Christmas at the George Ranch 2020

     Ready to peek into Christmas Past, Texas style? Let me take you on a virtual visit to the George Ranch Historical Park in Richmond  where they’ve lassoed a wonderful event to share just that!

     The annual Christmas at the Ranch event was a bit different this year due to additional safety protocols, but the staff couldn’t have created a more welcoming and fascinating day for their guests.

     Founded in 1824, the George Ranch showcases the four homes of four generations of this Texas family, and this time of year they’re dressed up for the season.

     My first stop was at the visitor center, where I was provided with a map of the ranch and demonstration schedule. The park is laid out in a mile long loop (yes, a MILE), and visitors can ride a tractor pulled tram from one stop to the next. But I highly suggest combining riding and walking when weather permits, to enjoy the natural surroundings.

     I rode the tram to my first stop, the 1830s Jones Stock Farm dog trot cabin, and was greeted by the volunteers dressed in period costumes. The cabin and buildings are replicas of Henry and Nancy Jones’ homestead – one of the earliest settlements of Northeast Mexico. Nope, it wasn’t even Texas yet!

     One gentleman shared the background of the family and information about the cabin, and another charmer played beautiful music on his guitar and told a few tall tales that were impossible to resist.

     A young woman had the unenviable, sticky task of demonstrating how to clean a deer hide in a yard populated by adorable hens, but managed to do it with a smile while explaining that when the thin hides were worked until thy were translucent, they could be used to cover the cabin windows during the winter months (since glass wouldn’t have been available).

     In the breezeway of the dogtrot a young man worked at weaving on a loom, taking breaks to serve visitors Mexican hot cocoa that was brewing over one of the hearth fires – and was a treat on the chilly day.

 

   In the nearby hog pen, one of the volunteers scratched the back of one of the docile 300-pound Berkshire pigs that are part of an initiative to preserve heritage breeds. Seems these fragrant residents are descendants of a rare breed that came to Texas from England in the 1830s. I know people who can’t trace their lineage as well!

   After a quick look at the chicken coop (always interesting to me since gathering the eggs was my job when visiting my grandmother’s farm), smokehouse barn and outdoor kitchen, I worked my way back to the road to hop on the tram again.

     Next stop: the 1860s Ryon Prairie home – picture perfect with garlands of evergreens draped across the porch rails.

     Mary Moore “Polly” Ryon was the oldest of the Jones’ daughters. She inherited th majority of her family’s wealth, and amazingly was on of the largest land holders in the region by age 18! She and her husband William built a cattle ranching empire after the Civil War.

    One young woman showed me around the knot garden and chicken coop until it was my turn (social distancing, ya know) to go inside the house.

     Inside two young docents explained the uses of the men’s and women’s parlors, and directed me toward the kitchen where more volunteers were baking cookies for the visitors in a period stove.


     I decided to walk the rest of the property rather than ride the tram since it was a beautiful day and I didn’t see any reason to rush.

 

     Susan Elizabeth Ryan was Polly’s only surviving child and sole heir of Polly’s estate. She married banker civic leader John Harris Pickens Davis. The Victorian era home sits in a complex that includes a sharecropper’s farm, the family cemetery with graves dating between the 1820s to 1916 and the Oldenberg blacksmith shop. It seemed ironic to me that Polly isn’t in the family cemetery (she’s at Morton Cemetery in Richmond). But the existing monuments are beautiful and well cared for. 

     In the blacksmith shop, kids were invited to try their hand at “forging” knives from chunks of clay with rubber mallets.

     In the side yard of the home, a sweet volunteer led visitors in creating Victorian style Christmas ornaments from paper as keepsakes of their visit.



 

 

     The last home to tour was the 1930s George Ranch House (designed by famous Galveston architect Nicholas Clayton) and complex, where a barbershop quartet was entertaining passersby with Christmas carols.

     Mamie George and her husband A.P. were the last descendants of the Henry and Nancy Jones family to oversee the ranching operation. Their influence and support is still seen across the community in libraries, schools, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, a community center and countless other contributions. 

     Their home is still decorated with their furnishings, right down to the ornaments on the Christmas tree! I loved Mamie’s collection of ceramic cowboy boots from her travels lined up on the mantle.

