How an East Texas Mule Kick-Started the Marx Brothers’ Career

 

     What do an east Texas opera house, a cantankerous mule and the Marx Brothers have to do with each other? Turns out…quite a bit!

Nacogdoches Opera House

     Around 1910 a trio of brothers named Leonard Joseph, Adolph and Julius Henry Marx were touring the vaudeville circuit with their act, which was mainly singing popular tunes and doing a little dancing. The thing was…they weren’t terribly adept at either of those things.

     One night they were doing their act at the Opera House in Nacogdoches, Texas, one of the stops known as “tank towns” on the performance circuit. Nope, that’s not a compliment, but I’m sure they were glad to perform anywhere they could. (A tank town was considered a small, unimportant town where only trains stopped to take on water. There – now you’re all set for trivia night!)

     During this particular show, a man ran in from the street shouting “Runaway mule!” Well now, THAT had to be more entertaining than these guys, so almost everyone in the audience ran out to see the excitement.

Instigator!

     It seems that a mule had begun kicking a wagon it was hitched to until it broke loose on Church Street beside the Opera House and started running rampant through the streets of downtown. With their audience now outside on the streets watching the action, the brothers were left on stage. And Julius was fuming mad. Once the mule had been lassoed and subdued, the audience returned to their theatre seats – they HAD paid for tickets, after all.

     And Julius let loose on them.

     He began singing the tune of a popular little ditty but changed the words to include the story about how “the Jackass is the flower of Tex-ass.” As he kept hurling insults into the audience the brothers noticed something unexpected. The Texans were laughing and applauding. The snide remarks and clever insults were a hit!

     That was a turning point in their career, and they began to develop the routines around sarcastic humor that would become their trademark.

     Soon, Julius would paint on a greasepaint moustache and go by the name Groucho – a surly man who walked with a stooped posture. Leonard Joseph would adapt the personae of an accented immigrant by the name of Chico. And Adolph (who, by the way, understandably later changed his name to Arthur) would still rely on his brilliant musical talents as the wordless Harpo.

     After they found success, they were occasionally joined by brothers Milton (Gummo) and Herbert Manfred (Zeppo).

     But one of America’s most recognized comedy acts may never have happen if it weren’t for that east Texas Mule.

     The Opera House is still standing today at 329 East Main Street in Nacogdoches . . . without a mule in sight.

 

 

Roaming with Richmond Ghosts

‘Tis the season for ghostly fun…and boy did we find some in Richmond!


 

     As a cemetery historian and author of a couple of books about cemeteries and ghosts, October is understandably a busy time of the year for me – filled with giving tours and presentations. So it was a special treat last night when my husband and I took time for ourselves to TAKE a ghost tour of the historic district of Richmond, Texas. It’s one I’ve been wanting to see for years, and now I can’t wait to go back with friends next year!

   Richmond is filled with history, which usually – in turn – means that through the years tragedies and unfortunate events have affected the lives of those who lived there. We found out that even the clock tower of the Fort Bend County Courthouse (where we got our marriage license many moons ago) has a story of death and a haunting attached to it.

     We were lucky enough to have Jessica Avery, programs coordinator for the Fort Bend Museum, as our tour guide – assisted by a charming group of other museum employees and volunteers.

     One of the things I appreciate about ghost tours organized by historical society groups is that they have a respect for true history as their basis. (Read that as “they don’t just make up a bunch of stories and get their references to history muddled – -I’ve seen that done way too often.) Though the Fort Bend Museum does historical tours of their properties throughout the year so you can learn about the historic aspects of them, their ghost tours focus on the tales and legends associated with the places. So . . . much . . . fun.

   And no, I’m not going to share the stories they worked so hard to gather here. I want you to hear them for yourselves in the spots where they occurred!

     It was an easy-paced walking tour as we followed Jessica through the streets nearby Moore Mansion and into old downtown Rosenberg as she pointed out different sites and shared their stories. Used to documenting with school groups, she has a lovely, clear speaking voice that was easily understandable even over the occasional street noise. The museum staff has visited with local business owners, so they’re able to share their unexplained experiences and sightings as well.

