Athens Texas, is much like many of the small towns the dot the quilted landscape of Texas. It is underrated and overlooked, despite the fact that beneath its sleepy, Americana facade there are many local treasures waiting to be discovered by passersby who are willing to spend a little time digging.
A stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle of urban sprawl that is the Metroplex, the quaint, laid back town of Athens gives city dwellers a chance to reconnect with their roots, spread their wings and breathe deeply. To be honest, I’m a country girl and if I don’t manage to get the occasional breath of fresh country air, I begin to wither. Not only did I feel unwithered by days end after my day trip to Athens, I felt revitalized, connected and inspired.
My friends and I headed east, away from Fort Worth on 1-20, before taking the exit for Highway 175. Before long, as the city skyline faded in the rearview mirror,we noticed that the flat, cement covered byways have given way to rolling green hills, covered with black walnut, hickory and oak trees, that were dotted with clapboard homes with gingerbread trim, and aged barns with an occasional Lone Star flag painted proudly on its roof.
As we drove up the back-road to the gate of the arboretum I could already tell that this was going to be an afternoon in the kind of natural setting that pleases me most. Against the backdrop of wide open fields with majestic oaks that offered shade from the afternoon sun for a handful of grazing horses, the last of this season’s wildflowers hung on for one last show of color as patches of black-eyed susans, and lavender phlox rested at the feet of spiraling honeysuckle vines and wild plums climbed the rustic fence posts. A closer look revealed the ominous looking Texas bull-nettle plant that promised fruit later this summer, for the most daring scavenger.
If Athens is filled with ‘waiting to be discovered’ treasures, the East Texas Arboretum is undoubtedly its crown jewel. Tucked away on over a hundred acres, the Arboretum’s Executive Director, Teresa Glasgow, tells us this is where the the Piney Woods and Prairie regions of Texas meet. It was also soon obvious that this is also where history, art, nature and wildlife are melded together to make an enjoyable and educational experience for visitors of all ages.
These days hands on experience with such a vast cross-section of nature is sadly a rare experience for some children, but at the Arboretum, the World of Nature is within ready reach. Supported by the generosity of its patrons, benefactors and the public, the non-profit gardens is an experience waiting to happen. Not only will visitors find vibrant, colorful gardens to stroll through, but thanks to the tireless efforts of Glasgow, and a handful of volunteers and board members, the East Texas Arboretum is a living, breathing and growing educational experience, a recreational venue and a history preservation project all rolled up into one.
The back section of land is a combination of wetlands and forest, accessible by easy grade hiking trails, including a portion designed to be accessible for wheelchairs. Keep in mind you’re in a living breathing environment, and as such you may encounter things you may not have experienced if you’re entirely city born and bred. It is always a good idea to plan well and be educated when communing in nature. Fortunately education is a large part of the Arboretum’s mandate and mission. They spend considerable time and effort educating the next generation about the value of preservation and conservation, igniting sparks of passion, while instilling respect for the environment for which they will inherit the responsibility to conserve and protect for their children.
Here you will find the familiar and fragrant beauty of magnolia trees and bushes of gardenias, but there are other native plants and flora to discover, such as the carnivorous pitcher plant that thrives in the wetland’s bog area. A short walk past through the woods, past the Two Doug Bridge, (look for the beaver dam on your left hand side) you’ll find yourself standing a top of the wooden observation deck, where you can spot the yellow clusters of the pitcher plant peering our from the thick overgrowth. A few months from now, as summer fades, this entire area will be painted with the vibrant hues of Autumn, and it will definitely warrant a return visit.
A bit farther down the path you will find yourself crossing over to the other side (of the creek that is) via a 115 foot wooden suspension bridge that connects the new trail with the older one, taking you full circle back to the Arborteum’s main grounds. It was 85 degrees the day we went on this short hike, and if we’d been back in Fort Worth we’d have been reaching for the A/C switch, but out underneath the canopy of trees, accompanied by a slight breeze that rustled through the leaves, the temperature was perfect.
History also takes a front row seat at the East Texas Arboretum, offering visitors a first hand look at how Texas’ settlers used to live. The Wofford House, built in 1851, was relocated to the Arboretum in 2001 from its original location, near Fincastle.
