Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Salt Palace

It's been a somewhat quiet week here on the home front and very rainy, but we have managed a little sightseeing.  I've been dragging Sid around to the little towns he grew up around and forcing him to be a tourist. He says it's giving him a whole new perspective on places in which he spent a good portion of his childhood!

Grand Saline (meaning "large salt") is a tiny little town of about 3200 people best known as the "saltiest town in Texas" and the site of the largest and highest-quality salt deposit in the country (owned by none other than Morton Salt).  The town was named for the large salt deposits found to the south of town in the 1800s; deposits are so large that it's estimated that they could supply the entire world's need for salt for the next 20,000 years!

The plant is one of the largest employers in the county.

This plant produces the majority of table salt used in this country.

Surprisingly, they also produce all the iconic packaging on site.

The plant no longer gives tours, but you can visit the Salt Palace to take a virtual tour and learn about the salt industry.  Originally constructed by proud residents of the city in 1936, the building resembled the Alamo.

Photograph of original Salt Palace

But, exposed to the East Texas rain, the building gradually melted away (yes, I said melted!) and had to be rebuilt.  Again, the second building suffered the same sad fate and, with the third iteration, while not "palatial" by any stretch of the imagination, the city figured out a way to protect it's creation.

Current "Salt Palace" in Grand Saline, TX

It is, in fact, constructed of rock salt chunks (ask me how I can be sure!) and houses a little museum full of all things salt related.
Outside the museum sits a huge hunk of rock salt

A little off the beaten path, but worth the detour, the drive to Grand Saline was beautiful.  There has been so much rain down here that every little depression in the ground is filled with water and the multiple lakes are filled to capacity.  And, while the bluebonnets are on their way out, the sides of the roads are filled with other wildflowers in white, yellow and purple and everywhere you look is lush and green.

Until next time...


Friday, April 24, 2015

The Jalapeno Tree

The Jalapeno Tree is a Tex-Mex restaurant chain that promises "crazy good Mexican food" and, given its bright colors outside, was a place that spoke to me.  We had seen them in different small towns around east Texas and decided to try one for an early dinner in Mineola, TX.

The inside was as colorful as the outside, with brightly painted walls, quirky tablecloths and ceramic iguanas covering the walls.
Colorful lizards everywhere!

The menu wasn't huge, but had all the combos and sides that you would expect from any Mexican restaurant.  They make their own, handmade tortillas in the restaurant, which you could watch being made and were delivered to the table gratis.

The tortilla were really quite good.

The food itself was good, but we didn't think it was "crazy good."  However, relative to what's available at home, at the restaurant that shall remain nameless, it was delicious. But we have had better.

My dinner. I like the fact you could get the black beans and sauteed veggies instead of refried and rice.

Sid couldn't wait for me to take the picture before digging in!

To me, the most impressive thing about the chain is their commitment to public service.  Their Pepper Posse works in the local communities where these restaurants are located to provide fund raising, sponsorship and other benefits to schools and organizations.

The food was good enough and the philosophy outstanding, so we would definitely eat at this restaurant  again.  Besides, who could resist these guys?

The Pepper Posse

Until next time...

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Cowabunga! Dairy Cows, that is!

Got milk?

We got the opportunity to visit the Southwest Dairy Museum in Sulphur Springs, TX recently and it's actually a pretty interesting place.  Beginning with the giant dairy cows in front, the museum is housed in a 10,000 square foot dairy farm-style building and is packed with artifacts relating to the dairy industry.  Most interesting were the many vignettes depicting the collecting, processing and distributing of milk and other dairy products in America prior to electricity and modern milk processing facilities.  The museum was built by the Southwest Dairy Farmers, an alliance of dairy farmers from Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and New Mexico and, with it's primary mission the education of consumers, was filled on the day we visited with busload after busload of school children.

Some of the artifacts displayed were cheese and butter molds, glass milk bottles from so many different dairies, and every advertising memorabilia that you can imagine.

Ice cream molds - fancy dinner party, anyone?

