Sunday, March 31, 2013

Palestine, Texas

Palestine, Texas (pronounced Pal-uh-steen) "The Hillbilly Capital of East Texas", Palestine was named for Palestine, Illinois, by early settler Daniel Parker. Interestingly, French explorer Jean Lamotte gave the Illinois Palestine
(common pronunciation Pal-es-tine) the name as it reminded him of the promised land of milk and honey, as written in the scriptures. Thus, the insufferable need for Texans to redefine the language and changing the pronunciation remains a mystery to all.

In 1846, the Texas Legislature created Palestine to serve as seat for the newly established Anderson County. James R. Fulton, Johnston Shelton and William Bigelow were hired by the first Anderson County commissioners to survey the surrounding land and lay out a town site, consisting of a central courthouse square and the surrounding 24 blocks. It grew significantly following the arrival of the railroad in the 1870s.

Arrival of the International-Great Northern Railroad in 1872 led to the demise of local river shipping along the seasonally high Trinity River, as the railroad opened year-round travel. The railroad also changed the face of the town, since the line bypassed the courthouse hill and built its shops, switching yards, and offices on level ground nearly a mile to the west. Palestine is also the site of the Texas State Railroad Museum, now a state park, which operates steam excursion trains between Palestine and Rusk

By 1896, a new depot had been constructed. Large quantities of cotton, lumber, cottonseed oil, and fruit were shipped from Palestine. During the 1880s and 1890s stores, saloons, and lodging houses rapidly formed a new business district by the tracks. This resulted in two business districts, Old Town and New Town, a designation still used today.

Like many Texas towns, the discovery of oil in the late 20’s diversified the town's economy and carried Palestine through the Great Depression. Several producing fields were later found in Anderson County, and Palestine became a center for oil well servicing and supplies.

Palestine made the news in February 2003, as one of the East Texas towns that received much of the debris from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. In honor of the seven astronauts killed, they renamed the NASA Scientific Balloon Facility to the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, which routinely flies weather, and other atmospheric research balloons from the site.

The largest employer is the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which employs more than 3,900. Another 1,600 work at two Wal-Mart distribution centers. The Powledge Men’s Prison is a remarkable assemblage of three separate campuses who’s industrial capacity provide steel products for everything from replacement and construction items for the Texas Prison system to repair facilities for the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). Named after Louis C. Powledge, a former Assistant Director of Contract Construction, it consists of Beto, Coffield, Gurney and Michael units. Coffield is the TDCJ's largest prison with about 4,200 prisoners. The complex also has an extensive prison farm to supplement its food supply.

Being the county seat of Anderson County, Palestine has a very nice Courthouse on a hilltop at the center of “Old Town”. Of course, being a Saturday, it was not open and I can only show you the interior of the 1914 Renaissance Revivalist style building with its judicious use of brick and stone through the eyes of  Terry Jeanson who was able to capture the interior dome skylight, courtroom and the unusual painted floor mural at the base of the spiral staircase. You might note this courthouse was designed by Charles Page and is almost a twin of the Williamson County Courthouse he designed back in 1911 we saw in Georgetown, Texas with Silvia and Scott.
We kind of lucked out in that the day we decided to find Palestine, was the second weekend of The Dogwood Trails Festival, which occurs each Spring, the last 2 weekends of March and the 1st weekend in April.

The best moment of the trip, was when we had left the courthouse because Dianna had to find a bathroom….yeah, ever had this happen? I’m playing junior historian taking my typically visually stunning photos (ala Ansell Adams..if he shot color I mean) of the courthouse exterior.

As I return to the front to cull the best shot of the rising portico before me, I caught a flash of gesturing from Dianna like she was trying to get the attention of a passing Bruce Willis. I put up a finger to pause her gesturing to give her the, “I need a minute to place the shot that may get me that photography ribbon at the County Fair” look. But Dianna calls out that this was a “we need to go now” demand not a request as she dove into the front passenger seat of the Rogue like Special Agent Parr rushing Reagan into the Presidential Limo.

