A woman sits on the side of a red and wood boxcar
Artist Odessa Helm worked for the Texas State Railroad, a major tourism draw for her hometown of Rusk, when she was a high school student.

The Texas State Railroad has long been a cornerstone of Rusk. Prisoners from the now-defunct Rusk Penitentiary completed the 25-mile line in the early 1900s, providing an outlet for timber, cotton, and iron ore, and connecting Rusk to larger regional railroads. Today, visitors board the train’s restored vintage cars for scenic Piney Woods trips that run between Palestine and Rusk, which is the Cherokee County seat. Sightseers in Rusk and surrounding towns are also likely to see public murals created by Odessa Helm. A native of Rusk, Helm worked as a sign language interpreter for Tyler Junior College for three years before deciding last year to pursue her passion for art full time. She has painted a variety of imaginative murals in her hometown and in neighboring places like Alto, Bullard, Jacksonville, Palestine, and Tyler.

Working on the Railroad

“When I was a senior in high school, I worked at the Texas State Railroad. I started on the Piney Woods Express, which goes from Rusk to Palestine and back. I did the Polar Express ride in the winter and handed out hot chocolate and cookies in the observation dome car. The stone depot in Rusk looks like something out of a movie. Inside, it has pictures on the walls of the different engines, plus some historical photos. It also has campgrounds and a lake, where people go to fish and hang out.”

 

Fresh Paint

“People ask me to paint all kinds of things. In Tyler, I’ve painted murals for an elementary school, a park, a car dealership, and a coffee shop. I just finished one for a coffee shop in Jacksonville, and I also painted the ‘Welcome to Bullard’ sign. My largest mural is in Jacksonville—it’s 3,000 square feet and says, ‘Love Thy Neighbor.’ In Rusk, I repainted the ‘Welcome to Rusk’ sign and the old caboose beneath it. People are always out there taking pictures.”

 

Family Ties

“In Rusk, everyone knows everyone, and it feels like I’m related to most of them. My whole family lives here, on both my dad’s side and my mom’s side. I got married last year, and all of my husband’s family members live here as well.”

 

A Sense of History

“The town is named after Thomas J. Rusk, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence. And Jim Hogg State Historic Park was named after the first native-born Texan to become governor. He was born on that land, and the park has a replica of his house. Rusk has a historic wooden footbridge downtown that is said to be the longest in the United States [546 feet]. That’s where everyone takes their prom pictures. The Heritage Center of Cherokee County and the Cherokee Civic Theatre are also downtown.”

Get Your Fill

“The Daily Grind is a cute little coffee shop downtown. At All Star Bar-B-Q, I get the chopped beef sandwich, and I love the potato salad. The owner is a big Houston Astros fan, so the inside is full of Astros memorabilia, as well as local sports stuff. If you were on a sports team in high school in Rusk, your picture is probably in there.”

 

Retail Therapy

“My mother-in-law has a store on the square called Jenny’s Salon & Mercantile, which has kitchen goods, accessories, and antiques. And my best friend opened Aly Bee’s, which is a flower shop that also sells home décor and gifts. All the local businesses come together and set up booths for Fair on the Square, which happens in May. Next year, I plan to have a booth with a 1971 Volkswagen van that I’m getting restored.”

 

No Place Like Home

“People say that in small towns everyone knows your business, but at the same time everyone supports you through your struggles and triumphs. Some say you’ve got to get out to broaden your perspective, but I think being from here has already broadened my perspective. Rusk may be small, but the people here aren’t small-minded. Everybody is friendly, accepting, and kind, and that’s one of the reasons I love it here. I will probably never leave.”

Town Trivia:

Population:
5,285

Number of Stoplights:
1

Year founded:
1846

Nearest Big Town:
Tyler, 42 miles north

Marquee Event:
Fair on the Square, the last Saturday in May

Map it:

Texas State Railroad Rusk Depot, 535 Park Road 76

From the September 2022 issue
The September 2022 cover of Texas Highways: Visual Wonders


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The September 2022 issue of Texas Highways Magazine


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The September 2022 cover of Texas Highways Magazine


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