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A diver at the Dallas World Aquarium cleans the Fiji exhibit, which features sea anemones, live coral, and a giant clam.
By Kitty Crider

It was a different trip to Dallas.

No fine dining. No Cowboys game. No opera. No conference. No symphony. No shopping. Instead, I recently journeyed to Big D for a family-friendly weekend, a cool adventure with educational elements that would keep three generations entertained, exercised, and amazed.

Call it a modern-day minireunion. As empty nesters, my husband and I want to keep family bonds strong, so, at least once a year, we organize a weekend road trip with our older son, his wife, and their two little boys, and together, we visit the other son, who’s single and lives in Dallas. None of this sitting around and shelling peas and just talking, like our ancestors did during family visits, though. Today’s multitasking families—mine included—want action. So we research our destination each year, seeking out activities that everyone will enjoy.

For instance, have you ever walked through a sunlit tunnel of live sharks? It was a highlight for our young grandsons, ages four and six, at the Dallas World Aquarium. Have you ever ridden a mile-long monorail over acres of African animals? It was a thrill for my daughter-in-law, a nature-loving former schoolteacher, at the Dallas Zoo.

Can you remember the first handheld calculators? A collection dating to the late 1960s at the Museum of Nature & Science sparked memories for my husband, the electrical engineer in our group.

Mixed in with these finds were interactive exhibits for all ages and great photo ops (dare you to stick your head in the mouth of a life-size gator statue!), not to mention an indoor dino dig. Air-conditioned spaces and places are a bonus during Texas summers, and we found them.

Kids—and adults—need some down time, so we usually plan one enlightening activity a day, arriving at the opening hour when places tend to be less crowded and it’s easier to maneuver a stroller or keep your party together. We also make sure we choose a hotel with a swimming pool. Balance pool time with something educational, and everyone wins.

We’ll spare you our vacation videos, but here’s a snapshot of what you might see on one of these family-friendly outings.

At the 65-acre Schlitterbahn New Braunfels, revelers cool off in one of the park’s three “continuous rivers.” Logjams in some areas give way to exhilarating tube-chute action in others.

The city pool where I hung out as a youngster had a blue plastic slide, the kind that adorned most swimming pools in the 1960s. This one turned a complete 360 degrees before spitting me out like a watermelon seed to land with a satisfying—and refreshing—splash. I couldn’t get enough of it. Well, water slides have come a long way since then. For proof, just visit a Schlitterbahn water park in New Braunfels, South Padre Island, or Galveston. The original location in New Braunfels has been voted “The World’s Best Waterpark” for 10 consecutive years by Amusement Today magazine, which surveys amusement park fans around the world.


Doc Blakely, musician, rancher, humorist, and all-around colorful Whartonian, hams it up in front of the newly restored Wharton County Courthouse. Find out what’s up with Doc at <A mce_thref="http://www.docblakely.com" mce_href="http://www.docblakely.com" TARGET="external">www.docblakely.com</a>.
By Gene Fowler

“Wharton is a town with a lot of character … and a lot of characters,” proclaims Doc Blakely, cowpoke-quipster-in-residence for this burg of 9,300 perched on the high banks of the Colorado River, about 50 miles from the Gulf Coast.

 

The town’s character announces itself nobly in careful restorations of the 1889 Wharton County Courthouse, the railroad depot, and other vintage structures; visitors can also find lively displays in local museums of 20th-Century technology and horse-drawn carriages, shops that offer such rarities as antique silk kimonos, live theater, quirky roadside Americana, and a small-town landscape that spices up its Southern heritage with Western flair. Vivid murals throughout downtown reveal a legacy of characters and stories for local folks to live up to (“or down to,” as Blakely might add). There was colorful Sheriff T.W. “Buckshot” Lane, for instance, who burned down a dangerous Colorado River bridge to make the state build a safer one. Another mural depicts larger-than-life cattle baron A.H. “Shanghai” Pierce, who—according to county lore—campaigned to move the Wharton County seat from Wharton to the nearby hamlet of Pierce.

