Texas Travel

City Spotlight: Huntsville

By Chet Garner 9.14.23

As you drive into Huntsville from Houston, a 67-foot-tall statue of Sam Houston will greet you. Drive past him, and you’ll see the 30-foot-high, red-brick walls of a maximum-security prison in town. These are kind of the stereotypical images that pop into people’s minds when they think about Huntsville — and both are totally valid.

Huntsville: Home of Sam Houston

Sam Houston, the great hero of San Jacinto, was the first president of the Republic of Texas. (Remember that Texas was its own country from 1836 to 1845.) He has a really interesting history, from some time spent living with the Cherokee (from whom he got his nickname “The Raven”) to becoming the first governor of Texas. When Texas seceded during the Civil War, Houston was outspokenly anti-slavery — so after Texas rejoined the U.S., he was a bit of a political outcast for the rest of his life. Retiring from the national spotlight, he spent his final years right here in Huntsville.

The Sam Houston Memorial Museum in town has everything you could possibly learn about his amazing life, history, and legacy. There are all kinds of artifacts from his life on display there — they’ve got his Stetson hat, his walking stick, and even his leopard print vest (he was a flashy dresser!).

But the coolest pieces of Houston’s life that are still in Huntsville are his two houses. One is his homestead (a “dogtrot” house) that’s part of the Memorial Museum and is located right by Sam Houston State University. You can tour it to see how he lived — it’s just an old wooden house, but it must have been pretty nice back in his day. The other home is the one he lived in right up until his death in 1863. Now he’s buried in the local Huntsville cemetery.

The Huntsville Clink

The other thing Huntsville is known for is prisons. In fact, the biggest employer in town is the Texas Department of Criminal Justice because right in downtown Huntsville, just a couple blocks away from the courthouse and the town square, is Texas State Prison, aka the “Walls Unit.” It’s our state’s maximum-security prison and dates back to the 1800s. At first, it’s kind of eerie that it’s right downtown (it looks and feels just like “Shawshank Redemption”), but not only is it truly stunning to see, it’s also an important part of Huntsville’s history and culture.

While I hope you never have to see the inside of the Walls Unit, you should definitely make a trip to the Texas Prison Museum. I’ve never seen anything like what they’ve got on display there, from the history of how the U.S. prison system evolved to all kinds of crazy artifacts from real-life prison-escape attempts. There’s also a memorial to the annual Texas Prison Rodeo, which was a hugely popular deal back in the day. Thousands of spectators would flock to the prison to cheer on convicts as they rode broncos, roped calves, the whole nine yards. Even Johnny Cash played concerts there. It shut down in 1986, but the museum in Huntsville still has a great exhibit on it.

Huntsville Grub

If you’re hungry for barbecue when you get out of prison (er, when you’re out of the prison museum), swing by Walls BBQ. Named for the local penitentiary and built to honor the men and women who have served in Texas’ correctional facilities, they serve up a mean menu of pecan-smoked ’cue.

Another spot to hit is Potato Shack. If there’s something edible, these guys are putting it on a baked potato. You can get a chicken-fried steak potato, a bacon burger potato, a shrimp creole potato; you name it. I got a Mexican potato that was basically a taco dumped on a potato, and a broccoli cheese potato on the side (I had to get my veggies in).

The other classic Huntsville nosh to try is Mr. Hamburger, a little old-school burger shop. The spot looks like a drive-in joint (it’s not anymore) and has been feeding Huntsville folks since 1959. Their famous burger is called The Killer: It’s double meat, double cheese, jalapeños, and darn good.

Swimming in Huntsville

With “history” and “food” checked off your daytrip checklist, all that’s left to explore is the great outdoors. The first spot I recommend is Huntsville State Park, right in the middle of the East Texas Pineywoods. Full of beautiful towering pines, the main attraction is Raven Lake (named after Sam Houston’s Cherokee moniker). On one side of the lake is the swimming area, but don’t swim too far out because the other side of the lake is the alligator viewing area. Yeah, you read that right. There’s a guarantee that alligators are always hanging around the docks. Snap a pic, but don’t get too close.

If you’re afraid of alligators, there’s another swimming hole in the Pineywoods called the Blue Lagoon. I kid you not, it has the most turquoise-blue water you can imagine — like something out of the Bahamas. It used to be an old brick sand quarry that got filled with water, and nothing lives in it because of the water’s alkalinity. It’s mostly a scuba-diving lake (they’ve sunk a bunch of different planes and cars and little sculptures to discover), but you can book it for swimming. It’s totally obscure, but that’s Huntsville!

Explore more Texas towns with the Daytripper here.

© 2023 Texas Farm Bureau Insurance