The History Center Celebrates its 10th Anniversary

May 15, 2013

In honor of The History Center's 10th Anniversary, Executive Director Jonathan Gerland spoke with Steve Knight of The Lufkin News about the Center's mission, its collections, and the last decade spent collecting, preserving, and making available the history of Diboll and the surrounding area. The feature article from May 7, 2013 follows:

By STEVE KNIGHT/The Lufkin News

DIBOLL — A member of the 376th Bomb Group, 15th Air Force, Diboll native Gayle Cruthirds kept a flight log during his World War II combat tour. For each flight, he recorded the flight number, date, time, destination and the major events of that bombing run. Following is exactly what was written by Cruthirds in his log on June 24, 1944:

#30-31 My worse day so far

June 24. Saturday

Romano Americano oil refineries

Ploesti, Roumania.

2 runs over target. I got hit on second run.

flak came throught front of turret

hit me in head over Left eye

Lost one plane. Group was damaged bad.

Joe used hot coffee to wash blood off my face & head.

Got piece of flak that hit me.

05:05. 13:15.

Cruthirds — who earned a Purple Heart, an Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, the Good Conduct Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign medal with three bronze stars, a Presidential Citation with two Oak Leaf Clusters on his unit citation, an Aviation Badge and Overseas Service bars during his service — loaned his flight log, photographs, correspondence and military records to The History Center in Diboll for a 2005 exhibit “Angelina County At War,” and at the conclusion of the exhibit, donated the items to the center to become part of the permanent collection. It’s now part of thousands of online and on-site collections at The History Center, which made a little history itself last week as it quietly celebrated its 10th anniversary serving visitors and researchers from across the country.

According to Executive Director Jonathan Gerland, the center over the last 10 years has seen more than 50,000 visitors and served about 6,000 researchers either on-site or by phone, email or mail.

It didn’t start that way, however.

“(The year) 1976 was the bicentennial celebration for the nation and Diboll, just like any other community across America, participated in the celebration and arranged local history in addition to celebrating the nation’s birthday,” Gerland said. “They started looking at local community history and put together an exhibit at the public library. They got volunteers together and brought in photographs. It was primarily photographic images and a little bit of the town’s history. That brought in some more interest and community involvement.”

The seed was planted, Gerland said, but the idea to start a center began to grow in 1986, the state’s sesquicentennial, when a local organization was formed that’s still in existence — the Diboll Historical Society.

“They began to do a project of the history of the community based on oral histories,” he said. “That resulted in a book called ‘The Cornbread Whistle.’ That stirred even more interest and people started bringing, in addition to oral history collections, papers and records. In the late ’80s and into the ’90s, they began to do more than just exhibits and started to think and plan for a full-blown program. That developed throughout the ’90s.”

Gerland said a professional archivist was hired to come in, and Temple-Inland started donating business records and other items.

“Certainly in the beginning, it had the focus of Diboll,” he said. “Diboll’s unique aspect is being a company town, where you had a family come in, start a business and that brought people in. That was the origin of doing more than just an exhibit at the library. I was hired in 1999, and it was discussed at that time that we needed to take the next step.”

Planning with architects took place, and with the generosity and help from individual and community donors and grants from the T.L.L. Temple Foundation, the center opened.

“We opened up on May 1, 2003, but essentially what we try to do is collect, preserve and provide access to the history of our community,” he said. “Certainly the story of Diboll and the story of the Temple family, community and business is part of it, but when we began to do this, we looked at the bigger picture and broader needs. So many people think of us as being only Diboll and even within Diboll, people think it’s just Diboll, the Temple family or the Temple business, but it’s community history — it’s public history. It even branches outside Angelina County. We have a strong Angelina County focus, but a lot of the surrounding counties, as well.”

Created in summer 2005 and redesigned in January, the center’s website averages more than 18,000 visitors per year, viewing more than 64,000 web pages and downloading at least 76,000 pages of documents yearly. The site contains more than 330 oral history transcripts with about a third of them with audio, 90 finding guides and 14 years of Pine Bough magazine back issues. Additionally, nearly 200 images are featured through online exhibits.

Over the last 10 years, Gerland said, the center has averaged from between 50 to more than 100 accessions per year.

“Accessions have ranged from single manuscript items to more than several hundred cubic feet of papers and records, maps and photographs,” he said. “Some examples include The Lufkin Daily News bound newspapers from 1913 through 2004, 175 cubic feet, and the Angelina County School Superintendent’s Records from 1885 to 1971, 44 cubic feet. More than 100 finding guides, most available online, help researchers understand and use each collection. We have also accessioned numerous forest maps during the last 10 years.”

Other newspapers in the collection include the Diboll Buzz Saw, the Homer Banner and Lufkin Weekly Tribune. Many of those newspapers, records and collections are stored in a vault, with state-of-the-art climate controls kept at a constant 66 degrees and 45 percent relative humidity.

The center’s off-site programs are conducted about eight to 10 times a year, Gerland said, featuring the center’s collections, particular historical subjects, document and photograph conservation and records management topics and workshops.

