Historic Capitol Hill, one of the highest points in Huntsville, is a good place to start if you want to really understand this cultured and prosperous Piney Woods town that has long set its sights on greatness. Energized by the spirit of Lone Star general and statesman Sam Houston, the hometown hero of Texas Independence, town fathers once imagined a capitol dome atop this prominent rise. Today, Capitol Hill is serenaded by the clock tower chimes of Sam Houston State University, one of the state’s oldest institutions of higher education.
True to its earliest ambitions, the surrounding Huntsville community thrives both as a center of Texas tradition and history, and as headquarters for the nation’s second-largest prison system.
I’d been to Huntsville many times as a newspaper reporter covering the prison system before I actually got to know the place. Like many true Texans, I didn’t realize that Huntsville owes much of its prominence, as well as its place on any Texan’s travel itinerary, to the influence and legacy of Sam Houston. The mythic soldier, politician, and adventurer made his home here and forever linked the town to pivotal events in Texas independence and statehood. Houston’s larger-than-life, ripe-for-a-Hollywood-movie persona casts long shadows—from the prison system and university he helped establish to the 67-foot “Big Sam” statue that now overlooks the Interstate 45 freeway into town. Even before Huntsville became synonymous with the prison farms that dot the surrounding countryside, this community was a vibrant, ambitious center for education and government.
It shows in gracefully restored homes and buildings, the bustling college campus, and Huntsville’s many other cultural and historic attractions—all of which I discovered when I had the opportunity to slow down and really explore Huntsville for the first time.
Huntsville, the Walker County seat, lies about 70 miles north of Houston (and 170 miles south of Dallas) on I-45. The Huntsville/Walker County Chamber of Commerce Visitor’s Center (1327 11th St.; 936/295-8113 or 800/289-0389; www.huntsvilletexas.com) has information about events, attractions, lodging, and good places to eat. Following is contact information for sites in the story and a few of the author’s other favorites.
- The Homestead on 19th, 1215 19th St., 936/291-7366; www.homesteadon19th.com. Fine dining in a restored 1834 log cabin next to the Sam Houston Memorial Museum.
- Farmhouse Cafe, 1004 14th St., 936/ 435-1450; www.farmhousecafe.net. American comfort food.
- Five Loaves Deli, Midway Plaza, 1329 University Ave., Ste. 1, 936/439-9400; www.fiveloavesdeli.com. Soups, sandwiches, panini, and quesadillas.
- Puerto Aventura, 269 Texas 75 N., Ste. C, 936/435-0258. Colombian/Greek/Cuban fare.
- The Whistler Bed and Breakfast Inn, 906 Avenue M, 936/295-2834 or 800/404-2834; www.thewhistlerbnb.com.
- Oakview Manor Bed & Breakfast, 7137 Texas 75 S., 936/295-3352; www.oakviewmanorbnb.com.
- University Hotel, 1610 Bobby K. Marks Dr., on the SHSU campus, 936/291-2151; www.shsuhotel.org.
- Sam Houston Statue & Visitor Center. Take exit 109 or 112 off I-45, 800/289-0389; www.samhoustonstatue.org.
- Sam Houston Memorial Museum, 19th St. at Sam Houston Ave., 936/294-1832; www.samhouston.memorial.museum.
- Texas Prison Museum, 491 Texas 75 N., exit 118 off I-45, 936/295-2155; www.txprisonmuseum.org.
- Oakwood Cemetery and Sam Houston grave site, 9th St. and Avenue I.
- Huntsville State Park is 6 mi. southwest of Huntsville. Exit 109 on I-45, and go west on Park Rd. 40. Campsites and screened shelters along the shores of Lake Raven. Thirteen miles of hiking and biking trails, fishing, horseback riding, and group facilities. For rates and reservations, call 512/389-8900. For information only, call 800/792-1112 or visit www.tpwd.state.tx.us.
- General Sam Houston Folk Festival. First week--end in May. Visit www.samhoustonfolkfestival.org.
- Airing of the Quilts. First Sat. in May. Visit www.tallpinesquiltguild.com.
- Fair on the Square. First Sat. in Oct. Contact the chamber.