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"I sorta got my start in Texas,” a reflective Elvis Presley told reporters at Dallas’ Love Field in August 1958. Presley, a soldier in the United States Army at the time, had just returned from Memphis, where he attended the funeral of his mother, Gladys, and was en route back to Fort Hood to re-sume basic training.

The Tyler Candy Company makes its signature pink peanut patties using the same equipment that founder Anthony George invented in 1941. (Photo by Kevin Stillman)

Describe it with any other shade—
magenta, salmon, rose—and a pink peanut patty still tastes as sweet. But don’t let the demure color fool you. Texans enamored with these pretty-in-pink goodies don’t always behave.

While Dublin-bottled Dr Pepper no longer exists, the town’s landmark billboard still overlooks the town’s central park.  (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)

I don’t remember when the summertime trip to Dublin, Texas, became my son’s birthday tradition. But soon after Elliott outgrew themed birthday parties, I suggested a celebratory road trip to Dublin. I had discovered long ago that the Dr Pepper Bottling Plant made a great rest stop between the University of Texas at Austin and my family home in Fort Worth. And the bottling plant won my son’s heart, too, with its clinking glass bottles, hissing valves, and serpentine conveyor belts—not to mention the ice cream floats served next door.

 (Photo © Hogaboom Road, Inc.)

For thousands, Killeen is a place you 
get stationed, not a place you vacation. However, those who visit will find a culinary and military escape that takes visitors back in 
history and around the world—all without 
leaving Central Texas.

Texas Highways Photo Editor Griff Smith shares his favorite techniques for taking great pictures at a live performance.

Window on Texas, December 2012

Texas Highways intern Elena Watts talked to Lindsay Greer, director of the Wichita Falls Convention & Visitors Bureau, to learn more about Holiday in the Falls. Guests and residents of the North Texas town enjoy more than a dozen holiday celebrations in December. Among them, the MSU-Burns Fantasy of Lights is a favorite.

Fantasy of Lights is one of the largest three-dimensional, animated, audible holiday displays in Texas. On Dec. 7, Hardin Tower’s hour-long ringing of the bells begins at 5 p.m., and the opening ceremony starts at 6 p.m. on the front steps of the Harding Building on the Midwestern State University campus. Santa visits for wish lists and photo ops, and the Fantasy of Lights Band Concert commences at 7 p.m. in Akin Auditorium.

In the late 1920s, Mr. and Mrs. L.T. Burns lit a single blue bulb on a holiday tree adorning the lawn of their modest home in celebration of the season, and the display continued to grow each year. When Mrs. Burns lost her husband in a tragic car accident in 1954, the holiday scene became a tribute to her late husband’s memory. She transformed her lawn into a fantasyland every year until 1971 when she passed away.

Mrs. Burns bequeathed the display to her son with the stipulation that he could donate it to Archer City, which he did. The community, 30 miles southwest of Wichita Falls, was home to many of the employees who worked on the Burns family estate. It remained in storage there until the Burns’ son passed away three years later, and the city donated it to Midwestern State University. The only condition was that the display be free and open to the public.

On Dec. 4, 1974, the university flipped the switch for the first time, illuminating its front lawn with the collection of scenes and its buildings with 20,000 string-lights. A nonprofit Fantasy of Lights Committee was formed to raise money for the repair and maintenance of the display. The committee continues to rely on the generosity of the Wichita Falls community for its operation.

Visitors can take in the 34 scenes from their cars on a closed-off section of Taft Boulevard, but Lindsay recommends they park and walk through the campus. The larger-than-life characters include three little dancing pigs, a piano-playing Santa Claus, and most recently, Scrooge’s workshop.

MSU-Burns Fantasy of Lights
Dec. 7 – Jan. 1, 2013
Mon-Thu, dusk until 10 p.m.
Fri-Sun, dusk until 11 p.m.
Midwestern State University campus
Free

Fantasy of Lights Band Concert
Dec. 7, 7-9 p.m. (opening night of MSU-Burns light display)
Akins Auditorium on MSU campus
Free


River Bend Nature Center’s 11th Annual ElectriCritters event also comes highly recommended. Through Dec. 22, more than 60,000 lights illuminate more than 150 silhouettes making for a fantastical nature hike with a holiday twist.
The concrete trail comes alive with the sounds and motions of well-lit critters including croaking frogs, howling wolves, and galloping reindeer. The treetops glow with pecking woodpeckers and hooting owls, while the pond is home to a dragon donning a Santa hat.
Children can roast marshmallows over a campfire, or they can schmooze Santa, Mrs. Claus, and Rudolph in the warmth of the Candy Cane Café. Hot chocolate, apple cider, s’mores, popcorn, holiday gifts, and stocking stuffers are available for purchase.