I have seen similar behavior before and realize this is a Code 3 bathroom call, which cannot be delayed further. We wisk off as I’m dialing in Patty to search for nearby restaurants like a Shuttle pilot working in a course correction. The first selection was closed and the second was a neat place called The Ranch House in the heart of the Old Town park area. I stopped long enough for Dianna to hop out and, after locating parking, joined her in the restaurant. They had a really strong basic southern menu heavy on steak (chicken fried and otherwise) and seafood with an ample selection of comfort foods like cornbread, green beans and fried okra. This is the “new” Ranch House, the first burned down in 2010 and they’ve been reopened a little over two years. I had the grilled Tilapia and Dianna had the chicken fingers. Nice portions.

Oh yeah, best moment was when the country-pretty young woman server came up for our order. Not knowing about the festival, Dianna asked her what it was all about.  Without missing a beat, she put her hands on her hips and with the best “Well, bless your hearts” smile southerners do with friendly condescension to all non-southerners, “Ya’all aren’t from around here, are you?” At times like this, in my weak attempt to bridge the regional gap, I usually remind people that we were originally from Southern California and not the dreaded “Yankees” we appear to be. But, in this case, I demurred as she went on to explain we had stumbled onto their world-renowned Dogwood Trails Festival. In its 75th year celebrating a new Texas Spring and the blossoming of the Dogwoods native to this part of east Texas. Finished at the Ranch House, we waddled down the hill and back up to “New Town” to visit the street fair going on.

Leap of Faith today
Palestine has tried very hard to keep its downtown vibrant and has invested heavily in art as well as restoring old buildings. Most of the sculptures are mounted on 3-foot-tall custom stands of three vertical train wheels positioned on a concrete base or pad. The stands will remain a part of the downtown landscape as a reminder of the town's railroad heritage and to display annual shows of sculpture artists. One of these is something called Leap of Faith by Diane Von Buren a renowned public space artist and designer.

Leap of Faith in better days
The city refers to the public art as Art Tracks, an outdoor sculpture exhibit at several prominent locations in the historic Main Street District of downtown Palestine. Union Pacific Railroad Company has a huge rail yard, train siding and depot at the south edge of downtown and its suppliers donated the railroad wheel stands.

This one, in front of the Redland’s Hotel is called “Sitatunga” by Dan Pogue. Pogue’s new series of animals are mostly African inspired with a contemporary flair. Pogue uses shapes and spaces to make the form of the animal. Some, like Sitatunga, are polished bronze. Pogue takes solid pieces and carving out “negative spaces” creates the overall image.

The street was full of happy street fair goers but one vendor caught Dianna’s eyes. She is and always has been a closet cotton candy purveyor. That bright fuzzy pink and blue stuff attracts her like a bug light to a moth. And, like most addicts, she made some kind of excuse that buying this intoxicating mana benefited the local high school prom fund. Yeah…. right, how many times have you heard that one.

After buying up some vendor trinkets, perusing the finest in fancy jewelry and velvet paintings, having made our way to the west end of the Festival, we were halted in place with the smell of a fried food vendor with a row of fryers reminiscent of the locks of Panama putting out the same texture of smoke enveloping you whenever the mosquito spray truck came through your neighborhood, dunking every conceivable vegetable, meat and condiment you can conjure up in your mind.

What caught our collective eyes was the most beautiful funnel cake I have ever seen. Let me explain, Funnel Cake is our emotional comfort food from our earliest days together. Those of you who recall the food lane at the San Diego County Fair at the Del Mar Fair Grounds (with the now politically correct name of Commercial and Food Space..Ha!) know what I’m talking about. From our early dating days which melted into our married years, the Fair was the place you could find great greasy fried food you couldn’t get anywhere else.

One of those standards was the fried Funnel Cake. Year after year, the sickly sweet smell of cake batter tossed into “seasoned” fryers (which probably contain the same oil from years past), the temperature of the sun, coated with a snowbank of powdered sugar, always brings us back to our past and dredges up memories, both good and bad.

