Meet in the Middle: Huntsville, TX is the Perfect Trip from Dallas, Houston, or Austin
TEXT AND PHOTOS BY PETE GERSHON
Nestled between Dallas, Austin, and Houston, lies the historic and quirky town of Huntsville. Appealing to aficionados of antiques, architecture, and the arts, as well as to connoisseurs of down home cooking and students of Texas history, this sleepy little town is the kind of place where everyone seems to know everyone, and its homespun charm provides a refreshing respite from the hustle and bustle of the big cities.
Tall, concrete, and handsome: Huntsville’s 67-foot-tall Sam Houston statue greets visitors to Huntsville. SAM HOUSTON STATUE AND MEMORIAL MUSEUM
Before you even get to Huntsville, you’ll see it from a mile away, since General Sam Houston looms large over his former hometown—literally. The two-time president of the Republic of Texas is memorialized with “A Tribute to Courage,” a towering 67-foot concrete statue by artist David Adickes. The second-tallest freestanding statue in the country (eclipsed only by the Statue of Liberty) has greeted travelers arriving on I-45 since its erection in 1994. There’s no need to fumble for your camera while you’re behind the wheel, however. Pull into the visitors’ center to see a recreation of Sam’s living room, then pose with a duplicate of the statue’s head perched at ground level along the short trail that leads to the monument.
History buffs will appreciate the Sam Houston Memorial Museum, which celebrates Houston’s life as a frontiersman, as a legislator, and ultimately, as a defender of the union. Hundreds of artifacts are on display, but none are more memorable or apropos than the leopard skin vest worn by the politician who vehemently refused to change his spots.
The New Zion Missionary Baptist Church grills up barbecue heaven on earth. EXTRA SAUCE, PLEASE
There’s one question on everyone’s mind when they visit a small Texas town: Where’s the barbecue? If you’ve got a Zipcar and you’re up for a drive, head to the one-of-a-kind Church BBQ, which has served up “heavenly food cooked by earthly angels” from the parking lot of the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church for over 40 years. Pitmaster (and Mt. Zion reverend) Clinton Edison mans the grill for lunches and dinners from Thursday to Saturday, and the proceeds support the church’s community activities. Reverend Clinton’s chicken, pork ribs, and brisket have been hailed as being among the best in Texas, but don’t forget to leave room for the buttermilk pie.
Taste a slice of Huntsville with flavors like buttermilk and vinegar pecan at City Hall Café and Pie Bar. Oh, and speaking of pie, the City Hall Café and Pie Bar is one of Huntsville’s newest eateries, with time-tested favorites like chicken fried steak and grilled pork chops alongside just about every kind of pie you can think of…and some you can’t. The vinegar pecan pie, for example, puts a tangy new spin on an old classic.
Worldly yet isolated, Huntsville’s antique stores provide a one-of-a-kind selection.EXPLORING DOWNTOWN
Huntsville has a reputation for being a mecca for antiquing, and you’ll find shops overflowing with curios, geegaws, and bric-a-brac all up and down 11th street. Whether you’re in the market for vintage glassware, out-of-print books, or even a longhorn cow skull for the living room wall, you won’t walk away disappointed. Jennifer Boyd’s Frippery Vintage draws upon her post-graduate study at Sotheby’s Institute in London and draws its inventory from both local flea markets and buying trips to places as farflung as Rome and London. On the other end of the block, Callie Magee Antiques has a little bit of everything, but specializes in prom dresses from the fifties, flapper dresses from the twenties, and Victorian lingerie and hats.
Downtown murals by Richard Haas bring three dimensions to flat surfaces.The downtown area features a proliferation of outdoor murals by the world-renowned artist Richard Haas, over a dozen in all. His trompe l’oeil approach often tricks the eye into seeing three-dimensional architectural details around windows and doorways, not to mention his elaborate Tudor-style façade and movie theatre marquee. Of course there is a gigantic Sam Houston mural depicting the local hero in three stages of life, and Haas’s tribute to Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter memorializes a blues giant who for a time was a guest of the Huntsville State Prison—until, as he liked to tell his audiences, he “sang his way out.”
From reclaimed wood to recycled bottles, Dan Phillips gives materials a new life in new homes. As you make your way through the neighborhoods north of downtown, you may notice some unusual houses that seem to have used fairy tale illustrations for blueprints. These are the handiwork of visionary builder Dan Phillips, whose operation the Phoenix Commotionrepurposes cast-off materials and gives them new life in homes for artists and other low-income community members. One of Huntsville’s most colorful personalities, Phillips taught himself to build houses after successive careers in modern dance, military intelligence, and furniture restoration. Reclaimed items such as bones, bottles, corks, Pyrex cookware, and clearcut bois d’arc logs give these unreal estates their distinctive appearance.
Eclectic Coffeehouse serves up coffee and classes under one creative roof. Need a java break? Tamara Chasteen’s Eclectic Coffeehouse serves up organic coffee from 9 to 5, with a vegan lunch menu made from scratch daily, often using locally harvested produce. The adjoining gallery offers pottery, jewelry, tie dyes, and batiks, as well as evening classes in weaving, macramé, beading, and leather works, and studio space that can be rented by the hour, if you’re feeling crafty. Don’t miss out on the Creative Community Chill on Friday evenings, with live music and conversation. It won’t be long before you feel like a local, too.
Bordering the city on two sides, Huntsville State Park covers 2,000 acres of woods and water. HUNTSVILLE STATE PARK
Be forewarned, the people of Huntsville take their Sundays very seriously as a day of rest. (On one recent Sunday, roosters outnumbered humans two to one on the town square.) Quite a few of the shops and restaurants are closed on Sundays, which makes it a great day to tour the museums or take off into the great outdoors.
Situated on over 2000 acres with 21 miles of trails, Hunstville State Park offers a chance to get up close and personal with the wildlife of the East Texas Piney Woods. Enjoy trail rides on horseback; watch for hawks, egrets, and great blue heron; or tread lightly with fox, deer, and armadillo on the two-mile Big Sandy Loop. The manmade Lake Raven features a boat ramp and fishing piers; swimming and canoeing are popular activities, but this lake’s trophy Largemouth Bass make it a destination shot for anglers from all over the region. Look out for alligators! (Don’t worry, the park offers gator safety tips.)
The Texas Prison Museum goes beyond the bars to illuminate the daily lives of captivity. BETWEEN THE BARS
The Texas Prison Museummay not sound like a barrel of laughs—and it’s not—but it is a fascinating exhibition space that memorializes the lives behind bars. While displays about prisoners’ last meals and an electric chair named “Ol’ Sparky” are certainly as somber as it gets, objects that typify the many inventive ways in which inmates have pursued sports, music, education, and the arts in captivity (including a ladies’ handbag fashioned from Camel cigarette packets and a handmade board game titled “Prison-opoly”) celebrate the resilience of the creative human spirit. For a dollar, you can don striped prisoner garb and have yourself photographed in a replica jail cell. You’ll feel free like never before when you return to your car in the parking lot.
Built just before the outbreak of the Civil War, the Whistler Bed and Breakfast is a five-generation family home situated on three wooded acres (and yet only two blocks from the center of town). Private baths and original antique furnishings engender a sense of timelessness, and hostess Mary Clegg will eagerly share stories of her family’s heritage.
Also centrally located, the Smither Family Bed and Breakfast offers lodging immediately upstairs from antiques row on 11th Street, and boasts one of the most extensive collections of folk art in the state. It seems that in Huntsville, a step back in time is only an afternoon’s drive away.