Dots and Dashes: Telegraph in Marshall

_  .  _.._  ._  …

     If it looks like I just accidently hit some random keys while beginning to type this, morse code might not be in your wheelhouse. The mysterious string of dots and dashes spells out the name of a place I love: Texas!

     On 100 block of North Washington street in Marshall, facing their enormous courthouse, this life size bronze statue reminds passersby that the town holds a unique place in communication history. It sits on the spot where the first telegraph office in the state opened in February 14, 1854. Long-distance communication w-a-y before cellphones and emails made it something that we take for granted.

     The Texas and Red River Company opened its Marshall office and strung wires all the way to Shreveport, which in turn had wires to New Orleans. By 1854 another line connected the town to Houston via other lines. That opened up a lot of business opportunities for the railroad town.

     By 1870 there were about 1,500 miles of telegraph wire across the Lone Star State. Instead of riders on horseback an stagecoach carrying handwritten messages for days, a series of sounds could be translated into words and handed to messenger boys as young as 10 years old who would deliver the messages on their bikes within minutes.

     Now here’s the part that’ll leave you scratching your head…

     In 1838, Samuel F. B. Morse (the inventor of the telegraph) wrote a letter to Memucan Hunt. Hunt was a friend of Morse’s who just happened to be the Republic of Texas minister to the United States who had told the inventor countless stories about Texas. He had explained that although the republic had lots of land and heart…it was a bit short on revenue.

     In the letter, Morse offered the answer to that problem by GIVING the rights to his incredible invention to Texas. Um, WHAT?!

     Somehow the letter, which had been forwarded to officials of the republic, ended up filed away, gathering dust.

     Y-e-a-r-s later in 1860, Morse wrote a follow up letter to Texas Governor Sam Houston.

“In the year 1838 I made an offer of gift of my invention of the Electro magnetic Telegraph to Texas … Although the offer was made more than twenty years ago, Texas … has never directly or impliedly accepted the offer. I am induced, therefore, to believe that in its condition as a gift it was of no value to the State … I, therefore, now respectfully withdraw the offer made then.”

     Wow, talk about an opportunity falling through the cracks! Imagine how much money Texas could have made as the owner of that patent. Sigh…

     So while this beautiful bronze statue reminds us of an immense accomplishment…there is definitely a “oops” factor attached!

Waxahachie’s Courthouse Square Kaleidoscope

     Waxahachie courthouse Square kaleidoscope takes looking at the world through rose colored glasses one step further. The Internet active artwork created by Eddie and Mary Elizabeth Phillips sits on the corner of Main and College Street, just across the street from the fabulous Ellis County Courthouse. You overlook it if you’re as entranced with courthouse architecture as I am, but it’s worth looking for! It takes the cardboard kaleidoscopes of our youth to a while new level.

     Built of scrap metal and stained glass, visitors can spin the glass wheel at one end and then look through the triangular opening at the other for a burst of ever changing colors. And the installation is near the corner streetlight it can even be enjoyed at night. (Good thinking!)

     Click these links to see videos of this kinetic beauty in action, and then make a note to give it a spin yourself when you’re in the area!

Waxahachie-Kaleidescope-1

Waxahachie-Kaleidescope-2

     Were you as fascinated with kaleidoscopes as a kid as I was?

Lone Star Book Art: Barbara Bush Wall at The George




     Two of my favorite things: books and Texas!

     As you walk into the doors of The George hotel in College Station, with first thing you’ll see is an enormous Texas flag. And boy does it make a Texas-size impact. Now walk over and take a closer look – it’s made entirely of books!

     That’s 10,000 books as a matter of fact, including works of fiction, non-fiction and even textbooks. Artist Thedra Cullar-Ledford spent months collecting books with red, white or blue spines from bookstores and thrift shops to create the floor to ceiling installation. Even more challenging, she included many Texas-centric subject matter like barbeque, agriculture and Texas biographies.

     It’s fun to get up close to see what titles you’ll find. I got a special kick out of the Eyes of Texas by Ray Miller- a book that was well loved in my home when I was growing up.

     She then sorted them by color, nailed the books together, and screwed groups to the wall to create the pattern of the Lone Star flag.

