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?

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.

 

 

Take a Seat in the Chairy Orchard

     If quirky places speak to your heart, you definitely need to pull up a chair in Denton’s “Chairy Orchard.”

Chairy Lemonade, anyone?

     Long time friends Anne Pearson and Judy Smith, known as the “Chairy Fairies,”  live in the houses on either side of the empty lot they’ve owned for 40 years and created this artsy attraction. Backing up to a creek, the lot is in a floodway so will never be able to be built on…so why not have some fun with it?

Arm Chair

     Judy started attaching chairs to a tree a few years back and called it the “Chairy Tree.” When Anne joined in the fun, the tree soon turned into an orchard! The chairs com from thrift stores, garage sales and curbside discard piles. Some are even let anonymously by admirers of the project.

     Mark Holderbaum, a friend of the crafty duo, built the archways for the site by welding about 30 metal chairs into a Chairy Arch. Judy’ son Terry built a giant chair and hr grandson Drew build the Chairy Totter.

     A collection of diminutive chairs cluster along the boards of the “Chairy-wood Fence,” and old and weathered chairs end their display days in the “Chairy Cemetery.”

The Ceme-Chairy – Rest in Pieces

     Bring a picnic, bring a friend, bring a sense of humor and definitely bring your camera! The Chairy Orchard is open to everyone from dawn to dusk at 1426 Churchill Drive in Denton.

The Chairy Pit

 

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.





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.

 

 

Printable Gift Certificate: A History of the Hotel Galvez

If you’ve ordered a copy of my upcoming book

A History of the Hotel Galvez as a gift for someone from amazon or

your local bookseller, please feel free to print off  the following

gift certificate so you will have something to put under the tree

or in their stocking! The book’s release date has been scheduled for

February 1, 2021!

Thank you for your purchase, and Happy Holidays!

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.






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.