Each corner of Texas has its own spirit and traditions. Much of East Texas’ identity comes from rituals passed down from the diverse peoples who have lived in the area. All have left their distinctive mark on this region. Native Americans lived there for thousands of years. Europeans and migrating Americans settled in the region during the mid and late 19th century.
East Texas—the Piney Woods region of Texas—is an area of lush forest. This woodland is part of a larger system that encompasses Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. The landscape rises and falls with lower wetlands that produce hardwood trees such as elm, mesquite and ash. Around Caddo Lake, bald cypress trees clad in Spanish moss loom over the web of bayous, swamps and lochs. You can kayak on these waterways, fish, stay in a historic cabin or waterfront river house, camp or enjoy the beauty of nature.
Dallas artist David Bates took inspiration from the splendor and peace of Caddo Lake. He spent time there capturing its unique vibe. His paintings can be seen is in numerous museums across the country.
On Caddo Lake is the quirky town of Uncertain, Texas. An offbeat documentary, “Uncertain”, described by Roger Ebert as a “fantastic piece of observational filmmaking,” is about a small town “not on the way to anywhere.” It is a story you will not soon forget.
I decided to poke around this unique region of Texas. An added bonus in visiting the area are the nearby historic towns of Jefferson and Marshall. They have distinctive long-standing downtown districts with ample opportunities for dining and shopping which exude the essence of East Texas. Few, if any, such opportunities in Uncertain.
We stayed in a spacious river house jutting out over the Karnak River on the edge of Caddo Lake State Park. Through VRBO we rented a home known as Down-By-The-Lazy-River. It is spacious with a full wall of windows and glass doors and a huge upper-level balcony where you sit in a rocker, watch the water flow, the birds fly and the boats pass. (see a room with a view)
Caddo Lake is named for a south eastern Native American people. The shallow lake straddles the state line between Texas and northern Louisiana. It is dense with cypress trees, and evokes visions of a primordial forest. Truly a unique setting and a must for anyone who can get to it. If you like to kayak or paddle there are 50 miles of paddling trails in Caddo State park.
On our visit, we signed up for Captain Ron’s Swamp Tours, and enjoyed 2 hours seeing the lake and learning its history from Ron. Except for turtles sunning themselves little could be seen of the wildlife that day. Ron told us of the mink, the pileated woodpeckers, the snakes and of course the alligators that populate the lake. Ron’s tales of the history of the area—from the Native Americans to the great days of the riverboats to a now long-abandoned outdoor Disney studio and the fresh water pearls that may be found near the lake—made our two hours with him fly by. Ron hardly stopped talking the whole time, and all his stories were compelling.
Group tours are offered regularly, but we opted for a private tour. Ron even volunteered to host the tour on one of the days that they were usually closed. The broad pontoon boat with well-cushioned seats was quite comfortable. Certainly one of the best tours of its type we have experienced. We hope one day soon to return for an evening tour during a full moon and experience the magic of Caddo Lake at night.
The next day was spent touring Jefferson and Marshall.
Known as the queen of the bayou. Jefferson is steeped in well preserved history. In the mid-1800s, it was Texas’ most significant river port. It is located on the edge of Big Cypress Bayou. No one knows exactly when Jefferson was founded but it was named after Thomas Jefferson. It is a charming town loaded with bed and breakfast establishments and a delightful selection of shops and restaurants.
Some of the highlights of this town are:
Jefferson Historical Society & Museum. One of its highlights is the train exhibit at the back of the museum, constructed in 1888 – 1890 as a Federal Courthouse and Post Office, remaining in use until 1961. It was purchased by the Jefferson Historical Society in 1965.
The Grove is an 1861 historic home, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a Texas Historic Landmark. The house has also been called one of the most haunted places in Texas.
Museum of Measurement & Time is a family-run museum exhibiting historical timepieces and surveying paraphernalia.
Atalanta is Jay Gould’s Railroad Car. He was a leading American railroad entrepreneur and pioneer. His special train car “The Atalanta” is on display across from the Excelsior House Hotel on Austin Street. The private parlor car has a lavish interior with staterooms, lounge, a dining room, kitchen, butler’s pantry and ballroom. The train car is christened after a Greek goddess of speed.
The Historic Jefferson Railway follows the Big Cypress Bayou for approximately three miles. Privately owned, the train travels through the Piney Woods. Train excursions take approximately 45 minutes.
Scarlett O’Hardy’s Gone with the Wind Museum is loaded with movie memorabilia and books related to the film.
Historic Jefferson Ghost Walk. Jefferson describes itself as one of the most haunted towns in Texas. Every Friday and Saturday night, the guided 90-minute twilight/evening tours walk through dark passageways and courtyards recalling colorful historic accounts of mysteries, murders and ghostly encounters.
Old Mill Antiques boasts 22,000 sq. ft. of antiques.
If you are visiting Jefferson with a guy that needs a haircut Fugler’s is a great Barbershop. Fugler and Crooner have been working in this location for more than 30 years. Crooner gave my husband a marvellous haircut and the shop had a unique vintage feel to it with a wall of photos of previous clients.
For lunch we stopped on McGarity’s Saloon. Delicious new American dining in an historic setting, The Sesame Crusted Ahi Tuna was delicious! There are plenty of drink and lunch selections for anyone and the décor inside is highlighted by loads of vintage pieces on the walls and ceiling.
The historic downtown of Marshall, Texas is full of great restaurants and shopping. The Historical County Museum and the Michelson Museum of Art are well worth a look. We enjoyed a casual lunch at Cajun Tex restaurant the fish tacos and fresh vegetables were excellent and although they did not serve wine you were able to bring in your own.
For good or bad, the district court of Marshall is a “rocket docket,” known for its prompt disposition of cases that come before it. Lawyers travel here from all parts of Texas and beyond to file in Marshall to get a speedy resolution to their cases.
East Texas is a sometimes overlooked wonder. There are other unique towns here yet to discover so we will be back again in another season.