Beaumont, Texas Intriguing Mix of Architecture, Outdoors, Oil History and More
Dec 31, 2019 11:33AM
By Vanessa Orr
McFadden Ward House. Photo courtesy the Mamie McFaddin Ward Heritage Foundation
One of the first descriptions I heard about Beaumont, TX, is that it’s like gumbo—a little bit of everything all mixed together. And that’s a truly apt description, considering that this southeastern Texas oil town is full of mansions, museums, innovative art and classical architecture, birdwatchers and alligator rescuers, gushing oil wells, a 24-foot-tall dalmatian-dotted fire hydrant and more.
And did I mention that they’re also holding a massive Mardi Gras parade this year?
Once a small, laidback southern town, Beaumont hit the big time in 1901 when oil was struck at Spindletop and the town went from roughly 10,000 people to 50,000 people overnight. The Spindletop well gushed 200 feet in the air for nine straight days, losing more than 800,000 barrels of oil before it could be capped.
If you’ve ever wondered what that looks like, you’re in luck—the Spindletop Gladys City Boomtown Museum has its own derrick on-site, and three to four times a month they let it fly, which is a remarkable sight to see. The only difference is that today’s well shoots out water, but pretty much everything else at the re-created oil-rush boomtown is true to the time. If you’ve ever wondered what the life of a Texas wildcatter was like, all you have to do is visit this unique historical site which features everything from a blacksmith shop to an old-time photo studio to the Log Cabin saloon.
A visit to the Texas Energy Museum will open your eyes to everything oil, from the geology of the earth, to drilling, to refining, to the products that result from this liquid gold. Even those who aren’t science buffs will find it fascinating, and it’s pretty surprising to discover just how many things we use in our everyday lives come from this commodity. The museum features a lot of hands-on activities for the kids, so it’s exciting for the younger set, too—especially on Dinosaur Days, when staff from nearby Lamar University come to visit.
One other must-stop museum is the Fire Museum of Texas, which is easily recognizable by the massive black-and-white fire hydrant outside. Donated by the Walt Disney company after the release of the 101 Dalmatians movie, this bigger-than-life landmark gives you an idea of just how cool the inside of this Renaissance Revival-style museum, built in 1927, is going to be. The museum is filled with fire trucks, with the oldest dating from 1856, and you’ll leave with all sorts of fantastic trivia facts—for example, did you know that fire trucks aren’t required to be red? They only got that way because at the time, it was the cheapest color of paint available. You’ll also hear the story of Major, a former fire chief’s horse, who is buried under the floor. There’s a reason this free museum is rated as one of Beaumont’s top three attractions on Trip Advisor.
Of course, with oil comes money, and you can see traces of it all across Beaumont, particularly in its stately homes, some of which are now museums. The Beaux Arts-style McFaddin-Ward House, completed in 1906, was the home of the family that owned the land that became Spindletop, so as you can imagine, everything is done on a grand scale. The 12,800 sq. ft. Henry Conrad Mauer-designed home features hand-painted walls, nine fireplaces (coal, wood and gas-burning), and 35 sets of china. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, there are more than 50 varieties of roses in the garden, along with 400 azalea plants.
The 1906 Chambers House Museum, though not quite as grand, is just as interesting. Home to a middle-class family during the oil boom, it still contains everything that the family (who lived there for 90 years) owned from cancelled checks to clothes to old Halloween costumes. Wandering through the rooms is like stepping back into the 1930s; the daughters who stayed in the home chose not to redecorate, and never even had air-conditioning or TV. Not that they couldn’t afford it—when their father died in 1952 leaving behind an estate worth $50,000, daughters Florence and Ruth taught themselves investing, and left behind an estate worth $12.8 million that is now in a trust used to fund local charities and the Beaumont Heritage Society.
A far simpler home is the John J. French house, the oldest fully restored home in Beaumont. Now owned by the Beaumont Heritage Society, it was bought by French in 1845 before Texas was even a state. One of the first two-story houses in the area, it has all sorts of quirky features, including indigo and buttermilk-colored ceilings and covered doorknobs, which spiritualist French thought would keep the spirits away, and a “fixed” Seth Thomas clock that he replaced the face of because it was too perfect—and he believed that nothing was perfect unless God made it.
It’s definitely worth a stop downtown to visit some of its beautiful buildings, including those in the Art Deco style. Crockett Street, which used to Beaumont’s red-light district, is now an entertainment hub that features a number of original buildings named after historical figures of the area. And make sure to get a photo by the Jefferson Theater; built in 1927, the Jimmy Stewart classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, premiered there.
Speaking of celebrities, Beaumont was also the birthplace of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who put female athletes on the map long before Billie Jean King, Chris Evert or Serena Williams made a mark. The founder of the LPGA, Didrikson excelled in a number of sports including golf, tennis, track, boxing, basketball, baseball and more, and her accomplishments are enshrined in the Babe Didrickson Zaharias Museum & Visitor Center as a fitting tribute to her talents.
If you want to spend time outside, Beaumont offers unique activities on that front as well. Cattail Marsh Wetlands & Boardwalk is a 900-acre wetland complex that is home to 350 species of birds; Gator Country Adventure Park is an alligator sanctuary where 13.85-foot Big Tex, the largest alligator in captivity in Texas, and Big Al, slightly smaller at 13.4 feet, live. While the owners insist that Big Tex is as sweet as can be, and actually get in the water with him, it’s probably best to check out the almost 300 alligators that call this place home from the protected paths.
While these are just a few of the reasons to visit throughout the year, for the first time this February, Beaumont will be hosting the Mardi Gras of Southeast Texas (Feb. 20-23), which was formerly held in nearby Port Arthur, so you might want to plan a trip then to take in all of the festivities. Learn more at https://www.beaumontcvb.com.