Texas Traveler: Huntsville

Most Houstonians probably know Huntsville for the colossal Sam Houston statue, designed by Texas artist David Adickes, himself a graduate of Sam Houston State University and a Huntsville native. At 67 feet tall, "Big Sam" is dubbed The World's Tallest Statue of an American Hero.

Or maybe they know about Huntsville thanks to the news. The town is, after all, home to the Texas State Penitentiary, the oldest state prison in Texas, which provides our state with the dubious honor of performing the most executions in the country.

If you're into that kind of thing, you can check out the Texas Prison Museum. The museum proudly invites you to visit the adorably-titled electric chair "Old Sparky," the method of execution for 361 prisoners between 1924 and 1964. The chair was constructed by inmates of the prison.

The museum also features inmate art, relics from famous criminals like Bonnie and Clyde, and the opportunity to dress yourself in a black and white striped jumpsuit and have your photo taken behind bars. Delightful. Incidentally, those with a morbid curiosity for such things will find the Texas Execution Information Center website interesting. Among other statistics, it lists the last meals of various executed prisoners.

Both the prison and Big Sam can clearly be seen from the highway, but if you exit 45 Huntsville has much more to offer than Texas stereotypes. It's one of the oldest towns in the state, the burial place of the first (and third) president of the Republic of Texas. SHSU is one of the oldest universities in Texas, and the oldest college for educating teachers west of the Mississippi.

Two of Sam Houston's houses, Woodland Home and Steamboat House, are on the campus of SHSU and are part of the Sam Houston Memorial Museum, which also includes items seized from Mexican fighters during the Battle of San Jacinto.

SHSU is also home to a large observatory and planetarium offering free shows during the school year. Call (936) 294-1601 for information on screenings and viewings.

Other notable residents of Huntsville include Samuel Walker Houston, delicately described as a "companion" to Sam Houston, and blues musician Leadbelly who spent time in prison there.

All this old stuff around means Huntsville is a prime location for antique shopping. Head into old downtown and check out the lovely shops on all four streets surrounding the Walker County Courthouse, which itself is covered in murals. Have breakfast or lunch at the Cafe Texan, a large counter-style restaurant that's been open for three-quarters of a century and which serves typical Southern cafe food in the heavy, fried tradition.

Huntsville is a gateway to the Sam Houston National Forest, 163,000 acres of heavy woods with more than 120 miles of hiking trails. The average summer temperature in the woods is 83 degrees, making it a shady diversion to the hot concrete of Houston. And just east of the forest along HWY 190, about 25 miles east of Huntsville, is Lake Livingston.

Huntsville is an easy one-hour drive north of Houston, but B&Bs abound in the city, which makes it a cheap and ideal getaway for a long summer holiday weekend.

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Shey is an experienced blogger, social media expert and traveler. She studied journalism at Oklahoma State University before working as a full-time reporter for Houston Community Newspapers in 2005. She lived in South Korea for three years, where she worked as a freelancer.
Contact: Brittanie Shey