Cool Vibes At the Texas Broadcast Museum In Kilgore

Jim Zura enjoying a nostalgic moment at the Museum’s radio studio.

Please welcome guest writer, Jim Zura. He has spent 30-plus years in broadcasting, beginning as radio personality ‘Jimmy Z’ with M105 Classic Rock in Cleveland, Ohio. After moving to Houston, Texas in 1983, he worked on the air at KILT-FM radio, before his segue into video production. Zura has worked with countless celebrities and has been a location shooter / producer for most major television networks and many corporations. He is the owner and CEO at ZuraProductions.com. —Ria Nicholas

From Morse Code to Social Media – In Just 150 Years!

By Jim Zura

Vintage wire recorder / player at the Museum; photo by Ria Nicholas.

It took a quite a while, but the whole story of the evolution of social media can be traced at the Texas Museum of Broadcasting & Communications in Kilgore, Texas.  

It wasn’t too long ago that broadcasting was solely the domain of Radio, TV and Cable.  Now, thanks to the Internet and social media, you, too, are a broadcaster with worldwide transmission capabilities, right from your home!

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Yes, the Internet is the most prominent means of communication and entertainment today.  But what were its primordial origins? And how did it become our daily mainstay?  And what exactly is meant by broadcasting, anyway? 

‘Broadcasting’ simply refers to a way to transmit our communications from one place or person to another.  Stay with me here, because your Internet searches and social media posts directly evolved from a fascinating story that you can trace at the Museum in Kilgore

The Museum has an authentic vintage operating machine designed to train students in learning Morse Code. Photo by Jim Zura

Founders Chuck Conrad and Warren Willard, and Operations Manager Dana Pearce, are cordial hosts for this splendid tour through their amazing display of visual and interactive delights representing the progress of radio, television and recording methods since the beginning of media!

Morse Code was developed in the mid-1800s and, for the first time, enabled long-distance communication along the log poles that ran beside railroad lines (and also via flashing lights in maritime applications).  This is the first example of “broadcasting”. 

The Wheatstone Perforator; image courtesy BT Heritage and Archives

The evolution of recorded media paralleled the evolution of broadcasting. In fact, it was Morse Code that innovated the first recording technology:  the Wheatstone Perforator, introduced in 1867. This device created perforations on a paper tape – the first example of “tape recording.”

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Phonographs and Gramophones

A model of the dog named Nipper, the mascot for RCA Victor, contemplates “His Master’s Voice” on one of dozens of vintage gramophones at the museum; photo by Ria Nicholas

While Thomas Edison is generally credited as the inventor of the phonograph, the perfection of his electric light bulb drew his attention away from this device.  Many other innovators picked up the ball and ran with it (too many names and dates for this ‘short’ article). 

The original recording devices employed a spinning drum, originally covered with tinfoil, which evolved into hard wax cylinders that could be removed from the device and played back elsewhere. (The original voicemail . . . or file sharing?)

This concept evolved into the flat-disc Gramophone, which could be more easily reproduced.  Originally made of brittle Bakelite or shellac, and rotating at 78 RPM (revolutions per minute), vinyl records were becoming popular by the 1930’s. By this time 33 ⅓ RPM, Long Play records allowed for much longer recordings. 

Vinyl Records

The 45-RPM “single” record came out in the 1950s and became the standard for radio station playlists and song popularity ratings such as the Billboard charts.  All in all, vinyl records had quite a lifespan that lasted well into the 1990s, when the Compact Disc (CD) became the dominant format (although vinyl records have experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent years).

Evolution of Revolutions Per Minute (RPM): 78 (top), 33 1/3 (left), 45 (bottom), 200-500 (CD on right)

Of course, we can’t forget the evolution of other recorded media in the interim.  Up until the mid-1960’s, the only way to listen to music in your car was to turn on the radio.  Vinyl records were played on a turntable, where a stylus (needle) tracked through the record.  While attempts were made to create a turntable that could be used in a moving car, nothing succeeded in preventing the bumps and vibrations in a car from skipping the stylus. 


Then came the 8-track tape cartridge.  Inside, there was a continuous loop of ¼” audio tape, and it could hold an entire album of recorded music.  During that era, factory installed in-the-dashboard 8-track players were standard in higher-end auto models. 

Cassette Tape

The ubiquitous Compact Cassette, probably the longest-lived format for personal music so far! Photo by Jim Zura.

Still, nothing lasts forever.  In the early 1960’s the Compact Cassette was developed.  It was intended for, and initially used in, dictation machines.  At this time, the audio quality of both the tape and playback machines were not suitable for music.  With advancements in the quality of those components, the Compact Cassette began overtaking the 8-track in the 1970’s.

SONY Walkman; image is in the public domain.

With the introduction of the Sony Walkman, a new era of playback portability ushered the Cassette in and the 8-track out.  Additionally, users were now able to record their own song choices off of a record player or the radio (or even with live music) – the beginning of Mix Tapes!


All of these magnetic tape-based media were analog and worked by running linear tape across a playback / record head.  Digital audio in the form of the CD spent the early 1980’s achieving critical mass. It was off to a slow start since the original consumer players cost $1,000, and product availability was limited.  However, by 1991, CD sales had eclipsed both vinyl records and cassettes. 

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After a 20-year life span, major retailers like Best Buy and Target began phasing out CD sales in 2018. With iTunes, Beatport, Amazon, eMusic, Spotify and numerous other Internet-based outlets, the way we enjoy music has taken yet another turn.  (But to serious music aficionados, it seems crazy that CD’s have become obsolete.  Many of the Internet-based music providers apply a good deal of compression to the music, making it inferior to the high dynamic range of the CD.)



Photo by Jim Zura

So far, our discussion of recorded audio media has focused on consumer-oriented formats.  But behind the scenes, another format was at the root of technological improvements in the quality of recordings: the reel-to-reel tape.  Originally experimented with in the first part of the 1900s, inherent distortion and inferior fidelity prevented its acceptance – that is, until right after World War II. 

When the Allies took over Nazi Germany, they discovered advanced reel-to-reel tape machines in radio stations that applied a new technology (called AC / DC Bias) that greatly improved the quality (and has remained in use ever since). 

This invention radically changed radio and audio recording techniques.  Beginning with single channel ¼” (wide) magnetic tape, it advanced to stereo (two tracks), and by 1967 the Beatles were using four-track reel-to-reel recorders to produce “Sgt. Pepper’s . . . ”  By the mid-1970s, two-inch reel-to-reel tape was capable of recording 24 tracks in the studio.

A small portion of the reel-to-reel tape machines on display at the museum. Photo by Jim Zura.
A 1/4″ audio tape splicing block. I bet I have made over 10,000 splices like this in my career!

Every radio station had several tape machines for producing commercials and playing recorded programs. The 1/4” tape could easily be edited by accurately cutting it with a razor blade and splicing it with special tape. 