     It’s the most photographed spot in the Century Square complex.

     The art piece was recently renamed in honor of former First Lady Barbara Bush as a symbol of her dedication to literacy – a touching tribute. Oh, and George W. Bush’s book “Decision Points” is among the books in the flag.

     Of course that isn’t where the hotel’s connection to the Bush family ends. The George, which was named for the great Georges in history, is just three miles from the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. And the nearby Century Square restaurant is named Poppy, former president Bush’s boyhood nickname. If you’re a fan of the Today Show, you’ve probably heard Jenna Bush Hager refer to her famous grandfather by that name.

     The George, which is a property in the Valencia Hotel Group, has also instituted a “Round Up for Reading” program in which guests can donate any amount to the Barbara Bush Literacy Foundation.  Ya gotta love a company that gives back to its community.

     So next time you’re in College Station swing by The George (or better yet, stay there!) and see this impressive creation. Oh and…drop your spare change in the literacy foundation container at the front desk. You’ll come away with some great pics and feeling good about doing something nice for others at the same time.

 

 

 

Galveston’s Mardi Gras Houses

     Looking for Mardi Gras festivities that are socially distant? Galveston Island has your answer.

    Galveston Island has been celebrating Mardi Gras with citywide celebrations since 1871, and with private parties before that. 

 

     The town may be covered in sparkling lights for the Christmas season, but it bursts out in gold, green and purple for Mardi Gras. If you pass the houses at night and think you spot a Christmas tree inside a window, it’s most likely a Mardi Gras tree instead.

     The annual parades have been cancelled this Carnival season for safety’s sake, but that won’t stop Galvestonians and their visitors from having fun. Taking a cue from New Orleans, instead of floats this year you’ll find “house floats” around the island. 

    

     Members of the Krewe of Saints who decorated their own homes complied a list of addresses so others can enjoy the fun. You can find an interactive map here

   On Saturday, February 13th between 5 and 7 p.m., some of the participating houses will have beads and surprises for strolling revelers in their neighborhoods.

     If you’re driving through the neighborhoods rather than walking, be aware that some of the streets are one way. There are often  quite a few cars parked in front of the houses, making the streets narrower to navigate.

     Of course, there are more homes decorated than the ones owned by this one Krewe, and the best way to see them all is to drive or walk the streets looking for the festive trimmings. If you only have a limited time, I would suggest exploring Sealy an Ball Avenues.

     If you’re looking for some edible treats to keep up your Mardi Gras energy, you can find Mardi Gras bagels and cookies at Patty Cakes Bakery, king cakes at Maceo Spice Company and delicious seafood gumbo at the Black Pearl.

Have fun and Laissez les bon temps rouler!


 







World’s Smallest Skyscraper: How a Con Man Gave Wichita Falls a Claim to Fame

     How could a city invest a fortune in a “high-rise” that’s only about forty feet tall? This building’s tale should appear in the dictionary as the definition of “hoodwinked.”

     In 1912, a large petroleum reservoir was discovered west of the city of Burkburnett, a small town just outside of Wichita Falls. Of course everyone was pretty happy about the financial windfall that ensued, but it also brought more people and businesses to town that wasn’t prepared to house them. People were so desperate that they were even conducting business in tents pitched on street corners. What Wichita Falls needed was more office space!

     There was a one story building on the corner of Seventh and LaSalle Streets built by Augustus Newby in 1906 that was ideally located near the downtown railway depot. One of its tenants, J. D. McMahon, had a construction firm in there and say what he thought was a shining opportunity.

     In 1919 he proposed to build a high-rise annex next to the Newby Building that would provide multiple floors of space for commerce to the boomtown. Sounds like a great idea, right? That’s what the city leaders thought, too.

     McMahon drew up impressive looking blueprints (though he wasn’t an architect) and showed them to potential investors, who forked over $200,000 in capital for the building’s construction. That’s the equivalent of $2.8 million in today’s money!

     He proceeded with the construction of the skyscraper, but used his own construction crew to control and oversee the project.

     Locals evidently turned their attention elsewhere as the building was being raised, because it was almost completed before they noticed that something was wrong. Their high-rise tower wasn’t what they had envisioned. Instead of the 480-foot structure thy expected; McMahon had built a 480-inch building.

