Last summer Scotty and I got paid to drive around East Texas … These are the videos from our six day trips.
Listen to my interview on Shreveport’s NPR station:
[gplayer href=”http://wesferguson.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/local-rrr-852414.mp3″ ] All Things Considered / Red River Radio [/gplayer]
… Yes, I used the word flabbergasted. Many thanks to my nameless web colleague!
Gators and Friends:
On Caddo Lake
We could have watched TV. We could have gone to Walmart. Instead, my buddy Scott and I decided to spend a few days exploring East Texas, its attractions and oddities.
Best of all? Our employer, the Longview News-Journal, was footing the bill.
For our first day trip, we drove northeast from Longview, crossing into the countryside in no time. Preferring the back roads, we kicked up dust as my old red Jeep rumbled past rolling hills and green pastures. The hay fields were freshly cut, and from a distance they seemed as well-manicured as any lawn.
We turned onto Highway 154 southeast of Harleton and came upon a country store. The signs outside advertised feed, bait, hunting licenses … and Bubba Burgers.
It was Fugler’s Grocery and Market. Inside, John “Bubba” Fugler was grilling mounds of hamburger meat while his brother Al rang up the customers’ orders.
“You got three sammiches,” Al said, laying on a thick country drawl. “Three traitor taters. Is this your bellywash? Unleaded Dr Pepper. Gotcha 20 dolla and 64 cents you have legally tendered — tax, title and license.”
A bellywash is a cold drink in Fugler’s lingo, and traitor taters are french fries at the country store, which the Fugler brothers’ father and grandfather established in 1940.
The burgers are all Bubba Burgers, named for Bubba Fugler. “Well, people would come in here and want a burger,” Al said. “They’d say, ‘I want Bubba to fix my burger.’ That’s Bubba down yonder.”
Bubba looked up from the grill and then looked back down. Within earshot, three regulars were ribbing the Fugler brothers and raving about their lunch.
“Eat a Bubba Burger, and you’ll go back to Longview and throw a rock through the window of (your local burger places),” said Richard McFarland, who was wolfing down his meal with Golden Flake Cheese Puffs.
“They’ll make you a double if you want it, but I tell you, it’ll feel like you swallowed a brick right around 3 o’clock.”
McFarland and a couple of his teaching colleagues said they drive over from Texas State Technical College in Marshall most days of the week. He’s even got the Fugler’s phone number on speed dial.
“I walk in the door, and they know where to set it down for me,” he said. “Nothing about it is quote-unquote ‘fast food.’ It’s a hamburger that could have come out of your mom’s kitchen. It’s got that flavor. It’s got that taste.”
Waitress Lajuana Lewis plopped a couple of the famous burgers onto the table in front of us. The beef had been ground that morning, and the patty was so tender and juicy it took a delicate touch to keep it from falling apart.
“It’s a regular, old, plain-Jane good hamburger,” McFarland said. “It’s just good.”
Stuffed, satisfied and fighting the urge to drop everything and take a nap, we stumbled out of Fugler’s and returned to the open road. Our journey took us through Marshall alongside the red-brick campus of East Texas Baptist University, past Lady Bird Johnson’s childhood home in Karnack, and beyond Caddo Lake State Park, to the fishing camp town of Uncertain.
Our adventure was about to begin.
AN UNCERTAIN LANDMARK
No one’s sure how Uncertain got its name. Several theories have circulated over the years, each one raising more questions than answers.
On a western shore of Caddo Lake, the settlement has been home to scattered hunting and fishing camps for more than a century. One constant has been Johnson’s Ranch Marina, a rustic place where boaters have stopped for decades to grab a drink or snack and relax on the deck.
“Johnson’s Ranch is 101 years old,” said Billy Carter, the marina’s operator and a longtime Caddo guide. “It’s been a focal point for everything going on in Uncertain, and we don’t have a problem with people pulling up here in the shade all day long.”
Carter is restoring the building, and — in a huge development — he’s planning to install air-conditioning in the room where the cold drinks are kept on ice.
“I’m trying to bring it back into shape like it was in the ’50s — no frills, shade, a place for people to get together and talk about old times and new times,” he said.
