Athens has a great square, a freshwater fisheries center, and a fascinating history. Who needs the Acropolis?
I MUST CONFESS: WHEN DISCUSSING ideas for a road trip this past month, I stated rather rashly to my ever-patient friends that the idea of travel in Texas was limiting. After all, when an e-mail to my family in Spain takes two seconds, when I can witness events in Iraq as they happen, and when I can instant-message old classmates in every corner of the world, what allure does my back yard hold, if I have whole continents at my fingertips? My friends, enlightened as they are, suggested that maybe—just maybe—the limiting factor was not the state but my perspective. The fact that Texas had been compared with “a whole other country” was surely not just a tourism ploy?
So I have set out to investigate. A few weeks ago, as I pored over a state map and considered my friends’ words, I was struck again by how Texas is not only huge but also geographically and ethnically diverse. And there was another, more surprising, aspect: a wealth of place names that hint at a global awareness. (Consider Paris, Praha, and Dublin. Or Palestine. You get the picture.) Now, if you can visit places like New York or Turkey or Egypt without ever crossing a state line, why leave Texas? I was intrigued. And thus I embark on my journeys with a new purpose: a Texan’s guide to international travel.
And what better place to start than in Athens, the cradle of Western civilization? Named after its Greek counterpart in the hopes that it too would become a thriving cultural center, Athens, Texas, claims to be the Black-Eyed Pea Capital of the World. As the county seat for Henderson County, it boasts, among other things, the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center (an aquatic nature center and hatchery with more than 300,000 gallons-worth of aquariums), the East Texas Arboretum and Botanical Society, a scuba park, and the Henderson County Historical Museum. A fiddling contest every May and a (now defunct) annual black-eyed pea festival put Athens on the map throughout the state and nationwide. And while one might venture to say that Texas Athenians have not had as far-reaching a legacy as Greek Athenians, consider this cultural impact: Athens, Texas, is the birthplace of the hamburger.
I arrived in town on a Saturday in June after a beautiful drive through East Texas. I rolled through its streets at tortoise speed behind other cars; life here is a slow affair. The pace let me take in my surroundings—particularly beautiful are the historic homes along East Tyler Street, their architectural styles ranging from Victorian to Colonial. On the main square, where I parked, rises the Henderson County courthouse, an imposing building of brown brick surrounded by oak and magnolia trees. Its roof and columns reminded me, funnily enough, of the Greek Parthenon, but without any friezes that Lord Elgin would covet.
I had been told that Athens is known for its antiques stores, so after a quick lunch, I wandered in and out of a few shops on the courthouse square and in the area named Athens Alley, a block away. Ungifted as I am in the ways of shopping, I was quickly overwhelmed by the decorative furniture, stained glass, pewter dishes, and old rat traps until a notice inside the shop Somewhere in Time made me laugh: “Unruly children will be bronzed and sold as sculptures.” I recalled the sky-bearing Titan Atlas and concluded that, had Medusa’s ghastly stare not turned him into stone, he would have made a perfect bronze statue in this part of Texas.
Wandering back out into the afternoon sun, I happened upon the Henderson County Historical Museum, which is housed in the Faulk-Gauntt Building on Prairieville Street. If not an antiques shopper, I have a definite weakness for history museums, so I ventured inside without a second thought. It would be the highlight of my day. Sarah Brown, a member of the Henderson County Historical Society who was overseeing the museum that day, spent several hours walking me through its treasures. We had the place to ourselves, so I got full explanations on everything from Native American artifacts and Civil War items (including a flag flown at some of the major battles) to farm tools and old doctor’s instruments. Particularly amusing were some mustache cups, with special rims to keep men’s handlebar mustaches dry. The second floor of the museum recreates a turn-of-the-century kitchen (complete with a wood-burning stove), schoolroom, bedroom, bathroom, and law office; I felt like I had walked back in time as Sarah recounted the individual histories of the clothes, quilts, kitchen supplies, and office paraphernalia. Also in the museum were artifacts relating to Jess Sweeten, the famed tough sheriff from Athens who gunned down Gerald Johnson, the Dallas Kid, in 1943.
From the museum, Sarah directed me to the old site of the B&B Cafe, on the south side of the courthouse square. The cafe, which opened in the thirties, was allegedly named for its owners Walter and Clyde Barrow. Legend has it that Clyde’s girlfriend, Bonnie, would go with him to the back door of the cafe for a meal while Jess Sweeten ate in front. The image of hungry outlaws sparked my appetite, so I headed toward the New York, TX Cheesecake shop, famed for its award-winning handmade cheesecakes. The company was started in New York, Texas, a small community southeast of Athens. I was hoping to catch the bakers at work, but they were off for the afternoon, so instead I chatted with Garry, who was manning the counter, and tasted a slice of blueberry cheesecake. Athenians are unsurpassingly hospitable, I discovered; after having spent several hours talking to Sarah, I spent another one talking to Garry about the town’s history and his childhood memories.
This left me no time to visit the town’s bigger attractions, such as the Freshwater Fisheries Center I had planned on seeing. But I still wanted to investigate the town’s claim to hamburger fame. A plaque on the courthouse square explained: In the late 1880’s, cafe owner Fletcher “Old Dave” Davis had the idea of placing a meat patty between two slices of bread. Spurred on by Athenian fans of the new sandwich, Davis took his innovation to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, introducing the hamburger to the rest of the world. I decided to commemorate this moment in history with a sampling at the Ole West Bean ‘N’ Burger Company, whose burgers were voted best in town in 2002.
I left Athens wanting to know more; in one day I had barely tapped into its history and people. As I drove out of town, stopping first to admire Lake Athens in the setting sun, I passed a sign in front of the courthouse that proclaimed Athenians “the best people in Texas.” Well, Aristotle did consider pride the crown of all virtues.