The present site of Kilgore fell into a wild “no man’s land” in the early 1800s — a haven for outlaws and scoundrels.
But by 1840, farm families were settling the area called Danville. They had a trading post, stores, saloons, churches, cotton gins, ribbon cane mills, sawmills and corn mills. However, they did not have a railroad — and they never would, according to authors Caleb Pirtle III and Terry Stembridge in their award-winning historical book, “Echoes from Forgotten Streets: Memories of Kilgore, Texas.”
Pirtle wrote of two Danville men, Rayburn Hamilton and his son-in-law Slade Barnett, who denied railroad magnate Jay Gould access to their land. Justice of the Peace and land owner Constantine Buckley “Buck” Kilgore saw this as his chance to establish a township. Kilgore donated a 200-feet right-of-way to the International and Great Northern Railroad in October 1871. In June of 1872, he sold Gould the 174-acre town site for $2,800 in gold dollars.
As the railroad surveyors came through, they expressed concern about a mule barn in the middle of the property. Gould advised the crew to lay track beside it and call it the depot. The 18-block town site was centered around this stop.
Kilgore, the visionary, took the first plot of land and built his home near the tracks. Other families soon followed.
In 1873, a post office was formed and Virgil Kilgore had a postmaster job making $1 a month, according to Pirtle. Josiah Reynolds, a blacksmith, purchased the first money order sold in Kilgore.
In the 1880s churches sprouted up downtown. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and freed slaves all saw benefits of meeting inside a developed town, rather than traveling the unkept roads of the surrounding communities.
The first school, the Alexander Institute, was run by the Rev. Isaac Alexander. He had closed the Masonic Female Academy at Gum Springs Presbyterian Church in 1873 and was now charging the new residents of Kilgore to educate their children. While the establishment was well-spoken of, residents decided they would rather all children get a free education. Kilgore Independent School District was formed on August 27, 1906, receiving unanimous approval from the 53 people who voted, Pirtle writes. By 1910, the 25-mile district 25 educated 125 students.
Early residents were farmers, but they were also businessmen and politicians. John Thompson ran a sawmill, but he also passed down some of the 10,000 acres he had bought in 1844 to his daughter Lou Della. She would later allow her son Malcolm Crim to drill for oil on that site, ushering in the oil boom of 1930.
Ben Laird opened a cotton gin across from the railroad tracks. The Crims owned a large mercantile store. Lucille Elder Russell ran her father’s business, Elder’s Garage, after he died. Kilgore, a former sergeant in the Confederate army, went on to become a U.S. Congressman who fought for the southern state’s rights in an environment still reeling from Reconstruction.
The city even enjoyed a bit of entertainment as Liggett Crim bought The Cozy Theater in 1920. It was later called The Dixie and featured the first “talkies.” John Solon King, a World War I veteran, returned to also open a cotton gin, and purchased a telephone company.
Pirtle writes that at the turn of the century more than 600 farms were producing about 4,000 bales of cotton a year. Area timber helped with income as farmers cut crossties and sold them to the railroad company. Even with these cash crops, times were especially good when the gardens grew, and peas always seemed to be a bumper crop in the oily soil, according to Pirtle.
While the town was prospering, the only time incorporating into a city was discussed came when some concerned citizens wanted to pass an ordinance to slow down the trains coming through town. It turns out they had “flattened two automobiles trying to cross the train tracks,” Pirtle wrote.
Kilgore did incorporate in 1931, following the recklessness that had permeated the town with the discovery of oil. Ironically, one of the original prospectors, Malcolm Crim, was elected mayor in a 102-0 vote. He later said he did not take the job to be a politician, but to protect his town from being “overrun with the wrong kind of people.”
Crim immediately called in Manuel Trazazas Gonzaullas, a 40-year-old Texas Ranger born in Cadiz, Spain. Friends called him El Lobo Solo. Crim called him, “Lone Wolf” and put him up in Crim’s mother’s house overlooking the north side of the depot.
With the discovery of oil, the founding families who had worked the land all of their life realized the real jewel came from beneath it.
“The generation of pioneers are gone,” Stembridge said in an exclusive interview. “The boomers are gone. The oil men are gone. There’s a whole town that doesn’t know the specifics of its history.”
“(This book) is a gesture against the encroachment of time which is erasing these memories,” he said.
The memories are gone, but historical markers remain. The railroad tracks remain. And the town that grew up from the vision of a farmer and activist remain — as does the spirit of a pioneering and prosperous people.
Longview News Journal, Progress Edition, February 2008