ElectriCritters
Nov. 23 – Dec. 22
Fri & Sat, 6-8 p.m.
River Bend Nature Center
$4 advance/$5 gate/Kids 2 & under free.


Wichita Falls neighborhoods that dazzle during the holidays include:

Morningside Luminarias, Sat & Sun, Dec. 8 & 9, 6:30-9 p.m.
(Inclement weather: Dec. 15 & 16)
For three decades, 1,500 candles in white bags have illuminated the tree-lined, winding streets of this historic neighborhood during the holidays, showcasing homes of different architectural styles dating to 1919.

Country Club Estates, featuring some of the city’s oldest, stateliest homes decorated beautifully for the holidays.

Silkes Estates
Neighbors join together to decorate their yards with miles of lighted candy canes.

Tanglewood & Canyon Trails
Decorated homes on the hillsides of these two neighborhoods showcase newer, more modern structures in secluded settings.


Other Holiday in the Falls events include:

Texas Christmas’ Past
Nov. 17-Dec. 29
Tue-Fri, 10 a.m.-noon & 1-4 p.m.
Sat, 10 a.m.–4 p.m.
The Museum of North Texas History
Free

Santa’s Mailbox
Nov. 19-Dec. 15
Daily, 9 a.m.-11:30 p.m.
Free
Children drop their letters to Santa in a holiday mailbox located at the Fantasy of Lights display on the MSU campus. Santa and his elves write back when they include self-addressed stamped envelope.

Santa House
Nov. 27-Dec. 7
Weekdays, 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
Fri, 6-8 p.m.
Sat, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Sun, 1-3 p.m.
(Tours begin every 15 minutes)
Kell House Museum
$3/person
This year’s Christmas-themed play is “The Magical Rocking Horse Part III” performed by ACTors Creating Together. After the show, visitors chat with Santa, enjoy a special treat with Mrs. Claus, and make an ornament to take home.

Wichita West Arts & Craft Show
Sat, Dec. 1, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Sun, Dec. 2, noon-5 p.m.
MPEC J.S. Bridwell Ag Center
Free
Visitors shop for seasonal décor and holiday gifts including one-of-a-kind handmade crafts while supporting a good cause, the Wichita Falls Volunteer Fire Department.

The Nutcracker
Sat, Dec. 1, 8-10:30 p.m.
Memorial Auditorium
$25, $20, $15
(Cash or check only)

MSU Combined Choir Concert
Sun, Dec. 2, 3-4:30 p.m.
Akin Auditorium on MSU campus
Free
MSU Combined Choirs present a seasonal concert for the public.

Miracle on 34th Street
Sat & Sun, Dec. 7-8, 14-15, 21-22, 7:30 p.m.  
Sat, Dec. 15 & 22, 2:30 p.m.
Wichita Theatre Performing Arts Center
$21 & $18/adults, $10/children
A holiday classic performed on a live stage.

Christmas in the Park & Candy Cane Scramble
Sat, Dec. 8, 1-3 p.m.
Scotland Park
Free
Children two years old through the second grade are invited to scramble through the park collecting as many of the 10,000 candy canes as they can find. Children of all ages enjoy a holiday train, carnival games, and arts & crafts. Santa is on hand to supervise.

Wichita Falls Symphony Orchestra
Sat, Dec. 8, 8-10:30 p.m.
Memorial Auditorium
$25 & $30 regular admission/ $22.50 senior & military/ $5 student
Combined choirs of Wichita Falls high schools join the symphony orchestra for evening of Christmas and seasonal favorites accompanied by the Wichita Falls Youth Symphony Orchestra.

Christmas Tour of Homes
Tue, Dec. 11, noon-8 p.m.
$20/person
The 33rd Annual Christmas Tour of Homes invites guests to visit private homes decorated for the holidays in the Wichita Falls area.

Candlelight Tours at the Kell House
Sat, Dec. 22, 6-8 p.m.
Kell House Museum
$5/person
Experience an early 20th-Century holiday with the lights turned down for a guided candlelight tour.

