Waxahachie claims to be the most photographed motion picture set in Texas. The town's preservation of the turn-of-the-century ambiance comes at you from all sides as you explore the tree-shaded neighborhoods or browse the windows of the storefronts surrounding the historic courthouse square.
The old houses with wraparound porches and elegant silhouettes line the streets like monuments to the Great Gatsby and a time when cotton was king. Thirty miles south of Dallas and in the middle of the fertile blackland prairie, Waxahachie prospered during the first half of the century.
More than 170 of the large homes that belonged to the town's most wealthy families survive to create a "Gingerbread City" movie set. The nine-block-long West End Historic District on West Main Street, the 19 square blocks of downtown, and other neighborhoods are as large a concentration of Victorian architecture as can be found in Texas.
The movie business discovered Waxahachie in 1967, when Bonnie and Clyde came to town. Since then nearly a dozen movies and TV shows have been filmed in the area. In addition to the town's collection of gingerbread-trimmed houses, the proximity to the movie and TV studios at Las Colinas in Dallas helps create an attractive location for period movies like The Trip to Bountiful.
Not only are the neighborhoods saved, but playwright Horton Foote has preserved his childhood growing up in Waxahachie in movies like 1918 and Tender Mercies. Director Robert Benton, also a town alumnus, documented the area's struggle during the Depression in Places in the Heart.
The County Historical Association and chamber of commerce have done an excellent job in documenting and publishing maps and guides to star houses and scenic locations. The best place to start a tour of the town as sweet as homegrown tomatoes is at the Historical Museum at College and Franklin streets, the southeast corner of the courthouse square.
On the first floor of the old Masonic Lodge Hall, the museum has an interesting collection of artifacts donated by Ellis County families. Clothing, guns, razors, books, and antique home movie projectors fill the showcases. The museum also has a corner dedicated to walking and driving tour maps, history booklets, and movie site brochures. Check out the museum Monday through Saturday, 10am-5pm and Sunday, 1-5pm (972/937-0681).
Across the street from the museum, the Ellis County Courthouse dominates the downtown landscape. The building's magnificent towers and archways create a mood for the entire town. Constructed in 1895, the J. Riely Gordon-designed courthouse is one of the most beautiful county government houses in Texas.
Built of pink granite from Burnet and red sandstone from Pecos, the grand courthouse's tower sports a clock face on four sides. The four entrances are at the corners of the building facing the points of the compass. This gives the streets a northeast-to-southwest alignment which can be disorienting to the first-time visitor.
Four different courthouses have occupied the central block in downtown since the county was established on the Shawnee Trail in 1849. The four-story courthouse reflects the ostentatious turn-of-the-century architecture with polished columns and elaborate carvings. Three sculptors from Italy were brought in to do the intricate carvings over the entrances.
Local legend says that Harry Herley was one of the stone masons imported to sculpt the trim for the courthouse. Harry became enamored with Mabel Framer, the daughter of the woman who ran the boarding house where he was staying.
To attract Mabel's attention, Harry's first carving was of her face to looking down on the east entrance. Being a young woman with many suitors, Mabel was not impressed by this show of emotion and sent the young stone carver on his way.
With a broken heart, Harry labored away chiseling ornate trim for the building. His depression turned to vengeance when he carved the other faces in less-than-flattering poses. Some of the grotesque demonic male faces are said to be local men the stone cutter disliked.
According to local historian Fred Weldon there really was a Harry Herley who worked on the courthouse. The real Harry married Minnie Hodges of Waxahachie, but there is no evidence that he used her for a model. There are 20 faces carved into the trim of the courthouse; many are stock reproductions for the time, but others could have been inspired by the workers' acquaintances.
One final interesting note about the origins of Waxahachie. The name comes from an Indian word for cow or buffalo. It was the name given to the creek that runs through town.
Coming up Labor Day Weekend ...
Oatmeal Festival in Bertram pays homage to the breakfast food with a weekend of fun, music, and food, Sept. 4-6. 512/355-2197.
Wine and Music Festival at the Quiet Valley Ranch south of Kerrville pairs Texas songwriters with Texas wines at the site of the Kerrville Folk Festival, Sept. 4-6. 830/257-3600.
WestFest brings out the polka bands, Czech sausage, and kolaches to the town of West, just north of Waco on I-35, Sept. 5-6. 254/826-5058.
Grape Stomp at Becker Vineyards outside of Stonewall celebrates the end of the harvest with a party, Sept. 5-6. 830/644-2681 or 800/946-9463.
Kendall County Fair in Boerne has been happening since 1905, with a rodeo, exhibition hall, music, and arts & crafts, Sept. 4-6. 830/249-2839.
Wild Natives of Texas takes visitors on a tour of Fossil Rim to see the more than 1,100 exotic and endangered animals at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose, Sept. 12. 254/897-2960.
Guadalupe River Cleanup sponsored by the Friends of Rivers is looking for volunteers to help clean up 20 miles of the river from Canyon Dam to New Braunfels, Sept. 19. 830/888-44RIVER.