The flat bottomed skiff navigates the curves of the Big Cypress Bayou as the boat’s guide, Chase Vallery, a 24 year old Louisiana State University alumnus degreed in cartography, motions toward a standalone brick structure on an elevated bank as we round a bend. “Here was where ammunition was dropped off for the Confederates during the Civil War and that building was where they stored it,” Vallery says as he lands the skiff upon the shoreline.
The bluff has slowly eroded over time and a wall is currently being constructed to reinforce the embankment to halt nature’s progression. This small building, built with walls one foot thick, was part of a complex of Civil War-era buildings that have vanished over time. Protecting the only remaining Confederate ordnance magazine in Texas has become vital to local and statewide preservationists.
Bald cypress draped in Spanish moss grow along the water’s edge where vegetation was once dredged to clear passage for steamboats paddling up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, traversing Caddo Lake, then down to the wharf of Jefferson, Texas. The drab colored waters of the bayou were much higher and wider then due to The Great Red River Raft, a massive logjam that allowed Caddo Lake’s water level to swell thus catapulting the bayou to become the lone vein for Jefferson’s economy.
The raft was eventually decimated in the 1870s shortly after the discovery of nitroglycerine. This act depleted the water source and ultimately, the town of its industrial and financial livelihood; the steamboat trade. At that moment, Jefferson’s ‘Golden Era’ was doomed to transpire into something we celebrate today – its past.
What had been one of Texas’ most prosperous towns, the Queen of the Cypress quickly unraveled and just like the waters of the bayou, her population receded. Jefferson’s history is fascinating, if not hauntingly compelling, having played host for many famous persons during the last century and a half. Guests such as Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford Hayes, railroad mogul Jay Gould, first lady ‘Lady’ Bird Johnson, authors Oscar Wilde and Stephen King, and film maker Steven Spielberg are among those who found room and board at either the Excelsior House or Jefferson Hotel, two of the oldest operating hotels west of the Mississippi.
Local author Mitchel Whitington explains how Jefferson is known by it’s name alone. “In researching some of the books that I’ve written, I’ve seen references to the city in newspapers like the New York Times where they only call it ‘Jefferson,’ not ‘Jefferson, Texas.’ Since it was a well-known river port across the nation, its location didn’t need to be identified – kind of the way we say ‘Miami, Seattle, or Denver’ today.”
Whitington’s move to Jefferson and purchase of his historical home has led him to author or co-author approximately 40 books ranging from local to regional historical fact and folklore, to covering towns as far as Natchez, Mississippi. Often found under the haint blue porch ceiling of his 1860 Greek revival cottage, Whitington curates weekend ghost tours of his residence, The Grove; considered the most paranormally active home in Jefferson. Brushing on the history of Jefferson, he closely examines the lives of former Grove residents who seem rather impartial to and not ready to vacate the premises.
“After buying the house, we began researching its past and the lives of the owners before us, and saw an amazing story begin to unfold. That was like being infected with a virus – I became interested in the history of other aspects of Jefferson, and then East Texas, and I grew from there. As a student in school I was never interested in history at all, but now I’m obsessed with it.”
“It only took one visit to the city for my wife and me to fall in love with it,” he laments. “You know, I kind of like it the way that it is. If the logjam called hadn’t been cleared from the Red River, Jefferson would have grown into a Dallas or a Houston, and it wouldn’t have the charm that it has today. No, I believe that it would be best if Jefferson didn’t change a lot.”
One of only a handful of descendants from the pioneer families in Jefferson, Marcia Thomas, whose eclectic personality never dulls, holds a more ambitious outlook regarding changes that should be made for Jefferson’s ability to sustain going forward. “Jefferson must grow its tourism since that is our main industry, but we must be careful how we commercialize it since we represent ‘a step back in time’. “ Operator of the Ruth Lester Playhouse, a salt box styled building from 1860, Thomas exalts the importance of the playhouse begun in the 1950s with a rendition of the famous Diamond Bessie Murder Trial (Texas’s first murder trial held in Jefferson) that has continued annually. In its current makeup as a community theater, they’re entering their 29th season of entertainment.
Located in the historic downton and owned by longtime residents, Cliff and Anna Bode, The Jefferson General Store, housed in a circa 1860s warehouse, carries everything from candies to jars full of various preservatives, novelty items and cast iron cookware – plus a healthy dose of taxidermy and obsolete farm equipment adorning the walls. You can even play a game of checkers while devouring a famous Moody Dog.
When asked of the town’s transformation over the years, Anna, who is a fifth generation resident, replied, “Of course Jefferson has changed over the years but in some ways we are just the same. When Cliff moved here in 1979, there were many empty buildings downtown. (Now) we have so much more to offer downtown with great restaurants, shops, museums, and tours. We think that so many people that move here or have been here a long time have a great entrepreneurial spirit and want to bring life to Jefferson.”
