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Nacogdoches Turns a Page

Written by Jenifer Babisak.

A stroll around Nacogdoches’ town square reveals numerous restaurants, locally owned shops and galleries, and renovated structures dating to the mid-1800s. (Photo by Kevin Vandivier)

I had always assumed that all of the key events of the Texas Revolution took place in the southern half of our state, in locations like Gonzales and San Antonio. But I recently learned that the East Texas town of Nacogdoches played a significant role in Texas’ journey to gain independence from Mexico.

In fact, in the years preceding Texas’ final victory at San Jacinto in 1836, three independent republics based in Nacogdoches sought to sever ties with Mexico. According to Dr. Jere Jackson, professor of history at Nacogdoches’ Stephen F. Austin State University, these early rebellions laid important groundwork for Texas’ eventual success. And that’s why Nacogdoches flies nine flags (instead of Texas’ usual six).

Such historical lore enticed me to spend a recent weekend exploring this forested East Texas town. I discovered that while the city is fiercely protective of its historical integrity, Nacogdoches offers plenty for the modern tourist.

In my quest for historical meets modern Nacogdoches, my husband, Matt, and I checked into the Hotel Fredonia, which was built in 1955 and recently restored. The lobby, with its original terrazzo floor and brass elevators, now boasts plush sofas, a baby grand piano, and a small koi pond, blending 1950s style with contemporary elegance. And from our sixth-floor room, an entire wall of windows offered a spectacular view of the historic downtown area as well as the dense forests in the distance.

That evening we enjoyed a leisurely dinner in the Fredonia’s on-site restaurant, J. McKinney’s, sipping smooth Malbec and savoring seared sesame tuna, spinach-and-artichoke stuffed chicken, and pepper-encrusted sirloin while we planned our itinerary.

The next morning, we dove right into some serious Texas history, walking a few blocks to Oak Grove Cemetery, where towering oaks and magnolias stand guard over the cracked and weatherworn monuments.  Four signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence—including Thomas J. Rusk (1803-1857), who also fought at San Jacinto and served as the Republic of Texas’ Secretary of War—are buried here. Rusk’s 26-foot-tall, granite monument features a relief of the State Seal of Texas surrounded by the words “Patriot. Soldier. Statesman. Jurist.”

As we meandered toward the cemetery’s eastern end, we found an entrance to the three-and-a-half-mile-long LaNana Creek Trail, a pathway first forged by Caddoes some 1,200 years ago. The trail emerged as a recreational trail in 1985, thanks to the efforts of folklorist and SFA professor Dr. Francis E. “Ab” Abernethy, who transformed what was then a briar-choked dumping ground with the help of volunteers. “We worked on our hands and knees,” he says, “cutting the first trail by pushing a chain saw ahead of us.” Donations of lumber, labor, flowers, and money came pouring in. Even today, Abernethy continually orchestrates expansion and improvement projects.

As soon as we stepped onto the trail, the floral, woodsy scent of the foliage enveloped me. I stopped at a bench, closed my eyes, and inhaled deeply. A chorus of birdcalls, soft and melodic, combined with the baritone croak of frogs, the gentle buzz of bees, and the proud cry of a lone rooster to create a symphony of nature. Down the steep bank in front of me glimmered Lanana Creek, swollen thanks to the recent string of thunderstorms. The vibrant contrast of a crimson cardinal fluttering through the sea of greenery awakened me from my reverie, and we continued our trek down the trail.

We followed the trail to its outlet on Main Street, at the eastern end of the historic district. We crossed Main Street to visit the 1830s Sterne-Hoya House Museum and Library, housed in a white, clapboard structure that is Nacogdoches’ oldest home. Prominent merchant Adolphus Sterne, a financier of the Texas Revolution, lived here with his family until his death in 1852. A sign out front reads, “The door of Adolphus Sterne was ever open to all the world,” and indeed I learned that many famous revolutionaries, including Sterne’s good friend Sam Houston, frequently stayed here. We lingered over collections of early Texas clothing, jewelry, and decor, including one of the first pianos brought to Nacogdoches. I learned that several items, such as a pair of blue drop earrings and a matching brooch, were gifts from Houston to the Sternes’ daughter Eugenia, who shared Sam Houston’s birthday—March 2, Texas Independence Day.

Next, we ventured toward the brick streets of the historic downtown, which today offers a diverse assortment of retail shops, businesses, and cafés. We stopped first at The Cole Art Center @ The Old Opera House, a two-story structure originally designed by architect Diedrich Rulfs, who designed numerous structures throughout town. In perhaps the Opera House’s best-known story, the Marx Brothers were performing as singers here in 1912 when a distraction on the street inspired the brothers to turn to comedy to recapture the attention of their audience.

Thanks to a 1.7-million-dollar renovation and modernization in 2007, the building now houses an art gallery, and it gleams with such modern accents as stainless steel ceiling tiles, glass room dividers, recessed museum lighting, and blond maple flooring. Exhibitions rotate regularly; during my visit we enjoyed a display of paintings and sculptures from the private collections of Nacogdoches art aficionados, and the museum often brings in traveling international shows, as well.

Lunch called, so we ducked into Shelley’s Bakery Cafe, which is housed in a 19th-Century building just off Main. The café’s buttery yellow walls and original wood floors serve as a warm backdrop for owner Shelley Brophy’s collection of English and French antiques, modern decor elements, and original watercolors by 
Brophy’s mother, Peggy Fare, who also shows her works nearby at Pilar Street Antiques. I ordered a sandwich called the “Uptown”—a panini stuffed with artichokes, roasted red peppers, Greek olives, basil pesto, and tangy goat cheese—and soon deemed it one of the finest sandwiches to ever cross my lips.

After a full day of walking, I longed for a dip in Hotel Fredonia’s saltwater pool. As Matt and I floated in the pool, we gazed at the nine flags fluttering over the hotel’s patio. In addition to the flags of Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the Confederacy, and the United States, we spied the flags of Nacgodoches’ short-lived rebellions, The Gutierrez–Magee Republic, The James Long Republic, and The Fredonia Republic.

Later that evening, we walked across North Street a few blocks to Auntie Pasta’s, an Italian restaurant popular with residents and tourists alike. The building, which once housed the first refrigerated warehouse west of the Mississippi, sits only a few yards from an active railway, and regular patrons expect the building to shake a little when a train rumbles by. But enduring that quirk is well worth it, because we were rewarded with phenomenal food. We sampled creamy spinach-artichoke dip, a behemoth slab of lasagna, and a lighter dish of balsamic caramelized chicken and angel hair pasta with sautéed spinach, roma tomatoes, and garlic. Somehow (maybe the walking paid off after all) we still had an appetite for tiramisu and crème brûlée.

Back at Hotel Fredonia, we found Jazz on the Patio in full swing. This weekly live music offering spotlights both local and traveling musicians. We sat at a candlelit table among the giant oaks, which shimmered with hundreds of twinkling white lights. I detected a light floral aroma thanks to the verdant gardens brimming with camellias, azaleas, mandevilla, and a variety of herbs. The pool emitted a brilliant blue glow, the balmy breeze whispered around us, and the mellow jazz quartet filled the air with soft music.

I could get used to this town, which lives and breathes its past while seamlessly incorporating such a vibrant, contemporary vibe.

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