Portable machines were popular in schools and for training facilities. Upscale audiophiles made use of ¼” reel-to-reel tape machines for home use, but with limited product availability and expense of the hardware, this format was confined to specific consumers. 

Digital Audio Tape

The concept of audio tape took one more step before becoming obsolete.  Digital Audio Tape (DAT) was in use professionally in the 1990s but was phased out by 2005.   Proponents of this format expected success in the retail consumer market, but it never took off.


So far, we’ve taken a brief tour of the history of recorded audio media. (Brief??? Believe me, there’s a Universe full of info on this. Just google it.) 

By 1900, the entire world was abuzz in technological advancements in the world of electronic communications, giving birth to the telephone (hard-wired) and radio (wireless).  By the 1920’s, radio stations had been established in 88 countries! 

The Broadcasting Museum has an amazing collection of vintage radios. Photo by Ria Nicholas.

Radio brought entertainment and news right into people’s homes and cars. 

Transistor Radios

For the first time you could carry your Top 40 Radio with you! Photo by Jim Zura.

I remember being glued to the radio during my childhood in the 1960s, especially after seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.  I was addicted to Top-40 Radio.  When my older brother went to college, he generously left me his transistor radio.  And the transistor radio was the holy grail that propelled popular music into being a predominant force. 

Until then, radio listening in the home and car required a very bulky vacuum-tube radio.  Huge tube radios only appeared in cars as a pricey option.  Transistors replaced bulky vacuum tubes and helped mainstream America access rock-n-roll on the go. By the mid-1960s transistor radios became stock items in cars.

AM Radio

AM or FM? Throughout the 1960s, AM radio was the domain of Top 40. Most automobiles didn’t have FM, and that format was the domain of classical, easy listening and ethnic music.

Then came The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s” album. Arguably the first contemporary music Concept Album, it paved the way for many other musical artists, as young people’s listening habits expanded from just buying single records to buying albums. By the late 60s, artists began exploring longer format musical pieces, not just 3-minute singles. AM stations, however, competing to play the “most songs every hour,” stuck with the singles format.

FM Radio

Then, circa 1970,  college radio stations began giving young audiences what they wanted, and the Album Oriented Rock format gained ground among radio listeners. 

The Album Oriented Rock era; photo by Jim Zura.

Through the nature of electronics, the FM radio signal is much richer than AM, and since the progressive album rock featured more sophisticated musical arrangements, the demand for FM radios was on!

At the time, FM stations were not very highly rated, because the over-40-crowd audience didn’t consist of regular, loyal listeners.  Many radio station owners had both an AM and an FM station.  Encouraged by a new wave of knowledgeable DJs just getting out of college and who embraced the Album format, some station managers felt, “Let’s give them a shot. What have we got to lose?”  After all, these entry-level radio announcers weren’t demanding much in the way of compensation.

As the 1970s progressed, FM music stations clearly surpassed AM in the ratings. Not just the rock genre, but country, pop, and what was then called the Black / Urban format also joined the fray.

Subscription and Streaming

Other than improvements in quality on both the transmitting and receiving ends, not much really changed until well into the 21st century, when subscription based providers, such as Sirius, and a plethora of Internet based podcasts and streamers came onboard.


If radio was great, television was even better. But before we get into the nuts and bolts of how TV was broadcast, let’s take a look at how visual media was recorded in the first place.


Kinescope; image courtesy Peter Lindell, Canada Science and Technology Museum

Originally, all TV programming was live, since there was not yet a means of recording the television signal.  The first method of recording TV was with a Kinescope, which simply amounted to pointing a film camera at a TV monitor.  The picture produced was of a very poor quality compared to what we see today.


The Electronicam – a hybrid TV / movie camera is on display at the Texas Broadcast Museum. Photo by Jim Zura.

In 1955, the DuMont Television Network developed the Electronicam, a combination live TV camera and conventional movie camera that simultaneously recorded the program on film for later distribution.  The “Classic 39” episodes of Jackie Gleason’s “The Honeymooners” utilized this beast! 

Jackie Gleason himself, checking out the Electronicam. “How sweet it is!” Image courtesy Clarke Ingram.

The Electronicam insured that those TV shows were preserved on pristine high quality film.  And, this enabled the concept of reruns. Reversing the process – capturing movie film for TV broadcast – utilized a process  called telecine, This special process accounts for the different frame rates: TV in the U.S. is 30 frames per second; movies are 24.


The original videotape – reel-to-reel 2 inches wide. Photo by Jim Zura.

The first professional broadcast-quality videotape machines utilized two-inch wide video tape on reels. They were introduced by Ampex in 1956. It took into the 1960s before most local TV stations could afford such technology, but the national TV networks quickly took advantage of finally being able to record and edit quality television shows and re-broadcast them later and again.

Without going into technical detail, a quick laundry list of video tape formats launched from the downsizing of the video reel-to-reel tape format to the One-Inch (tape width), then onto a succession of Videocassette formats. 

Some of the vintage studio TV cameras on display at the Texas Broadcast Museum. Photo by Ria Nicholas

While there were “portable” one-inch machines, valuable for instant turnaround news-gathering, they were still quite bulky and power hungry.  The first truly portable videotape recording format was the Sony ¾” U-matic cassette, with its practical, portable recorders.   This format won the hearts of TV news operations and also opened the door for Corporate Videos to flourish. 

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Sony Betacam

BetaSP, DVCAM, MiniDV are among the many professional formats that emerged during the 80s and 90s. Photo by Jim Zura.

Then Sony greatly increased the quality of the portable videocassette with the advent of Betacam and its successor BetacamSP. This was clearly the best format, and for many years it was the only format, that the TV networks accepted from us camera folks in the field. (This is not to be confused with the ill-fated Betamax consumer format.)

Digital HD TV

Through the 1980s, tape cassette formats included JVC’s S-VHS, Panasonic’s MII and DVCPro, Sony’s DVCAM and Digital Betacam (and others I won’t bore you with).  But this would all go away with the advent and critical mass of High Definition (HD) Television.  Prior to HD, the Standard definition resolution was a maximum of 720 by 480 pixels on your television screen.  HD increased the resolution to 1920 by 1080 pixels.  While there were initially tape-based attempts at recording and editing HD, they didn’t last long since HD is inherently a digital video format, and non-linear editing became the norm.

Many of us with career experience in tape-based formats were initially a bit skeptical: Could we trust that our work was recording on a digital camera card? Gosh, how many times have our computers had issues with “kernel panic”, “not responding” or external devices not being recognized?  Well, we all made it through the early years of this century, and now we’ve long been enjoying the incredible advantages of the digital revolution in video. 

Shooting on BetacamSP in the old days at a remote travel location often included heading back home on an airplane with several breadbox-sized cartons of tapes, containing a total of several hours of raw footage.  And, rather than sending them through the security conveyor belt at the airport, we had to convince the TSA that these magnetic tapes could be destroyed by the scanner. We had to hand the tapes to the agents unscanned (which often proved to be difficult).  Today, those hours of footage can be contained on a couple of camera cards that fit into my shirt pocket, and since they’re not magnetic there is no issue with security.

