Sunday, January 9, 2011

Emory, Texas

It’s winter in Texas and we now have to look cautiously at the skies prior to our weekend hops. Saturday turned into a beautiful, crisp North Texas day with the coming of freezing temperatures threatening to bring snow that night and the following day. Christmas had just passed and Santa had presented me with a Tom Tom GPS car navigator. Interestingly, in the note Santa left behind, he told me I was to use it on all future road trips or I would end up on his “naughty” list for the foreseeable future.  Something about driving at high speeds down dark forbidding roads with my head buried in my iPhone. He apparently gets around.

With the device, now named “Patty” in honor of our good friend in Vancouver, Washington, ensconced on the windscreen of the mighty Nissan Rogue looking like the bridge of the Enterprise, we headed out on another adventure. The naming is a reflection of our dear friend Patty’s distinctive personality. Patty is a rather fastidious person with a very keen and focused way of conducting herself. When I first met Patty, she had a housekeeper. She matter-of-factly told me, to ensure the housekeeper replaced all her knick-knacks back to their original location after dusting, she pointed out that she had strategically stuck little numbered stickers to the shelves and had placed corresponding stickers to the bases of her bric-a-brac. With Patty’s spirit in mind, we noted that the Tom Tom performs in a similar manner.

Let’s just say “Patty” is, how do I put this, full of zeal and very persistent in her directions. To test out the system, we purposefully made turns against her wishes. Each time, like a mother rebuking her child, Patty would recalculate our errant path and redirect us with a verbal tap on the shoulder to change course and get back on track. All that was missing was the ruler. It is a pretty cool piece of technology for the car.
On the advice of co-worker Greg, our travels took us to beautiful, bucolic, Emory, Texas. Greg’s grandfather and father were born and raised nearby and Greg had some pretty fond childhood memories of the place. Emory resides in East Texas smack dab between Lake Tawakoni and Lake Fork Reservoir. Originally known as Springville, it was named in honor of Emory Rains, a Texas patriot hearkening all the way back to the Mexican “occupation”, through the Revolution, to the early Texas Republic.

As a Senator in the Republic of Texas Congress, he helped pass the Homestead Act which, even today, has helped many first time and repeat homeowners in Texas. He was also deeply involved in the formation of  Rains County in 1870 of which Emory is the County Seat. So, of course, Emory has a modest Courthouse which still serves as a courtroom and houses some County offices.
Conveniently, when we got there, it was close to noon and we (well..I) was hungry and we had to find something to eat. Luckily, right across the street from the Courthouse, was Big Mouth Burger. Dianna had the Cheeseburger and I had the Philly Chicken sandwich. We shared the Sweet Potato fries. All were scrumptious and, I have to say, one of the best darn burgers and sandwiches we’ve ever had. And, like so many examples of “Mom and Pop” style eating establishments we’ve come across, lots of food and really inexpensive. Each sizable portion was only five bucks and we ended up taking some home with us. The ubiquitous sweet tea was richly flavored (a point of pride in any restaurant in Texas) and constantly flowing.

Now satiated with East Texas vittles, we moved onto the square to take in Emory. It is a small town and square mimicking the size of the County it represents. The  259 square mile Rains County was carved out from four other adjacent Counties (Van Zant, Wood, Hopkins and Hunt). The County holds about 11,000 people of which Emory holds about 1,500. Compared to Texas’ smallest County,  Rockwall , at 149 sq miles but with a population of about 43,000. Emory has its roots in the East Texas lumber industry in the early days of the Republic. Now the clear-cut lands are occupied by farms and vast ranch land.
When Emory became the county seat, the first courthouse was a log building. A second courthouse was built in 1872 but soon burned in 1879 (really common in those days). A third courthouse made of “ginger” brick (named for its color and place of manufacture, Ginger, Texas ), constructed in 1884, burned in 1890.  Rebuilt and completed in 1908 it burned again (can you believe it?). Thankfully, the steel vault, containing all the County records, survived all the fires and was the basis of the new 1908 Courthouse. It was ultimately torn down in 1928 and rebuilt to its current cruciform design (referred by some as a “Maltese Cross” design) in Classical Revival style. Yep, that’s seven Courthouses in 75 years.
Funny story, in 1964, the Courthouse was a cold and damp place to preside in and District Judge Bowman, on a particularly cold December day,  refused to conduct his Court until the County heated and air-conditioned the place. Ironically, his Honor would never appreciate the changes in that he took ill and died a short time later.

