Traffic isn’t bad in Beaumont—once you exit I-10. The Interstate Waffle House and Tinseltown greet incoming guests, and from the multi-lane overpasses, the city looks like most other ones suffocated by suburbia. From up here, mom ‘n’ pop proprietors seem dormant, while green mileage signs remind you that you’re heading toward Louisiana, and soon you’ll be out of the Lone Star State.
But don’t just breeze past. The city best known for the state’s first oil boom is not just another highway town. The historical treasures and fascinating museums captured my attention for two days, in early August, no less; and with much of downtown parking gratis or $2 a day—there’s no rush.
Every town has a hero, and Beaumont’s is Anthony Lucas, the man mostly responsible for discovering oil in a place called Spindletop, an area just south of town. On January 10, 1901, Lucas and his crew, against geology’s conventional wisdom, struck liquid gold beneath a salt dome.
Lamar University now owns the property where the Spindletop–Gladys City museum lets visitors glance at what life was like when the hundred-foot derrick started spewing 100,000 barrels of oil a day—more than any other well in the world. The discovery pushed Beaumont’s population from 9,000 to 50,000 in just a few months and launched what has become the state’s most important industry, as seen in the massive Exxon Mobil plant a few miles south of downtown.
As you drive closer to the plant, the museum, and the original site of Spindletop, you notice a smell that hints of burnt tires; it’s no wonder Beaumont’s early citizens wanted to keep the wildcatters and their equipment at a distance. A delightful woman named Allison will hopefully be working the day you visit. She works the register in the gift shop and will tell you anything you need to know about Beaumont, its history, or where to get the city’s best chicken-fried steak. She’ll even call and make reservations for you at the McFaddin-Ward House in the town’s historic district.
W.P.H. McFaddin, another local bigwig from the early 20th century, owned much of the land near Spindletop, and during the oil boom he leased it to oil companies and made a fortune. The wealth he quickly acquired he used to buy more land and to invest in the local farming industry, and the family riches are most clearly visible in the house they moved into in 1907.
Wide porches wrap the facade, and the most magnificent oak trees I’ve ever seen shade most of the lawn. For $3, a docent will guide you around the property, pointing out the priceless vases, furniture, and art the McFaddins collected over the years, retelling stories about how one elite family lived for several generations in this mansion. The couple that joined me on my tour had driven from Panama City, Florida, and they were quick to point out what looked to them like a Ming vase at the top of a grand staircase that lures you into the nearly 100-year-old Beaux-Arts, Colonial-style house. The house, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, sits on a full city block in the middle of a tree-lined residential thoroughfare.
By 8:30 a.m. the following day, only a few kolaches remain under the glass of the display case of Rao’s Bakery, a local favorite for all things sweet and caffeinated. An out-of-town businessman strikes up a conversation with a local as they buy their morning cups of coffee. It’s too early for the jalapeño kolache the woman behind the counter suggests, but never for the homemade gelato. A scoop of strawberry satiated my early-morning sweet tooth, and I was off to the Art Museum of Southeast Texas.
Peppering the museum’s walls were vibrant paintings, photographs, and sculptures by native, self-taught artists. For the pop-art enthusiast, don’t miss a small collection of Rauschenbergs, Oldenburgs, and a single Warhol in one of the side nooks, too. An art contest for children, each work accompanied by their simplified descriptions of the works, made the museum extra kid-friendly, and the staff was eager to answer any questions I had about the collections and traveling exhibits, making it a pleasant space to take the youngsters and introduce them to a sampling of what the bigger cities have to offer.
To feel a grittier art vibe in Beaumont, head to The Art Studio, Inc. just a few miles away, along Franklin Street, an unpopulated side street on the edge of downtown. For the past twelve years, the Art Studio, Inc.’s founder Greg Busceme has leased warehouse space to artists of all types who need a place to create, turning it into Beaumont’s avant garde nucleus.
Plan your trip to Beaumont around the first Saturday of the month so you can catch new exhibits displaying the tenants’ work. Off to the side of the warehouse, Busceme has also set up a stage for musical acts. (Port Arthur native and Beaumont regular Clifford Antone set up a club in the revived Crockett Street entertainment district a few years ago called—like his Austin venue—Antone’s, but for a look at local talents, check out the outdoor studio at Busceme’s place.) The gift shop has reasonably priced pieces of the tenants’ work for sale, too.
Beaumont is full of museums, but none as well-executed as the Texas Energy Museum. Despite sounding as dry as week-old Thanksgiving turkey, this museum was as enjoyable as it was informative and, though small, its displays would rival any Smithsonian showcase. Gigantic models, constructed with spheres the size of Pilate balls, illustrate the structure of a hydrogen molecule. Elsewhere, a timeline covering the long back wall explains the history of oil in the United States with tidbits of knowledge that would impress any Trivial Pursuit fanatic. An exhibit about Spindletop and the oil industry in Texas takes up the second floor of the museum. At some point during the first few minutes here, I began to care about the viscosity of oil and how off-shore rigs worked, and I ended up browsing around the place for a couple of hours.
Driving through downtown, you can’t miss the world’s largest fire hydrant in front of the State Fire Museum of Texas, another cultural freebie interesting enough to stop by to stroll through with the kids, who go crazy for the antique fire trucks and hoses, an ancient, life-saving net, and a hands-on portion, sirens and hats included.
We don’t get much Cajun food in Missouri, where I grew up, so when I saw Taste of Orleans on Orleans Street downtown, I forwent the search for true Texas cuisine and walked in to see about some gumbo. Instead of gumbo, the young man behind the counter suggested an étouffée with fresh crawfish that, no mind the cliché, melted in my mouth. A fried oyster po’ boy and pecan (“puh-coin”) candy (blond pralines to the rest of Texas) filled my stomach for the ride back home from Jefferson County—timed to miss rush hour, of course.