Left: 10 BetaSP field tapes = 5 hours of Standard Definition raw footage. Right: 3 digital camera cards = 5.5 hours of High Definition raw footage.


The first consumer-grade videocassette players / recorders were launched in the mid 1970s but were not truly affordable until the early 1980s. This created another industry: movie rentals.

VHS vs. Betamax

The basic “format wars” of that time were between JVC’s VHS (Video Home System) and Sony’s Betamax.  Here’s where Sony really miscalculated:  At optimum quality, the VHS format provided for recordings of up to two hours.  Conversely, at optimum quality, Betamax allowed for only 90 minutes. 

Sony (Betamax) somehow missed the fact that the average timing of a Hollywood movie is 96 minutes.  Oh, you could double the capacity of the Betamax by selecting the 180 minute option, but that greatly reduced picture quality.  Sad, because the video quality of Betamax at its standard speed (90 minutes) was definitely superior to VHS. 

Betamax and VHS tapes.

GoPro, DJI, etc.

As consumer camcorders became affordable to the average family beginning in the 1990s, more video formats entered the market.  As the century turned, as with professional video, consumer video also became exclusively digital, and the SD card has since become the standard media.  Formats? Well GoPro, DJI and other manufacturers offer the option of .mov (Apple) and .mp4 (everything else).  Most editing software allows either one, or even a mix. (A more technical discussion would include AVI, H.264/265, WMV, FLV and others.)


In the 1980s the 12-inch LaserDisc attempted to gain a place in the video market.  This format provided a much higher quality picture than VHS tapes, and it was also the first example of Interactive Video.  The end user could make choices during the program that would affect how the playback would branch to a selection of segments, and would affect the outcome.  

This was an advantage for training programs; if the user got a question wrong, it would branch back to a review segment, and also keep a log for the trainer to review strengths and weaknesses.  It was also touted as a way for movie directors to create branches based on user input, so the plot could change depending on the users’ choices.  Despite these advantages, the cost of the players and disc production never reached critical mass, so they were not affordable for most consumers.


DVD – About 2 hours of Standard Definition video.

It took most of the 1990s for digital video technology and agreement among the highly competitive manufacturers to create a unified format for the Digital Video Disc, which we know as the DVD.  Using the same size disc as the already popular audio CD, the DVD could hold just over two hours of high-quality (albeit Standard Definition) video, and featured onscreen menus for interactive user choices. 


The DVD all but completely replaced VHS for video playback and recording.  However, the DVD is limited to Standard Definition with a resolution of 720 by 480 pixels on your screen.  As this century progressed, High Definition TV became more popular, and it isn’t possible to use the standard DVD format for HDTV.  By the second decade of this century the Blu-ray Disc, with the HDTV resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels, made its way into the consumer marketplace.

While Blu-ray players and movies are still readily available, with ever-increasing internet speeds and high quality streaming services, the age of physical video content is certainly waning.

4K and Beyond

4k video (3840 by 2160 pixels) is already popular in professional use, and as of this writing it is making its way into the consumer market, but content is limited.  And, you can actually buy an 8K TV (7680 by 4320) at Best Buy today, but there is currently no practical consumer content available.   Technically, there is a 16K (15,360 by 8,640) but that would be reserved for huge commercial display purposes.

Caption. Again, the Texas Museum of Broadcasting has fascinating examples of all of the above (except for 8K & 16K)!


While there were earlier attempts at television broadcast, it wasn’t until after World War II that things really began to get under way. By 1949 there were 98 TV stations in 58 cities in the U.S.

Black & White

As stated earlier, in the beginning, all television was live, since cameras, transmitters and monitors predated the ability to record the TV signal.  The development of TV is populated by dozens of inventors and technicians, but perhaps the most prominent were Vladimir Zworykin and Philo Farnsworth, who were embattled in a patent war in the 1930s.  The Farnsworth Technology was acquired by RCA, which set the standard of a 525-line black-and-white system in 1941.

The Dumont Telecruiser, built in 1949, is meticulously restored at the Museum. Image courtesy Texas Broadcast Museum.
Image courtesy Texas Broadcast Museum.

Of course, World War II slowed down the development of consumer entertainment products.  In 1949, DuMont Labs debuted its Telecruiser – a mobile TV remote production facility built into a in a Flxible (spelling is correct) bus-based vehicle!  The Texas Broadcast Museum acquired the very first one built for KBTV-Channel 8 in Dallas! It is configured for three cameras and was in use until 1972. (It was later owned Tom Potter, a Kilgore oil tycoon.)  It only has 14,400 miles on it, since it was only used locally. After meticulous restoration, it is the pride and joy of the Museum!

The KRLD-TV camera that televised the infamous historic moment when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald is on display at the Museum. Photo by Jim Zura.

The Telecruiser was used by WFAA Dallas and the ABC network for coverage of the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination in November 1963.  And, the actual TV camera that broadcast the horrific moment when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald is also among the Museum’s camera collection.

Color TV

It wasn’t until the mid 1960s that color TV sets started selling in large numbers.  In 1965 it was announced that over half of all network prime-time programming would be broadcast in color. 

In most major cities, the “big three” networks (ABC, CBS & NBC) all had local affiliates, and by the late 60s PBS joined the lineup, along with a UHF station or two.  

Cable TV

Cable TV began as a replacement for over-the-air TV programming in some rural areas and in mountainous cities, where the terrain created a challenge for TV reception.  In 1948, cable services providing broadcast TV channels were installed in Arkansas, Oregon and Pennsylvania.  Things changed as the 1980s approached, and cable posed a viable threat to the networks.  In 1979, ESPN became the first 24-hour cable network.

One of ESPN’s first mobile TV units, on display at the Museum. Climb aboard, and take a look around! Image courtesy Texas Broadcast Museum.

Advancements in video technology, bandwidth, and improvements in digital TV created an avalanche of demand for consumer Cable TV in the 1990s. That decade began with 57% of U.S. TV households and 79 TV networks on cable. At that time, decent quality video on the Internet was practically nonexistent, since the Internet was accessible primarily through very slow telephone dial-up connections.

By 2012, 93% of American households had access to cable broadband, which – importantly – now included the Internet! This means that cable’s looming competitor, high-speed broadband Internet with High Definition streaming video and video-on-demand, was now part of the package from your cable company. 

While traditional cable TV and the original “big three” networks are still a driving force, every TV content provider has diversified into new distribution technologies. High-speed fiber optic networks are now gaining market share.


The future of audio and video recording and broadcasting is here and now and ever expanding.  Wireless and on-demand content are expected to eclipse legacy delivery methods.  And with a plethora of Social Media options, including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Youtube, TikTok and many more, literally at your fingertips, you are now a part of it all.

Just think: for the past 100+ years, everything that all those inventors and technicians created and pushed forward has led up to today’s means of content and distribution. You don’t need a lucky break from a TV network or a record company to put your creativity in front of an international audience. With the Internet the pipeline is there for you to create and promote your skills and wares.

