News Column

'Joe was there from the very beginning'

September 3, 2014

By James Draper, Kilgore News Herald, Texas

Sept. 03--I t's been almost 34 years, and the ticket-taker is stuck on the same page of Erskine Caldwell's "Tobacco Road."

"She's still only halfway through," Joe White jokes, pausing beside Boomtown's picture show in the heart of the East Texas Oil Museum. He runs a finger along the bottom edge of the booth's glass: "The first weekend, this window got chipped."

Among the thousands of myriad pieces of oilfield memorabilia, even the movie theater's window is a story, and Joe's a natural storyteller. A compulsive storyteller.

A walk through the oil museum alongside the only director it's ever known takes a mite longer than the recommended hour-and-a-half.

Take, for instance, the Tea Leaf China in Boomtown's General Store. There was none when the oil museum opened, but "Two couples came back and said, 'We've brought you a collection.'"

Or, nearby, a baby doll. Appraised at more than $2,000, the former owner insisted Joe take it off her hands: "I have a doll, and I've got nieces arguing over who's going to get this doll when I die. I'm not going to put up with it!"

Here's a wedding gown, handmade by the bride.

There's a pair of red boots. The donor once made regular trips to keep them oiled.

Here's Mrs. Hazel's bathtime baby picture in its antique frame -- she was bashfully scandalized when Joe insisted it hang in the museum, but compromised when he put it back in a shadowy corner.

"It was going to the landfill. It would have been crushed," Joe says. "Bill Smiley gave us the wooden golf cubs. Jack Elder, the tricycle up there. It was his when he was a little boy.

"Just so many things and everything has a story." Retiring, Joe is turning over the museum's reins and the director's title -- Kilgore'sMerlyn Holmes has been tapped for the post.

Joe's not finished, however. There's still work ahead for ETOM's recently-dubbed "Director Emeritus." Among other duties, Kilgore College President Bill Holda has tasked the veteran tour guide and historian with chronicling the story of the museum itself.

"It's not often that a person gets to be on the ground floor of a venture like the East Texas Oil Museum," Holda explained last week. "Joe was there from the very beginning."

Joe's career at KC predates his 37 years with the oil museum, and his relationship with the school stretches even further back. A Henderson native, he graduated from the college in 1963, returned in 1971 to teach history, government and economics and, eventually, worked as a historical researcher from 1977 to 1980 as the oil museum took shape.

"There was an effort long before 1977. Charlie Duvall at the Kilgore News Herald and others we're trying to build a petroleum museum," Joe notes. Duvall donated the museum's first piece, in 1977, a shaving mug and brush. "They hired a fundraising company. They raised and spent about $1,000. It was like a dog chasing its tail. They could never get off the ground with it."

With the involvement and funding of Placid Oil Company and the H.L. Hunt family the project became a reality, Joe recalls. H.L. Hunt's statue now stands in a place of honor in the museum.

"Placid would fund construction, the people of East Texas would fund the memorabilia," Joe explains. The association opened doors, he joked, most of the time: "We found very quickly that because of the name 'Placid' and 'Hunt,' people began to say I don't have anything to give you but I have something to sell you."

Joe, along with Hyman Laufer and Lynn Welch, became the primary hunter-gatherers for the museum's stock.

"For a little over three years we were out going through barns, store rooms and garages," Joe says. "Cutting stuff off rigs that had gone up in the woods. Fighting bumblebee and yellow jacket nests ... We would find things, and I would haul them."

In one home, "We could've taken an 18-wheeler and loaded it up. It was like a candy store."

Faced with choosing an oil museum director in 1980, then-KC President Dr. Stewart McLaurin picked Joe.

"He needed someone on the ground here with a working knowledge of the oilfield and its history and all," Joe explained. Joe will soon relocate from his office in the oil museum to the other side of Hwy. 259, new digs in KC's Applied Technology Center.

Holda has three primary tasks for the director emeritus.

First will be the archival of the museum's history, be it a written or verbal transcription, and of its remaining cache of stored items.

"Joe is the only person that knows a lot of the story behind almost every item in the museum ... In his own right, Joe is sort of a folk character himself," Holda said. "We're going to try to capture that while we can."

Likewise, KC will lean on his research skills.

"There's still some individuals in town, many of them in their 90s, who remember the early days of the boom, who were there," Holda explained. "We're going to set up some interviews with Joe and those individuals we can tape."

Fundraising will round out the Joe's new job description. The museum is now funded through a mixture of donations and grants in addition to admission fees. For years, Joe has cultivated a network of donors, corresponding regularly to bolster the collection's coffers. He's undertaking his fourth campaign to help fund maintenance and operations.

"He requests the amount of money that is the age of the oilfield. He raises probably about $40,0000, $50,000 a year just from that letter campaign," Holda praised. "He and I want to get on the road and do some more active fundraising for the museum." Some scoffed when museum director, Joe White, predicted that 100,000 would visit the memorial during the first year," wrote Doris Bolt and Bonnie During in their 1981 history of Kilgore College. "However, 30,235 toured the facility during the first three and one-half months, giving credence to his prophecy.

"On August 26, 1981, ten and one-half months after the museum's opening, the 100,000th visitor passed through its door."

It came a gusher: in his time, Joe has seen more than 1.5 million visitors pass through the museum since October 1980.

"Young people who came when they were in fourth grade are now bringing their children," he says. "Other people say, 'Every time we have out-of-town company this is where we bring them.'"

But while it's a major attraction, Joe adds, the museum is part of an industry that's hurting. Tourism traffic everywhere is dropping off. There are more and more seats open on the charter buses that drop by.

"There are so many who have not made their first trip to the East Texas oil museum," he says. "It's here, and we just take it for granted and yet we'll get in a bus with our church group and go to Branson or whatever.

"We're sitting here with one of the neatest living museums in the county. They tell me this museum touches all the senses. Being around here so long, I still need to hear people praise it."

It's been a good run: connecting past and present, welcoming guests of all ages from all over the world, finding lost treasures and sharing memories.

Like the ticket-taker's window: an overeager visitor with a heavy college ring tried to reach through the gap, Joe says. He left a permanent mark. More than three decades since, one more story to tell.


(c)2014 the Kilgore News Herald (Kilgore, Texas)

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Source: Kilgore News Herald (TX)

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