Locals give thanks for small-town living by the sea
Ask coastal Texans what they’re grateful for, and they’ll happily recite a very long list. Beaches, birds, stunning sunrises, sunsets and dolphin sightings are recurring themes. But also on many gratitude lists is the good fortune of living in small coastal communities where families still have roots and history and where people can make a living by the sea.
Here are just a few of the things for which coastal Texans give thanks:
The upper Texas coast offers many premier sites for migratory bird watching. And with brown pelicans and reddish egrets on display, both of which are unique to the area, bird watchers from League City to Galveston are in for a treat. Although the area doesn’t have the changing leaves of autumn, the beauty of the red-tailed hawk and birds of prey migrating south for winter more than make up for that.
“They bring a lot of joy and beauty to our lives watching them flying and coming to our feeders,” bird enthusiast Kristine Rivers said.
Galveston Island Nature Tourism Council’s signature project is the island’s annual birding and nature photography festival held during spring migration. Galveston is one of the top locations in the nation for birding because it hosts a wide variety of habitats in a small geographical area where some 300 species make their permanent or temporary home throughout the year, according to the council.
TEXAS CITY DIKE
The longest man-made fishing pier in the world, a prime spot for birding and the perfect place to launch a boat — all can be found at the 5-mile-long Texas City Dike. The beaches and picnic areas provide a great place to enjoy the views of a coastal city, from sunsets and sunrises to the beauty of a storm rolling in.
The Texas City Dike even serves a more practical purpose, protecting the city from encroaching waters during a storm.
LEAGUE CITY OAKS
Born from acorns harvested from oak trees in Calcasieu, Louisiana, the oak trees in League City are a testament to survival. Brought to the area in the 1850s by ranchers, many oak trees still line the streets of League City today. Some are even descendants of live trees shipped to the area by George Washington Butler and J.C. League.
The city is known for the beautiful trees, and residents and visitors alike enjoy their shade.
“Those are kind of the crown jewel of the city,” League City arborist Heather McKnight said.
CASTING A LINE
People travel from all around Texas to fish in Galveston.
For Austin Kimbrough, owner of the 61st Street Fishing Pier, the best thing about fishing is sharing it with other people.
“I would be most thankful that I get to see the direct impact of families and friends getting together and having a great time,” Kimbrough said. “I get to see the smiles on their faces.”
Fishing in the Gulf is different from fishing in a lake or river in another part of the state, he said.
“In the Gulf, you could just go on forever,” Kimbrough said. “There’s just a horizon of water and that’s all you can see for miles and miles. I just think the mystery of what’s out there to see and to fish for, it’s just a cool thing.”
Anglers can catch a wide variety of fish, while enjoying the experience of being out on the water, he said.
OUR FULL PLATES
Fresh fish, shrimp, crab and oysters are abundant in seafood markets and restaurants across the upper Texas coast — and for some lucky residents, in their own backyards. Locals and visitors can buy fresh seafood right off the boat in Galveston, Kemah, San Leon and elsewhere in the region to fry, grill or boil.
But the bounty of the sea also should be appreciated for the jobs and money it brings to coastal communities, and the way it provides food for the rest of the country, said Nello Cassarino, CEO of Galveston Shrimp Company. Galveston is ideal to launch boats out to fishing spots to the east, and to ship out of along major highways to the west, he said.
“A lot of people make a lot of money off seafood,” Cassarino said. “The product that comes out of Galveston can be in Oregon. It can be in New Jersey. We’re not a place that ships in seafood. We’re a place that ships out seafood. That’s a big deal.”
For a reminder of how close Galveston is to being on the edge of a wild frontier, consider the sea turtle.
Sea birds and dolphins might be daily sights around the island, but the sea turtle is something else altogether. Every year, a small number of turtles break from their lives in the Gulf of Mexico and return to local beaches to lay eggs. They often arrive at night and are spotted on the rarest occasions.
The elusive turtles are a source of fascination for islanders and visitors alike. In recent years, the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle has become an official state animal, thanks to the efforts of local elementary school students. Conservation group Turtle Island Restoration Network has turned turtles into a community art project, and Galveston’s Texas A&M University campus is building a new sea turtle hospital.
“We’re thankful for sea turtles, because they’ve been with us for millions of years,” said Christopher Marshall, a professor of marine biology and the executive director of the Gulf Center for Sea Turtle Research at Texas A&M University. “We’re really thankful to be able to witness such an old lineage still living in our area, and living out their primal instincts to come up on the beach, lay eggs and complete that life cycle. It’s just a miracle of life.”
