HIT THE ROAD
Peephole into the Past
Stop, shop and soak up the Victorian elegance of Calvert
- Will van Overbeek
Down every road in Texas there’s a story, but for travelers passing through, the stories get left behind as the little towns disappear from the rearview mirror. Approximately 30 miles northwest of Bryan by way of Texas Highway 6, the Victorian town of Calvert puts her best foot forward in hopes of not being forgotten once visitors have come and gone.
With a walking tour of 67 designated historical stops, Calvert offers the weekend visitor a peephole into the Victorian era of the 1800s and early 1900s, a time when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was making its way across America to small towns like Calvert.
Blessed with railroad construction, Edison’s electric lights, Bell’s telephone and fertile land, Calvert, founded in 1868, became one of Texas’ leading trade centers of the late 1800s. The town boasted 14 saloons and a population hovering around 3,000. Casino tables were stacked with gold. And by 1912, the Gibson Gin, which closed in 1938, was known as the world’s largest cotton gin, a title befitting a town with deep roots in cotton fields and plantations.
From 1870 to 1879, Calvert was the seat of Robertson County, though no courthouse was built. A “calaboose” (jail), however, was constructed—complete with a designated women’s dorm and what some might loosely call an insane asylum. When the county seat was moved to Morgan—later renamed Franklin, in honor of the original county seat in Old Franklin (Franklin remains the modern-day county seat)—the prisoners and sheriff followed. The vacant jail, a fabulous example of Gothic Revival architecture, became a hotel and later a private residence in Calvert that today is in use as the Hammond House Bed & Breakfast. The magnificent old building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
As barbershop quartets serenaded Calvert’s citizens with four-part harmony standards, many of the town’s women were beginning to want more than cotton aprons and domestic responsibility. They founded their own chapter of the American Woman’s League, a national organization with roots in California that offered women access to culture, art and education. In 1909, the architectural craftsman-style Katy Hamman-Stricker Women’s Heritage Center was built in Calvert as the first AWL chapter house in Texas and one of 38 constructed in the nation.
Today, majestic live oaks still shade the town where booming has given way to peaceful. Renovated Victorian homes with multicolored and multitextured walls, wide porches, asymmetrical façades and steeply pitched roofs dot the landscape.
A visit to owner Harold Maris’ historic movie theater, The Eloia, which dates to 1929, makes it easy to imagine “Gone with the Wind” being shown on its big screen. The Eloia, which was refurbished following a fire in the late 1940s, is now being converted to a center for the performing arts that will feature live theatrical productions, Maris said.
During any typical shopping day in Calvert, visitors find whimsical shops with friendly proprietors, such as Candy Shores, owner of Common Scents. Nearby at Nature’s Art Studio, owner and artist Shelley Harris-Janac will introduce you to 2-year-old Butter Bean the “beauty queen”—her trick-performing “diva” Chihuahua who literally jumps through hoops for customers—after proudly showing off the studio’s Native American-inspired gourd art.
A few storefronts down, owner M.L. “Sonny” Moss creates high-fire stoneware and porcelain works at Mud Creek Pottery, which doubles as a learning center for potters and artists. Moss also specializes in jewel-tone Raku ware—a Japanese pottery glazing method dating to the 16th century.
Stepping across the worn-concrete entrance into Parisian-style COCOAMODA, a gourmet chocolate business, hungry day-trippers can satisfy their sweet tooth with exotically flavored truffles—try lavender, saffron or rose petal.
Connie Strong, frequent contributor