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Written by Texas Highways

Chet Garner is the host of The Daytripper travel show on PBS; www.thedaytripper.com. (Photo courtesy The Daytripper with Chet Garner)

Officially, Llano is known as the “Deer Capital of Texas.” But what is a daytripper to do in this Hill Country hideaway when it isn’t deer-hunting season? I set out for the day determined to find out.

Slaton’s 1912 Harvey House offers visitors a glimpse of the golden age of American railroads.

Trains still rumble past Slaton’s 1912 Harvey House, now a bed and breakfast, museum, and community center. (Photo by Kevin Stillman)

As a frequent traveler from Austin to Lubbock, I always look forward to the sweeping views of the Caprock Escarpment that unfold along US 84 between Post and Slaton. On a recent trip, I explored the small town on the western side of the dramatic divide and found that Slaton has worthy attractions of its own.

Named for Lubbock banker O.L. Slaton, who helped persuade the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway to come to the area, Slaton originated in 1911 as a division point for trains passing through the Panhandle. A century later, Slaton’s last original Santa Fe building—a carefully renovated 1912 Harvey House—offers visitors a glimpse of the golden age of American railroads.

One of some 80 Harvey Houses that the Fred Harvey Company built along railroads across the U.S. from 1876 to 1949, Slaton’s two-story, Mission Revival structure provided railroad passengers and others with elegant meals and ef-ficient service for three decades. Trains telegraphed passengers’ orders ahead, and when the diners arrived, well-trained, impeccably groomed “Harvey Girls” served their meals around a horseshoe-shaped counter on the first floor.

I checked into the Harvey House late on a Tuesday evening. My room, one of four upstairs suites that share a large common area featuring Mission-style decor, proved more luxurious than I’d expected—soft linens covered a cushiony, queen-size sleigh bed, and the spacious, tiled bathroom offered a generous supply of plush towels. I thought passing trains might keep me awake—freight trains still run on the tracks alongside the Harvey House—but I found the rumbling noises strangely comforting, even sleep-inducing.

The next morning, I joined longtime Harvey House supporters Sue and Ernie Davis in the dining room. Over a spread of fluffy biscuits, blueberry muffins, bacon, and fruit, they shared the backstory of the building’s transformation from deteriorating landmark to historic treasure.

I learned that the Harvey House was almost destroyed in 1990, when a Santa Fe demolition crew arrived unannounced with the intention of tearing down the long-abandoned building. Had it not been for local plumber Bill Burks, who was asked to salvage fixtures and then quickly alerted city leaders, Slaton’s signature structure wouldn’t have survived.

After the close call, residents formed the Slaton Railroad Heritage Association, the organization that raised funds and spearheaded renovations for almost two decades. The Harvey House reopened officially in September 2007—this time as a museum, a community center, and B&B. The same year, it was awarded a Texas Historical Marker.

 “We didn’t rebuild the dining counter that originally filled the room,” Sue told me. “We wanted to make the building more functional as an events center.But the newsstand on the west wall looks much the same as it did back then.” Later, she showed me a black-and-white photograph of the original newsstand: Periodicals hung across the top, and postcards, candy, and other items resided in a glass case below, just as they do today.

Other original features include the large, divided windows with stained glass at the top, which offer views of passing trains. “I never get tired of watching them,” said Sue. “My father was a Santa Fe engineer in the ’50s so they bring back a lot of memories.”

Later that morn-ing, I met another Slaton resident with ties to the railroad. Jolene Fondy’s parents both worked at Harvey Houses: As a teenager, her father was a butcher at the Slaton Harvey House, and her mother was a Harvey Girl at the Sweetwater lo-cation. “Everything was so elegant,” said Fondy, recalling  meals at the Slaton Harvey House. “The desserts were always beautiful. There was fine china, and the linens came from Ireland, the silver from England.”

Fondy told me that while some Harvey Houses offered lodging, the Slaton one didn’t (until recently). The second floor ori--ginally included a small apartment for the manager’s family and eight tiny rooms and a shared bath for the Harvey Girls.

“Like all the Harvey Girls, Mother had to sign a contract when she was hired that she wouldn’t marry for a year. I also remember her talking about the strict curfews and other rules. They had to wear opaque, black hose, and black shoes, and the hems of their uniforms had to be eight inches from the floor.”

Later, as Fondy showed me around the building, she pointed out a mannequin wearing a replica of the starched, black-and-white Harvey Girl uniform. Other displays included historical photographs, Harvey House china and glassware, and advertising items, as well as Native American baskets and other artifacts that Fred Harvey collected throughout the South-west and sold in his gift shops.

A call to lunch cut the tour short, so Fondy and I joined the group that had gathered for the Wednesday buffet, which B&B managers Weldon and Sandy Self began serving last fall. On the day I visited, the menu in--cluded chicken enchiladas, salad, beans, and cornbread, with carrot cake for dessert.

At lunch I learned that Slaton was planning its centennial celebration July 1-4; the kickoff reception will be at the Harvey House. The Slaton landmark seems destined to come full circle—a gleaming symbol of the railroad’s glory days is now the site of a celebration honoring Slaton’s 100-year heritage.