     The brick embarrassment was only eighteen feet deep, ten feet wide and each of the four floors had only 118 square feet of space on each of the four floors.

     It’s been referred to as a glorified elevator shaft, which is especially ironic since the crew originally hired to install an elevator backed out of the project. The only way to access the upper floors was by an external ladder (until an interior staircase was built years later).

     Infuriated investors took McMahon to court, sure that they would find justice for the con. But they had one more surprise in store.

     Even though the judge was sympathetic to their complaints, he had to rule in favor of McMahon. What none of the financers had noticed in their excitement and rush to sign off on the project is that the blueprint listed the building’s dimensions in inches – not feet. It was build to the specifications proposed – 480” not 480’. Oh, the different an apostrophe makes!

     The narrow stairs that were built a few years later took up twenty-five percent of the interior space, making it even smaller.

     How could the situation possibly be worse? McMahon had never gotten permission from the property’s owner, who lived in Oklahoma, to build on the lot!

     Needless to say, the Newby-McMahon Building was quite an embarrassment for local officials. The oil boom ended shortly after the building was completed, and it was boarded up and fell into disrepair.

     Once the economy regained its footing, several small businesses operated in the snug spaces of the structure, including a barbershop and restaurants. It is now home to an antique shop on the bottom floor, and artist studios above.

     Luckily, the building has survived several potentially fatal events including a fire, a 2003 tornado, and attempts by locals to have it demolished.

     Wichita’s City County granted $25,000 in funds for the building’s restoration in 2005. Now, it’s true that that’s as much as it cost to build it in the first place – but that was a different time. Now the people of this Texas town have a reminder of the oil boom, a curiosity of visitors and something to point to and tell an amazing tale.

     It might be difficult to spot from a distance because there’s more “sky” than “scraper,” but it’s worth stopping by to see this scam-tastic little piece of Texas history.

 

 

Lady Bird Johnson’s Haunted Childhood Home

   When I hear the name Lady Bird Johnson, I immediately think of wildflowers. She was, after all, a visionary environmentalist who focused on protecting and preserving North America’s native plants, including Texas wildflowers.

   But did you know that Texas native Lady Bird Johnson grew up in a haunted house?

   High on a hill 2 ½ miles outside of Karnack, Texas an isolated white mansion surrounded by trees, fields and bayous houses a special place in Texas history — as well as its very own ghost.

   The imposing, 17-room plantation style mansion known as the Brick House was built in 1843 by Cephus Andrews. It was also the site of a tragedy.

   In 1861 during a violent thunderstorm, Andrews’ 19-year-old daughter Eunice, known as “Oonie,” sat in her bedroom beside a fireplace. Lightning struck the chimney and raced downward striking the young girl and consuming her in flames.

   Legend has it that Oonie’s spirit has never left the home. Stories have been passed down through the years of eerie noises, ghostly apparitions, misplaced objects and other odd occurrences…all attributed to poor Oonie.

   In 1902 the Andrews family sold their home and thousands of acres of cotton to the wealthiest man in town, Thomas Jefferson Taylor. He also owned two cotton gins, a fishing business and two country stores emblazoned with boastful signs stating “T. J. Taylor—Dealer in Everything.”

   Taylor and his wife Minnie had two sons, and in 1912 added their only daughter Claudia Alta Taylor. Her nursemaid took one look at the dark-haired baby and said she was “as purty as a lady bird.” The endearing nickname followed her throughout her life.

   When Lady Bird was 5, the Brick House witnessed a second tragedy. Her mother fell down the staircase of the home and died a few days later from complications of a miscarriage caused by the accident.

   Lady Bird, whose brothers were away at school (and weren’t even told about their mother’s death for almost a year), remained in the home and was raised by her maternal aunt Effie who came from Alabama to live at the home.

   When asked about the Brick House’s ghost in later years, Lady Bird would say that she often had a feeling of apprehension and unease in the home. She spent most of her indoor time in her room, which was just down the hall from Oonie’s room that servants repeated warned her to stay away from…as they did. The sounds of the old house, including wind whipped through the sills of the floor to ceiling windows must have added to the spooky atmosphere.

