With the holidays just around the corner, businesses in downtown Jefferson are preparing to roll out the Christmas lights and garlands. The city will stage its annual Candlelight Tour of Homes and other seasonal attractions in downtown Jefferson that will spread holiday cheer throughout the city in November and December.
“We have amazing shopping in locally owned stores and all of our restaurants are locally owned,” Kevin Godfrey, Jefferson’s tourism director, said in an email. The city is “the original outdoor mall,” he said, with decorations throughout the town that enhance the season.
Downtown will shine throughout the holidays, and projects are underway to help the city’s center continue shining well into the future, even as Jefferson continues to honor its past.
Marion County Courthouse
An early 1900s historically accurate courthouse, with all the modern requirements for the business conducted behind its doors is essential to the lifeblood of downtown Jefferson, according to Marion County Judge Leward LaFleur.
In April, Marion County received the good news that the Texas Historical Commission had awarded $4.5 million for a restoration project at the courthouse. With the county’s required match, the project is a $5.6 million undertaking. According to a Texas Historical Commission press release from April, Marion County had one of the highest scoring applications and became one of four counties awarded the full restoration grant. The county was awarded the money in June, LaFleur said.
“This will allow us to restore the courthouse to its original splendor,” LaFleur said. “A lot of judges have been involved in this effort and we pleaded with the Texas Historical Commission that we needed the money for operational purposes and because this is the largest building in downtown.”
LaFleur said former Marion County Judge Lex Jones was instrumental in the process until his retirement in August, when LaFleur was named county judge.
Like courthouses across East Texas, Jefferson’s courthouse serves as a landmark people have been using for more than 100 years, he said.
“With any county the courthouse is a centralized place where a lot of business is taken care of,” LaFleur said. “People come in from U.S. Highway 59 into Jefferson and it is the first building on the left. Downtown Jefferson is a very unique, beautiful place and is full of so much history and so many homes and restaurants. The courthouse was in very bad shape operationally and cosmetically, and we needed to preserve the courthouse first and foremost to how it was originally.”
LaFleur’s office along with other county offices have moved to another location while work on the courthouse continues. The project will include restoring the brick and mortar and having the old walls and ceilings stripped down and put back the way they were. There will be new plumbing and fixtures added. Komatsu architects of Dallas is overseeing the project, he said.
Union Missionary Baptist Church
Another important project is the revitalization of what is believed to be one of the oldest black churches in the state, Union Missionary Baptist Church, according to Gary Endsley, director of the Collins Academy community development group.
The building at the foot of Houston Street dates back to 1847 and was given to slaves by Capt. William Perry, who brought steamboat traffic to the area. In 1863 the church was dedicated as a Missionary Baptist Church. A fire destroyed the church in 1868, and the site was home to a federal encampment from 1868 to 1871. The church was rebuilt after the fire, but had fallen into disrepair in recent years.
Kari Dickson, staff archaeologist of the Collins Academy, said she does not know of a completion date on the church as of yet but work is ongoing. The goal of the project is to return the structure to its original state, with no attention to detail being missed.
“We are trying to get what the paint would be like, and we have reconstructed lighting and the whole nine yards,” Dickson said. “We have even changed the windows to reflect earlier windows.”
Before the site was given to slaves, it was home to Caddo Indians. Digs at the site have found artifacts dating to that period and its time as a federal encampment.
Endsley said many people are working together to find out even more about the church to make sure the history that is told about it is complete.
“Various groups will work with us to develop the truth about Jefferson in the 1860s, and the truth will show the enduring life of this church and how it has helped to hold the community together through thick and thin, from the Civil War to the civil rights movement up to the present,” Endsley said.
Jefferson Historical Society Museum
An old federal courthouse on the corner of Austin and Market Streets, which houses the Jefferson Historical Society Museum, is another site where revitalization is the goal, Godfrey said.
“The building was the courthouse, and then it was the post office, and now has been re-purposed as the Historical Museum and the process is to update the exhibits so that it reflects more of Jefferson’s history than just relics of the past,” he said. “They are trying to put an elevator in for those with disabilities so it is still being renovated. It is a world class museum in itself but they are trying to re-enhance the building.”
One of Jefferson’s most unique draws is the “Howe Truss” train trestle, a now unused train bridge over the Big Cypress River, Godfrey said. Vegetation has been removed and LED lights have been added so the bridge can be lighted up to go with the seasons — it will be red and green for Christmas. Jefferson also will place a lighted, 20-foot-tall Christmas tree in the nearby Port of Jefferson Park and a holiday Walk of Lights through the woods there.
“I think it would be amazing and be a tourist’s attraction if people could stand up there,” Godfrey said. “This could be Jefferson’s crowning achievement .... Paris has its Eiffel Tower, New York has its Statue of Liberty and London has its Big Ben. This could be Jefferson’s version of that.”