Travel JOURNEY TO JEFFERSON

Having grown up in Williamsburg, Virginia, I tend to be skeptical when I hear about other res toration efforts. The people of Williamsburg have spent almost 50 years of research and lots of Rockefeller dollars on transforming the town into the 18th century Virginia capital it once was. I was afraid that the work being done in the small East Texas town of Jefferson would pale by comparison. My fears were unwarranted.

Texas has every right to be proud of Jefferson. It isn’t Williamsburg, but what Jefferson lacks in size and luxury, it makes up for in friendliness and total community commitment to preserving its 19th century heritage.

A friend and I left Dallas one Saturday at 7 a.m., hoping to travel the 168 miles to Jefferson in time to make the breakfast service at the Excelsior Hotel before the dining room closed at 10. For $2.50, we enjoyed a delicious home-cooked meal of ham, eggs, grits, fresh orange juice, and mouth-watering biscuits and orange muffins. Our waitress explained that lots of famous people had dined at the hotel, which has been in continuous operation since the 1850’s. “Oh, my, yes – we’ve served Presidents, don’cha know, and Oscar Wilde, and Lady Bird’s been here several times. Can I get you darlin’s anything else?”

The hotel has 14 rooms filled with 19th century furniture. Prices range from $12 for a single room to $30 for a suite, reasonable prices for the privilege of sleeping on a sleigh bed or a canopied four-poster. On Friday and Saturday nights the hotel is usually booked well in advance, so if you plan a weekend trip, it’s best to call ahead for reservations. The hotel’s number is (214) 665-2513.

At 1 p.m., volunteers will take you on a tour of the hotel for $1. Our guide was a local high school student. Her knowledge of the hotel’s history and antiques was limited, but we gave her points for subduing the only unpleasant person we met that day – an obnoxious tourist who insisted on loudly vocalizing her impression of every place to her husband. “My god, I’m just flipped out. Honey, this place is just un-be-leeeev-able!”

Before the hotel tour began, we headed down the brick-paved street in search of the Rosebud, once an old saloon. On the way, we discovered the offices of the local newspaper, the Jefferson Juplicate. The sign on the window explained that the word Juplicate is somehow formed from the letters in “Join industry, manufacturing, planting, labor, energy, capital [in] unity together everlasting.” The desk clerk at the Excelsior told us that there’s another explanation for the name. According to his tale, an employee of the newspaper who arranged type accidentally spilled the type tray, and in replacing it, “Juplicate” is what turned up.

We located the Rosebud around the corner from the newspaper. Today, it’s a combination needlepoint shop and lunch room owned and operated by King and Dorothy Sain. King is also the mayor of Jefferson. The Sains serve lunch in spring and summer when they can use the double ivy-walled courtyards behind the shop. During cooler months, when the tourist trade is busy enough, they sell coffee and homemade pies and cakes inside the shop.

Mrs. Sain’s daughter and son-in-law, Susan and Dick Collins, divide their time between Dallas and Jefferson. In Jefferson they are the proud owners of “The House of the Seasons.” Arrangements for a tour of their home can be made through the Rosebud (665-2471) or by calling the Sain residence (665-8390). Admission to the home is $1.50 and well worth it. The house was built in 1872 and its most notable feature is a third story square observation tower, each side paned in a different color of stained glass – green, gray, yellow or blue. Depending upon which side of the tower you gaze through, you can see Jefferson in any of the four seasons at a glance.

Martin and Erin-Jo Jurow live across the street from the “Seasons” in the oldest home in Jefferson, built in 1839. Like the Collins, they are Dallas/Jefferson commuters. Martin is now an assistant D.A. in Dallas, having already completed one career as a producer in Hollywood. Erin-Jo stays busy traveling the state in search of historical data and pictures suitable for publication in book calendars she and Dallas photographer Bob Jackson are producing.

The Jurows’ enthusiasm for what is being done in Jefferson typifies that of all the town’s citizens. The couple looks forward to the day when artists and writers will move to Jefferson and establish a colony of creative, committed residents that will draw even more tourists to the city. “Jefferson is a magnificent blend of the south and the west – a gentle appreciation of beauty is the south’s influence . . . and the truly Texas pioneer spirit is also present,” comments Jurow.

Jefferson was a thriving riverboat town in the late 1800’s. Its population was second only to Galveston’s before the turn of the century. Riverboats traveled inland all the way from New Orleans, bringing to the city a Creole flavor unusual for the piney woods of East Texas. The wrought iron trim on the Excelsior’s facade as well as its brick courtyards and the Greek Revival style of architecture of many of the homes are evidence of close ties with that Louisiana port city.

One of the most interesting and well-preserved homes in Jefferson is the Freeman Plantation House, about a mile northwest of the hotel. It is open to the public every afternoon except Monday and Wednesday from 1 to 5. Adult admission is $1.25 and children’s tickets are 50C. The Dewares, fifth generation residents of Jefferson, are the current owners of the plantation. What furniture is not original to the home has been carefully researched and collected by the couple for display in the manor house.

Our schedule prevented us from visiting Jay Gould’s restored railroad car directly across from the hotel, but we understand it’s worth the price of admission (50¢). Gould, who made his millions in the railroad business, predicted the demise of Jefferson when the townspeople refused to establish a rail line through the city. Jefferson once had a population of 35,000. Today, it is under 3,000 – but growing. Our teen-aged hotel guide assured us of this fact by stating that “we had six new kids enroll in school, last month and nobody left.” Gould didn’t anticipate that kind of civic pride or the establishment of the Jesse Allen Wise Garden Club, whose members have been instrumental in restoring Jefferson to its river-port splendor.

The Excelsior Hotel is not open for lunch or dinner unless you reserve the dining room for a party of 16 or more. Take advantage of this free time to sample “the best catfish ever” at Lake-view Lodge, 25 miles from Jefferson on Caddo Lake. We had a delicious catfish dinner in Jefferson at the Club Cafe. For $2.75 we were given huge catfish steaks, homemade hushpuppies and tartar sauce.

Arrange your weekend stay so that you can visit all the antique shops on Saturday – we located at least eight and found Port Jefferson to be especially interesting. Try to get in a surrey ride tour of the city (the hotel can give you details) and visit the churches, too. The Episcopal and Catholic churches are particularly charming.

Part of the enjoyment of visiting Jefferson is the beauty of the drive from Dallas. The Jurows, who make the trip weekly, have discovered two alternative routes which they feel are more picturesque than 1-20 to Marshall and Route 59 into Jefferson. They suggest driving to Terrell and catching highway 80 through towns like Frog, Hoard, and Fruitvale. When you reach Big Sandy, take Route 155 toward Gilmer. Drive through Gilmer, pick up Route 729 past Lake of the Pines, and follow it into Jefferson.

Another suggested route is to take I-20 to Longview and exit on Bastan Road. Turn left and begin looking for Highway 2208 to Harleton. Follow this road past Harleton for about 30 miles and you’ll reach Jefferson. All three of these routes take about three hours. Whichever route you choose, your visit to Jefferson is guaranteed to be a pleasant one.

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