I like the concept!

It didn't take long to go through the museum and, on a rainy day in East Texas, it was a pleasant diversion.

While we were in Sulphur Springs, we decided to check out its town square.  You know how most southern towns have a "square" in the middle of downtown, usually containing the courthouse, surrounded by shopping?  Well, imagine our surprise when we saw the courthouse here.

This little town, approximately the size of Canon City, is the county seat for Hopkins County and has this amazing building built out of Texas red granite.  The rest of the downtown is a bit shabby, but the half acre or so that this building sits on is immaculate.  Picture our county courthouse and it's a little sad.  But, hey, everything is bigger in Texas, right?

Fremont County Courthouse, Canon City, CO

Until next time...

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Impressions of...Oklahoma

I thought I would start this series of blog posts, Impressions of..., after leaving each state in which we spend time while on this grand adventure.  Here is where I'll document my thoughts about the state, its people and any other thing that I might have found interesting.  So, here we go with the first state, Oklahoma.

Prior to spending this time in Oklahoma, I never realized just how steeped in Indian history and culture the state was. By spending the little time we did in museums, I learned so much about the history of the state and about Indian tribes in general.  Broken treaties, the Trail of Tears and the current form of jurisdiction and ownership, Oklahoma certainly would not be the state it is today without the Native American influence.  Its people, at least in the areas we visited, seemed to be poor and the cities appear to be trying their best to upgrade and grow into destinations, rather than stops on the way to somewhere else.

Reservations as we know them in the west do not exist, but Indian owned casinos are everywhere.  From a small, bowling alley sized enterprise on a back country road to the "world's largest casino" on the Oklahoma/Texas border, gambling is as much a part of everyday life as going to Homeland, the most common grocery store we saw, after Walmart.

Tornado season was something I personally haven't had to deal with in over 30 years but since we visited in the spring, tornado warnings were almost every day occurrences.  The thought of going down into the ground, into a shelter, completely freaks me out, but it's just another part of nearly everyone's homes in their backyards or communities.  The humidity, at least in this time of year, wasn't particularly high, but I'm sure it has the potential to get pretty sticky in full summer.

Western Oklahoma looks a lot like Kansas to me, with flat prairies, dry land farming and tiny towns dotting the landscape.  But the eastern side of the state was a surprise with its rolling hills and plentiful lakes.  They may have been experiencing drought in the past, but while we were there, the lakes were filling up and the ground, in many places, couldn't hold any more water.

The actual population statistics of the three largest cities in Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Muskogee  was a shock to me.  At 600,000, 400,000 and 40,000, they are similar to Denver, Colorado Springs and Grand Junction respectively, but seemed so much smaller.  I was not intimidated by driving in any of the cities and found that they were easy to navigate.

Lots of well known people are from Oklahoma, but we either went through or stayed in the hometowns of Brad Pitt (Shawnee), Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert (Tishomingo), Carrie Underwood (Checotah) and Kristin Chenowith (Broken Arrow), just to name a few.  It's interesting to think about the beginnings of famous people when you see, in some cases, the itty bitty towns in which they grew up.

All told, I enjoyed our time in Oklahoma (mechanical problems notwithstanding!)  and would willingly come back.  Given unlimited time, there are many more museums, historical sites and attractions to see and beautiful lakes on which to spend a summer.  Not sure I could actually live here full time, but visiting was pleasant and educational and I'm glad we had the time here that we did.

One state down, 47 to go?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Cajun Country in East Texas

Think of Texas cuisine and you may get a taste for barbecue, Tex-Mex and catfish, but you probably don't get your mouth watering for the taste of Cajun food.  But, in Tyler, Texas, of all places that is just what we came across while driving the main drag looking for a place to eat lunch.

This sign stood out among all the others along the main drag

Not sure what to expect, we decided to give it a try.  After all, one of the benefits of uprooting my whole life and living in a 300 square foot confined space with another person is the opportunity to try new food and restaurants that you don't have at home!

Part of the charm?