Curiously, because they built the Courthouse around the resilient vault, it precluded the architect from having a north entrance to the Courthouse. This lack of a north entrance is credited by locals, with the failure of the downtown square development.  The Texas Historical Commission awarded money to the County in 2001, which eventually led to the building’s full restoration. All the changes made since 1929 were torn out and the original architecture was restored.
On the other side of the square, I caught sight of some gaily attired young people on each corner of North Texas Street and Quitman Street (County Road 2795) waving at passing cars and holding out boots to passersby. All were wearing  Emory Rains High School (Go Wildcats!)  Letterman Jackets and some were wearing bright Sombreros. I approached one of the supervising parents and asked what was happening. She told me the Rains High School Spanish Club (cool, a Letterman Jacket for being in a club) was raising money to take a trip to Mexico City to try out their linguistic skills on the natives. To cheer them on, I opened my wallet and, once the moths cleared, handed over some cash. I had to snap a shot of club member Montaigne and his hat. Good Luck to them.
With little else going on in Emory, we took the opportunity to make a small deviation on the way home (with Patty’s approval of course) to check out a chocolatier on the way through Greenville, TexasI had been told about by a co-worker, Glynda. Mary's at Puddin’ Hill is a little shop and factory barely visible within yards of the eastbound I-30 on the frontage road. The assortment and way too happy employees were a great respite from the freeway noise outside. A huge assortment of chocolate concoctions from individually wrapped candies to big ‘ol boxes of all kinds of brittles, cakes and pies. We plied our way around the store which has been there in it's current location since 1975.

Originally a land grant of 625 acres in exchange for service in the Texas Revolution for Mary Horton’s husband James in 1840. Although not on the Texas State Historical site map, it had this plaque at the entrance:
The story goes that while climbing a hill to inspect their holdings, it was raining and the East Texas black earth squished beneath their boots as they went, causing Ms. Mary to exclaim, “Pa, walking up here's like walking on puddin’!”  The name stuck and the rest is history. The land was inherited in the 1940s by Mary’s great-granddaughter (and namesake) Mary Lauderdale. Ms. Lauderdale also inherited Mary’s much sought after fruitcake recipe which she made for friends who encouraged her to mass-produce the cake and turned it into a business.
There was an amazing array of finger foods to sample including a chili-pepper peanut brittle which innocently passed over your taste buds but then hit you at the back of your throat on the way down. The fudge left you breathless and of course, we took several samples home (some of which didn’t survive the hour’s trip back to the barn). An interesting bottled relish caught my eye, something called “Hill Country Caviar”. An interesting concoction with its primary ingredient being Black-Eyed Peas. For the uninitiated, Black-Eyed Peas (no, not the band) are a Texas staple and found in most native recipe books.
Apparently, during the Civil War (TWONA), it was quite common for Union troops to burn Confederate crops, but Union soldiers viewed the black-eyed pea as livestock feed and not an edible vegetable, so - legend has it - they spared the "cow pea". Southerners were so overjoyed to find the peas still in the fields, hungry and hard-pressed by the perils of war; they turned to the pea as a primary staple of sustenance.

In the 1940s, Elmore Torn, a Circleville, Texas citizen and father of actor Rip Torn of Taylor, Texas reportedly fabricated a tradition seemingly steeped in Southern pride, making it good luck to include black-eyed peas in a New Year’s meal as a way of insuring a prosperous year. It was actually Elmore’s PR stunt to increase his cannery business in Athens, Texas . But it seemed to catch on and you often see black-eyed peas as a regular menu item at restaurants and homes throughout this great land. Crazy, huh?
On the way through town, we stopped briefly in downtown Greenville, Texas, the County seat of Hunt County. It has a sprawling Moderne (yes, with an “e”) style Courthouse along our route built in 1929. Coincidentally, it too is the seventh Courthouse on that site starting out as a log cabin (sound familiar?) and being destroyed by fires over the years until a more resilient structure was built. I think the 1885 Courthouse was the best.

The Courthouse has a couple of the usual plaques and monuments around it, one of which is a sort of North Texas standard, the Audie Murphy monument. Although Audie, the most decorated US soldier in WWII, was born in Kingston, Texas just north of Greenville, his family moved through several communities in North Texas throughout his young life and many of those towns still have parks or museums celebrating his life. Coincidentally, his brother, Joseph Preston Murphy, was a Frisco Police officer who died in the line of duty January 29, 1968 in an automobile collision on the way to a call. Thankfully, his is the only name on our Police Officers Memorial (named “Transparent Strength” for the artist’s extensive use of glass) in front of our Police Headquarters.
Hunt County was named in honor of Memucan (don’t hear that name much anymore) Hunt, Texas Secretary of the Navy. Yes, the Republic of Texas had a Navy prior to Statehood and the Civil War (TWONA). The city of Greenville was named for General Thomas J. Green, a leader in the Texas Army in the war for independence from Mexico. He later became a member of the Congress of the Republic of Texas. Greenville really dodged a bullet because originally, the city was almost named “Pinckneyville” in honor of James Pinckney Henderson, the first Governor of Texas. I think they made the right call on that one.

In its early years, Greenville and Hunt County were known as the cotton capital of the world. The world's largest inland cotton compress was located in Greenville until it was destroyed by fire in the mid-1900s. Cotton has gone by the wayside and Greenville now touts some high tech firms as its primary employers. There was a darker time in its history when the town was famous (or infamous) for a sign that hung over Lee Street, the main street in the downtown district. Between the train station and the bus station, from the 1920s to 1960s, a banner read "Welcome to Greenville, The Blackest Land (referring to the East Texas black earth), The Whitest People". That politically incorrect sentiment was also printed on the city water tower. Thankfully, those days are over.