     Several charming small buildings that belong to the group such as the McFarlane House are included, and attendees are encouraged to peek inside the windows! Charming by day, certain places with so much past can contain rooms where even the most serious-minded history experts may become so unsettled they have to gather their things and leave when darkness falls.


     One of the properties even has a gravemarker in the front yard. What’s better is that it belongs to Texas hero Deaf Smith “The Texas Spy!” His name may sound familiar to you if you took Texas history in school. I had no idea such an illustrious person’s commemoration would be found inside the white picket fence of the property. There may even be more unmarked graves beneath the house, which was moved to the property much later. 

 

 

 

 

 

     Our final stop of the evening was at the fascinating 1883 Moore Mansion, home base for the Fort Bend Museum. And they definitely saved the best for last!

     If you haven’t heard it before – but you probably have if you read my blog – funerals “back in the day” were held at home, and the staff had set up an entire Victorian funeral scene in one of the rooms complete with a mounting wreath, coffin, samples of mourning jewelry and announcements, and draped mirrors and pictures. Beautifully done, and very appropriate for the Halloween season.

     The house was lit throughout only with battery operated candles and hand held flashlights, which added to the mood. Our guides gave us a tour upstairs and downstairs while telling us some eerily intriguing tales, then let us wander through the large home by ourselves for a bit.

 

 

 

 

 

Some of the “faces in the windows” may be your tour guides!

 

     Sign up early – they do sell out. You can choose to do a Halloween tour of the Moore Home or a ghost tour of the area. We chose to do a combo tour of both because . . . who wants to choose?

     The Fort Bend Museum has events throughout the year for all ages. You can check the upcoming plans here.

Cover Reveal Day for “A History of the Hotel Galvez”

It’s Cover Reveal Day!

Click image to order.

I’m so excited to finally share the full cover of the upcoming ‘A History of the Hotel Galvez’ with you. Sending a huge thanks to the designers at

The History Press who put together the cover look during quarantine. I’m so happy with it, and receiving the image during the uncertain days of Covid was a great light to hold onto.

I really wanted to relay the historic element of of the hotel, and after going through the images I submitted I think they definitely chose a winner.

Today I’ll be reviewing the galleys (a final proof of the book with photo placements, etc.) and sending it back to the presses to become “real.”


Release day is February 1, and it’s already available for pre-order here.

I’m looking forward to sharing some of the amazing stories behind the “Queen of the Gulf.” Have you ever stayed at the Hotel Galvez?

Ponder-ing Bonnie & Clyde in Texas

     Since Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Chestnut Barrow were both born in Texas, it should come as no surprise that there is no shortage of places in the state with some sort of link to the notorious outlaws. 

     When Bonnie,  Clyde and the Barrow Gang drove up to the Ponder State Bank in Ponder, Texas and attempted to rob it, they were disappointed to find out it had gone bankrupt the week before. Legend has it that Clyde was so disgusted with the news that he marched the teller out to the getaway car at gunpoint, and ordered him to repeat what he had just said to Bonnie…who laughed hysterically. Clyde then shot out the windows of the bank in frustration.

     Years later in 1967 Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway would film a reenactment of the event at the same bank while portraying the young outlaws. The film, which told a version of their story that is far from the truth,  glorified the couple as being glamorous outlaws. In reality they murdered at least thirteen people.

     This popular movie is actually why most people refer to them as “Bonnie and Clyde.” In their day they were more commonly referred to as the Barrow Gang or Clyde Barrow and “that Parker woman.”

     The Ponder bank is empty now, but still has much of it’s original charm including the original teller cage and bank safe.

     I love when movies about historical characters are able to use actual locations from their (sometimes fictionalized) lives, don’t you?

 

   If you stood on these steps would you be more impressed that you were standing where Bonnie & Clyde did, or Warren and Faye?




Dancing to Ditties Down on Double Bayou


     A few miles south of Anahuac in the community of Double Bayou in Chambers County, aptly named for its location nestled between two bayous, a long narrow building sits beside moss draped oaks hinting at the much livelier days of the past.

     Don’t let appearances fool you though, this place was once a hoppin’ joint!

