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.

 

Lost Maples Cafe – Pass the Pie, Please!

     Did you say pie? Well, I don’t mind if I do! (And who could resist these smiling faces even if you tried?)

     At the Lost Maples Cafe in Utopia food is the first order of business, but the friendly, fun ambiance definitely makes it a favorite with tourists and regulars. The decor is country tongue-in-cheek, but the welcoming atmosphere is genuine.

     You know how I love historic buildings, and this one definitely comes with a colorful story. Built before 1904, it has served as a Masonic Lodge, a doctor’s office, a drug store and a classroom. The cafe has been serving up Texas-sized roadhouse fare here since 1986.

     Grab a table when you arrive and – if you’re in the mood – prop this sign on your table to invite some chatty company to sit a spell with you.

     At any given time of day the tables surrounding yours are likely to be serving a combination of ranchers, leather-clad bikers, tourists and church ladies. It feels like a wonderful combination of community center and diner.

     Since it was a slightly chilly night when we visited, my friend and I ordered a patty melt and a BLT sandwich. Thumbs up to both, but what I really had my eye on was the pie safe.

     Deciding which slice to order was one of the biggest challenges of the day (these things are important, ya know!), and I finally decided on fudge pecan. The choco-holic in me was definitely not disappointed! The portions are overly generous (if that’s possible), and if you’re a fan of meringue pie you’ll especially fall for the mile-high toppings.

     While we were there we visited with a handful of the locals who went from table to table visiting friends and sharing the latest local news. We also heard one of the adorable waitresses exclaim what a busy night it had been with five to go orders to prepare.

     Yes, things really do stroll along at a slower pace in Utopia, and thank heaven they do.

     If you’re staying in the area of Vanderpool or Utopia, you’ll need to remember this cafe out of necessity as well since it’s pretty much the only “real” restaurant around, and stays open past 5:00 p.m. when the streets “roll up” in the area.

     If the photos of this cute little cafe look a bit familiar, it’s probably because you saw it in the movie “Seven Days in Utopia,” starring Robert Duvall. As neat as that is though, its enduring fame will be for the tasty food rather than its acquaintance with Hollywood.

     And what to do after you stuff yourself with all of this goodness? Well, just waddle across the street to Sarah’s Utopia, a charming gift shop with an equally charming proprietress.

     I dare you to go in there without leaving with a bag of cute items and a smile on your face. Pun-ny sayings on signs and dish towels, yummy smelling candles, seasonal decorations, yard art, and . . . well, take my word for it and stop in. This is one adorable shop.

 

 

 

 

 

“A Town So Nice, They named It Rice”

   A little comical for a town motto perhaps, but it reflects a pride in the heritage of this little town.

   Settlers first arrived in the area of Rice, Texas in the late 1860s, and by 1872 the Houston and Texas Central Railway was built through the area.

   The town was named for one of the railroad owners, William Marsh Rice who was the namesake of Houston’s Rice University as well. Rice also donated land to the community for a church and cemetery.

Brick sidewalks

   By 1890 Rice boasted a cotton gin, steam gristmill, two grocery stores, three general stores, a blacksmith shop, two wheelwrights, druggist and about 75 citizens. Pretty impressive, right?

   Unfortunately almost half of downtown was destroyed by fire in 1901. The side of charming buildings that survive on the north side of what was once a busy street are shuttered, but charmingly picturesque. Step up onto the raised brick sidewalks to get a glimpse through the windows of interiors that have surely seen more than their share of stories.

Bank windows
Former bank building

   At the corner is the local bank building, where some locals say the infamous Bonnie and Clyde carried out a bank robbery. Though rumors of the criminal duo robbing the local bank may have more to do with spinning a good yarn, they reportedly did stay at the hotel that used to be downtown. Photos in the Pioneer Village in Corsicana evidently offered proof of that part of the tale.

The question remains…but the legacy is for sale.

   With roofs caving in, restoration looks doubtful. Rice isn’t a true ghost town but many of its residents work in nearby Corsicana as local businesses have shuttered.


Interior of building on main street.

   Take the time to visit remnants of vanishing communities like Rice before the opportunity disappears. Walking in the steps of those who lived before us gives us a unique glimpse into their lives you won’t want to miss.

