With my intrepid travel partner back at school and a desire to temporarily escape my responsibilities I headed out yesterday morning to explore East Texas. My original thought was to drive to Grand Saline, Texas to the Salt Palace using highway 80 the whole way. As usual, with me, I got sidetracked.
I hit 80 at about 9:30 and immediately ran into (thank goodness not literally) the dumbest/worst motorcycle riders I've ever seen. I finally got away from them, took a big sigh of relief and headed on my merry way.
I travel 80 to Marshall, Texas on a regular basis so I didn't stop there or in Longview. A few miles on the other side of Longview is Gladewater. I got my first taste of what my trip would be about here. I parked in the downtown and immediately spotted a little museum. It got started when an art teacher in town died and left his rooster figurine collection to the city. They apparantly stopped counting when they got to 1,000 and I'd guess there were at least that many on display.
They also had a lot of pictures of the city during "The Boom". Back in the 30s East Texas was thriving with the discovery of one of the largest oil fields in the world. Gladewater went from a sleepy little farm town to being so overcrowded that more than one family made money by renting out space on their porch by the hour for people to sleep. The curator also sent me down the street to look at Gladewater's mansion. It's for sale for $550,000 if anyone is interested with 1.83 acres of land included.
I pulled back on 80 with the intent of finding food, but first cooling off since the temperature was already well into the 90s. Next stop was Mineola. It had large signs proclaiming it to be a "Main Street" town. I'd learn more about this later. It's a cute town with lots of antique and craft shops. Not really my thing, but I did eat at retro 50s diner called Suzy Qs.
Mineola is going to explain the Gerbil Convention mentioned in my title. I kept seeing signs for a coffee shop and thought I'd go and check it out. When I found it there was a sign on the door saying "Sorry we are at the National Gerbil Convention - will reopen on Monday". I was positive that I'd misread the sign or that it was a bizarre typo until I noticed the picture of the Gerbil on the sign.
I was now about 1:00 and I was really hot, so I got back in my car and continued my westward treck into Grand Saline. First thing I noticed in the town was a tank on the side of the road with it's guns pointing across 80. About two blocks later is the Salt Palace. This is the third or fourth one they have built. They don't seal them, so they eventually melt. It has lots of memorabilia from the Morton Salt company which has been operating a mine and an evaporation plant there since the early 30s.
Until the 1960s you could actually tour the salt mines, but insurance and liability issues put that to a halt. They have a really informative video showing how they go into the mine and set explosives to blow the salt walls into a form that can be scooped up and sold. Really Really Nifty.
The lady behind the counter was really excited that Grand Saline had just been named a Main Street City. Aha - an answer to all the signs I'd seen. It seems the state of Texas set up this program to give selected towns grants to fix up their downtown areas and to create tourist destinations. Grand Saline's first thoughts are to rebuild the Salt Palace in the shape of the Alamo and seal it this time. Then they want to build a bird sanctuary and possible open up a separate salt mine that can be toured by the public.
She sent me on my way and told me to take a right turn at the tank (I love small town directions) and look at the salt prarie behind the Morton Salt Factory. If I didn't know that I was in East Texas I'd swear it was the desert. Very odd to see a land so salty that it's white and has no vegetation. She also recommended that I hurry up and get on I-20 and see the East Texas Oil Museum in Kilgore. So I did.
It seems that on Dec. 3, 1930 oil was discovered in Kilgore. It went from a town of 800 on the 3rd to a town of 8,000 on the 4th. The museum has lots of pictures showing the oil boom and a really nifty section that reminds me of the Aladdin in Vegas. You walk through a set of doors and are in downtown Kilgore during the boom complete with cars and mules sinking into the mud in Main Street. They've somehow set up projectors onto dummies and as you walk in and out of the shops the dummies come to life and start talking to you about the Oil boom. I about freaked when the town drunk started talking to me from behind a gate. I spent 1 1/2 hours there and have plans on dragging my intrepid travel partner back with me later.
Now to plot my next excursion.