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

The Texas Gulf Coast Has It All - Page Two

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.

Captain Debbie explained that the water is carefully monitored by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and it's swimmable and even drinkable.

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

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.

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.

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.

That's why the Beaumont-Orange-Port Arthur area is called the "Golden Triangle."

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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 botanical gardens were originally developed by Lutcher Stark in 1937 on 252 acres of cypress/tupelo swampland he owned along the Adams Bayou.

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.

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