Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Highway 190 Livingston to Jasper - part 1

Suzanne and I decided to head east for a change of scenery and visit an area of Texas that is less traveled. We chose a trip out Highway 190 starting at Highway 59, as it leaves Livingston, and following the highway all the way to the Louisiana border. As expected, the scenic rolling hills and piney forests provided the perfect backdrop for our smiling faces as we began our journey into deep East Texas.

The town of Livingston marked the starting point of our trek down highway 190, so we decided to make it our first stop. Once called Springfield, Livingston is now the county seat of Polk County and its primary attraction is the beautiful Lake Livingston State Park. The lake was formed in 1968 and provides some of the best fishing and boating opportunities in the state of Texas. Although I might have been tempted to set aside our travel plans in favor of little fishing, learning more about the history of this area remained our goal.

We started our adventure at the Polk County Memorial Museum in Livingston. This former private residence now turned into a high quality museum offered not only a view of the history of the local area, but also housed multiple impressive private collections. Some of the many exhibits included Indian artifacts, early Texas pioneer items, Civil War and World War II memorabilia, ancient fossils, rocks and gems from local to exotic, and other historic items collected by local patrons.

I was particularly impressed with the collection of Indian baskets and arrowheads assembled.  Most of the artifacts came from the Alabama-Coushatta Indians who lived in the area. Suzanne enjoyed examining the pioneer dishes and linens while I gravitated toward the guns and swords. One exhibit that captured both of our attention was the fossil, rock and gem collection. This display included some excellent samples of petrified palmwood, the state stone of Texas.  Looking at the pine covered hills in the area, it’s hard to believe that millions of years ago, this part of Texas was a lush tropical forest.

Outside of the museum, just beyond the lovely landscaped outdoor garden area, is a restored steam locomotive engine, the WT Carter Lumber Company #5, built in 1911. The closer you get to it, the more impressive its size! Next to the locomotive is an old log cabin house, majestic in its own way. The porch was quite inviting with its rocking chairs begging for someone to enjoy their view.

Though the museum is small compared to those found in large urban areas, it is well laid out and the professionally designed exhibits are easy to browse at your own pace. It’s a must see when you are in Livingston, Texas!  We wrapped up our tour and hit the road eastward to see Texas Thru My Back Door.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Jalapeño Beer – A New Texas Favorite

Two of my favorite Texas experiences are local beer and tasty jalapenos! Luckily, I have found the perfect combination of these two, “Don Jalapeño Ale” by No Label Brewing Company of Katy, Texas. Who could resist this temptation? So, I bought a six-pack at our local World Market store and brought it home to chill. The next day, Suzanne fixed one of my favorite meals, fish tacos and beer. This time though, it was my much prized “Don Jalapeño Ale”. I took a big bite out of my fish taco and finished with a swift swig of beer. At first sip, it tasted much like any other beer, and then the jalapeno flavor kicked my taste buds to a new level, leaving the total food/drink experience oh so pleasurable.

No Label Brewing Company of Katy, Texas had caught my attention with this beer. I noticed on the six pack carton that they gave tours of the brewery on most Saturdays between 1pm and 3pm. Glancing through their website, we found out that this brewery tour was considered family and dog friendly, included several food trucks and a live band on site. Plus, they charged only $5 bucks to sample their numerous beers. This sounded like a fun date. So the next Saturday, we headed off to the town of Katy, a few miles west of Houston.

We left home a little early since they claimed that the parking areas filled up fast. When we got there, it was clear that arriving early was a good idea.  The parking lot was about ¾ full and a steady stream of people with folding chairs and accessories were heading into the complex. Apparently, this afternoon tasting party is a popular event in Katy!

Once inside the gate, we found out that for an additional $7 we could buy pint glasses to use for our four tastings. These glasses can be used again if you come back to another one of their tastings! Wandering through the old rice silos on the property, watching the crowds and listening to the music was a perfect way to work up a thirst. The beer lines inside the building moved fast and the No Label Brewing Company had a wide variety of beers to sample. Groups of friends carrying stacks of pizzas, families who brought their own food and balloons for a family party, and owners with their pets all added to the party-like atmosphere. I have been to many other beer tours and tastings, but this company has hit a home run in their marketing efforts with their festival style Saturday tasting excursions.

Our Saturday experience was fantastic! We had so much fun listening to the music and browsing around the facility that we forgot to take the tour of the brewery. Oh well, maybe next time. It’s a good excuse for going back. My advice would be to get there early, bring some folding chairs, many friends and maybe a large sombrero. Why the sombrero?  Not only will it protect you from the Texas heat but your friends can easily find you in the crowd as you taste Texas Thru My Back Door!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Toilet Seat Art Museum

Standing at the end of a private garage driveway leading to this unusual museum, the only indication that we were in the right place was a small sign on the chain link fence that read “Free Museum”. I wondered how we would signal the owner that we had arrived for our tour. As if on cue, I heard the back door of the adjacent home open followed by the quiet shuffled footsteps leading to the garage. My curiosity about this unique destination was soon satisfied when the huge doors to the barn-like metal garage swung open and Al and I were greeted enthusiastically by none other than Barney Smith, artist and curator of the Toilet Seat Art Museum. 

