Hip to be (on the) Square: Downtown Rusk offers myriad attractions to residents, visitors

by Cristin Parker news@mediactr.com

Where can you go to for a unique shopping experience; a good lunch; legal, healthcare and other professional services; to get pumped or pampered; learn about local history; take in some live entertainment; fill up the gas tank; sit and enjoy nature; and get a hellava cappuccino? Downtown Rusk, of course.

The city blocks spreading out from the Cherokee County Courthouse in Rusk offer a wide range of businesses – some of which have been around for 60 years or more – and other service-oriented entities to both residents and visitors.

“Our downtown square is truly the heart of our city,” Rusk Chamber of Commerce Manager Tara Tatarski said. “From clothing and jewelry, flowers and gifts; from attorneys, accountants and web designers; to masseuses, doctors and pharmacists; the theater, the museum, even the Post Office – the areas located on and just off the square really have so much to offer our residents.”

One of the oldest businesses making its home on the downtown square is Knox Ray Men’s Wear.

“I remember coming into this store when I was growing up in the ‘60s,” shop owner Mike Crysup recalled. “It had a very distinct smell of new leather – not a bad smell at all. I had just been retired for a few months from the State Hospital, and I came in to get me a pair of overalls, and it still smelled the same as it did when I was a kid.

“At the time, I was looking for something to do, since I retired, and it kind of hit me nostalgically – it took me three months after that to decide I wanted to buy the store; it only took me 15 minutes to decide on a price with the former owner. Since then, I’ve read numerous books on how to operate a store like this one, and the reoccurring theme or advice in them was ’10 minutes or 10 miles’ – a small business should focus on customers that are within 10 miles or 10 minutes away. And I am very, very thankful to my customers who are 10 to 15 minutes or 10 or 20 miles away – they are what keeps me going.”

Knox Ray offers men’s work, dress and casual clothing and shoes, as well as outdoor gear and men’s accessories.

Chapman’s Pharmacy – featuring one of the newest downtown businesses, the Blue Cactus boutique – has been a mainstay of the south side of downtown Rusk for numerous years – providing pharmacy services and a unique shopping venue to residents.

At the opposite end of the south side from Chapman’s are the recently remodeled offices of ETECH Global Services, a telecommunication company which is a “leading provider of customer engagement solutions for many of the world’s most trusted brands,” according to the company’s website.

At the southeast corner of the Square, visitors can enjoy the Plyler Memorial Park, dedicated in March 2014 by Jeannie Plyler-Whitaker, in memory of her late husband, Dr. Charles Plyler.

Sandwiched in between the retail establishments on the south side of Rusk are Cherokee Title Company and offices for the Norman Law firm.

Just around the corner from the park, is Myra K’s Salon, the Y’s Owl gift boutique, Prosperity Bank and the Heritage Center of Cherokee County.

The Heritage Center is proud to share the rich history of Cherokee County, all the way through the 1960s and present date.

According to Curator Betty Marcontell, the museum’s exhibits – 13 in all – tell the history of Cherokee County with many one-of-a-kind artifacts, rare items, oral history with slide shows and documents and photos dating back to the late 1890s and features three hand-made dioramas that children and miniaturists especially seem to enjoy.

“The biggest diorama is a representation of Cherokee County buildings in the 1890s, with a train moving around the county display,” Marcontell said. “The kids really seem to enjoy that one. Next door to the museum building is the old Bonner Bank, the first bank building in Cherokee County, built in 1884 – a great place to take a picture here on the grounds of the museum or photo opportunities inside as part of an exhibit.”

The newest exhibit offered at the museum is a pictorial and written history of “Defending the Texas Coast during the Civil War,” that features several artifacts from that period.

Marcontell is also asking Rusk residents who grew up here in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, to help her continue capturing the area’s legacy and stories, as only those who lived them can tell.

“I’ve done some terrific interviews already, and these interviews are already available to listen to in the Commerce exhibit, which features the history of the Rusk square,” Marcontell said. “If you want to tell your personal stories about growing up and going to school here in Rusk during this time period, or if you have old photos of the square that the museum can have copies of or artifacts such as items from Moseley’s Drug Store or other businesses, please call me, 903-714-8685.”