The ornate work of Swiss woodcarver Peter Mansbendel, who was known for his sense of humor and whimsy, embellishes sites throughout Texas. (Photo courtesy of the UTSA Libraries Special Collections from the Institute of Texan Cultures)

Legions of visitors to Mission San José and the Spanish Governor’s Palace in San Antonio have admired the doors and other architectural details that Swiss-born Austin woodcarver Peter Mansbendel created for their restorations in the 1930s. Mansbendel, who often described himself as a “chiseler” and once declared that “real genius does not need to proclaim itself other than in its work,” left plenty of public work to prove his talents. In fact, Mansbendel’s hand-carved mantels, altars, doors, bargeboards, portraits, plaques, and myriad other creations beautify locations throughout Texas, including several buildings on the University of Texas at Austin campus, the Austin Museum of Art-Arthouse at Laguna Gloria, the Austin History Center, Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen, the W.H. Stark House in Orange, and the landmark Austin watering holes of Scholz Garten and The Tavern.

True Resilience

I was thrilled to see one of our baby pines on the cover of the September issue. I was one of the lucky ones—my house survived that horrific Labor Day fire. However, my whole neighborhood is gone, and we are still working on the recovery. There are also about 30 baby pines coming up in my yard, which is amazing. Thank you for continuing to cover the return of Bastrop. People should come visit—downtown is alive with lots of great stores and restaurants, and the park is making a comeback. Suggestion: Bring your family to the park and then make return visits so you can watch as the forest redefines itself over the years.

KAREY LeBLANC, Bastrop

Lotsa Kolaches

While reading Les Thomas’ “Texas Kolache Trail”  [TH Taste, September], I could almost taste those traditional Czech pastries as my mouth watered. Growing up in the sizable Czech community of Jourdanton, our Sunday-morning breakfasts were kolaches baked by my mother the day before. Besides the usual varieties, mom also baked “Zelniky,” which she made by frying shredded cabbage until it turned brown. She added butter, sugar, cinnamon, and a little pepper, and baked it in the usual dough with a brown-sugar topping.

JOHN NETARDUS, Slidell, Louisiana

 

I didn’t really care for kolaches until I had one from Zamykal Gourmet Kolaches (979/364-2386) in Calvert. Zamykal’s is run by the cutest twin sisters who have adapted their grandmother’s recipe. Not only do they serve some 30 flavors of awesome kolaches, but they sing for you, as well. Very entertaining.

JO FOWLKES, Waco

 I’ve had kolaches from all of the featured bakeries and then some. Here in San Marcos, we have a gem near the Texas State University campus—Dos Gatos Kolache Bakery  (512/392-1444), owned by two brothers named Katz. Their kolaches are the best I’ve ever had.

JIM WEBER, San Marcos

The best bakery in West is Gerik’s Ole’ Czech Bakery (254/826-3327). It’s where the locals meet.

 TERRY TIMMONS, Abbott

 Brush with History

 I read with great interest about Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument in Dale Weisman’s article, “Our Paleo Past” [September]. Years ago, while my wife was attending Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, we lived in the married-housing section. A couple lived next door to us along with their 98-year-old grandmother. She was a delightful character with lots of charisma. She had many stories about the past, calling a dugout home and other hardships in general. Many stories were focused on her father, how he survived, and the many people who admired him. She said, finally, “Maybe you’ve heard of him; his name was Allie Bates.” And indeed I had!

 PHILIE M. HINSON, Midland

TH READER RECOMMENDATION

Delicious Del Norte

Four of us spent the weekend at Cleburne State Park and decided to venture to Del Norte Tacos in Godley [TH Taste, May]. Our orders included that day’s special of smoked barbecue pork ribs, the beef fajita bur­rito, the smoked-chicken enchiladas, and the chile relleno stuffed with smoked chipotle pork. As the sign says out front,it is definitely “Worth Stoppin’ For.”

BRAD ROGERS, Ding Dong

Del Norte Tacos is at 101 E. Hwy. 171,817/389-2451. More on Cleburne State Park.

We want to hear from you! Send feedback and recommendations to: Texas High­ways, Box 141009, Austin 78714-1009. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. We reserve the right to edit items. Because we’re unable to check out every recommendation, and because hours vary and details can change, please call ahead for more information.

