'Outlaw' Preservation in Jefferson, Texas
How does a Texas town of 2,000 people, with 195 state historical markers in the county and a 1,000-acre National Historic District, care for its historic buildings?
Jefferson, Texas, is not a Certified Local Government. It is not part of the Main Street Program, is not a Preserve America Community and does not have a local historic preservation ordinance. About the only ordinance on the city books that would protect its historic character is one that forbids mobile homes to be moved inside the city limits. So how did Jefferson end up with hundreds of preserved, restored historic buildings?
Jefferson’s heyday was from about 1840 to the late 1870s. During these years Jefferson was a trading partner with Shreveport and New Orleans. Steamboats would leave New Orleans headed up the Mississippi, veer onto the Red River, navigate across Caddo Lake and head up Big Cypress Bayou to Jefferson. During this time Jefferson grew to become the sixth largest city in Texas, with a population of over 30,000. The many wrought iron balconies in Jefferson’s historic district attest to New Orleans’s influence.
In addition to its New Orleans-style ironwork and structures, downtown Jefferson boasts fine examples of Greek Revival (early 1800s to after the Civil War), Italianate (late 1800s), and Gothic (mid-1800s) architecture, all popular in Jefferson’s heyday, as well as a few Queen Anne & Victorian Eclectic buildings.
There were two central factors involved in Jefferson’ economic decline: the destruction of the “Great Raft” and the growth of America’s railroads. The Great Raft was a naturally occurring log jam that created a 150 mile dam on the Red River. This natural dam allowed water levels in Caddo Lake and on Big Cypress Bayou to remain high enough for commercial steamboat travel. When the Great Raft was destroyed water levels fell, making Caddo Lake and Big Cypress Bayou unnavigable.
Also by the 1870s, the railroads were coming to Texas, which eliminated the need for steamboats. The railroads killed the steamboat trade in Northeast Texas just as it eliminated the great cattle drives across Central & West Texas. Jefferson was unable to catch the train of railroad commerce, as the new Texas & Pacific rail line, from Texarkana to Marshall, bypassed the town altogether.
With the demise of the steamboat industry and the rise of Marshall, Texas, as a hub of the Texas & Pacific Railway, Jefferson’s population plummeted. Without the commerce of transportation, Jefferson’s business people exited for greener pastures leaving the infrastructure behind. Jefferson entered the 20th century as just another small town on a Texas map.
In the 20th century national, state and local leaders endorsed the concept of Urban Renewal. Especially after World War II, many Americans want to embrace the new and cut ties with the old. Thousands of historic buildings and structures were demolished across America, with new apartments, shopping centers and modern buildings taking their places. Jefferson, Texas, missed Urban Renewal altogether. When urban renewal movement elsewhere was at full tilt, Jefferson’s historic homes and buildings basically were “mothballed”. There weren’t any large businesses or corporations longing to tear down the old and build the new. Jefferson got by with what it had.
And what it had began to be seen as an asset. In the spring of 1939, thirty-five Jefferson ladies formed the Jessie Allen Wise Garden Club. The action taken by this organization is the main reason Historic Jefferson, Texas, still exists.
Courtesy of Jessie Allen Wise Garden Club
The Garden Club started its annual spring Pilgrimage in 1948, showcasing Jefferson’s blooming flowers and historic homes. Revenue from Pilgrimage ticket sales were used to purchase and restore historic buildings in Jefferson. These buildings included the Presbyterian Manse (built in 1839), The Excelsior House Hotel (built in 1850) and the Jewish Synagogue (built in 1860 and later converted in to the Ruth Lester Playhouse).
Today Jefferson serves as an example of bottom-up, not top-down, historic preservation. People from all over move here to live their dream of owning a store, running a bed and breakfast, or just living peacefully in a beautiful setting. The first step in living this dream is preserving and restoring the real estate purchased, be it a building or home. (The author can be counted in this number; my wife and I purchased a home built in 1905, which constantly presents us with historic preservation projects.)
Meanwhile, Jefferson's ongoing preservation and restoration (and believe me, when you own a historic property, they are ongoing) have created good paying jobs for local carpenters (real carpenters, not just sheet rock hangers), electricians, plumbers, painters, and brick masons.
Even without laws requiring preservation, through local pride, teamwork and a shared sense of place we’ve managed to keep most of our historic buildings. Local business owners have worked together to conserve a downtown of picturesque buildings. Take our iconic Jefferson General store; it would not be as cool if it stood alone in a giant parking lot, like Cowboys Stadium. It works because of the brick streets and the other historic buildings around it. If you bought a building near it, tore it down and built a new building, that new structure would not fit in (nor is it what tourists want). It’s better to restore the historic building.
And Jefferson’s tourists tend to become residents. They want to be a part of this quiet, historic, "Mayberry” environment. Why tear down a home and build a new one? They could do that in Dallas, Houston, anywhere. No, most of them move here because they want to live in an historic home. Jefferson keeps her historic character and charm through a shared vision of our community. There’s life in these old buildings and testimony to civic pride.
Jeff Campbell is the Tourism Director for Jefferson, Texas, and an avid mountain biker. When not working on his historic house, Jeff spends his spare time in search of taquerias and barbecue joints.