We have often driven past the huge statue of Sam Houston just outside Hunstville, Texas, on the way north from Houston to Dallas, but during our most recent trip to H-Town, we resolved to visit and find out more about this quaint little city of around 40,000 inhabitants, as well as its most famous resident, Sam Houston.
Huntsville is only 70 miles north of Houston, so it makes an ideal day trip for travellers based in Houston, or indeed Houstonites looking for a fun and interesting day out. The city began as a trading post in 1836 and has developed into a dwelling with several excellent museums and art galleries, as well as a charming downtown area, filled with interesting antique shops and eye-catching murals.
The Sam Houston Statue Visitor Centre
Our day started at the Sam Houston Statue, which was designed and constructed by artist David Adickes. He dedicated the statue to the City of Huntsville on October 22, 1994. It is the world's tallest statue of an American Hero at 67 feet tall on a 10-foot sunset granite base and it makes an impressive sight when driving past on the I-45, but even more so when up close. There is also a visitor center at the statue, although it was closed during our visit due to the lockdown restrictions.
So, who was this man of such great stature that warranted this memorial? Well, Sam was born in Virginia in 1793, descending from Ulster Scots settlers. He grew up on the family farm and also worked in their store, before embarking on a colourful youth when he ran away from home and lived with the Cherokee for three years and then serving in the army with Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812 and eventually being elected as governor of Tennessee in 1827. This would have been enough excitement and achievement for most men, but not for Sam. He decided to move to Texas, which at the time was owned by Mexico. Within nine years of his arrival, Sam Houston was leading the Texan Army to victory over the Mexicans at the Battle of San Jacinto. Subsequently, he served twice as the President of the new Republic of Texas, then, after being instrumental in the annexation of Texas by the US in 1845, he served as a US Senator for 13 years, then as Governor of Texas. His public service ended disappointingly in 1861, when he was forced from the office of Governor due to his opposition to the secession of Texas from the US to join the Confederate side during the Civil War. Sam Houston then died just two years later of pneumonia. Sam Houston was truly a giant in the history of Texas and there are plenty more interesting life events to recount and he deserves more than just this paragraph.
Texas Prison Museum
From the visitor center, we headed over to the other side of Huntsville to check out The Texas Prison Museum. The museum is home to the history of the Texas prison system. Huntsville has become infamous for its connection with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which operates the state's correctional facilities based in the city. But don't let that put you off from visiting, since any undesirables are safely incarcerated!
The museums most famous exhibit has got to be Old Sparky, the Texas electric chair! Inmates referred to the electrocutions as “riding the thunderbolt”, with executions beginning in 1924. In all, 361 men died in the electric chair, between 1924 and 1964.
However, we soon found that inmate made arts and crafts were actually more fascinating, such as a chess set made from soap. Displays also cover the weapons guards have used, some now illegal; knives and other weapons illegally made by the inmates; the history of the death penalty; the pistol taken from Bonnie and Clyde's 'death car'; and a look at some of Texas' infamous inmates. There is also a life size replica cell that you can step inside.
The most surprising display was one on the Texas Prison Rodeo. We had never heard of this event, but in its day, it was tremendously popular, with the last rodeo held in 1986 attracting 50,000 fans and grossing $450,000! The rodeo was originally held in the prison’s baseball park in 1931, but as it became more popular, a dedicated stadium was constructed. The inmates themselves would perform the usual rodeo events such as bronco and bull riding. Initially participation was restricted to those who had been ranch hands, but by the 1940s it was opened to any inmate who was brave enough! As the event gained popularity, the entertainment became more spectacular, with the likes of Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson performing at the rodeo, and would you believe that Johnny Cash played his first-ever concert at the Texas Prison Rodeo in 1956 before hitting the big time? Fascinating!
H.E.A.R.T.S. Veterans Museum of Texas
H.E.A.R.T.S. Veterans Museum of Texas is handily located next door to the Texas Prison Museum, and this was our next stop of the day. The museum honors all military Veterans by displaying and preserving their memorabilia, photos, medals, uniforms, weapons, and covers every branch of service and all wars and conflicts that the US has been involved in. The displays of large equipment outside the museum, such as the tank and helicopters are impressive. We found the interior of the museum an absolute treasure trove of militaria. There is so much to read and discover in this museum and it seems every inch of wall and floor is crammed with information and displays. Unlike many military museums that we have visited, the H.E.A.R.T.S. Veterans Museum of Texas really focuses on the service men and women themselves and their experiences, and it seemed the majority of the items and stories on display regarded men and women from the local area. We spent just over an hour in the museum, but you could double that if you wished to read everything available.
By now, we had worked up a massive appetite, so we headed towards downtown Huntsville to have lunch at the Farmhouse Café. This turned out to be a great choice. The Café is a casual, Texas-themed restaurant. We found it had a very welcoming vibe and there was a great selection of Southern meals and desserts, at a reasonable price too.
The Sam Houston Memoria Museum
Just a couple of minutes’ drive from our lunch stop was our next attraction - The Sam Houston Memorial Museum. The museum occupies a historic site of some 18 acres of the original farm owned by Sam Houston from 1847 until 1858.
The complex contains a museum and ten historic buildings, set in areas of natural woodland and landscaped spaces. Among the buildings is Woodland Home, which was built in 1847 when Houston was serving as one of the first United States Senators from Texas. The traditional-style, double-pen "dogtrot" log cabin was home to the Houstons until 1858 and four of their eight children were born here. There is also the amusingly named Steamboat House, a building of unusual architectural design, which was built by Dr. Rufus Bailey. It was rented by the Houstons when General Sam returned to Huntsville in 1861 following his dismissal as Texas Governor. On July 26, 1863 he died in the house and was buried from the front parlor.
The main museum is housed in an impressive building and has an excellently set out display, taking us from the origins of Sam Houston’s family in Scotland, all the way through his eventful life events. In all, we’d suggest setting aside an hour and a half to see the museum and the historic buildings.
To end the story of Sam Houston, we made the short drive to the Oakwood Cemetery to see his final resting place. Sam Houston's grave was very simply marked until the present monument was erected in 1911. It was sculpted at a cost of $10,000 by Pompeo Coppini, who also sculpted the Alamo Cenotaph in San Antonio. The relief shows Houston on his horse riding off into battle, with the monument being unveiled on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto. The quotation from Andrew Jackson below Houston fittingly says, "The world will take care of Houston's fame." A further connection with Sam Houston is that the Steamboat House, where Sam Houston died, was originally located in the Adickes Addition section of the cemetery. Other notables buried at Oakwood Cemetery include: Joshua Houston, who was Sam Houston's slave; Henderson King Yoakum, who wrote the first comprehensive history of Texas in 1855; Pleasant Williams Kittrell, who introduced the legislation to create the University of Texas; and George FItzhugh, pioneering American sociologist and the first person to use the word "sociology" in the title of a book.
Our day trip to Huntsville was coming to a close, but we couldn’t leave without first checking out the quaint downtown area of Huntsville. We were struck by the number of cool antique shops to visit. There were also some excellent trompe l’oeil murals by Richard Haas to check out.
Have you had a day out in Hunstville? If so please leave us a comment and let us know what you thought.
Join us next time when our family adventures continue as we explore the attractions of Aberdeenshire. Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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