Beaumont, Texas: in the Heart of the Oil Patch

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Beaumont, Texas: Wildlife and Nightlife in the Heart of the Oil Patch

By Max Hartshorne

Spindletop's recreated gusher, that spewed 100,000 gallons of crude into the air in 1901 and made Beaumont Texas a rich town.
Spindletop’s recreated gusher, that spewed 100,000 gallons of crude into the air in 1901 and made Beaumont Texas a rich town.

I’d never set foot in the Republic of Texas until last month, when I discovered Beaumont, about 90 minutes east of Houston. It’s a city with big plans afoot.

Their sidewalks are being ripped up and replaced with quaint brick, and black iron streetlights are being added to give the main drag, Calder Avenue, an old time feel. The reason is rainage but the effect will be to make it look more old timey and charming. Things are looking up in this city of refineries.

My first evening was spent on a couch, eating passed tapas at Easy’s, emblematic of the relaxed charm of East Texas.

Instead of a sit-down meal, we opted for martinis and little plates and shared every taste. It was a great way to sample the big menu of little delights, from slivers of steak to fried artichokes and “éasy trash,” seafood sauteed in black butter sauce. We left the azure-colored martini in the middle of the table as a lighted centerpiece.

Proprietor Wayne Inwerson says Easy’s goes after an older crowd, so with this menu and a dress code, they can keep the clientele to the grown-ups like us who aren’t going to raise a ruckus, and will spend some dough on good food.

Since Easy’s is located on one of the city’s main streets, Calder Street, it’s right on the way to center city, and the outdoor patio is a great attraction. My cold northeastern sensibilities alerted me to how unusual it was to be outside at 9 pm without a jacket, as people can do down here in the South of Texas.

“Beaumont was once bigger than Houston,” a local tourism official told me. The city was founded in 1850, and soon after they began to drill for oil. In 1901, after much persistence and despite flocks of naysayers and near bankruptcy, Colonel Anthony Lucas did just that. Pattilio Higgins lost a hand to a marshall’s bullet, but he was the man who hired Lucas to drill for oil at Spindletop. Higgins named the boomtown Gladysville.

Today you can visit Spindletop, where a replica of the old boomtown was built and where every year they replicate that famous gusher that spewed 100,000 barrels of oil into the air every day before it was capped.

Shangri-la, in Orange Texas, a naturalist's dream and eco-paradise.
Shangri-la, in Orange Texas, a naturalist’s dream and eco-paradise.
A Visit to Shangri-La

Michael W. Hoke makes nature, plants and his incredible garden come alive. He speaks with vigor and boundless enthusiasm for teaching children about nature and about the gifts that the Shangri La Botanical Gardens in Orange, Texas. provide the entire East Texas region.

In a pounding rain interspersed with thunder and lightning, we toured the 200-acre nature preserve and gardens with Michael showing us its many wondrous details.

“See that bench over there?” he said, pointing across a pond. “I’d love to set up a program to let kids who’ve never fished do that right there!” Water was channeled into special pools filled with lilies and other plants to cleanse it before returning it to the bayou.

He showed us the front of the gardens, where 55 huge live oaks were felled during one of the hurricanes which have wreaked havoc on the park in the past few years. Now a gas station shows its ugliness where once there was once a verdant barricade.

Michael was a science teacher for many years, and got into this job about seven years ago, after befriending the widow of the man who bequeathed it all to the foundation, Nelda C. Stark, the last wife of Lutcher Stark. Stark was a devoted environmentalist way before it became fashionable, and he had the millions to make it all a reality. He was passionate about not using pesticides and loved nature and this beautiful piece of the world, which he was determined to keep as natural as when it was made.

Egret in nest, among thousands on the Noces river at Shangril-la. Max Hartshorne photo.
Egret in nest, among thousands on the Neches river at Shangril-la in Southeast Texas. Max Hartshorne photo.

This park has river boats that bring visitors up the Adams bayou, blinds to view thousands of nesting egrets, and outdoor pavilions in the woods and is a restored culmination of Stark’s vision.

Recently they were given the highest honor of green-ness… a US Green Building Council rating putting it among the most earth-friendly buildings in the world, which means they really walk the walk when it comes to total reuse of resources, building with recycled materials and promoting a seriously small environmental impact.

While the grounds with their lovely plantings and the paths through the woods did impress, it was Michael who we remembered for his passion about his job and this place.

He’s endured three big hurricanes and still beams with enthusiasm for the programs they put on, like the star party where 390 people came to view the night sky on 17 telescopes, or the butterflies they release into a house in the woods filled with plants. “I want kids to get dirty, to get out there in nature and touch it all,” he said.

We watched a short film describing Stark’s vision and how this Shangri La came into being, taking its name from the famous novel and movie of a place that everyone wanted to come back to.

Big Al, a 72-year-old alligator who lilves at Gator Country Alligator Theme Park in Beaumont.
Big Al, a 72-year-old alligator who lives at Gator Country Alligator Theme Park in Beaumont.

At the film’s end, a curtain rises and in place of the screen, we see the beautiful green woods that make up the park. It was Michael’s idea… and it sums up how well he understands how to reach out and grab people to feeling and experiencing nature’s power.

Wanna Know What’s Going on? Find out at Raos!

The name Rao’s Bakery Cafe brings a smile to anyone’s face who lives in Beaumont. There are four such establishments here in town and one in Houston.

We met Jake Tortorice Jr, the owner of them all when we stopped by for a groaning plate of his goodies… kolache, spicy sausages in pastry, breakfast croissants filled with egg, czech pastries, breakfast burritos, blueberry bran muffins and the like.