A living museum, as well as a tribute to days gone by, the house is decorated with period furnishings and memorabilia down to a backyard kitchen garden complete with a well-dressed scarecrow, the rockers on the front porch, and ready set tables in the kitchen and dining areas. It doesn’t take much imagination to imagine how peaceful it would feel to sit on the porch, with a glass of sweet tea after a hard day’s work in the summer, and watch the sun go down.
Almost next door to the Wofford House, is ‘Granny’s Little Schoolhouse’, a replica of a one room schoolhouse from the 1800′s. It was built in 2007, as a tribute to Genevieve Monkhouse, a long time area school teacher. Here children that visit the Arboretum relive history first hand, while learning about the area’s botanic environment.
While the venue has something of interest for all ages, children are especially welcome here. Valued as future conservators, they are at the forefront of the educational programs offered by the Arboretum. Each year hundreds of children visit the area with school or club groups to learn about the wonders of nature, first hand. And when the learning is done, children of all abilities will find the play area to be a great way to let off some steam. The playground boasts two playhouses, a butterfly garden, sand play areas, and a unique slide built into the side of a hill.
The venue is dotted with miniature gardens to meander through, water gardens with flowering lily pads and trickling streams, and arbors that invite visitors to sit a spell. Most of the gardens, buildings and displays were made possible by generous donations. The governing society also rents out the facility, in order to help raise funds for operating and expansion costs. The large pavilion at the center of the groomed gardens and its picturesque backdrop is the perfect setting for a wedding or any other special occasion. The facility also hosts its own events to help offset costs, including a yearly gala and garden concerts. On Sunday, May 26th they will host a dedication for the new Garden in the Forest and the handicapped garden trail at 2 p.m.
In addition, each Tuesday night in August, the Arboretum will host Strolling in the Park, where visitors will enjoy a social evening complete with music and star gazing. There are also plans for an Art in the Park event and in August, keep your eye out for a possible Elvis sighting. More information will be posted on these special events on their website and Facebook page.
Grass does not grow under the feet of those responsible for operating the Arboretum, and expansion plans and fund-raising efforts are always underway. As Executive Director, Teresa Glasgow has a long wish list of things she’d love to see happen, and given the extensive growth and development the venue has seen under her direction over the past few years, it’s a safe bet they will be happening sooner rather than later. On the wish list are a number of projects including new inclusive play ground equipment, an amphitheater, security cameras and a lavender field. Recent additions to the park include the Maury Ward Windmill, Texas Garden and the Kathy Glass Gazebo.
While You’re In the Area
Athens’ wonders don’t stop at the Arboretum although it is a great place to start. Pack a picnic lunch and spend the day. The entry fee of $2.00 per person over 12 years of age, is a bargain by any standard. When you’ve had your fill of beauty, fresh air and history there are ziplines, museums and the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center to keep you busy. We plan on taking a trip back in the Fall to explore all of these and more, but don’t wait for us to give you the scoop — discover the East Texas Arboretum and Athens, Texas for yourself.
Where to Eat
If you’re looking for a local restaurant that fits into a day of discovery and history, I recommend Ochoas Mexican Restaurant. The family owned eatery has been in the Athens area since 1969 and is now operated by the sons of the original owners. The decor is quaint, the people are friendly and the food is some of the best Tex-Mex cuisine, and the most extensive, and varied menu I’ve encountered, since arriving in Texas.
The restaurant’s emphasis is on customer service, and serving memorable meals is definitely a way to make that happen. I recommend the Grilled Steak Queso Fundido as an appetizer, followed by the Puffy Tacos. If you’re still hungry the sweetness of the sopapillas, drizzled with honey and melted butter are a mouthwatering way to end your meal.
As we left Athens later that day, the last burst of color streaked across the sky, while a longhorn cow fed her new calf, and rain rusted windmills churned gently in the evening breeze. The three of us were headed home to the Metroplex, with our spirits rejuvenated and our minds churning with all of the things we’d learned that day, and on the wind was a promise made by each one of us, that we would indeed be returning.
How to Get There
You can find the Arboretum at 1601 Patterson Rd. in Athens, Texas.
Entry fees are $2.00 for those over 12 years of age (payable on the honor system)
You can find out more about the East Texas Arboretum by visiting their website at www. eastexasarboretum.org or by locating them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pages/The-East-Texas-Arboretum-and-Botanical-Society.