“Cliff has always loved antiques. I also love antiques and growing up in Jefferson has made me appreciate our local history,” she continues. “We have restored several old homes and a few downtown buildings and more to come. The building our store is in is full of local history. We love it when people come in and tell us their memories of coming in many, many years ago. My mother turned 90 last week and remembers coming into the hardware store – our store now – when she was a little girl with her father.”
Promoting that entrepreneurial spirit, they recently opened Caddo Mercantile, an antique store one door over that’s more at home in the psychedelic 1970s than the reconstruction 1870s. Full of retro décor, vinyl, and classic stereo equipment, you’ll also find relics of the Victorian period tagged for sale.
If the aisles of the General Store are too congested, skip around the corner and visit another antique and general store crossover simply titled, The Old Store. Here you will locate some of the finest chocolate crafted by Marcey Wells alongside mint conditioned 1800s furniture awaiting new homes. If you’re still hankering for sugar, stop by City Drug, an active pharmacy that features a soda fountain bar where you can belly up and polish off ice cream float. First, you may want to warm up with a lunch visit to Riverport Barbeque.
Caught comfortably in the 19th century, Jefferson’s economy now largely relies on tourism with events such as motorcycle and antique car rallies, the Candlelight Tour of Homes, Mardi Gras, a spring pilgrimage, and various history symposiums.
Absent are the clanging bells that hung prominently from the steamboats and the whistles announcing arrival for the dockhands and passengers. Those have long been replaced with the modern sounds associated with tourists visiting antique stores and boutique shops, restaurants and bars, and various tours about town. The only accent that resonates as reminders of the Victorian era is the clopping of horses that carry visitors in gourd-shaped carriages over weathered redbrick streets past magnolia-white antebellum homes where porch-sitting is an art form associated with friendly exchanges by wave of hand.
To accommodate the weekend billow, Jefferson boasts approximately 40 bed and breakfasts of homes dating back to the 1840s carrying an official title, “Bed and Breakfast Capitol of Texas.” Hosts like Doug and Susan Thompson of Angell Manor welcome you into their circa 1870 home with a tour. Separate carriage homes situated in the backyard provide the comfort needed for a stress-free stay within blocks of the downtown. Breakfast is, of course, a staple in Jefferson and Susan’s freshly made meal is not to be slept on.
“We are one of many who own a bed and breakfast, but there is plenty of room for all of us. There are so many weekly activities that tourists come for. Either to visit the historical homes, the ghost walks, the carriage rides, visiting the museums, or cemetery tours – along with whatever events that are happening that weekend,” said Susan. “We came to Jefferson to spend the Mardi Gras weekend, because I LOVE New Orleans and Mardi Gras, and we wanted to see how Jefferson celebrated,” Susan laments at her dining room table after plating a hearty breakfast in front of me. “It was actually a Christmas present for me. I am originally from the Longview area, and had grown up coming to Jefferson in my youth, but had not spent any time here as an adult. We were delighted with the town, folks were super friendly and it just had the ‘coming home’ feeling. As we drove around during the weekend, it just seemed like we were supposed to be here and we wound up coming back the next two weekends looking at property. We had not planned to move here, but we had decided it was time for us to downsize… that did not happen!”
Birthed along a bayou that connects two major lakes, Caddo and Lake O’ the Pines, Jefferson is looking to bolster its eco-tourism and local lawyer, Duke Deware, whose family came to Jefferson in 1856, has become a proponent for growing this opportunity. Sitting in a rocking chair with a pour of bourbon in hand on the elevated porch of his home, the Freeman Plantation, Deware expresses his interest in the future of Jefferson’s tourism. “I’d love for us to embrace things that are innovations for the future, to engage people, and I really love nature based tourism. That’s a younger crowd who enjoys nice food and is not the type to camp in the park. They’ll stay somewhere nice at night but go on adventures during the day.”
Jefferson is a Southern town which is proud of its Southern heritage for all of the right reasons: good food, good hospitality and a strong identity with good community values. Our local motto is ‘It is not nice to be not nice.’
“When we celebrate history in Jefferson, we are celebrating American achievements from both the North and the South and the East and the West. Most people who move to Jefferson come from other places, many of them from up north and the west coast. They come to Jefferson because they like what it offers, both visually and socially. They say it makes them feel good. Jefferson is a town of characters and we have an appreciation for individuality, so being tolerant of people who are characters has always been a Jefferson trait because we are a port city at heart.”
Jefferson, like every small town, is a place where everyone has a story or opinion. ‘Why Jefferson,’ becomes a clichéd question more commonly in line with an answer of ‘Why not Jefferson?’ states resident historian, John Taylor. Jefferson possesses the ability to make you homesick for a town you’ve never lived in. Week nights can be eerily quiet, barring bullfrogs and cicadas, or maybe a wind’s whisper through the pines; though weekends are jauntily filled with clanking beer bottles and music wafting in the air. You may catch a band leading a choir of voices to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s swampy southern tunes as if John Fogerty penned them as homage to Jefferson’s past. With all the tales and folklore that shaped Jefferson, truth be told, Fogerty may have stopped by for a spell.
Written and Photographed by Cody Neathery