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Icing on the cake

Mount Vernon's Restorative Charm
Written by Randy Mallory. Photographs by Randy Mallory.

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M.L. Edwards & Co. mercantile on Mount Vernon’s downtown square could double as a museum. Wooden cabinets that once displayed hardware items line one wall of the 1900 building, and an original freight elevator, operated by a hand-pull rope, still reaches the second floor, which used to be a funeral home.

Mount Vernon

For Mount Vernon tourism information, including lodging and events, contact the Mount Vernon Main Street Alliance at 903/537-4070; or the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce at 903/537-4365.

“This was a place where you could buy things in ‘ones,’ not mass-produced packaging like today,” says proprietor Mike Edwards, who stocks gifts and collectibles in the two-story, redbrick structure that his grandfather built.

In many ways, Mount Vernon, located about 100 miles northeast of Dallas, embodies this authentic old-fashioned charm. Around the town square, multiple historic buildings have been restored and adapted to new uses—from businesses to shops and museums—serving as a picturesque backdrop for a thriving schedule of fairs, markets, and street parties.

“It seems like there’s always something happening on the square,” says Edwards, a former Mount Vernon mayor. “It’s a fun place to be. And we’re getting a whole new generation of people coming in.”

Queen of the scene is the Classic Revival-style 1912 Franklin County Courthouse. The paint is barely dry on the edifice after a $6.9 million restoration, inside and out, directed by the Texas Historical Commission. The limestone columns and district courtroom proved so nostalgic that producers of the 2015 movie Spirit Riders, starring actor C. Thomas Howell, shot scenes at the building. Topping the courthouse is a cupola with a hand-wound clock that keeps time over a grassy lawn with a pecan- and oak-shaded gazebo, walkways, and benches.

The square fills with locally grown fruits and vegetables at the weekly Mount Vernon Farmers Market during growing season, May to October. Another popular event is CountryFest, held annually on the second Saturday of October for the past 40 years, with a stew cook-off, car show, kids games, “42” dominoes tournament, and live music.

Wine also brings crowds downtown. Several years ago, Mount Vernon proclaimed itself the “Wine Tasting Capital of East Texas” and began hosting the Piney Woods Wine Trail Festival (third weekend in May) and Wine in the Pines (fourth weekend in October). The square rings with glass clinking as about 20 regional wineries offer tastings.

As with fine wine, all of this hubbub comes at the end of hard work and a good harvest. A concerted effort by local business, civic, and historical groups—with government help—has reinvented the seat of one of Texas’ tiniest counties. Over the last two decades, grants and loans helped 40 businesses repurpose or rehabilitate neglected structures throughout town, setting the stage for a steady tourist trade. If you take the driving tour of 60 homes built before World War I—each marked by a historical sign—you’ll see why the Texas Historical Commission honored Mount Vernon’s preservation initiatives with a “First Lady’s Texas Treasures Award” in 2009. (Driving-tour maps are available at the Mount Vernon Main Street Office in City Hall and at the Franklin County Historical Association.)

Around the town square, multiple historic buildings have been restored and adapted to new uses—serving as a picturesque backdrop for a thriving schedule of fairs, markets, and street parties.

Preservation is part of the local DNA, says B.F. Hicks, attorney and historian, whose preservation efforts extend to his family’s Daphne Prairie, one of the state’s largest remaining tallgrass prairies. Located about seven miles northeast of town, Daphne Prairie is distinguished in part by its mima mounds, which are naturally forming swells that have survived because some sections have never been plowed or grazed. The prairie is also a haven for grassland birds, such as the eastern meadowlark and the northern bobwhite. (For tours of the prairie preserve, call 903/537-2264.)

The widespread economic devastation of the Great Depression took its toll on Mount Vernon, Hicks notes. Local home and business owners couldn’t afford new construction, so they maintained the buildings they had—the very same buildings that have now been restored and repurposed.

“Nothing gets old if you tear it down,” Hicks says. “Our town has had an appreciation of historic buildings for decades.”

That appreciation rings true on a walk around downtown. Two 1890s commercial buildings house the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce and the regional archives of the Franklin County Genealogy Society. The Franklin County Library occupies the former First National Bank building, a 1900 structure that was renovated with an eye toward maintaining its architectural details, including light fixtures, intricate coffered ceiling, and marble counter. Several early 20th-Century rehabilitated brick buildings house shops catering to locals and tourists, among them Coe & Co. with its antiques, gifts, and furnishings, and Saucy Ladies, a clothing boutique.

A block south of the square, the 1940 native-stone firehouse is now the Old Fire Station Museum. Downstairs exhibits feature sports and entertainment memorabilia of native son Don Meredith, the legendary Dallas Cowboys quarterback who signed with the team before it was even an official NFL franchise. He later became an actor and sidekick commentator of Howard Cosell on ABC’s Monday Night Football. The museum’s upstairs exhibits couldn’t be more different. A dimly lit, climate-controlled showroom displays the eggs of 200-plus bird species, including the extinct passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet, and heath hen. Gathered before the hobby was outlawed in 1918, the collection was donated to Mount Vernon by a descendant of A.W. Nations, a butterfly collector whose cases of 75 butterfly species line the walls.

The Old Fire Station Museum also arranges tours of other Franklin County Historical Association sites, including the restored 1894 Cotton Belt Railroad Depot museum, the 1883 Majors-Parchman Farmstead, and the 1868 house of Colonel Henry Clay Thruston, a Civil War veteran notable in part for his height of seven feet and seven inches. His homestead features period furnishings, a picnic pavilion, and a nature trail.

Historic preservation in Mount Vernon got a dose of culture a decade ago when local classical musicians and fans created Mount Vernon Music, a nonprofit performance hall in a converted 1907 church. Roughly once a month, from September through May, audiences fill vintage pews in the small ex-sanctuary for intimate performances. The resident Orchard Ensemble, comprised of professional musicians from the region, perform many of the classical shows. The hall has also hosted other groups, ranging from the Wyeth String Quartet of Fort Worth to the Texas Gypsies, a swing-jazz band from Dallas.

For a meal rich in Mount Vernon’s culinary heritage, try the Cake Lady Bakery Cafe, which serves down-home country favorites in the home of the former Alp Cafe (the Alp’s classic neon sign still shines out front). Lunch means blue-plate specials featuring meatloaf, chicken and dumplings, and the like, as well as plate-size chicken-fried steaks and homemade hamburgers on house-baked buns. Donna Manincor, who picked up her “Cake Lady” nickname as a vendor at the Mount Vernon Farmers Market, fills her bakery case with fruit pies, nut pies, and tall iced cakes—strawberry, chocolate, and Italian cream. Weekends bring giant cinnamon rolls, soft on the inside and cinnamon-nutty on the outside. When they’re gone, they’re gone.

“People always say Mount Vernon is like Mayberry,” says local resident Stephanie Hyman, referring to the idyllic setting of the 1960s TV hit, The Andy Griffith Show. Stephanie’s husband Brad grew up in Mount Vernon; the couple moved back four years ago and bought and restored several early 1900s redbrick structures on the square. With high ceilings and windows looking out on the square, the historic Hill Building now dishes up enchiladas and chile rellenos as 3 Brothers Mexican Grill. Stephanie says rehabilitation work is almost done on the historic Fleming Building, ready for a new tenant that will help fulfill the Hymans’ dream for downtown.

“We want to keep Mount Vernon like Mayberry,” she adds. “We want the square to be a place for locals and tourists to come together and enjoy real small-town hospitality.”

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From the November 2015 issue.

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