Ghosts of the Emily Morgan Hotel

     “Good evening, Mrs. Maca,” the desk clerk smiled as she handed me my room key card. “We’ve booked you in a suite on the haunted floor.”

     It definitely wasn’t the usual greeting I receive at a hotel check-in, but obviously someone on staff had Googled my name . . . and I have to say I was pretty delighted.

     I was in San Antonio speaking about cemetery symbolism at a paran
ormal conference, of all things. My books about Galveston cemeteries and ghosts have certainly opened up some unusual venues for me. And although I must admit that my choice to stay at the Emily Morgan was based on an admiration for its elegance and location (right next door to the Alamo, for heaven’s sake!), the stories of its hauntings may have played a part in the decision to choose it. It is known as one of the three most haunted hotels in the city.

UNUSUAL PAST

     Now a part of the luxurious Doubletree by Hilton chain (yep, that means their famous fresh cookies at check-in), the thirteen-story building wasn’t always a hotel.

     The striking Gothic Revival structure opened in 1924 as the Medical Arts Building, with the first four floors being doctors’ offices and a pharmacy. Other levels included a psychiatric ward (seventh floor), the top two floors served as surgical wards, and of course – a morgue in the basement.

     The towering building features unique ornamentation and a copper roof with wood ribs. The most unusual adornments are undoubtedly a variety of gargoyles (actually “grotesques” since they have no downspouts) that surround the building, each portraying a medical ailment that might have been treated within. They’re slightly reminiscent of some stone carving from the movie “Ghostbusters” about to come to life. There are even flying monkeys for those who look closely.

     One of the more “princely” – though certainly not handsome – examples wearing a crown was perched right outside a window of my room, and it was fascinating to see him so close-up.

     It remained a hospital for about 52 years before being converted into an office building in 1976.  Luckily for those who appreciate her beautiful architecture, the Emily Morgan (named after the Yellow Rose of Texas) was recognized by the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Alamo Plaza Historic District the following year.

     In 1984 it opened as a luxury hotel, and in 2012 it underwent a multi-million dollar renovation before being reopened as part of the Doubletree group.

     I suppose that should be our first clue, since one of the common superstitions about spirits . . . or is it a fact . . . is that they tend to get “stirred up” during renovations of their surroundings.

     Considering the amount of suffering and death the walls witnessed for so many years, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that “energies” from the past are reported to remain.

SPIRITED ROOMIE, ANYONE?

     Throughout the weekend I heard hotel guests inquire of each other if they had had any ghostly experiences, anxiously hoping to hear the answer “yes.” When comparing room numbers, my answer was usually met with a lot of interest, and I invited people up to check out my room for themselves whenever my timetable allowed. There was even a YouTuber who took video. More often than not, the visitors ended up being just as intrigued by the beauty of the view and the room as any otherworldly roommates I might have.

     I found it amusing that even a few attendees of the paranormal convention, which was held at a reputedly haunted mansion, left before all of the festivities were over to return to the Emily Morgan to seek out their own “encounters” in impromptu ghost hunts.

     Would you stay on the 13th floor of a notoriously haunted hotel or do you think that would be bad luck?

     Poppycock, you say – hotels don’t have a 13th floor! Ah, but we all really know the truth, don’t we? A glance at any hotel elevator board and you’ll see they’ve conveniently skipped from the 12th to the 14th when numbering floors to avoid any superstitious guests being uncomfortable. So the 14th floor actually is the 13th.

     The Emily Morgan has taken these superstitions into account at an entirely new level by omitting the room number 1408. You see, when you add those numbers together you would realize they equal 13 on the actual 13th floor.

     Regardless, there have been reported ghostly occurrences on almost every floor, with the 7th, 13th and 14th being the most active.

12th & 14th FLOORS

     Guests on the 14th floor have often specifically requested to stay on this notoriously haunted level. As one of the former surgical wards where numerous deaths occurred, the expectation of ghosts is somewhat understandable.

     Room occupants in the past have reported opening doors to the hallway only to see hospital scenes playing out in front of them, complete with nurses pushing squeaky-wheeled gurneys.

    When they shut the door to gather their wits before reopening it, the scenes vanish.

    Much more unpleasant is the report of a lingering scent of antiseptic, which I was quite grateful not to have noticed.

