Joan Smith leads local history tours of places like the Depot Museum, which is set in a 1901 Missouri Pacific Railway depot.

Joan Smith is immersed in Henderson’s past. As chairwoman of the Rusk County Historical Commission, Smith works in the Depot Museum complex, her office stuffed with historical files. “Many of the folks who live in Henderson are descendants of people who came here in the early years to fight for independence, to live in the republic, or to settle in a state newly admitted to the union,” says Smith, whose own pioneer great-great-grandfather is buried in nearby Pig Eye Cemetery. A former middle school art teacher, Smith leads local history tours, dons period attire for the Heritage Syrup Festival, and sings in the annual East Texas Sacred Harp Singing Convention, which preserves the a cappella traditions of old-time religious music. Thanks to Smith and others like her, Henderson’s heritage shines in places like the restored 1885 Opera House and the Victorian-style Arnold Outhouse, Texas’ only latrine with a historical marker.

Hooked on History

“I began my research in history and genealogy as a student at Henderson High School for a biology assignment on dominant and recessive genes. I studied brown eyes and blue eyes in my family. I am so grateful I learned how to ask questions before my grandparents died. That hooked me on history.”

Crossing Paths

“Henderson was an important crossroads, a center of industry and commerce when cotton was the cash crop and wagons were pulled by oxen. Tombstones and cemeteries can give clues about that time. We want to make sure our artifacts are cared for, and that our facts stay accurate and add to the information we have.”

Uptown Henderson

“Our downtown is really ‘uptown.’ From the center of Henderson, the land gently slopes down in all directions so there are beautiful sunsets to be seen from Heritage Square. The Depot Museum complex contains great buildings, including the Walling log cabin, a dogtrot house, cotton gin, doctor’s office, and the famous three-hole outhouse. On South Main Street, the ladies at the Filling Station are even better cooks than your grandmother. You also can visit the oldest Dairy Queen in Texas.”

Sam Houston’s Trunk

“Sam Houston was related to Martha Fowler Howard and visited the Howard-Dickinson House often. The house displays Sam’s goat-skin campaign trunk, shown in the painting Surrender of Santa Anna by William Huddle, which hangs in the Capitol in Austin. We consult with experts on advice, like how to care for the leather on Sam’s trunk, keeping the organ in working order, or what roofing can replace cedar shake.”

Cemetery Clues

“We are trying to locate and name all the cemeteries in Rusk County. We canvassed a cemetery last summer that we think might be a freedman cemetery, with only three readable stones but more than 40 graves. My fellow commission member, John Dulin, has spent countless hours taking photographs of tombstones, churches, markers, and buildings; copying deeds; compiling death certificates; extracting information from funeral homes; and arranging all our files.”

Teach the Children Well

“The rhythm of life in Henderson is slower, kinder, more respectful. A personalization occurs when you get to know neighbors—more trust, more tolerance, less animosity than when everyone is a stranger. I believe our young people will choose to live in Henderson, bringing the skills they learned in college and elsewhere back home. Maybe someone will even perpetuate the jobs of chipping flint into arrowheads, cooking ribbon-cane juice into syrup, or figuring out how to make brooms for our Heritage Syrup Festival.”

Town Trivia

Population:
13,280

Number of stoplights:
17

Year founded:
1843

Nearest city:
Longview, 30 miles north

Marquee Events:
East Texas Sacred Harp Singing Convention, Aug. 8-9;
Heritage Syrup Festival, Nov. 14

Map it:

From the May 2020 issue


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