Friday, May 13, 2011

Denison, Texas

It was a wine cruise which got us motivated to visit Denison, Texas on the southern bank of the Red River standing guard against the Oklahoman hoards from overrunning North Texas. As most of you recall, Denison is the birth place of the 34th President of the United States, Dwight David Eisenhower. Denison is also the former home of T.V. Munson (see Texas Wine Country August 2010 Blog), savior of the French wine industry and the home of his Vivicultuer Center at the Grayson County College. Chesley Burnett "Sully" Sullenberger the “hero of the Hudson” graduated Denison High in 1969 and John Hillerman “Higgins” in the TV series Magnum, P.I. made Denison home. The President’s stay was brief, lasting only 3 years, he spent most of his early and adult life in Abilene, Kansas. Thus our visit to the historic home site in Denison.

The President’s father, David, came to Denison in hard times. He had tried his hand at building and owning a general store in their former Hope, Kansas home but Kansas in the late 1880’s was going through a drought and recession and the business failed. David and his wife Ida moved to Denison so David could take a job with the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad. For the next three years, David worked in the massive MKT railroad yard cleaning engines and rail cars. During that time, on October 14th, 1890, Ike was born.

The home, which was once a bustling workers neighborhood, now sits in a sprawling State Park. The home was actually a rental at the time of Ike’s birth and occupied up into the late 40s’. Acquired by the State of Texas in 1946 all of the surrounding homes were removed and it has been nicely restored to it’s former 1890’s look when the Eisenhowers would have been in the home.

The Eisenhower home is located a stone’s throw from the former MKT railroad tracks, which is the basis of Denison’s existence. The city of Denison was founded in 1872 and was named after the wealthy MKT (or it’s nickname the "Katy" line) vice president George Denison. Because the town was established at the intersection of the MKT and the Red River (both important conduits of transportation in the industrial era), it came to be an important commercial center in the 19th century American West.

So in a trip to the Red River Railroad Museum at the Katy Depot, we learned the MKT was established in 1870 and entered Texas in 1872. It was the principal rail line which crossed the then hazardous “Indian Territory” which is now modern Oklahoma. Denison was also the entry point of our very own St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad, the Frisco Line, that runs through our city (and it’s namesake), Frisco, Texas. Denison was such an early industrial and social hub, even John Henry "Doc" Holliday opened up a dental office in 1875 in Denison.

From 1915 until January 4, 1959, the Katy, in a joint venture with the Frisco Railway, operated the Texas Special. This luxury passenger liner ran from St. Louis to Dallas, Ft. Worth, and San Antonio. It sported rail cars with names like Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, David Crockett, and James Bowie. The Katy continued to push south through Dallas, Waco and Houston to end up in the real commercial prize, the Port of Galveston, then the most important port and access to the major shipping lines of the world throughout the early 1800’s up to the 1900’s. The railroad yards were big with one of the largest turntable and roundhouse in the west. They even had a factory for turning out their own engines and rail cars. The line prospered until being purchased by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1989.

Interestingly, since that time, much of the former Katy railroad bed has been absorbed into the Katy State Park along a large section of the Katy line in Missouri, the Katy Freeway in Harris County in West Texas, the Heights Bike Trail in Houston and a pretty cool walking trail in Dallas called the Katy Trail.

Across the road (and tracks) from the museum was another mark of the old west railroad connection to Denison. There sat the “Traveler’s Hotel” built in 1893 by Ernst Martin Kohl. It was the place to stay for railroad passengers for several years and has changed hands several times since. Kohl, a German sea captain, built this place to last. The National Register labels the architectural style Prairie, but if you've ever been to Central Europe, you'd think the building was a medieval fortress. The house is four stories tall, made of solid stone and timber and laced with wrought iron. It’s now in private hands and really needs a paintbrush applied to it.

All this running around made us (well…me) hungry and we sought out a decent eatery which led us to the former Tony’s Main Street Café. We quickly discovered Tony’s had moved causing a drive across town to it’s new location at the intersection of US 69 and S. Austin Ave., now Tony’s Restaurant. No Italian cuisine for this place just full plate local Texas faire. I had the BLT and Dianna had the Patty Melt. Both delicious amongst the slight disarray of the staff and facility. They had only been there for about a week and were still getting their sea-legs. The real treat was watching the portions of Chicken-fried Steak, mashed potatoes and green beans being laddled out to the four Denison firefighters sitting at a corner table. Wow, one order could have fed them all.