As a handful of locals lazed away the afternoon on the marina, an elderly man in a white T-shirt and overalls rode toward us on his lawn mower. He parked the mower beside the dock and eased out of the seat, steadying himself with a wooden cane.
Carter introduced him as Henry Lewis. He would be our fishing guide for the afternoon.
ON THE BAYOU
Caddo Lake is a maze of bayous, sloughs, oxbows and islands. Lewis knows them all.
He has spent more than 50 years leading people to his favorite fishing holes for crappie and bream, boating through places like Blind Slough, Whangdoodle Pass and Alligator Bayou, and ducking the Spanish moss that dangles from the cypress trees.
It was a sunny afternoon in June, but a breeze cooled our faces as we cruised down Alligator Bayou in one of Johnson Ranch’s aluminum boats. Suddenly Lewis let off the gas, made a U-turn and ducked into the cypress trees.
To the unobservant passenger, there appeared to be no break in the woods along the bayou’s edge, but Lewis promised it was a shortcut.
He deftly nosed the boat through the submerged forest, dodging the trees, but the boat’s propeller snagged a patch of hydrilla, a noxious underwater weed that is choking many of Texas’ lakes.
Caddo is no exception.
Lewis popped the prop to shake loose the tangles, flinging black pieces of seaweed onto his back, and the boat slammed into a tree. His passenger grabbed a paddle and shoved off from the cypress trunk, pinballing the boat from tree to tree.
Finally, Lewis unclogged the propeller and eased through the forest. We saw daylight ahead. It was the “Big Lake,” where the narrow bayous and sloughs give way to wide, open water.
Soon after, Lewis baited our bamboo cane poles with minnows and gave simple instructions:
“Watch me, and do what I do,” he said.
He tossed the minnow into the water, watched it for 30 seconds and tossed it elsewhere. A few minutes passed without a nibble.
“Man, I was sure that we’d catch something by now,” he said. “That’s my favorite little hole. When it gets like that we move to another spot.”
He revved the engine and took off. At the next hole, the fish were biting.
“Watch out, man! Pull! Pull!”
A BIG HAUL
Crappie fishing, at least the way Lewis does it, is a perfect sport for people with short attention spans. We spent the afternoon pulling foot-long fish from the water, and whenever a few minutes elapsed without a bite, we were off to the next hole.
One of his passengers snagged a big one and yanked hard on the line. “Nope, you got a stump,” Lewis said. “Work it back to you. Nope. Let me have that pole. You got to work it out.”
If nothing else, the job beats picking cotton, he said. Lewis worked in the cotton fields around Karnack from the age of 13 through 15, then moved to Dallas to make some fast money. He didn’t like it, though, so he came home. He’s been guiding on Caddo Lake since he was 17 years old.
“I raised eight kids doing it,” he said. He has 14 grandchildren that he knows of.
Now hobbled by age and knee replacement surgery, Lewis said he doubts he will be guiding for much longer. Even so, he still managed to catch twice as many fish as his two passengers on this day.
Back at the marina, 57-year-old Leroy Jones scaled and gutted our 15 fish. He’s held the job at Johnson’s Ranch for nearly 40 years. “I’ve been out here all my life, man,” he said.
But he’s not a fisherman. When there is no bass or bream or crappie to clean, Jones likes to sit on a bench in front of the box fan. He watches the fishermen traveling up and down the lake.
He makes a few bucks here and there, and his feet stay on dry ground.
* * * *
Heritage and history
In hindsight, shoveling down a mess of hot links and chili might not have been the smartest way to kick off an afternoon sweating under the East Texas sun.
But then, all logic, reason and gastric limitations go right out the window when you sidle up to the horseshoe counter at Doc’s Hot Links in Gilmer.
The links at Doc’s are an Upshur County tradition. Glistening in their casings, the plump piles of sausage have tempted patrons for more than half a century.
Farmers, oilfield hands and other customers cut them up, douse them with hot sauce or ketchup and eat them with crackers, washing it all down with a Dr Pepper.
“It’s a lot of them that come just about every day,” said owner Floyd Henderson Jr., whose father purchased Doc’s in 1969. “Others who moved off after growing up in the Gilmer area come back and load up ice chests to take home.”