Rao's bakery where just about everyone gets their coffee in Beaumont.
Rao’s bakery where just about everyone gets their coffee in Beaumont.

I particularly admired the giant glass urns filled with ice tea sitting right next to the coffee urns. (note to self: buy these for our cafe!).

Everyone in town stops by here in the morning including the mayor, city councilors and people high and low. It’s a jovial place where you can sit a spell and catch up with what’s new in town. A coffee haven that our hosts are very, very fond of, and as result, a fixture of any press trip.

Hard to Say No To

People here are unfailingly polite, sometimes to a fault. One of the journalists who had gone to college here remarked to me in a whisper how frustrating this can be, since they just don’t want to take no for an answer.

But they won’t directly come out and say ‘please do this or that’ but more likely will continue to gently convince you to accept whatever favor or hospitality they want you to accept. You just can’t turn them down.

It’s a trait that’s common here but to a dyed-in-the-wool northerner like me, a new experience. Hell, when we want something no means no and that’s that.

I spoke with an fisherman who was pulling up his boat from Village Creek, near the town of Silsbee Texas.

Angler in southeastern Texas.
Angler in southeastern Texas.

In conversation after conversation here in East Texas, the topic of hurricanes Rita and Ike comes up. So many lives were uprooted, and nature was changed in such profound ways, I learned.

We spent the morning today on the Village Creek, with water the color of strong tea and downed trees all along its route. A fisherman who was taking his bass boat out of the water told us that for a full three years after the 2005 calamity, there were no fish left alive in this waterway. The roiling of the currents and the deposits of so many dead leaves killed them all off. Just last year he said, he could cast out his line and catch a bass, which he promptly threw back in.

Stephanie, one of the tourism officials here in Beaumont, said her father-in-law’s house was destroyed, and that the ritual of having to pack up and evacuate during big storms wears on you, and it happens with alarming regularity. The last time it was for a 10-day spell, they stayed at her grandma’s. Up to 50% of the trees in the big forests here have been felled by the combination of Rita and Ike’s wicked winds.

We paddled around an island called Baby Galvez, where our guide, David Martin, said that during prohibition there was a speakeasy and a brothel. Now it’s a tangle of fallen trees and twisted brush. He got into guiding after an accident on an oil rig left his shoulder damaged. Now he and his wife operate Piney Woods outfitters, and take locals and tourists down this river in kayaks and canoes. “We love it on the river,” he said.

Texas Tales: Terry Thomas and the Bobcat

Tim Thomas.
Sculptor and river guide Terry Thomas.

We beached our canoes and kayaks on a sandbar on Village Creek, a tributary of the Neches river here in Southeast Texas. It was time for lunch and stories. Our guide had plenty of both, we soon found out. The day was sunny and the paddling along this gorgeous stretch of river was as relaxing as can be.

Terry Thomas is a grizzled, slender man with a lot of experiences under his belt. He was once an ironworker, now he’s a part time river guide and a budding sculptor. He said that after Hurricane Rita, he used to put food out for many neighborhood cats and dogs who had been displaced by the storm, and they used to come into his house through a small cat door.

One day a small bobcat followed a domestic cat into the house and into a small bathroom. Thomas walked in and was surprised to see this half-breed, about ten pounds and more muscular than a regular cat. He tried to shoo it out the door, saying, ‘kitty, kitty,’ and it suddenly sprang up, ran all of the way up his arm and began clawing his eyes and scratching his face wildly.

He dragged the bobcat off of him, with blood pouring down his head, and it ran right back up his arm again, perched right on his head. Enraged, he ran for the kitchen and picked up an iron frying pan, and beat it off him. He said the adrenaline was pounding and he beat the wild cat up, and afterwards, was “dazed, like he was a caveman who had just killed a sabre-toothed tiger.”

He took the bobcat’s body and went outside, walking down a long dock planning to feed it to the alligators in the creek. But he got his foot stuck under the deck, and lurched forward, breaking his femur with a painful crack. The bobcat fell into the water, to be consumed by the waiting gators, and he was stranded there for a while until he was rescued by his son. At the hospital the asked him how he’d broken his leg so badly…. and he told this story.

Nightlife in Beaumont

On my last night in Texas we did it up in style. I was picked up in a sleek SUV by our lovely hosts Stephanie and Ashley who took us to an upscale Mexican joint called the Poblano Grill.

There we joined Stephanie’s husband Sean and sat in a cozy circular table, where the CVB chief Dean had already ordered us fresh guacamole made at the tableside. After margaritas with Patron Silver, we settled into our meal, a vast assortment of burritos, steaks and chicken, and eventually the chef came to say hello.

We talked about Tex Mex and he revealed that he’d learned how to make the perfect enchilada by listening to his Mexican sous chef… and he promptly brought out a sample to share with us. Our waitress was a jolly big-boned woman who got quite a chuckle out of the chef’s propensity to give away free food. We looked at our watches… it was time for the show!

We’d scored a table at a chi-chi hospital benefit with a pretty cool headliner… The Blues Brothers. Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi were up on stage in their cheap black suits, sunglasses and fedoras, belting out classic old blues and R&B songs with gusto. It felt great to be there, mingling with the high class folks of Beaumont dressed in black tie and elegant dresses.

The band rocked hard, a seven piece ensemble that pumped out a delicious beat, and both Dan and Jim sang with the tight band and danced on stage. After a few numbers they brought a Tina Turner-esque singer in a short black dress with frills named Julie Del Gato. She sang “Natural Woman” with her powerful voice that was strong and clear, it was a rendition that really resonated with the audience. I sipped a Budweiser and grooved to the beat, and when the Brothers returned to the stage for a raucous encore, I thought wow, Texas is the place to be tonight!