Saturday, December 30, 2017

Tyler for History Buffs

Tyler is proud of its designation as the "Rose Capital of America." Two of the city's major attractions are the annual Texas Rose Festival and the 14-acre Municipal Rose Garden, home of 38,000 rose bushes of 500 varieties. Less well known is the array of historical attractions that represent the rich background of Tyler. Smith County was organized in 1846 by the Texas Legislature, which designated a county seat site near the center of the new county. The town was named for President John Tyler, and within just four years the population exceeded 4,000. During the Civil War the largest ordnance plant in Texas was established in Tyler, and so was a Confederate training camp.

Camp Ford was named after Col. John S. "Rip" Ford. The encampment was set up in a wooded area four miles northeast of Tyler. Established in 1862, Camp Ford was transformed into a prisoner of war camp in 1863, and by 1864 it was the largest POW camp west of the Mississippi. A total of 6,000 captured Union soldiers endured crowded conditions inside the Camp Ford stockade, and by late in the war the CSA found it difficult to feed or clothe POWs. There is a walking path through the site of Camp Ford, and there are excellent interpretive signs and illustrations.  

Replica POW shelters at Camp Ford

Entrance to Camp Ford's highly informative interpretive center

Camp Fannin Memorial
The Smith County Historical Museum is housed
in Tyler's 1904 Carnegie Library
The Civil War was the most costly war of the nineteenth century, but Tyler also played a significant role in the greatest war of the twentieth century. In 1942 Camp Fannin was established eight miles northeast of Tyler. The World War II training camp covered 15,000 acres, and there was space for an artillery range, a German POW compound, and a WAC installation. As many as 18,000 men at a time underwent training at Camp Fannin, and a total of 150,000 soldiers trained at the base. An impressive monument to Camp Fannin stands on the west side of Highway 271 about four miles past Camp Ford, and Camp Fannin artifacts are on display at the Smith County Museum in the 1904 Carnegie Library building in downtown Tyler. 
West of Tyler, Pounds Field was opened as the city's first airport in 1933. During World War II the military utilized Pounds Field as one of the 65 air bases in Texas. West Erwin Street leads to Pounds Field, and in a purposely nondescript building on the street, lenses for the top secret Norden bombsight were manufactured by workers who were sworn to secrecy. The outstanding displays at the Aviation Museum at Pounds Field include a Norden bombsight, as well as an excellent collection of military aircraft. I was conducted through the Aviation Museum by docent Jerry Murdoff and by Board Vice President Chip Williams, two highly knowledgeable combat flying veterans.

Display of vintage flight headgear at Aviation Museum
Docent Jerry Murdoff showing pre-aluminum plane fabric
and wooden propellers
Top-secret Norden bombsight of WWII
Chip Williams, Board Vice President of the Aviation Museum
and my guide to the historic aviation collection
A Russian Mig fighter jet from the Korean War
American fighter from the Korean War
After touring the Aviation Museum I headed toward downtown Tyler. Tyler was a growing city during the Victorian era, and a number of Victorian structures have survived as tangible reminders of that colorful period. The Marwin United Methodist Church, named after a Methodist bishop, dominates the corner of West Erwin and Bois D'Arc streets. Organized in 1846, the congregation is the oldest in Smith County. The first building was a log cabin on the square, while the magnificent Victorian sanctuary erected in 1890 is Tyler's oldest church building. Another Victorian building, Smith County's fourth jail, was built at 309 East Erwin in 1881 and expanded in 1894. The county jail was replaced by a new facility in 1916, but it stands today - without bars.

The magnificent Marwin United Methodist Church, erected in 1890, is the oldest church building in Tyler.
The church bell for years was loaned to the city as a fire bell.