On the east side

Another historic attraction, on the east side of the Square is the city’s Footbridge Park, which boasts what is believed to be the longest footbridge in the U.S.

“First built in 1861, the 546-foot long wooden bridge was rebuilt in 1889 by engineer T.H. Barnes, who had built New Birmingham,” the city of Rusk’s website states. “During the town’s early years, before streets connected a residential area with the downtown business district, the bridge served as a means to cross a small valley, when the creek flooded.”

The east leg of downtown Rusk also includes some of downtown’s newest businesses, including Bud’s Outdoor & Appliances, Cudd Fu’s Chinese kung fu kwoon and Rancho Viejo Mexican food restaurant, as well as the offices of CPA Anita Woodlee-Roach and staff.

“I love being on the square,” Cudd Fu owner Stephen Cudd said. “It’s fun – there’s so much to do on the Square, like the trick or treat on the square for Halloween, the Fair on the Square, the parades -- that’s what makes Rusk awesome.

Cudd Fu has been on the Square for nearly four years, and Cudd said he appreciates the convenience of having so many establishments within walking distance of one another.

“Everything’s just easy to get to,” he said. “You don’t have to drive all over – which is a definite plus considering parking downtown is limited.”

Cudd Fu offers classes in Chinese kung fu, including Praying Mantis style and Tai Chi and is planning to offer Wing Chun style in the future.

Just off the Square, from the northeastern corner of downtown, the Cherokee Federal Credit Union, as well as the county’s AgriLife Extension Agency’s offices and the Rusk Public Library are found, too.

The library, formerly the Singletary Memorial Library, expanded in 2014, adding 5,700 square feet to the existing library building, allowing the library to expand its services.

“The library dates back to 1902 when the ‘Bachelor Girls Library Club’ was founded,” states the city of Rusk’s website. “In 1966, the Library Study Club donated its books and furnishings to the city of Rusk and with the generous gift of property donated from the heirs of the late Mr. and Mrs. Ed Singletary. On March 3, 2015, the Rusk Public Library opened its doors after consolidating with Singletary Memorial Library.”

The library offers GED, computer and ESL classes; provides computers and free Wi-Fi to the public; meeting space for civic organizations; and of course, books.

“We’ve got a great home-away-from-home feel at the library,” Library Director Amy Rinehart said. “You can come in and enjoy a living room feeling, while searching the internet, perusing the newest reading materials, sip a cup of coffee or participate in one of our ongoing programs. Our library is truly one of the best features of our downtown area.”

On the north side

Swinging onto the north side of downtown, another of the newest businesses making the square its home is Ben Mims’ IT Solutions office, which is bringing Rusk into the 21st century by offering computer maintenance services, including virus cleaning, computer hardware sales and installation and phone service.

“I moved onto the square initially because of availability,” Mims said. “I was surprised. I honestly didn’t think I’d get so much (interest in his business) out of this location. My Google listing helped too, but just being here, on the square – I really was surprised.”

Nestled next to Mims’ building is the offices for the Tree of Promise, a nonprofit, faith-based community building organization, that offers programs including Jobs for Life; More than a Backpack; Community Powered Renewal and Eagles Serve; the annual Christmas Dream Tree; and Mega Games.

The Tree of Promise also partners with the Rusk school district for the Eagles Serve program, as part of its Community Powered Renewal (CPR) program -- a joint effort between the Tree of Promise, the city of Rusk, area churches and local businesses to help struggling residents make necessary repairs to their homes.

“These programs give our students an opportunity to volunteer to do community service in our area,” Tree of Promise Director Pat Hardy said. “Both help build good citizens and really build and strengthen our families and our community.

“And we’re pleased to report, with the help of our Rusk Eagles, we were able to paint three houses during this school year and at least four students received a letter jacket or a letter through the school for the number of hours they volunteered.”

The north leg of downtown also features an old-fashioned barbershop, established by James Carlile and now run by his son, Josh Carlile.

“I guess Dad’s been retired now about five years, so I’ve had it that long,” Josh Carlile said.

The barbershop upholds the tradition of male haircare service with cuts, shaves and especially the standard barbershop palaver.

“I like being on the square, it’s a real good location -- there’s always something going on, even where there’s not anything going on,” Josh joked.

