Monday, February 20, 2012

What Is There To do in Commerce and Cooper, Texas?

 Planetarium on the campus of Texas A&M University, Commerce

The first major sight of Commerce from the north, south, and west is the campus of Texas A&M University at Commerce. The twelve story Whitley Hall is the tallest structure between Dallas and Texarkana.  This 123 year old school of almost 10,000 students has undergone major construction and revision in the last ten years and has become a welcoming, vibrant campus. It is the fastest growing university in the Texas A&M system.   Much of the activity in town is centered around the campus. Here are some suggestions for your visit there and in nearby Cooper.

The Texas A&M Planetarium on campus.  Offering weekly shows, the planetarium helps connect this little spot of Texas with the universe out there.  Comfortable chairs recline and allow star viewing without a stiff neck.  A professor often appears at the end of the programs for follow up questions and comments.  It’s a deal for students and visitors.  If you’re really lucky, there is occasional public viewing  at the nearby Observatory.

Menu at Izzy's Cakes and Bistro
Izzy’s Cakes and Bistro. Don’t be fooled by the name.  The fare here is not limited to their lovely cakes.  Just across the street from campus is this surprisingly diverse bakery that serves a nice assortment of soups, salads, and sandwiches in addition to their sweet offerings.  The daily soup specials are made with fresh herbs and cheese.

Panda Chinese Restaurant downtown.   Billed as “Fine Chinese Cuisine”, it is, at last, a Chinese restaurant without a buffet.  This means all dishes are freshly made and the choices almost limitless.  We shared several dishes including one of my favorites, Mu Shu Pork.  You can even have Tsing Tao beer with the your meal.

Northeast Texas Children's Museum
Northeast Texas Children’s Museum on campus.   It’s very unusual to have a children’s museum in such a small town.  Visiting children can push their own grocery cart, climb into a space ship, pull a bubble up around them, explore a tipi, or try their hand at hieroglyphics.  Area schools send buses of kids for special science or health programs.  The many activities fill the common area of a former dormitory that can hold and entertain a lot of children.

The Commerce Public Library downtown.  A stop at the local library gives you two for one - a fully stocked library amidst a 100 year old former post office.  There’s a large selection of historical archives downstairs.  It’s owned by the Commerce Friends of the Library rather than the City and serves several smaller communities.  Check out all of the architectural ornaments remaining from its post office days

KETR radio station on campus.  For a town of 9200 to have available a 100,000 watt radio station is unusual and impressive.  Owned by Texas A&M University, KETR started in 1975 and was greatly expanded in the 1980's.  Today, it hosts national programs such as “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition” but has wonderful evening music programs centered around Texas Music Artists, Latin Jazz, and Blue Grass.  It also features locals for political and cultural discussion.  Full Disclosure- it carries my radio show, Mary Clark, Traveler

Down the Road from Commerce on the way to Paris is small Cooper, Texas which drops a visitor into a turn of the century East Texas town.  Most people take the bypass around but there are some reasons to linger.

Soda Fountain at Miller's Pharmacy
Menu at Miller's Pharmacy

Miller’s Pharmacy  drug store downtown is known far and wide for having an old fashioned soda fountain.  This translates into “real” shakes and malts.  Mabel Wheat still greets you after 60 years in the same location.

Elias Richa, Owner of Little Chef
Little Chef Restaurant
A newcomer to the Cooper is the Little Chef Restaurant on West Dallas Street, a transplant from the Metroplex.  The owner, Elias Richa, got tired of the big city life and brought his restaurant to Cooper.  The menu is ambitious and offers a wonderful assortment of omelettes for the breakfast and brunch crowd as well as sandwiches and meals at lunch and dinner.

Cooper Automatic Gas
An old fashioned gas station experience is available at Cooper Automatic Gas and the Delta County Museum is just down Dallas street. On the square are many more restaurants than expected - Jalapeno’s Mexican Grill, the Pizza Factory and Burgers & Beans.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

From Serbia to Paris, Texas via a Concentration Camp

This is part of a series of occasional articles about individuals who have traveled to Lamar County to live.

Paul Bayer’s journey to Paris began as World War II wound down in Eastern Europe and with a  grandmother who saved his life more than once.  Paul was born on November 2, 1941 into an upper crust family who owned 100 acres of land in what was then St Georgen, Serbia.  Germans had settled in this area after the break- up of the  Ottoman Empire 200 years before.  With high producing farms, it was a tidy, industrious enclave of what would later become Yugoslavia.  When WWII started, Paul’s father was conscripted into the German army. But the family’s real travails began as the war ended and  Yugoslav guerillas arrived and began moving German speaking citizens around.

In 1945, Paul’s mother was sent to a work camp on the Romanian border.  She did not to see her parents or children for three years.  Their farm was given to a Slavik family.   Paul and his sisters were placed in a concentration camp of 28,000 where his maternal grandmother, Anna Nothof,  used her Red Cross training to treat the sick.   Thin soup and bread barely kept them alive.  Cow dung was searched for undigested corn kernels to clean, grind and eat.  Kept in the basement at night, the children’s shirts were inspected each morning for lice.  When Paul and his sister came down with diphtheria, his grandmother was able to obtain the toxin injection to save them.  Paul also survived typhus.  But in the first winter, his paternal grandmother died of starvation as did his great grandmother and one-third of the camp. 

When packages from relatives in America were cut off in 1947, Anna realized she and her husband would have to escape with their seven grandchildren in order to survive.  After bribing a sentry guard, they set out on September 12th at 2:00 AM  to walk to the Hungarian border, about 50 miles away.

The journey took two months and three days.  They were caught twice and returned to camps.   While on the run, Paul remembers sitting inside corn sheaves during the day and being admonished to be quiet while it was light.   His grandmother cut pieces of corn stalk for the kids to suck out moisture.  Like a mother bird, she would also chew hard food until it was soft and feed it to the children. 

They survived by the kindness of strangers as Anna knocked on doors at night and begged for food.  Finally, in Linz, Austria, they were reunited with Paul’s parents.  Because of malnutrition, Paul had no hair and his head was painted with iodine, causing the new hair to be red.  The family lived in a dance hall’s washroom for men before immigrating to Canada in 1950.  Paul was nine years old.

In Canada, the Bayer family first hired out to work on a tobacco farm but gradually accumulated a thousand acres and 10,000 hogs in Kitchener, Ontario, a town with a long German history.  Paul married Elizabeth Bayer and they had four children.  But the snow depressed him and the farming regulations were stifling. 

When a realtor named Kenn Justice came up north with stories of $1,000 an acre land in Texas,  Paul was interested as were thirteen other Canadians. They looked at Vinita, OK, Dalhart and Paris and he chose Lamar County.  In 1983,  the year the Bayer family moved to Paris, temperatures were below freezing for 13 straight days.  After years of Canadian winters, Paul wore short sleeves and was amused at our discomfort.  

Paul and his family prospered in Texas even if the promised two crops didn’t materialize.  He serves on the Farm Bureau board and has become accustomed to our more laid back approach.  “ What’s the advantage of being the richest man in the graveyard,” he quips.  

Paul Bayer’s story is unusual for our town.  He survived a concentration camp because of his grandmother’s resourcefulness and determination, journeyed across two continents and an ocean , and finally hung up his hat in Lamar County.   He can appreciate our quiet, peaceful life more than most and can help us all do the same. 

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