Yes, that’s East Texas, too

Lesser known spaces signal local histories and innovative businesses that just might surprise your eyes.

For those who call East Texas home, some themes recur. If there were an East Texas visual playlist, some images and spaces seem to be on repeat, as familiar to our landscape as pine trees and sandy soil. 

When it comes to food, we expect Tex-Mex and barbecue. 

Our farm animals along country roads are most likely cows and horses. 

You know you’re in East Texas when you see churches, pick-up trucks and cross-dotted cemeteries.

But look again. There’s more. 

Lesser-known communities in our region are thriving, some of which have been quietly contributing to the area for the better part of two centuries. Meanwhile, other residents are setting up shop with new, first-of-their-kind East Texas ventures. 

With their keen eyes and camera lenses, The Tyler Loop contributing photographers Jessica Payne and Chris French combed through East Texas towns, finding old and new spaces at home here — spaces that diverge from the expected.

Prepare to see East Texas anew, and prepare to be surprised.

St. John of Damascus Orthodox Church, Tyler

St. John of Damascus Church in Tyler’s design was modeled after an Orthodox Church in Romania. 📷 Chris French

Father David Bozeman is priest-in-charge at St. John of Damascus Orthodox Church. Around 125 congregants strong, only Tyler and Jacksonville are home to Orthodox churches in the East Texas area.

“We have people from Nacogdoches, Lufkin and Longview,” said Bozeman. He said most of the congregants are first-generation converts. “80-90% of our congregants are converts. They have primarily found the Orthodox Church through the internet,” said Bozeman.

Bozeman, who arrived in Tyler in November 2018, says he too is a convert to the Orthodox Church, having grown up in a Protestant Evangelical Christian tradition.

The second space (after the narthex) in St. John of Damascus is the nave, the central part of the church, where the church body gathers together. 📷 Chris French
“The third section is the altar, a space dedicated at the furthest east end of the building,” said Father David Bozeman. He said the altar table is the space in which the ritual is enacted. Similar to the holy of holies in the ancient Jewish temple, the area is separated by a curtain. 📷 Chris French

Bozeman said the St. John of Damascus building was completed around 2016. Its design was inspired by an Orthodox Church in Romania, the home country of its architect. In keeping with Orthodox Church architectural tradition, the building has elements of the Roman basilica style (a long hallway and raised dais)  and of ancient Jewish temples (three distinct sections).

In a departure from many Christian churches, there are no pews or chairs. “Our space retains the Jewish tradition of worship. You would never sit in the presence of the king,” said Bozeman.

A view of the dome from the interior of St. John of Damascus Orthodox Church in Tyler. 📷 Chris French

“We don’t do spires and steeples, the idea of God as exalted, high and far removed. In our tradition, we have domes. Inside, the roof line is all curves. The theological idea is that Christ came down, so the space participates in that reality,” said Bozeman.

Sunlight pours through St. John of Damascus Orthodox Church in Tyler, illuminating iconography upon which the viewer may reflect and pray. 📷 Chris French

Bozeman says the church is used singularly for worship, a deliberate choice to retain it as a sacred space. “The building is not multipurpose. We gather to experience something in a unique way — that’s the whole point of church,” he said.

East Texas Zoo and Gator Park in Grand Saline

Awakened after winter dormancy, alligators at East Texas Zoo and Gator park bask in the sun. 📷 Jessica Payne

In a detour that may have you believing you stumbled into Louisiana marshlands, East Texas Zoo and Gator Park keeps alligators and a variety of exotic animals. The zoo is home to alligators, monkeys, lemurs, exotic cats, snakes and lizards. 

Giant size alligators clamor for sunshine and companionship at East Texas Zoo and Gator Park. 📷 Jessica Payne
Reptilian scales rise above an algae-covered pond at East Texas Zoo and Gator Park in Grand Saline. 📷 Jessica Payne

Among visitor favorites are hatchling alligators, the 14-foot alligator Domino and feeding frenzies, which happen twice daily as temperatures climb beginning in May. The zoo’s webpage says its enclosures are designed for close views.  

Oakwood Cemetery’s Jewish section in Tyler

The gravestone of Isidor Liebreich is testament to Tyler’s long standing Jewish community. The Hebrew inscription reveals Isidor’s Hebrew name, Yitzchak Tzvi, and the date of his death by the Hebrew calendar, Shevat 5769. 📷 Jessica Payne, translation by Neal Katz

Over 160 years ago, a leader from Nacodoches’ burgeoning Jewish community, Adolphus Sterne, had nothing nice to say about his visit to Tyler. 

During his stay, he “ate the worst meal of his life” among Tyler’s 276 Jewish residents. Nonetheless, the Tyler’s Jewish community grew to 50 families by the 1880s. Their first order of business as an organized community? A chevra kadisha or burial society.