The offices of Sinclair & King, the Cherokee County Appraisal District and the historic (but defunct) Thomas J. Rusk Hotel make up the rest of the north side of downtown Rusk.

Around, at and across the street from the northwestern corner of the Square, are the offices of the Cherokeean Herald newspaper – the oldest continually-printed weekly newspaper in Texas -- Citizen’s 1st Bank and J&P Kwik Stop gas station and convenience store.

On the west side

Rusk’s Main Street follows the west side of the Square, which offers numerous services to the community of Rusk -- including Joe Ed Anderson’s Realty, Grace Salon, Edwards Jones investments and Tosh Insurance – as well as retail shopping for any budget, through the Hip Shack consignment clothing store, J&J Jewelry and Flowers N Things flower shop.

“I bought the store about seven years ago from my daughter when I retired,” Hip Shack owner Kaye Keckeisen said. “And our downtown area is still very important – it’s where all the action is. My location is very helpful – I’m where everyone can see. I enjoy meeting the people who come in and I appreciate the great support this community has shown me.”

J&J Jewelry has been a landmark on the square in Rusk for 64 years this year and owner Joann Jackson attributes some of that longevity to being located on the square.

“That’s where everything was,” Jackson said. “And even now, being located between the two banks, around the corner from the Post Office, and across from the courthouse – it’s so convenient, we see a lot of foot traffic because of that.”

Jackson said she and her husband originally came to Rusk to work in another jewelry store before buying out a jewelry repair shop located on the north side of the square. J&J Jewelry moved into its current location in 1980.

“It’s a much bigger space, which allowed us to expand our services and include a bridal registry and more gift items,” Jackson said.

The jewelry store also offers battery replacement in watches, jewelry cleaning and repair and custom jewelry design.

Another longtime anchor to the west side of the Square is Flowers N Things, which has been called the ‘Neiman Marcus’ of Rusk because of the store’s annual Christmas and Easter window displays.

“We used to be on Highway 84, that’s where we started at,” Flowers N Things manager Jan Hardy said. “Then we moved to where the feedstore is now. After that we moved to the square in the old hotel, but we didn’t end up at this location (one the corner of Main and Fifth streets) until 1989.”

Hardy has managed the flower shop for 45 years. Nell McNatt currently owns the shop.

“I think (moving to the square) did help business,” Hardy said. “Especially when we moved into this location – lots more foot traffic. Once the hotel closed, there just weren’t that many people coming to that side of the square anymore.”

Just around the southwest corner of the Square, is the Daily Grind coffee shop and bakery, owned and operated by Rachel Loden for nearly 13 years.

“I liked the building,” Loden said of why she chose to locate her business downtown. “It had character, and it’s was cheap. And it’s a great location for foot traffic from the courthouse and from around the rest of the square.”

Other services found just off the downtown square from the corner of Fifth and Main streets include the Cherokee County Historical Commission office, law offices of Allen Ross, Prescription Pharmacy, the joined (but separate) offices of Dr. Kendra Verhelle and CPA Blaine Verhelle, the Cherokee Civic Theatre, the Rusk Post Office, law office of William Wilder and Sandi Black’s massage.

“Parking is the major difference between where we are now, and where we used to be on the square,” said Larry Mozingo, pharmacist and owner of Prescription Pharmacy. The former location of the pharmacy – where the building housing Tosh and Edwards Jones is now located -- burned down in 2000.

“We used to get parking complaints from customers every day, sometimes more than once a day, when we were on the square, but now we don’t hear them much at all.”

Despite that difficulty, though, Mozingo said it was the hominess of Rusk that inspired him to purchase the business.

“I had known the former owner for years and even managed the store for a couple years for him before I talked him into selling it for me,” Mozingo said. “I liked it so much – the people, our customers, everything. It’s where I wanted to be.”

Also, off the square from the southwestern corner along Main Street, are the Rusk Chamber of Commerce office, United Country Frazer Realty, Austin Bank, and Rusk’s City Hall, Fire Department and Police Department.

“Our downtown square is the heart of our city,” Rusk City Manager Jim Dunaway said. “Being the county seat, the downtown square offers the governmental services you’d expect, but we’ve also got a unique array of retail and specialty businesses, too. With the exception of a few vacant buildings, our Square is thriving.”