Shanghai failed in that effort, but debate in Wharton over whether to build a new courthouse in the 1880s became so heated that Texas Rangers were dispatched to the town to ensure the peace. But the structure was indeed built—and recently received a facelift. “That [the courthouse] was restored is a miracle,” says Ron Sanders, executive director of the Wharton Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture.

Local artist Doug Myerscough painted the four sides of Denison Pawn with murals, including this west-side series of panels representing some of Denison’s artists and their galleries. For more of Doug

By Randy Mallory

 

Paint a picture of a quaint North Texas town of, say, 23,000 people. Draw a quintessential Main Street lined with historic structures. Brush in a dozen or so art galleries and artists’ studios, some with artsy loft apartments. Oh, just for fun, sketch a winery, several eateries, antiques shops, specialty stores, and an old train depot and railroad museum. That’s the spittin’ image of Denison’s flowering arts district.

 

Denison has long been a jumping-off point for outdoors enthusiasts enjoying nearby Lake Texoma. Increasingly, art buyers (especially from the Dallas/Fort Worth area) come for art and attractions compressed into seven stroll-friendly blocks.

 

Paintings, sculptures, glass-works, photography, ceramics, and mixed-media creations represent traditional and contemporary styles. Galleries showcase works from more than 100 local, regional, and national artists. Hometown and visiting artists also lead workshops that teach painting techniques to budding artists who come from around the region.

 

Downtown struts its artistic stuff this month with the annual Spring Fine Art Tour of studios and galleries. Galleries also periodically host new art shows and meet-the-artist receptions to keep the local scene fresh and unpredictable.

 

On a recent downtown stroll, I discovered that when it comes to art, this small town has big ideas.

 

 


Photographer Artie Limmer’s unusual technique involves creating a puzzle with multiple photographs, each of which is interesting all by itself. He says, “When you put all the images together, it multiplies their impact and gives you a different perspective on the subject.”
By Gerald E. McLeod

US 84 stretches diagonally across the middle of the Llano Estacado like a long rope of blacktop pulled tight from horizon to horizon. Today, cotton fields line long stretches of the four-lane highway, but when settlers began arriving in the area a little more than a century ago, the countryside was a treeless prairie as far as the eye could see. Even now, the small towns that occasionally rise from the plains seem like oases of trees and houses.

One such oasis is Muleshoe, at the intersection of US 84 and US 70, in northern Bailey County. While the town of 4,900 might not seem like a tourist destination, it offers a surprising mix of history and whimsy. Once part of the famed XIT Ranch, Muleshoe grew up where the cattle trails met the iron rails. Here you can tour remnants of area ranches, have your picture taken under the “World’s Largest Mule Shoe,” and eat some of the best Mexican food around. A 15-minute drive takes you to a 6,449-acre wildlife refuge that attracts as many as 250,000 migratory sandhill cranes each winter.

Muleshoe lies in what was the southern section of the XIT, which originated in the early 1880s and stretched 220 miles down the western edge of the Panhandle. By the early 1900s, the ranching syndicate was selling off its vast holdings, and two Michigan buyers, Edward K. Warren and his son Charles, who had made their fortune manufacturing corset stays and buggy whips, established the Muleshoe Ranch—originally some 40,000 acres—in present-day Bailey County. The ranch ultimately reached into four counties and encompassed 150,000 acres; at one time, it boasted some 10,000 head of cattle. The town of Muleshoe, named for the ranch, sprang up at the livestock-loading pens east of the ranch headquarters in 1913, when the Pecos and Northern Texas Railway cut across the plains from Lubbock to Clovis, New Mexico. Muleshoe became the county seat when Bailey County was organized in 1917.