Next, I headed downtown to another landmark—the 88-year-old Slaton Bakery. When you enter the bakery, you’re greeted by a glass case filled with an array of donuts, kolaches, cookies, candies, and cakes. Off to the left, there’s a small eating area where lunch customers can order salads and sandwiches. Bakery owners Sherrell and Robin Wilson and their son Chad told me what it was like to be in the bakery business in the same community for more than six decades. “We feel like we’ve raised a lot of our customers,” said Sherrell. “We’ve made 80th-birthday cakes for grandmothers who had their wedding cakes made here.”

Sherrell’s parents, Barney and Ollie Mae Wilson, bought the business from Barney’s employer in 1943. (The bakery’s origins can be traced to 1923.) A Texas Historical Marker on the building’s exterior states that the Wilsons introduced sliced hamburger and hot dog buns to the area. Later, when Sherrell showed me around the “Antiques Room’’—a large area displaying baking equipment from the company’s early days—he pointed out a slicing machine. “We downsized in the late ’50s,” he said, “and continued making donuts, pastries, and cakes, just on a smaller scale.”

Of the bakery’s dozens of items, the Wilsons told me that donuts are the most popular, followed by thumbprints and vanilla wafers. After sampling the thumbprints I understood why they made the cut; they’re lighter than most versions, with just the right amount of frosting in the center.

Customers also find a few nonedible items at the bakery, including a large collection of colorful cookie jars and a cookbook the Wilsons compiled—Baking With Memories: A Collection of Recipes by the Slaton Bakery. It includes 65 pages of anecdotes from customers relating their favorite memories of the bakery. “That’s what our business is all about,” Sherrell told me, “making mem-ories for people.”

If you count the bakery’s “Antiques Room,” Slaton will soon boast five museums. I didn’t have time for a proper tour of the Slaton Museum or the Texas Air Museum, but I stopped in at the Slaton Model Railroad Studio downtown, where Robert Mamlok and others have laid the groundwork for a model-railroad museum. They expect to complete renovations in time for a re-gional National Model Railroad Association convention in Lubbock this

June. The eclectic crew of artists, train modelers, and computer-savvy folks has begun converting a 1930s CTC (Centralized Traffic Control) machine that once ran the Santa Fe line between Slaton and Muleshoe into a control center for an HO scale model-train layout. The 120-foot by 40-foot layout, which runs the length of the building, mimics the old Santa Fe route, complete with tiny, historically accurate buildings alongside the tracks.

I made two other stops before I left town. The AT&SF 1809 Locomotive, which has resided on the east side of the square since 1955, played a key role in Slaton’s agricultural economy, making runs delivering bales of cotton from this area to ports on the Gulf. The Slaton Heritage Mural, which graces a building on the other side of the square, pays tribute to the town’s agricultural and railroad history. Painted by local artist Bill “Tex” Wilson, it depicts a Santa Fe train in the center, beneath bold, red letters spelling “SLATON.” After my brief stay in this friendly small town, the scene resonated with me, and as I drove away, the image seemed a perfect souvenir of my visit.



Reader Mail ~ Reader Recommendations

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True Griff

Had to see TH Photography Editor Griff Smith’s exhibit at Sam Houston Memorial Museum. I’ve never seen a show where each picture was absolutely amazing. What talent, and what a great place for the exhibit to be—the Sam Houston Memorial complex was so fun! As a reader who hangs on every word, I thank you for the great weekends I’ve had so far because of your magazine.

BRANDY ALEXANDER

TH Facebook Fan



Please, please, travel Griff Smith’s Texas around the state. Griff—thanks for all you’ve done for Texas!

JIM BROKENBEK,

TH Facebook Fan

EDITOR’S NOTE: Griff Smith’s Texas will remain at Huntsville’s Sam Houston Memorial Museum through June 30, 2011 (www.shsu.edu/~smm_www/). Stay tuned to TH for details on future venues!


Historic Hotspot

I enjoyed reading Jennifer Babisak’s article on Nacogdoches [March]; Kevin Vandivier’s photos were fantastic. Also, don’t miss the Stone Fort Museum on the Stephen F. Austin State University campus, housed in a replica of the building where all the history of Nacogdoches began, as travelers and famous people stopped there on the way to other historical places and events in Texas.

KATHERINE CRAWFORD

Tyler

EDITOR’S NOTE: Along with various incarnations as a private residence, trading post, church, jail, and saloon, the circa-1791 Old Stone Fort was also the site of four revolutionary actions. The structure, rebuilt in 1936 on the SFASU campus with stone from the original, is now a historical museum; 936/468-2408; www.sfasu.edu/stonefort.

Ford’s Influence

Gene Fowler’s article on O’Neil Ford [Speaking of Texas, January] reminded me of the 35 years I enjoyed teaching in the Ford-designed Agnich Science Building at Greenhill School in Addison. The building, with its central courtyard complete with a massive live oak tree, was a constant reminder of our Southwest heritage. The physics lab, my home, stayed largely unchanged through two major building remodels.
When I retired, the school honored me with a plaque just outside the lab, designating it the “Skip Kilmer Physics Lab,” and I am proud that my name is associated, however tenuously, with an artist like Mr. Ford.

SKIP KILMER
Carrollton

TH Reader Recommendation

A+ Break­fast in CC

We had breakfast at Andy’s Country Kitchen in Corpus Christi. I am not a fan of blueberry muffins, but I was eating theirs before I knew what they were—they were that good. They offer the usual breakfast menu, along with Tex-Mex items. Two toy trains run a track around the perimeter near the ceiling. We had to wait for a table on a Sunday morning, but it was well worth it.