     The perception something cool brushing up against guests has been noted on both floors. Would it be a relief on a hot summer night, or send unwelcome chills?

     Utilities seem to be of special interest to spirits on the 12th floor, including flashing lights and impish water faucets. Dripping noises can be heard in the middle of the night, with investigating occupants discovering the bath faucets to be completely cranked open.

     I must admit that I heard an incessant dripping of water as I was admiring the full moon outside my window, but after investigating I decided that someone on the floor above me must have a slow draining bath, as there was no water actually running in my room.

     Bathroom doors visibly opening and shutting have also been witnessed, which is odd since the extensive renovations should have taken away any explanation of “off kilter” doors.  

     Having heard these stories, I considered myself pretty darn brave to take a soaking bath both nights of my stay . . . but I just couldn’t resist the immense “champagne Jacuzzi” tub. Thankfully, the spirits left me to unwind in peace.

     I even heard one report that the Emily Morgan’s swimming pool, a triangular feature situated on an outcropping of an upper floor, was constructed out of the stainless steel from the medical center’s operating tables. Though I couldn’t find anything to confirm this, it sure makes a great story and would have been an ingenious (if eerie) example of repurposing materials.

IT HAS ITS UPS & DOWNS

     One ”phenomenon” at the Emily Morgan that I can confirm through personal experience is that the elevators seem to have a mind of their own.

     The elevators are said to often to ride up and down without a single rider or skip past a floor that a rider has requested by pushing the button, because . . . c’mon, ghosts just wanna have fun.

     When you step onto one of these conveyances, take a bit of patience and be ready to accept an adventure if it should present itself.

     Front desk attendants are said to receive phone calls –from these same elevators-even when no one is inside.

     One of the creepiest experiences reported by visitors is that the elevators (regardless of which floor was requested) have taken their passengers below ground to the basement level, where the morgue once was.

     Meeting rooms and housekeeping are the only things housed there today, but it is said that even employees keep their time there to a minimum. Among the things reported to have been experienced there are dancing orbs (there are no windows, so they couldn’t be reflections) and disembodied voices. I wonder what they have to say?

     The most dramatic – verging on unnerving – experience I had at the hotel involved the elevators. It was witnessed by numerous other guests and staff, but I’ll keep this one to myself (sorry).

OTHER “RESIDENTS”

     Other floors in the hotel come with reports of a woman’s shrieking cries in the middle of the night, transparent apparitions moving from room to room and passing through walls or even gazing into the mirror as guests check their appearance. Which of these would you be brave enough to see or hear?

     The staff confirms that occasionally guests request to switch rooms, citing that the activity in theirs is too much to endure.

     Did they actually experience something paranormal or did they take the hotel’s ghostly tales too close to heart? Only they will know for sure, but I suggest you check in and decide for yourself.

     Employees of the hotel are happy to share their own experiences or stories they’ve heard, and if they aren’t scared, why should we be?

     Ghosts or not, the Emily Morgan Hotel remains high on my recommendations for accommodations in the city of San Antonio. The beautiful architecture and interior spaces and gracious staff are unparalleled.

A Kiss for Luck: Shamrock Texas


     I’ll admit that because Irish (my maiden name is Shanahan), I loved the town of Shamrock even before I arrived just for it’s cute name. What I found is a place that’s adorable for much more than just the moniker it’s had since its first postmaster named it in honor of his Irish mom at the turn of the last century.

 

TOWER STATION & U-DROP INN

    Of all of the unique stops we made along Route 66 in the Texas panhandle, this small town just 15 miles west of the Oklahoma border had one of the most recognizable buildings to fans of the Pixar movie “Cars.”

   The Conoco gas station and diner at the corner of Highway 83 and Route 66 inspired the design of Ramone’s “House of Body Art” paint and body shop in the film. If you’ve seen the movie, you’re sure to recognize it immediately.

 

   This Art Deco-lover’s dream was designed by Pampa architect J. C. Berry and built by James M. Tindall and R. C. Lewis in 1936, for a whopping $23,000. Quickly nicknamed the “Tower Station,” it was the first commercial business Shamrock had on Route 66.

   Made up of a streamlined gas station and office, a diner named “U-Drop-Inn” (get it?), and a retail space that was soon incorporated to expand the popular diner.