Henderson is a tall guy with a wide-eyed, friendly look on his face. Some people say you should never watch sausage being made, but Henderson, 61, said the process is no big thing. Every morning, he and his crew grind up 250 to 300 pounds of beef and seasoning. They add flour and water, stuff them into hog casings, tie the links by hand and cook ’em as they need ’em.
“It’s what I grew up with, and I know how it’s supposed to taste,” Henderson said. “All it amounts to is hamburger meat and seasoning stuffed in casings.”
During a recent lunch hour, several Doc’s customers balanced on rickety benches and hunched over their hot links or cups of hot-link chili. Scott and I took our spots at the counter and ordered four links and a small chili apiece.
It didn’t look like a lot of food, but then we started eating. The first link was savory and spicy — delicious. The second was a little heavier, and by the end of the third, there was almost no room left in our stomachs.
“I don’t know if I can eat anymore,” Scott whispered.
“Come on, push through,” I said.
Nearby, 52-year-old church pianist Larry Chalk Sr. had already cleaned his plate. He told us he remembers watching the links broil in the back of the restaurant when he was a child.
“When I was 6 or 7 years old, before integration, the black people ate in the back,” explained Chalk, who is black and lives in Big Sandy. “The links have always been good. We came about once a week to get some, and we had to go through a back door to get in. It was real smoky back there.”
Today, Henderson’s mother, Laurice Henderson, was napping in an overstuffed chair in the back room, where Chalk and the other black customers once dined. Floyd Henderson Jr. was out front, shooting the breeze with men in overalls. He said his customers have encouraged him to keep the links and the unadorned setting just as they were when Floyd Sr. was running the show.
“It’s an everyday thing except for Sunday,” he said.
Scott chewed through the casing of his fourth hot link, a pained expression on his face. He gulped it down. I did the same, and we said our goodbyes. Outside, the sun hit us like a punch in the gut, and we struggled into the open-air Jeep, then headed north to Pittsburg.
Along U.S. 271, summer hadn’t yet scorched the green pastures that bordered the highway. We passed a country flea market as well as the turnoff for a local vineyard, then swung through the Efurd Orchards produce stand. I grabbed a watermelon and half a peck of peaches to take home, while Scott somehow found room for a large cup of peach ice cream, an Efurd specialty.
In town a few minutes later, we delved into a controversy that has intrigued historians for more than a hundred years.
DID IT FLY?
Around the summer of 1900, a preacher and inventor named the Rev. Burrell Cannon began delivering a fantastical message to the residents of Pittsburg.
An apocalyptic passage of the Old Testament had given him divine instructions to build a flying machine, he said. In the passage, the prophet Ezekiel describes four creatures, each with four faces, that used wheels to fly.
Ezekiel writes: “This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like chrysolite, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel … Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, and the wheels would rise along with them, because the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.”
Cannon had spent 16 years puzzling over the prophesy and designing his Ezekiel Airship. With funds from Pittsburg investors, whose wealth derived from thriving cotton and timber trades, Cannon eventually developed his engine-powered craft a full year before the Wright brothers made their historic flight.
A massive replica of Cannon’s contraption now hangs from the ceiling in a wing of the Northeast Texas Rural Heritage Center and Museum in downtown Pittsburg.
“How he read that and came up with this, I have no idea,” said museum director Fanny Hively, pointing to the replica.
According to one tale, machine shop employees sneaked the airship into a field while Cannon was preaching and briefly flew it one Sunday morning in the winter of 1902-03. According to another, Cannon was on hand for the test flight but did not man the airship himself because he weighed too much.
A handful of witnesses are said to have seen the flight. No photographs were taken, nor were any newspaper accounts written, despite several earlier articles anticipating the aircraft’s completion.
Over time the Pittsburg investors lost interest, and Cannon loaded his airship onto a railroad flatcar and headed north for the St. Louis World’s Fair. Near Texarkana, however — in an act of God befitting the Good Book — a sudden windstorm blew the craft onto the ground and destroyed it.
Afterward Cannon moved to Longview. He kept inventing and kept trying to raise funds to resurrect the airship, but he died a penniless widower in 1922.
