Skip to content

Chambers County

Written by Susan L. Ebert.

Driving east on Interstate 10 from Houston, you might not realize that a vast, verdant coastal prairie—replete with throngs of wildlife, birds, and history—quietly beckons just off the concrete. Do yourself a favor and pull off I-10 at Wallisville (halfway between Houston and Beaumont) and visit Wallisville Heritage Park, a living history museum that offers an intriguing portal into the rich realm of Chambers County.

Stroll through the rooms of artifacts from Texas’ pioneer days and browse the Library and Research Center, steeped in local history. Poke around the grounds to see two historic Chambers County schoolhouses that have been moved there for preservation (one from Eminence dates to 1915; the one from Wallisville to 1869).

While you’re there, ask for Kevin (pronounced KEE-vin) Ladd, a soft-spoken, genial man and the museum’s director. Kevin has served as steward of this resource for more than 20 years, and explodes with facts, places, and recommendations. When I tell him the route I’m planning to follow, he says, “Oh, you’re going from here to Smith Point. That’s the ride our sheriff took.”

Sheriff John Frost, Kevin continues, has been dead for more than a century. His memory lives on today, thanks in no small part to Kevin’s storytelling. (See sidebar, page 67.) And his is just one of the fascinating stories in Chambers County—stories populated by such characters as Cabeza de Vaca and other Spanish conquistadors; bloodthirsty pirates (among them, the nefarious Jean Lafitte); fierce, nomadic Karankawa Indians (rumored to be cannibalistic); Cherokee refugees from the infamous “Trail of Tears”; freed black slaves; and early Anglo pioneers, variously playing starring roles in Texas’ cattle industry, oil boom, and oyster industry and, in fact, planting the first seeds of Texas’ independence.

From Wallisville, I sidle down FM 563 amid moss-festooned oaks through Turtle Bayou, where, on June 13, 1832, a handful of Texans drafted and signed the first formal protest against Mexican rule. A few days before, Colonel Juan Davis Bradburn, in employ of the Mexican government, had unjustly imprisoned several locals, one of whom was William B. Travis, at nearby Fort Anahuac. The ensuing battle to free the captives would drive Travis to his destiny at the Alamo and lead Texas to independence.

Anahuac

Want to see an alligator? You surely will here: Alligators outnumber humans nearly three to one in Chambers County, and with a human population of 28,227, that’s a heckuva lot of gators.

Each September, Anahuac hosts the Texas Gatorfest at Fort Anahuac, reveling in its reptilian residents. The three-day fête features food, live music, vendors, boat rides, and carnival rides—clinching Anahuac’s title as Alligator Capital of Texas.

On to Oak Island

From Anahuac, I continue south to the tiny town of Oak Island, wending through pastoral prairies dotted with grazing cattle. Artie Presley, owner of Oak Island Lodge, greets me—barefoot, tall, tan, and robust. As befitting his relative, you-know-who Presley, his engaging smile snares me.

With wraparound porches and windows on all sides, the lodge perches on massive stilts above an expansive lawn at the mouth of Double Bayou. Artie designed it himself. With 36 beds in the 5,800-square-foot main lodge, a separate guide house with an additional 18 beds, boat slips and lifts, two lighted fishing piers—one with a covered gazebo and swing—and the fresh addition of an outdoor hot tub, it seems Artie has thought of everything.

“I had it in my head what I wanted to do here,” he says, “but after the double whammy of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, I really had to check my sanity on building a big coastal lodge. I decided to go ahead and use everything I’ve learned in decades of working construction to make this happen.”

Unlike many lodges that have guides on staff, Artie works with a network of area guides, depending upon his clients’ preference for activities. Fly-fishing, kayaking, birding, or traditional hunt-and-fish activities abound. “Oak Island has become a destination for family reunions and weddings, as well,” he says. “I want everyone here to feel as comfortable as they would in their own home.”

Feathered Jewels

September also marks the onset of fall migration, when throngs of songbirds, raptors, waterfowl, hummingbirds, and Monarch butterflies wing their way through Chambers County. From Oak Island, travel east to FM 562 South, then take FM 1985 east to the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge—a 34,000-acre wildlife haven.

Stop at the visitors’ center to pick up maps of the hiking and driving trails and to chat with the knowledgeable staff. “I saw an osprey hunting on Shoveler Pond this morning,” one park volunteer recounts, so I idle my truck down Shoveler Pond Road, camera in hand. A bobcat pauses in the roadbed, stopping to glare intensely at me. There it is! The osprey, perched on a high branch, plummets into the shallow marsh, emerging with a hapless fish in its talons. Thousands of red-winged blackbirds chirp from the tall cane, as myriad coots, fulvous and black-bellied whistling-ducks, herons, egrets, ibis, roseate spoonbills, geese, and shorebirds hunt, loaf, and preen in a cacophony of birdsong.

I walk out on the 750-foot Shoveler Pond boardwalk, and sit motionless on a wooden bench. An American bittern, camouflaged against the cane, resumes his feeding as two purple gallinules paddle by. Throngs of ibis float in, landing in the nearby marsh. What appears to be a submerged log begins to move. It’s one of the refuge’s many alligators.

Seven miles east of the main refuge, the Skillern Tract’s moist-soil units and rice fields attract astounding numbers of waterfowl, shorebirds, and wad-ing birds, while migrating songbirds fill the branches. As the tract serves as a roosting area for many of these birds, plan to go in the late afternoon and linger for a spectacular sunset. It’s a visual feast, complete with its own soundtrack.

Birthplace of the Blues

Another distinctive Chambers County soundtrack is Live at Double Bayou Dance Hall, by veteran bluesman Pete Mayes and the Texas Houserockers. Mayes was born and raised in Chambers County, in the still small Double Bayou community established by former slaves. I recently caught up with Pete in Houston.

