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A Step Back Through History for the 'Real' Texas

May 15, 1988|CLAUDIA R. CAPOS | Capos is a free-lance writer living in Ann Arbor, Mich

DALLAS — Wanted: the real Texas.

Not the ultramodern skyscrapers of Dallas or the bumper-to-bumper traffic jams of Houston.

No, we're talking about a Texas in which a pioneer spirit once burned so strong that you could almost reach out and touch it. Where homesteaders lived in log houses and cooked over wood fires and built Texas from the ground up.

Today there is only one place to find that kind of Texas. It's at Old City Park, an outdoor historical museum established by the Dallas County Heritage Society to preserve a bygone era.

Thirty-five structures built in north-central Texas between 1840 and 1910 have been brought to the 14-acre site on Gano Street south of downtown. Each building has been painstakingly reconstructed and furnished to restore it to its original appearance.

Dressed in Costumes

To convey a sense of living history, museum volunteers, dressed in 19th-Century costumes, demonstrate many of the crafts of the day such as spinning, weaving, quilting, tatting, chair caning and blacksmithing.

In the pottery shop you can watch an artisan shape ceramic bowls with a kick wheel and fire them in a wood-fueled kiln. Nearby in the print shop a tradesman will handset type and fill your order using an 1885 Chandler & Price job press and other turn-of-the-century equipment.

You also can shop for penny candy in McCall's store or eat a home-cooked Texas meal in Brent Place, an 1876 farmhouse that is the museum's restaurant. There's an 1888 schoolhouse in which children can sit at wooden desks to learn their lessons from "McGuffey's Readers" and compete in spelling bees.

City Park's 200,000 annual visitors are invited to join in events throughout the year. In May, guests are welcome to attend the Grand Heritage Ball, but must dress in period costume.

Each Independence Day the park is decked out in red, white and blue bunting for an old-fashioned Fourth of July celebration, complete with square dancers, bands, a parade and plenty of fried chicken.

In December the buildings are hung with Christmas greens and red ribbons and the pathways are lighted by hundreds of candles for holiday candlelight tours. Strolling visitors are serenaded by violinists, Christmas carolers and bell choirs.

The best place to begin a walking tour of Old City Park is at the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad depot just inside the entrance.

Built in 1886 in Fate, 30 miles away, the depot was the hub of community activity. Folks gathered around a pot-bellied stove in the waiting room to watch for freight trains bringing supplies or to gossip about the latest telegraphic news.

Indian Camp Ground

Today, visitors can take a seat on a bench in the baggage room and watch a narrated introductory slide presentation explaining the background of Old City Park.

The land was originally a Cherokee Indian camping ground and was set aside as Dallas' first city park in 1876.

In 1966 a group of Texans organized the Dallas County Heritage Society in an effort to save one of the city's largest remaining antebellum mansions, Millermore.

The home was moved to Old City Park, where it was restored and opened to the public three years later.

In 1976 city officials and society members agreed to make Old City Park Dallas' first Bicentennial project.

The rest, as they say, is history. As you walk through the park you'll learn a lot about Texas' roots and the people who shaped its development.

One of those pioneers was William Brown Miller, who moved his family and servants from Missouri in 1847 and settled on 1,280 acres southwest of the Trinity River in what is today Dallas' Oak Cliff section.

When you step inside the family's log house with its crude furniture, spinning wheel, candle molds and homemade lye soap, you can't help but marvel at the self-sufficiency of the first Texas settlers.

The one-room cabin doubled as a school for Miller's five daughters and seven neighborhood girls.

As his fortunes improved, Miller began construction of a two-story, Greek Revival-style home, completing it in 1862. Millermore, as the mansion came to be called, still reflects the affluence of Miller, a successful rancher, with its well-appointed, spacious rooms.

'Dog Trot' House

A little beyond Millermore is an odd pioneer home called the Gano "dog trot" house. Built in 1846 near the site of today's Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, the home consists of two log houses joined by a common roof. The "dog trot" design, which was common throughout the South, provided a breezeway during the hot summer.

Also worth a visit is the George House, an elaborate pink and white Victorian creation built in 1900 by David C. George, a Plano hardware merchant, for his bride, Verner.

Bay windows, a turret and jig-saw trim under the eaves give the home a wedding-cake appearance. Inside, technological innovations such as early electric light fixtures, linoleum and a cast-iron cook stove mark the level of comfort in middle-class homes at the turn of the century.

No visit to Old City Park is complete without a stroll down Main Street. In addition to McCall's store you will find an old-fashioned general store that stood on Wolf Street in Dallas more than 80 years ago.

Although the shelves of the general store are brimming with souvenirs, you won't find so much as a penny in the 83-year-old Citizen's Bank building, which was moved to Old City Park from Justin.

According to local lore, Bonnie and Clyde dropped in for a visit years ago and cleaned out the vault when they left.

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For more information, contact Old City Park, 1717 Gano St., Dallas 75215; (214) 421-7800. Reservations at Brent Place restaurant: (214) 421-3057.

Old City Park grounds are open free to the public daily from sunup to sundown.

The cost to tour museum buildings is $4 for adults, $2 for children and senior citizens. Museum hours: Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Closed Monday.

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