Waxahachie’s Bit of Britain: English Merchants Inn

     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?




Officially Texas

     I love sharing places to visit across the Lone Star State through this blog, but I hope we’re all being responsible at the moment by staying at home and being healthy. When the Corona virus threats retreat, we’ll all be ready to get out and be social again.

     In the meantime, it doesn’t mean we can’t explore Texas!

     This morning I was remembering how when my daughter wasn’t quite school age yet, and it was pretty much a full time job to keep her busy little mind occupied and entertained. One of the things we did was talk about how Texas had all kinds of “official” symbols. How many do you know?

Official flower: Bluebonnet

Official large mammal: Longhorn

Official sport: Rodeo

Official Dish: Chili con carne

Official Insect: Monarch Butterfly

Reptile: Horned lizard

Tree: Pecan

Plant: prickly pear cactus

Air Force: Commemorative Air Force (formerly know as the confederate Air Force)

Amphibian: Texas toad

Aquarium: Texas State Aquarium

Bison Herd: Texas State Bison Herd at Caprock Canyons State Park

Bluebonnet Festival: Chappell Hill Bluebonnet Festival

Bluebonnet Trail: Ennis

Bread: Pan de campo

Cobbler: Peach cobbler

Cooking implement: Cast iron Dutch oven

Crustacean: Texas Gulf shrimp

Dinosaur: Paluxysaurus Jones (replace the Brachiosuar in 1997)

Dog breed: Blue Lacy

Epic Poem: Legend of Old Stone Ranch

Fiber and Fabric: Cotton

Fish: Guadalupe Bass

Footwear: Cowboy boot

Fruit: Texas Red grapefruit

Botanical Garden: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Gem: Texas blue topaz

Gemstone cut: Lone Star cut

Grass: Sideoats grama

Official Domino Game: 42

Horse: American Quarter horse

Flying Mammal: Mexican Free-Tailed bat

Small Mammal: Armadillo

Maritime Museum: Texas Maritime museum

Motto: “Friendship”

Musical Instrument: Guitar

Native Pepper: Chiltepin

Native Shrub: Texas Purple Sage

Shrub: Crape myrtle

Snack: Tortilla chips and salsa

Song: “Texas, Our Texas”

Pastries: (there are 2!) Sopapilla and Strudel

Pepper: Jalapeno

Pie: Pecan pie

Pollinator: Western honey bee

Precious Metal: Silver

Railroad: Texas State Railroad

Rodeo Drill Team: Texas Ghost Riders

Saltwater Fish: Red Drum

Sea Turtle: Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle

Shell: Lightning whelk

Ship: U.S.S. Texas

Squash: Pumpkin

Stone: Petrified palmwood

Tall Ship: Elissa

Vegetable: Sweet onion

Vehicle: Chuck wagon

     And believe it or not . . . there are SO many more!

     For each of the symbols, you and your child can explore information online about what makes these things so very Texan.

     Make chili con carne for dinner, and follow it with pecan pie and a domino game of 42. (How to play here.)

     Print coloring sheets with some of the symbols.

     Plant your own butterfly garden to attract monarchs. My daughter and I still care for our ever larger Monarch garden that we created 15 years ago, and watching the life cycle of these beautiful creatures never gets old. (Everything you’ll need is here.)

     Make columns on a poster board and have your child help you separate some of these by category (place, animals, etc.)

     Make a list of “official” sites you’d like to visit when travel limitations are lifted. (The tall ship Elissa in Galveston, a ride on the Texas State Railroad, etc.)

     But most importantly have fun and share the love of Texas. What is your favorite Lone Star State (the official Texas nickname) symbol?

Free Fossil Hunting in Mineral Wells…Can Ya Dig It?

     When I was a kid I wanted to be an archaeologist when I grew up.

     Now mind you, this was in the days (dark ages) before the Indiana Jones movies, so my parents didn’t quite know what to do with this aspiration, other than try to direct me elsewhere.

     I’ve never quite gotten over my fascination with archaeological dig sites, and recently I went to the Mineral Wells Fossil Park where visitors can dig for and keep fossils over 300 million years old!