Involuntarily initiating a running video with momentary flashes of  days with loved ones gone by, friends, the children that grew up too fast, like some cinematic measure of one’s life. But always coming back to waiting in line while holding the hand of the girl you ended up marrying and fading back to now with the same image of powdered sugar coating you and her impossibly maneuvering to keep the sugar from hitting you, among a bunch of strangers waiting for their turn to experience the same wonderful feeling….even if only for a moment. A wonderful end of the day in an iconic east Texas town on the verge of the Piney Woods, Palestine, Texas.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Cruise take 4

Like prisoners given a reprieve, we made our way back to the awaiting Rogue and after punching in our next destination, Georgetown, Texas, we were off to visit our longtime friends, Scott and Silvia.

Georgetown was named for George Washington Glasscock (he must have had a terrible childhood) who donated the land for the new town. Georgetown is the county seat of Williamson County, which was formed on March 13, 1848 after early settlers peptitioned the State to create it outr of Milam County. The county was originally to have been named San Gabriel County, but was instead named after Robert McAlpin Williamson (aka Three-Legged Willie), a Texas statesman and judge at the time.

Ok…if you must know, Williamson got his name because, at the age of 15, he contracted tubercular arthritis that caused his right leg to permanently stiffen at a 90 degree angle. In order to walk, a wooden leg had to be fastened to his knee. Because of this, he later acquired the nickname "Three-Legged-Willie" (I was really hoping for something more interesting).

Scott and Silvia live in one of Del Webb’s Sun City senior developments in Georgetown on the outskirts of the Texas Hill Country. Residency is restricted to persons over age 55, or in the case of couples, one of which must be 55 years of age. Sun City is made up predominately of single-family dwellings, but also has a small number of duplexes. Total buildout will be 7,500 homes for about 14,000 residents.

Interesting thing is the power of these Seniors.Because of its size relative to the city (pop. about 47,000) and the high growth rate within Sun City, the project has a significant impact on the local demographics. In elections, voter turnout in Sun City precincts typically exceeds 90 percent. As a result of redistricting of council districts in 2011, two of the six single-member city council districts are composed predominantly of Sun City residents, and the current mayor, George Garver is a Sun City resident and was a former city councilmember.

Georgetown is a bedroom community just north of Austin in the I-45 corridor. It is the County Seat of Williamson County and has been around since the 1840s. Thus it has a wonderful town square with a cool Courthouse. Of course, like many other county courthouses, Williamson County has seen several courthouses over the years. Humble beginnings as a small log cabin courthouse and replaced with larger and more formidable brick and stone buildings. The current courthouse was built in 1910 and has since been replaced by a new brick and glass Justice Center just outside of downtown.

Remodeled back in 2007 as part of a statewide historical preservation effort post-9/11, the present Greek Revival Courthouse was envisioned in the summer of 1909 when the County Court concluded that the 30-year-old Victorian Courthouse built in 1877 was no longer safe. The 1910 courthouse, designed by premier architect Charles Page, no longer hears cases but retains a restored original courtroom and still holds some County offices as well as the Commissioner's Court chambers.
Before restoration 2005

The triple arched stone entryways lead to galleries on four sides and above these passageways are sets of four Ionic columns reaching to the upper floors. The large copper dome is topped by a figure of Justice and large clock faces are inset on each side of the dome. Cornices around the dome are finished in dentil stonework.

After in 2007
Originally, this structure had massive, carved marble pediments above each of the porticoes. The roofline around all four sides was encircled by a balustrade. Once spoken of as the "centerpiece" of downtown Georgetown, the facade was ordered changed in 1965 when a few of the baluster railings became loosened. The entire balustrade and the elaborate marble pediments were removed and eventually destroyed and were replaced by plain beige brickwork. In the 2007 restoration, the balustrades and pediments were beautifully restored to the original 1910 design.
Silvia and I checked out the restored courtroom with its south-facing Judge's bench (a tradition of post-Civil War, sorry TWONA, era courthouses as an allegory of eternal Southern loyalty), jury box, gallery and gem of a classic turn-of-the-century courtroom with a second floor mezzanine.

There were terrazzo floors throughout, made of bits of marble and granite, cemented and polished, the curved stairways with iron grille railings, the stately rotundas capped with a copper dome. We spoke with one of the employees who told us the well appointed yellow pine paneled interior, with fine oak trim, was restored to it's early 20th century glory by a California based company, one of the few that specializes in courtroom restorations.