     Double Bayou Dance Hall was built in the late 1920s using cedar logs as a dance floor, hog wire and wood for the walls topped by a tin roof. The tacks and staples that held tar paper covering can still be seen on the exterior wood.

     During Juneteenth in the 1920s and 30s, many revelers would come to the “The Place,” as it was known locally, all the way from Galveston. The celebration often lasted three days, but always ended in time for Sunday school and church.

     A storm destroyed the original hall in 1941, but Manuel Tanzy Rivers (“Rivers”…appropriate name, don’t you think?) used the original materials to rebuild it just down the road in 1946 after returning from after World War II. The hall served as a gathering place for community events during the week, and a dance hall on the weekends.

     The hall was on the ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’ for the next couple of decades. The circuit, which gained notoriety in an interview with Lou Rawls, was a group of performance venues in the South that were safe for African American musicians to perform during the Jim Crow era. Major acts on their way to Houston would often detour to play impromptu gigs at the famous hall.

     The audiences at Double Bayou came from all different ethnic, cultural and economic backgrounds to share their love of music and the Texas Blues arriving by boat, automobile or on foot from local towns, Houston, Galveston and Austin.

     Rivers’ nephew, blues guitarist Floyd “Pete” Mayes and his band the Texas Houserockers played their first professional gig at the Double Bayou Dance Hall in 1954, and soon became the house band playing there through the early 1960s.

Frottoir

    Mayes took over the dance hall after his uncle passed away, and in later years hosted jazz, rhythm & blues and zydeco concerts there in between his performances around the nation. In the old days, zydeco was called “La-la’ and would often include an accordion and rub board (frottoir) or sometimes a fiddle and a rub board.

     From 1955 until 2005 Mayes hosted a Christmas matinee that became a traditional excursion for many music loving Texans. Cowboys would smoke brisket on the lawn and local women offered homemade pecan, lemon meringue and sweet potato pies as music drifted out the doors and windows and into the surrounding trees.

Pete Mayes inside the Double Bayou Dance Hall

    Mayes and his band recorded a CD titled “Pete Mayes and the Texas Houserockers LIVE! At Double Bayou Dance Hall in May 2003. Treat yourself, and listen to a snippet of one of the tunes HERE.

     Mayes passed away in December 2008. Just three months earlier Hurricane Ike’s 20-foot storm surge washed over the Bolivar Peninsula and swept north, flooding the Double Bayou area. The storm broke walls and damaged the roof, but left the dance hall damaged but standing.

     Today the ruins stand behind a Texas State Historical Marker, with the falling roof and broken floorboards sheltering snakes and spiders rather than musicians.

      The only music that echoes through the windows and doors these days is the wind and rustle of leaves.

 

 

 

Virtual Travel: Waxahachie, Texas

     This week we had a quick visit and virtual tour of the English Merchant’s Inn in Waxahachie . . . one of my favorite bed and breakfasts in Texas. If you missed it, you can catch the replay below, then refer to the links below for more fun to be found in this gem of a small town.

Click these links to find more information and photos:

English Merchant’s Inn

Waxahachie Courthouse Folklore

Hachie Hearts

Waxahachie’s Love Lock Bridge

Exploring What Lies Below: Bayou Park Cistern

     A cistern….really? If you think that doesn’t sound worth seeing I’m here to tell you it absolutely is!

Maca=HoustonCistern

     Thousands of people walk the paths of this beautiful park every day without ever knowing what lies beneath their feet. Let’s go underground and take a peek!

     Park your bike or car and step into the visitors center next to this entrance to meet your tour guide. They are part of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, a non-profit that is restoring the historic Houston waterway, and are so have so much fascinating knowledge to share and make your visit memorable.

     The valve wheels just outside are a good photo opportunity for kids and just fun to play with . . . don’t worry – they aren’t connected actually to anything any more. They used to be stationed around the perimeter of the cistern to allow the water flow to be turned off when the cistern was full.

 

     Following your guide through the metal doors you’ll walk through a poured concrete corridor to one last metal, sliding door.

