I’d driven between my home, near Houston, and Montana at least a half dozen times before I stopped in Huntsville. But you can’t miss the town of 41,000 people 70 miles north of Houston, even though I-45 would have you whiz past.
Just south of Huntsville, a giant, white statue of Sam Houston, who in life was larger than life, steps out of the forest at the edge of the interstate. Houston’s statue signals that you’ve almost arrived in the town he called his final home.
On the north side of town, you can’t miss the guard towers and concertina-wire-topped walls that surround the Huntsville Unit of the Texas State Penitentiary, the town’s biggest employer.
Both Sam Houston, the town’s most famous resident, and the penitentiary have a remarkable history. Learning about both, taking in a few museums, and enjoying some time in nature makes for a perfect day in Huntsville, Texas.
Sam Houston Statue
The statue “A Tribute to Courage” is called Big Sam by locals. Big is an understatement. The statue, made with 30 tons of concrete and steel, stands 67 feet tall. The oversized statue, the ninth tallest in the U.S., is a fitting tribute to the man who figured prominently in Texas’ history.
Huntsville-born artist David Adickes designed and constructed the statue with the help of a Sears cement mixer, which failed just as he was finishing Sam’s head. The mixer, fittingly, is entombed in Big Sam’s chest and is the ‘heart’ of the statue.
The statue’s visitor center, through photographs and diagrams, explains how Adickes constructed the statue.
Pro Tip: Sam Houston Statue Visitor Center is ADA accessible and has clean restrooms, a lovely gift shop, and a place to enjoy a picnic. Allow 30 minutes for your visit.
Sam Houston Memorial Museum And Grounds
To learn about Sam Houston’s remarkable life, a visit to Sam Houston Memorial Museum and grounds is in order. Houston is important to Texas history as both a military man and a politician.
Houston lived with the Cherokee Native Americans during his teenage years, and later became a congressman and senator in Tennessee. He moved to Texas in 1832 and fought successfully for Texas’ independence from Mexico. Houston was elected the first and third president of the Republic of Texas. When Texas became a state, Houston served as a senator. His political career as Texas’s governor ended when he was ousted as the state left the Union in 1861.
The museum chronicles Houston’s military and political life with correspondence and memorabilia. If you take the time to read his letters on display, you’ll find he was not only a man of wisdom but of wit.
The 15-acre park on which the museum and several houses sit was once part of Houston’s farm. The Woodland Home and his log cabin law office are in their original location. Nearby, Eliza's cookhouse, named for one of the family's slaves, has been rebuilt. Although you can't enter the buildings on the grounds, visitors are invited to look into the fully-furnished rooms from ample windows and open doors.
The Steamboat House, also on the museum grounds, was moved here in 1936 and completely refurbished. Houston died in this odd-looking house, and the upstairs parlor is arranged as it would have been for his funeral.
If you’d like to take a break on the grounds, visit the pond, where you’ll be entertained by the antics of the black-bellied whistling ducks who frequent the area during the winter.
Pro Tip: The Sam Houston Memorial Museum is ADA compliant. The ground floors of the Woodland Home and Steamboat House are accessible, but the second stories are not. Allow two to three hours for your visit.
Sam Houston’s Grave
Houston’s grave and impressive monument are in Huntsville’s Oakwood Cemetery. In addition to Houston, Huntsville’s prominent citizens, both Union and Confederate soldiers, and victims of the yellow fever epidemic of 1867 are buried here.
A walking tour (PDF) of the cemetery highlights the site’s notable graves. Particularly interesting is Joshua Houston’s tombstone. Before Sam Houston died in 1863, he freed the people he had enslaved, including Joshua, who went on to become a successful businessman and politician.
Pro Tip: Allow about an hour for a walking tour.
Texas Prison Museum
The Texas Prison Museum offers so much more than its most famous exhibit, Old Sparky, a retired electric chair that was used in 360 executions. The Last Statement exhibit, by Barbara Sloan and Kelly Prew, is particularly powerful. Dozens of portraits of family members of both executed prisoners and their victims hang on the wall surrounding Old Sparky. Within each frame, the executed prisoners’ last words and the pictured family member’s comments speak of everything from innocence and anger to hope and forgiveness.
The museum’s displays highlight the prison’s history, dating back to 1848, and some of its famous prisoners, including David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and Clyde Barrow, Bonnie’s other half. An exhibit of Bonnie and Clyde memorabilia shows a handwritten letter Clyde wrote to Henry Ford, saying, “While I still have got breath in my lungs, I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove Fords exclusively when I could get away with one.”
The museum also showcases handcrafted furniture and art created by prisoners. The paintings displayed include posters advertising the prison rodeo and headliners such as Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and George Strait. The rodeo ran from 1931 to 1986 and was wildly popular with the inmates and townspeople.
Although the museum is self-guided, be sure to ask the very friendly and knowledgeable staff any questions you have.
Pro Tip: The museum is ADA accessible. Allow one to two hours for your visit.
HEARTS Veterans Museum Of Texas
Located adjacent to the Texas Prison Museum, the HEARTS Veterans Museum of Texas traces the U.S. role in each war it has been involved in. Donated artifacts from all branches of the military date back to the Revolutionary War.
The museum focuses on the sacrifices veterans have made for freedom, and the volunteers working there speak from experience. The personal stories they share make for a memorable visit.
The museum will soon become home to a replica of Washington D.C.’s Vietnam Wall. The wall, 80 percent of the size of the original, has traveled throughout the U.S. and will retire at the HEARTS Veterans Museum of Texas.
Pro Tip: The museum is ADA accessible. Allow one to two hours.
Gibbs-Powell House Museum
Also known as the Walker County Historical Museum, the Gibbs-Powell House Museum is located in a house built by Thomas Gibbs in 1862. Judge Ben H. Powell purchased the home in 1897. After his last remaining daughter passed away in 1984, the home became a museum.
The museum’s collection belonged to both the Powells and local families. His daughters lived there and taught piano and voice. Ask the docent to play the rare “Regina” music box for you. It is original to the family and the first music box of its kind made in the U.S. Also in the parlor, you’ll see a collection of small busts of famous composers the Powell sisters gave to students as gifts. They’ve been gifted back to the museum over the years by their pupils.
Check out Inez Powell’s hope chest in the front bedroom, an exquisite piece handcrafted by prisoners at the penitentiary.
Pro Tip: The upstairs is not ADA accessible. Allow one hour for your visit.
Huntsville State Park
Just 10 miles south of Huntsville and situated within Sam Houston National Forest’s 163,000 acres, Huntsville State Park offers year-round recreation with hiking, biking, boating, and fishing on Lake Raven -- and camping along its shores. The hiking/biking trails range from easy to challenging. Along the way, you may see deer, possum, skunks, and raccoons. The lake is home to bass, crappie, and alligators. I, thankfully, did not see one.
Pro Tip: The park has a list of dos and don’ts concerning alligators, including staying 30 feet away from them. Apparently, they are faster than they look.
Provided you’ve outsmarted, outmaneuvered, or outrun an alligator and want a celebratory meal, I recommend either the Farmhouse Cafe and Bakery or City Hall Cafe and Pie Bar for tasty American fare and yummy desserts.
Winter and spring are particularly nice times to visit Huntsville. The weather is mild with daytime temperatures averaging 50 to 60 degrees during the winter. If you opt for a visit in early March, Huntsville celebrates Texas Independence Day and Sam Houston’s birthday. And in late March/early April, Texas’s iconic bluebonnets are in full bloom. All are perfect times to visit Huntsville.