Down the street, was an imposing fortress-like structure which was the former County Jail. The land for the jail site was David Love's wagon yard which was purchased through the donation of funds by prominent Williamson County residents. The first jail was one of Mr. Love’s wagons turned upside down over the prisoner with a guard perched on top.

The first 1848 structure was of poor design and many inmates were able to escape. Originally built as a wooden building in 1848 and replaced with the current limestone structure in 1888. It’s unique appearance is characterized by it’s designer as a French “Bastille” style construction.  It is now used as an office annex of the Williamson County and Cities Health District.

The historic Williamson County Courthouse was the scene of one of Texas’ most notable dismissals of a long running murder case from 1987. Michael Morton Wrongfully convicted in 1987 in Williamson County of the 1986 murder of his wife Christine Morton. He spent 25 years in prison before he was exonerated by DNA evidence identified under the direction of OJ attorney Barry Scheck’s Innocence Project which supported his claim of innocence and pointed to the crime being committed by another individual. Morton was released from prison on October 4, 2011.

Morton was arrested and charged with beating his wife to death in 1986. He was convicted in 1987 and sentenced to life in prison, but was exonerated after DNA evidence proved that he was innocent. Current Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley (who worked under Anderson when he was the DA) "tenaciously fought" DNA testing for six years before a judge finally ordered the tests. Morton was freed after DNA tests linked another man, Mark Norwood, to Christine Morton's murder. Norwood, a Bastrop, Texas dishwasher who lived in Austin in the mid-1980s, has been charged in the 1986 murder of Christine Morton. He’s also a suspect in the 1988 murder of Debra Baker in her Austin home. Both women were beaten to death in their beds. Little comfort to Baker's daughter Caitlin and son Jesse who, like others, feel their mother might still be alive if the police had followed the clues they had at the time, which may have led to the new suspect, Norwood, sooner.

The prosecuting attorney on the case was Ken Anderson the then Williamson County District Attorney. Because of his 100% conviction rate and strong anti-crime stance, Anderson has since then been elected as a State District Judge in Williamson County. During a review of the files, it was learned that there was a mountain of evidence from neighbors and others implicate someone else in the murder of Morton’s wife. Anderson knew, for instance, that Morton’s then 3 year old son Eric had said he saw a “monster”, not his father commit the murder, and had discussed a trial strategy to explain that what the little boy had seen was really his father dressed in a skin diving suit (wow…that’s a reach).

He also purposely failed to call the lead investigator to testify so the defense would not have access to investigative reports with the many other facts which would have eliminated Morton as a suspect in the case (a clear “Brady” violation). Since the disclosure of the DNA findings and the subsequent exoneration, Judge Anderson has been under investigation by the current Williamson County District Attorney and by the State of Texas for criminal contempt and misconduct in the case.

Unfortunately another case of over-zealous Texas prosecutors who determined the guilt of a defendant before they ever went to trial. One of the reasons Texas had the highest number of exonerations both death sentence and life term convictions. Nationwide there have been 1,085. About 37% are DNA cases and over 63% are cases involving review of evidence and recanting of witnesses identifications.

All this history gathering made us ( hungry so Scott and Silvia took us to a couple of their favorite places to eat. For breakfast we went to a Diners, Drive-ins and Dives restaurant  "Monument Cafe" by the Courthouse. The Monument menu was full of great breakfast items and I had the pancakes and Dianna had the Eggs Benedict on Special. Awesome service and taste, it belonged on Triple D. For dinner, we went to  Hardtails Bar and Grille. A big time hangout for the motorcycle crowd, I had the Slammer burger with green chile, avocado and pepperjack cheese. Dianna had the fish and chips. Make sure you check the list of  lingo you use to describe how you want to dress your meal. Very cool.

On our last outing, they took us to their favorite Mexican place, La Playa Mexican Cafe. I had the Fish Tacos and Dianna had the sour cream Enchiladas. Ok...this place had the best salsas and the most powerful Margaritas we have ever had. One Margie and you were having a hard time holding onto your fork.

