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Day Trips

A beautiful area of Texas, Wharton County has hundreds of stories to tell

By Gerald E. McLeod, Fri., May 7, 2004

Ten little teepees in a row
Ten little teepees in a row
Photo By Gerald E. McLeod

The Teepee Motel on the northern outskirts of Wharton on U.S. 59 hasn't welcomed a guest for more than a decade, but the cone-shaped buildings still attract considerable attention. A sure sign that a tourist is driving a car is if he or she slows down on the wide turn to look at the 10 concrete pyramids sticking out of an overgrown field.

"It used to be quite a place," says Billy Jones, executive director of the Wharton Chamber of Commerce. "They're bigger inside than you'd suppose." Gone are the wooden carports that used to complement the tourist courts.

According to Joe Holley in a Texas Monthly article, the Teepee Motel was a small chain that had at least a dozen outposts around the country. At one time there were franchises in San Antonio, Corsicana, and Port Neches. The last remaining example of this American entrepreneurial experiment was built in 1942.

Looking like the nose cones of buried rockets, seven of the 10 buildings have faded red Native American designs along the bottom. Jones says the buildings are in remarkably good shape considering they are more than 60 years old, which is probably due to a coat of paint added in 1995 when director Adrian Lyne used the roadside attraction in a remake of Lolita.

Even though the lot that the old motel sits on is for sale, the locals have used it from time to time, too. "A few years back a bunch of us had a party out there with a big bonfire," Jones says. Even though no one spent the night in the one-room huts, several did dress up as cowboys and Indians. "We just wanted to have a wigwam party," Jones laughs. "It was a lot of fun."

The town hopes that the out-of-state owner will eventually find a buyer who will restore the place to its peak condition. "From what I hear, people just loved it," Jones says. "We still get a lot of people come through town who remember staying there as kids."

The unusual landmark is just one of many things that this vibrant little town on the Coastal Plains southwest of Houston has going for it. Author and playwright Horton Foote was born in Wharton and spent many summers there as a child before returning to live for a time during the 1980s. Television news anchorman Dan Rather was born in a little white frame house in town.

In fact, the Rather home is now a part of the Wharton County Historical Museum down the road from the Teepee Motel. Opened in 1979, the local museum contains a wide range of interesting artifacts. A large portion of the exhibits is made up of Marshall Johnson's world-class collection of wild-game trophies and memorabilia.

Ranching has been a big part of the county's development, and several displays in the museum document the history of local cattlemen, including Abel Head "Shanghai" Pierce. The displays also remember the contributions of various ethnic groups to the area's development.

On the east bank of the lower Colorado River, Wharton was once a part of a giant plantation owned by the original settlers brought to Texas by Stephen F. Austin. Much of the county's early infrastructure was built by black slaves, who outnumbered white residents 2-to-1. After the Civil War, Wharton County saw the cotton fields filled with thousands of longhorn cattle.

The 1889 courthouse is currently being renovated to remove changes made during a 1930s renovation. "We're seeing a butterfly come out of its cocoon," Jones says.

Sitting on the corner of the courthouse lawn is one of the first public monuments erected in Texas – an obelisk to Sheriff H.B. Dickson, who was killed in the line of duty in 1894. To see a statue of a different kind, check out the 20-foot dinosaur guarding the entrance to Riverfront Park, one of the oldest public parks in Texas.

A beautiful area of Texas, Wharton County has hundreds of stories to tell. For more information, call the chamber of commerce at 979/532-1862 or visit their Web site at www.whartontexas.com.

673rd in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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