Family Fun: The Texas Gulf Coast Has It All

 

By Stephen Hartshorne

Don't try this at home! Sevie Ashley holds 'Little Al' who was found with an injured jaw and has to be specially fed at Gator Country in Beaumont, Texas. A normal gator this size could do some serious damage.
Don’t try this at home! Sevie Ashley holds ‘Little Al’ who was found with an injured jaw and has to be specially fed at Gator Country in Beaumont, Texas. A normal gator this size could do some serious damage.

I had so much fun on my trip to the Texas Gulf Coast, it’s hard to know where to begin.

As associate editor of GoNOMAD, I’ve become something of an expert on fun, and the Gulf Coast has it all, especially for families: wildlife, outdoor recreation, the best fishing in the world, environmental education, history, architecture, drama, music…

And art of all kinds: fine art, pop art, found art, performance art, you name it. Lots of cool museums that get people — especially kids — excited about art and inspire them to make some of their own.

I met a penguin named Hendrix at Moody Gardens in Galveston and visited Mission Control in Houston during a space shuttle mission — how cool is that?

I saw the very ground where Sam Houston vanquished Santa Anna at San Jacinto and took a cruise around Clear Lake, the Venice of the West, aboard a beautifully restored wooden yacht.

A platter of crawfish at Larry's French Market and Cajun Cafeteria in Groves, Texas.
A platter of crawfish at Larry’s French Market and Cajun Cafeteria in Groves, Texas.

I saw one of the finest collections of Western Art in world at the Stark Museum in Orange and met a Buddhist monk in Port Arthur who changed everything I think about everything.

And how we dined! Copious plates of crawfish, alligator, wild game gumbos, mussels, scallops, softshell crabs, red snapper, flounder, Tex-Mex, barbeque.

The finest seafood in the world, but lots of other stuff besides — like fried chicken and waffles at the Breakfast Klub in Houston. At Goode’s Barbeque you can get a roast beef sandwich with just the end pieces. Mmmm.

I experienced a number of culinary firsts, for me: first mango margarita, first pomegranate martini, first taste of gator.

I had a front-row seat at the Houston Art Car Parade, visited a house covered with beer cans and spent a magnificent evening at the Hotel Galvez in Galveston, where my heart found a home.

The Big Bopper (JP Richardson) was from Port Arthur. He died in the same plane crash that claimed the lives of Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly. You can learn more about him at the Museum of the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur.
The Big Bopper (JP Richardson) was from Port Arthur. He died in the same plane crash that claimed the lives of Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly. You can learn more about him at the Museum of the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur.

I learned a lot about oil and petrochemicals and refineries and how these industries can provide jobs without adverse impacts on wildlife or the environment.

I saw the site of the Spindletop gusher in Gladysville that transformed the entire world and visited Shangri La in Orange, a wildlife refuge slash botanical garden slash environmental education center that is a focus for the kinds of change our country is going to need to make a better life in the 21st century.

All in all, it was quite a trip.

Two Destructive Hurricanes

I guess you heard the Gulf Coast got clobbered by two destructive hurricanes in succession, Rita and Ike, and I heard a lot of great stories about emergency procedures that worked well, about communities pulling together, and about neighbors helping neighbors.

Nothing like a couple of natural disasters to bring people together with a sense of civic purpose.

Gary Saurage and Big Al, a 13-foot alligator that weighs more than half a ton.
Gary Saurage and Big Al, a 13-foot alligator that weighs more than half a ton.

I talked with Gary Saurage at Gator Country, who was in charge of rescuing alligators who had ended up in inappropriate places, like peoples’ garages, after Hurrican Ike.

I also talked with city officials whose job it was to see that everyone got away safely, and I saw the improvements they are making to withstand future storms.

But the big story is that this is a great place to visit, especially for families, and they’re back up and ready for business after less than a year.

The Trick to Gator Wrestling

My trip began in Beaumont with a visit to Gator Country. Gary Saurage, the director, was the guy who rescued the 71 alligators disaccomodated by Hurricane Ike.

