The antique dining room table was set with silver, crystal, and the innkeeper’s best presidential Lenox. Candles flickered as we sipped coffee. This was breakfast Jefferson-style, in the perfectly restored Governor’s House Bed & Breakfast. “A friend will be joining us,” innkeeper Llawanda Golden had informed me when I emerged from my room that morning. As a visiting food journalist in town to judge the “Taste of Jefferson” contest later that day, I’d expected a sales pitch at some point during the weekend. And Jimmie Ruth Ford was it.
Governor’s House Bed & Breakfast.
Photo courtesy of Llawanda Golden. –>
Stylishly dressed and coiffed, she bustled through the front door just as we sat down to the elegant meal. This small-town society matron with a gift for gab pulled up a chair and between bites of syrup-soaked French toast, began regaling me with stories of her hometown. Imagine a well-dressed version of Auntie Mame with an East Texas twang and tasteful jewelry and you’ve got her. The proprietor of a bed-and-breakfast reservations service, she described Jefferson’s various home tours and the wide selection of meticulously restored historic properties around town. But what was riveting was Jimmie Ruth’s account of the town’s most notorious murder: Abe Rothschild, the black sheep of a wealthy Cincinnati family, married his pregnant young paramour, the bejeweled Bessie Moore, and brought her to Jefferson under an assumed name. When the couple quarreled while picnicking one afternoon, Rothschild supposedly shot his wife and took the last of her diamond jewelry to finance his gambling habit. The murder resulted in several trials over a period of seven years and though popularly believed to be guilty, Rothschild was never convicted. Surprisingly, the annual re-enactment of the trial is one of Jefferson’s most beloved civic functions.
The sponsors of this event and many others, are a savvy bunch of hardworking Jefferson society dames who have mined the town’s rich, colorful past to create a variety of successful business ventures. Jimmie Ruth Ford, Llawanda Golden and the sixty years of Jessie Allen Wise Garden Club members who came before them, have restored Jefferson’s former economic prosperity by embracing the town’s history — mansions, murders, millionaires and all.
In its mid-nineteenth century heyday, the Northeast Texas town of Jefferson was a bustling inland steamboat port that rivaled Galveston and New Orleans in commerce and sophistication. Beginning in 1845 and continuing for nearly forty years, steamboats laden with passengers and every conceivable item of merchandise or supply bound for Texas unloaded at the Jefferson dock on Big Cypress Bayou. On the return voyage, they carried beef and timber to ship out of New Orleans. Everyone came to Jefferson: The names of presidents and actors, riverboat gamblers and robber barons can be found on historic hotel registers. Commerce and tourism were the mainstays of a thriving economy in a city known nationwide for its luxurious hotel accommodations, fascinating entertainment, and shops that stocked the most up-to-date fashions.
Railroad baron Jay Gould’s private railroad car.
Photo courtesy of the Marion County Chamber of Commerce. –>
Jefferson came by this largesse naturally, when a huge logjam on the Red River sometime in the late-eighteenth century caused water to back up into Cypress Valley, covering miles of forest and forming Caddo Lake. Settlers began moving into the area in 1835 to grow cotton, a crop that demanded a reliable trade route to New Orleans and on to England. A portion of the logjam dam was removed to make the river navigable through Twelvemile Bayou and into Caddo Lake. Further excavations to Big Cypress Bayou in 1844 made the emerging village of Jefferson the northernmost port for merchandise and supplies bound for the North and West. It grew to be a busy, active port city of more than 30,000 people, second only to the gulf port city of Galveston in size and glamour. Jefferson remained so until the logjam on the Red River was completely removed by the U.S. government in the 1870s, lowering the water level over a period of years until the bayou was no longer navigable.
By that time railroads were replacing steamboats anyway. Railroad baron Jay Gould attempted to purchase right of ways to bring his Texas & Pacific line through Jefferson. Locals were cool to his proposal and he left town in disgust, leaving an ominous prophecy in the Excelsior Hotel register that said “The end of Jefferson.” With the Texas & Pacific skirting the city and the loss of both steamboat and railroad commerce, Jefferson’s economy suffered.
“The Garden Club had the last laugh on old Jay Gould, though,” Jimmie Ruth told me with a wink. “They found one of his personal luxury cars abandoned in a field and had it brought back here on a truck.” The club refurbished the car and turned it into a unique museum whose proceeds helped finance the restoration of the Excelsior House, Jefferson’s most famous inn. The fourteen-room hotel boasts a register signed not only by the infamous railroad mogul, but also by President Ulysses S. Grant and writer Oscar Wilde. The garden club purchased the Excelsior in 1961 when it was sold to satisfy creditors. At the time, a Dallas Morning News headline proclaimed, “Clubwomen Tackle Man-Size Job,” and some folks described the project as simply a “hobby” for the garden club gals. Little did they know….
