Saturday, June 21, 2014

Edom and Ben Wheeler - Tiny Towns That Use The Arts to Survive

Potters Brown, Edom, Texas















Ken Carpenter Jewelry, Edom, Texas
Selections at Potters Brown


















I love small towns that use the arts to survive and Edom and Ben Wheeler are two such communities, closely connected and near Athens and Tyler.  Edom owes its survival to Doug Brown, owner of Potters Brown.   Potters Brown Freshly trained as a potter, Doug arrived in Edom in 1971, looking for a quiet place to live and work.   His uniquely painted and glazed pieces  attracted shoppers from the DFW Metroplex which brought in more artisans which attracted more shoppers.  Forty three years later, his store still anchors the “arts district” of Edom, population 375. 



Doug Brown of Potters Brown
Doug was hard to miss in his pink overalls,  t-shirt and  headband as he offered to show off his kiln in back where he was firing that day.  In what was once a feed store, the works of Doug and his wife, Beth, support reds and purples, colors that are hard to achieve in the glazing world, as well as more traditional browns and blues.  Doug was proud that Edom had managed to promote the arts without changing the character of the small town.  “Not much” was his reply to the question of what had changed since he established residency there, failing to note the one-third increase in population since 2000.  

Next door is Ken Carpenter’s Jewelry, which recently celebrated 25 years in “downtown” Edom.  Originally in the restaurant construction business, Ken opened his store in 1990.  Lapis, green turquoise, and larimar are just some of the stones used in his strong pieces.  Like other artists of Edom, Ken supplements his income with appearances at art fairs around the state.  Ken Carpenter Jewelry

Edom supports six other stores and studios. Easily 10% of the population is involved in the arts.  If Paris had the same ratio, we would have 2500 artists.  Imagine what an art center we would be.  

The most prominent building in town is The Shed Café, proudly displaying a banner noting its being designated Best Café in East Texas by Texas Monthly.  It was still full as we entered at 2 o’clock with many locals and visitors enjoying  basic Texas fare such as  chicken fried steak, meatloaf, steak, hamburgers. 


We happened to hit the Second Saturday Art Jam event along the 279 Artisans Trail - named for the highway connecting Ben Wheeler and Edom.  This includes 11 artist shops, several restaurants, produce stands, garden centers and music venues.  After a short, pleasant drive, we arrived in the revived town of Ben Wheeler, the  result of an experiment by two  residents with a vision.  Here’s the description of the foundation contained in the Ben Wheeler website - “Ben Wheeler Arts & Historic District Foundation, a non-profit 501 (c) (3) corporation, was created by Brooks and Rese Gremmels to serve as the vehicle for reconstructing, not only the physical aspects of Ben Wheeler, Texas but perhaps, more importantly, returning a sense of community to the town by providing it with various outlets through music, art, history, education, entrepreneurship, basic civil service and philanthropy.” 

The Foundation has been a kind of privately funded Main Street project with old buildings being renovated and filled with galleries and restaurants.  One dollar rent was offered to entice new shopkeepers.   The Harrison Knife Making school brings in students from around the country while Blue Moose Decoys can be purchased next door and hats across the street.   An old schoolhouse was moved in to house the local children’s library along with a wedding chapel.  Two music venues advertised live concerts the night of our visit.  


And there’s much promotion of its self-designated “Wild Hog Capital of Texas”.  As one resident said, “someone’s got to take ownership.”    At the festival in the fall, you can join a cook-off or compete to be crowned Hog Queen.  The Foundation has literally changed everything for this town of 400.  Sadly, Brooks Gremmels died this year from pancreatic cancer but the foundation and town remain committed to this project.


Serene setting at Oak Creek Bed and Breakfast
Edom and Ben Wheeler can be visited in a day from Paris but a nice outing is to spend the night at  Oak Creek Bed and Breakfast just outside of Athens. Oak Creek Bed and Breakfast  Randell and Marilyn Tarin are the Innkeepers and faces of a new kind of B&B.  No longer are B&Bs just historical Victorian homes with flowered chintz coverings.  Randell and Marilyn retired from the Metroplex and built their dream home in the East Texas woods along with two tastefully decorated cabins. 


