I’ll admit that because Irish (my maiden name is Shanahan), I loved the town of Shamrock even before I arrived just for it’s cute name. What I found is a place that’s adorable for much more than just the moniker it’s had since its first postmaster named it in honor of his Irish mom at the turn of the last century.
TOWER STATION & U-DROP INN
Of all of the unique stops we made along Route 66 in the Texas panhandle, this small town just 15 miles west of the Oklahoma border had one of the most recognizable buildings to fans of the Pixar movie “Cars.”
The Conoco gas station and diner at the corner of Highway 83 and Route 66 inspired the design of Ramone’s “House of Body Art” paint and body shop in the film. If you’ve seen the movie, you’re sure to recognize it immediately.
This Art Deco-lover’s dream was designed by Pampa architect J. C. Berry and built by James M. Tindall and R. C. Lewis in 1936, for a whopping $23,000. Quickly nicknamed the “Tower Station,” it was the first commercial business Shamrock had on Route 66.
Made up of a streamlined gas station and office, a diner named “U-Drop-Inn” (get it?), and a retail space that was soon incorporated to expand the popular diner.
The brick and concrete building sculpted with curved Deco relief curves has two side canopies, and two obelisks sitting on top. The tallest tower over the service station and is almost 100 feet in height. Topped with a metal tulip and adorned with letters spelling “Conoco,” it succeeded in luring in passing tourists. Glazed green and gold terra cotta tile walls and blazing neon light trim added to the attraction, day and night.
Reported to be “the swankiest of swank eating places” and “the most up to date edifice of its kind on the U.S. Highway 66 between Oklahoma and Amarillo” it quickly became one of the most fashionable stops on the Texas stretch of 66.
In addition to drawing tourists in from the road, the U-Drop was the place local parents would sit and visit on Saturday nights while their kids were at picture show at the Texas theatre down the street.
Open 24/7 it had a reputation for friendly waitstaff and delicious food, and was surely a welcome sight for tired, road-weary travelers.
John Nunn, the original owner, passed away in 1957 and the structure changed hands a few times. In the 1970s the station was converted into a Fina station. But the new era had begun when traveling was more focused on the destinations than the adventure of traveling itself, and Route 66 sights took a back seat.
James Tindall, Jr., the son of one of the builders, purchased the landmark in the early 1980s, but closed it in 1997. Ironically that was the same year it was added to the national Register of Historic Places.
Two years later the First National Bank of Shamrock purchased the iconic building and donated to the town of Shamrock. A careful restoration was completed in 2003 recovering its Art Deco charm.
Repair of the station included the use of 508 linear feet of LED lighting to replace the original neon, which was often damaged by harsh Panhandle weather.
Luckily for today’s travelers, the Tower Station complex has been turned into a Visitor Center and small memorabilia museum where you can get a feel for what it was like in its heyday, and sit in Elvis Presley’s favorite booth! They even have era hats to use as props in your photos. The shop also carries a small assortment of Route 66 souvenirs.
Travelers now come from all over the world once again to visit the Tower Station. One of the ladies volunteering in the shop pointed out that they has already had people there from over 100 countries this year alone.
What you might not expect to find is a row of Tesla car chargers in the side parking lot, but the juxtaposition of old and new is pretty darn neat.
Kiss It, It’s Irish!
One of Shamrock’s biggest claims to fame is that it has a piece of the actual Blarney Stone from Ireland.
If you aren’t familiar with the original Blarney stone, it is a large piece of limestone built into the battements of Blarney in Cork. According to legend, kissing the stone will endow the kisser with the “gift of gab.” As a writer, I think that could come in pretty darn handy!
In a tiny strip of property named Elmore Park on East 2nd Street, sits an allegedly theft-proof, crash-proof (for wayward trucks, I assume) concrete cylinder with a neatly cut piece of the legendary stone embedded in the top. The landmark is Irish green – of course – and has a depiction of Blarney Castle painted on the side by a talented local artist.
A bronze plaque explains that the stone was placed there on March 17, 1959 (St. Patrick’s Day) by Texas Secretary of State, Zollie Stearley. According to the Shamrock official who brought it to town, the segment of stone was accidentally knocked off of the original at Blarney Castle. Local lore says that the chunk’s arrival was so important that Shamrock’s mayor called out the Texas Highway Patrol and the Texas National Guard, who reportedly stationed a sub-machine gunner atop the drug store as the stone was wheeled into town. If it isn’t quite true…well, it sure makes a good tale.