A horse and colt are at home in Clint’s Agarian setting.
By Joel Sakido

I took my weekly late-afternoon drive down to Clint. I could see the Clint water tower as I turned off the interstate from El Paso and went down into the Lower Valley. The cotton and alfalfa fields, the distant mountains in Mexico, the desert space—they began to work their late-afternoon chemistry on me. I passed farmhouses, lone cottonwoods, and canals. The farm-to-market road had a worn, comforting shine, like the skin of an elephant. At the park across from the Catholic church, I stopped beneath a row of elms and read for a while. I liked to do that: just sit in my car and read and drink coffee from the thermos on the front seat and now and then look out the window. Boys were throwing a ball around in the park. Roosters crowed in a nearby yard. The faint smell of barbecue was in the air.

 

I began my walk through the neighborhood. At the side of the churchyard a man filled plastic jugs from the church water fountain and put them into the back of his pickup. Across the street the old man and his wife were sitting, as usual, on their front porch in straight-back wooden chairs, watching the man fill the jugs to take to his home in a nearby colonia. The porch seemed to give them their daily life: shade in the morning, sun in the afternoon, the cars that drove slowly past, the sparrows in the tall churchyard trees. They nodded to me as I walked by. We were familiar sights to each other.

Commorants roost in Claybottom Pond, a rookery in the Smith Oaks Sanctuary. Note the great egret on a nest at the far right.

By Helen Bryant

High Island isn’t all that high, and it’s not really an island. It’s part of the Bolivar Peninsula. But, then again, since you have to cross a bridge over the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway to get there, maybe the whole peninsula qualifies as an island. High Island’s 38-foot elevation makes it the highest point on the Gulf of Mexico between Mobile, Alabama, and Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula—a span of more than 600 miles. It’s high enough that when a hurricane comes along, this 1,100-acre salt dome is sometimes the only thing sticking out of the water.

That’s one of High Island’s claims to fame. Another is that it’s one of the best birdwatching sites in the nation. Birds like trees, and this place has a lot. So six bird sanctuaries sit on this little rise, and people come from all over the world to visit them.

The community also has a rich oil history. In the 1930s, high-producing fields around the salt dome created an oil boom; at one time, as many as 200 wells actively pumped oil. Dozens continue to pump away, with the occasional group of cattle grazing nearby.

High Islanders have even more stories to tell—about the muskrat-trapping operations of the 1940s and 1950s; about Jean Lafitte’s cabin boy, who is buried here; and about a quick and painless visit from Bonnie and Clyde. That’s a lot of lore for a tiny town of 500 that takes about three minutes to drive through.

Bozo Texino

By Gene Fowler

 

Texans invented the maverick. The term probably entered the American lexicon on the state’s coastal plain in the mid-19th Century, when Samuel A. Maverick allowed his cattle to roam free and unbranded. Because of this, all unmarked strays found in the area were generally described as “one of Maverick’s.” The name stuck. In time, explains David Dary in The New Handbook of Texas, “the term maverick came to refer to any creature, human or otherwise, that goes its own way rather than acting as part of a group or herd.” The word’s application may have expanded beyond its original Old West context, but it’s still the best definition I’ve seen of the Texas character, both historical and contemporary.

 

There’s a little bit of maverick in every Texan. Some, like the folks gathered on these pages, savored the state’s quirky “sense of place” with such gusto that they in-habited that cultural niche of the American psyche known as the “eccentric Texan.” Many of the more inscrutable mavericks strike me as folk artists whose delightfully unusual endeavors can be seen as a form of performance art. They viewed life in the Lone Star State as a vast stage for reinvention of the self, where any notion, no matter how fanciful, could become reality. As Commodore Basil Muse Hatfield put it, “It’s all right to lie about Texas, because it’ll be the truth tomorrow.”

 

Formerly a hotel, this historic brick building now houses both the Groesbeck Journal and the Groesbeck Chamber of Commerce.
By Courtney Perry

Friendly. Time and again when I asked residents of Groesbeck how they would describe their town, the word “friendly” kept popping up. A sign on Texas 14 that greets cars driving into town affirms that you are most definitely about to enter a friendly zone: “Welcome to Groesbeck, the Friendly City. A great place to live and work.” I must say, I certainly found no evidence to the contrary.