Gator Country is a great place to learn about alligators and crocodiles and caymans, but they have a 14-foot yellow python and cute little baby hedgehogs and lots of other wildlife, too.
Once they get their jaws open, look out. Their jaw-closing muscles are very, very strong. So Gary just bops Big Al on the nose every time he opens his mouth. It’s a great show by a guy who really cares about preserving the species.Gary does a bit of performance art with Big Al, a 13-foot 1100-pound alligator, who seems to enjoy it as much as the audience. As I understand it, the trick with gator wrestling is not to let them get their jaws open. Their jaw-opening muscles are not very strong.

The Spindletop Gladys City Boomtown Museum in Beaumont. Mouse over the image to see what ladies were wearing back then
The Spindletop Gladys City Boomtown Museum in Beaumont. Mouse over the image to see what ladies were wearing back then

Lots of Cool Museums

Then it was off to the restored Spindletop Gladys City Boomtown Museum, site of the Lucas gusher. It’s hard to overstate the impact of this gusher, because it changed the world in a big way. Its 100,000 barrels per day tripled US oil production, and increased oil exploration and drilling around the world.

The gusher also caused the population of Beaumont to triple in three months from 10,000 to 30,000 and within a year it had increased to 60,000.
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You can see what life was like for the turn-of-the-century wildcatters that came to Beaumont at the Museum, which has 15 restored buildings furnished with all kinds of artifacts, as well as a replica of the Lucas gusher that shoots water 120 feet into the air.

Felix 'Fox' Harris in his yard - photo courtesy of AMSET
Felix ‘Fox’ Harris in his yard – photo courtesy of AMSET

To put it all in context, visit the Texas Energy Museum, which has exhibits all about the oil industry and the petrochemical industry. You can see how a modern refinery takes crude oil and makes it into gasoline and plastics and medicines and all kinds of other products.

Beaumont alone has nineteen other museums as well, including a firefighting museum, the Fire Museum of Texas, and the Thomas Edison Museum. The McFaddin Ward House is a beautifully restored 1905 mansion with a magnificent collection of ceramics, art glass, silver, textiles and furniture.

Another must-see attraction is the newly renovated St. Anthony Cathedral Basilica.
Assistant Curator of Education Andy Gardner, who showed us around, says he’s delighted when kids learn about art through one of the museum’s school programs and then bring their parents to the museum.One of the reasons I especially liked the Art Museum of Southeast Texas is because they work hard to make art accessible to ordinary people, especially children, with all kinds of education programs and exhibits.

Another reason I liked it is because I’m a big fan of found art slash folk art slash junk, and AMSET, as it is known, has a marvelous collection of the works of the late Felix “Fox” Harris, whose yard was full of found-art metal totems that he crafted with a butterknife and a ball-peen hammer.

You can see the very butterknife he used. Naturally it’s all bashed up.

For the high spots he used to work on stilts, which must have made quite a sight. His work was left pretty much as it was until it began to deteriorate from the weather, and then they brought a representative exhibit into the museum.

A Happening Town

As part of the flood control improvements after Hurricane Ike, Beaumont is sprucing up the downtown with brick sidewalks and old-style lampposts and other improvements.
Our waiter Fox with my very first pomegranate martini at Easy’s in Beaumont

Our waiter Fox with my very first pomegranate martini at Easy's in Beaumont

It’s a great town for dining and nightlife, and a good place to start is Crockett Street, where five historic buildings have been restored and house a wide variety of restaurants, bars, nightclubs and banquet facilities.

We had martinis and tapas at Easy’s and dined at Suga’s Deep South Cuisine & Jazz Bar, where the food and the service and the beautfiul old building made for a really enjoyable meal. I had the wild game gumbo and the seafood platter, and believe me, I did not regret it.

A River Cruise

Captain Debbie Loftus of Cardinal Neches River Adventure Boat Tours
Captain Debbie Loftus of Cardinal Neches River Adventure Boat Tours

In the morning we went to Rao’s Cafe. Everybody has to go to Rao’s Cafe in the morning — it’s some kind of city ordinance or something. It’s a great place to get a bite to eat and meet the mayor and other notables.

