Last Sunday my brother and I wandered south and east of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to the small city of Ennis. Its history goes back to post-Civil War railroad expansion. Evidence of the importance of the railroad to the city’s founding and its heydays in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is everywhere. The town was named after Cornelius Ennis, a director of the Houston and Texas Central Railroad. Many of the homes in the historic district were built with railroad money, from the period when railroad company executives and managers lived in town to oversee machine shops and the activity of a large roundhouse where trains were maintained and stored. The city’s three small lakes, now with accompanying parks, were created in order to supply water for the railroad. Cotton and ranching, both industries integral to the growth of railroads, were also part of the economy. Active tracks still split the town in two.
Ennis is well-known for its annual Bluebonnet Trail (a driving and walking tour) and Bluebonnet Festival. The festival is April 14-16 this year, but news reports indicated these lovely little lupines were blooming early, and I didn’t want to miss the show. We knew we had arrived when we saw Bluebonnet Park. The parking lot was modestly full of families with dogs and small children, and a nearby hill was modestly covered with the cheerful blue flowers with white tips. There was lots of picture-taking.
Satisfied that the bluebonnets were indeed in bloom, we decided to check out the town. We spent a good deal of time admiring the charming and colorful Victorian and Craftsman homes in the historic district. We noted that the downtown has a typical mingling of vibrant new businesses such as wine bars and brew pubs, still-active older establishments such as a Masonic Lodge and a hardware store, empty storefronts with murals or window dressings and a church on every corner. The brick and concrete street patterns and wide brick sidewalks are especially attractive.
We were on the lookout especially for bakeries and on the outskirts found The Kolache Depot. Although its location – inside a busy gas station with a small, crowded parking lot – was far from quaint, its drive-thru menu was extensive and exactly what we were looking for! A kolache is a Czech pastry, made with a not-too-sweet, puffy yeast dough that cradles a sweet fruit or cheese filling, or sometimes surrounds a small sausage. Kolache are common in this part of Texas, part of the history of Czech immigration to the area, and Ennis in particular.
Rejuvenated by pastries, we then doubled back through town to a place I especially wanted to visit – Kachina Prairie. The city website says, “Kachina Prairie is a 35-acre nature trail located on the northeast side of Lake Clark Park. It is a rare, undisturbed part of the Blackland Prairie eco-region and a southern extension of the North American tall-grass prairie. At one point in history, it covered over 170 million acres in North America. It is now being actively conserved by a coalition of the Ennis Garden Club, Indian Trail Master Naturalists, City of Ennis and the Texas Land Conservancy.”
Part of the prairie trail encircles a life-sized American bison statue placed upon a natural rise. I spent considerable time contemplating this statue and its little parcel of land, once part of endless seas of prairie from Minnesota to Texas and beyond, teeming with millions of bison in great herds. It is sobering, as well, to think of the people who once lived here, cultivating the land for agriculture and maintaining it for hunting grounds. The variety of the indigenous cultures and the ways in which they worked with the land is something I am profoundly ignorant of, but as I wander I always look for more learning opportunities.
The grasses themselves were short and sparse, which surprised me at first. Upon closer inspection, it became apparent that Kachina Prairie had undergone maintenance of its own, in the form of a prescribed burn. Prairie fires are both a natural and human-made occurrence, and have been for a long time. Plains Indians used large fires to drive game to be hunted and to clear land for new growth that would attract game later. Charred black only two months ago, the prairie is now vividly colored with healthy new growth, including early wildflowers.
Here we found bluebonnets in a more natural setting, accented by sunny yellow daisies and buttercups. I discovered they have a lovely, strong fragrance. There were a few Indian paintbrush flowers, with more to come, and plenty of delicate blue-eyed grass in bloom. I also saw the leaves of (I think) wild geranium or winecup and Texas thistle. I will have to come back in a few weeks to see how the spring progresses – it should be varied and bright.
It was time to call the afternoon excursion a success and return home. However, we discovered that we were only a few short miles from a Buc-ee’s, I had never been to Buc-ee’s, a Texas-based chain of super-sized gas station-convenience stores. It is an astounding display of consumerism – 64 gas tanks plus charging stations and a wonderland of Texas knick-knacks, souvenir T-shirts and other goods. It also has food, food, food – including soup, jerky, barbeque brisket, turkey, pork, popcorn, pastries, made-to-order deli sandwiches, plus 20 kinds of fudge, and a small factory for roasting, salting and sugaring five kinds of nuts. The line of ice machines is 50 yards long. I had a chopped brisket sandwich, my brother chose the sliced brisket and we shared a veggie burrito, in a nod to health. My curiosity about Buc-ee’s is now thoroughly satisfied. (Maybe over-satisfied.)
My curiosity about the prairie is not, however. I’m sure I’ll return sooner rather than later. Perhaps I can make the next trip in conjunction with the Bluebonnet Festival or National Polka Festival, and visit the Railroad and Cultural Heritage Museum as well.
I wish everyone such happy wanderings!