As soon as I drove into Groesbeck’s old downtown, marked by simple stoplights and historic brick buildings, I noticed three teenagers on skateboards cruising down sidewalks and jumping curbs. Immediately, I turned and parked-the fresh energy of youth springing forth from the long-established storefronts was too picturesque. After photographing the teens for a while, I had a brief conversation with them, and this was a firsthand introduction to the town’s friendliness. The young men were respectful and happy to let me take their pictures.

Groesbeck, the Limestone County seat, nestles inside a triangle formed by connecting the dots between Houston, Austin, and Dallas. It was dedicated as a township by the Houston and Texas Central Railroad in 1869, and named for Abram Groesbeck, one of the railroad’s directors. (When the post office was established in 1871, the name was listed as “Groesbeck,” and the misspelling stuck.)

The museum’s many galleries contain an impressive array of art.

By Gerald E. McLeod

 

The Texas Panhandle is a big place, and it takes the largest history museum in the state to tell its story.

 

Like a time machine, the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon takes visitors on a fantastic journey through the evolution of the great Texas plains.

 

The museum is “the Smithsonian of Texas,” says executive director Guy C. Vanderpool. “Within these walls you can go from prehistoric crustaceans to 20th-Century art in a short walk.”

 

A visit through the galleries combines trekking along a timeline developed over thousands of years and rummaging through an attic of treasures. The museum connects the people of the plains to their tools and toys-starting with the dinosaurs and proceeding to the 19th Century, when barbed wire, the windmill, and the railroad conspired to change the landscape of what was then a sea of grass. Some believe that Spanish conquistadors called the vast, treeless prairie the Llano Estacado, or staked plains, because the only landmarks were the wooden stakes they used to mark their route and tether their horses. The story continues with the discovery of oil and gas deposits during the 1930s, and documents the accelerated changes of today’s world.


It
By Maxine Mayes

Since moving to the Sisterdale area in the Hill Country, I often drive over to Comfort, a town known for its rich history, restored historic district, and antique shops. My route takes me west on FM 473, a scenic road marked with low-water crossings and curves. As I drive, I find myself imagining Comfort’s earliest settlers following the same course on horseback or in wagons when they migrated from Sisterdale in 1852. When they first glimpsed this expansive green valley, ringed by distant hills and crisscrossed by the clear waters of Cypress Creek and the Guadalupe River, they must have been euphoric. Massive cypress trees lining the banks promised ample lumber for building, and the fertile bottomland stretching beyond meant good crops.

These pioneers were German Freethinkers, intellectual, classically educated people who had left their native land to escape the religious and political ideologies forced upon them by the state. The Freethinkers placed strong emphasis on education, reason, and self-reliance.

Legend has it that these founding fathers considered naming their new settlement Gemütlichkeit. Hard to pronounce and harder still to translate into English, the word encompasses qualities of tranquility, coziness, comfort, a sense of belonging, and an atmosphere in which community is celebrated. Ernst Altgelt and his survey crew had similar feelings when they arrived on the scene to plat the town in the summer of 1854. Hot, tired, and dusty after traveling by wagon from San Antonio, they camped on the bank of Cypress Creek, dubbing the place Camp Comfort. In the end, the town, which has never been incorporated, became known simply as Comfort.


This antique tractor resides at the Orange Grove Area Museum.
By Maxine Mayes

Backroads beckon to me, and I’m prone to answer their call. When time allows, I travel state highways or farm-to-market roads instead of interstates, and whatever my destination, it’s not uncommon for me to detour off my route to explore some irresistible country road. My husband, Carl, once told me, “If your car had four-wheel drive, you’d take off down a cow trail.” And he’s probably right. So an assignment that involved seeking places “off the beaten path” in my part of the world—the South Texas Plains—was right up my alley, or, should I say, right up my dirt road.

Marked by a subtle beauty, the region is full of delightful surprises, from peacocks in a pecan orchard to cactus-framed views of the Rio Grande. The antique tractor resides at the Orange Grove Area Museum.

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