Then we took a cruise on the Neches River with Captain Debbie Loftus aboard the good ship Cardinal and admired the scenery and the wildlife.
Captain Debbie explained that the water is carefully monitored by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and it’s swimmable and even drinkable.Beaumont is one of the busiest ports in the united States, and the main depot for supplying US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it doesn’t impact the water quality.

Just north of Beaumont is Village Creek State Park, part of a network of waterways and trails known as The Big Thicket National Preserve, an ideal place for all kinds of outdoor recreation: canoeing, kayaking, birding, camping, horseback riding and wildlife study.

The Big Thicket is known as the “biological crossroads of North America” with more than five thousand species of flowering plants, including 20 orchids and four types of carnivorous plants, more than 100 species of trees and shurbs and 300 species of migratory and nesting birds, as well as numerous reptile species.

All the Little Creeks and Bayous

The Port of Beaumont is the main depot for supplying US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Port of Beaumont is the main depot for supplying US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then it was off to Orange, where we lunched at another cool cafe, the Old Orange Cafe and Catering Company, a converted dairy.

Like the rest of the Gulf Coast, Orange has lots of boating, hunting, fishing, birding, camping, nature tours and all kinds of outdoor recreation on the Sabine River, the Neches River, Sabine Lake (where the two converge) and all the little creeks and bayous in between.

The Sabine River Authority (which operates the canal system in the area) makes it a priority to improve boat ramps and add new ones to give the public access to the rivers and streams.

That’s why the Beaumont-Orange-Port Arthur area is called the “Golden Triangle.”And all this is downstream from “Chemical Row,” one of the largest collection of petrochemical companies in the world. They provide jobs, really good ones, $30 or $40 bucks an hour.

A Room Full of Bluebonnets

After lunch we visited the Stark Museum of Art which houses one of the finest collections of Western art in the world — and it’s free.

H.J. Lutcher Stark (1887-1965) began collecting Western art when he was still in college and he and his wife Nelda traveled to their ranch in Colorado every year, stopping in Taos and Santa Fe to meet artists.

'Coming Through the Rye' by Frederic Remington
‘Coming Through the Rye’ by Frederic Remington

For me the biggest attraction was the bronze scultures and drawings by Frederic Remington, which are famous for capturing the spirit of the West, but there are many many other artists like Albert Bierstadt, Charles Marion Russell and Georgia O’Keefe.
A statue by Frederic Remington and a Navajo blanket at the Stark Museum of Art in Orange

A statue by Frederic Remington and a Navajo blanket at the Stark Museum of Art in Orange, Texas

The museum also has a great collection of Indian art and artifacts, plus Steuben glass, rare books by John J. Audubon and John W. Audubon… There’s a lot to see.

When we went they had a whole room of paintings by Julian Onderdonk, all landscapes with bluebonnets.

The Stark Foundation

The Museum was established after the death of Lutcher Stark by the Nelda C. and H.J. Lutcher Stark Foundation in 1978 under the direction of Nelda Stark.

The Foundation, whose mission is “to improve and enrich the quality of life in Southeast Texas and encourage and assist education” has also set up two other must-see attractions in Orange: the W.H. Stark House and Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center.

Right across from the Museum is the majestic Stark Mansion with its majestic turrets and porches and bay windows, shaded by an ancient live oak.The Foundation also operates the 1,450-seat Lutcher Theater for the Performing Arts, which draws about 30,000 people a year with national performers and dramatic productions.

A lot of museum exhibits are made up of items from the same period collected by curators and put together.

At the Stark Mansion, all the rooms and furnishings are all the very same ones used by the William and Miriam Stark (Lutcher’s parents) who built it in 1894 and lived there until 1936.

The building was then closed until it was restored in 1971.

It’s a vivid glimpse into the life of a very, very well-to-do family in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The W.H. Stark House in Orange. Mouse over the image for another view.

The W.H. Stark House in Orange, Texas

The textiles, the paintings, the porcelain, the furniture, the silver would all be museum pieces in their own right, but here they are in their original setting.