You are the future of audio and video broadcasting – which means its history is your history! Enjoy!


Complete operating TV news set; photo by Jim Zura.
35 mm movie projector; photo by Jim Zura.

The Texas Museum of Broadcasting & Communications has other fascinating legacy items on display, such as 35mm carbon-arc movie projectors, a complete TV news set, several radio studios, and a Showco audio mixing board designed specifically for James Taylor’s 1973 tour – and subsequently used by Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt!

The Showco audio mixing board that served the concerts of numerous legendary musicians. Photo by Jim Zura.

They also have a vintage telephone switchboard, and even a tube tester!

Studio 4, their banquet area, can accommodate 200 to 300 seated guests and is available for event rental. 

The Museum’s event facility; photo by Jim Zura.

The Texas Museum of Broadcasting & Communications is located at  416 E. Main St.  Kilgore, Texas  75662.

Currently their hours are 10 AM to 5 PM on Fridays and Saturdays; groups by appointment.  The Museum also hosts the Texas Radio Hall of Fame. 

A visit to Kilgore should also include the East Texas Oil Museum.

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Tuskegee Institute: A Roll-Call of Self-Made Men

Nathan Richardson as Frederick Douglass

Please allow me to welcome guest writer Nathan Richardson. Mr. Richardson is a poet, author, and Frederick Douglass historian based out of Suffolk, Virginia. Among his many other accomplishments, Richardson is in his 7th year with the Frederick Douglass Speaking Tour, in which he delivers a compelling portrayal of the former slave, writer, orator and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, at venues across the U.S. This engaging living history series has produced film credits with the National Park Service and with Alabama Public Television. To book Mr. Richardson for a Frederick Douglass presentation, visit his Website at SCPublishing. –Ria Nicholas

Frederick Douglass At Tuskegee

By Nathan Richardson

Frederick Douglass

On May 26, 1892, Frederick Douglass gave the commencement address at Tuskegee Institute. Thousands of people arrived on campus to hear him speak, some coming from as far away as thirty or forty miles. Douglass did not disappoint his audience. At 74 years old, he still had “all the eloquence, spirit and humor of youth,” a reporter noted, and the speech he delivered was an old crowd-pleaser called “Self-Made Men.”

Self-made men … are the men who owe little or nothing to birth, relationship, friendly surroundings; to wealth inherited or to early approved means of education; who are what they are, without the aid of any of the favoring conditions by which other men usually rise in the world and achieve great results.

— Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass as a young man

Douglass’s address at Tuskegee was the capstone for nine days of speaking engagements throughout the South. He had already visited most (if not all) of the African-American schools for higher education in Knoxville, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Atlanta. At Fisk University, Douglass brought the students and faculty to tears when he described how, during his enslaved youth, “he fought with the dogs for crumbs to satisfy his hunger, and learned to write by scratching in the sand.” Douglass himself was “overcome with emotion” while reflecting on his past.

Although Douglass’s experiences in bondage were more than fifty years behind him, the memories were still painful. And Douglass was finding that, even though he was a prominent public figure and former federal official, he was still subject to racial oppression. On his way through Tennessee, he had been forced to sit in a segregated train car where luggage was stored.

Image courtesy the Library of Congress

Without a doubt, Douglass was indignant over such treatment, but, in this instance, he appears not to have protested. It could have cost him his life. Just two months before the trip, a Tennessee newspaper had warned that Douglass might be lynched if he traveled through the state. His offense? He had recently criticized the lawlessness of white mobs who perpetrated racial violence.

Considering the threat on his life, it is remarkable that Douglass kept his speaking engagements in the South at all. While traveling, his train even reportedly crossed a bridge near Manchester, Tennessee, where the body of Charles Everett, a lynching victim, still hung. Frederick Douglass was brave. — The End

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Travel Tips

By Ria Nicholas

Things to See and Do In Tuskegee

The Oaks

The Oaks

“The Oaks” is the elegant home of Tuskegee Institute’s first principal and founder, Booker T. Washington. Washington was born into slavery in Virginia in 1856. After emancipation, he went to work as a ‘domestic’ for a West Virginia family, and later attended night school while working in the salt furnaces there. Appreciating the importance of education, he enrolled in the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia in 1872.

Booker T. Washington

At the age of 25, Washington was recruited to serve as principal of “Tuskegee Normal School for colored teachers.” There were no school buildings when he arrived, so he held classes at a church. The following year, a permanent building, designed by African-American instructors and built by African-American students, was erected. Washington’s mission was to attract the best and brightest Black educators to Tuskegee to provide newly-emancipated Black students with a practical education that would lead to independence and self-sufficiency. Known for his keen intellect, Washington was a talented organizer, fund-raiser, author and orator, and became an informal advisor to presidents McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and Taft.

The Oaks is part of the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site. Free 45-minute tours of The Oaks are typically available on Tuesdays through Saturdays at 9:30 AM, 10:30 AM, 1:30 PM, 2:30 PM, and 3:30 PM. You must join a tour to see the inside of the house. Get an up-to-date schedule on the National Park Service’s Things to Do web page. The Oaks is located at 905 W Montgomery Rd, Tuskegee, AL 36083.

George Washington Carver Museum

The initial emphasis of Booker T. Washington’s school at Tuskegee was on industrial and agricultural training, since most freed slaves had experience in farming and blue collar work. To that end, Washington hired George Washington Carver, an educator and botanist from Iowa State College, to head the school’s Agriculture Department in 1896.

George Washington Carver

Carver had also been born into slavery in the early 1860s, in Missouri. While he was an infant, George, his mother, and his sister were kidnapped by slave raiders. His owner, Moses Carver, was able to retrieve only young George. Moses Carver and his wife raised George and his brother as their own. Because George Washington Carver was a sickly child, he was unable to fully participate in chores and spent much of his childhood collecting and experimenting with rocks, soil, and plants. Recognizing his bright and curious mind, his step parents sent him to school to earn the equivalent of a high school education in 1877. By 1896 he had earned his masters degree in biology at Iowa State University, where he joined the faculty as its first Black member.

It was from here that Booker T. Washington hired him. During his lifetime, Carver was not only an educator, but also a prolific inventor, who created more than 300 products from peanuts alone (although not peanut butter) and many more from other plants . Carver also revolutionized agricultural practices, introducing crop rotation to Southern farms to restore the soil. Carver remained at Tuskegee for 47 years.

“All mankind are the beneficiaries of his discoveries in the field of agricultural chemistry. The things which he achieved in the face of early handicaps will for all time afford an inspiring example to youth everywhere.”

— Franklin D. Roosevelt

The George Washington Carver Museum is also part of the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site. The Museum and Visitor Center are open Monday through Saturday from 9 AM to 4:30 PM. They are closed on Sundays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. The Museum is located near The Oaks, at Campus Rd, Tuskegee, AL 36088.

