Illustration © Bryan Spear
Huntsville, Old and New
Exploring a familiar town like a tourist gives a new perspective.
By Julia Jones • Photography by Sonja Sommerfeld
I’m no stranger to the town of Huntsville, population 40,000. My fiancé Jack attends Sam Houston State University, so I spend a lot of weekends there, but I know only how to find the grocery store and nothing of the hidden quirks and gems. For once, I want to see the city for what it is: a place full of rich Texas history, surprising art pieces and small-town charm.
So, I set off on a familiar drive to see parts of Huntsville that are unfamiliar.
My first stop — and the stop demanding the most attention — is the Sam Houston statue, a 67-foot rendering of the president of the Republic of Texas. As a kid, my grandfather constantly quizzed me on everything having to do with the once-independent Texas, and I still have some leftover admiration for Big Sam. Looking up at his sculpted glory, I’m reminded that everything really is bigger in Texas, our remembrances of past leaders included.
I’ll learn a little more about Houston throughout the trip, so I snap a few photos and head into town, ready to meet up with my fiancé and grab something to eat.
Following a local food recommendation takes us to Mr. Hamburger, a small restaurant founded in Huntsville in 1959 as a classic American drive-in. They’ve since added a second location in Bryan. Mr. Hamburger is packed, but the line inside is moving quickly. I have to decide what to get from their prison-themed menu — burgers like the Warden give the first indication that Huntsville is the headquarters for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice; I go with an Original burger while Jack opts for the Killer, a double cheeseburger with jalapeños.
The dining room is decorated with old issues of the Huntsville Item with front-page headlines like “Inmates Expect Sell-Out at Texas Prison Rodeo Sunday.” The prison rodeo hasn’t operated since 1986, but these reminders of times past are what Huntsville is about.
After a short wait, our burgers and fries arrive at the table, and we dig in immediately. The classic lives up to its name, and so, allegedly, does the Killer. After we eat our fill, we head out to see a place where art and history meet: the downtown murals.
Huntsville State Park features pine trees, a lake and 21 miles of trails.
The statue of Sam Houston stands 67 feet tall.
Internationally known muralist Richard Haas chose Sam Houston as the subject for three massive paintings on the side of a building at U.S. Highway 190 and University Avenue. The images depict Houston on three occasions during his life: as a member of the Cherokee tribe after running away from home in his teens, relaxing at his woodland home with his wife and at the Battle of San Jacinto.
The murals are painted in the trompe l’oeil style, which means they create the illusion that the flat images are three-dimensional, and Haas is successful in tricking my eyes. A few blocks away on top of an antique store is another Haas mural, this one of folk and blues artist Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, who spent time in Huntsville’s prison system before “singing his way out.”
After admiring the unique art, we decide to head to Huntsville State Park, ready for our stay in a limited-service cabin. The park road offers a peaceful drive to the entrance, lined on both sides with the pine trees that the area is famous for. Pulling up to headquarters, though, I realize I’ve made a mistake: I hadn’t grabbed the key before closing nor arranged for them to leave it anywhere. I call someone who calls someone who calls someone, and then a friendly state park police officer stops by and hands me the key to the shelter.
Normally, I’d like to camp along the lake at a park like Huntsville, but the nightly forecast didn’t dip below 85, so air conditioning is a welcome escape from the heat. Jack and I crank it up, bring in our mattress pads and sleeping bags and set up our temporary home. The shelter is a cozy stay if you bring the right equipment; the bathroom is just a short walk away.
After setting up, we take a stroll outside. The shelters are on the bank of Lake Raven (Raven is a nickname the Cherokee gave to Sam Houston), and the sunset and trees reflect beautifully on the surface of the water. Once the natural light’s gone, we head inside to do a little reading and fall asleep.
We arise ready to explore the park a little more. Our first stop is Raven Lodge on the bank of the lake. The lodge, built in 1942 by an African American company of the Civilian Conservation Corps, can be rented out for large group events; the surrounding area is outfitted with benches for fishing.
We sit on one of the benches and look out over the lake, imagining the history of the place while listening to birds tweeting into the silence.
A man bikes up to us to tell us that the lake’s water, while gorgeous now, gets even better during the stillness of early spring.
“It’s like a mirror,” he says, before wishing us a nice day and biking away.
We turn to leave, but something catches Jack’s eye: a bird, perched atop the roof of the Raven Lodge, looking out toward the lake. A raven? It looks more like a vulture than a raven, but either way, it’s a welcome friend for our trip.
Oakwood Cemetery holds Sam Houston's grave.
The Wynne Home Arts Center promotes arts and heritage.
A large Houston face can be seen at the statue visitor center.
Sam Houston Memorial Park contains Houston-related buildings.
Downtown murals show Houston in action.
Mr. Hamburger has been feeding hungry residents since 1959.
We head for the Coloneh Trail (coloneh is the Cherokee word for “raven”) for a short hike, bringing along some binoculars. The trail winds through the trees, wildlife hiding in the shade of the brush to escape the heat. In no time, we reach the Raven Hill campsite and take the path to the bird blind, but it seems as though the birds are busy elsewhere (though a tree near the front of the viewing area has evidence of a yellow-bellied sapsucker).
After our (admittedly brief) hike, we’re ready for some food, so we drive back into town to grab a bite at the Farmhouse Cafe, a comfort food haven with all the classics. We’re seated immediately and recommended one of their fried appetizers. We go with the fried green tomatoes, tasting fresh from the garden under a layer of batter. After chicken-fried steak, we pass on dessert, though the selection of homemade cakes and pies is enticing.
Next up is the Oakwood Cemetery, where Sam Houston is buried, and we uncover some odd trivia. Reading the monument that marks Houston’s grave, I find a misspelling of the word “governor” — someone had leveled the stone in the middle of the word and added an apostrophe, so that the inscription instead read “gov’nor.” The plaque below confirms it: Houston’s youngest daughter Antoinette had written the inscription, but sometime along the way, the word lost its first “r,” and smoothing the stone and adding the apostrophe was the quickest fix.
For more history, we check out the Wynne Home Arts Center, situated in a 19th-century mansion and its surrounding land. The courtyard has stone statuary surrounded by flowers and other plants; a sign marks one garden as a monarch waystation, meaning it provides foods that the migrating butterflies need on their refueling stop. The home is open for self-guided tours, if you call in advance, and offers changing art exhibitions.
I want to end my Huntsville trip somewhere I’ve been before: the duck pond at the Sam Houston Memorial Park and Museum Complex. I have a lot of memories at the duck pond; while visiting town, I often escape with my hammock to a pair of trees near the water and watch the ducks, read a book or chat with my fiancé in the fresh air. The tall trees provide shade for the hotter months, and the relative lack of foot traffic makes it a quiet retreat.
The log cabin where half of Houston’s children were born and the steamboat house where he died are just two of the historical buildings that are situated on these 18 acres of Houston’s once 200 acres of land. Chickens roam freely, as do workers in period costume — the site often hosts historical days during which guests can learn how to make pottery or knit from costumed presenters.
Today is one of the quiet days, so I walk over to the pond, say hello to the ducks and pull out my hammock to dream of the “new” Huntsville I’ve discovered.
The Blatchley Bell Tower is a landmark on the Sam Houston State campus
HUNTSVILLE STATE PARK
WALKER COUNTY HISTORICAL COMMISSION
WYNNE HOME ARTS CENTER
SAM HOUSTON MEMORIAL MUSEUM
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