“Here is buried this woman, Bella Leiba Bloomberg,” reads a Hebrew gravestone at Oakwood Cemetery’s Jewish section. She died 13 Shevat 5686 or January 28, 1926. 📷 Jessica Payne, translation by Neal Katz

According to “Reflections on One Hundred Years of Temple Beth El” by Bridget C. Mann, “a three-fourths acre lot at Oakwood Cemetery was purchased from the city, and the first record is that of a Miss Rachel Wolinsky, age 19, buried there in 1884.”

Referencing texts from the books of Proverbs and Judges, a Hebrew gravestone from 1927 reads, “Here is buried a capable wife/a woman of valor, a crown for her husband, most blessed of women in tents, Mrs. Rachel Berman, may she rest in peace, died on the 13th of Cheshvan.” Like many Jewish gravestones, Berman’s includes the Hebrew phrase from the first book of Samuel, “May her soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life.” 📷 Jessica Payne, translation by Neal Katz

In this small, secluded plot of Oakwood Cemetery, evidence of Jewish life and burial practices remind residents of a long and rich history in East Texas.

Fairy Garden Trail in Palestine

Mary Raum, tourism marketing manager for the City of Palestine, said 50 fairy gardens were built this year, with over 200 participants contributing.
Palestine’s fairy garden trail was created to draw residents and visitors out of their cars and onto the bicycle and foot trails. 📷 Jessica Payne

Amid dogwoods and azaleas, there is another spring attraction coming to life in Palestine. Mary Raum, tourism marketing manager for the City of Palestine, said the fairy garden trail began in March of 2019 the same weekend as the Texas Dogwood Trails.

“One of the biggest opportunities we saw was the need to get people out of their cars and onto the trails. Two years prior, a group of local cycling enthusiasts and volunteers helped build paths and bridges throughout Davey Dogwood Park,” said Raum.

Nonetheless, many trails remained unused. Raum said a public event began in January 2019, displaying 15 plots for people to claim. “Within a few days, we added 15 more.  By opening day for the Texas Dogwood Trail Celebration, we had 37 new ‘neighbors’ in Davey Dogwood Park,” said Raum.

Raum said 50 fairy gardens were built this year, with over 200 participants contributing. This year’s fairy gardens are open through May 31st.  

International groceries in Tyler

An ad for mobile phone calls to Nigeria is an important feature at Zoe Afric Mart. For Tyler residents with family ties to West Africa, phone calls and texts maintain an essential connection. 📷 Chris French

In addition to dozens of chain grocery stores in Tyler, the city boasts several local markets specializing in international foods from Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, Southeast and Southern Asia, the Middle East and North, West and East Africa.

The food stores offer products and ingredients to Tyler residents with international ties or to lifelong Tylerites who wish to try new dishes.

Uda hwentia, also called selim, are the seeds of a shrubby tree sold in packets at Zoe Afric Mart in Tyler. In Ghana, hwentia is used in shito, a black, spicy pepper sauce. In Senegal, the grains are the main ingredient in café Touba
Ground egusi is sold in packets at Valon African and Caribbean Market in Tyler. A staple of West African cuisine, the protein-rich seeds of certain melons are dried, ground and added to sauces or consumed alone as a snack. 📷 Chris French

310 Bison Ranch, Jacksonville

Cow and calf bison graze at 310 Bison Ranch in Jacksonville. 📷 Jessica Payne

310 Bison Ranch’s Facebook and webpage says its owner and breeder, Steve Unger, has been raising bison for breeding in East Texas for about five years, fulfilling a longtime retirement dream.

Visitors feed eager buffalo at 310 Bison Ranch owned by Steve Unger. 📷 Jessica Payne

The ranch offers free tours to anyone interested in watching and feeding the bison. The tour, given by Unger, includes a brief lesson on bison species, information on his personal herd and the up-close opportunity to pet and feed the bison. 

In a scene that may have been commonplace to parts of East Texas centuries ago, 310 grazing buffalo cover the pastures of 310 Bison Ranch. 📷 Jessica Payne
Steve Unger (right), owner of 310 Bison Ranch in Jacksonville, chats with Rachel Gill of Houston while taking her on a tour of 310 Bison Ranch in April. Unger offers free tours, which include a brief lesson on the bison species, information on his personal herd and the up-close opportunity to pet and feed the bison. 📷 Jessica Payne

Oh My Goat! Yoga, Hwy. 19 between Athens and Palestine

In a yoga session like no other in East Texas, participants stretch in the company of tutu and unicorn-wearing goats at Oh My Goat! in between Palestine and Athens. 📷 Jessica Payne

“I was inspired when I heard of a cancer patient talk about the benefits of yoga and goats combined. We both thought, “Oh my goat!” and the rest is history,” said Cherry Russell, owner of East Texas’ only yoga with goats venue, which opened in the fall of 2018. 

Russell said she already had plans to build a barn and raise goats, so the goat and yoga idea felt like a natural transition. “I was very excited about the opportunity to help others,” she said.