George Washington Carver Museum; image courtesy Jessamyn (Creative Commons).

Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site / Moton Field

Built between 1940 and 1942, Moton Field was the only primary flight facility for African-American pilot candidates in the U.S. Army Air Corps (precursor of the Air Force) during World War II. Tuskegee Institute was the civilian contractor that supplied the facilities: quarters, mess hall, hangers, offices, etc. After cadets completed their primary flight training at Moton Field, they transferred to Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF), a segregated facility, to complete their training with the Army Air Corps.

First Tuskegee Class

The impetus was a “military experiment” to ascertain if African Americans had the mental and physical ability and courage to operate military aircraft and serve in leadership positions. The result was the legendary Tuskegee Airmen. The first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps (AAC), the Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 15,000 individual sorties in Europe and North Africa during World War II, earning more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses. The exceptional record of the Tuskegee Airmen ultimately led to the desegregation of the military by Harry S. Truman and served as a springboard for the modern Civil Rights Movement.

The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site is located at 1616 Chappie James Avenue and is open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Please check for updates in their schedule.

Tuskegee Airmen

Tuskegee, Alabama is only one of many stops along the Civil Rights Trail.

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One Thousand Years at Taos Pueblo

How Po’Pay Saved His People

by Ria Nicholas

When Jim and I visited Taos Pueblo a couple of years ago, we were immediately struck by the beauty of its natural setting, by the warmth of its people, and by its indefinable sense of timelessness. The Pueblo has presided over the mountains of New Mexico since long before there even was a “New Mexico” – or an old Mexico, for that matter. It was here during the Civil War and during the American Revolution. It provided shelter for its people before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and probably even before Christopher Columbus was born.

The Race to America
‘Leif Erikson Discovers America’ by Hans Dahl (1849-1937);
image has been placed in the public domain.

Columbus wasn’t the first to discover America, of course. Neither was Leif Erikson 500 years before him, in 1001 CE. There were others, First Americans, who were already here and can be traced from the present day backward into the murky prehistoric past. Scientists speculate on exactly when or how they got here – though the theory that they walked from Asia across a Land Bridge during the Ice Age seems unlikely in light of the vast and hostile desert of ice they would have encountered. And with fossil records and artifacts indicating that these Original People were already widespread in the Americas more than 15,000 years ago*, we might as well say that they have always been here. And so we call them Native.

* According to Ciprian Ardelean of the Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas and Tom Higham of the University of Oxford, archaeological sites at Chiquihuite Cave in central Mexico and several sites in Brazil offer up tantalizing finds, suggesting that perhaps humans may have occupied these areas as early as 33,000 years ago. (BBC.com, July 22, 2020)

Arctic landscape; photo courtesy NOAA. Ice Age glaciation made a Land Bridge crossing unlikely.

Whichever way they got here, anthropological records reveal that these First Americans developed cultures that were complex and rich and diverse. There is, in fact, such variety among indigenous people today that a blanket designation like Native “American” is no more helpful and exact than the term “European,” “Asian” or “African.” The Inuit of Northern Canada resemble the Seminoles of Florida about as much as Laplanders do Sicilians.

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The blue doors and windows are a later addition and a concession to a more contemporary lifestyle. Photo by Ria Nicholas

The Pueblo

Certainly not all Native people of the past wore feathered headdresses nor lived in teepees, as is so often depicted in vintage Westerns. In the American Southwest, where arid conditions prevail, indigenous people optimized available resources by building homes of adobe. These stone and mud-brick houses, with their rooftop entrances and retractable ladders, were built, not only for efficiency, but also to moderate temperatures and provide security.

One of the most incredible examples of this architectural genius survives to the present day in the 1,000-year-old Taos Pueblo*, a National Historic Landmark and UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the oldest continuously inhabited structure in North America.

*The 1,000-year time-frame includes the pit-house period. A pit-house is a large, often circular, in-ground house used for shelter, storage, and / or cultural activities. A pit-house(s) predated the present-day adobe structures, which archaeologists date from about 1350 CE.

Taos Pueblo sits at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. We were awestruck at the massive and ancient structure and felt transported in time. Photo by Ria Nicholas

The designation ‘Taos Pueblo’ seems a bit redundant: it turns out that the Spanish name “Taos” derives from the Tanoan word tə̂o, meaning “village.” The Spanish word “Pueblo,” of course, also means “village.” But then, there is no denying the importance of community in the lives of the Pueblo people. Called ȉałopháymųp’ȍhə́othə̀olbo, or “at red willow canyon mouth” in the Tanoan language, Taos Pueblo consists of a series of ‘apartments’ that share common walls, while remaining separate.

Unaltered diagram of vigas and latillas as seen from below;
courtesy Ciaberde

Large timbers, dubbed vigas*, support the roofs. Smaller pieces of wood, called latillas*, sit side-by-side across the vigas, and all is covered and packed with dirt. Two multi-story structures – one on the north, called Hlauuma, and one on the south, called Hlaukwima – served as look-out ‘towers’ and rank among the oldest structures within the Pueblo.

* ‘Vigas’ and ‘latillas’ are Spanish, not Tanoan, words.

Like other pueblos, the one at Taos included round, recessed places of worship, known as kivas, where traditional spiritual ceremonies were held.

The warm, sunny days and cool nights of summer insure that Taos bursts with flowers. We browsed the quaint shops here at Taos City Center before driving over to the Pueblo.
Photo by Ria Nicholas

While Taos Pueblo – located only one mile from modern-day Taos, New Mexico – attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year, it is vital to remember that a sojourn here takes us onto sacred ground and sovereign Native lands. About 150 full-time residents make their home at the Pueblo, and another 2,600 or so Native people live on the 100,000 surrounding acres. Here residents deftly bridge the traditional with the modern.

A Brief Retelling of a Long History

A number of distinct Southwestern indigenous groups built stone and adobe structures, and non-Native Americans commonly refer to these people collectively as the ‘Pueblo Indians.’ The Pueblo people of Taos are descended from the ancient Puebloan cliff dwellers of the Mesa Verde region.

Mesa Verde (photo courtesy AlisonRuthHughes); built circa 1100 CE.
Notice the ‘beehive’ oven, used to bake bread or steam corn. Photo by Ria Nicholas

Archaeologists date the emergence of the ancient Puebloan culture to around the 12th century BCE. For thousands of years, the Puebloan people maintained their livelihood through hunting and farming. Some groups demonstrated expertise in irrigation and agriculture, growing such crops as corn, squash, pumpkins, cotton, tobacco and beans. Other occupations included basket weaving and pottery making. Aside from occasional clashes with the Diné*, the Ndee and Numinu, they lived peacefully at Taos, and many other pueblos, for hundreds of years.

* Non-Native Americans often unwittingly use incorrect and even derisive names for tribes. For example, “Navajo” is actually a Spanish adaptation of the Tewa Pueblo word navahu’u, meaning “farm fields in the valley.” The “Navajo” people call themselves Diné. Similarly, “Apache” is an Ashiwi word meaning “enemy;” the correct name is Ndee. And “Comanche” is a “Ute” word for “enemy.” The correct name for “Comanches” is Numinu. (The “Ute” call themselves Nuciu.)

