire spread to the Burton Depot (which served the Austin-Houston route along the busy Houston & Texas Central Railroad), a lumber yard and the prestigious Washington Hotel. After the fire the building on the far right lost its second story.
As for evidence of ghosts, strange occurrences have happened inside the Burton Roadhouse since it opened for business. The staff has come in and they'll find the lights are up, or they'll open and find that the jukebox has been turned on. Perhaps it's because the buildings are finally seeing activity after all these years, or it's because the building was struck by lightning thus opening the door to a parallel universe, or maybe it's the fact that Knittel's great, great, great granddaughter, Fawn Knittel, works there as bar manager. Fawn says that whenever these strange things happen, it's become habit to laugh and say, "Oh, that's Grandpa Knittel again."
Today the Burton Roadhouse balances the fine line between old-timey history and full-service restaurant and bar. Melissa brings in both local and out-of-state bands, and they've booked The Mighty Orq, Libby Koch (Ordinary Elephant), John Evans, Patrice Pike and Irish imports Tommy and Saundra O'Sullivan.
The former bank building now houses the kitchen area, bathrooms and wine cellar for the Burton Roadhouse. But in the 1980s the space housed City Hall, an evidence room, and even contained a pair of holding cells. Melissa says customers come in occasionally and say they've served time in one of those cells.
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So from the banks and (jail) bars of yesteryear to the brews and boos of today, it's nice to see that a little piece of Texas history can keep reinventing itself.
The Burton Roadhouse makes killer pizzas and serves up Sunday brunch with a hair-of-the-dog Bloody Mary bar. It is located about 90 minutes outside Houston and Austin at 518 North Railroad, Burton, Texas, 979-289-0013, burtonroadhouse.com.