WHERE TO STAY
The garden club women did much of the work on the Excelsior House themselves, scraping paint, scrubbing floors, and refinishing furniture. According to a published club history, members and non-members were eligible to decorate each room which meant they would provide the “money, time, elbow grease, carpenters, painters, plumbers, and electricians” necessary to complete the project. The club also sponsored regular fundraisers such as luncheon buffets, garage sales, and game nights to supplement donations. They threw a linen shower to gather new bed and bath linens and sold coffee every day to finance the new kitchen equipment. The Excelsior of today is a rare jewel with lovely, antique-filled rooms and a bridal suite named for Bessie Moore, the victim of Jefferson’s infamous honeymoon murder. Another beautifully restored lodging across the street from the Excelsior, the Jefferson Hotel, is reportedly home to the benevolent wandering spirits of several former visitors. Not exactly the X-Files, but interesting enough that guests who claim to have experienced ghostly visitations return to the same rooms year after year. Hotels, however, are far from the only choice. Jefferson is famous for the number and variety of its bed-and-breakfasts.
The Grand Ballroom and Dining Room of the Excelsior House. Photo courtesy of the Marion County Chamber of Commerce. –>
Historic preservation is a community-wide activity in Jefferson, for everybody from the garden club to the high-school-aged junior historians who bought and restored their own building with proceeds from their theatrical presentations. As a result, everything from authentic plantation houses to elegant Victorian mansions to Greek Revival cottages now welcome travelers. There are no less than 60 bed-and-breakfasts in town. The history of each of the houses has been carefully researched and they are decorated with charming period antiques. The many houses take turns appearing on the Candlelight Tour of Homes in December every year. Members of the garden club dress in period costumes and take turns acting as docents in the tour homes every year. “The club is very active in anything that has to do with preservation,” Jimmie Ruth explained, while Llawanda Golden nodded in agreement. “It’s not your ordinary garden club by any means. They assign you a certain number of volunteer hours every month and embarrass you in meetings if you don’t do your share.” More than five thousand guests view the homes on the Candelight Tour every year, promoting the businesses and raising money for Jefferson’s ongoing historical preservation projects.
As a guest at the Governor’s House, I experienced a definitive example of a Jefferson bed-and-breakfast. The classic Greek Revival cottage was built in 1868 for a trial lawyer named Charles A. Culberson who would serve as governor of Texas from 1895 until 1899. Innkeepers Bill and Llawanda Golden invite guests to stay in the bridal room, a large, comfortable room decorated with an antique wedding gown and silk top hat on the armoire. The house was originally built with two rooms across the front, two more on the left side and a semi-detached dining room and kitchen (so possible kitchen fires couldn’t burn down the whole house.) A turn-of-the century owner attached the dining room and kitchen to the house, and now Llawanda prepares elegant breakfasts there on a restored Chambers stove. In keeping with the historic theme, this romantic getaway has no phones, fax machines, or televisions in the two elegant guest rooms.
Parting ways with the ebullient Jimmie Ruth, I was whisked to the Jefferson Hotel in a golf cart to meet my fellow judges for the “Taste of Jefferson” contest. Local restaurants, hotels, and bed-and-breakfasts were presenting their signature dishes for consideration by judges and visitors in booths along Austin Street. The contest revealed a level of culinary sophistication I hadn’t expected in a town so small. This was before I knew that chef “Kapp” Kappler’s delicious steaks at the Galley Restaurant, regularly lure patrons from as far away as the metroplex, or learned that the upscale bill of fare at the Stillwater Inn is favored by discerning diners throughout the ArkLaTex area. The Galley’s tasty spread was the winner that day, with meatballs from Lamache’s, a family Italian restaurant, running a close second.
Horse-drawn carriage at the Galley Restaurant.
Photo courtesy of the Marion County Chamber of Commerce. –>
The night of my arrival I had a chance to discover Jefferson’s unexpected nightlife. As I emerged from dinner at the Galley on Saturday night, raucous live music spilled out of Annie Skinner’s Bar while tourists disembarked from a horse-drawn carriage. Still others strolled arm and arm, window shopping at downtown antique stores. Farther down the block, there was drinking and dancing to live music at the Diamond Bessie Saloon and Dance Hall, an authentic turn-of-the century saloon named for the doomed Bessie Moore. Watching the tourists alight from the carriage, I realized what a common sight that must have been when Austin Street was the cosmopolitan sister of Rue Royale in New Orleans and Galveston’s Strand.