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Bust of a Conquistador, possibly Coronado

Then, beginning in 1540, Spaniards arrived in the area in search of ‘Cibola,’ the mythical Seven Cities of Gold. Initially, the Pueblo people were gracious. However, under the leadership of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, the Spaniards quickly wore out their welcome, trying to subjugate their hosts and force the Catholic religion on them. During the resulting Tiguex War, a war of resistance, Spanish forces killed thousands of Pueblo people. These hostilities, together with diseases carried by the Spaniards, such as smallpox, resulted in the involuntary abandonment of many pueblos.

Although the Pueblo people adopted many Christian icons and blended them with their own religious symbols, Spanish friars treated any adherence to traditional worship as heresy. In the ensuing years, attempts to convert the Pueblo people to pure Catholicism grew increasingly violent. Then, in 1675, Governor Juan Francisco Treviño had forty-seven Pueblo medicine men arrested, accusing them of witchcraft. Four of the men were sentenced to death. The rest were publicly whipped, imprisoned, and sentenced to slavery.

San Geronimo Church, built in 1850 to replace the prior church, which was destroyed by U.S. troops when Indians took refuge there during their resistance to American take-over of their land.

Pueblo leaders responded decisively, moving en masse to Santa Fe and forcing the release of the prisoners. Among those released was a Tewa religious leader named Po’Pay. He temporarily retreated to Taos Pueblo, from where he coordinated an uprising of 46 Pueblo villages against the Spanish occupation. Beginning August 21st, 1680, an army of 2,500 Pueblo warriors defeated and expelled the Spanish in what has become known as the ‘Pueblo Revolt’ or ‘Po’Pay’s Rebellion.’

Po’Pay had done what no one before him was able to do. He had united the sometimes rival Pueblo villages in a secret, effective attack against an occupying force. It was a uniquely successful uprising against colonialism in North America.

The rebellion had cost 400 Spanish lives, expelled the Spaniards from the region, and set Po’Pay up as the leader of a unified Pueblo people. When the Spaniards returned the following year with a force of 300 men, Po’Pay’s army was able to repel them. Another attempt by Spain to regain the territory in 1687 also resulted in failure.

On September 22, 2005, a statue of Po’Pay, by artist Cliff Fragua, was unveiled in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. It was the 100th and last one, representing the Senate, and is the only statue in the collection created by a Native American. Image courtesy dougward; image has been cropped.

Po’Pay died in 1688. Meanwhile drought, attack by rival tribes, and internal strife had weakened the Pueblo alliance.

“It took a unique individual to orchestrate the revolt across two dozen communities who spoke six different languages and were sprawled over a distance of nearly 400 miles.”

–Matthew Martinez, New Mexico State historian

In 1692, the Spanish returned. But Po’Pay’s Rebellion had brought about a permanent compromise. Governor Diego de Vargas promised pardon in place of punishment, the encomienda system of forced labor was prohibited, and Franciscan friars no longer interfered in traditional native religion as long as the Pueblo maintained the outward appearance of Catholicism.

Since then, a succession of Spanish, Mexican and U.S. governments has repeatedly imposed itself on the Pueblo and its people. But Po’Pay’s legacy of pride has left a permanent mark. With only minor exceptions, the Pueblo people have managed to maintain their traditional way of life into the present.

Photo by Ria Nicholas

In 1970, President Richard Nixon returned 48,000 acres of mountain land, that the U.S. had previously confiscated under the Theodore Roosevelt administration for incorporation into the Carson National Forest. An additional 764 acres was returned to the Tribe in 1996. The sacred Blue Lake, central to the Puebloan creation story, was included in the transfer.

“This is a bill that represents justice, because in 1906 an injustice was done in which land involved in this bill, 48,000 acres, was taken from the Indians involved, the Taos Pueblo Indians. The Congress of the United States now returns that land to whom it belongs … I can’t think of anything more appropriate or any action that could make me more proud as President of the United States.”

— President Richard M. Nixon

Today, the Pueblo people have the right to self-governance, including the right to make and enforce laws, to levy taxes, to determine membership, and to exclude persons from tribal lands, among others.

Understandably, the complexities of the Pueblo religion and the details of the residents’ personal lives remain a private matter.

Travel Tips

Taos Pueblo is located at 120 Veterans Highway, Taos, New Mexico 87571. For an excellent introductory guide, view this video from New Mexico True TV, with host, Michael Newman.

The author, Ria Nicholas, and Jim Zura of Zura Productions at Taos Pueblo.
We absolutely loved the beauty, mystery and history of this ancient village!

When visiting Taos Pueblo, be sure to review any literature and signage containing guidelines for your stay. Always apply the following rules of etiquette:

  • Don’t enter a building without an invitation or unless it is clearly marked as open for business.
  • Stay in the immediate village area. Don’t wander onto private property. 
  • Don’t hike or camp on Native lands without permission.
  • Keep your children under control at all times.
  • Don’t bring pets, alcohol, weapons or illegal drugs with you.
  • Don’t enter kivas, cemeteries, or other sacred places.
  • Don’t climb on walls or other structures.
  • Don’t pick up or remove any artifacts, including pieces of broken pottery.
  • Obey all traffic, parking, and speed limit signs in the community.
  • Be courteous and respectful of Native traditions and ways.
  • Don’t litter!
  • Don’t offer to buy something unless it’s for sale. (For example, if someone is wearing it, it is generally not for sale.)

There are several shops at the Pueblo, offering a variety of Native arts, crafts and souvenirs. Some of these shops have been in a family for generations. Here artisans present pottery, paintings, sculptures and more for sale. We purchased some beautiful hand-crafted jewelry to bring home as gifts for family and friends.

Dress for the weather. In the desert, temperature swings can be extreme, with very hot weather during the day and very cold weather after dark. Be sure to bring layers and sunscreen.

Taos, New Mexico offers many historical buildings and shopping opportunities.

But the other “absolutely must see” in the area is the incredible Rio Grande Gorge! Here the Rio Grande River follows a 50-mile-long tectonic chasm that reaches a depth of 800 feet near the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge northwest of Taos.

Photo by Ria Nicholas

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Roughing it near Taos, NM


Mud, Mayhem, and the Making of Millionaires

Dirty Dealings On Display at the East Texas Oil Museum In Kilgore

By Ria Nicholas

Please read to the end of this post for a map and directions, museum schedule, a hotel recommendation, tips on nearby attractions – and to browse some really unique and relevant coffee mugs I’ve curated.

Kilgore Street in the historic downtown, with “World’s Richest Acre” rising up behind; photo by Ria Nicholas.