Goats are the main event at Oh My Goat! Yoga. Owner Cherry Russell says the goats bring therapeutic benefits to participants. 📷 Jessica Payne

While the goat component of Oh My Goat! provides a novelty to traditional yoga, Russell said the goats also provide therapeutic benefits. “There are still great benefits through laughter, nature and stress relief, even with the silly parties.  We want to expand further into goat therapy with autism, mental health and trauma,” she said.

Goats are available as exercise or petting companions at Oh My Goat! in between Palestine and Athens. 📷 Jessica Payne

Russell details the benefits of pet therapy. “Cortisol is one of the hormones released. A university study found that petting an animal for just 15 minutes boosts the so-called ‘feel-good’ hormones serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin, and even lowers blood pressure by 10%,” she said.

Russell’s yoga venue hosts public and private parties and mobile events. “We are incorporating painting and crafts into our events so you can spend more time here,” she said. “Our goal is to make you smile. We focus on your time here to be a very positive experience.”

A participant at Oh My Goat stretches with a furry companion. Owner Cherry Russell says the goats are highly social and love weekend visitors. 📷 Jessica Payne

Of the goats’ agreeability to be the stars of the show, Russell said, “The goats absolutely love people.  They live for the parties every weekend and look forward to getting dressed up and mingling with the crowd.” Of the image of smelly, head-butting goats, Russell said, “It could not be further than the truth at our facility.  Goats are very intelligent, fairly easy to train and extremely social.”

East Texas Islamic Society mosque in Tyler

A drive on State Highway 64 in Tyler features the dome-and-crescent-moon-topped mosque of the East Texas Islamic Society, home to about 200 congregants.

Established in 1987, with its mosque built in 1991, East Texas Islamic Society bustles with activity on Fridays. “Fridays we have about 200 congregants,” said mosque congregant Anwar Khalifa. He said the families who practice their faith at the mosque have ties in countries including Pakistan, India, Palestine, Egypt, Gambia, Nigeria, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Malaysia and Indonesia. 

In a departure from church steeples dotting East Texas, the mosque of East Texas Islamic Society built in 1991 is topped by a dome and crescent moon. 📷 Jessica Payne

“They wanted a distinctive dome,” said Khalifa. “The dome was chosen because whoever made it locally, that was the dome template they had.”

The crescent moon over the dome is a familiar icon to Islam. “Muslims are on a lunar calendar. The new moon is what determines the beginning of every month,” said Khalifa.

A room for washing before prayers is an important room in East Texas Islamic Society’s mosque. Congregants with ties to south Asia, the Middle East and North and West Africa worship there. 📷 Jessica Payne

Khalifa said cleaning rituals are an important event before praying. “Muslims should be clean before they pray. Our prayers are ritualistic and so is our washing. We wash our hands, we gargle and wash our mouths. We use water to clean our noses, head, arms, back of the neck and feet. It is done individually before prayers,” he said.

In contrast to pews or chairs in Christian houses of worship, there is no furniture in the mosque. “We stand, kneel and prostrate in our prayers. You’ll see lines on the floor to keep straight lines,” said Khalifa. 

There is a pulpit elevated by three steps used by the iman. The imam is elevated to be seen and keeps him from taking up a row of space for worshippers in prayer. 

Kiepersol Vineyards in Tyler

In a postcard-perfect scene, Kiepersol Vineyards transport viewers to a landscape rivaling Italian, French and Napa grape fields. 📷 Jessica Payne

Kiepersol Vineyards began by the de Wet family of Tyler in 1998. Red and white wines are produced from 63 acres of East Texas land growing 16 grape varietals.

Wet with irrigation, grapes in Kiepersol’s Tyler fields harken to Old World vineyards. 📷 Jessica Payne

Kiepersol’s webpage boasts its auspicious geographical location atop the Bullard Salt Dome, “a geologic masterpiece from the Jurassic era.” The elevation of the salt dome softens the severity of storms, creating ideal grape growing conditions. 

Jessica Payne is an independent multimedia journalist with a focus on photography. Originally from Houston, she moved to East Texas in 2011. In 2016 after spending much of her career in an office setting, she left the 9-5 life to pursue her passion for sharing inspiring stories and capturing amazing moments with her camera. 

Chris French is an independent photographer based in Tyler, TX, who takes all of his photos through vintage film lenses. He is also a local musician and barista. Chris loves to share in the nostalgic feeling provided by photos and aims to bring that joy to others. To see more of Chris’ work, you can follow him at @mrcoffeeswag.

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Jane Neal is the executive director of The Tyler Loop and storytelling director of Out of the Loop: True Stories about Tyler and East Texas. In addition to the Loop, she works at the Literacy Council of Tyler and attends Sam Houston State University remotely, where she studies sociology. Jane is a certified interfaith spiritual guide. She is a member of Leadership Tyler Class 33 and a former teacher of French at Robert E. Lee High School, where she ran a storytelling program called Senior Stories. Jane and her husband Don have four children.