Waxahachie’s Bit of Britain: English Merchants Inn

NOTICE: This trip was taken before the Cover virus quarantine. 

     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?




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.

 

Waxahachie: Straight from the Heart

     If you’re looking for a place with heart . . . you’ll want to add Waxahachie to your travel list.

     The “Hachie Hearts Trail” project was initiated as a part of the city’s “A Place in Your Heart, Texas” campaign in this charming town. Large hearts (locals call them “puffy hearts”) decorated with different by artists have been installed around town as public art.

     Besides just being enjoyable as to find a view, the hearts can present a fun activity for families or groups. Make it a challenge to find all of the hearts. If you’re in a group, it would be fun to take a selfie with each of the hearts, and the first group back to an agreed upon meeting spot wins.

     And if you make that meeting spot Farm Luck Soda Fountain on the courthouse square (YUM!), everyone wins!

 

     “Hearticulture,” appropriately covered with hearts, was painted by Michael Poston and Jenny Galbrath


“All-American City” by Julie Law

“Here Comes the Sun” by artist Leah Lawless-Smith

     The psychedelic sunrise was sponsored by the staff of the local Sun Newspaper. Look for hidden images on both sides, chosen by members of the staff.

     “Hollywood Texas” by artists Leah Lawless-Smith, Candace Faber, Steve Miller and Mike Duncan. This movie themed heart features scenes from films shot in Waxahachie, like Bonnie and Clyde, Tender Mercies, and Places in the Heart.


“Crape Myrtle Capital” by artists Julie Law

“High Cotton” in Hachie by Damion Brooker is a nod to one  of the traditional crops of the area…and probably my favorite heart.

“Emotions” by Leah Lawless-Smith

     “Oobie’s Town and Waxahachie All-Star Band” by Julie Law this one at the entrance to Getzendaner Park, backside of heart is a sepia-toned rendition of several of the musicians who have grace the stage of the Chatauqua Auditorium.

and

“Land of the Free” by Gerald Spriggs


     Which is your favorite?

     After you find all of the Hachie Hearts, stop in at the County Museum on the square and take a look around. They have heart shaped locks for sale that you can write the name of someone you love on, and then attach to either the love lock fence downtown, or the love lock bridge by the old train depot. Leaving a little of your heart behind in Waxahachie . . .

 

 

Click here to see a video of Waxahachie’s

Love Lock Bridge

 

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?





Stepping Back in Time at Varner-Hogg Plantation

Don’t you just love visiting a place that makes history come to life?

The Varner-Hogg Plantation in West Columbia is one of those sites.

When most of us think of plantations, our thoughts go immediately to Louisiana or Mississippi. But just an hour south of downtown Houston an enchanting reminder of the past sits tucked backed on acreage covered by magnolia trees and a pecan orchard, beside a lazy, winding creek.

The Varner-Hogg Plantation Historic Site shares the story of three owners and their families.

Martin Varner came to the area in 1824 and was granted 4,428 acres by Stephen F. Austin. Along with the two male slaves they brought to the area, his family raised a small amount of livestock and established a rum distillery.

Ruins of sugar mill

Ten years later, Columbus R. Patton moved from Kentucky with a large number of slaves. He became active in politics and served in the Texan army. During the years the plantation was known as the Patton Place, between 40 and 60 slaves made bricks by hand, constructed a plantation house, smokehouse, sugar mill and their own living quarters.

Sugar mill boiling kettles

The two-story sugar mill, which sat across Varner creek within sight of the front porch (now the back) of the main house, made Patton highly successful.

View of main house from site of sugar mill.
The original front entrance now serves as a back porch.


His long-running, open relationship with a slave named Rachel was unpopular in the community. She had many of the rights a white wife would have, and was known to have ruled over the other slaves in a harsh manner.

Patton’s extended family also disapproved, and his nephew and brother were disinherited by Patton because of their actions against her. The extended family had Patton declared insane in 1854, and had him committed to an asylum in South Carolina where he died in 1856. After his death and a prolonged court battle, Rachel was granted her freedom and an annual stipend.

Between 1869 and 1901, the site changed hands several times. Many of the original buildings, including the slave quarters and sugar mill were destroyed during the 1900 hurricane.Governor Hogg purchased the plantation in 1901, convinced that there were oil reserves beneath the land. His 1906 will recommended that his children retain the mineral rights, and the discovery of oil a short time later made the family extremely wealthy.

His daughter Ima was a renowned collector of antiques and decorative arts, and furnished the main house with exquisite pieces before donating the plantation to the state of Texas in 1958.


 

 

A stairway leading from the second floor to the third floor, where the boys of families of former residents would have slept, is off limits to current visitors. Luckily, I was allowed access so that I could share these photos with my readers.

Stairway to third floor.

Though the quarter round windows would have originally allowed light into the space, it’s hard to imagine how the heat of summer would have been tolerable.

The original, covered quarter-round windows as seen on the third floor.

A much smaller set of stairs, tucked beneath what was possibly an original eave, then leads from the third floor to the glassed-in cupola atop the plantation house.

Stairs from third floor to the cupola.
View from cupola
View from cupola.

A feature of the plantation site that kids find especially fun is

“Governor Hogg’s Tub” and Swimming Hole.


Fed by a natural spring creating a small fountain from a pipe, the water is retained in a square, brick lined “tub” before continuing to a small lake. The well-maintained feature is now enjoyed by local wildlife.

One of the things this site does so well is to preserve the beauty of this time period and lifestyles, without romanticizing the sacrifices of others that made them possible. In the outbuidling known as Ima’s cottage, where she stayed on her visits in later years, a fascinating account has been gathered of what the lives of slaves on the plantation were like. Visitors can even listen to recordings of reminiscences of former slaves in their own words.


During your visit make sure you visit the barn, where you can see antique carriages. The yard to the barn is now used for special events.







The visitors center, immediately to the left as you enter the grounds, has a small exhibit room as well as a great selection of local history books and souvenirs.

In my next blog post, I’ll share a special place to stay overnight when you

visit the Varner-Hogg Plantation!