A significant part of James Hilliard’s life went up in smoke on a cold night in January when Clark’s Outpost was destroyed by fire.
Hillard, who has worked at the barbeque restaurant since 1974, is determined to resurrect its storied gallery of memories, including where he met his bride.
“It took 41 years to get what was in there. I figure I can spend another 40 years to get that much in there again,” Hillard said.
Hillard and Steve Gressett took ownership of Clark’s Outpost after the original owner, Warren Clark, died in 1996. His wife Nancy operated it for about five years before deciding to sell to Hilliard and Gressett.
Clark opened the restaurant on U.S. 377 in 1974, hiring Hilliard as a dishwasher three days after he opened. Hillard later was named manager of the restaurant, and he hired Gressett in 1982.
“I’ve been there since three days after it opened,” Hillard said. “All those old photos and antiques are gone. I have to start over.”
The fire burned through the old Clark’s Outpost building on Jan. 16. It was 24 degrees, the coldest day recorded for the year to that date.
“The (fire) marshal told me there was no fire inside the building,” Hillard said. “It was all in the roof above the ceiling coming out of the roof.
It’s a 120-year old building. Once that old wood got started, they couldn’t put it out.”
Clark’s was known throughout North Central Texas for both its barbeque and the photos of celebrities and antiques that lined the walls. All of the memorabilia that made the restaurant unique was destroyed in the fire.
The Tioga City Council Monday night granted Hillard a specific use permit that will allow him to install a drive-through window at the new Clark’s Outpost. Construction will begin in the upcoming weeks, he said.
“I’ve wanted to start on this since April 1,” Hillard said. “To meet the state’s requirements takes time.”
The Tioga Planning and Zoning Commission also was required to approve his plans before Hilliard could present them to the council.
“They have to accept the application, have a public hearing, then vote on it, which are all separate meetings,” Hillard said. “It’s took me five months just to get the drive-through approved.”
Meanwhile, Hillard is still paying his store managers, David (Jeff) Wells and Aldolphus (Friedo) Lugo, who have been helping him get the site ready for construction.
Everybody knows them by Jeff and Friedo because that’s what we called them in school,” Hillard said.
Hilliard is planning a building that will retain characteristics of the iconic restaurant, including its original bricks. Most of the bricks were salvaged after the fire.
“The general idea is to make the building look old.” Hilliard said. “It’ll have 20-foot parapet walls like old buildings do and old-style windows.”
The new restaurant also will include a large porch with an awning and a stage for musical performances.
“There’s going to be a little stage area where they’ll be four inches above the crowd so they can play a guitar and sing. There’ll be an area where people can get up and dance if they want to,” Hillard said.
Hilliard also has had some of the photos that were hanging in the building reproduced.
“I’ve got copies of all the old-town photos that were in there,” Hilliard said. “These photos happened by accident because I collected them myself trying to find history about this town.
“I’ve got photos of the town’s semi-pro baseball team, the old railroad depot when it was under construction back in the 1880s, and photos that were taken before Tioga existed, when it was called Alma and Little San Diego.”
Hillard said the essence of the old Clark’s Outpost would be the same when it reopens.
“Our briskets are smoked for 72 to 78 hours; we don’t change that. It’s going to taste the same every time,” Hillard said. “The ribs are smoked for eight to 10 hours, and that’s going to be the same every time.
“It doesn’t matter if you come in this week or next week, or three years from now: It’s going to be the same product. It’s what Mr. Clark learned and what we learned.”