You've heard the saying: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But what if life gives you yams? Well, if you’re the folks in Gilmer, you create the East Texas Yamboree Festival! This four-day October fest, one of Texas’ oldest, offers a fabulous yam queen pageant, coronation, and parade, lively music and dancing, carnival rides, livestock expositions, a children’s yam-art contest, and a yam-pie cookoff that makes the yam sing.
The yam thing started in the 1890s when local farmers looked at the sweet potato as a cash crop, as it thrived in the red soil of East Texas. After a nasty weevil infestation, the crop died off. But by the early 1930s, state agriculture officials declared the plague over, and in 1935, the city celebrated with a festival honoring the tasty tuber.
While recently visiting the Chamber of Commerce office on Buffalo Street, I noticed a large color photograph of 2006 Yamboree Festival queen Mary Carol Despain, as well as a long hallway of photos that includes former Yamboree royalty and festival memorabilia, which speak to the event’s importance in the community. But if you think Gilmer might be a one-trick pony or one-potato town, think again, and then trek on over, because this Main Street City will win you over with its historic downtown.
First, start your day with a great breakfast, a cup of coffee, good conversation, and a copy of the Gilmer Mirror (published since 1877) at Gotta Java’s Coffee Shop and Café, just off the courthouse square. I enjoyed The Ultimate—Gotta Java’s three-egg omelette piled with onions, bell peppers, cheese, and sausage, and served with hash browns and biscuits. Owner Betty Putt and her daughter-in-law, manager Linda Wickham, serve up not only good food and hot brew, but Linda will make you feel as though she has known you all your life. Order breakfast by 10 because, as Linda says, “If somebody orders a hamburger, then they gotta get the onions grilling and that would make the pancakes taste funny.”
If antiquing is your thing, check out Maude and Murel’s Antiques and Collectibles nearby. In fact, it’s just up the sidewalk, inside a former bank building. Before you walk in, notice the tile floor and iron pillars, which date back to the building’s flapper-era roots. Owners Janet and Chris Cleesen, in the antique trade for more than 30 years, “discovered” them during a recent renovation. Across the alley, Nelms Gift Shop & Furniture offers more items from yesteryear.
The 1933 Art Moderne-style Upshur County Courthouse commands the square’s center. Stroll across the brick-lined street and take a peak inside. Here, you’ll see information about the county’s and city’s namesakes: Secretary of State Abel Upshur and Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer. Both were tragically killed in the same naval accident on February 28, 1844. Because of their efforts towards Texas’ annexation, the county and city are named for them.
Note the embossed bricks surrounding the fountain on the north side of the courthouse. They bear the names of those who helped create this East Texas town. Many of the bricks also mention the individuals’ roles in the Yamboree.
If you’re like me, you may wonder what structure this WPA-era courthouse replaced. Find out inside Gilmer’s 1926 neo-classical-style post office, which now houses the Historic Upshur Museum (HUM), directly across from the present-day courthouse. On a wall inside the museum’s gift shop hangs an artist’s rendition of the 1889 courthouse, curiously reminiscent of West Texas’ Crockett Coun-ty Courthouse in Ozona. Pick up a copy of the HUM news-letter, Legacies and Legends, for more details regarding the county’s history.
The HUM itself highlights more than 150 years of history: from the days when the Caddo Indians thrived here through the Republic of Texas era, the county’s involvement in the Civil War, and progress in Gilmer and the surrounding area through the 20th Century. The museum’s music room contains photos and other memorabilia regarding hometown stars Johnny Mathis, Don Henley of The Eagles, The Stamps Quartet, Ray Price, and blues icon Freddie King.
Across the square to the west, Lou’s Gift Shop, offering modern home furnishings, occupies another 1920s-era building, the former Gilmer Drug Store, and it still maintains the original wooden fixtures. Two of the clerks here have Yamboree connections. In the early ’60s, Pat Long represented the town of Pritchett in the Yamboree pageant. Another shop associate, Amber Hendrix, tells me she vied for the role of yam queen in 1993.
“Each June, the Yamboree Festival Com—mittee goes to the Texas Folklife Festival in San Antonio and sells yam pies, promoting Gilmer and the yam festival,” says Amber. While in town, I savored the scrumptious, no-frills recipe of 2006 Yam Pie champion Jewel Richards.
Hanging in the back of Lou’s is the original “Prescriptions” sign indicating the store’s former incarnation. However, the adjacent room houses the current Gilmer Drug, where you can still get your pharmaceuticals dispensed, and, believe it or not, purchase a new Austin Guitar or Crate amplifier at the same time. Now that’s rock ’n’ roll.
For lunch on the square, locals recommend the aforementioned Gotta Java’s or Hadden’s Sandwich Shop, inside a former Civil War-era leather factory. Note the vintage Coca-Cola sign on the east side of the building. I enjoyed a cup of broccoli-cheese soup, a turkey sandwich, and a slice of coconut cream pie at Hadden’s, along with some Upshur County history related by owner Bill Starnes.
Head south on US 271 for further lunch options at either Doc’s Hot Links or Koma Country Cafe. Doc’s serves up links that are legendary, and Koma Country Cafe’s lunch specials always include its popular chicken-fried steak. While I was in town, the café’s parking lot indicated travel-friendly value: It was full of motorcycles. Look for the windmill on the roof and the old Model-A in front.
Once you’ve experienced downtown Gilmer to your satisfaction, try some of the area’s serious outside activity. For starters, go about five miles northwest of town to Lake Gilmer Recreational Area, which opened in September 2001. The 1,000-acre lake offers boating and fishing. Lake Gilmer Park, scheduled for completion late this month, will provide a swimming area, beach, picnic area, and playground equipment, with easy access to walking trails, including a mile-long nature trail overlooking bottomlands and ponds.
For those with all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), fine-tune your X Games/Baja thrill-seeking mojo at Barnwell Mountain Recreational Area. Some five miles north of Gil-mer on Texas 155, Barnwell Mountain offers plenty of trails for ATVs, motorcycles, and other motorized off-road vehicles.
South of Gilmer on US 271, the Flight of the Phoenix Aviation Museum houses vintage aircraft flown by owner and former Air Force pilot Steve Dean. The museum’s rich wooden interior boasts a Texas Forestry Association design award. Each May, Steve and his wife, Linda Kay, hold a fly-in on Armed Forces Day.
Whether you’re coming to explore or just passing through, you’ll find that Gilmer’s gentle pace, historic charm, friendly folks, annual Yamboree, food, shops, and various subtle pleasures make for a pleasant East Texas small-town visit.
FOR MORE information on Gilmer, Upshur County, area lakes, parks, other attractions, and the East Texas Yamboree Festival (October 17-20), contact the Gilmer Area Chamber of Commerce, 106 Buffalo St.; 903/843-2413; www.gilmerareachamber.com or www.yamboree.com.
Food For Thought
Texas Highways published a popular East Texas Yamboree yam pie recipe in October 1997, as well as Mary McLeod Bethune’s Sweet Potato Pie recipe in February 1996. For both, see page 194 of Cooking with Texas Highways (UT Press, 2005). To purchase the book, or to check out the recipes online, go to shop.texashighways.com. There’s also a link to a sweet potato pie recipe on the Yamboree Web site, www.yamboree.com.