FRENZY ON THE FARM
There is more to the museum in Pittsburg than the Ezekiel exhibit. A few blocks over, the museum operates a restored, turn-of-the-century farmstead. On the afternoon we arrived, the farm was in a tizzy.
Yipping and yapping sounds were coming from the barn, and the commotion had stirred up the chickens who were clucking and strutting in their coop next door. While investigating, a museum volunteer had found a litter of puppies in the red barn’s ancient wooden stalls.
A crowd of museum visitors, staff and volunteers in period dress — bonnets and long, floral dresses — now gathered around as a local animal control officer dutifully collected the pups.
“God bless their little sweet hearts,” said Jean Gunn, a museum guide. “I wonder how long they’ve been here.”
No one could say.
The Pittsburg farmstead depicts the rural way of life in Northeast Texas as it existed more than 100 years ago. At our next stop, the Greer Farm near Daingerfield, the farmers take a decidedly more modern approach.
farm living today
The Greer Farm has been in continuous operation since the first Anglo settlers arrived in the mid-1840s, but its earliest inhabitants probably didn’t subsist on brie-and-blueberry pastries.
A gourmet cooking class had just run its course when Scott and I showed up unannounced on the doorsteps of the plantation home. Chef Eva Greer greeted us with tall glasses of iced tea, sweetened by a concoction of homemade vanilla, almonds and fresh lemon juice.
Chauffeuring us around the farm in his golf cart, Eva’s husband Sid scooted past heirloom roses, French cattle and a barnyard full of animals. He maintains a website and a blog, and the couple are experimenting with sustainable agriculture and other newfangled ways to profit from farm life. One pursuit is “agritourism,” opening the family’s spread to vacationers and day-trippers.
“There’s always something going on at the farm,” he said.
Like the Wi-Fi Internet in the log cabins that are rented to guests.
PICKIN’ AND GRINNIN’
It was time to shove off.
Still full from our layover at Doc’s, we skipped dinner and headed for Lone Star, home of the once-a-month Bluegrass Pickin’ Place.
There, a gray-haired man shuffled toward us with the help of a cane.
“I’m Old Man Rountree,” he said. “I’m the proprietor.”
At 82 years old, Curtis Rountree said he’s been operating the Pickin’ Place since 1986, when he retired from his job as a company man for Lone Star Steel. The building is the steel plant’s old union hall, which closed in 1966 when the new union building opened across the street.
“I just love the music,” Rountree said. “I lose money on it every month, but it’s my retirement. It’s my hobby. It’s a free show, and we do take donations, and we’ve got an old boy named Cecil Collins that on his own brings a whole bunch of food for everyone. He loses more money than I do.”
The crowd of mostly older folks sat in rows of chairs in the wide, dark union hall, tapping their feet and bobbing their heads to the jumpy sounds of Them Texas Boys, the Caddo Creek Gang and other bluegrass bands.
Rountree said the music has been a part of his life for nearly 40 years. “It’s a high, lonesome sound,” he said. “It’s just different from country.”
I grabbed a seat at the back of the hall and tapped to the music along with the rest.
It was a peaceful way to end a day exploring East Texas, where some traditions, like the farming life, are evolving with new technology and changing sensibilities. Other staples, like hot links and bluegrass, seem to be doing just fine the way they are.
* * * *
Crossing the border
An alligator’s teeth aren’t that sharp, really. They don’t need to be. When a gator clamps its powerful jaws onto its prey — and if the meat and bone are too big to swallow whole — it grips tight and spins onto its back, tearing the flesh into manageable chunks.
The average adult male measures between 11 and 12 feet long and weighs half a ton. It can make a quick snack of young livestock, dogs, cats and, if they’re not careful, small children.
“You can hear their bones breaking when they’re eating,” said James Willett, a Shreveport resident who raises gators. “A big one, he could bite your arm, and it would just break the bones. … If they grab your arm and start flipping, it’s to rip it off.”
American alligators lurk in slow-moving waters from North Carolina to the Rio Grande, and East Texas is no exception.
For our third day trip in as many weeks, Scott and I steeled our nerves for a close encounter with the prehistoric reptiles — as well as a few of their friends.