We made a lengthy stop at Fairview Cemetary. The first recorded burial was Harriet D. Morrison in 1882. The cemetary is cared for by the City of Denison. It is a typical Texas historical cemetary except for two glaring exceptions. The first is that it is one of only three Union War Memorials in Texas. “The Forgotten Soldier” is a monument dedicated to the memory of those Union Veterans of the American Civil War who were members of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) and the Woman's Relief Corps (the auxiliary of the G.A.R.) in 1906. It also contains the graves of six unknown Union soldiers behind it.

It reminds us that not all Texans wanted Texas to secede from the Union nor were they supporters of the Confederacy and slavery. In 1860, there were a total of twenty-eight counties comprising the population centers of the State of Texas. Of these twenty-eight, eighteen voted to leave the Union and join the Confederacy and ten voted to remain in the Union. Eight of these counties, including Grayson, were in North Texas, and two were in the San Antonio region.

The other jewel is the Weeping Angel statue. It is the work of a monumentalist (the proper name for people who make monuments) Frank Teich. Teich was an artist who was renowned for his monuments and did many pieces throughout Texas like the Confederate monument and the Fireman's monument on the capitol grounds at Austin and the Sam Houston monument in Houston, Texas. There are four examples of the Weeping Angels but this is one of the two angels which still have their extended arms intact.

Having sought all that Denison had to offer, we wended our way west to Pottsboro, Texas to the Tanglewood Resort on the banks of Lake Texoma. As the name implies, Lake Texoma is a huge man-made reservoir completed in February of 1944 which straddles the Texas-Oklahoma border. By crimping off two ends of the Red River, it created the nation’s 12th largest lake. With a maximum depth of 100 feet, it has about 1,250 miles of coastline. At 15,350 feet long and 165 feet high, Denison Dam is the world’s largest rolled-fill type earth embankment dam in the world.

We had been invited to the Landon Winery Wine Cruise so we made arrangements to stay at Tanglewood Resort so we could drink and not have to drive home. Tanglewood is a nice modern hotel serving primarily the fishing, boating and watercraft community. The rooms were sparse but well appointed and very clean. Clearly designed only for people who were going to spend time at the lake. The Resort was a sponsor of the cruise and offered a really great overnight rate.

At the appointed hour, the Resort provided a ride in their airport van down to the dock at  Highpoint Marina just below the Resort. There we checked in and received our selected wines, a chocolate Red dessert wine and a Sparkling White. Our royal barge was a two story houseboat with a covered upper deck and a cabin/seating main deck. We were greeted by our Captain and asked to join the other passengers on the upper deck for the safety talk.

There we could see that our fellow passengers had preceded us by a couple of hours and were already well anesthetized, some already with empty bottles on their tables. The Captain was a good old boy of few words. By his directions and cautions, he’s obviously done a few of these cruises before. He started off asking if we all knew where the various landmarks on the S.S. Minnow were (yes, it was scheduled to be a three hour tour of the lake) and was forced to point out the locations of Port, Starboard, Bow and Stern as well as the locations of the life preservers “in the event of an unfortunate water related incident” to his intoxicated minnions. He insisted that we remember these important facts in case “somebody fell overboard”. His concern was, in the event some poor soul left the confines of the craft, we could properly transmit the place where he was so he could successfully steer away from the now hapless passenger, “so I don’t run him over.”

Now having armed us with all the required information, our Captain then paused sullenly and emphasized one more important legal point. He stated,” One more thing, there’s no nudity in the harbor.” Realizing we may need more clarification, he added,” Well, there’s no nudity while we’re in the harbor, but once we’re clear of the breakwater, you can do whatever you want, I don’t care.” It was clear from his demeanor that this had been a sticking point in the past and needed stating. Oh yeah, and then, almost as a passing thought, he pointed to a ship’s wheel overlooking the bow and reminded us, “That wheel is connected to the one in the wheelhouse below so don’t mess with it while we’re moving or it’ll be hard for me to steer.” Once the Howells, the Professor, Ginger and Mary Ann made it on board, Gilligan slipped the lines and we were off.

