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Michelle Rowe unfolds a map at the Davy Crockett National Forest and points to Ratcliff Lake Recreation Area with its 20-mile-long Four C Trail and shorter hiking paths winding through the pines. The forest, 30 miles west of Lufkin, is an ideal destination for a day hike or camping.
“We offer fishing, hiking, camping, birding, picnicking and swimming,” says Rowe, a support specialist. “There are 160,000 acres for visitors to explore.”
I head for the recreational area just beyond the ranger station. This area of the forest, developed in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, includes a 45-acre lake with campsites hidden among the pines. The day I visit is quiet, and I see only a dozen campers and hikers. Even a short hike makes finding solitude easy and provides a first step into exploring the resources, history and recreational opportunities of Lufkin.
This part of East Texas is rich in natural resources, including Angelina National Forest north of Lufkin. I decide to find out more about the area’s history with a visit to the Texas Forestry Museum, where I learn that the Houston East & West Texas Railway arrived here in the 1880s, ushering in the logging industry. Lufkin, the Angelina County seat, was incorporated in 1890 and named for Abraham Lufkin, a Galveston cotton merchant.
The museum chronicles the history of sawmill towns and lumbering camps that sprouted up in the Pineywoods. “We’re protecting this heritage to educate the public about how lumbering evolved over the past 150 years,” says Kendall Gay, museum director. “The lumber industry affects everyone in Lufkin.”
The exhibits start with the early 20th century, featuring tools and equipment including a sawmill steam engine, used to harvest trees, transport logs and shape them into lumber. More exhibits, along with a wealth of photographs, document life in the sawmill towns. In addition to lumber, the story of paper—specifically Southland Paper Mills—offers another chapter in the area’s forest products, and that chapter is written on newsprint made from Southern yellow pine. The museum also explains the complexities of the forest as a natural resource and the role of forest management practices.
In the nearby Museum of East Texas, I find a collection of paintings, photography and needlework. The museum showcases African-American history, including a letter from Rosa Parks to Nicholas C. Chriss, a reporter covering the 1956 integration of Montgomery who appeared in an iconic photo alongside her on a public bus. An original print signed by Parks and sent to Chriss draws my interest.
My next stop is the Naranjo Museum of Natural History. Dr. Neal Naranjo “began in 1960 to find and preserve dinosaur bones,” says Veronica Amoe, museum manager. “With the exception of the T. rex, every dinosaur in the museum was found and excavated by Dr. Naranjo.”
The collection includes the fossils of a 26-foot tall hadrosaur standing near a full-grown woolly mammoth. Another room displays collections of Revolutionary War artifacts, Egyptian coins and Mayan artifacts.
I continue my quest for the region’s history 15 minutes away in Diboll, once a sawmill town and now home of the History Center. Archivist Emily Hyatt shows me an exhibit: Diboll: An Enduring Community before guiding me to see an original log-ging train outside. The center maintains two massive vaults of newspapers, photographs, diaries and historical documents that are available to the public.
I still have time to stop at Ellen Trout Zoo, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2017. With nearly 800 wild and exotic animals from around the world, the zoo is a great place to end my exploration. I appreciate the setting of lush bamboo and palm trees, watching toddlers’ wonder at the animals, and seeing the zoo’s famous hippos. The park offers a welcome complement to the local history.
Marilyn Jones lives in Henderson and writes about travel.