One of Two cabins at Oak Creek Bed and Breakfast
Aside from providing our hearty breakfasts, the Tarins were knowledgeable local guides, steering us towards and away from certain restaurants and wineries.  They check it all out before making recommendations to their guests.  Even though we didn’t need their Elopement-Honeymoon Package, for which Randell is licensed to perform, the quiet, private setting was enough.  Remember this place when you just need to get away for a night.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Magellanic Penguins - Struggling to Adapt



A couple of adult Magellanic Penguins
An entire island of penguins?  How could that not be cool?  Children and adults alike are pulled toward these little guys - strutting their stuff on land, sleek swimmers in the water.   On Magellan Island, on the Magellan Straits of South America, thousands of Magellanic penguins make their summer homes burrowed into the ground.  We got to walk among them on a morning excursion from Punta Arenas, Chile.

Melinka Ferry to Magellan Island
 There are two ways to travel to Magellan Island, assuming the trip is not cancelled due to high winds.  Pay lots more and arrive on a zodiac boat before the crowds or take the slow Melinka ferry, landing on the island two hours later.  We were in no hurry and enjoyed being on the Straits.  Many young adults in the international crowd chose to catch up on their sleep but we  were happy to listen to the lecture given in Spanish and English by a young woman who seemed to be in charge of us.  


Magellanic penguins can live up to 25 years with as many as 300,000 penguins roosting on this small island.  Male and female look exactly alike, weigh about 11 pounds and mate for life.  Couples are only together six months of the year, parting after babies are born, trained to hunt for food, and sent on their way.  Males and females will go separate directions for the winter, hooking back up the next year - same place, same time- with only the female’s ability to identify her mate’s call bringing them back together.

Upon arrival on the island, we had been strictly instructed NOT to stray from the marked path that led from the dock to an old lighthouse.  Looking at the island from the boat, I thought I was gazing at Prairie Dog Town in Lubbock, Texas.  With no vegetation for shade, thousand of penguins stood guard outside the hole that was their home.  They return to the exact same burrow each year where two eggs are produced by the female and hatched by both parents. 

By our visit in March, the babies had already been pushed out to sea to find their way up the east coast of Argentina, led by an adolescent.  All adolescents had also been sent packing.  No coddling or overprotective parents here.  Remaining were  adults, easy to identify by the broad black stripes on their chests.  The wider the strip, the older the penguin.  They had to bulk up - gain back weight lost in feeding babies all summer.  No fishing boats were allowed near the island,  but adults still would be out for 2 or 3 days to find food, swimming as far as the Atlantic and Pacific.  
Tourists on path through the Magellanic Penguins on Magellan Island


Molting Magellanic Penguin
We only had an hour on the island and cameras were whirring.  Photographers squatted, lay on the ground, leaned over the ropes marking the paths.  Telephoto lens competed with point and shoot cameras.  The penguins seemed oblivious of us all - similar to a Galapagos Island experience 40 years ago.  Occasionally, a penguin would cross the path on its way to the water, doing that funny waddle until diving in and smoothly swimming away.  It was surprisingly noisy with sea gulls complaining as they were attached by skuas -  large brown birds that like sea gull eggs.  Penguins chimed in with their donkey brays.  And feathers were everywhere as all penguins molt each year.


Skuas, Sea Gulls and Magellanic Penguins on Magellan Island
What our lecture on penguins failed to tell us is the real risk to the colonies because of global warming.  In February of this year, the New York Times ran an article by Harry Fountain detailing the increased heat and rain where penguins mate.  Baby penguins feathers are not waterproof for six weeks and many will die from hypothermia if soaked by rain.  I was shocked at the statistic that 2/3 of the hatchlings don’t survive to leave the nest.  Add this to oil spills, depleted fish supplies from commercial fishing, and unregulated tourism, and our little friends are struggling to adapt fast enough. Fortunately, organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society are working to create protected areas with commercial fishing banned.  


Magellanic Penguins close to the water
After an hour, our leader shooed us back down the path to the boat.  It appeared our group had been respectful of the rules regarding the path and didn’t try to get closer than allowed.  But I’m sure the penguins were happy to see us go.  One probably gave the “all clear” sign as the boat pulled out.   Today, that island would be empty as all have moved north for the winter.  We can only hope they’ll be back -  same place, same time next year.

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