     Stepping inside the cistern you’ll be greeted with a view that seems more grand than functional. It’s the columns – row after row – that together create a sense of being in some sort of exotic Roman underground grotto rather than just a few steps from Houston sunshine.

     The expanse that visitors take in includes 221 columns, 165 of which are are 25 feet tall. They stand stoically in a cavernous space of over 87,500 square feet – about a football field and a half in size. When filled to capacity the cistern could hold 15 million gallons of water standing within six inches of the ceiling.

     The water plant where the contents would drain used to be where the nearby Aquarium Restaurant stands today.

     A comfortably wide walking path with metal railings surrounds the water storage area allowing access around the entire perimeter.

     The cistern was built  in 1926 as an underground drinking water reservoir for the city by Standard Construction Company, and took 95 days to construct in a pre-excavated site. Over 6,000 cubic yards of concrete and over 800,000 pounds of reinforcement steel were used. Half of that alone went into the 8″ thick ceiling that tops walls that are 8″ thick at the at top widening to 18″ at the bottom.

     On your tour you’ll hear about the challenges of obtaining water in the early days of Houston for uses such as putting out fires led to decisions that ultimately building the infrastructure that included the cistern. If you normally think talking about history is pretty dry, well . . . this story’s all wet. (Sorry!)

     In 1926 the cistern was called the City of Houston 15 Million Gallon Covered Reinforced County Reservoir. Today’s name of The Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern is sure easier to remember!

     There wasn’t always an entrance tunnel to the space. On each of the four sides there is a 50-pound hatch in the ceiling with a ladder extending down into the cistern, and a concrete stairway down to the water. Maintenance workers would have had to navigate the wet ladder and climb down to balance on what used to be a two-foot ledge before proceeding to the stairs, carrying only a dim lantern to guide them. Makes me wonder how many lost their footing and ended up in the water!

     The small amount of water now provides a beauty and esthetic quality as well as moisture that helps maintain the concrete of the structure. We all need a bit of “maintenance,” don’t we  – and the cistern will be 94 years old this summer!

     In 2010 the City of Houston was searching for a contractor to demolish the decommissioned cistern when members of the Buffalo Bayou Park project “discovered” the site. Seeing its historical significance, they took over the cistern and had it restored.

 

     And now for my favorite part of the tour: turning off the lights! Yes, it’s definitely a bit spooky, and this is when you realize how happy you are that your guide was carrying such a large-faced flashlight. As the lights shut off, you’ll experience the very definition of dark!

     Watching as the wide beam from your guide’s light is directed in different ways, it’s fascinating to see the illusions it creates.

     Today the water at the base of the columns is only about eight or nine inches deep, but light on the water gives the illusion of  the columns being twice as tall and the water much deeper than it truly is.

     As the guide shines the light toward one specific point, the vision of the columns seems to stretch into infinity. It’s truly breathtaking.

     Now if you’re as lucky as I was, you will be assigned one of the talented guides who happens to have a beautiful singing voice. Hearing the songstress’ a cappella performance reverberate around the cistern was awe inspiring. The water, concrete walls, columns and their symmetrical placement create an echo that lasts 17 to 20 seconds, and audibly seems to travel around the area.

     The Park group recently hosted their first two projected light art installations by artists, and hope to offer a third this fall. It’s a wonderful way to take advantage of this unique space.

     Thanks to a permanent installation named “Down Periscope” by artist Donald Lipski, you can take peer below even if you aren’t on a tour. Visitors to the park above the cistern can use the periscope to see what’s going on below. If you’re further away, it can be viewed and controlled online. Just click this link to take a look. (NOTE: during the current quarantine, the periscope isn’t operational online or in person.)

Stay above ground, but peer below with “Down Periscope.”

     Buffalo Bayou Park’s cistern is the only defunct reservoir of its size open to the public in the United States. The closest thing in stature is the Basilica cistern in Istanbul, Turkey which was made around 500 A.D.

     It’s one of the few magnificent views in the city that doesn’t depend on the weather.


     Walking tours of the cistern are available between 10:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Mondays, Tuesday and Wednesdays and last for about 15 minutes. They’re given on a first-come first served basis and only cost $5.

     Longer private tours for larger groups (great for photographers and history enthusiasts) are available as well and can be booked online here.

