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Walking in Memphis

Written by Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe.

NO B.B. KING or Beale Street here, but this Texas Panhandle community projects its own kind of harmony between two forks of the Red River. In fact, Memphis has become a family favorite during our frequent trips up and down US 287, offering both a change of scenery and a place where we can relax and recharge before continuing on our way.

Our first hint that Memphis had a little extra for the visitor was the many brick streets just off the highway. Even after the cotton grown on area farms has long been ginned and stored or sold, stray cotton bolls flit around the streets and sidewalks as if there had been an errant snowfall. The biggest employers in Memphis (pop. 2,500) remain the peanut and cotton processors, but businesspeople are also taking advantage of the many old and interesting buildings around the square, and along 50 blocks of brick streets in the center of town, to lure visitors.

“Memphis could be the next Fredericksburg,” says Zebbie Land, of the Land Company, whose four renovated buildings on the square comprise a store featuring accent pieces and a 17,000-square-foot showroom filled to overflowing with furniture designed by Reg Land. Reg, the youngest son of Zebbie and his wife, Ruth, shows his custom-built and hand-painted furniture in the Dallas Design District, but his overflow fills every nook and cranny of the expansive Memphis store. Here, you’ll find tables, chairs, lamps, cupboards, chests, and enough knickknacks to fill them all. Some items are one-of-a-kind pieces Reg has sent to the Memphis store after the original customers changed their minds. Even the exterior of the store reflects Reg’s exuberant, Italian-inspired style: bright colors with whimsical ornamentations and text flowing right through it.

The Land Company’s factory—Reg’s furniture is made in Memphis, then hand-painted in Dallas—operates out of an old grocery warehouse on the east side of the tracks, not far from the Morning Side neighborhood, which was built in the 1920s for black families who came to work in the fields and factories.

Two other businesses on the square also stock their quaint old buildings to the shopper’s advantage. Until Then keeps the cool marble walls of the former First State Bank building polished, but warms the space with varied merchandise, including candles, religious and gift items, and paintings. Ivy Cottage, housed in what was once a post office, then a car dealership, then a cotton buyer’s office, fills the first floor of its building with antiques, lamps, kitchenware, tapestries, unusual clocks, and odds and ends of all sorts.

Even Hall County—its offices still housed in the 1920s-era, Texas Renaissance-style courthouse—got into the spirit of preservation. After it claimed the former First National Bank building for a history museum, many area families contributed local treasures, such as wedding dresses, dishes, farm equipment, and taxidermy, in addition to historical documents helpful to genealogy researchers.

But when the town’s Carnegie Library had to be razed, longtime resident Marion Bownds says many in Memphis grew concerned about losing another architectural treasure. So they were ready when the Palo Alto Presbytery said the Memphis church no longer had enough members to keep the doors open. Residents formed a preservation foundation in the mid-1990s to rescue that building. “The first things we had to take care of weren’t very glamorous,” Marion says. Proceeds from the foundation’s early fund-raisers went to roof repairs and clearing bats out of the attic.

Now, fund-raiser money goes toward restoring the building’s 90 European stained-glass windows and the sanctuary dome. The 1911 church was modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome. During the holidays, the foundation illuminates the windows from the inside for everyone’s enjoyment. With only a phone call, Marion or another foundation member will happily give visitors a tour of the interior. The in-the-round sanctuary feels intimate, even though a congregation of more than 200 sat here during the church’s peak, between 1912 and 1921.

Be sure to see the basement, too: Here, in the days before reliable electricity came to town, a manually-controlled waterworks, operated by the older boys of the church, regulated the pipe organ’s air pressure. You’ll also find a charming children’s church in the basement. Marion says she still marvels at the love and care the adults put into this tiny church-within-the-church. Complete with pint-size pews and a small electric organ, it was built about 1930 for the wee ones’ Sunday worship.

Now called the Presbyterian Building, the former church stands at the corner of Robertson and 8th streets, about halfway between the town square and Memphis City Park. Built on the banks of Deer Creek by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, the park and its old elm trees provide a quiet, shady spot for family picnics. A sportsmen’s club maintains a bow range at the edge of the park. The town maintains much of the WPA’s original construction, which includes an outdoor amphitheater for concerts, giant outdoor chimneys for barbecue, and smaller pits for grilling that sit among inviting picnic areas, both covered and open. The town installed a modern playground and updated the swimming pool, but kept the old swing sets and jungle gyms. Made of recycled oil pipe, they pay tribute to another mainstay of the Panhandle’s economy.

If you didn’t pack a picnic for your road trip, you can get carryout from one of several hamburger stands in town. Or you can enjoy a sit-down meal at one of the locally owned eateries on the town square. Marion Bownds says folks in Memphis usually recommend the chicken-fried steak at Gloria’s Cafe to their out-of-town visitors, but since I and my family like our beef in sizzling fajitas, Mi Casa is our sit-down choice.

Memphis is a destination spot for many. Savvy sportsmen know that ample wild turkey, dove, quail, and white-tailed deer roam in the rich, red dirt along the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. And townsfolk host Hall County Reunion Days on the square the third Saturday of each September.

No Isaac Hayes, Al Green, or Elvis reside in this Memphis, but you’ll cotton to its Panhandle history, pride, and hospitality.

The Memphis Chamber of Commerce is at 113 S. 6th St. (79245); 806/259-3144; www.memphistexas.org. The area code is 806.

Places to Eat

Gloria’s Cafe, 519 W. Main, hearty country cooking, 259-3857. Mi Casa, 518 W. Noel, Tex-Mex and traditional Mexican cooking, 259-1892.

Things to See

Presbyterian Building, Robertson and 8th; call 259-3100 for a tour. Heritage Hall Museum, 6th and Main; call 259-2511 or 259-3253 for a tour.

Places to Shop

Ivy Cottage, 121 N. 5th, 259-3520. The Land Co., 414 N. Main, 259-2173. Until Then, 600 W. Noel, 259-3030.

Where to Stay

Sleepy Bear Travelodge, 1600 N. Boykin Dr. (US 287), 259-3583; remodeled May 2005. Rates: $45-$55; 37 well-appointed rooms, each with mini-fridge and high-speed Internet. Continental breakfast included; room service available through the Deville Restaurant (259-9936), which opens daily and serves nightly buffets.

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