East Texas History Museums

Link to Part 1

When the Daisy Bradford No. 3 came in on October 3, 1930, at 6,000 barrels a day, the rural landscape of East Texas would never be the same.

London Museum

With the oil boom came hundreds of children. Schools built with the best oil money could buy replaced small rural schools. One school was supplied with natural gas, a byproduct of oil.

On March 18, 1937, Perry Lee Cox and his sister Bobbie Kate decided to play hooky. Their father came home and caught them and made them go to school. But, just before dismissal time, a natural gas explosion would claim the life of Perry Lee and more than 400 other children, teachers, and school personnel. London Junior and Senior High School in New London collapsed in what is said to be the worst school disaster in American history.

All through London Museum are heartbreaking stories about those who lived, those who died, and others who carried the guilt for something they had no control over.

Glendell Sutherlin
Norma Wayne Roberts

Until the explosion, natural gas had no odor. Then, according to official reports, Lemmie Butler, instructor of manual training, turned on a sanding machine in an area that, unknown to him, was filled with a mixture of gas and air. The switch ignited the mixture and carried the flame into a nearly closed space beneath the building — 253 feet long and 56 feet wide. Witnesses said the building seemed to lift in the air, then smash to the ground. Walls collapsed, and the roof fell in, burying its victims in a mass of brick, steel, and concrete debris.

A picture of the aftermath

Oil field workers, Texas Rangers, highway patrol, military personnel, doctors, and nurses came from all over to help. Within a little over 24 hours, more than 2,000 volunteers had gone through 4 million pounds of debris and found all the victims.

Shortly after, Texas officials made it law that natural gas had to have an odor added to it before using it. Other states across the nation soon followed Texas' lead.

Along one wall of the museum are facsimiles of newspaper headlines. The opposite wall exhibits personal items of some of the victims donated by their families.

Facsimiles of newspaper headlines
Personal items of some of the victims, donated by their families

There has never been an exact death count because, after the explosion, when children's bodies were recovered, families often took them back to where they lived before coming to Texas for burial. The injured were taken to hospitals all over East Texas. School records were destroyed in the blast, and no one kept any centralized form, making it impossible to know how many died in the explosion and how many passed away hours or even weeks later.

If parents were looking for their child, they would have to look at every deceased child to see if their child was among them. If they weren't, the parent would have to travel to several hospitals searching for their child.

Henderson radio announcer Ted Hudson broadcasted from New London during the hours that followed the explosion. Parents who had visited the makeshift morgues and area hospitals would report the other children and adults they saw to him. Hudson, in turn, would announce the information to help those still searching for their loved ones.

Hudson stayed on the air for 48-hours broadcasting emergency information concerning the location of victims, directing traffic, and making appeals for needed supplies. He also described in detail what was happening in New London, his voice carrying the story worldwide. A 22-year-old Walter Cronkite also reported from the scene. It was his first news story.

Telegram from Eleanor Roosevelt

Located between the museum and the current high school is a cenotaph, the Greek word for the empty tomb. Erected in 1938, the sculptural block of Texas granite depicts 12 life-size figures representing children coming to school, bringing gifts, and handing in homework to two teachers. Overall, it is 32 feet high. Around the inside of the base are 292 names of the known victims of the explosion.

Gaston Museum

Joinerville, named after "Dad" Joiner, who started the Texas oil boom is home to Gaston Museum.

The museum combines Gaston School memorabilia, an original tent house from the 1930s, and two businesses from that era—a gas station and a snack shop.

Tent house
A snack shop

The newly-renovated museum begins with objects from the gas station. It continues to a large area depicting home life and the school's home economics class, including a display about making clothes from flour sacks, a row of aprons, and period glassware.

Making clothes from flour sacks
A row of aprons

Because guests can no longer tour the snack shop safely, the museum has an exhibit honoring it too. The last room is lined with photos honoring Gaston School graduates who served in the military.

As interesting and nicely designed as the museum is, it's the tent house that is most interesting. It is the last known example of a tent house built during the 1930s.

The homeowner, Sidney White, ran the gas station and snack shop.

The tent house started with two rooms. He installed a ceiling following the lines of the rafters that had supported the canvas roof. You can see the outline of the original tent.

Some items inside the house
A piano and some books and pictures

The living room and kitchen are the oldest part of the house, with bedrooms added later.

The museum is a tribute to the community, the school, which was the largest rural school globally at the time, and the oil boom.

From Joinerville, it's a short drive to the Daisy Bradford No. 3 well. The oil boom started here, and the East Texas landscape would never be the same.

If you go:

In one day, you can easily visit the Daisy Bradford No. 3 oil well, London Museum, Gaston Museum, and East Texas Oil Museum for a visual understanding of what was, and what is, in the East Texas oil industry.

Ask at any of the museums for directions to the Daisy Bradford No.3 oil well.

East Texas Oil Museum is located on Hwy. 259 at Ross St in Kilgore. For more information call (903) 983-8295 or check the website at easttexasoilmuseum.kilgore.edu.

London Museum and Tea Room is located at 10690 Main Street in New London. For more information call (903) 895-4602 or check the website at www.newlondonschool.org/.

Gaston Museum is located six miles west of Henderson at 6562 Highway 64 West in Joinerville. For more information call 903-847-2205 or check the website at gastonmuseum.org.

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Marilyn Jones

Marilyn Jones is a journalist and photographer with over 40 years of experience. Her articles and photographs appear in major newspapers, magazines, and online.

Marilyn served the U.S. Postal Service for 27 years as a Communications Specialist, Program Specialist, and Writer/Editor. She has three grown children and one granddaughter and lives in East Texas.

She can be reached at marilynjones2010@yahoo.com.