Fairfield is much more than a near-midpoint pit stop between Dallas and Houston.
Fairfield is a place where the streets are lined with peaches (giving way to an annual Peach Festival), cow pastures outnumber stoplights, and football and the county fair reign supreme. When I was growing up in this tiny town, just ninety miles southeast of Dallas, I truly believed that I lived at the edge of civilization. It’s taken four years of college, a year of graduate school, and a stint in the big city to make me appreciate Fairfield’s charm and old-fashioned Southern hospitality.
When I went back for a lazy weekend, I expected to learn everything about the town’s history and culture in a matter of hours. (After all, I had spent the better part of my childhood and adolescence there.) Instead, I found myself—after two weekends, actually—just beginning to see what I had missed when I lived there years ago. Fairfield is much more than a near-midpoint pit stop between Dallas and Houston; the city practically bursts at the cultural seams with history, one-of-a-kind eateries and boutiques, and a steady schedule of good old-fashioned fun.
Autumn in Fairfield means one thing: football. I was lucky enough to stumble across the most time-honored sport tradition in town when I arrived—concession-stand nachos in hand—at Fairfield High School’s annual homecoming. The stands were packed with enthusiastic maroon-and-gold-clad fans and one of the best high school marching bands in Texas. Although the Fairfield Eagles suffered a devastating blow and ultimately lost the game, the crowd’s team spirit never wavered.
The next day I slept late and had an early lunch at Something Different, a local cafe known for its diverse cuisine. In fact, when my husband and I grabbed a booth, we immediately gravitated toward opposite sides of the menu. I selected the chicken salad and fruit plate combination, while Jacob opted for a mushroom burger and french fries. When our respective dishes arrived, Jacob announced that his burger and curly fries were nothing short of home-cooked heaven on earth. Drizzled with a secret recipe of sweet poppy-seed dressing, my fruit medley of strawberries, melon, grapes, and pineapple was the answer to a healthy and satisfying dessert—and the dressing was so addictive, I bought a pint to go.
My midday meal left me refreshed and energized, so I decided to hit the downtown shopping district. In search of a friend’s birthday present, I wandered into Notting Hill, a tiny boutique filled with one-of-a-kind trinkets. Amid Lollia candles, elegantly chunky jewelry, and artistic home decor, I felt like I’d walked into a style maven’s treasure chest. In this case, the style maven was Notting Hill owner Demar Hill, who serves as Fairfield’s messiah of all things bohemian chic and hosts a quarterly happy hour in the garden courtyard that rests behind the store. Perusing all of Notting Hill’s unquestionably chic accessories evolved into an exercise in self control. I narrowed my wish list to a decorative wrought-iron wall hanging and a set of red goblets.
My next stop, Parker Square Mall, was an antiques lover’s delight, filled with porcelain dolls, tea sets, and vintage baubles. As soon as I spotted a collection of well-worn books, however, my browsing came to an abrupt halt. Sorting through shelves of classics gave way to an unexpected discovery: an early edition copy of Oliver Twist. The store’s wares are sold by individual antiques buyers, practically all of whom are willing to negotiate. Unfortunately, the Dickens’s classic was still a bit out of my price range, so I gave way to holiday spirit and settled on a vintage copy of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Satisfied with my afternoon purchases and much in need of a heavily caffeinated jolt, I headed across the street to Java Jack’s. With multicolored light bulbs strung along a red-brick and stucco interior, the tiny coffee shop feels more big city than Fairfield (population: 3,094). Even in October, Texas’s version of fall made it too hot to order one of Java Jack’s steaming specialties (Snicker-Roo and Almond Joy are always popular), so I gravitated toward a refreshing mocha frappuccino. (Java Jack’s is open Tuesday through Friday. If you’re fortunate enough to swing by between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., order the Granny Smith sandwich, a delicious combination of turkey, Swiss cheese, sprouts, and Granny Smith apple served on wheat.)
Like most small towns, the nightlife in Fairfield is sparse—especially because the city is smack-dab in the middle of a dry county. Luckily, the Fairfield Mainstreet Program came up with a remedy: Movies on the Square. The downtown square—or the local baseball field, depending on the size of the crowd—is transformed into an outdoor movie theater. When night fell on my hometown, it signaled the start of The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D. About two hundred Fairfieldians converted their truck beds and lawn chairs into theater seats. And not to be outdone by big-city movie houses, there’s also a fully stocked concession stand.
A weekend later, I was back in full force to discover the rest of Fairfield’s unearthed treasures. My Saturday morning started with a decidedly early six o’clock stop at Sam’s Original Restaurant, one of the town’s culinary landmarks. Here, I met up with a group of regulars, several of whom had frequented Sam’s since its humble beginnings in the fifties. (Before that, the building had been utilized as—among other things—a funeral home and, later, a bar.) Every morning of the week the bunch convenes to drink coffee (black, of course) and discuss small-town life and politics. In fact, this tiny group is such a recognizable constant at the restaurant that when a muralist crafted a scene from Sam’s on an outside wall of the restaurant, he painted in the regular breakfast gang as a central focal point.
With its country-store atmosphere (complete with an old-timey scale) and simple setting, Sam’s is an unlikely candidate for culinary fame. But thousands of weary travelers often stop at this modest restaurant to enjoy its most famous concoction—a hearty slice of pie—before hitting the road again. From chocolate to lemon meringue, a succulent spread of homemade pies can satisfy even the most discriminating sweet tooth. Although I was ready for a generous serving of peach cobbler, I was told that the pies aren’t available until after ten.
Later that morning, I ventured to the Freestone County Museum, which, for $3, lets visitors tour three historic buildings. Curator Molly Fryer explained that the two-story museum was originally utilized as a nineteenth-century county jail. The second level had included a couple of cells for unlawful citizens, whereas the lower level served as living quarters for the county sheriff and his family. Now filled with hundreds of artifacts and antiques, the museum is a frequent stopping point for out-of-towners. While early newspaper clippings reporting town murders and hangings captured my attention, it was the second floor of vintage dresses and jewelry that made me long for earlier fashions to return. A collection of beaded handbags would have been right at home in my closet.
Behind the main museum two 1800’s log cabins continued my journey in Fairfield history. One illustrated a turn-of-the-century schoolhouse, with intricate wrought-iron desks and a mannequin dressed as a schoolteacher. Across the lawn, a second log cabin displayed a traditional early Texas settlement. A dog trot separated two sides of the cabin, one which showcased an extensive collection of historical telephones, and the other, which gave me a glimpse into a typical pioneer home.
As I pulled out of the history museum parking lot, my luggage packed and ready to drive back to Austin, I knew I had two more quick stops to make to ensure a smooth trip home. The first, Ponte’s Diner, was a regular hangout when I was in high school, and, although the walls had since been painted a neon green, the fifties atmosphere (think authentic jukebox) was still undeniable. I ordered a classic fountain drink, a vanilla Dr Pepper with crushed ice, and selected the Garth Brooks classic ”Rodeo” from the jukebox’s collection of honky-tonk hits.
I knew my next stop, J&S Smokehouse, was sure to complement my fountain drink. The moment I walked in, the scent of smoked hickory beckoned me to the best selection of beef jerky in East Texas. Southwest chipotle jerky seemed a spicy but safe bet, and I felt well guarded against the bursts of hunger that inevitably hit on the three-hour stretch of highway.
In a few months Cooper Farms (the area’s resident produce supplier) will begin setting up peach stands at just about every major intersection in town. Families will head to Fairfield Lake to enjoy its endless supply of fishing and water sports, and the Fairfield Mainstreet Program will continue to organize family-friendly activities. I can’t wait to go back.