February 6, 2015

How a Ladies' Garden Club in Texas Helped Its Old Town Blossom

  • By: Sophia Dembling

By Sophia Dembling

When the Jessie Allen Wise Garden Club purchased the Excelsior Hotel in 1959, the ladies cleaned and furnished the neglected building themselves.

In the 1930s, a group of ladies started getting together to share recipes and gossip. They ended up saving a town.

The East Texas town of Jefferson was the state's sixth largest city in the 1800s. A natural log jam, the Great Red River Raft, raised the water of Caddo Lake enough to accommodate commercial riverboat traffic from Shreveport and New Orleans, making Jefferson the state's leading inland port and sixth largest city. Jefferson's prosperity was evident in the lavish Victorian homes that lined Jefferson's streets.

But in 1873, the Army Corps of Engineers demolished the Great Red River Raft, essentially ending riverboat traffic to Jefferson. On top of that, the Texas and Pacific Railway was completed, bypassing Jefferson and ushering in the era of rail over river commerce. The double whammy hit the city's economy hard.

So Jefferson was a ragtag town in 1938, when a group of women formed the Jessie Allen Wise Garden Club, named in memory of a civic-minded friend who had died the previous year at the age of 79.

The Jessie Allen Wise Garden Club purchased the once-dilapidated Excelsior Hotel in 1959 and transformed it. Today it open for guests, events, and tours.

While gardening is among the club's activities (as a federated garden club, they're required to have an annual flower show), its primary mission is "to beautify and preserve old Jefferson and Marion County landmarks and hold a yearly historical pilgrimage," says Kay Brookshire, board secretary of the Historic Jefferson Foundation and a member of the garden club.

One of the first things the club did was inaugurate an annual dogwood trail.

"They made a route and encouraged people to drive through and see all the dogwood," says Brookshire. People who came for the dogwood saw the collection of Victorian homes and asked to see them, too.

"In 1942, four structures were opened," says Brookshire. "Some of the homeowners were very hospitable and invited people in without any preparation."

And thus began Jefferson's reinvention from a commercial center on the decline to a thriving tourist destination, with more than 50 state historical markers and a collection of bed-and-breakfasts in lovingly restored gingerbread homes.

Current Jessie Wise Allen Garden Club Mary Alice Oatman and husband her husband, Don, portraying Mr. and Mrs. Jay Gould, on the steps of the Jay Gould train car, one of the three historic properties owned and operated by the club.

In 1954, the ladies of the garden club pooled their money and purchased railroad magnate Jay Gould's opulent private rail car, which had been taken off the tracks, plopped in Kilgore, Texas, about 25 miles away, and occupied by a family for 13 years. The club paid $1,200 for the car, nearly as much to truck it to Jefferson, then fixed it up and started offering tours.

In 1959 the ladies decided to buy the Excelsior House Hotel, which in its heyday had accommodated such celebs as Ulysses S. Grant, Sam Houston, and others. Bankers laughed at them when they applied for a loan, says Brookshire: "They had to go home to get their husbands to come sign the note."

With their husbands' help, the women got a $150,000 loan to buy the hotel, then rolled up their sleeves.

"Each lady, or couple of ladies, would take a room and physically do the work, or they would hire someone," says Brookshire. "They furnished the rooms with furniture they bought or had. Today there are plaques on the doors about who did that room."

In its heyday, the Excelsior Hotel welcomed such luminaries as Ulysses S. Grant and Sam Houston. Today it is owned and operated by the Jessie Allen Wise Garden Club.

Governor Price Daniels attended the hotel's grand opening in 1962, and the loan was paid off in 1976. The hotel remains open today for tours and as a working hotel, although "it's a money pit," Brookshire says with a rueful chuckle. "It's a challenge."

In 1966, they purchased the Sinai Congregation synagogue and attached home and converted it into the Jefferson Playhouse and Ruth Lester Home, also open for tours.

The Jessie Allen Wise Garden Club remains active and vital today; one of Wise's granddaughters is a member. They take turns acting as tour guides for the Gould railroad car and the hotel. ("We have a schedule and if you can't go, you have to get a substitute," says Brookshire.)

"I just love being part of this group of women," Brookshire says. "Jefferson just seem to be a place of strong women," she adds, pointing out that the town got a Carnegie library after women of the YMCA auxiliary applied for a grant in 1907.

Current JAWGC member Mary-Margaret Harvey portraying her grandmother, Jessie Allen Wise, in a living history tour at Historic Old Oakwood Cemetery.

The club still sponsors the annual historical pilgrimage each spring and each winter, the Historic Jefferson Foundation holds a candlelight tour of homes. The foundation is currently working to build a retaining wall to save a Civil War-era ordnance magazine, on the National Register of Historic Places, endangered by erosion of the banks of the Big Cypress Bayou. The foundation and garden club support each other's efforts, and both stay busy protecting and promoting Jefferson's history.

"If you're bored in Jefferson, you want to be," says Brookshire. "And one of the great things about Jefferson is you really get to see the fruits of your labor."

Dallas-based writer Sophia Dembling is the author of 100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go.

Dallas, Texas-based writer Sophia Dembling is author of "100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go," "The Yankee Chick’s Survival Guide to Texas," and other books. Her articles and essays have appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Texas Journey, and many other newspapers, magazines, and websites.


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