A strange sandwich
The morning sun shone on the bug-splattered windshield as we set off from Longview, heading east toward the alligators at the Louisiana border. A little early for lunch, maybe, but we were hungry. An unusual little sandwich was beckoning only 20 miles outside of town.
Texas is cattle country, by God, but a tiny diner in Marshall has bucked the beef tradition for more than 80 years. Neely’s has become a local tradition in its own right, famous for its Brown Pig sandwich of pulled pork with tangy barbecue sauce, lettuce and a dab of mayonnaise, all served on a toasted bun.
“It’s just a little different,” said Sally Cobb, who with her sister, Sue Lazaro, are the third owners of the old-time diner. “The older people say it’s exactly the same as it used to be,” she said, but “it might be more meat.”
Mayonnaise on barbecue? I had never heard of such a thing. Even so, I devoured my Brown Pig in a few bites. As I wiped the barbecue sauce from my chin, I studied the diner’s walls, a repository of Marshall history. Framed photos of famous natives Y.A. Tittle and Bill Moyers and other locals hang above the booths. Outside the diner, customers can still order from the walk-up window if they’re too busy to come inside.
“It’s been here forever,” Cobb said. “It’s just a hometown-environment restaurant.”
LOST IN YESTERYEAR
The alligators were waiting, but from Neely’s, we detoured onto the old Stagecoach Road.
The Jeep kicked up dust on the ancient dirt trail that, 150 years earlier, had transported cotton and other freight between Marshall and Shreveport. So many coaches traveled the dirt road from 1850 through the Civil War that the iron-rimmed wheels and horses’ hooves rutted the narrow roadbed, carving it as deep as 12 feet into the hillside.
Today, the steep dirt walls still rise high above the stretch of Stagecoach Road near Marshall.
We drove from there to Scottsville Cemetery, a quiet and secluded place that many people consider the most beautiful burial ground in Texas. The namesake Scott clan moved to Texas in 1840 and built elaborate memorials to their deceased loved ones, including a famous statue of a weeping angel and a Gothic Revival chapel of native stone, dedicated in 1904.
Scottsville isn’t far from our next stop, Jonesville, a bend in the road that time seems to have forgotten. On one side of the byway is an old metal cotton gin. On the other is the T.C. Lindsey & Co. Store, a white wooden building known in these parts, simply, as the Jonesville store.
Inside, we found jam-packed rows of old farming equipment and other reminders of bygone eras. The memorabilia filled the walls, shelves and rough wooden-planked floor. We helped ourselves to dripping-cold bottles of birch beer and met a kindly old woman named Syble Elliott who was working behind the counter.
Ms. Elliott has been a clerk at the Jonesville store since the early 1950s. Now in her 80s, she continues to serve customers most days of the week.
After the store opened in 1921, she said, it supplied general goods to the cotton farmers of eastern Harrison County. “They furnished all the people the food and dry goods and stuff like that,” Elliott said. “Then when (the farmers) would have their cotton, they would pay up.”
Over time, however, the cotton gave way to a bigger money maker — oil. T.C. Lindsey owner Sam Vaughan ginned his last bale of cotton in the early 1970s.
“People ask, ‘Where were all the cotton fields?’ ” Elliott said. “I tell them, ‘They’re where all the oil wells and woods are now.’ ”
As cotton declined, Vaughan set out to preserve and document the old way of life before it slipped away. The memorabilia he gathered is not for sale, Elliott frequently explains to inquiring customers.
Instead, people buy a range of knickknacks, post cards, art, books, and blocks of Wisconsin cheese, sliced on a century-old cutting block. “They usually come for our cheese,” Elliott said. “That’s our big seller now.”
We skipped the cheese. We were ready to confront some gators.
INTO THE WILD
We drove through Waskom on U.S. Highway 80 and crossed the state line into Louisiana.
Almost immediately on the right, a sign announced the entrance to Gators and Friends, an alligator park and petting zoo. There, around 200 alligators lurk in murky water, wrestling and snapping at each other.
Past the gator ponds, a long footpath leads visitors to the petting zoo, where a zebra will slurp from your palm if there’s even a hint of feed in it. Other animals ready to be pet and fed include ostriches, reindeer, alpacas, wallabies and a host of miniature horses, goats, cattle and other “semi-exotic” creatures.