   Her aunt Effie believed that Minnie’s ghost visited her at night to instruct her about caring for Lady Bird, washing windows and taking care of other forgotten household chores.

   In her 80’s Lady Bird told her biographer, “I would not, even now, at this age, feel comfortable being alone in that house myself.”

   Luckily young Lady Bird was able to spend most of her time outdoors strolling through the woods and fields where she developed her love of nature’s beauty. So it’s perhaps indirectly thanks in part to the ghost of forever-young Oonie that Texas enjoys wildflowers along its highways each spring.

   The home still stands as a national historic landmark, and is privately owned. I wonder if Oonie still provides caretaking instructions to them.

Road Trip Rest Stops – Enjoy the Ride

   Starting off a new year usually begins with lofty goals quickly filling up our calendars. But it’s probably the ideal time to make a decision to slow down and enjoy the ride.

Carl Monk Sr. Overlook and Picnic area on Highway 7 between Martinsville and Swift.

   When I was growing up, family car trips looked a lot different than they do today. The journey and taking in the sights of the places we traveled through were just as important and fun as the places we were going to.

   While a modern day family is more likely to think of Bucee’s when someone mentions a rest stop, (we had our version of that too back in the day, in the form of Stuckey’s) the roadside rest stops were something entirely different.

   Families didn’t scurry out of the car and head in different directions with the goal of loading up their arms with snacks and souvenirs.

   Instead small clusters of roadside rest stops, basically roofed spots with picnic tables, dotted the sides of the two-lane blacktop highways and offered travelers a place to get out of their car and stretch their legs, let the kids run off some excess energy, and unload their hamper of food Mom had packed that morning to enjoy a family picnic while taking in a view.

   Texas is lucky to still have a wide variety of these mid-century rest stops, so it might come as a surprise that other states have taken to demolishing theirs. Along Texas highways you might spot some shaped like teepees, with wagon-wheel sides, retro-curved roofs or just simple, functional designs. They bring back great memories of time spent on family vacations, and rank right up there with folded maps from gas stations on the nostalgia scale.


   I’ve never gotten over my love of road trips, which is a mystery to some of my friends who would rather fly somewhere that’s only a couple of hundred miles away. But I’ve noticed with all of the challenges in the past few months that many Americans are rediscovering the love of road trips, whether they are going across the state or across the country.

   And, yes, I’ll make the time to take a few minutes at lovely spots I find like this one, because they’re just as enjoyable when I’m traveling by myself.

   Take it from me, and rush less the next time you’re driving along to a destination. If you see a nice roadside rest area, take the opportunity to pause for a few minutes, enjoy a drink or snack and the view. It can put a whole new perspective on your trip.

     What road are you planning to follow in 2021?

 

Smitty, the Texas-sized Gingerbread Man


“Run, run, run as fast as you can

You can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man!”

     Well, actually it’s pretty easy to catch up with THIS gingerbread man.

     In 2006, the organizer of Smithville Texas’ annual Festival of Lights event baked up a delicious plan to take their celebration to the next level – by baking the world’s largest gingerbread cookie!

     Mixing together 750 pounds of flour, 49 gallons of molasses and 72 dozen (separated!) eggs, they created a Texas-sized gingerbread man. They n immense cookie sheet baked the 1,307 pound fellow on an immense cookie sheet over a dump truck load of charcoal (take THAT Food Network!) and then raised him with a crane to the 65 degree angle required by the folks at Guinness World Records for consideration.

     Phew!

     The staff at Guinness officially recognized the spied feat in the 2009 edition of their record book.

     Now . . . how to memorialize the achievement? The Smithville Area Chamber of Commerce and the City of Smithville had the cookie sheet used to bake the gigantic gingerbread man converted into an enormous, 20-foot tall metal replica of the cookie, and the townspeople affectionately dubbed him “Smitty.”

     He stands in the town park making sure visitors can celebrate the spirit of Christmas all year long. Heads up, though, even though he towers over the park, he’s a bit hidden from the street by the trees in the park so you’ll have to get out of you car to see him in all his gingerbread-y glory.

 

 

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.






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?