In the upper reaches of the Piney Woods that unfurl themselves across East Texas, there lies a pocket of landscape that helped shape Texas’ fate for much of the 20th century. Thanks to the discovery of oil at the dawn of the 1930s, tiny hamlets in Gregg, Rusk and Upshur counties—places nobody had ever heard of—grew overnight from a couple hundred people to boomtowns with populations in the thousands. While the rest of the nation suffered during the Great Depression, empires were built on the riches drilled in places such as Gladewater, Kilgore and Henderson. In downtown Kilgore, where some 1,200 oil derricks represented a fortune forest, you’ll find the World’s Richest Acre, a city block that sprouted many of the rigs.
Wander through these woodsy environs, taking an easy drive from Gladewater along U.S. Highway 80 to Texas Highway 42, and following that highway south to Kilgore, then U.S. Highway 259 to Henderson. It’s a little more than 30 miles, but if you love history like I do, you can easily stretch that journey over a weekend.
Even on a speedy spin through town, you’ll quickly figure out how this place gained its designation as the Antiques Capital of East Texas. But take it easy, soak up the yesteryear pace and let the well-stocked shops—mostly placed along Main Street, as well as on Commerce and Pacific avenues—pull you back into another age. More than 200 vendors offer goodies from the olden days as well as a smattering of contemporary home décor. I like to give my sweet tooth a treat at the Glory Bee Baking Company, home to famous brownies and the Gusherville Pie, a two-pound creation incorporating chocolate chips, pecans and sticky nougat. Be sure to snap a pic of Old Snavely No. 1, a replica derrick that honors the 1931 oil boom, smack in the middle of downtown.
Gladewater Chamber of Commerce, 215 N. Main St., Gladewater; (903) 845-5501
Glory Bee Baking Company, 111 N. Main St., Gladewater, (903) 845-2448
To give youngsters some perspective on what life was like during the oil boom days, take them to the East Texas Oil Museum. Inside, you’ll find a re-created 1930s boomtown scene, complete with a rutted, muddy street and functioning drugstore soda fountain. A block away is my favorite site, the Rangerette Showcase, a museum honoring the first-ever precision dance team and pride of Kilgore College. Since 1940, the Rangerettes have been the “sweethearts of the nation’s gridiron,” with their red lips and shirts, short blue skirts and white hats and boots. Don’t leave town without stopping for a platter of pork ribs at the Country Tavern, an unpretentious honky-tonk with a loyal following.
Kilgore Chamber of Commerce, 813 North Kilgore St., Kilgore; (903) 984-5022 or 1-866-984-0400
East Texas Oil Museum, U.S. 259 at Ross St., Kilgore; (903) 983-8295
Rangerette Showcase, Kilgore College, 1100 Broadway St., Kilgore; (903) 983-8265
Country Tavern, Texas 31 at Farm Road 2767, Kilgore; (903) 984-9954
One of the most inexcusably overlooked towns in East Texas, Henderson (headquarters of Rusk County Electric Cooperative), boasts a 13-block nationally recorded historic district. Grab a map from the chamber and take the downtown walking tour, stopping to admire the recently restored Henderson Opera House that serves as home to the Henderson Civic Theatre. You should also take note of the Depot Museum, which stages the enormously popular Heritage Syrup Festival on the first weekend in November. Year-round, I like visiting Jordan’s Plant Farm to survey the 100 varieties of bedding plants, veggies and flowers, and browse the wares sold in the 19th-century-style hotel gift shop. As for barbecue, you’ll find none better than Bob’s.
Henderson Chamber of Commerce, 201 North Main St., Henderson; (903) 657-5528
Heritage Syrup Festival at the Depot Museum, 514 N. High St., Henderson; (903) 657-2119
Jordan’s Plant Farm, 7523 Texas Highway 42 South, Henderson; 1-800-635-1147
Bob’s Barbecue, 120 Pope St., Henderson; (903) 657-8301
June Naylor wrote Texas: Off the Beaten Path.