     Be sure to check their website ahead of time for rules and restrictions that may affect your visit.

     See you beneath the city!


Texas’ First White House: The Ross Sterling Mansion

     This morning I posted a photo and bit of information about the Ross Sterling Mansion, which is known locally as the First Texas White House. After receiving several messages asking for a bit more information, I’m sharing it here.

     This beauty is right down the road from my own home…which is decidedly smaller!

     Architect Alfred C. Finn designed the scaled down replica of the American White House for Humble Oil founder and future Texas governor Ross Sterling. It’s a Texas State Historical Landmark as well as being listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Governor Ross Sterling

     Finn, by the way, also designed Houston’s Jefferson Davis Hospital, Sam Houston Coliseum, and the San Jacinto Monument in addition to numerous other federal and private projects.

Photo courtesy of John Daugherty Realtors.

      Construction on the grand residence began in 1924 and was completed in 1927. First named “Miramar” – meaning “sea view” – the 21,000 square foot mansion sits on six about six and a half acres of residential coastline between La Porte and Morgans Point.

Photo courtesy of John Daugherty Realtors.

     Its 34 rooms include nine bedrooms, 15 baths, a dining room that seated 300 guests, a ballroom with pressed tin ceiling and marble fireplace, a gentleman’s lounge with carved wood fireplace and built-in leaded glass-front bookcases, a mahogany-paneled library, a ladies’ parlor, and a kitchen with butler’s pantry. Seven fireplaces warmed the waterfront home on chilly winter evenings, and the rooftop terrace still offers stunning 360-degree waterfront views.

Photo courtesy of John Daugherty Realtors.

     This pair of serpentine reversed staircases in the foyer would put the most stunning movie set to shame.

Photo courtesy of John Daugherty Realtors.

     The waterfront side of the home features a 28-foot columned rotunda portico that most people immediately recognize as being based on the White House.

Photo courtesy of John Daugherty Realtors.
Photo courtesy of John Daugherty Realtors.

     The staircases and lowest level are made of granite blocks, and the walls of the upper stories are made of foot-thick limestone. The foundation is reportedly strong enough to support a ten-story building. The stalwart structure has withstood countless storms including Carla, Alicia, and Ike. I would certainly feel safe within its walls!

Photo courtesy of John Daugherty Realtors.

     Ross Sterling was the 31st governor of Texas, serving from 1931-1933. Countless dignitaries and celebrities have been hosted in the home over the years.

Photo courtesy of John Daugherty Realtors.

     Sterling and his wife Maude Abbie Gage had several children, and they along with a generation of grandchildren enjoyed the home for two decades.

Photo courtesy of John Daugherty Realtors.

     In 1946 he donated his mansion to a civic club and it was used as a juvenile home until 1961. During those years the home suffered heavy damage.

Photo courtesy of John Daugherty Realtors.

     Thankfully a handful of owners in the interim years have restored it to its former glory. It still retains many of the original features including intricately carved and gilded moldings, silver and gold light sconces, Tiffany chandeliers, antique stone fireplaces, pressed-tin ceilings and marble and oak flooring.

Photo courtesy of John Daugherty Realtors.

     It is now once again a private residence, having sold at auction in 2016 for $2.8 million (though initial estimates were for $4 million).

     If the current owners insisted on having me over for tea, I must admit I wouldn’t mind!

     If you’d like to cruise by on a Sunday drive, the historic home is located at 515 Bayridge Road in LaPorte.

Photo courtesy of John Daugherty Realtors.

     Click the links below to watch some entertaining home movies shot at the mansion back in it’s Fitzgerald-era heyday!

Click to play video

 

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Ross Sterling historical video
Click to play video

 

 

Waxahachie’s Bit of Britain: English Merchants Inn

NOTICE: This trip was taken before the Corona virus quarantine. 

     Mother-daughter weekend getaways with my teenager are a gift, and we recently discovered an inviting bed and breakfast that was the perfect home base for our exploration of the charming town of Waxahachie.

     The last thing you might expect to find in this small town just 30 miles south of Dallas are British theme lodgings, but you won’t want to miss experiencing the British Merchant’s Inn for yourself.