And there’s a tower room full of busts and paintings of Napoleon. They even have a Hupmobile Roadster in the carriage house.

Hurricane Rita in 2005, with her 125-mile-an-hour winds, damaged the roof of the carriage house causing a leak, but fortunately the water was caught in a collection of American Brilliant cut-glass bowls. The house itself also sustained some damage.

A mural of Lutcher Stark and Shangri-La in the 1940s
A mural of Lutcher Stark and Shangri-La in the 1940s

After Rita, the Stark Foundation staff renovated the house, replaced the antiquated electrical system, and replaced the slate roof tiles with recycled rubber in a slate design.

Shangri-La

The botanical gardens were originally developed by Lutcher Stark in 1937 on 252 acres of cypress/tupelo swampland he owned along the Adams Bayou.Another example of the indomitable spirit of the Texas Gulf Coast (and the mission of the Stark Foundation) is the Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center, which could be considered both a memorial to one man’s vision of serenity as well as a bridge to the future.

The Gardens were based on the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton depicting a land of beauty, peace and enlightenment.

Stark spent nine years developing his own version of Shangri La with more than 300 types of plants and all kinds of wildlife including swans, ducks, egrets, otters, and swamp rabbits (I didn’t even know there was such a thing) and it was opened to the public in 1946.

The Gardens attracted thousands of visitors from all over the world, but in 1958 a freak snowstorm killed most of the plants, and Stark closed the gardens.

They remained closed until 2005, when the Stark Foundation began its restoration. Then along came Rita and Ike. The latter destroyed 55,000 trees and caused all kinds of other damage.

21st Century Ideas
The staff of the Nature Center at Shangri La

The staff of the Nature Center at Shangri La

But less than a year later, Shangri La is open again, and besides showcasing many of the beautiful flowers and shrubs of the Botanical Garden, it includes a Nature Center with an exhibit hall, a theater, a classroom greenhouse, an interactive children’s garden, a water demonstration garden that shows how plants filter pollution from the water, a café, and a store.

But the Center also extends out into the swamp with several outposts that visitors can get to by boat, and wildlife blinds where they can get a better view of the birds and animals.

The Nature Center is one of only fifty buildings to receive platinum certification from the US Green Building Council. Visiting the classrooms and interactive nature exhibits and the innovative green buildings, I could actually see children learning about the new ideas our country is going to need to live in harmony with nature in the 21st century.

A mural at the Museum of the Gulf Coast
A mural at the Museum of the Gulf Coast

Off to Port Arthur

Next it was off the the third corner of the Golden Triangle, Port Arthur. Like the rest of the Gulf Coast, Port Arthur has great fishing and birding and outdoor recreation.

Sea Rim State Park offers swimming, kayaking, camping and airboat tours, and the 17-mile Pleasure Island on Sabine Lake has two golf courses (regular and disc golf), the Fun Island Depot for kids, as well as RV parks, picnic areas and a waterfront boardwalk.

Our tour began at the Museum of the Gulf Coast where visitors can learn all about the area, past and present.

There are murals and exhibits on the prehistory of the area, the Civil War and the Spindletop gusher, as well as tributes to the many Gulf Coasters who went on to fame and fortune like J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson, Janis Joplin and her schoolmate in Port Arthur, Jimmy Johnson, one of two coaches in football history to win championships at the college and professional levels.

There is also a gallery of 21 works by world-reknown artist Robert Rauschenberg

They have a replica of Janis’ pop-art covered Porsche, a Civil War cannon, and a fresnel lense from the Sabine Banks Lighthouse.

Clarence "Frogman" Henry was a buddy of the Beatles. Photo courtesy of the Museum of the Gulf Coast.
Clarence “Frogman” Henry was a buddy of the Beatles. Photo courtesy of the Museum of the Gulf Coast.

Music Legends

And it’s a great place to find out about the area’s rich musical heritage, with exhibits on the many music legends from the Gulf Coast.

