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Of Ghosts and Gators

Little Paris on the Prairie

By Russell A. Graves

More reminiscent of the Deep South than its French namesake, this Paris is home to wild turkeys, tallgrass prairies and prehistoric sharks.

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 5 hours /
  • Brownsville - 10.25 hours /
  • Dallas - 1.75 hours /
  • El Paso - 12 hours /
  • Houston - 5 hours /
  • San Antonio - 6.25 hours /
  • Lubbock - 6.5 hours

The day is a bit misty, but I can clearly see the eastern wild turkeys picking through the leaves searching for food. Their sturdy black bodies stand in contrast to the green winter grass at road’s edge, and I ease to a stop along Farm-to-Market Road 1499 in northwestern Lamar County and watch them through my binoculars. Only 100 yards away, the birds seem unconcerned with my presence as I whisper to my lifelong friend Garry Mills about the significance of seeing the birds.

Eastern wild turkeys are a new import to the Paris area. Long extirpated, reintroduction efforts began in the 1930s to restock the birds, and today, the Pat Mayse Wildlife Management Area, located 11 miles northwest of Paris, is home to a thriving population of eastern wild turkeys. Soon, the flock melts into the underbrush and disappears from view. Credentialed with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Limited Use Permits, my friend and I decide to slip into the woods and try to photograph them.

A couple hundred yards into the woods, we hear the turkeys in the understory just to the east. We hastily throw up some brush for a blind and call but ultimately have no luck — the turkeys slowly skirt away. Nevertheless, I am excited to see the birds. In my life, I’ve seen thousands of Rio Grande turkeys but perhaps less than four dozen eastern wild turkeys. I chalk up our adventure as a success.

Driving east from the WMA, we explore the Corps of Engineers land around Pat Mayse Lake. On our drive, I notice that increasingly, pine trees start to intersperse throughout the hardwood forests. Over the next three days, I will learn that Lamar County is on the northwestern edge of the East Texas pine curtain and has a Southern charm in which I’ve never fully immersed myself until this weekend. Although I grew up close to here, I know relatively little about the area and am anxious to find the kinds of adventure that the region offers.

On day two, I intend to go solo on the morning half of my trip, so I wake and head for the western edge of Lamar County to an area where the East Texas forests subside and the Blackland Prairie ecoregion begins. Before sunrise, I drive by two prairies — the 97-acre Tridens Prairie, which lies on the south side of U.S. Highway 82, and the immense, 2,100-acre Smiley-Woodfin Prairie, which is on the north side of the highway. In the predawn light, I walk among the mixed grasses of Tridens Prairie and quietly reflect on the plant diversity at my feet.

When the sun breaks, I dash across to the north side of the highway to take a look at the Smiley-Woodfin Prairie. A historical marker proclaims that this immense tract of private land is the largest piece of virgin tallgrass prairie left in Texas. Unlike the rest of the Texas tallgrass prairie, a plow has never furrowed the deep black soil just over the fence from where I stand.

Although I cannot walk onto the private prairie, there is a considerable amount of highway and farm-to-market road frontage on the south and east sides of the land, so I drive the margins slowly. Toward the northern edge of the prairie, I see a phenomenon that continues on to other parcels of land. The unusual terrain features are grass-covered mounds. Perhaps 10 feet across, these mounds rise about 18 inches and are randomly interspersed across the surrounding prairies and number in the hundreds. I ask around as to their origins, but no one seems to know.

As the sun climbs higher in the sky, I make my way to the Gambill’s Goose Preserve. A modest-sized lake is the focal point of the preserve, and migratory geese and ducks line the fringes of the lake. Owned by the City of Paris, the Gambill’s Goose Preserve is named for John Gambill, a local farmer who began feeding a pair of Canada Geese back in the 1920s. Over the years, he continued his practice of feeding and providing a winter stopover for migratory birds. In time, ownership of the refuge passed from the Gambill family to the state of Texas and eventually on to the city of Paris. Throughout the winter, the city of Paris and the trustees of the preserve maintain a twice daily feeding program via automatic feeders and plant crops around the lake to provide supplemental feed. Although I missed the 7:30 a.m. feeding, ducks and geese still hang around the feeding area, and I watch them until I head for my next stop.

Pulling in to the city of Paris, I see that the town has all of the staples of modern life, such as big-box superstores, chain eateries and convenience stores on seemingly every corner. Paris is defined by the black ribbon of Loop 271 that circles the city. When you visit with locals, they give directions according to which part of the loop in which you should drive.