 The new dining scene on one of Houston's most colorful byways

Underbelly’s Chef Chris Shepherd describes Houston as “the most dynamic culinary destination in the United States,” and he aims to prove it. (Photo © Sarah Kerver)

By June Naylor

I’ve maintained for some time that Houston has grown into one of the nation’s most interesting food cities. And so it was a pleasant surprise to discover on a recent trip that a handful of America’s top culinary talents now strut their stuff within a couple of blocks from each other, on a stretch of Westheimer Road once known for its thrift stores, tattoo parlors, and smoke shops.

But a restaurant renaissance in this part of the Montrose neighborhood makes sense, considering that James Beard-nominee Hugo Ortega began forging the path for neighborhood appeal years ago with his elegant interior Mexican restaurant, Hugo’s. Ortega, who recently released his first cookbook, Street Food of Mexico, proved that this bend of Westheimer could draw crowds. 

Spending a weekend exploring the new synergy on Lower Westheimer, I soon realized I’d have to spend days to cover it all. So I focused on four restaurants whose chefs are breaking rules and expanding Houston’s already adventurous palate.

Anything's possible, from New Orleans-style crab balls with spicy corn relish to mussels steamed with garlic, onion, fennel and smoked tomatoes

With his new venture Underbelly, Chris Shepherd, one of the city’s most imaginative (and gregarious) chefs, has created a place where he can feature the kind of homegrown food that he’s come to love in the Houston area. Shepherd brings in honey, citrus, vegetables, herbs, dairy, and fish from local providers, and—after buying whole pigs and sides of beef from area ranchers —he breaks them down in the butcher shop adjacent to the kitchen.

Shepherd finds inspiration from myriad ethnic markets and restaurants to fashion what he calls “new American Creole” cuisine, blending influences from divergent cultures. The menu changes daily, but the assortment of dishes I found on one evening included grilled Wagyu satay with a field-pea hummus (melding Asian, Middle Eastern, and Southern ideas), seared scamp grouper with braised leeks and Kabocha squash broth (mixing French and Japanese influences), and roasted goat with tomatoes, chiles, and sweet potato greens (combining Southern flavors with hints of northern Mexico).

An antique plow and a wall of preserves and pickled vegetables fit into the decor, and two communal tables add familiarity to the mood. I was especially taken with Shepherd’s friendly rapport with cooks working the open kitchen, expediting dishes while keeping an eye trained on the dining room.

When Shepherd and his business partners acquired the space for Underbelly, they allocated half of the building for a gastropub that would share the butcher shop. This sister restaurant, Hay Merchant, boasts one of the city’s largest selections of craft beers and a menu that reaches far beyond what’s usually found in a bar.
Strange though it sounds, the crispy pig ears could be one of the finest nibbles to come along in ages. Thin enough to break into pieces—and ideal when accompanied by a pint of Buffalo Bayou Brewing 1836, a copper ale—these chips bear a simple coating of sugar and ground cayenne. I swooned over a plate of buttermilk waffles slathered in a peppery molasses butter and crowned with a handful of crunchy chicken livers, and briefly entertained ordering a plate of the Korean-style chicken wings, which are a hit with the 30-something clientele.
Because the beer options change so frequently (Hay Merchant offers nearly 80 on tap), so do Chef Antoine Ware’s menu options. Anything’s possible, he tells me, from New Orleans-style crab balls with spicy corn relish to mussels steamed in India Pale Ale with garlic, onion, fennel, and smoked tomatoes.

Less than a block east, in a renovated space that for decades housed Felix’s Mexican Restaurant, Austin superstar chef Tyson Cole recently opened the second location of his wildly successful restaurant Uchi. Cole and chef de cuisine Kaz Edwards now treat denizens of Lower Westheimer to Uchi’s Japanese-inspired food, playing mad scientist with such combinations as smoked baby yellowtail with yuca root crisps, buttery Marcona almonds, Asian pear, and garlic brittle; or slices of big-eye tuna with goat cheese, pumpkin seed oil, and apple.

Sampling one of the ever-evolving Omakase menus—that’s 10 courses, chosen by the chef—I particularly enjoyed the blast of sweet, sour, spicy, and salty flavors in a dish called the Suzuki ringo, which is a combination of grilled loup de mer  (a kind of sea bass) with green apple, citrus-chile paste, and Vietnamese fish sauce. For a meaty interlude, I found the perfect answer in a juicy slice of pork jowl with Brussels sprout kimchee, romaine lettuce, and a lush crème fraîche.