Patty brought us in on the Texas 302 which turns into Lee Street, the main drag of Greenville where the Courthouse resides. We stopped long enough to snap some photos and for my walk around the building taking in the ambiance and architecture. As we entered Greenville, I noted that the city fathers, like many large communities, laid out their fair city utilizing criss-crossing one-way streets. I know this eventuality usually causes Dianna a certain level of stress and concern whenever we arrive in such a place. This response is deep rooted in a traumatic event she experienced by my hand some 37 years ago.

Let me digress and allow yourselves to visualize the hands of the New Year’s clock winding backward like in “It’s a wonderful life” (1946). The time is 1973, Dianna and I are still dating in the time of polyester and platform shoes (pre-marriage, kids, dogs and cats) long before cell phones and GPS navigation devices. We are embarking on our very first road trip. It’s Spring Break and we decided to visit her half-sister Claudia and her family in Novato, California, a stone’s throw from San Francisco. Because her stepmother was a staunch Catholic, we were only able to make the trip if her sister Claudia swore on a stack of Bibles there would be separate accommodations so we wouldn’t be sleeping together. True story and no we didn’t.
The five-hour drive in my 1967 Rambler American two-door sedan (AM radio, under-dash 8-track tape) went without a hitch and we successfully found Novato and Claudia’s home. After spending the weekend with the family, we ventured out on our own into the big city. We hit all the usual tourist sites and after picking up a street guide from Fisherman’s Wharf, Dianna tried her hand at map and urban navigation from the right seat.

We were on the way to Coit Tower that beautiful 210 ft. tall obelisk on Telegraph Hill rising above the city below. Some of you might know it was a gift to the city by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy socialite who was a fireman groupie in the early days of the city's history. Coit Tower is a monument to the firefighters of San Francisco. Lillie was so active in her support for the firefighters, Knickerbocker Engine Co. No. 5 actually made her their mascot, if you will, and let her ride the truck whenever they responded to a fire. She died in 1929 and bequeathed the funds for the tower, which was completed five years later. The two best things about Coit Tower are the great Public Works Project (WPA) murals inside the tower and the lookout deck which has the most amazing vistas of the city-by-the-bay below.

Under Dianna’s direction, we got a little turned around and I decided to zig instead of zag and wound up making an ill-advised left turn onto a wide boulevard trying to double back to where I thought we needed to be. San Francisco is littered with one-way streets and I took that moment to turn onto what turned out to be the wrong-way on a one-way street. I was now bobbing and weaving in the face of blaring horns receding into our rear-view mirror as they passed like Steve McQueen prosecuting the classic chase scene from “Bullit”(1968). Finding the first right turn I could make, we escaped back into the anonymity of the city’s Warehouse District. None the worse for wear, we ultimately made it to the Tower and still have the Kodak 126 photos somewhere in the closet.

Since then, whenever we enter a new town, as soon as evidence of a standard Department of Transportation  “one-way” sign surfaces, Dianna’s head pops up from the comfort of the mono-chrome screen of her Barnes and Noble “Nook” (no more books-on-tape for us), her eyes narrow, pupils constrict and she begins scanning the concrete jungle surrounding us like a soldier “on point” looking for signs of ambush. Her observations take on the staccato pace of Patty (if Patty had a speech coach, I now know who they used) and she begins a running commentary of street conditions as if doing so will somehow ward off catastrophe.

As we passed a particularly interesting tattoo shop, the “Divers Dungeon” (Dianna has an affinity for tattoo shops which must be photographed with her iPhone), she asked to double back to get the shot.  As if on cue, as Patty is heard trying desperately to get us back on her well-chosen path, I made a quick left and another left without checking the street signs. Surprisingly, as if to tell me, “I told you so”,  I was greeted with silence from Patty and the growing sense of unease  intensified as I cruised along the left curb line returning to Lee Street. In my defense, the street was wide enough for a two lane roadway but someone had neglected to paint a center line masking it’s true function as a two-way street. This became apparent as I came to a stop at the red light glaring down at me before making my left turn back onto westbound Lee Street.

As I looked forward, I was greeted by the gleaming grille work of a southbound car in my lane of travel. Quickly reviewing my checklist of options, I elected to violate the Texas Vehicle Code again, turn left against said red light onto westbound Lee Street. In the past, at crucial times like these, Dianna could be seen reaching for the dash and stomping that phantom brake pedal we all have resting below our seat. She has mellowed over the years (or the result of the past angry debriefing exchanges which occur between us in such cases). Now she utters an almost inaudible sudden intake of breath. You know, the one you take just before the airbag deploys. In less time than it takes to tell, I made a quick stop for Dianna’s photo and hightailed it out of town as fast as Patty could find her voice again and call out (very sarcastically I might add), “Continue on Texas State Highway 302 for 3 miles to US 380”. I could sense Dianna’s eyes rolling over at my indiscretion and wonder at the surprisingly safe conclusion of our trip to Greenville.
Sunday, January 9th, 2011
Like a boomerang, thanks to GPS technology, Patty quickly returned us directly to the relative safety of our home, without further incident, where we unloaded our booty and relaxed in anticipation of the possibility of a soft snow the next day. Hey, it's Texas. If you don't like the weather, wait 15 minutes, it'll change.

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