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Texas | East Texas | Trips


Mark Twain might have lived here

Excerpted from
"The East Texas Sunday Drive Book"
by Bob Bowman

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This Sunday Drive will find you in the pine-clad hills of Cherokee County and the town of Rusk, which is one of those places where you wish you had spent your youth. Its tree-lined streets, busy courthouse square, and stately turn-of-the-century buildings are the stuff Mark Twain wrote about.

To start your Sunday Drive, first spend some time in Rusk, which was named for Thomas J. Rusk, a Texas revolutionary war hero whose name has been borrowed by the Thomas J. Rusk Hotel, located on the town square. It's a good place to start a walking tour of Rusk.
Rusk TX - Thomas & Rusk Hotel Downtown
Thomas J. Rusk Hotel on the town square
Photo courtesy Lori Martin, December 2005
Your tour should include the Rusk Post Office, where you'll find a mural painted by Bernard Beruch Zakheim, an immigrant from Poland who studied under Diego Rivera. Zakheim's mural was painted in l939 as part of a federal program to provide work for qualified artists and to embellish federal buildings.

Your tour should also include the J.W. Summers home, built in l884 and one of Rusk's most attractive old homes; the Perkins home, with its distinctive gabled wood carving featuring a star and rising sun; and the Confederate soldier on the courthouse square, which is unique because it faces south instead of north as most Confederate statues do.

Rusk has a history of involvement in the Civil War and you'll find a number of interesting historical sites around the city, including a Confederate gun factory site on U.S. 84 west of the city and a Union prisoner-of-war compound two miles south of the city on FM 241, where some 3,000 Union prisoners were housed. The town was also a Confederate manufacturing center, producing wagons, saddles, harness, guns, plows, skillets and other items.

Before you leave the downtown area, be sure to walk the Rusk Footbridge, which is believed to be the longest in the nation--some 546 feet long. During its early years, before streets connected a residential area with the downtown business district, the bridge served as a means to cross a small valley when the creek flooded. The bridge was built by Howard Barnes, an engineer who also designed the nearby ghost town of New Birmingham.

You'll find what's left of New Birmingham a few miles south of downtown Rusk on U.S. 69. A large granite monument stands in front of the Texas Highway Department on the east side of the highway and, less than a mile south, look for a small walking trail on the west side of the highway. The trail weaves its way around an old iron furnace site.

The furnace was one of several which propped up the New Birmingham economy in the l890s when the town was being heralded as one of the most promising cities in Texas. However, the economic panic of l893, coupled with an explosion at one of the furnaces, killed the town.

Back in Rusk, one of the state's smallest bank buildings, the old Bonner Bank, stands near the New Southern Hotel on U.S. 59 The bank was operated as Cherokee County's first bank between l884 and l892 by F.W. Bonner.

Rusk is also the home of the Texas State Railroad, which is the subject of a special Sunday Drive elsewhere in this book, and the site of Jim Hogg Historic Site. Located just off U.S. 84 east of Rusk, the park pays tribute to the first native-born governor of Texas. Hogg was one of two Texas governors born in Rusk; the other was Thomas M. Campbell.

The 177-acre Hogg park, originally the home of the governor, was once called "Mountain Home" and rests on a mountain about 200 feet above the rest of Rusk. Even on the hottest days, park visitors will find a soothing breeze in the park. A replica of Hogg's old home is used as a museum.

Gov. Campbell's birthplace is four miles northeast of Rusk on FM 768, off U.S. 69, but only a state historical marker is left on the spot. In Rusk, you'll also find the Rusk State Hospital, which was built originally as a state prison in l877-79. Some of the prison's old buildings still stand on the grounds.

From Rusk, take Farm Road 752, which will carry you south through the gently rolling hills of Cherokee County toward Alto. Hulen Wilcox's syrup mill is located just off the farm road, but he only operates the mill during the late fall when his cane crop is ready. When the mill is working, Hulen usually puts a sign on the side of FM 752.

Follow 752 into Alto. There are several theories about the origin of the town's name. An early pioneer is supposed to have suggested the name because he felt that Alto was the Latin word for high. Another story says the name was chosen because Alto is the Spanish word for stop.

There are several sites near Alto worth side trips.

A few miles east on Texas Highway 21, you'll find a miniature park and gravesite of Helena Kimble Dill Nelson, mother of the first child believed to have been born to Anglo-Americans in Texas. Five miles northeast of Alto on the Rusk-Linwood Road is Forest Hill (see update), the one-time plantation home of Captain James Berryman and his wife, Helene Dill Berryman, that historic first child.

When you return to Alto from the two side trips, start in a southwesterly direction on Texas Highway 21 and travel about six miles to the Caddo Mounds State Historic Site.

Here you'll find evidence of Indians who lived in East Texas thousands of years ago. The early Caddos lived on the site around 800 A.D. The alluvial prairie near the Neches River had ideal qualities for the establishment of a village and ceremonial center, good sandy loam soil for agricultural, abundant natural food resources in the forest, and a permanent water source in the nearby river. The historical site includes an excellent museum and interpretation center, a replica of a Caddo structure, and ceremonial mounds.

After leaving the Caddo site, return to Texas 21 and start back toward Alto, but a few miles up the road, take a left turn by a junkyard (which is a good place to browse for offbeat items and antiques) and Thomas Chapel church. You'll be on a blacktop country road which will take you past scenic farmhomes, spring-fed creeks and open pastures. The country lane is especially scenic during the spring and fall. Follow the road until you reach its intersection with Texas 294, take a left and start westward.

Just before you reach the Neches River, turn north on Texas 23 by a roadside park. Not far from the roadside park is the Arthur Temple Sr. Research Center, an area maintained by the Texas Forest Service. The Center sits on land once occupied by Fastrill, a ghost town operated by Southern Pine Lumber Company as a logging camp in the l940s.

Texas 23 will take you through another stretch of rolling hills, past the communities of Holcomb's Store and Beulah, and back into Rusk.

We recommend a couple of good eating-places on this Sunday Drive. Dot's Cafe, a black-owned cafe on Martin Luther King Street in Rusk, serves some of the best soulfood in East Texas, but Dorothy Jackson only serves luncheon meals. Ask Dorothy for a sampling of her special hot relish--a recipe she keeps closely guarded. Also in Rusk, the dining room of the Thomas J. Rusk Hotel serves several excellent dishes, including good steaks, a nice Cornish hen, and an excellent bread pudding.

If you like to cook your own meals, we recommend the Foot Bridge Garden Cookbook, which was organized and published by the Cherokee County Heritage Association. The cookbook contains recipes for such dishes as Pepper Jelly, Baked Black Eyed Peas, Cracklin' Bread and Old Fashioned Biscuits. Many of the recipes date back to the l800s. For a copy, write Foot Bridge Garden Cookbook, PO Box 590, Rusk, Texas 75785.

September 2000

Excerpt by permission of author Mr. Bob Bowman.


Subject: Forest Hill, Alto, TX

I traveled this past weekend to Forest Hill near Alto, TX and was disappointed to find the home with a no trespassing sign on the house as well as an alarm system with no one around and no phone number. The home is privately owned. Your magazine stated that the home is open to the public the second and third weekends in October. I did take some pictures of the outside of the home although the gate on the property said posted. Important for others to know.

The Berryman cemetery is owned by the Berryman family is to the right of the home and difficult to see from the house and impossible to see from the road. In 2004, a historical marker was placed in this cemetery. Thanks. - Amanda Guttieri, October 21, 2010

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