And if it IS true, I bet it made for a great show.
If you didn’t know the Blarney Stone was in the park, you might stop anyway just to snap photos of the cute signs depicting St. Patrick and a leprechaun. But since it is, well…what harm can a kiss do?
Shamrock is also home to a different sort of “tower” – the tallest riveted water tower in the state….and you know how we Texans like to build the biggest and best. I must admit I’ve never seen such attention and documentation given to a town water tower. It’s definitely worth a few minutes to wander the lot where it stands downtown and take in some of the old photos, informational plaques and murals that explain how they constructed this monster. Taking into consideration that it was built in 1915 and cost just over $6,000, it’s pretty impressive..
Shamrock also still has a handful of motels that have survived several reincarnations since the days of Route 66, and a beautifully restored 1926 Magnolia gas station.
You’ll thank your lucky stars – or clover – if you take the time for a stop in Shamrock.
If you’ve heard one thing about the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, it’s probably about the challenge: eat a 72 oz. steak in an hour and your meal is free.
While that may sound like a deal to a hungry cowboy, there’s actually a specific list of eleven rules that must be followed. There’s actually a “full meal” surrounding the 72 oz. steak that has to be eaten including shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad and roll with butter. It’s a twin meal to the champion of the very first competition at the restaurant consumed.
Holy Heartburn, Batman!
When Bob “R.J.” Lee opened the Big Texan Steak Ranch in 1960, on the iconic Route 66 touting “huge, Texas-size steaks,” many of his regular customers were cowboys who came for dinner after working in a nearby stockyard. Lee noticed that out-of-town visitors were fascinated while watching these Texans try to “out eat” each other.
As the story goes, one Friday night in 1962, Lee pushed several tables together in the center of the dining room, sat all the voracious cowboys together and told them he wanted to see who could eat the most one-pound steaks in an hour. The cost would be $5 per participant, and whoever won got to keep everybody’s entry fee.
These cowboys obviously had no intention of turning down the dare.
One fellow with a hearty appetite downed two steaks in just ten minutes…but he didn’t stop there. He requested a salad and shrimp cocktail with his third steak, and a baked potato and bread roll with his fourth and fifth. By the time the hour was up, he had devoured all the sides and four and a half pounds of steak (72 ounces).
In response to the cheering crowd, the excited Lee stood on a chair and shouted that from that day forward, anyone who could eat the entire 72 oz dinner in one hour would get it for FREE…and the famous challenge was born.
It became the restaurant’s biggest claim to fame and was advertised on billboards from Arkansas to Arizona.
In the early 1970s when Highway 40 replaced Route 66 as the major thoroughfare, Lee and his family purchased land alongside the new highway to build a bigger, expanded version of his steak house dream.
The original cowboy sign that greeted visitors for years was moved to its new location by helicopter! That would have been a sight!
If you take the steak-eating challenge today, you are seated at a table on a stage platform in the restaurant, so everyone can watch your progress as the large digital clock above you counts down the hour allowed. Want to see if anyone is attempting it right now? Check out the live stream of the challenge table here.
Now, I had no intention of attempting such madness, but I did want to check out the restaurant. I wasn’t prepared for how fun and HUGE it is!
Pulling in to park between the steak house and it’s Old West theme hotel next door, visitors are greeted by the legendary cowboy sign as well as a towering statue of a boot wearing dinosaur propped in two-story tall sticks of fireworks.
Wait….what? A dinosaur? Well, you just know there’s a story there too! Bobby and Danny Lee, “R.J.”s sons who now run the business share memories of seeing dinosaur statues on a special vacation that took their family across the historic Route 66. “Dino” smiles down on their patrons to remind them that “it’s not always about the destination, it’s about the journey getting there.”
When you venture inside, be prepared to wait for your table at this popular restaurant. Once they hand you your pager, don’t just sit and wait for heaven’s sake…explore!
Out back is a large covered beer garden (they have their own craft brewery on site) with live music, old-fashioned games, photo opps that include a stagecoach, huge rocking chair, 18-foot-tall cowboy boot and more.