   Think of it as the fossil equivalent of searching for seashells along a beach.

     Mineral Wells Fossil Park is a primitive, unique site that’s a fascinating place to explore by yourself or with your family. Offering eight acres to comb, the park used to be the city’s “borrow pit,” which is an area where dirt is taken from to fill other areas. The resulting pit eroded over the 20 years it was used, exposing thousands of fossils from the Pennsylvanian Period.

     It’s one of the few parks in the nation where visitors are legally allowed to remove fossils from the site, taking home true treasures.

     There is plenty of parking in the gravel parking lot, where you’ll also find clean, portable toilets, but no running water. If you’re going to want to wash your hands or rinse off a bit after your outing before you re-enter your car bring an extra jug of water.


     Take time to read the informational signs in the parking lot. They’ll help you to identify things you might otherwise overlook.

     If you’d like to take along a “cheat sheet” click this link to find a handy, printable reference sheet of fossil types, courtesy of fossilcentre.com.

     The park is primitive in more ways than one. You may encounter dangerous insects or animals (it IS their turf, after all) so keep a sharp eye out for them. And once you descend into the pit, don’t expect your cell phones to work. See? Magic – time travel.

     Follow the path to the pit (there’s one way in and one way out to minimize damage to the site). A chain handrail will help steady your balance on the rocky soil as you follow the walkway into the search area.

     My visit was on a day after a light rain which was ideal, since it washed the top layer of dust off of things and revealed new items in the channels where water runs down the sides of the pit. I had been told that I wouldn’t really need to “dig” for the fossils since most of them would be laying right on the surface, but I was skeptical. I was wrong . . . and it was amazing.

     You might find fossils of ancient sea species like trilobites, crinoids (urchins), brachiopods, pelecypods, (clams and oysters), corals, plants, and even sharks.

     The type I found with the least effort were sea lilies (which sound much more impressive when referred to as crinoids). Sometimes called “Indian beads” or “Indian buttons” (what my great-aunt used to call them) in reference to their button or bead-like shape, people used to collect and string them into necklaces. Not to get to “science-y”, but this illustration will show you what where in the plant (columnal) they were originally. Fossils from the other parts of the plant can be found as well.

 

     Who would have thought a big pit could be so much fun?

   Bring a picnic lunch or snacks and PLENTY of drinking water. Even in non-summer months, there is no shade in the actual digging area and you’ll need to stay hydrated. There are no nearby places to eat, so if you’re planning to stay at least a couple of hours (and you should!) your hard-working archaeology crew might get the munchies.

     There is a shaded table area as you enter the park that makes a nice place to give yourself and your family a break from the sun. If your visit will be in the summer months, it would be wise to plan to be there early in the day, or late in the evening.

     Yes, it’s basically a dirt pit, so dress appropriately. C’mon, that’s half the fun!

     You’ll want to make sure everyone has rubber soled shoes (old tennis shoes are perfect) to help with footing on the loose-soiled slopes. (Say THAT 3 times fast: loose soiled slopes, loose sloiled slolpes . . . never mind!)

     Other take-along suggestions: baggies or nail aprons to hold your finds, small hand garden trowels to loosen the dirt, an umbrella for extra shade, a wide brimmed hat, sunblock, bug spray, a bucket to carry tools and water bottles, and a small rubber gardening knee pad to sit on (it’ll feel a lot cushier than the hard ground). As always, please keep a first aid kit in your car to take care of minor boo-boos. Even adults need antiseptic and bandaids, ya know.

     Oh, and did I mention water? Water, water, water.

You’ll also want to bring along your sense of adventure and patience. Once your brain adjusts to what it’s searching for the fossils seem to become more and more abundant.

     Here’s a quick photo I took of the surface at the side of the pit. No, I didn’t even disturb it by beginning to dig! How many fossils can you spot?


You may even see a few “future fossils” during wildflower season.

     The park address is 2375 Indian Creek Road, just northwest of Mineral Wells, Texas. From Mineral Wells, head west on Highway 180. Turn north on Indian Creek Road and drive approximately 2 miles to the Mineral Wells Fossil Park entrance.