     Once all of the home tours were checked off of my list, I headed to the arena and barn area for the cattle working demonstrations.


 

 

 

 

      The cowboys demonstrated some basic cutting and lassoing techniques while explaining how and why these things are still down on the working ranch. Afterward, one of the cowboys walked the onlookers over to a dipping vat and related how they were used in the past – and why they aren’t any more (thank heaven!).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whether you’re looking for a day out by yourself like I was, or for something for the entire family to enjoy together, I highly recommend a visit to the George Ranch. It’s beautiful, fascinating…and you might just pick up a little Texas history along the way.





A Santa Claus Museum Visit for the Ho-Ho-Holidays

     If you need a little (or a LOT) of Christmas right now . . . have I got the place for you!

     Because every day is Christmas in one special place in Columbus, Texas. It’s the Santa Claus Museum. C’mon – you know if ANYONE deserves his own museum, it’s the guy in red. And you won’t even have to travel to the North Pole because this one is the only Santa Claus museum in the South.

     This totally charming museum doesn’t have ten or twenty Santa Clauses. It has almost 3,000! All things Claus, including dolls, dishes, ornaments, music boxes, needlework, photos, artwork, magazine covers, cooking molds, promotional advertising pieces, department store displays, even Santa-themed wine –  from all over the world.  And no matter what your age is, you’re sure to find at least one that looks familiar from when you were a kid.

     Don’t expect all Hallmark style plastic St. Nicks though. Here you can find versions made from cast iron, china, basket weave, com shucks, bottle glass, paper, fabric, dough, and wood as well.

     Now I’ll admit that some of the Santas are adorable, some exquisite, but – um – (sorry Santa) some are a bit creepy. But that makes it all the more fun.

     An almost life-sized Santa Claus, formerly displayed in the Priesmeyer Department Store in Garwood during the 1950s is one of the most popular Santas in the collection.

     The festive museum began with the Santa collection of Mary Ellen Hopkins, and opened in 1990 in her honor after her family donated the jolly assortment of treasures to the Columbus Historical Preservation Trust. The building was donated by Laura Ann Rau, and the museum is operated by the CHPT.

     Since the founding of the museum, it has expanded with the 2019 additions of the Luman Collection and the Hubenak Collection. Who knew there were so many Santa aficionados?

     Luckily, the Jolly Old Elf himself is also there to add to his Christmas wishes list, but beware – he’ll already know if you’ve been naughty or nice.

     Add a road trip to Columbus to your holiday schedule to see this little museum. I promise Yule love it.

Santa Claus Museum, 604 Washington St.
Columbus, TX 78934

Fridays & Saturdays from December 1-19, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Of course it’s always best to call ahead to confirm.
January through November it’s open by appointment only. To set one up, contact the Chamber of Commerce to schedule your visit.
You can find more details at their website HERE.






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?

A Ghostly Light on Bailey’s Prairie


     A state as big as Texas is bound to have a lot of ghost stories. . . luckily for us!

     The first tale I’ll share this October is probably one of the most famous to native Texans, and takes place in Bailey’s Prairie.

     If you happen to be motoring south on Highway 35 and see a bouncing orange glow . . . it’s probably Old Brit Bailey in search of his jug of whiskey!

     James Briton “Brit” Bailey was more than a real person. He was a real character. Known for his eccentric personality, love of drink and penchant for brawls, life was never dull in his presence. At six feet tall (quite a height for the time), was an imposing figure with his jet-black hair and broad brimmed hat.

     “Brit” was born in North Carolina on August 1, 1779 in North Carolina. After fighting in the War of 1812 the pioneer came to Texas in 1818 with his second wife, Dot, six children and his slaves, settling in what came to be known as Brazoria County. Several years later Stephen F. Austin would arrive with the “Old Three Hundred” to settle parcels of land in the area.

     Not one to pass up a fight or give ground on a cause he believed in, Brit was also a veteran of the Battle of Jones Creek in 1824, and the Battle of Velasco in 1832.

     Locals love to share a story about the rowdy rancher that captures his personality. It seems that he shot at a traveling preacher’s feet to watch him dance. After the episode when the men were sharing a drink, the preacher took the opportunity to grab Brit’s gun and made the same demand. Roaring with delight, Brit jumped onto a table and energetically danced a jig while onlookers applauded.