I was feeling daring, so I asked Willett for a wrestling match with one of his little gators. He consented, but when the time came the baby’s jaws had been secured shut, giving me an easy advantage.
“We tape its mouth so it’s safe,” Willett said. “The most they can do is just wiggle a bit. That’s the extent of it.”
I cupped one hand under its neck and another under the tail. Its skin was cool and smooth, and surprisingly soft — not leathery at all. I raised him above my head to signal victory.
Already in Louisiana, we drove the remaining 15 miles into downtown Shreveport and cooled off at the Blind Tiger, a Cajun restaurant dressed up as an old English pub.
“Blind Tiger” was a name for illegal speakeasies during Prohibition, according to the restaurant, where we feasted on shrimp and crawfish, cups of gumbo and blackened catfish. After the meal, fellow traveler Scott met up with a friend and left for a shindig on the rooftop of Harrah’s Casino.
With an evening to burn, I thought about losing a little money at one of the other gambling halls. Ultimately I decided against it. It was time to high-tail it home to East Texas.
* * * *
There comes a time in a young guy’s life when he loses interest in the phenomenon that is First Monday Trade Days of Canton.
You’re a teenager now. You’re too cool to get worked up over baseball cards, ninja throwing stars and the domesticated critters that wowed you as a little boy. Family trips to the largest flea market in the world have lost their allure.
Who cares if First Monday boasts 500 acres and 4,000 vendors hawking everything from rare antiques to collectibles, furniture, home decor, arts and crafts, clothing, jewelry, tools, produce and piles of other bargains?
That stuff is lame. It’s for old people.
Maybe so, but give it 10 or 15 years to grow on you.
Seeking summer fun
For our fourth day trip, it seemed like the right time to rediscover Canton and the sprawling market that’s been a fixture in the area for more than 150 years.
I hadn’t visited First Monday since I entered the cool teenager phase. In the 15 years that followed, I still had not evolved into a dedicated shopper when we rolled into Canton one Thursday before the Fourth of July weekend.
Herds of people in motorized scooters zoomed past the shoppers who were braving the heat to browse 28 miles of uninterrupted bargains. Linda Hatfield, First Monday’s operations manager, navigated the crowds in her golf cart, pointing out rare finds that included meteorites and fossilized dinosaur poop from Chihuahua, Mexico.
“If you can’t find it at First Monday, it doesn’t exist,” she said. “We’ve got it all.”
Canton is about an hour’s drive west of Longview on Interstate 20, and its mighty market belies humble origins. Years ago, before the town of Longview even existed, a judge traveled to Canton every four weeks or so to hear cases on the first Monday of every month.
Traders began to set up on the courthouse lawn on the days when court was in session, and farmers came from all around to stock up or barter their crops.
In the 1960s, the flea market relocated from the courthouse to five open acres, and from there it grew into a carnival of commerce that can swell to accommodate some 500,000 visitors during busy months.
These days, many of the transactions occur inside open-air, covered pavilions, and First Monday isn’t held on Mondays any more. It runs Thursday through Sunday before the first Monday of each month.
“Invariably, we’ll have some show up on Monday, broken-hearted that we’re not open,” said Hatfield.
Walking to her golf cart after visiting with one of the vendors, she failed to notice the scooter barreling straight toward her.
Hatfield leaped from the scooter’s path as it careened past, on its way to the next bargain.
Knife fight instructions
Nearby, Al Harris had set up “Al-Mart” for the day, advertising some junk he’d gathered from his daughter’s yard. Off and on for the past 40 years, the Canton native has been selling piles and piles of cheap stuff.
“I’ve got a whole bunch of nothing, and a lot of that,” he said, grinning.
Harris was one of the few people not feeling sluggish in the summer sun. According to Hatfield, July and August are among the slowest months for First Monday, but they are also among the best times to barter with motivated sellers.
At the Dog Town flea market, we found a bargain so cheap it wasn’t worth bartering. John Wall, a 63-year-old man from Gun Barrel City, sells knives with homemade handles carved from deer antlers, as well as blow guns, nunchuks and sunglasses.
He offered to sharpen the blade of my pocketknife for $1.
