Freedom Fest

Michael Yocum, his dog Molly, and daughter Ashleigh spend their afternoon paddeling around Daingerfield State Park during Freedom Fest on Saturday July 1, 2017. (Michael Cavazos/News-Journal Photo)

The clear waters of a spring-fed lake. Towering pine trees. History that was created as America labored under the strain of the Great Depression.

That’s Daingerfield State Park, a gem more and more people are discovering tucked away in the Pineywoods of East Texas, less than an hour north of Longview. More than 75,000 people visit the park each year, a number that dwarfs the population of the nearby city for which the park is named. Daingerfield has about 2,500 residents.

The park offers everything from camping, picnicking, boating and fishing to swimming, hiking and nature study.

Park Superintendent Steve Killian calls the recreational opportunities – all for a park entrance fee of $4 per adult – “a high quality, inexpensive, fun, family experience.”

Killian said the park is one of the oldest in the state, a project the Civilian Conservation Corps started in 1935 and completed in 1939. The Corps was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal work program, which put unemployed men to work on such park and land conservation projects. Some of the original structures built by the Corps are still in use at the lake — the swimming platform, boathouse, nature center, roads, culvert infrastructure and the original sign — a stone structure that once sat at the park’s entrance but has since been moved to the park’s interior.

The park conserves a portion of the Pineywoods eco-region, with 125-foot-tall pine trees creating what Killian has given a poetic name to — the cathedral of the trees.

“You immerse yourself in this old growth forest, with majestic tall pines and hardwood scattered,” throughout, Killian said. “It’s awe inspiring when you’re hiking in the trails and viewing the trees of the lake.”

The spring-fed Little Pine Lake is at the park’s center. Boats of any size are allowed on the lake, but wakes are prohibited.

“It’s a very clear lake, which makes it unique in all of northeast Texas,” Killian said. “We have good fishing, but really we’re known for swimming and boating, just because of the clarity and the overall quality of the lake.”

The park rents paddle boats, Jon boats, canoes, kayaks and paddle boards.

“The attraction (of paddle boards) is once you get your balance, you can easily maneuver in the lake. It’s kind of like a modified surfboard,” Killian said. “It’s like you’re walking on water. You’re gliding across the surface. It’s a lot of fun. We actually teach classes on most Saturdays during the summer on paddle boarding or kayaking.”

The classes are free once park admission is paid, Killian said. Summer is the busiest time of the year at the park, he said, followed by spring, fall and winter.

The park also has reignited a tradition from its early days — Saturday night dances in the pavilion, which began in the 1930s and extended into the late 1960s and ’70s. Killian said the park brought the dances back with a jukebox in the pavilion.

“It socially connects the community together,” Killian said. “We’re bringing it back. There’s many families that can be traced back to a chance meeting at the dances back in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.”

Killian said he’s managed a number of parks, and the volunteers and employees at Daingerfield State Park are one of the aspects that make it unique. They’re committed to providing visitors with a quality, memorable experience.

“I think that’s starting to show because our visitors are up over 30 percent,” Killian said. “It’s a big jump, but what we’ve done is we’ve started marketing the park, getting the word out in terms of press releases, making the park relevant in the lives of our community.”

The park features 58 campsites for tents and recreational vehicles, three cabins and one lodge for larger groups. Campsites with water are $10 per night, and campsites with water, electricity and sewer are $20-$25. Rental costs for cabins range from $85 to $95 per night. The lodge, for larger groups of 15-plus, rents for $225.

NEARBY

Visitors to the county seat of Morris County are invited to veer off the beaten path that takes them to Daingerfield State Park.

Just before travelers turn off U.S. 259 in Daingerfield onto Texas 49, they’re encouraged to take a brief side trip to downtown Daingerfield — historic downtown Daingerfield.

City Manager Rocky Thomasson and some store owners themselves admit that there are too many vacant buildings downtown. They agree, however, that many travelers who take them up on the side-trip offer will be surprised at what they will see in this small town less than 40 miles north of Longview.

WHAT TO SEE

Daingerfield’s pride shows off first with a big blue and white “Welcome to our Hometown” sign that greets everyone entering the city on U.S. 259. Blue and white are Daingerfield school colors.

At the top of the sign is the mention that Daingerfield was established in 1841. At the bottom is a list of the years that the Daingerfield Tigers have been state football champs – 1968, 2008, 2009, 2010 in Class AA and 1983 and 1985 in Class AAA.

It’s not located downtown, but residents are likely to point out that the football stadium is one of the most popular structures in town. The place to see and be on Friday nights during football season is Mickey Mayne Tiger Stadium. The home of the Tigers is named for longtime coach and educator, Lewis “Mickey” Mayne.

A prominent downtown landmark is the old Morris County Courthouse that was built in 1882. It has been renovated and serves as offices for the Nix Patterson & Roach Law Firm.

The Victorian-style home at 400 Webb St. was built in 1899 by the R.N. Traylor family. Robert Nail, his son, Roy A. Nail, and George Haggard bought the house with plans to establish a funeral home. In 1949, they officially founded Nail-Haggard Funeral Home.

The Postmark is an event center at 114 Webb St. and is open for wedding receptions or special events. According to an online description, “the unique architecture and notable features of this century old building make it the perfect location for your next occasion.” There are accommodations for up to 120 guests.

Possibly the biggest downtown surprise is the Morris Theater. It features first-run movies, two screens and an admission price of only $1.50 per seat.

Movie-goers have posted positive reviews on Facebook: “We love the theater. It is vintage, but well kept. Just a heads up, cash only. Prices are low, making it an affordable option for all size families.” Another family – possibly a family of two – reported that they can go see new releases, get popcorn and drinks, all for less than $10.

WHERE TO SHOP

Something Special by Nan and Jan has been serving Daingerfield since 1971. Jan is Janice Bryan. Nan was Nancy Johnston, her mother. The store is “something special” because it’s part of a family tradition. Bryan’s parents and grandparents were downtown Daingerfield merchants.

Bryan said her store is a specialty boutique, carrying clothes, shoes and accessories for women. Because Daingerfield is a small town, she tries to fill other community needs by providing a gourmet section, a baby and bridal registry, and selling home décor and some men’s clothing.

Two doors down from her store at 111 Coffey St. is an antique store that’s run by her husband. She said they just call it, “The Antique Store.”

Enough Boutique is also on Coffey Street.

WHERE TO EAT

There are a few eateries in Daingerfield for visitors who aren’t eating at their campsites or picnicking at City Park in downtown.

Fast-food fare includes Sonic Drive-In, McDonald’s and Subway. There’s also China Café and restaurants with a local flavor – Hawkins Family Restaurant (formerly Dairy Queen), Fran’s Barbeque & Pizza and Outlaw’s Bar-B-Q (“so good it aught to be against the law”).