K. SMITH, Marquez
Andy’s Country Kitchen is at 5802 S. Staples; 361/993-0251; www.andyskitchen.com.

A new brochure encourages travel to learn about Texas heritage

Visit the San Jacinto Monument and Museum at La Porte and have your “passport” stamped. (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)As Texans begin celebrating the 175th anniversary of Texas’  Declaration of Independence, show your Texas colors by obtaining a “Passport to Texas History,” and have it stamped at seven sites associated with the Texas Revolution. If you collect stamps from all seven sites by December 31, 2011, you’ll receive a commemorative gift from the Texas Independence Trail Region, but the real value of the tour lies in rounding out your knowledge of Texas history.

At Gonzales, learn how a small cannon sparked the first skirmish of the revolution. At San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site, pay homage to the site of the first capital of the provisional government of Texas. At San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, retrace the footsteps of Franciscans and Spaniards who established five missions along the San Antonio River in the early 1700s. At the Alamo, remember the nearly 200 defenders of this Texas shrine. At Washington-on-the-Brazos, imagine the somber atmosphere when the 59 signers declared independence from Mexico. At Goliad, remember the fate of Colonel James Fannin and his 341 men at the hands of their captors. And finally, at the San Jacinto Monument, see the spot where Texans defeated the Mexican army near the San Jacinto River.

For details about all seven sites, or to download a “Passport to Texas History,” visit www.texasindependencetrail.com. Passports are also available at each site.

—Nola McKey

Two new tours highlight iconic Dallas buildings

A walking tour of the Dallas Arts District includes the new Wyly Theatre (at left) and other signature structures. (Photo by Michael Amador)

If you’ve only toured downtown Dallas by car, chances are you’ve missed some of the details in the city’s rich ar-chitectural fabric. Thanks to the Dallas Center for Architecture; Downtown, Dallas, Inc.; and the Dallas Arts District, there’s now another way to see the sights. These organizations recently launched two new walking tours that showcase downtown architecture. Led by trained tour guides and held on alternate Saturdays, tours (broken into groups of 10 to 15 people) start at 10 a.m. and are held rain or shine.

Dallas Arts District tours offer highlights of the 68-acre, 19-block neighborhood in the heart of downtown with excursions that examine buildings from the 1890s to the present. The district boasts buildings by four Pritzker Prize-winning architects, as well as 19th- and early 20th-Century buildings that reflect the area’s diverse cultural heritage. The 90-minute tours begin at the entrance to the Dallas Museum of Art (at Flora and Harwood).

Main Street District tours focus on architecture associated with aspects of the city’s commercial development, from the arrival of the railroads in the 1870s to the growth of banking and other industries. The two-hour tours be--gin at the recently completed Main Street Garden (at Main and Ervay), which is within view of some of Dallas’ most important buildings.

For more details and to register for either tour, call 214/742-3242; www.dallascfa.com.                                                   

—Nola McKey

In southeast Texas, it’s time for a party

At Peggy’s on the Bayou, diners seated on the patio overlooking Cow Bayou can watch boats coming through, as well as the antics of alligators and waterbirds.(Photo by Sarah Kerver) By Jill Ellis

When introduced to the uproarious and messy ritual of eating crawfish during my first visit to southeast Texas, I thought, “So this is what they mean by a party in your mouth.” My father, my fiancé, and I were happily making ourselves at home at a wide-plank table at Floyd’s Cajun Seafood and Texas Steakhouse in Beaumont, drinking ice-cold beers and ceremoniously sucking the meat from a pile of spicy mudbugs (as the natives call them). Earlier, co-owner Floyd Landry had treated us to a tableside demonstration of his preferred peeling method. He separated the head from the tail, and then advised: “Just gently hold the end of the tail and suck the meat out. It’ll come right out.”

With watering eyes and burning lips, I announced myself hooked on those jazzy morsels of spicy goodness. Turns out I’m not alone in my affection for this seasonal treat.

Diners can enjoy mudbugs in many ways at Floyd’s: There’s a rich crawfish bisque, crawfish fondue, crawfish po-boys, and buttery crawfish étouffée. But from January through July (and sometimes later), when crawfish are in season in Texas, most aficionados prefer them straight up. That’s when kitchen staff dish out crawfish by the pound in galvanized steel trays, alongside a bucket for discarding the shells, plus plenty of paper towels.

From full-service restaurants like Floyd’s to small mom-and-pop joints that resemble shacks more than dining destinations, you can find “mudbugs” in season almost anywhere along the Gulf Coast—especially where you find Cajun cooks.

The term Cajun comes from the word Acadian, which refers to the French colonists who settled Acadia (present-day Nova Scotia and surrounding Maritime Provinces) in the 17th Century. Deported by the British Crown in the mid-1700s, many Acadians wound up in Louisiana, adding their French heritage to an already rich mixture of Spanish and African cultures. Twentieth-Century flooding in the bayous and lack of employment put them on the move again, this time to the Golden Triangle of southeast Texas, where they once again transplanted their food, culture, and joie de vivre. And so it was for the grandparents of Larry Judice, owner of Larry’s French Market & Cajun Restaurant in Groves, a community just north of Port Arthur.

The sounds of accordions and fiddles—sometimes recorded, but more often performed live—fill the air at this bustling restaurant. What started as a grocery store in the 1930s has evolved into one of the region’s premier spots to enjoy Cajun food, with seating available for 450 diners at a time. During crawfish season, Judice says, his staff boils 3,500 to 4,000 pounds of crawfish each week in a mixture of water, salt, red and black pepper, garlic powder, onions, and lemon.

