Walls can be painted, walls can be moved and walls can even be torn down, but, oh, if those walls could only talk.
It's human nature to take something with a grain of salt, something you have seen or walked by on many occasions with no regard for the past. However, for the men and women of Kilgore who had a vision of the future, it is our responsibility to keep those stories alive and flowing so what remains of the past can thrive in the future.
One key remnant of Kilgore's heritage is the old Union Pacific train depot on Commerce Street, and dedicated volunteers from Kilgore Improvement & Beautification Association have long been keeping its past alive.
Part of that past includes men like Jay Gould, who was first stopped in his tracks, needing land to continue his dream of building a railroad from East Texas to El Paso, and C.B. “Buck” Kilgore who, in 1871, had the vision and initiative to donate a 200-foot railroad right-of-way to run four miles East of Danville. Land was deeded to the International Railroad Co. on October 18, 1871 to set the rails – the cost was $100.
One other thing temporarily stood in the way of those rails being laid. A mule barn was in the middle of the right-of-way. The first orders, from Gould, went out for the barn to be moved. The second orders went out for it to be moved beside the tracks to be used as the depot.
Mules were considered a great commodity during those times and their care was important. Buck Kilgore didn’t mind the use of the mule barn for a depot as long as the International and Great Northern Railway had interest in building a town on land where none stood before.
Their actions would bring the railroad through the edge of Rusk and Gregg counties. Buck and his family moved from the “old Danville Community” to the “new Danville community.” Other Danville families followed his lead to build a home near the railroad. Two years later, New Danville was re-named Kilgore in his honor.
The railroad station was completed in 1872 to provide passenger and freight service and to serve as a communications center for the agricultural and lumber area.
In 1931 oil was discovered in what came to be known as the East Texas oil field, and the volume of shipments from the Kilgore area increased significantly.
A way to communicate with the rest of the world at a faster pace was needed, and the railway telegraph became a part of the depot.
In 1937, Mayor Roy H. Laird the railroad build a new depot. However, no one in authority was interested in getting rid of the mule barn-turned-depot.
World War II provided the depot with a steady stream of troop trains, and the railroad kept a steady stream of them coming through the area. In 1956 the rail line became known as the Missouri Pacific – the old mule barn still served as the depot.
Years passed and in 1977 (after automobiles, buses and airplanes became the most convenient mode of transportation) the Kilgore station was closed. The depot was left standing as a reminder of the significant role rail transportation played in the growth and development of Kilgore and East Texas.
Down the road, Kilgore Improvement & Beautification Association started their 'White Elephant' resale store, set up in the former Modern Cleaners, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Shipp. The cleaners was located on South Kilgore .
In the spring of 1979, KIBA asked to buy the old depot and on August 14, 1980 KIBA received the deed and began to renovate the depot for the White Elephant Bazaar. Wanda Bittick was president at the time. The back of the building had to be secured and a fence installed, and heating and cooling systems had to be added before the bazaar could be open for the public.
The depot site was awarded a Historical Marker and dedicated in 1982. KIBA continued to turn a once dilapidated building into one of beauty.
Over the years, the depot has received other “facelifts” through community support, but the old mule barn still exists under the façade.
Another interior renovation took place late last year as the organization’s volunteers, working with the Gregg County Sheriff Department’s trustee program and others, cleared out much of the depot’s stock then gave the interior a facelift.
“KIBA still owns the building, but we rent the land,” said former President Betty Renshaw. “Bill Phinny painted those windows in although everyone thinks they are real. They are wonderful and he deserves the credit.
“There is one item that is not for sale: a white ceramic elephant brought in by Bonnie Kay will always remain in the building. Many have tried to buy it, but it’s not going anywhere.”
The White Elephant Bazaar continues to be a wonderful fundraiser for the organization with dedicated volunteers of years-long service to KIBA keeping the doors open every Tuesday from 8 am. to 5 p.m.
From mule barn to depot to bazaar, the stories are there. To quote Caleb Pirtle in his book the Glory Days, “the old station has seen it all.”
Don’t you wish those walls could talk?
A special thanks to Terry Stembridge, Sue Brown, Mart Lapin, Caleb Pirtle III and Marilyn Kitchens at the Kilgore Public Library for helping make an old mule barn come alive once more, this time in print.
May His Love and Laughter Fill Your Hearts and Your Homes Throughout the Week. In the meantime, we may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 903-984-2593.