Don't Overlook This Magical Trio of Tiny Towns in Northeast Texas (2024)

With its rusted metal roof and mismatched wood exterior, the cabin that houses the Blade Bar, a knife shop in Ben Wheeler, in northeast Texas’s Van Zandt County, looks like an exhibit you might encounter at a living history museum. It once belonged to the late Dan Harrison, an internationally renowned knife-maker who created custom knives for Lyndon B. Johnson and Queen Elizabeth II. On the February day I visited, two children, who turned out to belong to owners Johnathan and Rhiannon Sibley, ran around the front-porch swing, sucking on rock candy lollipops. Across the street, diners were enjoying burgers and beers at the Forge Bar and Grill, a restaurant in an old blacksmith shop that now hosts live music in its sprawling outdoor area.

My family’s roots run deep in East Texas, where the post oaks, hickories, and pines that define the region act as something of a protective barrier for charming towns. My paternal grandfather was born in Texarkana, and my maternal grandmother hails from the hamlet of Minden, 46 miles southeast of Tyler. But I had never been to Van Zandt County, home to Ben Wheeler (named after a Kentuckian who settled the area in the 1840s) and two nearby municipalities also worth visiting: Edom, a community of potters and other artisans, and Canton, the county seat, whose population explodes from fewer than 5,000 to about 100,000 during First Monday Trade Days, billed as the world’s largest outdoor flea market.

When I pulled into Ben Wheeler, I felt like I’d stumbled upon a secret haven in an area best known for the Morton Salt mine, in Grand Saline. The scene seemed both historical and alive.

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The Blade Bar and the Forge are just two of the buildings Brooks and Rese Gremmels saved more than twenty years ago. Brooks, a Dallas-based businessman, used his oil-and-gas fortune to form a development company and a foundation to buy up and renovate a large portion of this tiny, all-but-abandoned unincorporated town, about 25 miles west of Tyler. He initially charged commercial tenants one dollar a month for rent so that he could attract artisans, chefs, and retailers. Gremmels died in 2014, but his wife still lives in the county and is now married to jewelry maker Zeke Zewick, the owner of Zeke & Marty Studio, in Edom. “My sweet late husband really needed a place to go have a beer and listen to music,” Rese told me. Thanks to Brooks, a vacant mercantile shop from the thirties is now home to Moore’s Store, a restaurant and live music venue. You can pop into BE’s Records for vintage albums or check out art at Tin Box Studio. The town, the self-proclaimed wild hog capital of Texas, stays pretty tame during the week, but on weekends and during festivals, it balloons with visitors. When I asked a local about outdoor activities, she mentioned “day drinking outside.” In other words, that Gremmels guy was a man with a vision.

“He created his own little playground,” said Johnathan Sibley of the patron saint of Ben Wheeler. Back inside his shop I watched as Sibley helped Tyler Brown, a chef from nearby Mineola, with some knives he’d brought in for sharpening. The glass shelves contained antler handles and blades of all shapes and sizes. Sibley told me he grew up “a feral East Texas kid” who fell in love with bladesmithing—the art of forging blades from raw materials—early on. He later moved to Dallas, competed on the History Channel show Forged in Fire, and, in 2019, set up shop in Ben Wheeler. You can take bladesmithing and knife-making classes, as well as a class in which you forge a railroad spike into a tomahawk.

Several residents told me I shouldn’t miss Terra Sana Farm + Kitchen/Vintage Cork, an Italian restaurant and wine bar serving only Texas wines. Seated at the bar, I met owner KaLynn Johnson, who studied viticulture at Texas Tech University before she took over the existing wine bar, in 2022. She teamed up with chef Joe D’Alessandro, who wanted to start an Italian farm-to-table restaurant. D’Alessandro incorporates family recipes from the Puglia region of Italy and serves a Thursdays-only lasagna special that lures people from across the county. Johnson poured me a 2018 cabernet from Kiepersol, in Tyler, as well as a cabernet franc from a winery in neighboring Henderson County called 3 P’s in a Vine that could stand up to one from any fancy French vineyard.

When I dug into my lasagna, with house-made ricotta and a Bolognese sauce using beef from the nearby Happy Cattle Company, I understood why the restaurant was packed.