“You can sharpen this up and you can cut somebody’s belly up before they even knew what happened to ’em,” he said. “That knife right there is way more dangerous than any of the big ones.”
You’re supposed to slash the belly, not stab it, Wall instructed.
And how does he know this?
“I used to own bars,” he said.
One more stop
Hungry, we grabbed some carnival food — passing on the fried Twinkies — then wandered through the maze of bargains as we admired the fancy chickens, reconditioned chainsaws and other stuff.
Before heading back, we took a detour through the town of Grand Saline.
Grand Saline is home to one of the largest, purest salt domes in the nation, with a supply estimated to last 20,000 years. In the middle of town is the Salt Palace Museum. It’s a building made of salt, but visitors must lick the walls if they want to find out for themselves.
Or you could just take our word for it.
We drove to Longview with salt and grit stuck to our tongues. We’d come a long way since those too-cool teenager days.
* * * *
The oldest town in Texas?
This body of water does not belong in the Piney Woods. It’s not a stagnant pond collecting mud in a cow pasture, nor is it a slow-rolling river stained brown by decay.
It’s too cold and clear for that. Welcome to Camp Tonkawa Springs, a swimming hole nestled behind a tall hill, just north of Nacogdoches.
“Up here,” said Truman Morrison, a park attendant who collects money at the gate, “you don’t even know there’s a lake on the place. But then you drop over the hill.”
When you do, you discover a glistening, green pool that — after more than 70 years — is now too popular to be called an open secret. The hardwood trees stretching over Tonkawa offer up gnarled limbs for rope swings, and crooks in the branches stand in for diving boards from which to leap into the 8-foot-deep water.
It’s a quick plunge from the top of a tree, but it can be a scary climb up, as Scott and I learned on our final day trip.
Lines of children gather at the base of a crooked magnolia tree. Sopping wet, they wait their turn to climb the series of wooden planks that ascend the treetop, high above the green pool.
Grown-ups can try it, too. Hoist yourself onto the first plank, a wooden two-by-eight, and reach for the second.
It wobbles on a loose nail. Not reassuring.
The third plank isn’t even there. It must have fallen off. Balancing with one foot on the loose board, hook a couple of toes from the other foot into a cleft in the tree. See the fourth step up there? You’re going to have to lunge for that one.
Don’t look down. With a hand on the tree to steady your balance, step up to the highest plank, wrap your arms tightly around the magnolia and swing a leg onto a sturdy limb that extends over the water.
From that vantage, maybe 12 or 15 feet up, you can see most of the long, narrow lake — the wooden bridge where children push each other into the water, picnic tables where moms sit and watch, and the wooden deck where college students lay out to sunbathe.
Take another look at the sunbathers if you wish. Eventually, though, you will have to jump.
Taking the plunge
The water that feeds Tonkawa Springs flows from a sandy aquifer that begins in Arkansas. It seeps below the ground through northeastern Texas, dips just south of San Antonio and cuts to the Rio Grande near Laredo.
“Generally it’s made up of sand from where the shoreline used to be back in dinosaur years,” said David Alford, the general manager of the Pineywoods Groundwater Conservation District.
In some places, the aquifer, called the Carrizo-Wilcox, can reach depths of 3,000 feet. It is much shallower in other areas.
Near Nacogdoches, the water flows to the surface. It pours from beneath a boulder at the head of Tonkawa Springs, at a rate of 250 gallons per minute. And the water is frigid.
“Anything that comes up from the depths like that is pretty chilly,” Alford said. “There’s no geothermal activity that’s warming it up, so it stays pretty cool.”
Try not to think about that when standing in the top of a tree, working up the courage to jump. Let go and free fall. The splash is so cold it’ll empty your lungs.
Morrison, the park attendant, just shakes his head as he watches Tonkawa’s tree-climbing thrill seekers.
“I ain’t that brave,” he said. “But the kids sure like it.”
The springs have been cooling off the paying public since 2001, but the place has a much longer history.
It once was a grist mill pond. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps rocked it in, and the Boy Scouts made camp there until the 1960s. Later, college students from nearby Stephen F. Austin State University hopped the barbed-wire fence to go swimming. Ozarka bottled the water for a while, but stopped in the 1990s.