Being greeted by a dead opossum hanging on the wall didn't give me a great sense of ease about what we might be eating, but we pushed on.

Texas hog on the menu?
Front of the menu

Back of the menu

Lots more odd decor, but it didn't stop there.  Menu choices included rat toes, fried cat, pickle puckers and rabbit food ("as close as we get to "health"").  Imagine how pleasantly surprised we were with our orders.

Cajun Combo Skillet with grilled andouille sausage, shrimp creole, crawfish etoufee and red beans and rice

Tchoupitoulas (Chopa - 2- las) "Tasty grilled chicken breast over smoked ham, rite nice mushrooms and taters topped with a special sauce"

Can I just say OMG?  This food was AMAZING!!  It certainly rivaled anything I ever tasted in New Orleans or Lafayette.   Turns out, this chain restaurant began in Dallas and has 17 others in the Austin, Waco and Houston areas (and one in Concord, North Carolina.  Hope that's in our path when we get to that part of the country!)  Our waitress told us that the chain is growing slowly because its owners wants to be sure each and every restaurant is running smoothly and maintains the high quality of food presented before opening another.  The only problem with that is you will have to travel to Texas to get a taste!

Excellent food, original decor and a place that definitely merits a visit!

Until next time...

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Getting to know Tyler, Texas

Texas Bluebonnets

We're currently camped at Lake Fork, near the little town of Emory, TX.  It's a time for us to catch up with some family, rest and prepare for the next big adventure, our Caribbean cruise.

Bluebonnets were the first thing I saw upon entering the state of Texas.  And, of course, the Lone Star!

Welcome to Texas

We've since seen the bluebonnets in bloom all along the roads we've traveled.  After almost 40 years of visiting Texas, I'm finally here at the right time of year to see them.  It was worth the wait!

While we're here in East Texas primarily because of Sid's high school reunion, and as a holding place for Julie while we're on our cruise next month, I'm not one to sit still for very long.  So we took a drive the other day over to Tyler, TX, the Rose Capital of the World.

Interesting piece of trivia - the "Welcome to Tyler" sign sits at least 8 miles outside what I considered to be the city.

All the overpasses in the city are adorned with a carved rose.  And, yes, all the meridians were planted in roses!

We had just missed the Azalea and Spring Flower Trail, an event held every year in late March/early April, but the trail signs were still up and it wound 10 miles through one of the most beautiful historic residential areas I have ever seen.  The azaleas were already spent and it was too early for the roses, but the landscaping at each an every house, some designated historical landmarks, was lush and stunning and original brick streets added charm.  Since I was too busy gawking and turning my head to try to see it all, I failed to take any pictures!  And, even if I had, it would have been too difficult to choose which to display here.  So, I think I see a future road trip in the works, in time to catch the azaleas in full bloom.  Or maybe in the fall for the Rose Festival. At either time, it will be an overload to the senses well worth a return trip.

While in Tyler, we did get to visit the Goodman-LeGrand House and Museum, a historic landmark home originally built in 1859.

Front view of the Goodman house

While not a house of any famous historic value, the place is significant in that it was deeded to the City of Tyler, with all furnishings and personal belongings intact, in 1939 by the last remaining descendant of the family that had lived there since the end of the Civil War, with the stipulation that the house be maintained and kept open to the public for generations to come.

Front Hall

Hand Painted Ceiling

Front door plaque

Front hall, another view

Front parlor with endless reflecting chandeliers

Rear of house

I love old houses, so it was an enjoyable time for me to peek into life in the past and hear about how the house came to it's present state.  So many artifacts were bequeathed with the home but one little tidbit that was interesting to me was about the china.

Hand painted china

This china was Limoges china, purchased by Sallie LeGrand, and in it's original state was solid white.  Mrs. LeGrand hand painted each piece of a service for 12, plus accessory pieces, with the pattern you see in the picture above.  I cannot imagine how long it must have taken, nor how much patience she must have had!