Sitting at the sushi bar, I watched the action in the open kitchen. But to sit in a cozy booth along one wall would be a way to enjoy the parade of dishes with someone special in an intimate setting, away from the hubbub. Red-blossom wallpaper, warm lighting, and blonde woods give Uchi a welcoming sophistication.

Across the street from these dining spots, El Real celebrates a distinctly old-school brand of Tex-Mex fare. The concept comes from two highly decorated culinary types: chef Bryan Caswell and journalist/author Robb Walsh. Caswell, a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2009 and competitor on the Food Network’s “Next Iron Chef,” wins fans aplenty with Reef, his seafood restaurant in Houston’s Midtown.
Walsh, a longtime dining critic and James Beard Award-winning cookbook author, persuaded Caswell to indulge their shared passion for vintage Tex-Mex.

They’re doing just that in the renovated Tower Theater, keeping the movie marquee out front in pristine condition and projecting 1940s Westerns on a wall of the restaurant.

A bite into the puffy tacos—one filled with picadillo (spicy ground beef) and another with smoked chicken— took me back to my first childhood taste of those iconic goodies. The bestseller is the cheese enchiladas smothered in chili con carne and topped with a fried egg, but my favorite snack in the place is the gooey queso flameado, flecked with bits of spicy chorizo and set aflame tableside by the server.
Take time to enjoy this foursome, you’ll come away with a good idea of the new culinary treasures found on this ever-evolving stretch of Houston.

Dining Lower Westheimer

Underbelly, 1100 Westheimer Rd., 713/528-9800.
Hay Merchant, 1100 Westheimer Rd., 713/528-9805.
Uchi, 904 Westheimer Rd., 713/522-4808.
El Real, 1201 Westheimer Rd., 713/524-1201.

A leisurely drive on the 75-mile Davis Mountains Scenic Loop reveals stunning West Texas vistas. (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)

From a distance, West Texas’ Davis Mountains float above the Chihuahuan Desert like a smoky mirage. Formed millions of years ago by volcanic activity, they rise up in green slopes punctuated by pine and oak trees, carpets of golden grasslands that wander through the canyons, and jumbles of rocky spires and escalating peaks. They are—at more than 8,000 feet—a dramatic contrast to the flatness of the surrounding desert, where the sun digs up secrets and a dark, starry night covers them up again. 

Last November, my wife, Lindy, and I decided to explore this inviting pocket of the Trans-Pecos. With lodging secured in the bucolic town of Fort Davis, we set aside an afternoon to meander the Davis Mountains Scenic Loop, a 75-mile stretch of Texas 118 and Texas 166 that is the loftiest public highway in the state, and certainly among the most scenic.

We drove out of Fort Davis on Texas 118 on the north end of town and turned west into Limpia Canyon. Our first stop was three miles ahead at Davis Mountains State Park, a rugged and lovely 2,700-acre park known for its hiking and equestrian trails and dramatic views of the 19th-Century military post, now a National Historic Site, that gives the town its name. We followed the park’s main road through groves of gray oaks, Emory oaks, and junipers shading a string of picnic spots and campsites, and pulled into the parking lot of the park’s historic Indian Lodge, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Here, at the lodge’s Black Bear Restaurant, we unfolded our map to plan our day.

Fortified by pancakes and under close supervision by a family of javelina, we left the state park and  turned north onto Texas 118, passing mountainside homes and historic ranches as we climbed higher and higher.

We stopped to marvel at the stunning view of a wide, green valley hemmed in by a horizon full of mountains.

After about 10 miles, we stopped at a picnic turnout at Dead Man’s Canyon to marvel at the stunning view of a wide, green valley hemmed in by a horizon full of mountains.  According to the Fort Davis Historical Society, Dead Man’s Canyon got its name from an incident back in the 1880s, when the snow-covered body of a young man named Horace Powe was found propped against a boulder with 11 bullet holes in him.

Spur 78 turns off Texas 118 about a mile later and leads to the McDonald Observatory, a research unit of the University of Texas and one of the world’s leading centers for astronomical study. We stopped 
at the visitors center for a self-guided tour brochure that led us to the top of Mount Locke for a close-up look at some of the most powerful telescopes on the planet. From our vantage point more than 6,700 feet above sea level, Texas unfolded in indescribable beauty. (Nightly Star Parties offer visitors the chance to look at stars and galaxies through these high-powered scopes, and we returned later that night for yet another eye-opening experience.)