Inside try your luck at a carnival style shooting gallery where you can take aim at western targets like rattlesnakes, bad guys and bobcats as well as Frankentein, zombies and Dracula. Who needs Halloween?
Outside be sure to check out the Texas-shape swimming pool, the motel, a horse hotel (yes, actually for horses), and RV park. And be sure to look down, because this attraction’s attention to details goes right down to imprinting cattle brands in the sidewalks.
The gift shop has every version of a kitschy souvenir that you can think of, and a few you probably can’t. The night we were there, it was so crowded with tourists looking for that silly something to commemorate their visit that we needed to scoot sideways down the aisles to make any progress. (These are the times a good sense of humor comes in handy!)
Once our pager alerted us it was time to chow down, the hostess lead my family into an immense, two-story dining room where chandeliers of antlers and wagon wheels hang from the ceiling.
We felt like we were walking onto a saloon set soundstage of Bonanza or Gunsmoke, complete with swinging doors, taxidermy mounts, spindle railings, and the cowboy-hat-wearing waitstaff.
Just about everything – including the margaritas – are garnished with some of the biggest jalapenos I’ve ever seen.
While we waited for our food we enjoyed the two gentlemen who strolled the dining room playing western classics tableside for the diners. I kept my fingers crossed they would come our way, and lucky for us they did, asking for requests. (A personal note here: please be sure to tip entertainment like this as the tips usually make up the majority if not all of what they are paid for the pleasure they bring!)
Kids meals are served in a cowboy hat that the kids can keep as a souvenir. My teenage daughter wasn’t hungry enough to eat one of the over-sized meals and asked if she could order from a children’s menu. The waitress smiled and said she could as long as she agreed to put on the hat afterward. Good sport that she is, she agreed and did…and no, she would NOT give me permission to post that particular photo.
I couldn’t resist getting the southern classic chicken friend steak and have to say it’s one of the best I’ve ever eaten. I was relieved that it wasn’t plate-sized as well, but still couldn’t finish it off.
The vintage look Route 66 / Texan Steak House pattern china was a great touch as well and didn’t go unappreciated.
If you have any room left for ice cream after all that…they have an ice cream bar in the main, too! Be sure to at least stop long enough to taste a sample…it’s worth it. Then you can wobble back to your car.
Generations of visitors have come The Big Texan and often share photos with the owners. It’s a tasty tradition. Bobby says he never tires of hearing their stories.
Just a note: one fun thing we didn’t find out about in time is a complimentary limo service to and from the restaurant! The Big Texan offers a complimentary limo pickup from most hotels, motels, and RV parks in Amarillo, as well as Cavender’s Boot City, and The Starbuck’s on I40 and Grand. Not just any limo, of course! A stereotypical limousine complete with longhorns mounted on the front. Pick-ups start at 4:00 and they drive customers home until everyone they brought is delivered safely back where they are staying. Check their website for the number to make a reservation for this unique shuttle.
For someone who, as a little girl, devoured anything having to do with the Old West the Big Texan was like stepping into a little slice of good-humored heaven…even before the food arrived. As a kid I would have eaten it up. But it was just as much fun as an adult.
Chances are if you’ve seen any photos of Route 66, a shot of the infamous Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo was among them. The row of ten, graffiti-covered Cadillacs buried nose-first in the ground has become famous around the world.
Their make and models are no longer discernible due to weathering and layers of paint, but everyone seems to know they’re Cadillacs.
The public art installation gained immediate attention from its inception in 1974 by eccentric businessman-turned-artist Stanley Marsh 3 (he thought the III after his name was too pretentious).
Marsh commissioned the Ant Farm, a radical art group consisting of Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez and Dough Michaels, to carry out his plan.
The classic Caddies dating from 1948 to 1963 were purchased for about $200 apiece and were installed with their original paint jobs. Depending on their drivability they were either hoisted or driven into the holes that became their almost-final resting places in a wheat field just outside the city limits.
The temptation to visitors to leave their mark on the unusual sight became a rite of Route 66 passage, and didn’t seem to bother Marsh who embraced the enthusiasm of the new tradition.
In 1997 urban sprawl necessitated moving the interactive folk art attraction a couple of miles down the road to its current site in a former cow pasture on I-40. The cars were carefully moved and reset in their original order and angle. It’s said that even some of the surrounding debris was moved to the new location with them, but that seems more like a bit of a Texas Tall Tale in the making.
