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

Diggin’ Up Fun at the Museum of the Big Bend

     What to do while we’re quarantined? Well, just travel virtually that’s what!

     Here’s a link to the instagram visit I had with Matt Walter, Curator of Collections at The Museum of the Big Bend in Alpine, Texas. Just click the link and come along!

     Thanks so much, Matt!

     O.K, friends – What was your favorite item or exhibit on the tour?

Sam Houston’s Wife and a Kindred Connection

   Texan artist Tra Slaughter painted this mural of Sam Houston on the back of a building in downtown Brenham, facing the railroad tracks. If this image of Houston seems odd to you, you may not be familiar with his connection to the Cherokees.

   In 1809 at the age of 16, Sam Houston ran away from home in Tennessee and lived among the Cherokees. He was adopted by Chief Oolooteka and given the name Colonneh or the Raven.

   Although I grew up in Texas, I first heard about this other name while attending the university named after this Texan forefather. The name cropped up often around Huntsville in business names.

   While I was learning more about Houston, I found that his Cherokee wife’s name was Talahina “Tiana” Rogers . . . a name that sounded pretty darn familiar to me. Always fascinated with my mother’s Cherokee lineage, I started researching her genealogy when I was just 12.

   Sure enough, Talahina‘s great grandparents William Emory and Mary Suzannah Grant were my seventh great grandparents. So while it is a distant connection, I was happy to learn that I had a personal link to this fascinating woman.

   Talahina’s mother Elizabeth was the sister of my 6th great-grandmother Susannah. Both were born in Houston’s home state of Tennessee to William and Mary Emory.

Gravestone of “Taina” Rogers in Muskogee, Oklahoma

   Sam Houston had three wives, but for obvious reasons, this one is a special interest of mine.

   This mural is spectacular, and also features an actual raven and a Mockingbird, the state bird of Texas. Art is such a terrific way to relate pieces of history.

   Have you done any research on your family tree? You never know what or who you’ll find.

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!

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Ross Sterling historical video
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Hit the Road with the Trailriders!

     Trail rides are a time honored and much loved part of the traditions surrounding the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

     Four men from Brenham made the first trek in 1952, and by the next year 80 people had signed up to start the legendary Salt Grass Trail Ride.

    One year after that 800 people were participating!

     This year more than 3,000 riders will saddle up to make make the trip, heading into Houston from all directions.

     The Texas Independence Trailride Association is just one of the groups who participate in the wonderful tradition. Established in January 1961, their group has been hitting the trail for 59 years! 

     The Texas Independence Trail Ride, whose trail goes right by my neighborhood every year includes rescue horses, three century-old wagons and the nicest bunch of people ever to gather around a campfire.

 

 

     This year they set out on February 22, and I met up with them on the trail on February 26. A brave 50 to 100 riders will take part in this ride of 100 miles…and they’ve already had a rainy day and a v-e-r-y brisk day (today).

     Multiple generations of families and friends take part. These two sweet cousins are pros – this is her second year and his sixth!

     If you ever have a chance to visit one of the trail riding groups at one of their break stops, be sure to bring your camera and your smile…and watch where you step!

See a video of the wagons, horses and riders in action HERE.

It was W-I-N-D-Y!


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.

 

Historic Cole Theatre

     Just look at those lines! The design of this historic theatre in Hallettsville is enough to make any architecture-lover swoon a bit.

     Opened in 1939 as a silent film theatre it was owned by Mart Cole, who had a chain of theatres in south central Texas.

It seated 700 and featured Spanish murals on the interior walls.


The first screening was of “The Female,” starring Betty Compson. A piano played by a local musician supplied the live soundtrack.

     The following year it made the transition to a sound theatre.

     You can still enjoy a current run movie and refreshments at the Cole, joining the generations who have before you.

Somerville’s Lone Indian

     Driving down Highway 36, it’s a bit of a surprise to see a lone (quite large) Indian statue kneeling in a pasture. And when you do, ya just know there’s a story behind it!

     In 1936 a new restaurant opened at 6151 Main in Houston, across from the original Rice Stadium. Bill Williams’ Chicken House was one of the few places along Main near the campus, and offered students a place to eat on weekends when there was no food available at the dining hall.

     Word about the delicious fried chicken quickly spread, and it became one of the most popular places to eat in the area.

     The Chicken House had a dining room as well as a drive-in, and an upstairs banquet hall with room for 200 guests.

     When business declined due to competition ad the economy in the mid-1940s, Williams added an oyster bar and added seafood to the menu. Happy diners in 1946 could purchase a dozen oysters for 70 cents!

     Around the same time, Williams replaced a rooftop sign of two Native Americans cooking over a campfire with tall, fiberglass statues of the same scene. One Indian knelt on one knee holding a skillet over the fire, and the other supervised, sitting cross-legged across from him. At night, the campfire was lit with flickering lights to simulate flames. You won’t find depictions of Native Americans cooking in skillets in most history books, but the eye-catching display became one of the well-known roadside attractions of the day.

     Williams was also a generous philanthropist and supporter of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

     The restaurant closed in 1973, and Williams passed away eleven years later at the age of 72.

     James Wheeler was a member of the demolition crew that razed the Chicken House. He bought both of the Native American figures and moved them to his family’s property in Fort Bend County. When that property was divided, Wheeler used his money to purchase a home near Lake Somerville in Burleson County and took the figure holding a skillet with him. The other figure remained in Fort Bend, and its current whereabouts are unknown.

     Wheeler later sold his Somerville home, the new owners insisted that the Indian be left on the property, but later decided to dispose of it.

     Dennis Griffin and his wife made an offer on a whim, and ended up as its new owners, moving it to its current location. He’s considered a sort of a mascot in Somerville, whose school mascot is a Native American from a mythical tribe. Mysteriously appropriate, don’t you think?

     So the next time you’re cruising down Highway 36 through near Somerville, keep an eye out for this unusual piece of restaurant history that…at least for now…has finally found a permanent home.




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.