Most folks outside of Texas have never heard of the little town of Kilgore. But, in fact, it lies at the epicenter of a series of discoveries and deals that rocked our history and culture – almost to the core, so to speak. And the whole wild, down-and-dirty drama is preserved in an unlikely building on the campus of Kilgore College, known as the East Texas Oil Museum.

The exterior of the museum belies its unusual content!

But don’t let the name “East Texas Oil Museum” fool you! If you long to stand in front of a display of drill bits and read dull, technical museum labels, this museum is NOT for you. The East Texas Oil Museum is nothing – and I mean absolutely NOTHING – like that! Instead, it transports visitors to another decade and immerses them in the day-to-day details of life in an oil boom town.

(Click on the link to view the video):

Video tour of the museum: The East Texas Oil Museum has something for everyone
and is an ideal place to show your children or grandchildren what life was like in the not-so-distant past.

We receive a small commission, at no additional cost to you, for any of the items you purchase through our site. Scroll to the bottom of this post to see the entire collection of ‘oil can’ coffee mugs!

Brief Background: The Beginning

Oil madness had started thirty years earlier, in 1901, with Spindletop, the iconic blowout of black gold near Beaumont, Texas, 185 miles to the South. There had been other wells, of course, starting with one drilled as early as 1859 in northwestern Pennsylvania. But at that time, oil was used primarily in kerosene lamps and as an industrial lubricant. Nothing thus far had compared with Spindletop!

Spindletop Oilfield near Beaumont – photo is in the public domain because the copyright has expired.

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Interest in the Spindletop field began with a self-taught geologist, Patillo Higgins, who reasoned that petroleum should be lurking under the salt dome there. Though Higgins’ theory was initially met with skepticism, the 150-foot-high geyser of crude that later erupted from the newly-drilled wellbore vindicated him. Not only did Spindletop belch up an astonishing 100,000 barrels of oil per day, it attracted a throng of wildcatters and investors to East Texas.

One of several vintage vehicles on display at the
East Texas Oil Museum; photo by Ria Nicholas

At around this same time, the nascent automotive and oil industries began their symbiotic alliance. Details surrounding the “who, what, and when” of automobile invention are topics for another day. But Henry Ford’s 1913 development of a moving assembly line finally allowed him to mass-produce his American classic, the Model T. The internal combustion engine now became a major factor in fueling the demand for oil.

Of Schemes, Scams, and Scandals
Columbus Marion “Dad” Joiner

Among the speculators drawn to East Texas by the young but growing petroleum industry, was a colorful character with the equally colorful name Columbus Marion “Dad” Joiner. He arrived at what would become known as the East Texas Oil Field in rural Rusk County in 1926 and began spudding wells just after the onset of the Great Depression.

Rural East Texas had been largely bypassed by the economic euphoria of the Roaring Twenties. Life was simple here. Conservative values dominated, and under the encouraging rhetoric of the Hoover Administration, locals perceived the Stock Market Crash of October 1929 as a problem constrained to wealthy Wall Street gamblers. Here, on the other hand, was an opportunity to bootstrap substantial material gain through wholesome hard work. For impoverished rural East Texans, oil exploration presented, perhaps, their one and only chance for a better life. The pump was primed – if you’ll pardon the pun – for wild speculation and exploitation.

Walk into the Gusher Gazette Newspaper office at the East Texas Oil Museum and have a look around.
The U.S. stock market crash and the discovery of oil in East Texas were major headlines of the day!
Photo by Ria Nicholas.
The details of a 1930s domestic scene are on display at the East Texas Oil Museum. With the economic boom following the discovery of oil, housewives enjoyed modern conveniences. Could Daisy Bradford’s kitchen have looked like this? Photo by Ria Nicholas

In an apparent scheme to sell worthless mineral leases to the naively hopeful natives – especially to widows – “Dad” Joiner secured a bogus geological report purporting to show the existence of local oil deposits. He also asserted that major oil companies had begun to invest. To cloak his dubious claims in an aura of truth, he commenced a lackluster show of successive drilling attempts on land belonging to the widow Daisy Bradford. Through his personality and charm, “Daddy” Joiner was able to generate great enthusiasm and to sell more than 100% of several oil leases.

Some historians reason that Joiner’s strategy depended on drilling dry holes. In such events, the loss of investment money could be chalked up to the luck of the draw. Investors would simply have to take their lumps. With nothing to cash in on, they weren’t likely to discover the mathematical impossibility that they were one of six or more owners of “quarter shares” in a mineral lease.

Columbus Marion “Dad” Joiner (3rd from the left) shakes hands with self-proclaimed geologist A.D. “Doc” Lloyd whose bogus geological report aided Joiner in securing investments.
Third from the right is Haroldson Lafayette (H.L.) Hunt in a straw hat.

After abandoning two failed efforts, and after overselling shares to a third well, no one could have been more surprised than Joiner himself, when, on October 3, 1930, he actually struck oil. Success had finally caught up with him: striking oil meant he would now have to answer in court for overselling shares in his ventures.

We were able to walk around in a typical 1930s general store at the East Texas Oil Museum. Photo by Ria Nicholas
Enter Another Colorful Character
H.L. Hunt; image is in the pubic domain.

Joiner’s operation went into voluntary receivership, and he felt motivated to disentangle himself from the legal repercussions of his faulty math. The answer seemed to lie in the sale of his oil interests. The purchaser was Haroldson Lafayette (H.L.) Hunt, a successful businessman and gambler, who had parleyed his winnings at the poker tables of New Orleans into a portfolio of oil well investments.

Although Hunt was broke at the moment, he had accumulated a wealth of experience and savvy. In a smoke-filled Dallas hotel room, Hunt gathered an entourage of financial supporters to front him the money, spy and report to him on other East Texas drilling efforts, and isolate “Dad” Joiner from the latest news emerging from the oil field.

H.L. Hunt statue looms over visitors at the East Texas Oil Museum

Once Hunt received word of the success of the Deep Rock well, only a mile West of Joiner’s discovery well, he negotiated the purchase of Joiner’s rights in the East Texas Oil Field. The price? A million dollars and change – to be paid in installments. As part of the package, Hunt agreed to protect “Daddy” Joiner from his many legal liabilities. Meanwhile, Joiner, who remained ignorant of the fact that Deep Rock had also struck oil, believed in the advantage of his deal. But, alas, the con man had been conned. Joiner had sold his interests to Hunt for a fraction of their actual worth.

At the time of Joiner’s death, some nine years later, his estate was only negligible. By 1957, Hunt*, on the other hand, counted among the nations wealthiest men, and by the time of his death in 1974, his net worth was estimated at $1 billion.

*The Museum, which opened in 1980, was originally funded by Hunt’s Placid Oil Company and furnished by donations of artifacts from community members. Today, the Museum is supported by gifts, grants, and admission fees.

“In terms of extraordinary, independent wealth, there is only one man—H. L. Hunt.”