     Owners Mary and Howard Baskin have been lucky enough to live in the red brick Mission style bungalow style home twice. They raised their family there before moving away for several years, and then re-purchased it in 2016 to turn it into a bed and breakfast.

     At the end of a long drive from Houston my daughter and I were relieved to pull into a parking space on the side of the inn, which sits on a lovely residential stretch of West Main Street. After being greeted at the door by a large concrete bulldog painted with the Union Jack we stepped inside, and into an explosion of creative interior design with a nod to the British Isles.

 

 

     If every corner you see appears to be a picture perfect vignette, there’s a good reason. Mary worked as an interior designer for over 35 years and produced interior design articles for publications such as Traditional Homes, Country Home and Better Homes and Gardens as a regional editor for Meredith Publishing.

     She also organizes small group antique shopping trips abroad – which I’d love to take part in now that I’ve witnessed her knack for finding such unique items. Her delightfully amusing discoveries fill every room at the BnB.

     The home, whose layout is ideal for operating an inn, was built and occupied by James Wright Harrison by 1910  (according to the census), although the owner’s obituary stated that he built it in 1905.

     James was born in Arkansas and came to Texas in 1868 when he was just 12, with his British born father, American mother and a houseful of siblings.

     Later, the cotton farmer married an English girl named Fanny and they moved into this home in town where they lived the rest of their lives, passing away just one day apart in 1944.

     Though they never had children, I’m pretty sure their love story lives on in the walls of their beautiful home.

     Mary took the opportunity to incorporate her love of England to reflect the heritage of the original homeowners, and create an inviting place where guests can recharge between jaunts into town to take in the sights.

     We stayed in an upstairs Room 1, which offered two separate beds. My daughter immediately chose the one nestled beneath a window and piled with pillows.

     My larger bed was beneath a crystal chandelier in another nook of the room, providing us both with a sense of togetherness, with a bit of privacy.

    Each of the guest rooms has a private bathroom in which the Baskins have provided all the necessities down to fluffy towels and make-up remover. My daughter and I were determined to enjoy the large claw foot tub during our stay (although we used the shower more often), so we stopped by a local drugstore and treated ourselves to fragrant bath bombs. (Because it wouldn’t be a girls’ weekend without a bit of pampering, right?) Ooh-la-la!

      Mary invited us to explore the other rooms to statisfy our curiosity, and each was a unique little oasis of comfort and style.



     Room #3 featured a very British, very red bathroom with walls adorned with antique hats.

     The romantic canopy bed in room number 2 is perfect for couples or just to treat yourself.  The room features its own private second floor patio balcony.

 

     The only downstairs guest room, number 4, is the largest and features boldly striped walls.

     A “formal” downstair parlor and bar areas, complete with grand piano, are also on the ground floor and would make an ideal place to meet up with your traveling friends who may not have been lucky enough to stay at the inn.

     Our mornings began with cups of tea sipped from china cups while we were getting ready for the day. My daughter loved visiting the “tea station” in the mornings and evenings and choosing a different floral china cup to use…and I admit so did I.

     For breakfast we were given vouchers for an adorable nearby café called the White Rhino Coffee + Kitchen. Conveniently close to the inn it had plenty of parking and delicious food. I hate to think that I may have missed this gem if Mary hadn’t sent us there! Located in an old two-story home, the downstairs has been renovated and opened into large comfortable spaces that encouraging lingering. And, um…the cinnamon rolls served in individual mini skillets? Yes, please! The staff was just as enchanting as the food and restaurant itself, so we were glad to be able to revisit them two days in a row.

     Anyone who thinks there wouldn’t be enough to do around this small town needn’t worry. We spent hours in the antique shops and chatting with the friendly owners, searched for and found all of the “Hachie Hearts” (read more about them HERE), had a yummy sandwich and malt for lunch at Farm Luck (an old fashioned soda fountain that is a “must”), photographed the old railroad station and bridge, and Art on the Square where we enjoyed chatting with a local artist patiently creating a new masterpiece.

     The recently restored courthouse on the square in town has quite a legend attached to it, that you can read more about HERE.