If Morrison gauges correctly, Tonkawa’s waters are a degree or two chillier than the famed Barton Springs Pool in Austin.
“That water’s too cold for me,” he said. “I haven’t been in it since I been here. It stays about 66 or 67 degrees.”
Morrison’s boss, camp manager Claud McGaughey, first visited Camp Tonkawa in 1949, with his Boy Scout troop.
“Gosh, that’s a real test of the memory right there,” he said. “When I came here as a Boy Scout, we had camp sites all over these woods and had bath houses scattered around. We used the pond as training facilities for swimming and anything that involved water.
“It’s a lot of history,” he said.
The history of Nacogdoches is among the richest in East Texas. After soaking in Camp Tonkawa, we ventured into town to have a look around.
Stingers and a stone fort
People from Nacogdoches had been raving about the Clear Springs Cafe, and with food always a priority, the seafood and steakhouse restaurant was our first stop inside the city limits.
“It’s probably the best food you can find,” McGaughey had said.
Clear Springs fills a historic warehouse beside the railroad tracks. Its claim to fame: The brick building is said to be the first refrigerated structure west of the Mississippi River.
Try the popular “stingers” — catfish and shrimp stuffed into fresh jalapenos, breaded and fried — but be sure to have a Dr Pepper handy to douse the heat. After lunch, it was a short drive from the Clear Springs Cafe to the old Stone Fort Museum, on the Stephen F. Austin State campus.
The building is a repository of Nacogdoches and Texas history.
The father of Nacogdoches, Antonio Gil Y’Barbo, built the two-story Spanish Colonial house in about 1790. Through the years, it served as Y’Barbo’s home, a trading post, saloon, garrison for soldiers during hostilities, and the town meeting place. That is, until merchants tore it down in 1902 to make way for a modern commercial building.
A women’s organization saved some of the scraps, and in 1936 — to mark the Texas Centennial — those materials were incorporated into a replica built on the SFA campus.
The old Stone Fort, which was never actually a fort, houses a collection of artifacts that show Nacogdoches’ transformation from an American Indian community to colonial outpost to American frontier settlement.
“This is the legacy of Nacogdoches,” said Linda Pinkston, the museum’s education coordinator. “That’s why it’s called the oldest town in Texas.”
Some might argue that distinction, however.
A Texas controversy
Nacogdoches bills itself as the oldest town in Texas, but it’s a disputed claim, and other municipalities vie for the same title.
“This is a response that I developed a long time ago,” said Archie McDonald, who spent 37 years as director of the East Texas Historical Association in Nacogdoches.
Before drawing a conclusion, he said, consider the individual meanings of “first,” “town,” and “Texas.”
“What do you mean by first?” McDonald asked. “Is it the first community of humans or the first Europeans or what? What do you mean by town? Does it have to be incorporated, or can it be a settlement?
“What do you mean by Texas? Because the boundaries of Texas have changed several times over the years.”
For example, Spaniards settled the El Paso community of Ysleta in 1680. But Ysleta was not recognized as part of the United States until 1848, when the international boundary with Mexico was redrawn.
The hubbub amounts to nothing but hype, McDonald said.
“I think it was basically assumed by local promoters and has been taken up as a mantra of the city, and it does no harm so I’m not gonna argue with anybody about it,” he said. “For a while there was some controversy with San Augustine” — another historic East Texas town, about 35 miles up the Camino Real from Nacogdoches — “but I think San Augustine has decided to call itself the first American community in Texas.
“I think probably some other places might argue with that, but I’m not going to argue.”
Touring the town
Across campus from the Stone Fort, college agriculturists maintain acres and acres of lush gardens, including an arboretum, native plant center and the largest collection of azaleas in the state of Texas.
Mid-summer is the wrong time of year for azaleas, but during a quiet stroll shrouded by trees and ornamental plants, it was easy to forget the bustle of campus and the busy streets only a stone’s throw away.
By then, 5 p.m. had passed. Another day on the job was drawing to a close.
We stopped by Nine Flags, the bar inside the landmark Hotel Fredonia, then headed back to Camp Tonkawa Springs to swim a while longer. Shortly before dark, Morrison good-naturedly shooed us away.