The cars were repainted in their original colors in 2002, and in 2003 they were painted in flat black to mourn the passing of the founder of the Ant Farm.
Other than those two efforts, the colors and patterns have constantly evolved thanks to the enthusiastic efforts of visitors. It will never look exactly the same, even if you visit two days in a row.
The Cadillac Ranch was one of our most anticipated stops along our trek across the Texas section of Route 66, and it didn’t disappoint. It almost shouts, “Just enjoy and don’t take yourself so seriously.”
You may even recognize the Ranch from Brooks & Dunn’s “Honky Tonk” music video or Pixar’s animated ‘Cars’ movie – where its silhouette was used as the design for a mountain range.
But let me steer you in the right direction for your own Caddie Outing . . .
First of all, it’s free…so there’s no excuse to pass up the opportunity to visit. Plan to bring at least one can of spray paint per person to join in the fun.
Heading east on I-40, take Exit 60 (Arnot Road). Pass through the intersection with Love’s Truck Stop and keep an eye out for cars parked on the side of the road to your right. Yes, the Cadillac Ranch is open 24/7/365 so there are always cars.
Don’t expect a big touristy, lighted sign shouting the location, though. What you’ll see first is a turnstile gate and parked cars before you spot the Caddies propped up in a pasture in the distance.
Typical for a summer day in the Panhandle, it was hot and windy so hats, sunscreen and water are essentials.
The day we visited there was a fellow selling key chains and other quirky mementoes made from paint that had chipped off the cars, by the gate out of the back of his truck. Enterprising, but we passed. You’ll see large pieces of this layered paint on the ground surrounding the cars, so you can pick up one to make your own creation if you like.
Once you pass through the turnstile a wide dirt path leads out to the Cadillacs.
Note: the turnstile gate was the only access I saw while I was there, so unless a visitor in a wheelchair has assistance to get through the tight gate and has their folded chair passed as well, I’m not entirely sure this would be accessible. I would advise calling the visitors’ bureau who might know of another way in.
I’ve also heard that the site can turn into quite a mud pit after a rain, but our timing didn’t make that an issue.
We purposely wore clothes that we didn’t mind getting speckled with a bit of paint, since the wind chose exactly where the spray went.
Don’t hesitate to jump right in and leave your mark on any or all of the cars. It’ll last at least until the next “artist” comes along. Be aware if you’re climbing on or inside them that though they’re remarkable sturdy…they are deteriorating and shouldn’t be 100% trusted to support you!
Some people even spray-painted messages and patterns in the dirt surrounding the cars, which was so hard it made a pretty good canvas.
Visitors are asked to carry out their empty spray cans to toss in the trash bins along the fence line, but of course not everyone does. Be a bit of a hero and pick an extra one up to throw out with yours!
The only traffic jam these cars see any more are the crowds that surround them. We chatted with people from several states and different countries and of all ages, and everyone was having a ball.
Off-beat? Yes. Fun? Absolutely! The Cadillac Ranch makes my list of must-stops along the road.
Do you chimichurri?
I recently had the opportunity to visit with Executive Chef David Rapozo at Hotel Valencia Riverwalk in San Antonio about activities and unique group experiences for groups traveling together.
In response, he treated our group to a chimichurri making competition. Chimichurri is an uncooked sauce (like a pesto in Italy or salsa in Mexico) that originated in Argentina, which was particularly appropriate as this beautiful hotel is designed with a stunning Argentinian theme and restaurant menus.
Chef Rapozo demonstrated how he uses a variety of ingredients to make a chimichurri similar to ones that he personally found in Argentina, and then let us sample it. Once we saw that it wasn’t as intimidating as we might have thought, he presented us with a table filled with portioned seasonings and oils to try making our own. We were split into teams of two, and got busy mixing.
Though some of the participants were a bit hesitant at the start of the event, we were all quickly caught up in the fun, while getting to know each other better. The light-hearted approach encouraged everyone to experiment and laugh at any mishaps along the way.
Much to our surprise, even though we were all working with the same variety of ingredients, each team’s efforts had very different results . . . even different colors.
To our delight, a variety of grilled meats arrived from the kitchen to try the sauces on. Chef Rapozo went first with tasting all the “entries” of course, to act as our judge. And although he did declare a winning team (which just might have been mine!) he gave nice feedback to everyone.