In its prime, Jefferson welcomed the famous theatrical performers of the day: Oscar Wilde, Enrico Caruso, Lilly Langtry, and Sarah Bernhardt. Current visitors to Jefferson can observe Professor D.L. Smith in his performances as Mark Twain at the Galley Restaurant on alternating Saturday nights. The white-haired, mustachioed Smith dons a white suit and strolls up and down Austin Street visiting with tourists before he performs a one-hour show sharing the wit, wisdom and whopping lies of one of America’s most beloved humorists. And during the Jefferson Historical Pilgrimage the first weekend of May, the Excelsior House — and that hardworking garden club — sponsor a play based on the transcripts of Abe Rothschild’s murder trial.
Located deep in the tall piney woods of East Texas, Jefferson offers visitors a completely different climate and atmosphere than any other region of the state. To a daughter of the West Texas desert like myself, it seems to have descended from another country — the verdant, slow-moving antebellum South versus my flat, wild West. Forests of stately pines block out the horizon, blue waters sparkle and lush vegetation quickly reclaims uncultivated ground. The garden club’s first project in 1939 was to plant a dogwood trail and ever since, tourists visit Jefferson to enjoy the blooming of the dogwoods and to inhale the seductive fragrance of magnolia blossoms. Jefferson is also home to two restored authentic plantation properties — The Freeman Plantation and Twin Oaks — both offering regular tours.
History buffs eager to get a sense of steamboat travel can make the short drive to Uncertain, Texas, to catch a paddlewheel riverboat tour of Caddo Lake. Turning Basin Riverboat offers a one-hour history and nature tour of Big Cypress Bayou beginning in the “turning basin” where steamboats turned around to head back downriver. Archeology enthusiasts will want to visit the site of the former Caddo Indian village of Sha-Childni-ni on the James Bayou, a tributary of Caddo Lake (on the south side of the bayou, between Jefferson and Vivian, Louisiana). The peace-loving, hospitable Caddo tribe made its home in the lush Cypress Valley for hundreds of years before moving to Oklahoma in the 1830s. The historic village site was discovered in 1997 by a Louisiana Archeology Society team and is attracting the attention of scholars in Native American archeology as well as modern Caddo Indians and tourists.
If plentiful accommodations, good restaurants and nightlife, historical tours and local color aren’t enough to draw you to Jefferson, there are still other enticements. Antique shopping in Jefferson and surrounding small towns is a prime activity and the nearby village of New Summerfield is widely known for the quality and variety of bedding plants grown in its many greenhouses. I’m not much of an outdoor gal, but I have it on good authority that the fishing is prime on Caddo Lake and Lake ‘O the Pines is less than a thirty-minute drive, featuring boating, skiing, and fishing in its pristine waters. Life in a 1930s oil boom town is chronicled at the East Texas Oil Museum on the campus of Kilgore College in Kilgore. In every season, surrounding towns offer all manner of tours and festivals. Canton is renown for the First Monday Trade Days and people travel from all over the state to see the fabulous Wonderland of Lights in Marshall from Thanksgiving until New Year’s. Gilmer boasts the annual Yamboree with its pie-baking contest, Tour de Yam bike race and Tater Trot run, and the alluring casinos of Shreveport, Louisiana, are only a short drive away.
Though cities such as Dallas and Houston long ago replaced Jefferson as centers of business and commerce in Texas, the “Queen of the Cypress” retains her flavor as a busy port city with an open, welcoming spirit. Tiny, vibrant Jefferson puts me in mind of sprawling, raucous New Orleans, sister cities once bound by a river of commerce that are still alike in very important ways. Both cities have seen more, experienced more and accepted more as passageways to the larger world. Both cities celebrate their history and embrace restoration, keeping them remarkably hospitable and alive today. As the history-loving child of an area of Texas that can claim little more than a century of existence, the respect and preservation of the past I found in Jefferson is one of the magnets that will draw me back. The other will be my curiosity to see what those dynamic garden club gals are up to next.
Candlelight Tour of Homes (tickets: 800/299-1593, info: 903/665-3692)
Skinner’s Bar (107 W. Austin Street, 903/665-7121)
L.J. Carriage Service (903/846-2504)
Freeman Plantation (Hwy 49 West, 903/665-2320)
Twin Oaks (Hwy 134 South, 903/665-3042)
Caddo Lake Boat Rentals (888/325-5459)
Turning Basin Riverboat
Caddo Outback (903/665-2222)
East Texas Oil Museum in Kilgore (Hwy 259 at Ross, 903/983-8295)
Canton’s First Monday Trade Days (903/567-6556)
Wonderland of Lights in Marshall (800/953-7868)
East Texas Yamboree in Gilmer (903/843-2413)