Travel time from:
Lubbock – 8 hours
Dallas – 3 hours
El Paso – 12 hours
San Antonio – 5 hours
Houston – 2 hours
Brownsville – 10 hours
The oldest town in Texas comes to life along lush creekside trails.
By Melissa Gaskill
The clear, shallow waters of Banita Creek burble over slabs of red rock and swaths of sand, beneath the shade of tall pines, hickories and Florida maples. Here and there, weathered wooden benches overlook the water. This stretch of dirt trail runs about a half-mile, part of more than 6 miles along Banita and Lanana creeks that will eventually form a continuous loop.
“The creeks are why Nacogdoches exists,” explains Jeffry Abt, a retired landscape designer and my walking companion here in this East Texas town. The high ground between these two streams first attracted Caddo settlers, followed by the Spanish, who established missions in the early 1700s, and, later, Mexican and then U.S. settlers.
Ahead of us, the trees open up to reveal an 8-foot-high purple lawn chair gracing a spacious park, both honoring F.E. Abernethy, who deserves most of the credit for the creekside trails. Holder of a Ph.D. in literature, Abernethy taught at Stephen F. Austin State University and headed the Texas Folklore Society from 1971 to 2004. He acquired land, cleared brush, built bridges and often simply rounded up helpers (Abt among them) to complete particular trail projects, whether he had official approval or not.
Abt brings me up to speed on this over lunch at Butcher Boys on North Street, an unassuming wooden building with its sign mostly obscured by tree branches. Opened in 1977 by Billy and Cathy Huddleston, the restaurant serves a wide variety of burgers, barbecue plates, chicken-fried steak and ribeyes. My hamburger is large, juicy and filling, making more time walking the trails almost a necessity. The establishment includes a meat market that features hard-to-find items such as rind-on bacon and is locally famous for its smoked meats.
Next, Abt and I hit the Lanana Creek Trail from Margil Park on East Main Street. First stop: the Eyes of Father Margil, several springs trickling from a bluff above an oxbow lake. Franciscan Father Antonio Margil de Jesus came here with a Spanish expedition in 1716. Legend has it that, during a terrible drought in 1718, when the Lanana and Banita creeks dried up, Father Margil prayed and struck his staff against the bank and the springs began to flow. Abernethy reportedly drank from them regularly and lived to the ripe old age of 89. (He passed away in March 2015.)
The trail varies from wide and smooth to narrow and tangled with tree roots as we head north, shaded by thickets of paw-paw, dogwood and buckeye. We pass the historic Zion Hill Baptist Church cemetery at Park Road, cross Pecan Park and step onto the Stephen F. Austin campus. Here, Lanana Creek flows through the university’s Mast Arboretum. These 10 acres feel like a giant, outdoor treasure, with the list of possible finds including benches, swings, bridges, sculptures, birdbaths, picnic tables, arbors, secluded nooks, gardens, gazebos and even a beehive and a whirligig. Signs provide information about various types of plants and offer gardening tips.
Trees abound on the property too, of course, including pines nearly 100 years old and towering more than 100 feet, some of the largest Mexican oaks in the United States, the largest Mexican mountain sugar maple in the country and many native oaks and elms.
The Ruby M. Mize Azalea Garden occupies a corner of the arboretum, home to 550 rhododendron, 100 camellia and 200 hydrangea varieties.
“The azalea garden is first class, but the Japanese maples in fall are even better,” Abt says. “The reason I moved here was the stunning beauty of the outdoors.”
On Abt’s recommendation, I booked a room at the historic Fredonia Hotel downtown. Originally opened in the 1950s and the first East Texas hotel with a swimming pool, it closed in 1985, reopened in 1989, closed again in 2013 and resumed operations in 2017 after an extensive makeover. That renovation happened courtesy of Barbara and Richard DeWitt, who were named Nacogdoches County’s 2017 Citizens of the Year as a result. The couple also owns local favorites Auntie Pasta’s and Clear Springs Restaurant (more on that later).
This evening, diners fill the hotel restaurants, 1st City Café and upscale Republic Steakhouse, so we pop into Nine Flags Bar and Grill. The menu lists a cocktail for each flag — the well-known six that have flown over Texas plus three from early attempts by Nacogdoches citizens to gain independence for Texas: the Fredonian, Magee-Gutierrez and Long rebellions.
As a nod to our location, I choose one named for the leader of the Fredonian uprising, Haden Edwards, made with Basil Hayden whiskey, muddled basil, lime juice and lemonade, accompanied by Akaushi tacos (three flour tortillas filled with sweet Korean barbecue, cilantro, onion, chimichurri sauce and cotija cheese). Walls of windows, strings of lights and shiny copper seats make the space warm and invite lingering, as does the live music filtering in from poolside.
Abt has as much passion for Nacogdoches history as he does for its landscape, so our second day takes a different focus. We start with breakfast at Dolli’s Diner, where I have a view of the town square as I devour a short stack of blueberry “Flap Jacks” (the Stephen F. Austin mascot is a lumberjack, and students are known as Jacks, for short).
“This was originally a Spanish-style plaza, and people lived around it,” Abt points out. “Downtown still has old brick buildings and brick streets original to the early 1920s.You can walk down Mound Street and see an old Caddo mound. Sam Houston lived here for a time. Eugenia Sterne Park is land he gave Eugenia for her pony. We have statues and historical markers all around town.”
Visitors can learn a lot from those markers. Such as how the town’s name comes from a Caddo group called the Nacogdoche, and how archaeological evidence dates mounds in the area to around 1250. The French came through in the late 1600s; Spaniard Domingo Ramón established a mission here in 1716. In 1772, the Spanish viceroy ordered residents to move to San Antonio, but trader Don Antonio Gil Y’Barbo obtained permission for a group to return to the area. They moved into the abandoned mission site in 1779.
On the corner of Main and Fredonia streets, where a bank building currently stands, Y’Barbo built a stone home around 1790. The structure served a variety of functions, including as fortifications during battle, before it was torn down in 1901.
Rebuilt on the Stephen F. Austin campus in 1936 and named the Old Stone Fort, it now houses a museum, with exhibits about the building’s history and, currently, “Pocket, Purse and Pack: Digging into Everyday Carry.” We share some things in common with earlier carriers, such as coins and keys, although their look and size have changed.
Some we do not; I doubt anyone today carries a pocketwatch or snuff box, and, of course, no early residents of “Nac” toted cellphones or earbuds.
Main Street follows the original El Camino Real, or San Antonio Road, that ran from Mexico to Caddo settlements in western Louisiana. El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail traces this historic route across the state, designated by roadway signs. I follow them west 26 miles on Texas Highway 21 to Caddo Mounds State Historic Site. While only one mound survived the growth of Nacogdoches, several large ones remain here. A self-guided interpretive trail takes me past the mounds, a borrow pit and a piece of the original El Camino Real. The visitors center and museum exhibits portray life in a Caddo village like the one Nacogdoches once was.
The aforementioned Clear Springs Restaurant, a local favorite, occupies a former refrigerated warehouse, the first one built west of the Mississippi. The inside is spacious, as one would expect a warehouse to be, and filled with historical and other memorabilia, including a large model of the Old Stone Fort hanging from the ceiling. In addition to self-proclaimed world-famous fried seafood, the menu includes salads, chicken-fried steak, grilled steaks, burgers, sandwiches and even tacos. I’m a fried catfish fan from way back, and the slightly spicy, generous portion hits the spot, as does homemade banana pudding for dessert.
One last walk along shady Lanana Creek Trail seems a fitting end to the trip. I expect Jeffry Abt would heartily approve.
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