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.    



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