     It’s open daily from 8 a.m. until dusk and is admission free, which fits my travel budget just fine.

     Personally, I can’t wait to go back. Who’s up for an archaeological adventure?

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.

Walking in Their Steps: San Felipe de Austin Historic Site

     Happy New Year!

     So many of us start off each new year by looking back, so I thought it was only appropriate to begin 2020 by sharing a place that brings us back to the beginning of Texas: San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site.

     Open since April 2018 the San Felipe de Austin Museum is simply one of the most beautifully interpreted historical sites I’ve seen, especially considering there is virtually nothing left of the original settlement. Inside, visitors can interact with touch screen displays to learn details about the settlement, and outside they can walk in the steps of settlers and explore the townsite.

     Sitting on the bluff of the Brazos River on the actual site of the former colony it honors the spirit of early Texas pioneers.

     San Felipe de Austin was established in 1823 by Stephen F. Austin, known as the “Father of Texas,”  as a headquarters for his colony in Mexican Texas. The town had four public squares: Commerce, Constitution, Military and Campo Santo Cemetery.

     The first area to visit after paying admission in the gift shop/reception area is a small viewing area for a short film that gives an overview of the history of San Felipe de Austin. Interesting and beautifully produced, it puts the history of the site and people who lived here in context as you continue through the property.

     Entering the museum space, the first thing you’ll encounter is a replica of a log cabin. Displays like a spinning wheel and dress-up corner give a bit of information about pioneer life, but make sure you stand for a moment in the space and realize that this small cain would often house an entire family.


     A corner across from the cabin holds a field desk that actually belonged to Stephen F. Austin, and display cases contain examples surveying equipment that would have been utilized in laying out the colony and surrounding land grants.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     Other displays showcase artifacts recovered during archeological excavations that give visitors a peek into the everyday lives of early Texans.

Was there really a “Peter Pieper” in the colony? Yep!

     One of my favorite things about the museum is the number of interactive displays. Adults enjoy them, of course, but as a parent and Girl Scout leader who has traveled with children of all ages, I know how these fascinating exhibits can draw people into history through high tech applications.

     Walk up to a lighted, multimedia illustration of the settlement and touch key numbers to learn more about the different buildings (offices, the school, individual homes) and people who once existed there. (And yes, you know that I touched every single one!)

     Turn around and walk up to a tabletop display to learn about some of the big decisions the officials of San Felipe de Austin had to make. Once you’ve made a decision about the issue, you can cast your vote, and see the results.

 

     A colonial printing press like one used to print the Texas Gazette, at times renamed the Mexican Citizen, in San Felipe from 1829 to 1832 stands proudly in its own corner, along with a printing plate that . . . yes, really . . . visitors are encouraged to touch.

     The display explains the vital role the press played both in the community and in the history of the state:

     “The first book published in Texas, written by Stephen F. Austin, was printed by the Gazette press in 1829. In 1835, the Telegraph and Texas Register began operating under the guidance of Gail Borden, Jr. and soon became the unofficial voice of the Texas revolution movement. It also printed many other important Texas documents, including the Declaration of Independence.”

     Impressed? I was, too.

     I encourage you to take your time and read the descriptions that accompany seemingly small fragments and objects in cases that line the walls. There are priceless treasures and surprises among them.

    William B. Travis was a town resident before his death at the Alamo, and he sent his famous “Victory or Death” letter from the Alamo to San Felipe. A ring thought to have belonged to him was excavated from his homesite and is now on display.

     After exploring inside the museum, it’s time to expand your discoveries by venturing out the side doors, and into the townsite itself.

     A bronze plat map sits on a platform on a covered patio, providing a frame of reference for how the settlement was laid out on the property. From here visitors can follow a mown path through the mown native grasses to visit specific sites within the former town. San Felipe was one of the most culturally diverse communities of its time in Texas. Farmers, explorers, politicians, enslaved and free people of African ancestry, intertribal delegations of local Indians, cattlemen and businessmen populated the thriving settlement.