Around the loop, it seems that the Paris economy is doing well. Once inside the loop, I begin to see palatial Victorian homes and realize that this city has a distinctly Southern culture. As I wander parts of old Paris looking for the Evergreen Cemetery, I stumble past a replica of the Eiffel Tower. Located by the city’s civic center — just south of Paris Junior College — the replica tower was built by local craftsmen and sports a red cowboy hat on top.

Driving just west of the tower, I finally locate the Evergreen Cemetery and it’s huge. According to the records, some 18,000 people are interred here. As I drive the cemetery grounds, I notice a distinctive divide between the uniformity of size and shape of modern headstones and the glorious splendor of old headstones. In the old part of the cemetery, late 1800s to early 1920s headstones rise tall amongst the pine and oak trees of the cemetery. I circle to the old part of the cemetery until I find what I came looking for — an old headstone with a cowboy-boot-wearing Jesus on top. I’d heard about it through the grapevine, and I just had to see it for myself. On my way out of the cemetery, I see the grave of Civil War general Sam Bell Maxey and decide to visit his home just a few blocks north of here.

The home of General Maxey is typically Southern Victorian with its large front porch and spacious interior. The home is remarkably preserved and is managed as a State Historic Site by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Site administrator Judy Brummett and her staff expertly guide me through the house and explain intimate details of the furnishings and a late-19th-century way of life that is unfamiliar, but at the same time, fascinating to me.

By now the sun is high overhead and I decide its time for lunch, so I drive west and meet my brother William in the small town of Windom. We grab a sandwich at a local mom-and-pop grocery store and head back east to the town of Honey Grove. This afternoon we will make our way southwest of Paris and explore many of the small towns with unusual place names that dot the map.

According to legend, Honey Grove got its name from Davy Crockett as he headed from Tennessee through the area to fight with the volunteers at the Alamo. William and I don’t explore Honey Grove long. Our only stop is at Smith’s Feed-Seed and Hardware. Johnnie Smith, owner of the old-school hardware store, has been in business for 54 years, and the store was in business even longer, as Smith shows me pictures of the store in operation with wagons and Ford Model T’s lined up outside the limestone structure.

Smith’s store houses everything from plumbing fixtures and nails to horse tack and livestock feed. It’s Saturday afternoon and the store bustles. I’d like to stay and explore, but I am here on a mission — striped overalls for my 4-year-old daughter and 7-month-old son.

Heading south of Honey Grove, William and I soon cross the North Sulphur River. The river is a favorite among amateur paleontologists as its shallow water cuts through 102 feet of blackland soil to reveal prehistoric bones, teeth and shells from ammonites, urchins, sharks and mosasaurs.

The rest of the afternoon, we wander from place to place, taking in the quaintness of the small communities and wondering what each town was like during its heyday. We roam around communities like Ben Franklin, Mud Dig, Ladonia and Pecan Gap but end up in the mythical Bug Tussle. Today, not much exists at Bug Tussle, which lies at the intersection of Texas Highway 34 and FM 1550, but the community serves as a focal point for an annual antique car rally that convenes every April.

On the last morning of my adventure, William and I head northeast of Paris to explore the Texas Nature Conservancy Preserve, the Lennox Woods. Lennox Woods is a 375-acre patch of hardwood and old-growth pine forest with trees as old as 300 years still standing strong. Acquired by the Lennox family in 1863, the woods have remained intact even as commercial logging operations buzzed all around.

We spend the morning exploring the woods and see animals such as barred owls, redheaded woodpeckers and various songbirds. Frost is heavy on the ground and coats the dead leaves with crunchy crystals. Therefore, we are surprised when a nice 10-point white-tailed buck sneaks silently past us only 20 yards away. We spend three hours roaming the woods marveling at the size of the trees and studying the growth rings of downed hardwood trees.

Driving away from the Lennox Woods, we make our way down a long, sandy road with a tall canopy of trees overhead. Soon we are back on the blacktop and wind our way through northern Lamar County until we arrive back at the spot where my journey began — at the Pat Mayse Wildlife Management Area.

In the short time I’ve spent in and around Paris, I find that I’ve been missing out on all the natural and historic treasures that the area offers. Before I drive away for a quick visit with my parents a half an hour west of here, I take one last look for more turkeys. Not seeing any, I pull away knowing I’ll come back to this spot.

I have to get photos of those turkeys.

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