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The Azalea House Bed and Breakfast, in Canton, about eleven miles northwest of Ben Wheeler, can serve as your home base for a visit to Van Zandt County. Each room in the main house is decorated in a different theme (Roman Spa, Country French, Cape Cod). There’s also a glamping option and three tiny homes. I chose one of the latter. I’m a sucker for a fluffy hotel robe, and my cottage had four. For breakfast, co-owner Cathy Williams served bacon, eggs, and a yogurt parfait.

After my morning meal, I drove five minutes to the historic downtown, which was established in 1850. I wandered past a yoga studio, restaurants, and a boutique called the Rancher’s Wife, which sells clothing as well as gifts including sugar cookie–scented candles and key chains declaring that “Hot Girls Hit Curbs.”

The decor of A Wicked Read bookstore is a bibliophile’s dream, with crystal chandeliers, shelves that reach the ceiling, and a wooden ladder on wheels to access altitudinous treasures. I bought a vintage coffee-table book called Louis Agassiz Fuertes & the Singular Beauty of Birds. I enjoyed an early dinner of fajitas at the family-owned Ochoa’s Cafe, right off the town square. The four glorious bathrobes were waiting at Azalea House, so I headed back to my cabin.

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The next morning I drove about twelve miles southeast of Canton, past Ben Wheeler, until I hit Edom, which has been an East Texas sanctuary for potters, painters, glassblowers, musicians, and jewelry makers since a man named Doug Brown opened his pottery studio there in 1971. Potters Brown received a state historical marker a few days before my visit. I stopped first for a burger at Edom Log Cabin and then a latte a few doors down at Sips & Bites, a cafe located inside an art gallery called 03 Collective. While I waited for my drink, I asked a nearby table of women what I should see in town.

“Have you met Joe?” asked Sharon Walker, an Edom-based musician. When I told her no, she bid her buddies farewell and led me across the street to Arbor Castle Birdhouses. We were greeted by Joe Hopps and his shaggy white hair and camel-colored floppy hat. He turns tree trunks into fanciful birdhouses reminiscent of ornate European castles. These days he’s more into painting than birdhouses, and he described his style as “abstract expressionism that’s very gestural and layered.”

Hopps suggested I visit the nearby antiques shop called Fancy Cats Vintage Vibes. Inside, I met owner Karen Wilgus, who said she appreciates the “eclectic feel” of Edom. She sells everything from a 1950s laundry cart to a 1974 telephone. “I just love anything from the sixties and seventies,” she told me. “My colors are avocado green and harvest gold.”

Later that afternoon, as I drove out of Van Zandt County, home to these towns brimming with art, culture, and a lasagna so good I’d drive across Texas to eat it again, I thought of something Walker told me. “It has small-town character with an artist’s flair,” she said. “It doesn’t take much to fall in love with it.” After just a few days there, I knew what she meant.

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The Best Fests

Four more reasons to visit Van Zandt County.

The Barstool Races, Ben Wheeler

Because the town is unincorporated, it can host this spectacle every March without getting into trouble with the law. The races, in which competitors ride souped-up, motorized barstools, started in Dallas around 1978. It disappeared for a while before resurfacing, in 2012, in Ben Wheeler, thanks to local daredevil Bill Jenkins, who died in 2022.

Arts Festival, Edom

This fall (October 12–13) marks the fifty-second annual iteration of the event that was started by potter Doug Brown in 1972. The town of about 340 swells to more than 1,000 during the festival, which includes music, food, and a juried art show, with pottery, paintings, and more for sale.

Feral Hog Festival, Ben Wheeler

The Forge holds this annual extravaganza every October, complete with a Hog Queen Pageant, a cheeky nod to nearby Tyler’s more refined Texas Rose Festival, which crowns a Rose Queen. Hog-calling and cooking contests, live music, and a parade are part of the fun too.

First Monday Trade Days, Canton

Dubbed the world’s largest outdoor flea market and more than a century old, it transforms the slow-paced town into a frenzied shopping destination, with more than five thousand vendors selling everything from furniture and vases to any exotic animal that’s legal to own in Texas. It runs Thursday through Sunday before the first Monday of each month.

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue ofTexas Monthlywith the headline “A Trio in the Trees.”Subscribe today.

Don't Overlook This Magical Trio of Tiny Towns in Northeast Texas (2024)
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