With daylight still in our favor, we continued on Texas 118 and disappeared deeper into the isolation of the mountains.  Out here there are no billboards, no honking cars, no gas stations. Naturalists consider the entire Davis Mountains range a “sky island” because many of the plants and animals found here—pinyon pines and madrones, shorthorn lizards and silver-haired bats, for example—rarely appear elsewhere in Texas.

We stopped at Madera Canyon eight miles later for a break at the Lawrence E. Wood Picnic Area, a roadside park surrounded by swaying grasses and such high-elevation trees as pinyons, alligator junipers, and ponderosa pines. The only sounds we heard were the gusts of the wind and the calls of irascible scrub jays. All around us were 33,000 acres of wilderness protected by the Nature Conservancy’s Davis Mountains Preserve.  We took a short walk on the Madera Canyon Trail for a backcountry peek into remote woodlands and meadows.

Just past the picnic area, the road makes a sharp, blind curve to the right.  Off in the distance, beyond the main gate to the Preserve, is the impressive north face of Mount Livermore, the highest summit of the Davis range. We could clearly see Baldy Peak, the highest point at 8,378 feet.

The Loop cuts through mountain gaps and windswept valleys and makes a breathtaking drop down into a vast plain, where it turns left onto Texas 166 for a long arch some 46 miles back to Fort Davis.  The highway gradually slopes upward through a wide swath of grasses and junipers, then continues dead-on toward the 7,686-foot Sawtooth Mountain. Its distinctive precipice reminded us of broken teeth in a saw blade.  On the right is the Rockpile, a jumble of gray stones the size of airplane hangars.

Some eight miles from the junction of Texas 166 and 118, the Loop works its way into a mountain gap called Broke Tank Draw and climbs to the top of H.O. Hill. Here, a gate marks the entrance to a private ranch. This spot denotes the drain-age divide between the Pecos River and the Rio Grande.

From our vantage point more than 6,700 feet above sea level, Texas unfolded in indescribable beauty.

We descended into still another can-yon and stopped to rest at a remote picnic spot, momentarily transfixed by a lizard sunning himself on a rock and a hawk riding the thermals overhead. And then we followed the Loop out of the mountains into a savannah of grasses and scrub brush, finding ourselves once again in the Chihuahuan Desert.

We rolled with Texas 166 as it bent east and eventually arrived at Point of Rocks, a cluster of tremendous boulders that shelter a few picnic tables. Earlier that day, Lindy and I had stopped at the Stone Village Market in Fort Davis to pick up deli sandwiches, and we hauled them out here for a picnic while we searched through binoculars for pronghorn sheep that sometimes graze nearby.

The highway moves out onto the treeless slope of Cienega Flat and gradually drops down to join Texas 17 for the return to Fort Davis, entering town on the south side just past Delores Mountain.

Engineers broke ground on the first stretch of the Loop on January 9, 1932, and opened the road on June 28, 1947.  Although it took them 15 years to finish the project, Lindy and I enjoyed their beautiful road in four hours. 

I folded up our map and put it in the glove compartment.  We’ll need it for the next time we drive the Davis Mountains Scenic Loop.

Published in the November 2012 issue.

In the November edition, Randy Mallory explores Marshall’s historic downtown, where Maplecroft serves as a magnificent centerpiece. Editorial Intern Elena Watts catches up with Curator Megan Maxwell to learn more about the mansion’s history and recent renovation.

In the northeast Texas town of Marshall, Megan Maxwell guides tourists through an historic house musem filled with period furnishings original to the Starr family. More than 90 percent of the furnishings on display in Maplecroft, a nearly century-and-a-half old residence that continues to stand on three acres downtown, are original to the house. The 5,600-square-foot, Greek-revival residence recently underwent extensive renovations by the Texas Historical Commission.

Dallas conservator Michale Van Enter determined through paint analysis that the exterior of the house was originally painted off-white. Layers of paint indicated it was painted green for many years. The analysis also revealed that the house was well prepped for its original paint, but that subsequent paint preparations were not done well. The six-month exterior construction project, which also included installation of central air and heat and replacement of windows, was completed in August of 2011.

The 1871 Maplecroft mansion is the centerpiece of the Texas Historical Commission's Starr Family Home State Historic Site, which interprets an early Texas dynasty.

