As a native Texan, there is something quite nostalgic to me about road trips. Maybe it’s the countless hours I spent in the backseat growing up, staring out the window, cowspotting. There is a subtle beauty in what you can see from your car window, from the ramshackle barns to the fields of corn, swaying in the all-too-infrequent summer breeze. Perhaps it’s the memories of the simple thrill of winning in Auto Bingo (ah, life before screens). There were many stops along the way from Point A to Point B, as we have a family-owned business and my father needed to stop at pay phones along the way to check in. I think, mostly, these car trips were as much about the journey as the destination.
Now that my son is a little older, I find myself drawn to day-long road trips. With an 8-year-old, I’m not worried about frequent restroom breaks or diaper changes. With minimal planning and a hastily-assembled bag of snacks and entertainment (luckily for my son, this included a Tom & Jerry DVD from the library), we could leave the laundry and dishes behind for a day. It was with this spirit in mind (and with a lightened summer workload) that I decided it was high time we visited the Industrial Country Market.
I had read about the market, located almost 20 miles east of La Grange on Highway 71, in an article in the Statesman last year. Owners Dan and Michele Bretch are former teachers and owners of a Houston electronic business who were intrigued with the idea of solar power. Part store, part science experiment, the mission of this non-general-general store is, according to a brochure I picked up, “to provide a commercial and educational facility sustained by sun, wind and rain. The interaction of these primary energy sources, combined with the creative forces of its owners, exemplifies the possibilities available to all visitors.” Sounds a little like something you’d find in Austin, doesn’t it?
My son and I left town on a Friday after the morning rush hour died down. Since I realized that we’d probably arrive in Columbus close to noon and that we wouldn’t have much to choose from around the Market, we stopped at Weikel’s in La Grange for an early lunch. After considering the large selection of food available, we opted for a few pigs-in-a-blanket and split a kolache (at $1.50 a pop, this was a pretty cheap meal). Weikel’s is one of the stops we made during my childhood, and the bakery has gotten a major facelift, with lots of specialty items on display.
I never did see a kitchen sink, but I saw just about everything else.
As we drove through Bastrop, I realized I hadn’t driven past Lost Pines since the devastating fires in 2011. The sight of the skeleton-like remains of what was a majestic stand of loblolly pines put a momentary damper on what was otherwise a very fun and carefree day. On the bright side, the signs of time marching on were present everywhere, and the green interspersed among the charred remains reminded me that we will soon enjoy a thriving forest once again.
We pulled into the Industrial Country Market parking lot shortly before noon. Our first stop was a covered greenhouse-like structure which had various plants and pots for sale. Then we went inside the main building, which is the store, where we were greeted with a warm welcome and a quick explanation of what there was to see. We were offered free bottled water, which we didn’t take initially, but took advantage of later. Very close to the door was a big area with kids’ toys, so my son was immediately hooked. It didn’t take long for him to find all kinds of treasures he wanted to take home.
The 6,000 square-foot Market is truly unlike any store you have ever been inside. Alongside jewelry, there is a small fridge selling chocolates. Next to a container full of carved walking sticks are human-sized latex masks of cardinals and chickens. A whole aisle has travel-sized containers of various shapes and sizes. In the middle of it all are instruments from Nepal. To complete the scene, music is piped in through speakers throughout the property, so several times during our visit I passed by another patron singing or humming along to a familiar tune. My kid was truly in heaven and I couldn’t help picking up a few impulse buys myself, all which were very reasonably priced. At one point I overhead the cashier explaining the layout to a newbie, who remarked, “So, basically, you have everything but the kitchen sink?” to which the cashier responded, “Oh, we have some of those, too.”
After meticulously going up and down each aisle (including the extensive selection of band-aids and LOL-worthy signs), we finally ventured out to the gardens. I was immediately amazed at all that was growing, thanks to the thousands of gallons of rain harvested during storms. Various gardens encircle a large pond teeming with goldfish. A solar panel provided some nice shade for my son and I to take a quick break on a bench and to observe a frog that hopped across the path. Next to the gardens is the Power Room, which looks like a repository for a lot of car batteries, but contains all of the equipment to run the Market (most of which is reclaimed from a telephone system, according to one of the signs inside the small structure).
We then explored the extensive outdoor sculpture garden. Winding paths lead you past colorful works of art, made largely from repurposed materials. I really enjoyed marveling at how the artist had transformed the landscape in so many unusual ways. Some of the works of art reminded me of what I might see during the East Austin Studio Tour or as part of the Cathedral of Junk (although the latter is something to climb on top of and touch and the paths suggested we keep the artwork at an arm’s reach). We took another break on a bench under another solar panel and listened to the sound of the cars whizzing by on the highway.
We browsed in the Collection Building and the Art Gallery before checking out the greenhouse with hydroponically-raised plants. Although all of this was interesting, after an hour and a half of reconnoitering, and with temperatures rising, we decided we were ready to go. We made a pit stop on our way out, which may mark the first time I have taken a photo inside a restroom (it was a composting bathroom, after all!) After paying for our treasures, we hit the road.
On the way home we made our first stop at a Buc-ee’s in Bastrop, where we celebrated our Texas road trip with a Big Red ICEE. As I drove up TX-95 toward Elgin, I spotted a sign for the Elgin Rodeo in a field of horses, which was taking place over the next few days. Although I was tempted to stop, I realized we had done enough for one day. Another day, another road trip.
Things to know before you go:
- The Market is now open on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays from 10am until 6pm. The Market is free to visit and credit cards are an accepted form of payment for any treasures you might want to bring home.
- Train Sunday is the last Sunday of the month, year-round.
- Be prepared to spend a good deal of your time outside. If you visit during the summer, you may want to bring sunscreen, sunglasses and hats to protect you from the hot Texas sun.
- Apart from the cashier behind the counter, you will be mostly on your own as you explore the Market. Signs posted around the facility ask that you supervise children at all times. There are many breakable items in the store and even with an older child, you’ll likely want to stick together. At one point, I could hear a toddler across the store crying, “Down! Down!” after a parent had scooped her up and she obviously was wanting to touch everything in the store (couldn’t blame her or the parent).
- Signs also inform you that the ground is often uneven. Although you could bring a stroller inside the main building, it might be hard to rely on one in all of the areas of the Market.
- As I mentioned earlier, the facility is relatively self-contained and there isn’t much closeby, so, if you will arrive close to lunchtime, plan to eat before or after.
- Educational courses on solar energy, living off the grid and hydroponic gardening will resume in September.
Industrial Country Market
1799 Texas 71
Columbus, TX 78934
*Note: I didn’t bring the address, but just searched for the Market in my iPhone Maps app, and I guess it was a bit off there. When I knew we were close, I was keeping up with our progress on my phone and we breezed by the buildings before I realized and we had to make a U-turn (the phone wanted me to keep going a few miles). The street to turn left onto off of Highway 71 heading east is Brushy Road.