Long wooden tables covered in red-and-white-checkerboard oilcloth line the main room, where families and friends gather to celebrate Cajun culture—and eat crawfish, boudain balls, po-boys, frog’s legs, and all manner of other surf-and-turf specialties. Paintings of bayou scenes and fishing trawlers add authentic ambiance, as do the crawfish traps and crab pots employed as decor. The place hops with Cajun-style dance music every Thursday through Saturday nights, when bands such as Jackie Caillier and Cajun Cousins, Barry Badon and the Bayou Boys, and the Zydeco Combo play to appreciative crowds.

Judge Carl Thibodeaux, a native of Louisiana who now lives in Orange, tells me he won’t go anywhere else for his fill of mudbugs. “Larry’s does it old-fashioned, Cajun style—with the food, the music, and the dancing,” he says.

For a more intimate experience, diners head north toward Orange, where a casual spot called Peggy’s on the Bayou caters not only to walk-in customers, but also seafood fans who arrive by boat. In fact, if you sit in one of the half-dozen booths on the porch overlooking Cow Bayou, you can watch the comings-and-goings of fishing trawlers, bayou boats, and pleasure craft ranging from sailboats to yachts headed to Florida. While dining on crawfish during our visit, Dad and I spotted an alligator patrolling the waterway and several waterbirds stalking prey from the marsh grasses.

Inside, surrounded by signs proclaiming seafarer’s sentiments such as “Life Is Better By the Water” and “Everything Tastes Better With Fish Scales In It,” a dozen or so tables seat hungry diners. Peggy’s serves up crawfish in batches of three- or five-pound lots, along with other items such as seafood po-boys, burgers made with crab cakes and beef, oysters, catfish, seafood tacos, gumbo, and crawfish-stuffed potatoes.

Cold beer complements Peggy’s zesty flavors, but be advised that it’s BYOB. Your waiter will even ice down your beverage of choice in a tableside bucket.

While much of the crawfish consumed in southeast Texas comes from Louisiana, some of it comes from farms in Texas, such as the Broussard Crawfish Farm near Nome, west of Beaumont. Here, brothers Joe and Gene Broussard have been harvesting crawfish from their 400 acres of organic rice paddies for 20 years. While we were chatting, the Broussards’ phone rang constantly with folks looking for fresh crawfish for their home boils.

Though the harvest season often begins in January, colder winters mean smaller crawfish. The brothers told me that the season usually peaks in April with the harvest of the biggest specimens and lasts until the beginning of July.

Do-it-yourself crawfish boilers will want to provide between three and five pounds of crawfish per person, and consider rigging up a pot outside, as cooking crawfish is almost as messy as eating crawfish. (The proper tablecloth, by the way, is yesterday’s newspaper.) Have lots of beer on hand, invite plenty of friends, and turn up the zydeco music. After that, laissez les bon temps rouler!

The recently restored Liberty Hotel offers accommodations within steps of downtown’s restaurants and other attractions. (Photo by Michael Amador)By Gene Fowler

So many intriguing small Texas towns, so little time. Many a day I have traveled through the Johnson County seat of Cleburne, wishing I had time to stop and explore the vintage buildings around the courthouse square. So when I heard about the restoration of Cleburne’s 1924 Liberty Hotel and other downtown developments, I hit the road. After escaping the crowded lanes of I-35, I headed north from Hillsboro on Texas 171. As the rolling prairie gives way to the outskirts of Cleburne, the rural highway becomes Caddo Street. Soon, I was pulling up to the four-story brick hotel, one block south of the courthouse square.

Built by local merchant A.J. Wright to accommodate travelers drawn to town by the central machine shops of the Santa Fe Railroad and other rail lines, the Liberty was the life of Cleburne’s party for a time. Famed Big Band leader Lawrence Welk performed at the hotel with his Hotsy Totsy Boys in 1933. But the continuing Depression, combined with a railroad strike in the late ’30s, caused the hotel to lose half its business. By 2004, when local businessman and preservationist Howard Dudley bought the property, the Liberty had seen better days.

“Howard had the interior gutted and completely rebuilt,” explains Ron Lindsey, the Liberty’s  general manager. “The original terrazzo floor was saved, but the antique-looking paneling, lighting fixtures, and other features are all new.” The inviting lobby made me wish I had time to sit and daydream, and the well-equipped fitness center reminded me of the need to make time on the road for keeping the old mortal vessel in shape. I also had to struggle to depart my comfortable room with its high-def TV, and it required immense self-control not to park my keister in the hotel’s business center and log on to its high-speed Internet. But Cleburne beckoned.

First stop, directly across Caddo Street from the hotel, I found another restored structure built by A. J. Wright. Known as Wright Plaza, it now houses a small mall with a restaurant, several apparel bou-tiques, and two portrait studios—one for artsy photographs and one for Old West shots.

On the side of a nearby building, I was amazed by the giant mural painted by well-known Cleburne artist Stylle Read. The 216-foot-long work depicts local history, from early explorers and Caddo settlements to courthouses, pioneers, the Chisholm Trail, and railroad culture to 21st-Century gas drilling. One section highlights Slats Rodgers, the maverick Cleburne airman who in 1912 constructed possibly the first airplane built in Texas, and A.J. Wright, standing by a Chaparral automobile manufactured in Cleburne. Though it appears the mural is painted on a brick wall, Read actually painted 10,000 bricks on the stucco wall.

