Tucked away in a corner of the lush Brazos River Valley of Central Texas is one of the best-kept secrets of dedicated antiques hunters. That secret is Calvert.

Calvert has been described by one wag as "2,000 antiques stores and a Dairy Queen." The description is partially right: There is a DQ, and antiques are a way of life in Calvert, a town of about 1,500 residents in Robertson County.While 2,000 is a bit of an exaggeration, there are about a dozen tempting emporiums at last count. They feature everything from elegant English oak furniture to porcelains, jewelry, kitchenware, linens, lead-soldier molds, baseball cards, toys, stained glass and oodles more. You also can find new handicrafts, food items and gifts.

The shops are housed in restored 19th-century commercial buildings within an easy stroll of each other. The downtown area and a large part of Calvert's older residential district are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

On State Highway 6 between Bryan/College Station and Waco, Calvert was named for Robert Calvert, who established his cotton plantation west of the present town about 1850. Anticipating the arrival of the Houston and Texas Central Railroad (H&TC) in 1863, Calvert donated land for a town site. But railroad building had virtually halted at the onset of the "War of Northern Aggression." Resuming construction across the Brazos Valley after the war, the H&TC finally reached Calvert, seven miles northwest of Hearne, in 1870.

Practically overnight, Calvert exploded with activity. As a railroad terminus, Calvert attracted freight wagons by the hundreds, loaded with goods to be transferred to railroad cars for shipment to far-away markets. Departing passengers waited in Calvert to board the train, and friends and families of incoming passengers trekked to Calvert to meet the travelers.

Calvert became a typical boom town, with wide-open gambling; whiskey sold from barrels in grocery stores; shootouts in the streets; and "shady ladies" selling their favors.

The International and Great Northern Railroad came through town soon after the H&TC, and the two-railroad town continued to prosper and grow.

Calvert was soon the center of the cotton empire that covered much of the state. A cotton gin, powered by steam and said to be the largest cotton gin in the world, was built at Calvert in the early 1870s.

Spurred by the prosperity brought by cotton and railroads, Calvert's population swelled to almost 2,300 by 1880 and to more than 3,300 by the turn of the century.

Many of the early frame stores on Main Street were replaced by more permanent masonry structures, and these are the ones standing today. Stopping to read the historical markers on many of these buildings gives you a quick and painless history lesson on Calvert.

Before starting your explorations, pick up a copy of the brochure "Calvert, Antique Center of Texas," which is available in any of the shops. It has a map of Calvert and a list of shops and bed-and-breakfast inns.

One of the most imposing of the refurbished storefronts on Main Street today is the Adoue Building at 506 Main. It was originally built by Bertrand and Jacques Adoue, French brothers who established the town's first bank in 1869. The handsome, two-story building now houses The Boll Weevil, which specializes in fine American and English oak furniture from the 18th and 19th centuries, along with other antiques and estate jewelry. The First State Bank now occupies the brothers' bank building.

In the next block, at 406 Main, are the Butterfly Shop and the Memory Lane Antique Mall, which shelters several antiques dealers. In one room, merchandise surrounds an old, open-sided, hand-drawn Otis freight elevator once used by the now-defunct Calvert Carbonating Co. to bring bottles up from the basement to be filled with soda pop.

At Jane's Quilt Shop, in the Dunken Annex at 500 Main, you often can kibitz as local quilters painstakingly produce by hand the fine quilts that are the shop's specialty. Jane's sells antiques, glassware and collectibles, as well.

Men who get bored in most antiques shops should poke through the old tools and hardware displayed among the other merchandise at Dunken's Antiques at 509 Main or Front Porch Antiques at 505 Main. Dunken's also features lead soldiers that were cast in antique molds.

And unless you bleed orange, you'll get a kick out of seeing the entire Aggie band, in miniature, lined up in lead-soldier perfection in the front window. Dunken's sells hand-painted Aggie bands of from 15 to 291 pieces, as well as individual band members, Ross Volunteers or Parson's Mounted Cavalry.

If you crave your very own horse-drawn buggy or carriage, Timmons Carriage Company, 401 E. Texas at Main Street, can order a meticulously handcrafted one from Amish buggy makers in Winesburg, Ohio. Jim and Carol's Antiques and Handcrafts, just a few steps down Main Street from Timmons, offers handsome, sturdy, handmade wooden toys and decorative pieces.

Don't miss the Mercer Saloon Art Gallery, 606 Main. Owner Robert Norman's specialty is cleaning and restoring oil paintings. Upstairs in the same building is Mud Creek Pottery. Artist/potter M.L. "Sonny" Moss produces beautiful stoneware, both decorative and useful, in a wide range of shapes and colors.

Offerings in other shops include more antiques, semi-antiques, candles and fudge. Most of the shops are open Thursday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. On Sunday, some of the shops open at 1 p.m.

Save some time to drive through the residential streets of this once-thriving town for a glimpse of the imposing late 19th- and early 20th-century houses that have been lovingly restored. The most interesting ones are across the railroad tracks from Main Street.

The best place for lunch is the Posh Country Cafe, next to The Boll Weevil on Main Street. It's open for lunch Thursday through Sunday, and offers special candlelight dinners on Friday nights. Reservations are highly recommended for dinner. Sandwiches, salads, baked potatoes and pasta dishes are featured at lunch, and several choices are substantial enough for hearty eaters. In good weather, the brick-paved patio in back is an inviting spot.

Unless you are hankering for a DQ hamburger, dinner on any night except Friday means a short trip down Highway 6 to Hearne. Johnny Reb's Dixie Cafe, at the intersection of State Highway 6 and U.S. Highway 79, offers well-prepared country cooking and friendly service.

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For overnight stays in Calvert, Our House Bed and Breakfast is a charming choice. Don and Brenda Shafer are the hosts in their gracious two-story Victorian frame home, whose grounds occupy an entire city block.

Special events during Calvert's year include the Spring Fling Antique Sale the third weekend in April; the Antique Sale and Celebration the second weekend in August; and Christmas in the Country festival and home tour the first weekend in December.

Know before you go

GETTING THERE - From Dallas or Fort Worth, take I-35 south to Waco, then Loop 340 southeast to State Highway 6; turn left. Calvert is about 57 miles southeast of Waco.

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