Photo by Stan Williams

Photo by Stan Williams

 

Ever see the gigantic postcard-styled billboards on Interstate 30 that recommend you visit Paris, Texas? Recently, I accepted the colorful invitations and reacquainted myself with this historic northeast Texas community. If you haven’t been there lately, or never at all, it’s time to check out this appealing crossroads in the heart of the Red River Valley. The Texas city with the French connection offers a multitude of sweet sightseeing and travel discoveries. The Lamar County seat and state’s Crape Myrtle Capital, Paris maintains a gracious, Southern-small-town feel.

One of my favorite highlights during two recent visits, the 65-foot tall (plus cowboy hat on top) Eiffel Tower replica stands at Love Civic Center (it’s de rigueur). The charming little Paris Bakery (yes, you can order a perfect croissant or brioche) fits the bill, too, with a bounty of artisan breads, pastries, soups, and sandwiches for breakfast and lunch. And I enjoyed driving by dozens of beautiful, historic homes, including the 1867 Sam Bell Maxey House (take the guided tour) and the tastefully restored Kaufman Terrace, a 19th-Century home built by Virginian-turned-Parisian James Daniel. Daniel was a Civil War captain who helped design Paris’ original water, sewer, and street systems; he once owned the town’s street railway. While seeking out famous cattle baron John Chisum’s monument and gravesite, I also discovered the 1889 Wise House (a three-story, red-brick Victorian Queen Anne mansion built for a prominent English cotton merchant).

Impressive only begins to describe the Hayden Collection of American Art & Furniture at Belle Cheniere (by appointment only), where Dr. William and Elizabeth Hayden have thoughtfully and passionately provided a concise, yet encompassing gallery of treasures, including works by American masters Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, Thomas Hart Benton, and many more.

But you can see other Paris nods to art, culture, and architecture without making an appointment. Noteworthy paintings by Paris native Jerry Bywaters grace the foyer of the public library. Across the street from the library stands the Grecian Peristyle in Bywaters Park, host to the Paris Municipal Band’s summer concert series. Travel columnist Mary Walker Clark (www.thetravelinggene.com) calls the band one of Paris’ top hidden gems.

Nearby, on the historic square, the longstanding, critically acclaimed Paris Community Theatre presents dramas and comedies year round at the photogenic Plaza Theatre. Across the street, at the downtown plaza, the 1927 marble Culbertson Fountain gently bubbles away. Around the corner, C&C Guitars, a tiny shop full of snazzy, six-string instruments, attracts musicians from throughout the region. And, as I continued to stroll around the square, the striking retro interior design of Peoples National Bank recalled an era before investment scams, bombastic bonuses, and bailouts.

A tour of Swaim’s Hardware downtown makes for a satisfying trip back in time. The store dates to 1932, and its marvelous maze of aisles and adjacent warehouse scrammed full of nuts, bolts, tools, ladders, paint, building materials, and plumbing and electrical supplies-offers superb selection with personal customer service.

The sheer number of stately, historic icons makes Paris feel like an architectural academy. You’ll appreciate a visit to the 1917 marble-and-granite Lamar County Courthouse, with its triple-arched Main Street entrance and spacious courtrooms. The majestic, stained-glass octagonal dome of First United Methodist Church reflects a stunning kaleidoscope of colors. And, west of downtown, the 1914 Santa Fe/Frisco Union Station Railroad Depot (home to the county chamber of commerce, a genealogical research library, and a transportation museum), Lamar County Historical Museum, and Heritage Hall complex give credence to the value of preserving small-town Texas landmarks.

My inner Dwight Yoakum delighted in a visit to Crazy Horse Western Wear, a very cool Western-apparel store in Reno (suburban Paris, if you will). Let the friendly folks at Crazy Horse help you get country. Walk out of here wearing a stylish jacket, pearl snap/smile pocket shirt, jeans, silvertipped belt, boots, and a cowboy hat. You’ll be inspired to watch a good Western on DVD, go to a rodeo, read Louis L’.Amour, drive a pickup truck, or tune in to CMT.

And speaking of boots, a stop atthe city’s Evergreen Cemetery, which holds nearly twice as many graves as the town’s current population, reveals the famous “Jesus in cowboy boots” stone monument at Willet Babcock’s gravesite. Babcock, a 19th-Century furniture dealer, ran the Paris Opera House above his showroom. He commissioned the statue shortly before his death in 1881. A nearly life-size, somber male figure leans against a large cross, wearing a biblical robe and yes, cowboy boots.

For accommodations, plenty of chain hotels and motels offer rooms, or you may wish to camp at nearby Lake Pat Mayse, where I had a Zen moment at the scenic overlook by the U.S. Army Corps ofEngineers dam. On a springtime visit here, I thrilled to the sight of brightly blooming dogwoods within the surrounding forest.

Hungry? Try a steak or all-you-can-eat catfish at the popular Fish Fry; terrific barbecue ribs at highly regarded Scholl Bros. Bar B Q; breakfast or lunch at the cozy Paris Bakery; or downtown-on-the-square’s excellent Jaxx Burgers.

But perhaps my most sublime pleasure emerged during a serendipitous late-afternoon walk along the pleasant tree-lined canopy of the Trail de Paris parkway in southeast Paris. Several miles of trail led me to a Friday-night high school football game between Greenville and Paris at venerable Noyes Stadium. I sensed a pronounced pride and energetic vibe as the historic venue filled with teams, bands, cheerleaders, concessionaires, support staff, and fans, a colorful sunset in the Western sky providing a gorgeous, golden glow. You know-like Paris, La Ville-Lumiere, the City of Light.

Can you envision a trip to Paris in your future? Yes. Oui. Absolument.

From the July 2009 issue
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