San Saba, Texas: The Pecan Capital of the World

Featured Article, Food, Made in America
on September 19, 2013

Walking through his pecan orchard in San Saba, Texas, Winston Millican, 32, heads for his favorite tree, located a few hundred feet from the junction of the San Saba and Colorado rivers.

“It’s the most famous pecan tree there is,” Millican says with pride about the nearly 200-year-old tree, known as the Mother Pecan because it has spawned several popular varieties of pecans.

San Saba—the self-proclaimed Pecan Capital of the World—celebrates its flavorful thin-shelled nuts each fall during Pecan Jam. In addition to musical entertainment, the festival features pecans in the shell, cracked, halved, spiced, roasted, coated with chocolate, and chopped in coffee, syrup and preserves. Candy makers compete for prizes with their favorite pecan-laden sweets while chefs create pecan-laden entrees.

Year-round, townspeople treasure their native nuts, which are akin to gold nuggets, especially for the 200 employees of San Saba Pecan, the town’s largest private employer and one of the nation’s top pecan processors.

CEO R.D. “Buddy” Adams, 66, has grown the pecan shelling business from 300,000 pounds in 1972 to 28 million pounds a year. The San Saba-based company processes pecans grown in a dozen Southern states, from Georgia to Arizona.

People in San Saba County long have gathered and enjoyed wild pecans that grow in profusion along rivers and creeks, but the push to cultivate them as a marketable crop began with Millican’s great-great-grandfather, Edmond E. Risien. The English cabinetmaker stopped in San Saba in 1874 en route to California and ended up planting the seeds of the local pecan industry.

“He’d run out of money and began building caskets here,” Millican says, “but then he started looking at all the pecan trees.”

To find the best pecan, Risien offered a $5 prize for the tastiest, thin-shelled nut and discovered the Mother Pecan tree. He bought land around the prized tree, although every limb had been lopped off, except one where pecan harvesters had stood to reach other nut-studded branches.

The amateur horticulturist worked for decades developing pecan varieties, including the successful Onliwon, San Saba Improved and the world’s most popular pecan, Western Schley. He shipped pecan seedlings worldwide from his West Texas Pecan Nursery, whose rock walls remain on the family farm.

Among 9,500 pecan trees on the Millican farm are about 300 in the original orchard that Risien planted with nuts from the Mother Pecan, which once again is limbless after two lightning strikes.

“I wish Mr. Risien could see that all his hard work was not in vain,” says Winston’s wife, Kristen, 32, who makes pecan pies, pecan praline cheesecakes, pecan brittle and other sweets at Millican Pecan Co.’s bakery. “There are so many pecan trees in yards here in town because of Mr. Risien. He was developing the varieties and was generous in giving them out.”

Like the Millicans, most of the county’s 20 commercial growers are family-run businesses that started on a shoestring budget.

“We had a thrashing pole and two buckets,” says Shawn Oliver, 48, about the meager beginnings of Oliver Pecan Co. in 1970. “I’d thrash the nuts from the tree and Mom would pick them up.”

Today, Oliver Pecan Co. is one of the county’s largest growers with 30,000 trees. As soon as the green hulls on the pecans split open in October or November, mechanical harvesters vibrate the trees to shake loose the nuts. Other machines sweep up the crop and remove twigs and other debris. Thirty employees help harvest, shell and concoct more than 70 different goodies—from pecan fudge to pecan honey butter—in the company’s candy factory.

“It gets in your blood,” Oliver says about the San Saba pecan business. “When it starts turning cold, it’s pecan season. You’ve got growers talking about prices and customers that you see every year. Some people drive six hours just to buy fresh pecans and then drive back home.”

For folks who can’t drive to San Saba, the town’s golden nuggets can be enjoyed in cereals and confections nationwide, including Pierre’s Ice Cream, Field’s Pies and Chocolate Thunder From Down Under brownies at Outback Steakhouse.

Related: Pecans 101