Now, truth be told, I thought they were all really tasty and it was fun (and delicious) trying all of the varieties. We all went away anxious to try it again once we returned home.
Activities like this would be a great addition for a group girlfriends getaway or used as a corporate team building event during business travel. Be sure to contact the hotel several weeks ahead of your arrival to allow the staff to present possible ideas (maybe a guacamole making competition?) and allow you time to choose and them to prepare for the experience.
Try it the next time you travel in a group!
Both U.S. presidents most associated with Texas in recent years weren’t actually born here. Former President George H. W. Bush was born in Massachusetts, and his son was born in Connecticutt.
The two actually born in Texas? Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson.
You can visit the Eisenhower Birthplace State Historic Site in Denison.
The Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park is in Stonewall, Texas. The “Texas White House” is temporarily closed, but other park facilities are open.
Now just for fun, how many Texas places can you think of that share a name with a former President? Try your hand, and then see below for a list, in order of the presidential office year. (Not all of these places were named for the President whose name they share.)
Hays County (O.K., well – the prez spelled it Hayes so this one’s a stretch)
Kenedy (again..spelled slightly different than Kennedy)
How many were you able to name without peeking? It’s O.K. if you did peek…no judgment here.
Happy President’s Day!
Ah, the smell of fresh Christmas trees can sure get us in the mood for the holiday season. This year why not take the experience of choosing a tree to the next level by staying overnight at a Texas Christmas tree farm?
Yes, you actually can!
Holiday Acres Christmas Tree Farm in Manvel offers not one but two “tiny houses” you can book for overnight (or longer) stays through Airbnb.
I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of tiny houses, so I was excited about checking one out for myself. Both options at Holiday Acres look equally charming nestled beside the pond and fire pit, but I chose the Bluebonnet for its simple, more traditional design.
Walking into the Bluebonnet I was immediately surprised at how well the limited room was used to create a cozy space.
Though it was admittedly much smaller than most people who stay at hotels might be accustomed to, it included all of the necessities: a bathroom with shower, kitchen with sink and microwave, kitchen utensils, coffee maker, mini fridge, small fold-down table top with two chairs, television, WiFi, heating/air conditioning, and towels.
A futon style sofa folds down to provide extra sleeping space, though it would work better for two small children than adults. A roomier, fluffy mattress with pillows is tucked into a snug loft area, reached by ladder leading from the living area.
The diminutive porch with chairs and table invites guests to enjoy their coffee outdoors while enjoying nature.
While you’re there you’ll definitely want to wander through the tree farm acreage filled with Virginia pines, Leyland cypress, Murray Cypress and Arizona cypress, and take one of the best scents of the season.
A visit to Holiday Farms can be a great getaway for some personal, couple or family time. Take a hayride to look for a tree, enjoy a complimentary cup of hot chocolate or mulled cider by a cozy campfire and a watch the kids wear off some of that holiday energy on the natural playground.
Then stroll back to your tiny house digs and grab some marshmallows to roast over the campfire to make my favorite treat…s’mores!
Where else can you stay and take home your very own hand-chosen Christmas tree? And a stay here is definitely less expensive than a hotel room, and offers a lot more atmosphere for the season.
Holiday Acres opens for Christmas tree cutting on November 23 this year, but the tiny houses are available for stays year-round. You can find the booking listing here: http://www.airbnb.com/rooms/14282082 and more details about the farm, here: www.theholidayacres.com.
This time of year, Texas travel can take on a spookier theme when tourists seek out the most haunted hotels in their area.
Our state has no shortage of hotels with stories of resident spirits and unnatural occurrences. Some are based in fact. Some are more of a “reach.” If you want to test your nerves by staying at a property that might be home to unearthly beings, here are a few to try:
The Hotel Galvez, Galveston
The Driskill Hotel, Austin
Sheraton Gunter Hotel, San Antonio
Menger Hotel, San Antonio
Nutt House, Granbury
The Excelsior Hotel, Jefferson
Jefferson Hotel, Jefferson
Baker Hotel, Mineral Wells
The Ott Hotel, Liberty
Renaissance Casa de las Palmas, McAllen
Gage Hotel, Marathon
Le Meridien Stoneleigh, Dallas
Queen Isabel Inn, Port Isabel
Of course, this list is far from complete, but it’s a good place to start…or a lucky 13 places.