     A tavern, bakery, stores, homestead sites and more await visitors who will quite literally be walking in the footsteps along the same paths these brave citizens did almost two centuries ago.

Interpretive trail on original townsite

      The Texas Revolution caused the demise of San Felipe de Austin, when the residents burned it to the ground during the evacuation known as the “Runaway Scrape” in 1836. After the fall of the Alamo, Mexican General Santa Anna and his forces briefly occupied the ruins of the town just before their defeat at the Battle of San Jacinto.

This obelisk was erected in 1928 to mark the site of Stephen F. Austin’s original home and land office.

     Just across the road from the museum are a few more sites you’ll want to explore. A commemorative obelisk marks the exact spot of Stephen F. Austin’s own cabin – the only home he ever owned in Texas.  There is also a stoic bronze statue of the Texas hero, a replica dog trot log cabin, active excavation sites, and the original well for the colony.

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Original well

     The large white building is the J. J. Josey General Store, built on the townsite in 1847 and in continuous operation for generations before being moved here for preservation. 

     Visitor parking is available on site at the museum and limited parking is available across the street.

     Allow yourself at least 60 to 90 minutes to enjoy the museum exhibits and the grounds, and be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes as the outside trails are unpaved and the ground is somewhat uneven.

     San Felipe is just ten minutes east of Sealy, and the museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. , except for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Even, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

     Admission – Adults, $10; Children (5-14), Seniors, Veterans & Austin and Waller County Residents, $5, Family ticket (2 adults and 2 children) $22. For other options and to find out more about he San Felipe de Austin Historic Site, 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.

Fairy, Texas: A Tiny Legacy with a Big Heart

     Driving through Central Texas recently, I made a detour to visit a Fairy . . . and the tiny town named after her.

     In a state that likes to brag that “bigger is better,” the town of Fairy Texas in Hamilton County named themselves after a surprisingly diminutive member of their community.

     Originally known as Martin’s Gap it was named after James Martin, a settler killed by local Indians in the 1860s while driving cattle through a “gap” between two mountains in the area. He was buried at the foot of one of those mountains.

     As you can see from the map, it isn’t “on the way” to anywhere particularly…but it’s worth a road trip diversion.

     When a post office was requested for the town in 1884, locals renamed it “Fairy” to honor Fairy Fort Phelps (1865-1938), the daughter of Sallie and Battle Fort, a former Confederate Army Captain and lawyer.

     One of the smallest Texans ever, Fairy was just 2’ 7” tall and weighed about 28 pounds. Her size didn’t stop her from leading a somewhat normal life and becoming one of the most beloved people in her community.

     Her namesake town once had a cotton gin, school, general store, café and businesses to serve the ranchers in the area.

     Fairy had four younger brothers: Henry; Hugh Franklin; William “Battle,” Jr; and Walter Herbert – all of whom were average heights.

     Fairy and her father taught area children at a school in their home for many years. One story reflects how respected and well liked she was by her students. The tale states that it became necessary for Fairy to paddle an unruly student, but she couldn’t high enough. The student himself lifted his teacher onto a chair so she could paddle him.

     The petite young lady even married twice, once to William Y. Allen in 1892 and again to T. J. Phelps in 1905, but both marriages ended in divorce. Probably not surprisingly, she never had children, but she did live into her 70s and is buried with her parents at…yes…Fairy Cemetery. The sign on the gate alone is enough to back you look twice.

     Fairy’s post office closed in 1947, and the school consolidated with Hamilton schools in 1967. A Baptist church, community center, volunteer fire department, a few homes and one historic cemetery are all that endure.

     The stories of a petite woman who lived life to the fullest remain with the residents, and those who stop to visit her gated grave.

     The tiny town’s cemetery is interesting on its own for a variety of style of distinctive, handmade grave markers. Many exhibit expert stone carving skills, but others include one constructed of petrified wood and another meticulously covered with sparkling, local minerals.

     Oh….and if you’re curious what locals are called, they are “Fairians.” How cute is that?