Rodeo, livestock, hay, the feed store, veterinarians are just a normal part of life. The town square probably has a Confederate soldier’s statue, along with large monuments dedicated to the men who fought so many wars for America. And the county courthouse can be a great source of local pride because of its unique architecture and the Texas marble used to construct it. It's likely there will be an annual festival of some kind on the court house lawn. In Gilmer, it's the Yamboree; out in Rhonesboro, just a crossroads, it was the Possum Festival draped in Confederate flags and featuring a Possum Queen! Small towns with names like Gun Barrel City, Arp, Carthage, Diboll and Tatum are scattered through the rural landscape.
No, it’s not perfect; there is some crime here, but there is more Christ here than crime, a lot more. God lives in East Texas, and you don't have to go further than the local McDonalds or Bodacious BBQ to talk about Christ with a stranger, or see a group of men or women in Bible study most week day mornings. Bible verses can be seen flashing in between the temperature given on lighted bank signs. And you won't have to search too hard on the radio to get a Christian radio station!
EAST TEXAS is an almost magical place where vast sums of money poured in after the discovery and development of rich oil reserves. For a time, Kilgore, Texas had the richest acre in the entire world, and there is a museum in Kilgore to tell the story.
But East Texas has more than oil to boast of. While most Americans believe the first flight of man occurred in North Carolina, a museum in Pittsburg, Texas, tells a different story where flight happened before the Wright brothers! The video explains that no one knows about the Texas flight because there was no movie camera to record it.
And there is much more to East Texas; the place where Elvis performed before he was Elvis! The cultural fabric of East Texas is a literal nursery for a continuous flow of music and theatrical talent onto the national scene. Johnny Mathis and Jim Reeves are just two of the nationally renowned performers who came from East Texas.
Then there's football. East Texas shuts down on Friday nights in the fall to watch the rising stars of the NFL play on the local high school gridiron under the lights. Million dollar scoreboards do exist on high school fields in East Texas where state championships come to reside at the end of almost every season.
To accompany football are large women’s drill groups who practice for a hundred hours or more to bring almost professional halftime shows to high school stadiums packed with thousands of spectators. Some of these young women will go on to become Tyler Junior College Apache Belles or Kilgore College Rangerettes. These performance outfits travel the nation and sometimes the world. And from there, on to the Rockettes in New York. Dance and drill is as much a means to pass on the unique charm and persona that is a Texas woman, as it is a means to learn and perform a precise dance routine under the pressure of ten thousand eyes.
East Texas is almost the size of New Jersey and rests along Caddo Lake, the western Louisiana border. East Texas does not run all the way down to Beaumont and Houston, or all the way up to Texarkana. But that said, the precise borders of East Texas are somewhat hazy.
East Texas, also known as the Piney Woods, is unique to the great state of Texas. The land is green year round, with huge forests of pine and cedar. Livestock, in the form of beef and dairy cattle, horses, goats and chickens are the produce of the large and small farms and ranches in the area. Roses and cotton are two of the primary crops in the area. Hunting, fishing, some trapping, and mudding, horseback riding, and water skiing are some of the calmer outside recreational activities. For the more daring, there is rodeo, sky diving, ballooning, four wheelin' and auto racing, Cowboy and red neck are terms that apply to this part of the country.
East Texas claims several medium-sized cities including Tyler, Longview, Huntsville, and Nacogdoches.
Just off Interstate 20, halfway 'tween Dallas and Shreveport, Tyler acts as a kind of central commercial and cultural hub for much of East Texas. At a little over 100,000 in population, it boasts television stations and several colleges - universities and medical centers, but is small enough to retain a town-like flavor where everyone knows just about everyone. Tyler is home to the annual East Texas State Fair.
Tyler, Texas, rightly claims the title as the Rose Capital of the World, and each year hosts a week-long Rose Festival. Young ladies from around the world spend a year in preparation for this event, travelling to the area almost a year before to begin their dance and choreography training. Thousands of dollars will be spent on each young lady's gown. The parades, balls, pageants, and other activities connected with this festival are first class, high-dollar events ,and set the standard for the entire South.
A group of people in Tyler are working towards creating the East Texas Heritage Museum. For almost twenty years this group had worked on developing a Camp Ford Museum. Camp Ford had been the largest Confederate Prisoner War Camp west of the Mississippi River. Before it became a prisoner of war camp, Camp Ford had been a training ground for new Confederate units forming in Texas. Recently, the board of this group rethought their vision and mission. They all agreed there was so much more to Tyler and East Texas than Camp Ford, and agreed that they were perfectly situated to tell the story of East Texas. After consideration, the board changed the name of the group from Camp Ford Historical Association to the East Texas Heritage Museum and have begun the process of developing a mission statement and vision.
The story of Camp Ford will remain an important element of the museum's theme but the board saw a real need to organize and tell the story East Texas - a tall, robust and vigorous story to tell. Starting with about a quarter of a million dollars in assets, the board has set a goal of raising three million dollars to create the museum. The members of the board prefer to work towards private funds so as to remain free of government interference in telling the rich and full story of the region. If you would like to become a part of this effort, you may contact the East Texas Heritage Museum through Col. David Pierson, (USAF Ret.), President, East Texas Heritage Museum Association, at P.O. Box 1865, Tyler, Tx 75710.
Mark Vogl is a resident of the Latch community in Upshur County.