Few vines have more romantic connotations than the sweetly fragrant wisteria. Take for example Elizabeth Von Arnim’s novel Enchanted April. The novel begins with two Victorian English ladies who, unbeknownst to each other, read the same advertisement in the London Times: “To those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine. For rent: small medieval, Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean. Furnished for the month of April.” The novel spins on from there with a delicious and delightful narrative.
But what I have in mind is something closer to home- a true story that happened right here in Nacogdoches. The tale is a bit dark, but it turns out, nonetheless. And it sounds more like something from Charles Dickens.
Speaking of Charles, the account I’m going to relate was told to me by Charles Bright. The story is all about the Baxter Hotel and the Baxter sisters.
The Baxter Hotel was a fixture in Nacogdoches from the turn of the twentieth century onwards. Run by the Baxter family (as you would expect), the hotel was situated approximately where today’s police station is located downtown. The hotel rocked along successfully for years until its owners passed away, leaving it to be run by their daughters, the Baxter sisters, Mabel and Ethel.
They were beautiful girls, Mr. Bright says. They went to school with his mother who praised their grace and good looks. But as the sisters aged, the hotel fell on hard times, and a wisteria vine that grew out in the yard slowly climbed the multi-storied hotel and encompassed it. Folks stopped renting rooms, and the sisters were seen less and less in public. The wisteria continued to grow until the hotel was absolutely and irrevocably engulfed by Wisteria sinensis.
The sisters became recluses. Mabel, as she aged, never came out from the hotel, and Ethel scavenged garbage cans for food. Townsfolk tried in vain to give the sisters charity. They refused handouts in any form or fashion. Mr. Bright says, neighbors resorted to leaving food in trashcans, knowing Ethel would visit. He says that his father would often leave food in his trashcans at the back of his grocery store specifically for the Baxter sisters.
As time passed the sisters became increasingly penniless, until in the 1960’s the hotel was a ruin, engulfed in wisteria, the Baxter ‘girls’ cannibalizing the wood in the floors of the hotel to burn in their fireplace. Townsfolk grieved over the Baxter sisters and their plight but were helpless to do much because of their stubborn independence. Mr. Bright says that the famous Police Chief M.C. Roebuck would drive by every night and holler into the darkened hotel, “Mabel, Ethel, you alright in there?” They would reply, “Yes, Chief Roebuck.”
Finally, when the hotel was at the point of utter collapse, word got to Charles Bright that the sisters were ready to move. Ethel told Charles that the only thing holding up the ceiling was the “wares in their room,” and they would have to leave. It just so happened the city fathers and the Federal government had been eyeing the location of the hotel as the site for a new, city post office. They approached Mr. Bright, knowing the sisters loved and trusted him, and asked for him to arrange to have the sisters sell. Mr. Bright, looking out for the elderly Baxter girls, made sure they got their money’s worth for the property. He even made sure that the legal documents included mineral rights for the sisters (at their insistence) as well as any buried Spanish gold that might be found under the hotel.
The negotiations were carried on as the wisteria continued to grow. The day arrived for Mr. Bright to move the sisters to a nice, clean rent house on Swift Ave. The move was not easy. Chainsaws were needed by the men to cut their way into the Baxter hotel. Wisteria had a stranglehold on it. Mr. Bright says he remembers the sight like it was yesterday. Part of the vine, more than ten inches in width, had grown in through the window, snaking across the hotel lobby’s floor, and then out the back door. The vine seemed to not only be tearing the house apart bit-by-bit but, in an odd sort of way, to also be holding the hotel together.
Well, there is much more to this story. The Baxter girls got moved in to a clean, dry home on Swift Ave. That night, Mr. Bright says, he bought them a chicken dinner, knowing they had not a thing in the world to eat. The icebox at the hotel had been empty with nothing but a dried-up lemon, a few cabbage leaves and half a jar of mayonnaise. Things would change, and the Baxter Hotel would disappear. Once the ‘girls’ were gone, the hotel mysteriously burned to the ground, along with the wisteria that had strangled the life out of it.
Photo #1- The Baxter Hotel taken from the west looking east, note the Sam Hayter’s Dairy “Pure milk and Ice”.