I learned more about Cleburne’s past at the Layland Museum of History, on Caddo Street just north of the courthouse square. Housed in one of Texas’ remaining Carnegie Library buildings, the 1905 Greek Revival structure is likely the only museum in Texas named for a plumber.

Up the steps and past the stately columns, a photo blowup of W.J. Layland greets visitors in the museum’s entryway. “Mr. Layland would close the plumbing business every summer and take one of his eight children on a tour of the West, collecting Native American artifacts and other relics,” explains museum director Julie Baker. “He would display the materials in the shop, and any time a child came in, he would stop and show them all the artifacts.” Much of the collection eventually found a home in the museum, including an 1820s grain jar from Acoma Pueblo and a circa-1900 cradleboard crafted by Sioux or Cheyenne.

Encompassing prehistory to the 1970s, the museum also exhibits a mammoth tusk found in a field in the Johnson County town of Godley. And in addition to all the photos, mementos, and antique items that depict local life back in the day, the building itself is a museum piece. “We’re restoring the interior to historic colors, and replacing some lighting with Edison bulbs,” adds Baker, pointing to the retro sci-fi-looking ceiling lights with crackling filaments.

Behind the Layland, on Main Street, the museum’s recently opened Smith History Center features a research library in a restored 1914 commercial structure. The Smith Center’s window display really wows at night with neon signs that light up vintage autos to re-create a succession of automotive-age time periods.

Every vintage Cleburne building seems to have a story. At the Comic Boxx on East Henderson, a repository of pop-culture memorabilia that occupies a former automobile dealership, folks can show you the elevator that lifted Pontiacs to the second floor in 1927. The tiny Burger Bar on North Anglin housed the pioneer wagon yard and livery stable office (and later a taxi dispatcher). And on Main, a brightly painted secondhand bookstore called Bill’s Books is housed in the first commercial brick building in downtown Cleburne.

Ready for dinner, I headed for the Caddo Street Grill, which offers a varied menu of steaks, burgers, wings, seafood, salads, fajitas, and more. Sorely tempted by the salmon—not to mention the General Cleburne Center-Cut Steak, named for town namesake Confederate General Patrick Cleburne—I opted instead for the zesty, mesquite-grilled chicken breast and vegetable plate, the latter a tasty mix of brown rice, broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots. The restaurant’s adjacent sports bar features a smaller Stylle Read mural along with a bank of high-def TVs. On the night I visited, excited fans converged here to watch the Texas Rangers defeat the New York Yankees and earn the team’s first-ever trip to the World Series.

After dinner, I strolled over to yet another Howard Dudley restoration, the Plaza Theater, housed in a former Western Auto store on Main Street, to take in a spirited performance of the gospel musical Smoke on the Mountain. The talented Plaza cast delighted an all-ages audience, and an update on the Rangers game was announced at intermission. (Another local theater troupe, the Greater Cleburne Carnegie Players, performs nearby at the new Performing Arts Center, offering fare ranging from Dracula to It’s a Wonderful Life.)

That evening, I conked out fast in the Liberty’s luxurious bedding. The next morning, before leaving town, I parked at Buffalo Creek BBQ on US 67 and spent a few moments at an adjacent spot on Buffalo Creek. An historical marker explains that a spring at the site was instrumental in the town’s founding and that Sam Houston often visited the spot after traveling to nearby Alvarado to see his daughter. And like Sam, I thought, I’ll be back.

A Texan in Washington: Tyler native Sarah McClendon covered the White House for six decades

Known for her pointed questions at presidential news conferences, Sarah McClendon considered herself a “citizen journalist.” (Photo courtesy Sarah McClendon Papers, MS-0081992-A.  University Archives & Special Collections. Robert R. Muntz Library. The University of Texas at Tyler.) By Gene Fowler

Texas women are known for taking the bull by the horns. And few, if any, faced off with more terrifying toros than Sarah Newcomb McClendon (1910-2003). As one of the first female members of the White House Press Corps, the diminutive redhead from the Piney Woods of East Texas went toe to toe with every U.S. President from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to George W. Bush. When she died in January 2003, The Dallas Morning News noted that “offbeat questions” had been her trademark, delivered in a “colorful and aggressive style [that] bedeviled and amused presidents and other officials for nearly six decades.”           

Born in Tyler in 1910, the youngest of nine children, Sarah McClendon grew up in a politically active family. Her father served as local chairman of the Democratic Party, and her literary club-founding mother attended every women’s suffrage rally in the area. She wrote in her 1996 autobiography, Mr. President, Mr. President!, that as a preschooler, she often tagged along with her mother, and her brothers would sometimes lift her up onto the dining room table and encourage her to “re-cite the fiery speeches I’d memorized from hearing so many times.”

The diminutive redhead from East Texas went toe to toe with every U.S. President from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to George W. Bush.

After graduating from Tyler Junior College, and then from the University of Missouri, McClendon slung ink for the Tyler and Beaumont dailies before World War II. Joining the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, she served as the first female First Lieutenant in the Office of the Army Surgeon General. Married briefly to a man named John Thomas O’Brien (they separated after only a few months), McClendon became the first Army officer to give birth in a military hospital when her daughter, Sally, arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Upon mustering out of the Army, she returned to the newspaper trade as a Washington, D.C., correspondent for the Philadelphia Daily News. She lost that post when the soldiers came home, which motivated her to start the one-woman McClendon News Service, covering the White House and the nation’s capital for a dozen or so newspapers from Texas to New England. “Her greatest strength was that she never really left Tyler and Texas,” says daughter Sally MacDonald. “For all her life, she remained a Texan at heart.”