There is was more to see in the city, but it was a rainy day and lunch was calling.  If you get the chance to be in the east Texas area, plan to visit Tyler.  Larger than I expected and still obviously growing, it looks like an interesting city in which to spend some time.

Until next time...

Friday, April 17, 2015

More Quirky Oklahoma

I can't let a destination go by without trying to find something totally off the wall to look at and I found a couple of things at this one.

On the way from our campground to Muskogee, on old Highway 69, was Junkyard Muffler Man.  Don't know why he's called Muffler Man, as there wasn't a muffler in sight, but he's definitely in a junkyard!

The first ever sale of a Girl Scout cookie, personally baked by the Mistletoe Troop, took place in Muskogee.  Profits from the sale were used to send gifts to soldiers in World War and there is a statue commemorating that in downtown.  You really have to be looking for it and, if you didn't know the significance, you still wouldn't know it after viewing it.  The plaque doesn't say anything about the purpose of the statue.

There were a few more weird things to see in the area, but we ran out of time.  Hey, you can't see it all!

Until next time...

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Our first Civil War Battlefield

Many of you know that Sid is a huge history buff, with the Civil War being one of his favorite subjects. Given the proximity of an actual battlefield, there was no doubt that this was going to be a stop on itinerary. Not easy to find, the Honey Springs Battlefield Historic Site was located between Checotah, OK and Rentiesville, OK, off Highway 69 and down several country roads.  But once we got there, it turned out to be an important historical site.  The visitor center was not much to look at...

Honey Springs Battlefield Visitor Center (with its' fancy bathrooms!)

...but the curator we found there was amazing!  Admission was free and on a rainy day in the middle of the week, we were the only visitors and we got one of the best presentations we could have hoped for.  He not only recounted the actual events of the battle but also engaged us in guessing the motives for many of the decisions made by both sides that day.  The young man was not only knowledgeable but passionate about his history!

The Battle of Honey Springs was the largest Civil War battle ever fought in Indian Territory and took place on July 17, 1863.  Union troops occupying Ft Gibson (across the Arkansas River from Muskogee) learned of an impending attack on the fort by Confederate soldiers.  Outnumbered by 2 to 1 (3000 Union, 6000 Confederate),  Major General James G. Blunt decided to go on the offensive and preemptively attack the Confederate forces waiting in the Honey Springs Depot, led by Brigadier General Douglas H. Cooper, before they could be reinforced by an additional 3000 troops coming from Kansas.  A fierce battle ensued and the Union prevailed.  Anywhere from 200 - 400 soldiers were killed or wounded, but the actual number could never be ascertained.  The battle and resulting victory opened the way for the capture of much of Arkansas and marked the last large Confederate resistance in Indian Territory.  It was also significant in that it was one of the earliest engagements by a black regiment (1st Kansas Colored Infantry) that proved their ability as fighting men.

Honey Springs settlement has long since disappeared, but the 1100 acre historic site contains 6 extensive walking trails through prairie and woods, with interpretive signs that tell you what happened at each location.  Parts of the original road (originally Osage Trace, then called Texas Road during the Civil War era, now replaced by Highway 69) still exist, as well as Elk Creek, which played a key role in the battle.  The settlement is marked by monuments, erected in the 80s, to honor the Confederate, Union, "Colored" and Indian regiments.

Indian monument

Honoring the 1st Kansas Colored Regiment soldiers

Confederate monument

Union monument

Not content to be lumped in with the other regiments, Texas had to have it's own monument, honoring the soldiers from that state!

I've seen other Civil War battlefields and this one was documented as well as any I've seen.  The interpretive signs are very worn and some unreadable, but the curator gave us a printed guide (normally a $3 purchase) to follow that included everything on the signs and more.  He said that they are in the process of building a new visitor center and upgrading all the exhibits, funding permitting, of course.  It was raining when we visited, but it would be a lovely place to spend a sunny afternoon.   I'm so glad that I live in a country that recognizes the importance of its history and makes it available to anyone interested in learning about it.

Until next time...