Writer: TAMRA BOLTON // Photographer: TAMRA BOLTON & COURTESY // Jan/Feb 2016
With a patchwork of rolling farmland and lush hardwood forests, deep East Texas is a picturesque backdrop for Nacogdoches, the oldest town in Texas. Even before the Texas was a gleam in the founding fathers’ eyes, Nacogdoches was making history.
This year, as Nac celebrates its tricentennial, what better a time to become acquainted with the charms of the city.
The story of Nacogdoches begins with Gil Y’Barbo (pronounced I Barvo). In 1779, with permission from the Spanish government, he led settlers to Nac. Using native iron ore stone and adobe blocks, he built a two-story building to serve as the seat of government that stood as the tallest building in Nacogdoches for nearly a century.
Erected near the downtown plaza, where El Camino Real (now Main Street/Hwy 21) and La Calle del Norte (now North Street) intersect, the building known as Old Stone Fort stood as Nacogdoches went from a backwater Spanish outpost to, by the 1800s, a thriving community of thousands. A replica of Old Stone Fort at Stephen F. Austin State University houses a museum on the area’s history.
Y’Barbo also is responsible for the unique layout of downtown. He used the Spanish “plaza principal” model with streets positioned as spokes shooting from a central plaza.
The hub of the plaza today is the federal building housing the Charles R. Bright Visitor’s Center. Built in 1918, this elegant building is surrounded by lush landscaping and bronze statues depicting Y’Barbo and settlers.
Spending time in the Visitor’s Center, where colorful murals and historical items interpret the story of Nac, gave me insight and deeper appreciation of the city. The knowledgeable and friendly staff eagerly answered my questions. They told me Nacogdoches is an Indian word meaning “persimmon-eater.” With an abundance of wild persimmon trees in the area, the name is fitting!
I started my exploration of downtown Nac at Dolli’s. Settling into a table near gorgeous paintings of local craftsmen by JD Cole, I ordered coffee and waffle-and-chicken strips. I chatted with owner Dolli Geyerman who, along with her husband, Steve, has made the diner one of the most popular places downtown.
Several heads turned when a handsome silver-haired man walked in and took a seat. Dolli smiled and said, “That’s my most famous regular. … Brad.”
I was puzzled. Dolli laughed and said, “I didn’t know who he was either until a friend of mine was visiting and he walked in one morning and she nearly fainted. She said, ‘Do you know who that is?’ She was all excited. I said, ‘Yeah, that’s Brad (Maule).’ My friend said, ‘That is Dr. Tony! You know, from ‘General Hospital!’’ Well, I didn’t know. I thought he was just Brad, one of my regular customers.”
I introduced myself to Brad and asked if he’d let me snap a photo of him and Dolli.
“Sure!” he said. “I’ve been trying to get Dolli to sit on my lap forever.”
Next, I ducked into the Heart of Texas Gift Gallery, where you can find just about anything Texas or Texas-related. I fell in love with its great collection of home décor and funky souvenirs and made a few gift purchases.
I was immediately delighted with the vast array of items at Olde Towne Antiques and Collectibles. Picking through old albums, sheet music, books, silverware and railroad memorabilia is one of my favorite pastimes.
Nearby at Olde Towne General Store, with its knotty pine and exposed brick, the aroma of freshly baked bread filled the air. I had a hard time passing on the gorgeous homemade desserts. I’d heard that its chicken salad sandwich was one of the best in Nac, so I had to try it.
At The Glass Castle, David and Teresa Darby create stained and etched glass pieces including windows, chimes and glass panels full of color and whimsical beauty. You will often find David working on a new creation near the back of the store.
The Cole Art Center’s two galleries display works by talented local and SFA artists. The center is housed in the Old Opera House built in 1889, where the likes of the Marx Brothers performed.
Milford Barber Shop, a downtown Nac institution, is an honest-to-goodness old-fashioned barber shop where generations had their first haircuts. Customers who move away often bring their kids and grandkids back there for their first haircut in order to carry on a family tradition.
Next to Milford’s is Shelley’s Bakery. Shelley’s is the perfect place to enjoy a cup of tea with delicious cookies or fruit tarts. My favorite was the blueberry tart. After all, Nacogdoches is home of some of the best blueberries in Texas!
At Rachel’s Antiques and More, I was tempted with elegant furnishings and clever accessories. I also poked through booths at Main Street Antique Mall and the selections of beautiful china and housewares found at House of Traditions.
At Rees Jewelry, I admired displays of sparkling estate jewelry. The Texas Historical Commission has designated Ree’s as a Texas Treasure. The store has been open since 1952. Owner Charlene Rees was a pleasure to talk with.
Inside The Liberty Bell wine bar, the sparse interior, antique brick walls and soaring high ceiling create a perfect backdrop for paintings displayed on the walls. All of the works, which are by local artists, are for sale. The restaurant features an eclectic menu and good wine selection and offers live music on Friday and Saturday nights.
My final stop was the General Mercantile and Old-Time String Shop. The restored 1907 building is a labor of love for owners Steve and Sheryl Hartz who since 1978 have made it a “must see” place. Walking into the General Mercantile is like taking a trip back in time to TV’s fictional Mayberry. Everywhere are old-fashioned toys, antique equipment and lye soaps. The Mercantile even has its own line of jams, jellies, East Texas honey and other staples.
Using East Texas cane, Steve makes musical instruments, including banjos, musical spoons and Native American flutes. The day I was there he was working on a mandolin. Steve also crafts wooden handles, walking canes and brooms.
The shop sells things I didn’t think were made anymore, like old-fashioned candies, coal oil lamps and ice-cold “soda pop” sold from an antique red Coca-Cola box.
The lunch counter is a relic from the 1930s when the building housed Stone’s Café. Bonnie Parker, of Bonnie and Clyde fame, worked in the café before she began an ill-fated life of crime.
If you visit on a Saturday afternoon, you might find Steve, Sheryl and their friends playing foot-stompin’ bluegrass. If you’re so inclined, bring an instrument and join a jam session.
Steve says, “Our goal is to have an active, working, living history venue where people can come and not only shop and be entertained, but make a connection with their past, their family and their history.”
Back at the plaza where I started, I let it all soak in as I take a seat on a bench in the shade of old Gil Y’Barbo himself. Watching the traffic curl past the statue, I realize that is the very road those early settlers trod 300 years ago.
I imagine Indians on horseback making their way to a camp; Spanish padres on foot trudging towards a new outpost of Christendom; plodding mules pulling wagons. The spirit of all those who came to Nacogdoches 300 years ago still lingers. You can feel it – especially in the plaza.