McClendon began sharpening her famed bluntness with presidents when Harry Truman took office in 1945. She later wrote that Roosevelt, whom she considered the greatest U.S. President for leading the nation through the Great Depression and World War II, intimidated her. By the time Dwight Eisen-hower assumed the office in 1953, the Tyler native had perfected the often-acerbic McClendon style. In 1959, she famously asked “Ike” to name a policy decision in which Vice President Richard Nixon had played a significant role. Ike thought a moment, then said, “Give me a week.”

'She fought harder than almost anyone else to change public policy in favor of the rights of women, veterans, and disenfranchised people.'

Though she confessed in her second autobiography that she “adored” President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, she cut him no slack either, once causing a minor hubbub when she grilled him about two administration officials she believed to be security risks. And like anyone with substantive interaction with the larger-than-life son of the Hill Country, McClendon had a complicated relationship with Lyndon Baines Johnson. A favored reporter for a time, she incurred the president’s displeasure by breaking the story about influence peddling by Bobby Baker, Secretary to the Senate Majority Party, whom she described as Johnson’s “protegé.”

Nor did she swoon to the considerable charms of Ronald Reagan, repeating a question 11 times about his alleged suppression of a Department of Justice report on discrimination against women.

By the Clinton presidency, she was such a White House icon that the former Arkansas governor, upon meeting her, said, “Now I know I am really here.” Clinton later named McClendon, who was vocal about veterans’ issues throughout her career, to the 12-member National World War II Memorial Advisory Board. Her support of the disenfranchised led the Veterans Administration to name a homeless shelter for her in Washington, D.C.

After her death, a writer for The Washington Post lamented the loss of her “loud, unruly, often refreshing presence.” Other keen observers, like ABC News veteran Sam Donaldson, recalled the noble purposes for which she asserted herself. “She fought harder than almost anyone else,” wrote Donaldson, “to change public policy in favor of the rights of women, veterans, and disenfranchised people.”

McClendon House

Sarah McClendon’s childhood home, the stately 1878 Bonner-Whitaker-McClendon House in Tyler, opens to the public for tours. Occupied by descendants of Judge M.H. Bonner, Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court from 1878 to 1882 (and McClendon’s grandfather), for more than a century, it now features rotating exhibits of hundreds of artifacts, including newspapers dating to the 1840s and military items from the Civil War through World War II. Living-history tours throughout the year offer a glimpse of Tyler society during the same eras. Call 903/592-3533; http://mcclendonhouse.net.

—Nola McKey

Meridian pleases visitors with shops, restaurants, a winery and community spirit

Anglers enjoy Meridian  State Park’s 72-acre lake, which offers fishing for large­mouth bass, crappie, and bream. In the spring, keen-eyed birdwatchers can often spy endangered golden-cheeked warblers.  (Photo by Stan A. Williams)

By Rob McCorkle

Twenty miles west of Lake Whitney, where the flat North Texas black-dirt prairies collide with the rolling Texas Hill Country, the town of Meridian seems frozen in time. I first encountered this picturesque community—which was founded by Norwegians and Germans in the 1850s— while taking the backroads from Arlington to my Hill Country home in Kerrville. Enchanted by Meridian’s beautiful vistas and wooded Bosque River bottomlands, I recently enlisted my wife, Judy, to join me on a return trip for a weekend getaway.

We enjoy the drive as we zigzag north across the Edwards Plateau, and eventually a sign welcomes us to “The Top of the Hill Country.” It’s lunchtime when we arrive, so our first stop is the Cactus Grill, a downtown restaurant that specializes in French, Italian, and Southwestern cuisine. I can’t resist the day’s special of lightly fried catfish, crisp fries, and jalapeño coleslaw; while Judy opts for the beef tacos with sautéed bell peppers and onions, Spanish rice, refried beans, and homemade salsa.

While we eat, nationally known Western artist George Hallmark and his wife, Lisa, who have lived in Meridian since 1988, stop by to chat and split a Black Angus cheeseburger. Hallmark is one of more than a dozen professional painters and sculptors who have relocated to Bosque County and are developing the area’s art scene. Many of them display their works at galleries in nearby Clifton, and there is talk of a Meridian gallery opening soon. Presently, ranching, agriculture, and food processing drive the economy of this rural town of 1,500.

After our meal, we admire the restored 1886 Bosque County Courthouse, which anchors the town square’s commercial district. Here, especially on Main Street, we found a number of shops and restaurants.

Part of Meridian’s charm for dog-lovers like us is that pooches often serve as merchants’ four-legged ambassadors, so we smile upon entering Teddi Marks Antiques, where we received a tail-wagging greeting from Rio, a 15-year-old Jack Russell terrier. We explore owner Teddi Marks’ collection of Mexican folk art and pottery before moving up the street to Main Street Antiques & Interiors, a cavernous shop full of old and new furniture, plus a wide array of costume jewelry, gourmet foods, books, and CDs.