The one-year interior renovation was completed in two stages. The downstairs reopened in November 2011 followed by the upstairs, which was completed in May 2012. Architects and collections experts determined the collection would support a 19th-Century interpretation, composed the interpretation plan, and advised the staff.

With their staff, Curator Megan Maxwell and Site Manager Whit Edwards operate the entire historic site, including the museum. The Historic Sites Division's Chief Curator Laura Denormandie-Bass and Interpretive Planner Hal Simon helped them research fashion and interior design publications for room color recommendations. Furniture arrangement, paint colors, wallpaper patterns, and ingrain carpet colors and construction were selected to accurately reflect the décor of the generation that built and first lived in the house.

With the exception of a few rooms, the original interior paint colors could not be determined because the wall plaster had been replaced often during the house’s 141 years. Original carpet remnants found in storage and original moth-eaten, faded wool drapes still hanging in the Parlor helped the team determine a color scheme.

“What was amazing to me was how vibrant the colors still were — the green, the red, the purple, the gold — even though they had faded a lot over the years and were dusty and moth-eaten, you could still really see what colors were in the originals,” Maxwell said.

They believed the Axminster carpet came from the Parlor because of its large floral medallion design and its thick, plush quality, commonly used in public, highly decorated rooms. These carpets were common in the 19th Century, but not everybody could afford them. Such was the case with the Historical Commission. In place of an expensive reproduction of the original, an ingrain wool carpet with a design that would have been available at the time, woven on the same kind of loom, had to suffice.

“The Starrs were no different from us today — they modernized the house and added electricity and gas furnaces to make the house more modern and comfortable,” Maxwell said. “But for whatever reason, they left behind and continued to use the Victorian furniture that had been in the house all along.”

Once heavily wooded with Maple trees imported from Virginia where Frank and his brother Amory attended The University of Virginia, the grounds have since been planted with azaleas. Seven buildings including three family residences — Maplecroft, Rosemont and the Blake House — have withstood more than a century and four generations of the Starr family.

Frank’s father, James Harper Starr, was a physician well known as President Lamar’s Secretary of the Treasury in the Republic of Texas and as a Postal Agent for the Confederacy during the Civil War. His historically important business activities included management of Texas’ lands and establishment of one its earliest banks. He was known as an astute businessman who was scrupulously fair in settling land grants and land disputes. James and his brother Franklin J. Starr, were born to parents of English descent with 17th-Century roots in Connecticut. They arrived in the unchartered lands of the Lone Star State by way of Ohio and Georgia.

The 29-year-old Franklin arrived first, in 1835, while Texas was still under Mexican rule. The Texas Revolution erupted a year later. He practiced law with William Travis Barrett of Alamo fame in San Felipe until Santa Anna’s troops forced folks north — an exodus called the Runaway Scrape. James, four years his junior, joined his brother in Nacogdoches in 1837, the same year Franklin contracted a fever that ended his life. Franklin’s only son died shortly after at the age of three.

In 1870, James moved 80 miles north to Marshall from Nacogdoches where he had lived, worked and reared five children for more than 30 years. It was the year Texas was readmitted to the Union. Land and banking prospects looked more promising because of Marshall’s proximity to Shreveport’s railroad station. He purchased Rosemont, and his son Frank joined him in 1871, the same year Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, a measure President Ulysses S. Grant requested to address the Ku Klux Klan violence that had grown steadily in the south since the group's formation in 1866.

Frank and his brother Amory, who moved to Marshall in 1872, were instrumental in bringing settlers to Texas. They advertised more than a million Texas acres in 100 counties in newspapers across the country and secured right-of-ways for railroads.

The grounds of Maplecroft serve as backdrop to many weddings during the spring when the azaleas are in full bloom, and the Blake House serves as a rental facility for special events. Docents provide guided tours Tuesday through Sunday.

“From family letters and collections in the house, you can tell what a close family they were for so many generations,” Maxwell said. “They just seemed to love being together, and as a result, we have a house full of furniture and family portraits that got to be a part of the family for such a long time, and now we get to share that story with other people, which is the fun part.”

Texas Highways is on the road again. Come visit our booth at these events:

Oct. 27 –28: Texas Book Festival in Austin, on the grounds of the Capitol.
Oct. 27: Fredericksburg Food & Wine Festival, Marketplatz
Nov. 10–11: Texas Travel and Adventure Show at the Dallas Convention Center


Search our Events Database to find other fun happenings across the state.

Check out our event Hot Picks.

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