“Oh, Double Bayou,” he says, his laugh deep and rich as a river. “Gal, how’d you ever find out about me?”

I’ve been exploring Chambers County, I explain, and heard about you and Double Bayou Dance Hall.

“I’ve been wanting to play the blues since I was four,” says Pete, who first took the stage when he was 14. “My grandmother called [blues] ‘the devil’s music’ and forbade me from playing it on Sundays. But I had a little battery radio, and knew it was my calling.” (He confides that he even played the blues on Sundays.)

Pete Mayes and the Texas Houserockers first played Double Bayou Dance Hall in 1954, and have been gettin’ after it ever since. “I brought the Texas sound to the European bandstand,” Pete tells me, “playing in Nice, Cannes, Bordeaux, and other European cities. After that, we had visitors from all over Europe come to visit Double Bayou Dance Hall.”

As blues aficionados from the world over flocked to this humble shack, Pete’s aunt (Martha Rivers) brought sweet-potato pies, men barbecued outside, and inside the hogwire-and-post low-ceilinged shack, all shared their love of the blues.

“When I was 19, I got T-Bone Walker to come play here. He was my hero. T-Bone influenced me to play the blues.”

Other blues legends who graced this country watering hole included Big Joe Turner, Clifton Chenier, Gatemouth Brown, Johnny Copeland, and Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins. Double Bayou closed last year, but Pete plans to reopen it in 2008.

“[People] call me a legend,” he says with his graceful waterfall laugh. “I didn’t know I was that old.”

Smith Point

My interest in Smith Point piqued after reading Forest McNeir of Texas, an autobiography of late-19th- and early-20th-Century life on the Texas coast. Forest’s grandmother, Sara Ridge Paschal Pix, a Trail of Tears refugee and daughter of revered Cherokee chieftain Major Ridge, is buried in Smith Point. A Texas Historical Marker graces the small family cemetery, Kevin Ladd tells me. “Stop by Jeri’s Seafood,” he says. “The Nelsons, who own Jeri’s, are descendants of the McNeirs.”

And bring a cooler—Jeri’s sits at the juncture of East Galveston, Galveston, and Trinity bays, which produce more oysters than any other single body of water in America.

Tonight I sleep at Smith Point’s Spoonbill RV Park. Besides RV hookups, they have several trailers and a small, secluded cabin for rent. The cabin’s porch, I find, is a front-row seat to sunset viewing over the bay. I see a passel of birders—binoculars close at hand—leaving their SUVs, ending a day of exploration at the annual Hawk Watch at nearby Candy Cain Abshier Wildlife Management Area.

As I return to Oak Island Lodge the next morning, the red-white-and-green sign of Frascone Winery welcomes me. Jimmy Frascone greets me at his tasting bar, offering sips of his handmade wines. “I use a 120-year-old Italian wine press,” he beams. Jimmy, who has been making wine for more than 50 years, delivers wine to passing boats in nearby Double Bayou, and also provides hayrides from the dock to boaters who wish to visit the winery. Along with cabernet sauvignons, merlots, zinfandels, and chardonnays, the winery produces wines made from apples, blackberries, peaches, and other locally grown fruit.

Fireworks and a Norther

The aromas emanating from the kitchen greet my evening return to Oak Island Lodge. Artie’s friend Andy is stirring a gargantuan pot of gumbo, redolent with shrimp and giant lumps of crabmeat, as he stuffs freshly caught flounder with a spicy Cajun crab mixture. Nearby, another volunteer deftly wraps teal breast halves around jalapeño slices, ensconcing each in strips of peppered bacon. The afternoon fishermen drift in, and new guests arrive for the evening’s feast.

Weather, that most universal of Texas topics, is on everyone’s tongues as we share our repast: Hurricane season in Texas runs from June through November, and the fall monsoons are just firing up. Which one will play the upper hand tonight is anyone’s guess, as the oncoming rush of southern-born warm, moist air smashes against a relentless advancing cold front from the north.

From the safety of the deep-set porches, we watch the roiling heavens and brilliant yellow, magenta, and violet flashes of cloud-to-cloud lightning as the advancing norther thunders forth. The welcome rains follow, beating that sweetest of tattoos on the lodge’s tin roof.

And tonight, on the wings of the north wind, throngs of migratory waterfowl and songbirds will conserve the energy in their tiny, feathered bodies, surfing the crest of the storm in atavistic instinct.

Tomorrow, they will rest and feed in the fecund marshes of Chambers County.

The area code is 409.

Anahuac Chamber of Commerce, 603 Miller St., 267-4190; www.anahuacchamber.com.

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, on FM 1985, 267-3337; www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/texas/anahuac.

Frascone Winery, 311 Bayside Dr. in Anahuac, 800/920-2248; www.frasconewinery.com.

Jeri’s Seafood, an oyster-production company, is on FM 562 in Smith Point, 355-2216; www.jerisseafood.com.

Wallisville Heritage Park, in Wallisville, 389-2252; www.wallisville.com.

Lodging

Oak Island Lodge, 142A Jackson Dr. in Oak Island, 252-4122; www.oakislandlodge.net.

Spoonbill RV Park, on Hawkins Camp Rd., in Smith Point, 355-2347; www.spoonbillrvpark.com.

Events

Hawk Watch (Aug. 15-Nov. 15), at Candy Cain Abshier WMA on FM 526 in Smith Point. Call 736-2551; www.tpwd.state.tx.us.

Texas Gatorfest (Sep. 14-16) is in Anahuac. Call 267-4190; www.texasgatorfest.com.

Back to top