'Believe it or not, many come for the shopping because they can find unusual things here they can’t find elsewhere, and they don’t have to fight for parking spaces. We have good restaurants and the drive is gorgeous. It’s a little hidden pocket of beauty.'

While Judy shops, I enjoy a bottle of Dublin Dr Pepper and chat with owner Linda Calhoun. “So, why do city slickers visit Meridian? “ I ask her.

"Believe it or not, many come for the shopping because they can find unusual things here they can’t find elsewhere, and they don’t have to fight for parking spaces,” Calhoun says. “We have good restaurants and the drive is gorgeous. It’s a little hidden pocket of beauty.”

We head around the corner to another shop on the square. Jackie’s Antiques is a consignment store “guarded” by its resident rescue dogs, Shelby and Sparkle. While I enjoy their antics, Judy explores a room full of 19th-Century women’s hats, lace dresses, and vintage shoes, and proclaims it one of the “best collections of vintage clothing” she has seen.

We drive west on Main Street to the edge of town, where a historical marker marks the location of folklorist John Lomax’s boyhood home, which sat adjacent to a branch of the Old Chisholm Trail. Here, young Lomax heard cowboys crooning and yodeling, and slave songs and chants that would inform his life’s work. In mid-April, Meridian pays homage to Lomax with its annual John Lomax Gathering
and Bosque County Chuck---wagon Cookoff.

That evening, we drive south on Texas 22 toward Cranfills Gap to Zur Autobahn, a German restaurant housed in a yellow stuc-co cottage. The wine we’ve brought (Meri-dian restau-rants don’t sell alcohol) proves the perfect accompaniment to the Hessian-style Rinderbraten (roast beef) and Rotkraut (red cabbage), and classic Jäger schnitzel (pan-fried pork loin chops with mushroom gravy) and fried potatoes. And the sports-car decor theme—photos, trophies, and other racing memorabilia—triggers lively conversation.

The next morning, we make tracks to Zapata’s for breakfast tacos and roadhouse coffee, and then we drive a short way to Meridian State Park. It’s a sunny day, and the park bustles with visitors relaxing, picnicking, hiking, and fishing. We drive around the 72-acre Lake Meridian along the wooded park road, and then take a leisurely half-mile hike along Shinnery Ridge Trail, which offers a postcard-perfect view of our surroundings.

We’ve saved a visit to the 16-acre Red Caboose Winery for last. Dallas architect Gary McKibben and his son Evan began bottling their wines in 2005 and have been snagging awards ever since. On a tour of the winery, we see the tanks where the wine is fermented and chilled using geothermal energy, which also heats and cools the winery’s LEED-compliant buildings.

We join a couple from Granbury for a wine-tasting in the Barrel Room, which is lined with American white oak barrels. Starting with a mellow, chilled 2009 Viognier, we savor several reds and a final dessert white, all palate-pleasers.

The McKibbens plan to open a bed-and-breakfast inside the red caboose for which the winery was named. Additional accommodations will be welcome in the area, where choices are limited to a chain hotel in Clifton, camping at the state park, and a motel and hostel-style boarding house in Meridian.

Our whirlwind tour of Meridian complete, Judy and I can’t resist trying one last restaurant before heading home. El Jardin’s traditional Tex-Mex fare does the trick. Over dishes of chicken enchiladas and crispy beef tacos, we wonder what missed treats await on our next Bosque County adventure.

Modern Art and More at the McNay 

See related: Speaking of Texas: Marion Koogler McNay

McNay Museum. (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)

To experience Marion Koogler McNay’s artistic passion firsthand, spend some time in the McNay Art Museum, at 6000 North New Braunfels Avenue in San Antonio. While McNay’s 1929 mansion remains the core of the museum, the 2008 addition of the Stieren Center for Exhibitions, a 45,000-square-foot, modernist glass pavilion, nearly doubled the museum’s size. From McNay’s original collection of some 700 works of art, the museum’s holdings have increased to more than 20,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and other works.

  The McNay showcases a number of collections, including Medieval & Renaissance Art, 19th- and 20th-Century Art, Art after 1945, Southwest Art, Prints and Drawings, and the Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts. The latter contains 9,500 objects emphasizing scene and costume design throughout history, the largest collection of its kind in an American museum. Recent acquisitions include two Pablo Picasso nudes: Reclining Woman on the Beach (1932) and Crouching Woman (1958), bringing the museum’s total number of Picasso pieces to more than 90.

Current exhibitions include Landscapes from the Age of Impressionism, which chronicles the evolution of 19th-Century French outdoor paintings and their influence on early 20th-Century American art (through Jan. 16), and You’ve Got Mail, a series of brightly colored, geometrically themed greeting cards by Richard Anuskiewicz (through Jan. 2). McNay Art Museum: An Introduction (Scala Publishers, 2010), which offers further insight into the museum’s history and its founder’s life, will be available in the
gift shop in December. Call 210/824-5368, or visit www.mcnayart.org.

                                     —Haley Dawson

An Artful Life: Champion of modern art left brick-and-mortar legacy

See related: Speaking of Texas: Modern Art and More at the McNay

(Photo courtesy the McNay Art Museum Library & Archives)By Gene Fowler

Marion Koogler McNay left her heart in San Antonio. Twice. The first time, in 1917 at Alamo Plaza, she bade farewell to her first husband, Don Denton McNay, who, by most accounts, was the love of her life. Bound for training and service in World War I, Sergeant McNay never returned, lost to the flu epidemic of 1918.