Me contemplating the vastness of Lake Texoma
Dianna clutching her iPhone not to miss a text
As we jutted out into deeper water, it was still pretty warm but a slight breeze generated by our headway was just enough for us not to feel the Texas humidity that had persued us all day. Soon dinner was called and having strategically positioned ourselves right in front of the main cabin doorway, were able to beat the crowds and get the fresh crab cake appetizers and main course of pork slices with a dab of plum sauce, salad, sauteed mushrooms, and a cool mini-tart with a mint chocolate filling. Now thoroughly satisfied, we sat back and watched as the sun set, ready to extinguish itself for the night. We had finished off the sparkling wine and made serious inroads to the red as the inky darkness enveloped us with the occasional winking light of a fire ring on the beaches in the distance as we passed. A slow turn to port signaled the halfway point of the excursion, the early evening sky betraying a unique alignment of all the Solar System planets on an angle across the western sky on either side of a waxing cresent Moon.
Athwart this placid scene, we felt and heard a very solid “Thunk!” to the bow (I remembered the safety talk) and was followed by a just as abrupt deceleration of the Minnow. The Captain seated just behind us in the main deck wheelhouse popped his head out the window and quickly regained control of our now seemingly very vulnerable little watercraft still a serious swim from any shoreline. After a few moments, we were back up to speed and continuing on southbound back to our starting point, Highpoint Marina.

I, for one, couldn’t understand why we were still underway and had not stopped to do at least a cursory search for the offending object to determine what we had hit or, for that matter, if we were taking on water. It could have been an overturned boat or some other debris which was clearly a hazard to navigation. Not to mention it scared the crap out of everybody onboard. The commotion had caused the band to stop playing and the mostly in-the-bag revelers above to halt their off-key sing along. The other couple seated on the bow patio deck with us stopped their necking and we heard the woman ask out loud, “Where were those life vests again? (not paying attention at the safety talk) But after a quick walk around the bow, the Skipper returned to his post without another word.

The rest of our trip was tense but uneventful as we all contemplated whether sufficient care had been taken to assure we weren’t sinking and the obvious questions as what to do with the unused bottles of wine in case we had to abandon ship (these are serious, thought provoking questions I’m sure we all struggled with).

We finally rounded the breakwater and entered the open arms of Highpoint Marina once again. It was around 10 p.m. and the once bustling docks were now very subdued but gayly lit with lots of rope lights surrounding the various slips and the occasional couple dancing to some hautingly muffled Country song.

By the light of the owners flashlight (seriously, like Samuel Clemens calling out the rope knots on a depth line), we crept our way back to our departure dock and, once securely tied to the piling, we gathered our things to depart.

While waiting to disembark and still a little mystified about the crews behavior after the mishap, I couldn’t help myself. I made eye contact with our Captain and asked, ” Hey Skipper, ya think we hit an iceberg?” The Captain looked up from the helm with a look of distain gained from, oh, so many years on the high seas and having to respond to my poor attempt at landlubber humor, he merely peered over the rims of his marred spectacles and said, “Yep, probably an iceberg.” In the awkward silence that followed, we quickly made our way off the Minnow and onto the creaking dock toward solid ground.

The Resort returned us none the worst for wear and we slipped into our 5th floor room. Sleep came easily but staying asleep was difficult. The room had a very adequate air conditioner just below the window. At this magical time of her life, Dianna requires the room to be quite cool, even in the dead of winter. If allowed to arrange the controls unsupervised, she can get the temperature down in the teens. We sleep with our dogs in our bedroom at home and occasionally my chocolate Lab Marley looks askance back at me with a, “Dude, the dog house was warmer.”

Like Dr. Freeze, to maintain this arctic environment, the air conditioner had to work overtime. First the fan would start up and then the compressor would kick in sounding like the putt-putting engine of the African Queen as Bogart navigated Katherine Hepburn up the Ulanga River. All night long, I’d be pulling the blankets up to my neck and she would kick them to the foot of the bed. I could see my breath rise up as I cursed the menopause Gods.

It was a beautiful Mother’s Day that greeted us as we checked (and thawed) out. I promised my bride, mother of our children, a Cracker Barrel breakfast of Hashbrown Casserole and Pancakes. On our way east along Georgetown Rd., we were reminded of how this area was a closely guarded region by the early Texas militia. Pottsboro, then Georgetown, was one of many outposts along the Red River to guard the new Republic and protect these important commercial and transportation hubs from Native American raids. We passed an open field where once stood Fort Johnson guarding and patroling the old Preston Road (State Highway 289) which was an important commercial and military road which ran from the Red River all the way to Austin.

Once home, Mother’s Day turned into the announcement of Bin Laden’s demise. A great ending to a very interesting weekend. God bless those who put themselves in harms way to make us safe.


  1. Awesome story. I call this place Home! Glad you enjoyed your visit :)

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