 

     His temper was as legendary as his humor, and one night he apparently set fire to all the buildings on his own property except the main house.

     On December 6, 1832 Brit passed away quietly in his own bed from fever that many think may have been cholera.

     Peculiar instructions in his will provided one more surprise for the community.  He had requested to be buried standing up (now that took a deep hole!), facing west with his rifle over his shoulder, powder horn by his side, and a jug of whiskey.

     Brit didn’t want anyone passing by his grave saying, “There lies Brit Bailey” and he figured if her was standing up….they couldn’t!

     He was buried in a grove near his home and though all his instructions were followed, his jug whiskey was omitted from the coffin. His widow objected to that item, saying he had imbibed enough in his lifetime.

     According to legend his ghost in the form of a strange light roams his old homestead at Bailey’s Prairie looking for the lost jug of whiskey. Many describe it as having an orange glow and bobbing around about four to six feet above the ground – the eight a lantern might be held on horseback.

     Back when the story originated, it was said that Old Brit searched the prairie every seven years, but either people weren’t paying attention or he’s getting thirstier because now Bailey’s Light is seen on a regular basis.

   Naysayers theorize the glow is caused by puffs of natural gas escaping from the ground, but you’ll be hard pressed to convince witnesses of that.

     Bailey’s Prairie, Brit Bailey Boulevard (FM 521) and even a local chapter of the DAR are named for this unique figure in Texas history.

     Texas State Historical Markers telling Brit’s story can be found just outside the gates of Munson Cemetery. Unfortunately, someone has vandalized the emblem off of Brit’s marker. (Hope that Brit chased them!)

     Are you brave enough to search out Bailey’s Light on a dark night on the prairie?

Subject a real person: Confirmed

Location: Bailey’s Prairie, Brazoria County. Stretch of Highway 35 between Angleton and West Columbia

Best time to see phenomenon: Twilight





For more Texas ghost stories check out

“Ghosts of Galveston,”

available on amazon.com.

An Apple a Day? In Medina That Won’t Be Enough

     Apple pie, apple tarts, baked apples, apple fritters, apple dumplings, apple cobbler, apple cakes, apple cookies, apple pandowdy, caramel apples, apple pancakes, apple bread pudding, fried apple pies, apple cider, Apple Brown Betty . . . is your mouth watering yet?

     It might be time to set a course to Medina, the Apple Capital of Texas.

     On the way home from Lost Maples State Natural Area (read more about this trip here), my friend and I made a stop at Love Creek Apple Orchards Cider Mill and Country Store to treat our tastebuds to some fall goodness.

     This country store is popular stop for travelers in search of apples for snacking or baking. They offer 11 kinds, including Granny Smith, Fuji, Gala, Jonagold and Pink Lady.

     If you aren’t passing by during harvest season there are still plenty of yummy things to indulge in. Walk through the store to a covered courtyard area and order up tasty freshly made apple cider, an apple dumpling with a sugary crunch, a slice of apple pie or even apple ice cream. Of course they also have burgers, sandwiches, salads and quesadillas if you’re more “hungry” than “munchie.”

     If you’re feelin’ saucy, there are plenty of options to bring home as well. (We did some early Christmas shopping. Shhh!) Store shelves are lined with jars of apple butter (my favorite!), apple pie filling, jams, jellies, and syrups, And…darn…you’re also encouraged to taste samples while you browse. Old-fashioned apple-y goodness!

     Whether you’re looking for a fall photo opp or just to make some memories, the Apple Store Bakery and Cafe is a tasty way to start off the fall season.

     Be sure to check their website for the Great Hill Country Pumpkin Patch where pumpkin painting, apple orchard tours, farm animal petting zoo, games, hayrides, hay maze, storytelling, scarecrow building and sing-a-longs will keep the entire family entertained. For information about dates, times and entrance fees click here.

     If you can’t make it to the Hill Country in the next few weeks, you can still treat yourself by ordering some of their most popular items online here.

     (And, um . . . if you’re shopping for me . . . remember the apple butter. Hint, hint!)

     Your tastebuds will thank you either way.

Love Creek Apple Orchards Cider Mill and Country Store

13558 TX-16 in Medina

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