Then, upon her own death in 1950, the San Antonio art patron left her beloved Spanish Colonial Revival mansion to the organization that would become the McNay Art Museum. Her collection of more than 700 works of European and American art filled its galleries, and she endowed the museum with a family fortune reaped from the Kansas oil fields.

Born Jessie Marion Koogler in 1883 in Ohio, she grew up in El Dorado, Kansas. Jessie’s parents, Dr. Marion A. and Clara Koogler, were extremely protective of her. As McNay biographer Lois Wood Burkhalter notes in her 1968 book, Marion Koogler McNay: A Biography, 1883-1950, Jessie spent much of her childhood “reading, drawing, or daydreaming in a secret world.” A painting in the McNay Art Museum collection titled Fisherman, which Jessie created at age nine, preserves evidence of early talent.

Forbidden to attend school dances and other social activities, Jessie must have felt liberated when she left home to study fine arts at the University of Kansas in Lawrence in 1900. Though Dr. Koogler maintained that art was not a proper subject for a young lady, Jessie continued her education in 1903 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

In the Windy City, now going by her middle name, Marion, the shy girl from Kansas blossomed. She feasted on Chicago’s cultural attractions and thrived on interaction with working artists and lively debate about theories of art. Her artistic horizons expanded even further in 1913, when she attended the landmark Armory Show in New York, described by Burkhalter as “the first exhibition of modern art in the United States.” The author writes that the show provided Marion’s “first comprehensive view of the art of Cezanne, Picasso, Braque, Gauguin, Pissarro, Van Gogh, Degas, and Renoir, all of whom would someday hang on her own walls, as would some of the American Independents in the exhibition, such as Marin, Prendergast, Henri, Sloan, and Weber.”

Shortly thereafter, drillers discovered oil on land Dr. Koogler had purchased in Kansas, providing a seemingly endless supply of what Marion Koogler McNay later called her “picture money.” And in 1917, 34-year-old Marion puzzled family and friends when she married railroad manager Don Denton McNay, 10 years her junior and newly enlisted as an Army sergeant. Sergeant McNay was stationed at Fort McIntosh in Laredo, and the couple lived in an adobe cottage there until McNay was ordered to Florida, in October 1918. After their final nights together at the Menger Hotel, they said goodbye on Alamo Plaza.

Four subsequent marriages—to banker Charles Newton Phillips (1921-1925), ophthalmologist Donald Taylor Atkinson (1926-1936), artist Victor Higgins (1937-1940), and art dealer Adelbert E. Quinn (1940-1941)—ended in divorce. None of the unions produced offspring, and after each divorce, Marion reverted to the surname McNay.

Romantic bliss proving elusive, Marion filled her life with friends and art. Burkhalter describes McNay’s San Antonio home, built in 1927-1929 with architects Atlee Ayres and Robert Ayres, as her “creative masterpiece.” McNay designed, applied, and assisted with many of the elaborate stencils, tiles, and other distinctive touches. She installed antique wrought-iron lamps and chandeliers. Magueys and yuccas, palms and pines, and a full range of Southwestern flora made the 23-acre grounds a garden oasis.

Soon, McNay purchased her first oil painting, Delfina Flores by Diego Rivera, and discovered the art scene in Santa Fe and Taos, spending summers there in the late ’20s and ’30s. “Even in Taos,” observed her biographer, “where individuality was rampant and unrepressed, Marion Koogler was a stunningly flamboyant figure and in such a setting could indulge her fondness for colorful costumes and dramatic hats.”

She also made friends in New Mexico’s Pueblo culture, acquiring many fine examples of Native American art,
as well as Spanish Colonial and contemporary Southwestern works. A San Antonio attorney attending a traditional Pueblo dance was surprised to recognize one of the dancers as his art-loving client.

Often ill in the last years before her death from pneumonia in 1950, McNay became reclusive as she carefully planned for the future museum and helped administer the San Antonio Art Institute, which was housed in her estate’s former aviary. Her physician, Dr. Merton M. Minter, developed a unique therapy for the times when his patient was down in the dumps. He would make a negative remark about a work of art she liked, and then happily endure her spirited defense of the work.

In an interview with Lois Wood Burkhalter, former San Antonio Art Institute student Ruth Dunn offered a poetic remembrance about her benefactor: “Mrs. McNay made art appear as the highest soaring of wings.”

Call 940/898-3644 for information about viewing Denton’s Little Chapel-in-the-Woods. (Photo by Kevin Stillman).Residences and businesses designed by O’Neil Ford exist throughout Texas. Some of the most accessible include structures throughout the campus of Trinity University in San Antonio (at US 281 and Mulberry, three miles north of the Alamo), where it’s easy to get a sense of Ford’s affinity for simple lines and parabolic archways. Some campus standouts are Laurie Auditorium, the Parker Chapel, and the Ruth Taylor Theater; the latter boasts Ford’s signature brick buttresses and circular masonry cutouts. See www.trinity.edu.

Also in San Antonio, visit La Villita (www.lavillita.com), which dates to the 1700s and was the site of Mexican General Santa Anna’s cannon line in the Battle of the Alamo. Restoration of La Villita in 1939 brought Ford to San Antonio from Dallas.

One of O’Neil Ford’s most famous structures is the Little Chapel-in the-Woods in Denton (www.twu.edu), a nondenominational place of worship on the campus of Texas Woman’s University.      

—Lori Moffatt

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