ATHENS – In the late 1800s, Henderson County had a two-cell jail that relied on heavy metal bars and a single wooden door to separate the incarcerated from the free world.

Its simplicity eventually became obsolete and in the 1930s, the old jail was uprooted and relocated to a remote parcel of land where it sat, unused and fading into a backdrop of high weeds and underbrush.

When it seemed a critical slice of history would be forever lost, an adventure-seeking pharmacist took note of its plight and intervened, believing the overgrown acreage could be a good place to set down roots and entertain friends.

Fast-forward two decades and owner Donnie Lewis' efforts at resurrecting his beloved McNair Farm seems to be in overdrive in a nontraditional, yet comfortable, earthy sort of way … as a wedding and event venue.

"It's just a simple place in the country, that's what I always tell people," said Lewis, 62, who is also a celebrated chef.  "I love entertaining. I want to get as many people out here as possible, I want this place to be seen and enjoyed."

‘OUT OF YOUR MIND'

There are actually several key attractions on the parcel, at 2001 Mill Run Road, that are steeped in local history – the jailhouse, a former smokehouse turned apothecary and a large dairy barn revamped for upscale entertaining.

An ancient looking oak planted in the center of the property features a heart shaped scar that seems well suited as a backdrop for bridal and wedding photos.

A depression-era rock wall surrounds the premises, apparently a throwback from a long-ago public works project.

"You couldn't see anything of this when I first came out here," said Lewis. "It was awful. The property had been vacant for a long time."

A vagrant was living in one structure and random rodents enjoyed run of the rest.

Lewis said his family had a single thought in mind when he first unveiled the mess and described dreams of an overhaul.

"They said, ‘You are out of your mind,'" he said. "Most said the same thing, ‘Doze it all down.'"

He dismissed the good-humored observations and well-meaning advice and got to work, peeling off layers of neglect to reveal a property with potential.

It was a slow process, but he never lost heart for the project.

"I was one of seven children," he said. "I was 13 or 14 when my mother died. We were encouraged to work and work hard… growing up, we just always had the can-do spirit."

MIXING OLD WITH NEW

A years-long overhaul of the 1950s era dairy barn created what is today a spacious, light-filled structure filled with rich natural cedar, leather, stone and metal, based on Lewis' vision for the property.

Inside, there is a modern commercial kitchen designed for in-house catering or visiting chefs, the latter of whom can bunk in adjoining sleeping quarters.

There's also a fully stocked craft room for flower arranging and special areas for housing nervous brides and grooms.

The "barn" also features a massive stone fireplace, cowhide rugs and plenty of comfy seating, interspersed with collectibles and fine art.

The mantle is black walnut, selected to honor Lewis' late father, Woodrow Lewis, an admirer of the species.

"I always wanted to be an architect," he said. "This gave me a place to try it."

Venue manager Emily McGraw, 30, oversees social media and bookings.

"He's a picker," she said. "Everything has a story. You're not going to find attention to detail like this anywhere. It's designed to be an experience."

Henderson County's old county jail is largely unchanged, but it's protected now with an overhang and a commitment to its preservation.

It's fast becoming a favorite place for bridal portraits and history buffs with an appreciation for antiquities.

"The oldest thing in this county is this jail and it's the centerpiece of the property," Lewis said. "It's a very important piece of local history."

The former smokehouse is outfitted in pharmaceutical collectables and an evolving line of personal care products, with some featuring honey harvested in part from Lewis' collection of hives and sold through a separate endeavor, SKEP Limited.

Conversation seating options include an outdoor fireplace and fire pit.

There's a five-bedroom inn in the works to provide on-site 20-person lodging for wedding parties and other special events.

Mrs. McGraw said social media is helping spread the word of McNair Farm's history and its future, with information also available by phone at 903-316-3276.

"Just last week, in two days, we had conversations with 12 brides," she said. "It's really exciting to be a part of something like this place."

There's talk of a May dedication to unveil what time was taking away, and entice people to glimpse symbols of a forgotten chapter in local history.

"Someone was having a party here the other day. I wasn't there, but I could hear all the laughter from outside," Lewis said. "That's exactly what this place is about … that's exactly what I wanted."

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Jacque Hilburn-Simmons is an award-winning journalist who has been writing professionally for 30 years. She's a former police reporter who also wrote a book about the KFC murder. She shares stories about East Texas through her Behind the Wheel column.