Well....vacation over, we repacked our bags and returned home to home, dogs and work looking forward to our next adventure.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Cruise Part 3

This was, after all, only a five day trip so we did a quick overnight run to our second and last stop, Cozumel. We had been to Cozumel a couple of times before and had decided to do another run at the Discover Mexico park and then a couple of hours at the Channapa National Park and take in the food (and beverages) offered at the resort.

It was our second trip to Discover Mexico, a combined effort of the City of Cozumel
and the Mexican Tourist and Visitors Bureau. Interesting little museum of cultural art and a Tequila tasting and educational seminar.  But the gem are the miniatures in the cultural park.  These exhibits tell the story of Mexico's past from the Mayans and Inca  through the Spanish and French occupation. These are well crafted miniatures of important Mayan and Inca cities and temples as well as significant examples of Catholic Cathedrals and French Baroque structures including the Presidential Palace in Mexico City.

Cool story about the Mexican Flag. Many of you may know the flag has, as it's center piece, the Mayan symbol of the eagle holding a snake in its clutches.  That was the sign Mayans were looking for to lead them to the place their followers were to establish the center of their culture and religion. The Mayans traveled the land waiting for this sign and found an eagle clutching the aforementioned snake in the dry lake bed which is today, Mexico City. Now I am well acquainted with the history of the Mayan people and their great artistic and scientific accomplishments. But clearly they didn't get the memo about building a major city on a former lake bed. This has not worked well for the current residents in that their city (the 3rd most populous city on  the planet at around 18.7 million residents) is estimated to be sinking at a rate of about 8 inches per year. Here is our very energetic tour guide Jose Chucho:

That leads to how Mexico got it's name. It has to do with the location of the city and the alignment of the earth, sun and moon.

The city currently known as Mexico City was founded by the Mexica people, later known as the Aztecs, in 1325. The old Mexica city is now referred to as Tenochtitlan. The Mexica were one of the last of the Nahuatl-speaking peoples who migrated to this part of the Valley of Mexico after the fall of the Toltec Empire. Their presence was resisted by the peoples who were already in the valley, but the Mexica were able to establish a city on a small island on the western side of Lake Texcoco. The Mexica themselves had a story about how their city was founded, after being led to the island by their principal god, Huitzilopochtli.

According to the story, the god indicated the site where they were to build their home with a sign - an eagle perched on a nopal cactus with a snake in its beak. The great city Teotihuacán, anchored by the great Pyramid of the Sun (third largest in the world), the building plan and orientation of the buildings at Teotihuacán were built in alignment to the rising and setting of the Pleiades star cluster (as are the pyramids in Egypt) as well as the unique alignment with the setting Sun which casts a shadow of a serpent (Kukulcan/Quetzalcoatl) descending on the northern steps of the pyramid. 

We were then loaded onto a series of Mexican cabs for the ride to Chuapanna. The resort is on the west shore with some of the best snorkeling around. Not wanting to indulge in the water sports, we (well....I) were hungry and we dined at the La Laguna Restaurant. The heavily weighted seafood menu did have some good Mexican standards. Dianna opted for the tostados with chips and guacamole and I had my replacement chicken burger and fries (still watching my girlish figure, no fries). But the best thing was the two classic Margaritas. I know, you ask, what's the big deal with the drinks. tourist resorts, where they want you to spend a lot of money, they tend to overshoot with the alcohol, not like the paltry bars and nightclubs in America. After two Margies a piece...we were feeling no pain. After a little birthday shopping for Dianna...we caught the next taxi back to the pier for more shopping and the jog back to the ship.

The last day on a cruise is kind of a let down. Of course all good things must come to an end and your last hours are spent folding and packing your things so the cabin steward can get your stuff below for the transfer back to the pier. Then there is the reverse cattle call of getting off the ship, finding your stuff and lugging it to Customs so they can clear you back in. It's funny to catch yourself and others putting on your best "Don't Tase me Dude" look of innocence even though you haven't done anything wrong but fear the increased scrutiny will sweep you away to secondary and might uncover the fact you may have brought back more alcohol than you're allowed.......not us, nope.

Like prisoners given a reprieve, we made our way back to the awaiting Rogue and after punching in our next destination, Georgetown, Texas, we were off to visit our longtime friends, Scott and Silvia.

Stay tuned for life in Sin (opps..) Sun City and life of the truly retired.