Historic San Augustine and Nacogdoches, connected by State Highway 21—also known as El Camino Real and The King’s Highway—share far more than this time-honored, evergreen corridor. Each community offers small-town charm, friendliness and a peaceful pace of life that instill a sense of comfort welcomed by those who stop, visit and stay awhile.
Indian wars were fought in these lush East Texas thickets. Spanish friars and French traders found ample reason to visit this area, and so should you.
Both towns claim to be the oldest in Texas, and each has a case to make.
San Augustine, home of Deep East Texas Electric Cooperative, lays claim to being the oldest Anglo town in Texas. This town of 2,500 people probably was visited by Spanish explorers as early as the 1540s. French traders also spent time in the area, which was permanently settled by Anglos in 1779. It is also called the Cradle of Texas Independence for its role in the Texas Revolution.
In the heart of town, you’ll find the old San Augustine County courthouse, surrounded by a variety of quaint shops and venerable historic buildings and churches. Visitors can browse antique stores such as Bogard’s on Broadway Emporium for old lamps, collectible glassware and furniture, or mosey over to the San Augustine Drug Store for the locally popular, very tart, grapefruit highball.
Tempting visitors with delicious treats a few blocks away is the Pinto Pony Cookie Factory, where you can sample decadence on a cookie sheet like their oatmeal raisin with nuts or melt-in-your-mouth chocolate chip. Just south of town, the Mission Dolores Visitors Center commemorates the site of the famous Spanish mission built in 1717.
San Augustine County Chamber of Commerce, (936) 275-3610, www.sanaugustinetx.com
Driving about 30 miles west on State Highway 21, fringed by towering spires of loblolly pine, you’ll encounter Nacogdoches, which claims to be the first town in Texas to establish an official government. Settled in the early 1700s by the Spanish for the purpose of building missions, the site was eventually abandoned due to conflicts with nearby French settlements. But in 1779, settlers returned with their leader, Antonio Gil Ibarvo, to set up a local government in a building now known as the Old Stone Fort.
Today, Nacogdoches, with a population of 30,000, projects an energetic, youthful ambiance, thanks to the presence of Stephen F. Austin State University. Like San Augustine, the downtown district offers the greatest appeal for visitors. The streets, constructed almost entirely of red brick, are a sight to behold, attractively set off by ornate, metal light posts and old-fashioned, storefront windows. Here, antique, collectible and specialty shops abide in refurbished, turn-of-the-century buildings.
As folks migrate from one fascinating little shop to the next, treasure hunting for old-time memorabilia can reach a feverish pace. Be sure to visit Greer’s Inc., which yields a number of unexpected delights. On the first floor, quality antiques and reproductions, made of oak, walnut and mahogany, provide an elegant setting for a gorgeous collection of high-quality fabrics. Upstairs, you’ll find gallery walls laden with evocative, original black and white photos of yesteryear. Glass Castles, located right across the street, offers a luscious collection of stained-glass eye candy.
For overnight visits, you can choose from almost a dozen delightful bed-and- breakfasts, some within a few blocks of the main square. Don’t miss the two-story, Victorian-style, Jones House Bed & Breakfast, built in 1897, or the beautiful, nine-room, Brooks Cypress House Bed & Breakfast, located on 22 forested acres near downtown.
Other points of interest include the historic village of Millard’s Crossing, the Ruby M. Mize Azalea Garden (blooming in March), the Nacogdoches Crape Myrtle Trail (best in July and August) and the Pineywoods Native Plant Center.
Because it’s a college town, Nacogdoches offers diverse and well-prepared cuisine. For zesty Italian food, try Auntie Pastas. Friday nights sizzle with live jazz on the patio at Café Fredonia, accompanied by a delectable seafood buffet.
Nacogdoches County Chamber of Commerce, (936) 560-5533, www.gonac.info
Nacogdoches Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-888-653-3788, www.visitnacogdoches.org
Stephan Myers is a writer and photographer who lives near the Sam Rayburn Reservoir in East Texas.