Stephen F. Austin State University

Preservation without Ordinances (March 2013)

Preserveation without Ordinances
By Jeff Campbell

How does a small Texas town of 2,000 people, with 195 Texas state historical markers in their county and a 1,000 acre designated National Historic District, care for it's historic buildings? Jefferson, Texas is not a Certified Local Government, it is not part of the Main Street Program, is not a Preserve America Community and does not have a local historic preservation ordinance. About the only ordinance on the City books, that would protect a historic district, is one that forbids mobile homes to be moved inside the city limits. So how did Jefferson end up with hundreds of preserved, restored historic buildings?

Jefferson's heyday was from around 1840 to the late 1870's. During these years Jefferson was a steamboat trading partner with Shreveport and New Orleans. Steamboats would leave New Orleans headed up the Mississippi, veer onto the Red River, navigate across Caddo Lake and head up Big Cypress Bayou to Jefferson. During this time Jefferson became the sixth largest city in Texas, with a population of over 30,000.The New Orleans influence is still seen in Jefferson with the numerous wrought iron balconies in the historic district.

There are two factors involved in Jefferson economic decline, the destruction of the "Great Raft" and the growth of America's railroads. The Great Raft was a naturally occurring log jam that created a 150 mile dam on the Red River. This natural dam allowed water levels in Caddo Lake and on Big Cypress Bayou to remain high enough for commercial steamboat travel. When the Great Raft was destroyed water levels fell, making Caddo Lake and Big Cypress Bayou un-navigable. Also by the 1870's the railroads were coming to Texas which eliminated the need for steamboats. The railroads killed the steamboat trade in Northeast Texas just as it eliminated the need for the great cattle drives in Central & West Texas. Jefferson was unable to catch the train of railroad commerce, as the new Texas & Pacific rail line, from Texarkana to Marshall, bypassed Jefferson altogether.

With the demise of the steamboat industry and the rise of Marshall, Texas as a hub of the Texas & Pacific Railway, Jefferson's population plummets. Without the commerce of transportation, Jefferson's business people exit for greener pastures leaving the infrastructure behind. Jefferson enters the 20th century as just another small town on a Texas map.

In the 20th century America begins to embrace the concept of Urban Renewal. Especially after World War II, Americans want to embrace the new and cut ties with the old. Thousands of historic buildings and structures are demolished across America. They are replaced with new apartments, shopping centers and modern buildings taking their place. Jefferson, Texas misses Urban Renewal altogether. Throughout this period Jefferson, and her historic homes & buildings, basically gets "mothballed". There aren't any large businesses or corporations longing to tear down the old and build the new. Jefferson is getting by with what they have.

What they have starts to be seen as an asset. In the spring of 1939, thirty-five Jefferson ladies formed the Jessie Allen Wise Garden Club. The actions of Jessie Allen Wise Garden Club are the main reason Historic Jefferson, Texas exists.

The Garden Club started their annual spring Pilgrimage in 1948, showcasing Jefferson's blooming flowers and historic homes. Revenue from Pilgrimage ticket sales were used to purchase and restore historic buildings in Jefferson. These buildings included the Presbyterian Manse (built in 1839), The Excelsior House Hotel (built in 1850)and the Jewish Synagogue (built in 1860), which was converted in to the Ruth Lester Playhouse.

Today this example of bottom-up, not top-down, historic preservation is seen throughout Jefferson, Texas. People from all over move to Jefferson to live their dream of owning a store, running a bed and breakfast or just living peacefully in a Normal Rockwell setting. The first step in living this dream is preserving and restoring the real estate purchased, be it a building or home. The author can be counted in this number, as my wife and I purchased a home built in 1905, which constantly presents us with historic preservation projects.

Jefferson keeps her historic character and charm without many laws and ordinances. She exists as a testimony to community and civic pride.