   The brick and concrete building sculpted with curved Deco relief curves has two side canopies, and two obelisks sitting on top. The tallest tower over the service station and is almost 100 feet in height. Topped with a metal tulip and adorned with letters spelling “Conoco,” it succeeded in luring in passing tourists. Glazed green and gold terra cotta tile walls and blazing neon light trim added to the attraction, day and night.

     Reported to be “the swankiest of swank eating places” and “the most up to date edifice of its kind on the U.S. Highway 66 between Oklahoma and Amarillo” it quickly became one of the most fashionable stops on the Texas stretch of 66.

     In addition to drawing tourists in from the road, the U-Drop was the place local parents would sit and visit on Saturday nights while their kids were at picture show at the Texas theatre down the street.

     Open 24/7 it had a reputation for friendly waitstaff and delicious food, and was surely a welcome sight for tired, road-weary travelers.

     John Nunn, the original owner, passed away in 1957 and the structure changed hands a few times. In the 1970s the station was converted into a Fina station. But the new era had begun when traveling was more focused on the destinations than the adventure of traveling itself, and Route 66 sights took a back seat.

     James Tindall, Jr., the son of one of the builders, purchased the landmark in the early 1980s, but closed it in 1997. Ironically that was the same year it was added to the national Register of Historic Places.

     Two years later the First National Bank of Shamrock purchased the iconic building and donated to the town of Shamrock. A careful restoration was completed in 2003 recovering its Art Deco charm.

   Repair of the station included the use of 508 linear feet of LED lighting to replace the original neon, which was often damaged by harsh Panhandle weather.

     Luckily for today’s travelers, the Tower Station complex has been turned into a Visitor Center and small memorabilia museum where you can get a feel for what it was like in its heyday, and sit in Elvis Presley’s favorite booth! They even have era hats to use as props in your photos. The shop also carries a small assortment of Route 66 souvenirs.

     Travelers now come from all over the world once again to visit the Tower Station. One of the ladies volunteering in the shop pointed out that they has already had people there from over 100 countries this year alone.

   What you might not expect to find is a row of Tesla car chargers in the side parking lot, but the juxtaposition of old and new is pretty darn neat.

BLARNEY STONE

Kiss It, It’s Irish!

     One of Shamrock’s biggest claims to fame is that it has a piece of the actual Blarney Stone from Ireland.

     If you aren’t familiar with the original Blarney stone, it is a large piece of limestone built into the battements of Blarney in Cork. According to legend, kissing the stone will endow the kisser with the “gift of gab.” As a writer, I think that could come in pretty darn handy!

     In a tiny strip of property named Elmore Park on East 2nd Street, sits an allegedly theft-proof, crash-proof (for wayward trucks, I assume) concrete cylinder with a neatly cut piece of the legendary stone embedded in the top. The landmark is Irish green – of course – and has a depiction of Blarney Castle painted on the side by a talented local artist.

     A bronze plaque explains that the stone was placed there on March 17, 1959 (St. Patrick’s Day) by Texas Secretary of State, Zollie Stearley. According to the Shamrock official who brought it to town, the segment of stone was accidentally knocked off of the original at Blarney Castle. Local lore says that the chunk’s arrival was so important that Shamrock’s mayor called out the Texas Highway Patrol and the Texas National Guard, who reportedly stationed a sub-machine gunner atop the drug store as the stone was wheeled into town. If it isn’t quite true…well, it sure makes a good tale.

And if it IS true, I bet it made for a great show.

     If you didn’t know the Blarney Stone was in the park, you might stop anyway just to snap photos of the cute signs depicting St. Patrick and a leprechaun. But since it is, well…what harm can a kiss do?

WATER TOWER

     Shamrock is also home to a different sort of “tower” – the tallest riveted water tower in the state….and you know how we Texans like to build the biggest and best. I must admit I’ve never seen such attention and documentation given to a town water tower. It’s definitely worth a few minutes to wander the lot where it stands downtown and take in some of the old photos, informational plaques and murals that explain how they constructed this monster. Taking into consideration that it was built in 1915 and cost just over $6,000, it’s pretty impressive..

     Shamrock also still has a handful of motels that have survived several reincarnations since the days of Route 66, and a beautifully restored 1926 Magnolia gas station.

     You’ll thank your lucky stars – or clover – if you take the time for a stop in Shamrock.