There’s Janis, of course, and the Big Bopper and George Jones and Tex Ritter and ZZ Top and my personal favorite, Percy Sledge: “When a maa..han loves a woman… she can do no wrong. Turn his back on his best friend if he put her down.”

But then there are the musicians who inspired and mentored later generations in rock and roll, blues, zydeco, western swing, R & B and swamp pop: “Moon” Mullican, “Ivory Joe” Hunter, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Barbara Lynn, Tony Joe White (remember “Polk Salad Annie”?) and many more.

Spiritual Sites

Port Arthur has welcomed newcomers from all over the US and the world throughout its history and this diversity is reflected in the city’s many spiritual sites.

Inside the Buu Mon Temple in Port Arthur, Texas
Inside the Buu Mon Temple in Port Arthur, Texas

The parishioners of Queen of Vietnam Martyr’s Catholic Church created a Hoa Binh (“area of peace”) with a statue of Mary “in gratitude for their escape from Asia and the city which welcomed them.”

There is also a shrine to Our Lady of Guadelupe set on rocks brought to the site from Mount Tepayac, Mexico City, where the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego.

We visited the Buu Mon Buddhist Temple, which was originally a Baptist church and then a Vietnamese Catholic church.

In 1986, the steeple was replaced with a stupa and Abbot Thich Huyen Viet moved in with a small congregation.

The temple water garden, with its bamboo, lotus flowers, water lilies and bamboo, banana, and citrus trees, draws thousands of visitors each year.

A Circuitous Path to Buddhism

Bhante Kassapa keeps up with his fellow monks on Facebook
Bhante Kassapa keeps up with his fellow monks on Facebook

It was here that I and my fellow travelers met Bhante Kassapa, a wonderfully calm and welcoming monk who had tea with us and showed us around and talked with us about his circuitous path to Buddhism.

He served in the US Air Force and later became a Franciscan monk. After ten years he returned to secular life and worked in aviation. In 2006 he became a Buddhist monk.

Bhante Kassapa teaches meditation and the principles of Buddhism in a wide variety of settings. He speaks at churches, universities and even radio talk shows, and he’s the chaplain for Buddhist inmates at the federal prison in Beaumont.

Since he took over as chaplain his meditation group has grown steadily.

“One of the reasons I think why it works for them,” he says, “is that in the beginning, Buddha had to take himself out of society for a number of years while he discovered who he was, and these guys have a similar situation.”

He keeps up with fellow monks on Facebook, and has his own channel on YouTube. I particularly like his reply to a caller who asked him why he turned his back on God.

Larry Judice of Larry's French Market in Groves, Texas
Larry Judice of Larry’s French Market in Groves, Texas

Maw Maw’s Homemade Boudain

After an afternoon in the peace and tranquility of the water garden, it was time for some serious chow, and from what I hear the number one place for serious chow in the Golden Triangle is Larry’s French Market and Cajun Cafeteria in nearby Groves, Texas.

They’ve got alligator and frog’s legs and heaps of crawfish, as well as Cajun favorites like crawfish pistolettes, seafood gumbo, shrimp etouffé, dirty rice, andouille sausage gumbo, fried oyster poboys (or shrimp or catfish, take your pick).

Take my advice, get the buffet so you can try everything. I loved the ‘gator — like a cross between an octopus and a scallop with a lot of interesting flavors of its own.

You also have to try the andouille sausage — beef, seasoned with salt, cracked black pepper, and garlic, and smoked over pecan wood and sugar cane — and the house specialty, boudain — a pork and rice sausage that includes the liver and heart.

Dancing the night away at Larry's French Market in Groves, Texas
Dancing the night away at Larry’s French Market in Groves, Texas

The business was started by Albin and Lariza (Maw Maw) Judice as a grocery store in 1925, and the popularity of Maw Maw’s homemade boudain caused it to grow into a deli.

Now it’s a 440-seat restaurant and dance place run by their grandson Larry, with live bands — cajun, country and swamp pop — Wednesday through Sunday nights and diners and dancers from all over Texas and Louisiana.

A great place to eat a delicious meal and dance the night away.

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