Friday, November 29, 2013

Van Alstyne

"Lone Star Historian 2" is a blog about the travels and activities of the State Historian of Texas during his second year. Bill O'Neal was appointed to a two-year term by Gov. Rick Perry on August 22, 2012, at an impressive ceremony in the State Capitol. Bill is headquartered at Panola College ( in Carthage, where he has taught since 1970. For more than 20 years Bill conducted the state's first Traveling Texas History class, a three-hour credit course which featured a 2,100-mile itinerary. In 2000 he was awarded a Piper Professorship, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West Historical Association. Bill has published over 40 books, almost half about Texas history subjects, and in 2007 he was named Best Living Non-Fiction Writer by True West Magazine. In 2013 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by his alma mater, Texas A&M University - Commerce.

On Saturday, November 23, the Friends of the Library in Van Alstyne hosted a program and signing event for my latest book, Van Alstyne. I discovered Van Alstyne in 1967, when I came to nearby Anna as a 25-year-old head football coach. I was also the high school principal, one-man English department, speech teacher, and athletic director. There were only 75 high school students, and Anna was a farm town with a population of just 600. Today Anna is booming with 8,000 citizens, but in 1967 most of the brick buildings in the little "downtown" section were vacant. 
Van Alstyne still boasts many fine Victorian structures.

Four miles to the north, however, stood Van Alstyne, with a population of 1,500, and a business district where I could get a haircut, sit down to a meal, visit a drug store, buy groceries, and fill up with gas. I was intrigued by the two-story brick Victorian commercial buildings that dominated the business district. There were three handsome brick churches built during the second decade of the 20th century, a classic period for church construction. And there were superb Victorian homes, from Gingerbread cottages to massive frame houses with soaring turrets. Historical architecture is our most tangible connection with the past, and Van Alstyne boasts an enviable collection of vintage buildings.
Tracy Luscombe welcomes the crowd.

Through the years, while traveling north, my wife Karon and I stopped in Van Alstyne to slide into a booth at a downtown drug store and eat grilled cheese sandwiches and delicious fountain malts. Our occasional visits became more frequent four years ago when our youngest daughter, Causby O'Neal Henderson, moved to Van Alstyne with her family, husband Dusty and their daughters Bailey and Kendall. Causby teaches kindergarten, Dusty is an insurance adjuster, and Bailey and Kendall go with their mother each day to Van Alstyne Elementary School.

During our visits with the Henderson family I was able to study Van Alstyne, and I became convinced that the town was an ideal subject for the Arcadia treatment. Arcadia Publishers, located in Charleston, South Carolina, specializes in books about communities - towns, military bases, universities, counties. Arcadia has published more than 8,000 titles, each with an identical formula. Every Arcadia book is 128 pages in length and is priced at $21.99. There are 200 or more photographs in each Arcadia book. Following a two-page introduction, the story must be told through 75-word captions and, of course, the accompanying photographs (in an Arcadia book, every photo truly needs to be worth a thousand words). Van Alstyne would be my fourth Arcadia title. I telephoned acquisitions editor Laura Bruns, who shared my enthusiasm about Van Alstyne.
Bill with local historian Julie Morris

With former mayor Benny Edwards
Librarian Tracy Luscombe guided me through the rich local archives of the Van Alstyne Public Library. Former mayor Benny Edwards opened the Van Alstyne Historical Museum and the First Christian Church to me. During my research I was treated with great hospitality around town, and citizens shared information and insights with me. My daughter and son-in-law, Causby and Dusty, performed countless research chores for me. 
With Dusty and Causby Henderson

Van Alstyne was created as a railroad town in 1873. The town was surrounded by cotton farms, and by the 1880s the population reached 1,000. At the turn of the century the population doubled to 2,000. Columbia College was organized in 1890. Both Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft appeared in town. The Van Alstyne Grays, a crack semi-pro baseball team, sent players to the major leagues. Transportation was enhanced by an interurban line for 40 years. Van Alstyne was a vigorous community, thriving in an era when small towns formed the backbone of America.

With Vicki and Light Cummins
The book was released in October, and sales were brisk around town. Tracy Luscombe, who was a Hilton events coordinator before she became a librarian, arranged a book signing to be sponsored by the Friends of the Library. I donated five dollars from each purchase to the Friends. Although held on Saturday afternoon, there was an impressive turnout. Julie S. Morris, a superb local historian who produced fine articles and a book about Van Alstyne, was there. So was Rodney Williams, managing editor of the Van Alstyne Leader, and Rajonia Carnley, innovative and resourceful Texas history teacher at the local elementary school. Former mayor Benny Edwards attended, and so did others who helped me. Dr. Light Cummins, my predecessor as State Historian, and his charming wife Vicki were welcome attendees. 

Rodney Williams of the Van Alstyne Leader took this shot
of Karon and me at the book signing table.
Tracy Luscombe, who introduced me, had asked that I describe the office of State Historian as part of my program. Of course, I'm always delighted to spread news about the Texas State Historian, and Light Cummins later gave his approval of my description.  Following my remarks, the crowd enjoyed refreshments provided by the Friends of the Library. It was my pleasure to inscribe a great many books, because many people wanted multiple copies for Christmas gifts. After a busy signing, I taped an interview with a reporter from KTEN-TV in Sherman, and Karon photographed me with a number of attendees. It was a grand event, made even more pleasurable by the presence - and assistance throughout  a busy afternoon - by Causby, Dusty, Bailey and Kendall. They were our hosts for the weekend, and before leaving, Karon and I took them out for an early Thanksgiving meal at Romano's - in downtown Van Alstyne.
Taping a news piece for KTEN-TV

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