In March 2019, my wife, daughters, and I set out from Wisconsin to visit Texas for one week. It was a memorable trip that I am grateful for. Since first watching The Tree of Life, visiting Texas to experience where the film took place became a goal.
Among the highlights for me was visiting many of the filming locations of The Tree of Life. While much of the filming took place in Smithville, TX, scenes were also shot in Houston, La Grange, and Austin in addition to several out of state and international shots.
We spent time in Houston visiting my wife’s cousin on Saturday evening, Sunday, and Monday morning. We checked out the Space Center Houston, toured downtown Galveston, and the Houston Zoo.
Although I knew the scenes with Sean Penn included the Houston cityscape, I did not visit the exact locations. On the way out of Houston, my daughter took this photo of the Houston skyline.
We drove west for 90 minutes before arriving in La Grange, Texas on Monday afternoon. We visited the Fayette County Courthouse, easily identifiable with its stone architecture. Link to the 1891 courthouse: http://www.co.fayette.tx.us/page/fayette.Courthouse
The local square is where the O’Brien boys witness an arrest and also walk with their mother in the film. I included a few screenshots below. It was a unique stop. The interior included a center fountain and I can only imagine how many thousands of people walked through that front door, evidenced by the sunken concrete step in the final photo.
We continued west for 20 minutes until we arrived in Smithville where we would stay for two nights until Wednesday. It was, admittedly, a surreal experience to finally be in Smithville, a movie-town that was more known for Hope Floats than The Tree of Life. We arrived at our AirBnB and could not have been happier with our host and location, which was located within the filming neighborhood and only one block from The Tree of Life house. In fact, our AirBnB was on the same street as the Hope Floats house and the large oak in the yard of our place was said to be used in one of the filming shots as seen below. The weather was fantastic (75-80 degrees) during our stay.
We spent the first evening in Smithville getting a feel for the town. It was exactly as I had hoped – small, close-knit, and old-fashioned. It did not take long to know exactly how to get around the town of 3,800.
We took several walks during our three-day, two-night stay in Smithville. We first walked down by the beautiful ‘Hope Floats’ house and then made our way to 709 Burleson St. As we approached the Tree of Life house, I kept thinking “I am finally here…we made it.” I credit my wife for being so supportive during this venture. She definitely shared in my enthusiasm during the experience.
The house itself looked much like it was left in the film, despite a little weathered since it had been over 10 years from the filming dates in 2008. We took several pictures of the street and exterior while continuing on to see other locations.
We visited the old Smithville School that served as the school that Jack went to in the film. It’s currently vacant, but there was some cleaning work being done at the time we visited. Concrete sidewalks were recently put down around the property, so I was not sure of what is to come.
We went downtown and then to Pockets Grille, a nice restaurant that featured movie memorabilia from several of the films shot in Smithville, including Hope Floats, Bernie, Beneath the Darkness, Doonby, and dozens more smaller films. Of course, I made it a point to get a photo of the DDT Sign that was used in the film on the truck spraying for mosquito control as the young boys ran through it.
On Tuesday morning, we went for breakfast downtown at Old World Bakery and Cafe. What a great place it was. Their breakfast wraps were incredibly affordable and delicious. We visited the downtown sidewalk where Mrs. O’Brien walks with her boys nearer to the end of the film as Mr. O’Brien’s voiceover explains his regrets and how he ‘didn’t notice the glory’. This is also where the iconic “Star Biscuit” painted wall is located which can be easily overlooked in the film.
Throughout our time in Smithville, we relaxed and allowed our girls time to play at the playgrounds, tour the shops, go to storytime at the Smithville Library, and enjoyed living slowly. During our many neighborhood walks, I captured photos of many of the scenes in the film.
We did stop in at the “Back Door Cafe”, however, they were out of food and were nearing closing around 2 pm. I still had the opportunity to get a few photos of the interior and exterior of the restaurant where Mr. O’Brien eats with his sons.
Just before leaving Wednesday around midday, we were fortunate enough to run into one of the neighbors of The Tree of Life house. She was good friends with the owner (who was out of town at the time for work) and we talked about the film. She seemed genuinely excited to meet someone so interested in the film and she gave her blessings to check out the yard as she said the owner would not mind since we had talked. This was the highlight of the Smithville visit.
We left Smithville mid-day on Wednesday and headed northwest to Austin for the afternoon. We went to the Thinkery and the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library before heading out. On the way to San Antonio, we stopped at the Texas State Capitol Building and then to Barton Spring Pool. We ran out of time to visit the New Sweden Church in Manor, TX. Perhaps on our next visit.
We left Austin on Wednesday night and stayed in San Antonio until Friday morning. We stayed downtown, toured The Alamo, took a carriage ride, a River Walk boat tour, and visited shops. It was a perfect end to our Texas trip.