If you’re planning to brave a potentially haunted hotel in hope of having your own other-worldly experience you may make your reservations pretty far ahead of your stay.
Read the stories about the resident spirit(s) and experiences of others. If there is a particular room in the hotel that is purported to be the center of the activity and you want to stay in it (like room 501 at The Hotel Galvez), plan to book your room MONTHS in advance. These rooms are incredibly popular! If you’re thinking about staying there in October, you may need to book even further out.
Don’t trust your own senses, but don’t have expensive “ghost hunting” electronics? No problem. Just download one of the many apps available that claim to detect the presence of spirits…but if the information they give you creeps you out, don’t blame me!
A few to check out:
Ghost Radar: Classic by Spud Pickles
Ghost Communicator by Andrew Gronek
Ghost Detector Free by Purple Penguin.com
Ghost Locator by Sebastien Mougey
Ghost Observer by AKEV
Ghost Recorder by MEDL Mobile, Inc.
Ghost O Meter by Adrian 3
But remember, if all of this ghostly talk isn’t your style, there’s no shame in checking into a brand new hotel, cuing up “Hocus Pocus” on pay-per-view and digging into some Halloween candy instead!
I recently learned that the former Ranger’s Cottage at Varner-Hogg Plantation in West Columbia is now available to rent for overnight stays. I didn’t hesitate to make a reservation immediately!
The Varner Hogg Plantation is a State Historic Site featuring the original plantation home and several outbuildings. See my previous post for more about it: https://bit.ly/2Nxki0L
Though the website had basic information about the cottage, the photos online don’t do it justice. Being a Girl Scout leader, I know that the word “cottage” sometimes means extremely rustic and bare bones. While that won’t scare me away, I was pleasantly surprised with this location.
Built in the 1920s, the Ranger’s cottage sits slightly back across the site road from the main house, beneath large pecan trees that probably predate my grandmother.
Rocking chairs and a bistro table and chair set wait on the porch, inviting guests to linger and enjoy the immense trees, heavily draped with Southern moss. I honestly wasn’t sure I’d get much further, since I have in incurable weakness for porches, but I’m glad I did.
The entire cottage has been updated and decorated with comfortable, modern furnishings. No detail has been overlooked in making each room a welcoming space. The living room even has a basket of monogrammed blankets so family or friends can curl up on the sofa to enjoy an evening movie.
To the right of the living room is a brightly colored, spacious master bedroom with space enough to do a little dancing before bedtime. The master bath has a dressing room with sink and mirror, and a separate room with shower and toilet. The amenities (towels, shampoo items, gels) are more who I would have expected from a hotel than a historic cottage on a state historic site!
The kitchen was the next pleasant surprise (and by the time I saw it I was regretting not bringing a group of friends with me!). Stocked with serve ware and basic cookware, it features a full size refrigerator/freezer, microwave, range and coffeemaker. It would be such fun to stay here with family or friends and gather on the barstools at the counter to chat while fixing a meal! The attractive concrete counters, by the way, were made by one of the site employees (and I wonder if he would mind stopping by my house to make some for me!).Just outside the kitchen door is a small back porch big enough for a couple of chairs. It would be a relaxing spot for a chat and cup of coffee or cocoa.
A stairway from the rear of the cottage leads to the second floor, and an additional full bath and two large bedrooms. Again, I was surprised by the size of the rooms, considering the age and original use of the cottage!
The yellow bedroom with twin beds and floral bedding seemed bright and cheery even on the dreary rainy day that I arrived.
The second upstairs bedroom was decorated in a lovely shabby chic violet, with full beds.
The cottage was so comfy, it would have been easy to just nest inside, but of course one of the major advantages of staying on site at the plantation is being able to explore the grounds even after visiting hours. Everything on site is within easy walking distance, including the main house, the ruins of the sugar mill and slave quarters, picnic grounds, the old family cemetery and more.
It was a special treat to wander around after an evening rain taking in the beauty and history while being serenaded by the frogs in Varner Creek.
For information about making a reservation for your stay at the Varner-Hogg Plantation, visit https://bit.ly/2oHdpkB
Have you ever stayed at a historic site? If so, which one and did you enjoy it?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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