THE SUNNY SIDE
Wake up early enough and you might catch a remarkable Gulf Coast sunrise.
The sunrises, with beautiful colors and clouds, are relaxing and beautiful, part-time Galveston resident Toby Dawson said.
“I’ve been to Hawaii,” Dawson said. “I’ve been to Alaska and the sunrises here rival them.”
Dawson photographs the sunrises, like so many others who enjoy them.
“You can take a hundred pictures of a Galveston sunrise and they’ll all be different,” Dawson said. “The colors will be different. The clouds will be different. To me, it keeps it interesting.”
PRESERVING PROUD PASTS
Old family names abound in cities along the upper Texas coast, as well old buildings and old traditions. Galveston is famous for its turn-of-the-century architecture and storied past. But other coastal communities also have intriguing histories, including League City, where the butler longhorn was bred, and Friendswood, founded by Quakers, just to name a few.
“It’s a positive thing to know where you came from, where your ancestors came from and what was important in their life,” said Richard Lewis, vice president of the board of directors of the League City Historical Society.
Some dedicated islanders and organizations, including the Galveston Historical Foundation, work hard to save buildings and historic sites for future generations. And few cities have such notable repositories of history as Galveston, home to Rosenberg Library — Texas’ oldest public library.
Locals and visitors also can explore our seafaring past and future.
“The Seaport Museum, the church that provided shelter from the storm, the seawall protector that began as a dream, the many markers of disaster and revival, even to the new residents who insist on an identifier — Islander By Choice — each represent things that make Galveston uniquely different,” Galveston native Ella Lewis said. “Driving over the causeway and seeing the postcard image of glimmering lights on shining water, that’s Galveston to me — home.”
Austin might be weird. But Galveston is a world unto itself, islander Raymond Lewis said.
Lewis grew up in the panhandle of Texas and eastern New Mexico, and considers living near the water a big plus, he said.
“Galveston attracts a lot of visitors, which makes for excellent ‘people-watching’ while having a cold one on The Strand,” Lewis said.
Being able to leave the first footprints on the beach during the offseason is a private little treat Lewis also enjoys, he said.
“Easy access to just about anything; easy to get involved in the community at whatever level one feels they can make the most difference,” Lewis said. “Easy access to city and community leaders. Easy access to a major metropolitan city and two international airports without having to deal with their traffic headaches every day.
“Austin may be weird, but Galveston is quirky and is always on the way to ‘getting better.’ It never gets old crossing the causeway after being away and seeing the water, no matter what color it may be. I wouldn’t live any place else.”
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
“Galveston Island is in my blood and has my heart forever,” said Allison Little-Schoenvogel, whose family moved to Galveston in 1845 from Württemberg, Germany, and settled on the West End of the island.
Little-Schoenvogel’s three sons are seventh-generation islanders. And when people ask her what she loves most about Galveston, it’s hard to narrow it down to a few things, she said.
“I love the island’s history; the beautiful, historic homes that have weathered many storms; The Grand 1894 Opera House; old oak trees in Kempner Park; the food; festivals galore; and most of all — its people.
“Galvestonians have big hearts and we always step up to help when needed. I’m so proud of our island and am thankful every day I get to call Galveston home.”
Colorful murals and pieces of public art around Galveston Island are one of the many appeals the island has for resident Alee Groce.
Public art is one of the reasons Groce fell in love with the city, she said.
“As an artist myself, I like nothing more than to see my city beautified by art that is accessible to the people who live here, as well as those who visit,” Groce said.
She especially took comfort in the art during the pandemic. When things were difficult, she appreciated the bright murals.
“I believe art is for everybody, and I really enjoy seeing people taking selfies with a lot of the murals around the city,” Groce said. “It exposes all kinds of people to art, and in turn inspires them. It makes the world a more lovely place, if nothing else.”
SHARING THE BOUNTY
Job and housing insecurity wrought by the pandemic has increased demand on local food banks and similar organizations.
But coastal communities here always answer the call for help. The Galveston County Food Bank, St. Vincent’s House, M.I. Lewis Social Services in Dickinson and The Salvation Army, among others, have regular food distribution events and operate food pantries to get food to people who need it.
The demand is great, said Paula Tobon-Stevens, the executive director of St. Vincent’s House in Galveston. More than 10,000 unique people have gone through the organization’s door this year seeking some form of aid. It’s a sometimes daunting task, but one the organization embraces, she said.
“We love to be able to share some goodness in this community,” she said.