Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Jefferson at Christmas

"Lone Star Historian 2" is a blog about the travels and activities of the State Historian of Texas during his second year. Bill O'Neal was appointed to a two-year term by Gov. Rick Perry on August 22, 2012, at an impressive ceremony in the State Capitol. Bill is headquartered at Panola College (www.panola.edu) in Carthage, where he has taught since 1970. For more than 20 years Bill conducted the state's first Traveling Texas History class, a three-hour credit course which featured a 2,100-mile itinerary. In 2000 he was awarded a Piper Professorship, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West Historical Association. Bill has published over 40 books, almost half about Texas history subjects, and in 2007 he was named Best Living Non-Fiction Writer by True West Magazine. In 2013 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by his alma mater, Texas A&M University - Commerce. 

Excelsior House, antebellum hotel
For a Christmas blog this year, I wanted to visit and report on some sort of Texas Christmas display or activity. My wife Karon and I searched everything from the Dickens on the Strand at Galveston to the spectacular Wonderland of Lights in Marshall to the Christmas extravaganza at Grapevine. But of the dozens of community events we googled, most were of relatively recent vintage and were more modern than historic. Dickens on the Strand, with its Victorian flavor, is justifiably famous throughout Texas and elsewhere, and needs no publicity from my modest blog.

Excelsior House lobby
We decided upon Jefferson, today a small (2,100 population) county seat town which enjoyed its economic and cultural heyday from the 1840s until the early 1870s. With a population of nearly 8,000, Jefferson prospered as a river port. An architectural reflection of that prosperity was the profusion of antebellum homes, commercial buildings, and churches. Without the need for growth after the 1870s, Jefferson retained a great many of its antebellum structures. Karon and I decided to tour Jefferson, taking special note of antebellum buildings decorated in nineteenth-century style.

House of the Four Seasons
As we drove through the streets, we noted old-fashioned evergreens on the antebellum homes and throughout the commercial district. Lions Park offered an “Enchanted Park” of decorated trees. The two-story Chamber of Commerce building was richly decorated. I entered the lobby of the Excelsior House, an historic hotel opened before the Civil War, to admire the decorations. While we were downtown, we enjoyed an excellent meal before resuming our tour.
Lions Park Enchanted Forest, with the superb
1872 Presbyterian Church in the background

Just north of the downtown is the vintage depot which serves as headquarters for the popular Jefferson Rail of Lights. The brightly painted steam engine is a replica of an 1860s engine. The five-mile round-trip loops through the pine forest and along Big Cypress Bayou, and Christmas scenes on the route include: Polar Express, Oriental Christmas, Toy Land, Teddy Bear, Charlie Brown Christmas, a nativity scene – and a live alligator pit!

With engineer Willie Turlington
At the station we encountered Willie Turlington, the genial engineer of the Rail of Lights train. He opened up the depot for us, and let us tour the engine and cars. Willie told us that on opening night of the 2015 Rail of Lights, more than 600 passengers rode the train with him. Another highly popular Christmas activity is the Candlelight Tour of Homes. For a Texas history buff, Jefferson offers a nostalgic Christmas experience.

Willie Turlington in a passenger car
Before leaving town, we drove to the oldest section of historic Oakwood Cemetery. For an upcoming article on desperado Cullen Montgomery Baker in Wild West Magazine, I needed to shoot a color photo of the outlaw’s grave. Baker was killed in 1867, and most of his nearby cemetery neighbors would have seen Jefferson in its antebellum Christmas glory.
Inside the depot

Grave of Cullen Baker

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