       Movie buffs may recognize several sights around town used as movie backdrops for films that include “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Tender Mercies” and “Places in the Heart.” And the friendly hosts of the English Merchant Inn are more than happy to cue up one of these classics for you to enjoy in the TV room as you put up your feet after a long day of walking from shop to shop.

      If you aren’t in the mood for movies, you may want to pull up a chair to the den table to work on a puzzle or curl up with one of the numerous books from the shelves guests are invited to enjoy.

     I couldn’t help but think how fun it would be to stay at the inn with a group of friends, taking over the entire second floor and enjoying the common spaces together, or sitting on the wide porch watching the rest of the world go slowly past.

    I think it’s the perfect “excuse” to visit again, don’t you?




Face It…Ellis County Courthouse Has Quite a Story!

     Stone emojis? Well, kind of! These faces silently tell the story of an unrequited love in Ellis County long ago.

     The courthouse itself is exquisite. This 1897 Romanesque Revival stunner was designed by architect J. Riely Gordon.  If you’re a fan of Texas courthouses, you’ve heard his name before, since he designed 18 of them! But this one is undisputedly his masterpiece.

     I promise to tell you more about this beauty another time, but for now we’re just going to talk about those faces! If you feel as if someone is watching you as your walk around the grounds of the courthouse square, you’re probably right.

MABEL’S FABLE

     The story goes that sculptor Harry Herley arrived in Waxahachie in 1895 to work on carvings for the courthouse project during it’s construction. The itinerant English artist moved into Mama Frame’s boarding house, where he met and fell in love with her beautiful 16-year-old daughter Mabel.

     As his work continued on the courthouse, Harry’s love for Mabel grew, and he carved her angelic countenance to top the exterior columns of the courthouse.

 

     But, as fate would have it, the love was unrequited and Mabel discouraged his constant attentions. As it became apparent to Harry that his love wasn’t returned, his disappointment slowly turned into bitterness, and the faces he carved to represent Mabel progressed from beautiful to grotesque and twisted. A lasting revenge for his broken heart.

     The townspeople weren’t too happy about the unattractive faces on the courthouse they had spend so much money to build, and one story relates that the cattlemen and farmers even tarred and feathered poor ol’ Harry and ran him out of town on a rail.

     It’s a sad, but terrific tale ripe for retelling through the generations.

Spoiler alert: If you’re charmed by the legend and would prefer

to leave it at that . . .you might want to stop reading this now.

THE TRUTH

     Mabel’s mother Hattie, although a widow, didn’t seem to be running a boarding house according to the federal census. Even if she had been, the chances are that Herley never met the Frame family.

     The biggest obstacle to this story were the characters were when it was supposedly taking place.

     The stone sculptures for the courthouse were sub-contracted to the Dallas firm of German stonemason Theodore Beilharz. Hervey, who worked for the company at the time, is created with carving the exquisite red sandstone capitals perched atop the polished pink granite columns, but he also supervised other carvers who worked on the project.

     The carvings would have been created in the Beilharz’s Pacific and Hawkins Stoneyard in Dallas and shipped to Waxahachie by rail as finished pieces, ready to mount in place.

     So…if Hervey wasn’t actually in Waxahachie, he certainly wasn’t occupied falling in love with one of its residents.

 

     There’s no record of Hervey coming to town until the summer of 1896, a year after his work for the courthouse was completed, to work on another stone carving assignment for a prominent businessman.

     It was on this trip that he met local girl Minnie Hodges, whom he married in August of that year.

     Many of Reilly’s courthouses feature faces and gargoyles, appropriate for the Romanesque style, and its likely that the design or at least the theme for the faces was under his direction. Unfortunately no records show what the intended meaning of the progression was meant to represent…which opens them up to storytelling.

     It’s still a good story, and I bet if we checked back in a hundred years..it will still be told.

     Most local lore has elements of truth woven into it. Does knowing the true stories “ruin it” for you, or make it more interesting?

     And what’s a Texas legend without a song to go along with it? To listen to Jeremiah Richey’s ditty about the Eliis County Courthouse faces, click here.