The 1878 Whitaker-McClendon House is the center
of a living history museum
Whitaker-McClendon parlor
Hall stairway at the Whitaker-McClendon House
"Shotgun house" at the living history museum
The 1890 Smith-Butler Home
 Charming examples of Victorian residential architecture are scattered around the city. The Whitaker-McClendon Home was built in 1878 at 806 West Houston Street, and today it is the center of a living history museum. A few blocks to the east, at 419 West Houston, is the Smith-Butler Home, erected in 1890. Continuing eastward a few blocks is the Charnwood National Historic District, bounded by Houston and Charnwood streets and boasting a neighborhood of superb Victorian residences. A few blocks to the north, at 318 Fannin Street, is the 1873 Victorian home built by John B. and Kentura Douglas. Douglas was a Confederate veteran, a successful merchant, and a city official.  

One of the fine homes of the Charnwood National Historic District
Across the street is the crown jewel of the
Charnwood National Historic District
The 1873 Victorian home of John B. and Kentura Douglas
Smith County's 4th jail was built in 1881
The most popular home that is open to the public is from the antebellum period, the Goodman-Legrand House, erected in 1859 at 624 North Broadway. With a graceful staircase and filled with antiques, the Goodman-Legrand House is a favorite location for bridal portraits. The house is surrounded by Legrand Park. A few blocks to the southeast, at 210 East Oakwood, is the historic Cotton Belt Depot, which was built in 1905 and today houses a railroad museum.
The antebellum Goodman-LeGrand House was erected in 1859
The historic Cotton Belt Depot was built in 1905
The Cotton Belt Depot today houses a railroad museum
  As State Historian I've had the privilege of addressing the Smith County Historical Society and, on several occasions, Tyler's award-winning SCV chapter and the DRT chapter, as well as combined meetings of the SCV and DRT. There is a strong history contingent in Tyler, as well as a wonderful collection of museums and historical architecture. A history buff can well enjoy a day or two sampling the historical treasures of Tyler.    


Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A Corsicana Christmas

This is my sixth Christmas blog since becoming State Historian in August 2012, and it has been grand fun finding Texas places or events suitable for the Yuletide Season. As I drove back to Carthage from Colleyville following a wonderful Thanksgiving with my four daughters, seven grandchildren, and sons-in-law, my mind turned to where I should go, what I should do for a 2017 Christmas blog?

Entrance sign to downtown at South Beaton Street
As I drove through Corsicana, where I was born and raised, workers and volunteers were putting up a towering Christmas tree on Beaton Street, the primary downtown thoroughfare. The 1905 Navarro County Court House grounds always are decorated, and so is Community Park, and there are a few special neighborhoods. A Christmas Parade is held after Thanksgiving, as well as a lighting of the Beaton Street tree. I promptly decided to use my home town as a typical subject for my Christmas blog for 2017.
Towering tree in the middle of Beaton Street
Downtown park in a vintage commercial building
I did not have my camera with me, but the Christmas decorations were not yet in readiness. I phoned my daughter, Shellie O'Neal, who lives in Corsicana and heads the Drama Department at Navarro College. I told her about my Christmas blog plans, and enlisted her help as photographer. She was an eager recruit, and we discussed various photo possibilities. 
Numerous displays are all over the grounds of the 1905 courthouse
Shellie recently sent her photos to Dr. Berri O'Neal Gormley, another daughter who lives in Colleyville and who regularly handles the photo insertions after I send her my blog texts and images. On this occasion Berri e-mailed the images to me, I added some captions, and together the three of us put together a Christmas blog. So Santa Blog O'Neal is grateful to his two Blog Elves, Shellie and Berri, and we three wish you all a Merry Texas Christmas!


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Four Appearances in Four Days

On Monday through Thursday, November 6, 7, 8, 9, I had the pleasure of presenting four State Historian programs in four days at four different locations. It proved to be a delightful experience, filled with history-centered events and kindred spirits and old friends.

I was born and raised in Corsicana and I graduated from CHS and Navarro College. My paternal grandparents and great-grandparents were rural pioneers of Navarro County during the 1880s and my father was born and raised on a Navarro County cotton farm. So I grew up with Navarro County history and legends, and I am a longtime member of the Navarro County Historical Society. I have spoken at Society events through the years, but I was especially pleased when I was invited to address the Society's annual banquet. My sister and brother, Judy O'Neal Smith of Lampasas and Mike O'Neal of Carrollton, both decided to attend, because they too were born and raised in Corsicana and graduated from local schools. We arrived on Monday afternoon and spent three hours together, we were seated at the same table at the banquet, and each of us saw old friends and schoolmates.
Members of the Navarro County Historical Society

Introduction by Carolyn Taylor

Holding an antique CHS Tiger jersey, one that I wore 60 years ago
during the 1957 season.

