Illustration © Bryan Spear
RED RIVER REJUVENATION
Denison’s denizens enjoy a hip downtown scene and nearby Lake Texoma.
Words & photos by Russell A. Graves
This is a coming-of-age story of sorts. Tucked in a crease along the Red River just a few miles from the border, Denison used to be a sleepy burg, known as nearby Sherman’s little sister or a place to pass through on your way to Lake Texoma or President Dwight Eisenhower’s birthplace.
My, how things have changed.
This North Texas town is coming into an identity all its own. In my youth, I often visited Denison, about 30 miles away. At the time, the only place in North Texas you could find a halfway decent collection of camera and archery gear was at the expansive Barrett’s Department Store. Barrett’s was an old-school store with friendly salespeople and a wide array of goods. By the 1980s, the store had become a relic of bygone days; the downtown district was littered with closed-up storefronts and pawnshops. As in many small towns, the retail landscape had shifted away from downtown to big-box stores and strip malls.
Today Barrett’s is only a memory, but downtown Denison has been reborn. Main Street is lined with restored buildings populated with professional offices, wine-tasting rooms, restaurants, art galleries and boutique shopping.
Downtown Denison comes alive for weekend activities.
On a Saturday morning, my wife and I stroll down Main Street past a big Fender guitar sculpture at the corner of a small park that boasts a bandstand and grass seating area; Denison hosts a concert series during the summer months. Two vintage downtown movie theaters provide other live entertainment diversions.
We duck into decor stores to admire one-of-a-kind pieces and notice a gathering of enthusiasts parking their vintage cars along upper Main. Passing by, I overhear a conversation about the big news that broke the day before: the 1924 Hotel Denison, an iconic seven-story building, is about to undergo a complete renovation. In its heyday, the hotel hosted celebrities (Harry Houdini, Roy Rogers and Sam Rayburn) but has fallen into disrepair.
An original Grayson County cabin at Loy Lake Park's Frontier Village
A local development group, with a million-dollar infusion of capital from the Denison Development Alliance, plans to bring the old building back to life. The upper floors will be residential, with stores and restaurants below, providing much-needed space for a town bursting at the seams.
Past the hotel, we spy a food truck park beginning its morning bustle as the day comes to life. Just a few blocks farther, we notice that nearly all the old industrial buildings are occupied and active. There’s a small but burgeoning bar scene in lower downtown, with sophisticated vibes.
Grasslands at Eisenhower State Park
A few blocks over from the Katy Depot is the Best Burger Barn, an old corner storefront with antique brick walls and wood floors. While we eat enormous burgers, a local musician plays a collection of country tunes.
Heading back to the truck, I see a sign that says we are walking the Jefferson Highway, a stretch of road that predated the numbered highway system introduced in the late 1920s. The Jefferson Highway passed through town on its way from New Orleans to Winnipeg.
A hungry diner eating a burger at Denison’s Best Burger Barn.
Transportation’s always been important to Denison. Named after the railroad’s vice president, Denison was the first stop when the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad breached the Texas frontier on Christmas Day 1872 to connect Texas railroads to other states. The Katy Depot museum pays homage to the early days of the rail and the importance of transportation to the area.
The Eisenhower Birthplace State Historic Site features a statue of the president.
A homemade sign outside Huck’s Catfish restaurant
Across town, the Perrin Air Force Base Historical Museum highlights the extraordinary men and women who trained at the base during World War II and parts of the Cold War.
Denison is the home of heroes.
Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was born and raised here. You may remember him as the pilot who landed a jet safely in the Hudson River in New York. Dubbed as the “Miracle on the Hudson,” his story was later dramatized in a movie starring Tom Hanks. Another American hero, Dwight Eisenhower, lived in Denison only a couple of years; his 1890 birthplace — a white, prairie-style home — is open for tours. Eisenhower was a general in the Allied victory in World War II and served as the 34th president of the United States.
A neon Studebaker sign marking the Studebaker Museum in downtown Denison.
My wife and I drive around old historic Denison, ending up at Loy Lake Park’s Frontier Village, an assemblage of Grayson County’s oldest buildings. The display of homes spans the early decades of settlement in the Denison and North Texas area. Here you’ll find homes from simple dog-trot cabins to more ornate prairie-style farm homes. It’s a nice contrast to the expansive subdivided neighborhoods you see just south in the Dallas Metroplex. It also speaks volumes about the character of Denison. It’s a town that sits on the northern edge of one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas of the country, yet by all accounts, Denison has figured out what it is: a small town with a rich story to tell and an air of sophistication that appeals to people from all over North Texas.
That’s evident at Huck’s Catfish, a local eatery with an eclectic mix of patrons. From clergy to construction workers, people crowd in at lunch to eat savory, farm-grown catfish and hushpuppies. I savor each bite while a couple of businessmen talk oil drilling in the booth next to me.
The Likarish family in their warehouse at the Iron Root Republic Distillery
Full of food but still eager to explore, I visit with Iron Root Republic Distillery owner Rob Likarish about Denison’s historic connection to French wine. He explains that Denison’s sister city is Cognac, France. The two cities became inextricably linked when, in the early 20th century, Denison scientist and horticulturist T.V. Munson developed phylloxera-resistant rootstocks to help save the French wine industry from the devastating insect, endearing Denison and its famous horticulturist to the richest wine-producing region in the world.
Today, nearby Grayson College maintains one of the premier viticulture programs in the country. The center bears Munson’s name, and soon, the college will initiate a distilling and brewing program that will educate students in the art and science of making distilled and fermented beverages.
Perrin Air Force Base Historical Museum; 903.786.8741
Eisenhower Birthplace State Historic Site; 903.465.8908
Eisenhower State Park; 903.465.1956
Iron Root Republic Distillery; 903.337.0495
Ready to get away from town, my wife and I head out to Eisenhower State Park on Lake Texoma’s south shore. We wanted to catch a bit more nature; earlier in our trip, we explored the Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge and looked for migratory birds.
We arrive around 4 p.m., and the park is bustling. In late winter, the sun hangs low on the horizon and shines beautifully on the amber patches of dormant prairie grass and the high bluffs that overlook the lake. All around, signs of spring are bursting through. The redbuds are in bloom, and ryegrass carpets the undergrowth. We hike around the park, dusky from wood smoke from the numerous campfires that families are stoking while they set up their weekend campsites.
The walk is peaceful under the bois d’arcs and elms. White-tailed deer feed along a nearby prairie; they barely notice us as we saunter past.
As the sun sinks, we talk about where to finish off our evening. We’ve had plenty to see and do while we’ve been here. As we leave the park, the last rays of light slide across Lake Texoma, and downtown Denison beckons us for one last evening.
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