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  • Texas | Columns | "Wandering"

    Magnolia Gardens

    by Wanda Orton
    Before he became world famous Elvis Presley hip-hopped all over the map of Texas, and he made many a return trip to Magnolia Gardens on the banks of San Jacinto River in eastern Harris County.
    TE photo

    Floyd Tillman, George Jones and Tommy Sands also entertained there along with numerous other big names and biggies-to-be in country and rock. Tillman even recorded a song, “The Magnolia Gardens Waltz,” in which he laments a lost love. While not as well known as most songs by the Country Music Hall of Famer, it’s still worth a listen.

    Young folks today respond with blank looks when you ask if they know anything about the place. Really, it’s not a fair question, because this haven of riverside rockabilly reached its peak of popularity in the Fifties.

    Although that’s my era and I grew up in Baytown, I have a gap in my recreational history. I never went to Magnolia Gardens. I regret that and especially hate having missed the opportunity to see Elvis.

    I asked Norman Adams, who grew up in Highlands and graduated from Baytown's Robert E. Lee High School in 1953, if he remembered Magnolia Gardens. Located off Highway 90 and meandering around a bend in San Jacinto River, the park was an easy commute from Highlands, Crosby, Channelview and Sheldon.

    I asked the right man because Norman went there often and – oh, yeah -- he got to shake hands with Elvis. “I thought I was in high cotton,” he said, recalling his encounter with the then-future King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. “He seemed like a real nice guy.”

    Norman recalled many good weekends at Magnolia Gardens. “We would go there Friday evening and stay there until after the Sunday matinee.”

    He and his friends would begin the weekend barbecuing on the picnic grounds, and they stayed overnight in the camping facilities. A safe and wholesome place for families, the park was well supervised, and there were no fights, no crime. “It was ideal back then,” Norman said. “You could have fun and not worry about getting shot.”

    Beckoned by a wide beach, swimmers enjoyed access to the river, and the park had facilities for boating, fishing and volleyball.

    Even with those varied recreational facilities, though, music remained the main attraction at Magnolia Gardens.

    Besides talking to Norman, I searched Magnolia Gardens on the Internet and found a lot out there, including videos of Elvis singing plus stories and photos about the park.

    An ad reprinted from the Houston Post Aug. 4, 1954, features a young Elvis and spells his last name wrongly with a double S. It stated. “Elvis Pressley, one of the most sensational entertainers in the nation today will make a personal appearance at Magnolia Gardens this Sunday … Each Pressley appearance seems to hale greater throngs of people because of his style in entertainment.”

    Country singer Johnny Bush, in his autobiography, remembered Magnolia Gardens as the place to go on a Sunday afternoon. He said people would sit around in their bathing suits on a sandy beach and take in shows by all the biggest country and early rock ‘n’ roll stars.

    By the way, I read that Elvis claimed Magnolia Gardens was one of his favorite places to perform.

    Dang, I wish I'd been there.


    © Wanda Orton -
    June 1, 2012
    Baytown Sun Columnist

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