My topic was how Corsicana and Navarro County have been deeply involved in the mainstream of Texas history. Navarro County was organized in 1846, the year that Texas became the 28th state. Cotton was king in Texas at that time, and Navarro County, situated in the rich Blackland Prairie of Texas, was an important part of the Lone Star State's cotton economy for more than a century. When the Frontier Battalion of Texas Rangers was organized in 1874, the commander was Major John B. Jones, a Confederate veteran - and a Navarro County horse rancher. In 1895 the first oil field and oil refinery west of the Mississippi River were developed in Corsicana. The Corsicana Oilers, 1904 champions of the Texas League, set records that still stand in professional baseball. The Corsicana High School, Jackson High for colored students, and Navarro College football teams won state and national championships, and longtime CHS coach Johnnie Pierce became the Father of the Texas High School Coaches Association, the best such organization in the nation. Governor Buford Jester was a native of Corsicana, and so was Country Music legend Lefty Frizzell. "Big Tex," an icon of the Texas State Fair, began as "Big Santa" in Kerens, east of Corsicana. There was much else, and it was fun for me to put together this program for the Navarro County Historical Society.
With my brother and sister, Mike O'Neal and Judy O'Neal Smith

I drove home late that night, because on Tuesday morning I was scheduled to deliver a presentation about Sam Houston on the Panola College campus. Bill Offer, a jovial and highly energetic history instructor, had asked me to visit his Tuesday-Thursday Texas history class, and to take the entire hour and fifteen minute period talking about "Old Sam Jacinto." The class was held in the room where I had taught for many years, and I had a terrific time interacting with the young men and women of his Texas history class.

Bill with Bill Offer, Panola College History Instructor


With the Panola College Texas History class

Demonstrating the San Jacinto Battle Flag

That afternoon I drove toward Austin, where I had been asked to speak at a gathering of Texas history teachers at the Bob Bullock Museum of Texas History. The two-day event was organized by the Texas State Historical Association as part of the "Experiencing Texas" Workshop Series, and 60 teachers attended.  Charles Nugent, TSHA Adult Program Organizer, lined up programs and speakers for two days on the time period 1836-1900.  He asked me to speak after lunch on Wednesday on "The Regulator-Moderator War of Old East Texas."
The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum

Four key TSHA officials: Esther Rivera, MK Marshall, Charles Nugent, 
Steve Cure

The Regulator-Moderator War was the first blood feud of Texas, where more blood feuds were fought than in any other state or territory. The Regulator-Moderator War was part of a tradition of Regulators vs. Moderators that dated back to the troubled period before the American Revolution, and the four-year backwoods clash in the Republic of Texas resulted in the death of 31 participants.

I drove home from Austin after the meeting, because the next morning at 8:30 I was scheduled to speak in Center at a day-long Conference of the Shelby County Junior Chamber of Commerce. The JCC is comprised of students from every secondary school in Shelby County, and almost 200 young ladies and gentlemen crowded into the Civic Center in Center. I was invited to deliver the opening address by Deborah Chadwick, Interim Director of the Shelby County Chamber of Commerce.  My topic was the same as the day before, "The Regulator War of Old East Texas." Of course, the subject was especially pertinent because so much of the conflict was fought in Shelby County that it was often called "The Shelby War." I tried to emphasize to the young students that their home area was the site of one of the most important events in the history of early Texas. The program was well-received, and later in the day the keynote address was presented by State Representative Chris Paddie, who administered the oath of office to me for my second term as State Historian. A special pleasure for me was a gracious introduction by a former student of mine, Allison Sanford.
John D. Windham Civic Center in Center
Introduction by Allison Sanford, Conference Chair
and a former student of mine

Almost 200 members of the Shelby County JCC gathered in the Civic Center

Everyone stood for the Pledge of Allegiance

With Deborah Chadwick