Sometimes it is hard to relate to individuals who lived in the past when all we have are words to describe their lives. One way to gain a deeper understanding is by visiting a historic home, which can provide a tangible link to days gone by. Home is an intimate place filled with both adornments and practical items, and contemporary homes share some common characteristics with historic ones. This familiarity can spark a connection with people from the past. Historic homes also have an authenticity of place that compels visitors to seek meaning in the lives that inhabited them.
In Texas, we are lucky to have the Texas Historical Commission and local historical organizations that are dedicated to preserving historic homes. This is not an easy job, and it takes thousands of volunteer hours and dedicated staff to keep these sites ready for visitors. Here are five of the more compelling historic homes that are open to the public.
The Sam Bell Maxey House was built in Paris in 1868 and features both Italianate and Greek Revival architecture. Maxey was a veteran of the Mexican War, a major general in the Confederate Army and a U.S. Senator. If you have visited this house before, you should consider making another trip, since the interior was recently restored. Now, the home reflects the original, richly appointed Victorian design as well as the update overseen by the family’s next generation in the early 20th century. The library, one of the more distinctive features of the house, was restored based on an early 20th century photograph and memorializes Maxey’s military career. However, Maxey was prouder of his two terms as U.S. Senator than his time spent in the military. According to the Texas Historical Commission, the home is “one of only a few historic house museums in the country that focuses on the Restoration Era and its legacy.”
A member of the U.S. Congress for 48 years, Sam Rayburn was the longest-serving Speaker of the House in history at 17 years. His 1916 house in Bonham “tells the story of a dedicated public servant who helped shape some of the most critical policies and events of the 20th century, but never forgot where he came from.” One of the highlights of the Sam Rayburn House is a collection of historic 20th century vehicles. There you will find Mr. Sam’s 1947 Cadillac, purchased by his friends in Congress so he wouldn’t have to walk to work when he was Speaker. His farm truck, a 1951 Dodge Express, still holds all the dings and dents put there by Sam himself. Most of the belongings in the house are just where he left them, from his shoes in the closet to his flip directory listing President Johnson’s home phone number. Imagine listening in on those calls!
With a 134-year history, the Varner-Hogg Plantation in West represents generations of Texas history and commerce. Many families have lived at this site, both free and enslaved, and over the years the plantation has supported sugar cane production, cattle ranching and oil drilling. One of the early owners, Columbus Patton, used slave labor to construct the home of stucco-covered bricks made of Brazos River clay. His enslaved mistress, Rachel, lived with him and their children in the house. Rachel’s story and many others live on at this historic plantation.
The Magoffin Home is one of the last traditional adobe structures remaining in El Paso. Once inside, visitors are often surprised to find trimming and interiors reflecting many styles and cultural traditions. The home was built by Joseph Magoffin, son of an Irish immigrant and Mexican mother of Spanish descent. He was well known in El Paso as a town father, banker, judge and mayor. Many generations have lived in this home, reflecting the rich diversity of the community. Even Magoffin’s domestic staff was diverse, with individuals from Ireland, China and Mexico. The structure remains an enduring chapter to the borderlands story.
Located in Anderson at the crossroads of several transportation routes, Fanthorp Inn was a meeting place for community, communication, commerce and politics. Notable guests of the Inn included Sam Houston, Zachary Taylor, Kenneth Anderson and Generals Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. Here, you could catch a stagecoach, get the mail or sit down for a hearty meal. The interiors are restored in an antebellum style.
Visiting historic homes can be a wonderful getaway, whether you are spending time with your family or exploring on your own. At each home, you’ll find staff members who are very knowledgeable about the site’s history, helping you gain a better understanding of early Texans.
Most of the historic houses operated by the Texas Historical Commission (THC) were transferred by the Texas Legislature to the agency from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 2006. The THC mission of historic preservation and education was deemed well suited to continue the stewardship of these sites. Before that, the agency operated only one historic house — the Sam Rayburn House in Bonham — which was accepted by the agency in the 1970s. Since 2006, several other historic homes have transferred to the agency, including the French Legation State Historic Site in Austin and the Charles and Mary Ann Goodnight Ranch State Historic Site near Amarillo. All the historic sites and homes in the THC system tell a chapter of the Texas story. The agency is always looking to broaden the stories it tells to include more eras, people and perspectives that add depth and texture to the tale of Texas.
Sam Bell Maxey House State Historic Site
812 South Church St.
Paris, TX 75460
Sam Rayburn House State Historic Site
890 W. State Hwy 56
Bonham, TX 75418
Varner-Hogg Plantation State Historic Site
1702 N. 13th St.
West Columbia, TX 77486
Visit El Paso
Magoffin Home State Historic Site
1120 Magoffin Ave.
(Visitors Center is at 1117 Magoffin Ave.)
El Paso, TX 79901
Visit Anderson, Grimes County
Fanthorp Inn State Historic Site
579 S. Main St.
Anderson, TX 77830
Jill Campbell Jordan has been the executive director of the Texas Lakes Trail Region since 2005. She loves to travel across the state, taking the back roads and following every sign that points to downtown.