BECAUSE HUNTSVILLE IS THE HOME of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, it can be difficult, especially if you’ve never visited, to think about the town without imagining the inmate population housed in the area’s seven prison units. I told a friend I was going camping in Huntsville, and she looked at me like I was crazy. But my boyfriend, James, and I had a fabulous time at Huntsville State Park (6 miles southwest of Huntsville off Interstate 45 on Park Road 40), camping among the loblolly and shortleaf pines, swimming in Lake Raven, and hiking the 7.7-mile trail that surrounds the lake. The 2,000-plus-acre park is great for families too. There’s a playground, miniature golf, and horseback riding, as well as 3.2 miles of surfaced bicycle trails and 11 miles of mountain bike trails. We also enjoyed visiting the historic downtown courthouse square, eating a soup-and-sandwich lunch at the quaint King’s Candies and a pepper steak dinner at the homey Café Texan, which has been in continuous operation since 1936. We made a pilgrimage for barbecue to New Zion Baptist Barbecue (2601 Montgomery) where we enjoyed the lean, smoky brisket. Despite the presence of the prison, Huntsville is pretty much like any other small town—in fact, there’s a feeling of authenticity here that many other small towns we’ve visited lack. And there’s plenty of historical sights and attractions.
If you’re an admirer of Sam Houston, you should pay a visit to the Sam Houston Statue, a.k.a. Big Sam, the world’s tallest statue of an American hero. Visible from I-45, just north of Huntsville State Park, the 67-foot-high likeness of the general and two-time president of Texas was dedicated in 1994. For a closer look, stop at the Visitors Center and walk down the short path to the base of the monument, which is surrounded with memorial bricks from notable dignitaries including one that is engraved, “Lech Welesa, President of the Polish Repulic.” From there continue down Sam Houston Avenue (Texas Highway 75) to the Walker Education Center and Sam Houston Memorial Museum. The museum houses one of the most extensive collections of Sam Houston memorabilia in Texas, and the twenty-acre setting encompasses his home, the steamboat house where he died in 1863, the office where he practiced law, a pioneer kitchen, and a blacksmith shop.
A town with so many prison units is bound to have some attraction dealing with incarceration. To get to the Texas Prison Museum, which was established in 1989 and moved to its new location last year, follow Highway 75 to just east of I-45. Maybe because “Old Sparky,” the infamous electric chair used in state executions until 1964, is one of the items the museum boasts, I was expecting the exhibits to be geared to those with a morbid fascination of such things. A brochure states that the museum “preserves and displays prison artifacts as well as educates the public on the history and culture of Texas prisons,” and I have to say that it does a good job of balancing stories about characters from both sides of the bars and objectively dealing with the delicate issue of the death penalty. I wasn’t much interested in checking out Old Sparky and some of the more modern execution paraphernalia, but I was interested in the informative exhibits on the TDCJ and fascinated by stories about Ferdinand Waldo Demara, “The Great Imposter,” whose life of bizarre pseudo-identities included a stint as assistant warden of the prison; snippets about the old Prison Rodeo; and tales about some of the celebrities who’ve done time in the TDCJ including Leadbelly, Candy Barr, Bob Hayes, and David Crosby. Turns out the prison connection isn’t so mundane after all.