The influence of Jefferson far exceeds its present size of 2,000 residents, most of them deeply involved in civic pride and local hospitality. Soon after Jefferson opened navigation early in the 1840s with connections through Caddo Lake and the Red River to Mississippi destinations, the thriving river port became the metropolis of East Texas.
Wealth and lawlessness added to the mystique of Jefferson, and growth was steady until the Civil War, followed by desperate years during Reconstruction. Downtown fires thought to be the work of arsonists, end of river traffic, establishment of railroad hubs in other towns, and the growth of Dallas brought decline to Jefferson. Despite valiant efforts to restore prosperity, Jefferson became a cultural capsule frozen in time.
WHILE OTHER towns grew, razing old buildings and exchanging antique furnishings for modern conveniences, Jefferson remained static and made-do with existing property.
Timber resources and oil production failed to return economic strength. Tourism began to grow under the leadership of the Jessie Allen Wise Garden Club, which sponsored the Dogwood Trail. In 1941, when the dogwood failed to blossom, disappointed visitors who had not learned of the cancellation were directed to the home of Mary Allen Carlson and other members for afternoon tea.
SO FASCINATED were the visitors with original furnishings of the homes and the old time Jefferson stories that they asked if they might visit other antebellum homes. They also discovered guest book signatures reputed to be those of Jay Gould, Oscar Wilde, and other celebrities at the Excelsior House, second only to the Menger of San Antonio as the longest continuously operating hotel in Texas.
In 1950, the garden club changed the Dogwood Trail to the Jefferson Historical Pilgrimage of showplace homes. In 1955, “The Diamond Bessie Murder Trial” was first performed at the Jefferson Playhouse, the old Jewish synagogue, with perfect ambiance for the courtroom drama sponsored by the garden club.
The mythology of Diamond Bessie and her accused slayer, Abe Rothschld, is mingled with actual testimony from the trial in Jefferson in 1880. The grave of Diamond Bessie Moore remains the most visited spot in Jefferson’s Oakwood Cemetery.
UNDER THE leadership of Ruth Lester and Lucille Terry, members of the Jessie Allen Wise Garden Club acquired the Excelsior House, purchased Jay Gould’s railroad car, and made other historic properties available to the public in Jefferson.
The State of Texas has recognized Mrs. Lester’s achievements with the Ruth Lester Award, the highest award of the Texas Historical Commission, and the East Texas Historical Association has named its annual historical restoration award for Mrs. Terry. Both women were invited to the White House for the first of Lady Bird Johnson’s “Women Doers” luncheons.
CELEBRATION of Jefferson’s heritage continues through the international empire of Pulpwood Queens, book discussion clubs presided over by Kathy Patrick of Jefferson; the historical research of Jacques Bagur; a year-round calendar of distinctive events, and the growing interest in ghost sightings in the bayou city.
The East Texas Historical Association provides this column as a public service. Fred Tarpley is Professor Emeritus of Texas A&M University-Commerce and lives in Campbell. Scott Sosebee is Executive Director of the Association and can be contacted at email@example.com.