As the doors to that old garage swung open, you might think that the most memorable sight would be the display of over 1100 toilet seats decorated with distinctive and unusual items waiting to tell their story, but you would be wrong. Looking into the twinkling eyes of the 92 year old artist who created these works of art and hearing his enthusiastic greeting is the memory that stood out most to me.  Dressed neatly with his canvas work apron covering his shirt and pants, Barney Smith is a man with a passion. He was ready to share that passion with us on a gloomy and rainy afternoon that I will never forget.

Upon ushering us into his garage and closing the doors against the elements of weather, Barney guided us through a small break in the rows and rows of floor to ceiling hanging toilet seats. He led us to the far right hand side of the building to begin our tour. Flipping on some lights, the stories began.  Barney transformed himself from a meek old man to an orator of distinctive history. Amazing memories and delightful stories captivated our attention for most of the afternoon!

Barney, a retired master plumber started his collection over 50 years ago when he decided to use a toilet seat lid as the plaque for his hunting trophy mounts. Today he’s still going strong with over 1100 toilet seats in the museum, each one organized and numbered with letters of authenticity and other details attached to the back of each toilet seat he creates. People enamored with his work bring objects from near and far for him to work with. His collection has artifacts from around the world including a piece of insulation from the shuttle Challenger, a piece of the Berlin Wall, volcanic ash from Mount St Helens, and even the flushing device from a toilet found in Saddam Hussein’s palace. Military memorabilia toilet seats are hung with pride alongside toilet seats commemorating family birthdays and anniversaries.

Barney celebrates pop culture and the changes in our society over the past half century with toilet seats commemorating early personal computers, telephones, zippo lighters, tattoo machines, celebrities, and so much more. He supports local groups and events such as San Antonio’s Pooch Parade and the museum is a geocaching site.  He has arrow heads and license plates from every state. There are toilet seats and even some video clips commemorating his television appearances on shows such as Good Morning America, The View, CBS Morning news and The Tonight Show. He’s been featured in numerous magazine and newspaper articles and interviews. You are probably wondering how did you not know about him!

Providing tours to over 1000 visitors a year along with the many hours he spends creating each piece of his art leaves Barney little time to waste. So as the afternoon drew to a close, we said goodbye to our new found friend. His energy, his love of the community and his family, are memories that will stay with me as well as my memories of his unique art. I hope that Al and I are as happy and healthy as Barney when we reach our 90’s and I hope we are still traveling Texas Thru My Back Door!

Note:  The Toilet Seat Art Museum is available by appointment.  Please call Barney at (210) 284-7791 and give him at least 15-30 min notice of your desire for a tour.  Barney does not charge for tours of the museum, but I think he would greatly appreciate a donation of a new white wood composite elongated toilet seat to continue his art endeavor!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Wooden Nickel

The first time I remember receiving a wooden nickel was at the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, Texas. Visitors to the brewery exchange these tokens for the beer samples in their hospitality room at the end of the tour. As I held the wooden nickels in my hand, I wondered who makes these wooden nickels. With a little research via cell phone/internet, Suzanne discovered that there was a wooden nickel factory and museum in San Antonio.

You guessed it! We finished our beer in Shiner, hopped in the car and headed west. San Antonio here we come. The Wooden Nickel Historical Museum was in our sights! Along the way, we talked about wooden nickels. The phrase “Don’t take any wooden nickels” can refer to being careful and safe or to ensuring that one is cautious in your financial dealings. Either way, unless your wooden nickel says Shiner Beer on it, you should be cautious in accepting it.

Lucky for us, our GPS navigator led us right to the Old Time Wooden Nickel Historical Museum. Outside the building is the largest wooden nickel made. Built in 2002, the wooden nickel is over 13 feet in diameter! I was not surprised, since everything in Texas is bigger.  Once inside, we were greeted by a gracious lady who offered to answer any questions. We decided to look around on our own to learn all we could about wooden nickels.

I’d never seen so many wooden tokens in one place. Plus, there were other antiques scattered about amongst the displays of the wooden tokens. The tokens or wooden nickels were organized into a wide variety of attractive displays that spoke to their many uses and historic value.  We saw political tokens, business tokens, family event tokens, geocaching tokens, scouting tokens, Marti Gras tokens, advertising tokens and even a display of rectangular wooden “dollars”.  The museum sells collectable wooden nickels, but for those of us on a budget who just couldn’t bear to leave the factory without some type of memento, they had a barrel of free tokens that you could look through to find a small treasure to take home.

After spending about an hour viewing all these wooden tokens and talking about our favorites, it was time to head out to our next destination. As we walked back to the car, I reached into my pocket and found I still had one Shiner Beer token left. “I wonder if I could ever convince a local restaurant to take my last wooden nickel as payment for a cold beer”, I joked as we merged back onto the highway.   On second thought, this wooden nickel led us to an interesting adventure, so maybe this is a lucky wooden nickel.  I decided to hold on to it as we continue in our quest to see Texas Thru My Back Door!