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.


  1. First of all let me tell you, you have got a great blog. I am interested in looking for more of such topics and would like to have further information.

    Fotos on this post are great...everything looks so tasty:)

    nom nom :)

  2. You might want to research your facts on TDCJ a little better. It isn't accurate information.