“Off-site programs have been given in Diboll, Lufkin, Hudson, Nacogdoches, Huntington, Carthage, Timpson, Beaumont, Kountze, Woodville, Palestine, Galveston, Liberty and even El Paso,” he said. “Groups addressed have included public schools, college and university history students, and various civic, social, historical, archival, and genealogical groups.”

He said exhibits are an excellent opportunity to showcase as well as interpret the center’s collections to the public, but they also help grow the collections, often resulting in new donations.

“Among the many on-site exhibits of the past 10 years are the History of Baseball in Angelina County, the Angelina County School System, the Neches River, History of the Diboll Free Press newspaper, Angelina County In World War II, Railroad Transportation in East Texas, Diboll School Racial Integration, Congressman Charlie Wilson, Diboll Day and the nature photography of Joe Lowery and Jay Brittain. Most exhibits utilized 22 panels and five cases, usually containing 100 or more photographic images and small artifacts. Our 2006 exhibit on the history of the Neches River resulted in our collaboration with Humanities Texas in creating a traveling exhibit created by Humanities Texas which has been distributed statewide. Some of our own off-site exhibits have been shown in Lufkin, Nacogdoches and Palestine, as well as in Diboll, including schools, libraries, colleges and universities, banks, and civic centers. Topics have included World War II, railroads and the Texas State Railroad, the Neches River, and school and community history.”

Guided tours consist of three components and usually last about 60 minutes, he said. The three components are: the general history of the area and whatever the featured exhibit is at that time; an archival presentation, explaining through hands-on experience the importance of documents and records to a proper understanding of history and the need for their professional care and management, and the outdoor train exhibit and the history and importance of transportation to East Texas and all civilizations.

“Guided tours were given to all the school districts of Angelina County and to several districts from all the surrounding counties — all grades and ages,” he said. “Numerous other groups were also served. These include various churches, civic and social clubs and organizations, governmental groups, cub scouts, girl scouts, boy scouts, summer youth camps and home school co-ops.”

The center also publishes The Pine Bough, an annual East Texas history magazine featuring the archival and research collections.

Feature articles since 2003 have included Spanish and French exploration of East Texas, the Hasinai Indian Angelina, the Angelina and Neches River valleys, baseball, the Mexican Fort Teran in Tyler County, the Blue Hole in Jasper County, the sawmill ghost town of Aldridge in the Angelina National Forest, Angelina county school history, Rayville Ranch in Trinity County, Forest Land Management in East Texas during the last 110 years, several World War II features, KSPL radio station, longtime Burke postmistress Ina McCall, Arthur Temple Jr. tribute, longtime Diboll educator Robert Ramsey, Diboll Day queen competitions, the Diboll Commissary and the history of Engine No. 13. Each issue usually contains more than 80 photographs with interpretive captions, several maps and news clippings.

Gerland also pointed out key events and other notables in the center’s 10 year history. Those include:

■ Receiving the Texas Oral History Association’s Mary Faye Barnes’ Award for Excellence in Community History in 2007.

■ National award-winning presidential historian Michael Beschloss giving the keynote address at the center’s grand opening in 2003 with more than 500 in attendance.

■ Hosting the Humanities Texas program, Riders on the Orphan Trains, in 2007. More than 120 people were in attendance, some of whom were descendants of orphan train riders in southeast Texas during the 1910s and 1920s.

■ Hosting several book signing sessions, including for Richard Donovan’s “Paddling the Wild Neches River,” with 300 in attendance and 197 books sold that night with at least 50 more in the few weeks following, and for Charlie Wilson’s and George Crile’s “Charlie Wilson’s War” in 2003, with more than 400 in attendance.

■ Hosting a reunion of longtime Diboll Free Press newspaper employees in 2007.

■ Dedicating two outdoor statues by artist Paula Devereaux Kurth, including Dred Devereaux in 2004 and Arthur Temple Jr. in 2007.

■ Receiving Angelina Beautiful Clean’s Beautification Award in 2003.

■ Hosting a Larry Gatlin outdoor concert in 2006.

■ Converting the Vault One records storage space from static to mobile shelving in 2010, which increased capacity in Vault One from 3,500 cubic feet of manuscript collections to more than 6,000 cubic feet.

■ Hosting KTRE’s Live at 5 show in 2006 with outdoor train displays.

■ Hosting Cable Channel 15’s Community Update programs in 2008.

■ Hosting Diboll school class reunions.

For the future, however, Gerland said he hopes to keep growing.

“Hopefully, we’ll continue to grow the collection,” he said. “We hope that the website will be a useful tool in providing access to information. Just because we have the website doesn’t mean we’re fully abandoning the experience of coming here. That’s what we want. We want to target researchers to come in. There’s a whole lot of interesting things that have come out over the last 10 years. We just hope to continue to grow.”

Located at 102 N. Temple Drive in Diboll, The History Center is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday. It is closed most major holidays. Admission is free.

For more information, call 829-3543 or visit thehistorycenteronline.com.

© 2013 The Lufkin News. All rights reserved.

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