This is not the summer for elaborate, extended vacations. Expensive family outings to Washington D.C. or Mt. Rushmore don’t make sense in the middle of a global pandemic. You can’t drive to St. Louis or Chicago to see the Cardinals and the Cubs when their ballparks are closed. So why not go on a more educational escape closer to home?
Staycations are both safe and sensible and with more and more schools leaning towards virtual learning they are a great way to get out of the house and become more familiar with the place you call home. No expensive maps or a guidebook is necessary. Just look for historical markers, the bronze plaques you’ve probably zipped past all your life without stopping to read.
Historical marker programs exist in all 50 states. The earliest markers were erected back in 1889 to commemorate significant people, places or events. They can be established by towns, universities, states, and at a national level so they are all around us.
The states with the most historical markers are New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, California, and Texas, but you should be able to find some in your area with a little bit of scouting. Texas, where I live, has over 3,829 markers and I’m starting to keep a record of those I find.
When my dad and I went on road trips when I was younger we would stop at historical markers on the side of the highway. It always took us longer to arrive at the destination but getting there was truly most of the fun.
Historical markers don’t need to be a side stop on a larger trip. They are all around you. I easily located 100 markers near my house. If you are like me and are a little stir crazy from being home too much, a historical marker road trip is a perfect getaway. You don’t have to travel far, it’s possible to social distance and be safe, and it’s a great opportunity to take your kids or your friends out to have a little fun and learn while you’re at it.
Recently, I visited four destinations, each in a different town with a history of its own. Some locations had multiple historical markers adding to the learning experience. My goal was to learn more about the area where I had lived all my life.
We started in Grapevine, a city just north of Dallas. The town was founded in 1844, a year before Texas joined the United States. It’s known for its wineries and also for its Christmas celebrations. It even got its name from a variety of wild mustang grapes that grew in the area. There are still wineries in the town and local tours offered.
Our first marker was Nash Farms. The farm is “one of the last remaining agrarian sites from the 19th century in North Texas.” In 1880, 90.8% of the people living in this part of the state worked in rural areas. The restored farm gives modern Texans a view back into the beginnings of the state.
The original site was 450 acres and included a variety of crops and livestock. The historical site shows the hard work required of the first settlers. Children on a study break should be happy to return to their books once they see the list of daily chores kids had to perform.
Nash Farms is not a working spread in the sense that it’s a commercial operation, but it’s a hands-on approximation of what life would have been like 150 years ago. The old farmhouse is open and completely furnished with 19th-century household appliances. A short walk brings you to cornfields and other plots being farmed. There’s even a store where you can buy homemade goods from people dressed in period clothes, many of whom made the items for sale.
There’s livestock all around the farm. A barn toward the back of the property has sheep and turkeys. The sheep weren’t very active on the day we visited but the turkeys pranced about as if they’d been choreographed. Chickens were everywhere and were too busy to entertain visitors.
My second destination was Coppell, Texas, specifically a historical marker planted right in the middle of the historic old town built by the first settlers. Though surrounded by the sprawling Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex, Old Town Coppell feels like a quaint small town. A majority of the buildings have been restored yet look straight out of the 1800s. You can feel a strong sense of community. Houses are built around the town center so that townsfolk and tourists alike can sit and enjoy the atmosphere, grab a country supper or stroll down the beautiful streets without the constant sounds of city traffic.
The downtown marker identified a Minyard’s Grocery, an old wooden market originally in East Dallas that had been moved to Coppell and reassembled. The descendants of the pioneer family operated a chain of stores in the Dallas area until 2016. The store stands as a reminder of the importance of mom and pop businesses which contributed to the success of Texas. Everybody in the town relied on stores like this to get basic necessities like eggs and small luxuries like penny candies for children with good report cards. It is still open for business when you take a free tour with the Coppell Historical Society.
Down the road was our second stop, Grapevine Springs Park, where Sam Houston camped while negotiating the “Bird’s Fort Treaty” with local Native Americans in September 1843. The agreement covered the Delaware, Chickasaw, Waco, Tawakani, Keechi, Caddo, Anadahkah, Ionie, Biloxi, and Cherokee tribes and was meant to end hostilities between the tribes and white settlers. As with most treaties of that era, the agreement did not end well for the Indians, who eventually were moved off their ancestral lands and sent to Oklahoma. In an ironic development to the saga, the Supreme Court ruled this July that the formerly dispossessed tribes own close to half of the eastern part of the state.
The park and its markers mainly focused on Sam Houston’s journey. Houston served as the first and third president of the Republic of Texas. He also served in the United States Senate.
Besides history, the park offers a little outdoor oasis in our suburban area. An afternoon in a hammock would be pure bliss here. There are also small hiking trails, a recreation center and a local community garden.
Next stop: Farmers Branch Historical Park. Farmers Branch, Texas was named after the area’s rich farmland. As at our last stop, we were expecting one marker but came across more than expected. The park has 27 acres of historical homes and buildings. You can visit and go inside a cottage, church, general store, school, Texaco service station, and a railroad depot and caboose.
The park features buildings from as far back as the 1840’s to newer buildings from the 1930s. It traces 175 years of Farmers Branch history. At the front of the park is the Dodson House. This was the home of the first mayor of Farmers Branch in 1846. You can also see the Gilbert House, the oldest structure still on its original site in Dallas County.
My favorite attraction was an old railroad caboose sitting beside the original depot. It dates to 1877 and was sold to the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad in 1881.
Our last stop was planned with lunch in mind. We headed over to Koreatown in Carrollton, Texas to learn about Korean Americans. The marker is in the middle of a shopping complex that offers a wide variety of Korean food and entertainment.
Korean immigration to Texas started in the early 20th century with immigrants mostly working at manual labor jobs. After that more Koreans came after the Korean War in the 1950s when U.S. servicemen married Korean women and relocated their families to bases like Fort Hood.
In 1965, the national origins quota system was eliminated thanks to Lyndon Johnson. It had limited foreign immigration visas to just 2% of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census. New immigrants included nurses and other professionals who headed for metropolitan areas where they built flourishing communities. Dallas has the highest Korean population in the state and fourth-largest population in the U.S.
The Koreatown marker, as do many others in urban areas, captures contemporary history and lets us appreciate the history in our current lives.
How To Plan Your Trip
Planning a trip doesn’t require much effort. Although most states don’t have a complete map or data bank of all markers, there are resources to guide you.
https://www.hmdb.org/nearby.asp is a great resource to use for scouting out markers. It will pinpoint your location and display the nearest 100 markers. You can click on each one and look at photos to preview those locations. It has databases in all 50 states and works on cell phones and laptops.
From there you can put all of the locations into Google Maps. With Google Maps it will be easier to map multiple stops if you plan on visiting multiple historical markers.
Enjoy your trip through history. Maybe bring a blanket and pack a picnic. Make it your own trip. You can visit 1 or 50 in a day whatever fits your schedule. Bring the kids, get out and learn while you are at it!
Kirsten Hahn is a Radio-Television-Film and Journalism student at the University of Texas where she is a staff photographer for The Daily Texan.