I don’t recall learning Texas history when I was a child. I suppose that my private school didn’t deem it necessary. It wasn’t until I was teaching fourth grade that I began to glean a bit of information about our state, but even then my knowledge was somewhat incomplete. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, was filled with stories of our great state. Her relatives came to Texas before it was even a Republic and settled on about three hundred acres just north of present day downtown Houston along what is now the I-45 corridor. She grew up in the days of the city’s growth, attending public school and learning how to proudly sing Texas Our Texas. She celebrated Texas Independence Day as though it was the fourth of July. She was quite proud to have descended from one of the pioneer families of our great state and often regaled anyone willing to listen with recitations of how the place we call Texas came to be and the part that her grandparents played in its earliest days.
As Mike and I have traveled from one state park to another in our camping adventures we have learned more and more fascinating information about Texas. This past week we spent some time in Huntsville State Park with our long time friends, Monica and Franz. I hadn’t been there for probably fifty years. The last time that I had seen the park it was hot, overcrowded and filled with poison ivy. It never occurred to me to check it out one more time and I wasn’t particularly looking forward to our excursion there.
I need not have been concerned. Over time there have been vast improvements in the park as the state acquired more land. Today it is a lovely expanse that centers around Raven Lake. Because it is winter and school is still in session we found it to be quiet, serene and relatively uncrowded. With its proximity to Houston I suspect that it may be a bit more boisterous on weekends and in the summer, but our experience was quite grand. For once, the weather even cooperated with us. We enjoyed cool sunny days and cold crisp nights. It could not have been better for accommodating our daily walks and now that we are no longer sleeping on the ground we actually appreciated the chilly evenings as well.
My knowledge of Huntsville has been heretofore quite limited. I always glance at the gigantic statue of Sam Houston as we buzz past the town on our way to somewhere else. I know that there are two prisons there and a university known for its music and education departments, but I never bothered to stop to see what else the town was all about. I once attended a wedding on a nearby farm and my sister-in-law lived there for a time. Other than those facts I had little interest in touring Huntsville, not understanding that it has a rather interesting history centering mostly around the man who was the first President of the Republic of Texas.
But for a bitter rivalry between Sam Houston and Mirabeau Lamar the capitol of Texas might have been located somewhere in the vicinity of Harrisburg Blvd. in southeast Houston. That is where Sam Houston first served as the state’s leader after the victory at the Battle of San Jacinto. He had already had an incredible history before he even came to Texas, counting Andrew Jackson among his friends and having served as a lawmaker from Tennessee. His tendencies to drink in excess along with his many eccentricities got him into trouble over and over again. Going to Texas represented an opportunity to begin anew, just as it did for so many others. It was here that he finally made a name for himself that would be revered for all time even though those who knew him best understood that he possessed feet of clay that made him a noticeably imperfect man.
Eventually Texas became a state and Sam Houston, who had been the first President of the Republic, also served as governor. His time in office was cut short as civil war broke out all across the south. When the citizens of Texas were clamoring to join the rebellion by seceding from the union, Sam Houston urged them to stay out of the fray. His position was the unpopular one and over his objections the state of Texas rallied behind the other Confederate States. Sam Houston was unceremoniously driven from office and he and his family settled in Huntsville where he would spend the rest of his life farming and running a law practice. It is said that he was a frequent sight in the downtown area, visiting with friends and clients while whittling hearts and crosses for the children who passed by.
Luckily Sam Houston State University and the state of Texas have preserved the home and the grounds where Houston once lived with his wife and children, as well as the house where he died and was laid in state. His gravesite is located just a few miles away in Oak Lawn Cemetery. Of course there is also the gigantic statue that gazes over the highway like a guardian.
We toured each of these places and found them to be quite interesting and delightful. We particularly enjoyed the chickens and ducks who walk freely on the grounds of the Houston home that sits in the shadow of the university that was named for him. The serenity of the place provided us with an idea of what Sam Houston’s final years of life might have been. This larger than life character certainly had a mind of his own and was often consumed by demons but he seems to have found a modicum of peace in what he called the best house he ever had along with a woman who curbed his appetite for alcohol and ultimately led him to find religion.
The old square in downtown Huntsville where Sam once walked is now a mecca for quaint antique stores. In the midst of the kitschy shops is the oldest surviving family run business in the state, a law office that Sam Houston once frequented as a friend and colleague. He was a well known citizen of the town and he spent many an hour across from the courthouse greeting and talking with the citizenry as he grew older. By then he was calmer than he had once been and I suspect that he had tales from his life that were quite entertaining. The old downtown area is still a great place to spend an afternoon searching for a hidden jewel in one of the many shops and enjoying a cup of coffee or maybe even a piece of pie at the local restaurant that has been a fixture since the nineteen thirties.
I am glad that I learned more about Huntsville, the town that lies just eighty miles north of my own home. There is a great deal more to it than I had ever imagined. It’s definitely worth taking a bit of time to explore on a weekend or for a few hours when traveling to other destinations. Who knew?