–J. Paul Getty, Founder of Getty Oil
This mule-drawn wagon at the Museum represents the farmer, fleeing the ravages of the Dust Bowl to seek his fortune in the oil fields of East Texas. Photo by Ria Nicholas
Petroleum Delirium

As Deep Rock and other nearby wells in East Texas struck oil, it set off the biggest frenzy since the Klondike Gold Rush. Wildcatters poured in from everywhere, farmers converted to roughnecks, and the rate of drilling and oil production skyrocketed to over a million barrels a day. It quickly reached the point of saturating the market – and the ground – and plummeting oil prices to 15 cents a barrel.

Blacksmiths, like this one at the Museum, had to make a shift from working on farm equipment and horseshoes to fabricating oil field equipment. Photo by Ria Nicholas

In 1917, the Texas legislature had declared petroleum pipelines to be common carriers*, and in the ensuing years had tasked the Texas Railroad Commission with regulating oil and gas production. But, even though the Railroad Commission imposed rations at the East Texas Oil Field, it had no power of enforcement. And the local population was in no mood to be denied. Many assumed the oil boom would be short-lived and were desperate to stake their claim.

*A common carrier is an individual or business that regularly transports goods or passengers on regular routes at set rates. Today, common carriers are federally regulated. Utility companies and telecommunications companies also are considered common carriers.

East Texas Oil Museum roughnecks

The result was a melee of run-away production. In response to the unapologetic squandering of natural resources in defiance of the Texas Railroad Commission, Governor Ross Sterling took action. He deployed the Texas Rangers and the National Guard to restore order and enforce production limits. Although a federal court overturned Sterling’s right to impose martial law, it became obvious that something had to be done!

“If an inhabitant from Mars were to visit us, he could hardly escape a feeling of bewilderment if not actual dismay at the manner we earthlings carry on this great enterprise, so essential to our convenience and welfare.”

–William Farish, Humble oil
A 22-minute documentary movie consisting of original footage from the 1930s tells the story of East Texas oil and ends with . . . a special surprise!

Tax revenue derived from Texas oil production now outstripped taxes generated by “King Cotton.” The roller coaster ups and downs of this unregulated industry disrupted the economy of the entire state. Finally, a special session of the Texas Legislature passed the Connolly Hot Oil* Act of 1935. It essentially authorized Federal enforcement of the Texas Railroad Commission’s directives, which attempted to stabilize oil production.

Contrary to the concerns of wildcatters, the regulation of oil production worked. Oil prices rose and stabilized, and the economy continued to flourish. The rest, as they say, is history.

* Hot Oil is a term for oil illegally produced (and smuggled) above the amount allowed by quotas.

All kinds of business benefited from the influx of people and money.
Take a peek inside the barber shop at the East Texas Oil Museum. Photo by Ria Nicholas
Oil, Oil Everywhere . . .
Animatronic lineman at the East Texas Oil Museum brings electricity to town.
Photo by Ria Nicholas

The population of Kilgore, which had grown from 500 people before the boom to 12,000 by the middle of the decade, settled down as well. Businesses of all kinds benefited, and the standard of living in East Texas improved vastly.

Geologists subsequently determined that the East Texas Oil Field is one immense deposit of oil, one of the largest in America. Since its discovery, it has produced nearly six billion barrels of oil. In fact, the petroleum produced from the East Texas Oil Field significantly contributed to driving the allied military machine during WWII.

Today, oil touches our lives in countless ways. It is, of course, the basis of most of our transportation fuel – of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. Oil is necessary to the production of plastics – in countless toys, medical devices, and household items. It is used in asphalt, plexiglass, and solar panels. Oil is present in electronics, textiles, dish washing liquid, and sporting goods. It serves as an additive in many cosmetics and beauty products – and not just as their containers. And, like it or not, it even shows up in our food on occasion, in the preservatives. Lastly, because every silver lining has its dark cloud, it has grown into the dual global burdens of carbon emissions and plastic pollution, challenging the inventiveness and audacity of the next generation.

Oil derricks at “World’s Richest Acre” in Kilgore, Texas; photo by Ria Nicholas.
At the height of production, there were 1,100 oil derricks in Kilgore alone.

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Travel Tips

Location and Hours

Kilgore is located only 30 minutes East of Tyler; 1 hour West of Shreveport; 1 hour, 50 minutes East of Dallas; 1 hour, 50 minutes South of Texarkana; and 3 hours, 10 minutes North of Houston.

You will find the East Texas Oil Museum at 1301 S. Henderson Blvd., Kilgore, TX 75662, on the Kilgore College campus. Free parking is available on Ross Avenue, behind the Museum.

Hours are generally Wednesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; however, the last admission is at 4 p.m. (We recommend that you allow at least 1 ½ hours to tour the museum.) Additionally, because the museum is part of Kilgore College, it is closed during Thanksgiving, Winter, Spring, and Easter breaks. (Be sure to check the schedule in advance.) At the time of this writing, adult admission is $10, with discounts for children, seniors and military.

The museum is ADA accessible.

Where To Stay

(Note: we are not receiving any compensation for this recommendation.)

We stayed at the Comfort Suites, just 1 mile from the museum at 1210 Hwy 259 N, Kilgore, TX 75662. The rate was very reasonable, and the room was spotless and contemporary. Of course it had a mini-fridge, microwave, coffee maker and large cable TV. We also appreciated other thoughtful touches, such as the generous number of outlets, including a charging station at the desk. The restroom had a sizeable counter and a gentle nightlight. (No need to flip on a light in the middle of the night and blind yourself.) And there were plenty of towels. Because of COVID, the kitchen was closed, but the hotel provided a brown-bag continental breakfast.

Nearby Attractions
Image courtesy the Texas Broadcast Museum

Texas Broadcast Museum

While in Kilgore, we also visited the Texas Broadcast Museum, located at 416 E Main Street. This museum spotlights the people and equipment of broadcasting’s Golden Age and features working television and radio studios and vintage equipment of all sorts – even vintage news trucks! Needless to say, we played here for a couple of hours as well. The Broadcast Museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Adult admission is $6. (We will feature additional information on the Texas Broadcast Museum in a future post.)

Tyler Rose Garden

Image courtesy Michael Barera

The Tyler Rose Garden, located at 420 Rose Park Dr, Tyler, TX 75702, is a 30-minute drive west of Kilgore. This 14 acre public park, established in 1952, is the nation’s largest rose garden and boasts more than 38,000 rose bushes, as well as fountains, walking paths, and gazebos. Admission to the Rose Garden is free. Please visit their website for hours, best time to visit, and for information on the Rose Garden Center and on the Rose Museum and Gift Shop.

Texas State Railroad

Photo by Ria Nicholas

Seventy-four miles (one and a half hours) southwest of Kilgore, in Palestine [PAL-eh-steen], you can board an historical train for a four-hour round trip through the East Texas Piney Woods. Originally built in 1883 to haul raw materials to a smelter at the state prison in Rusk, the Texas State Railroad now serves as a popular tourist attraction. The Palestine depot is located at 789 Park Rd 70, Palestine, TX 75801. Please check their website for dates, times, details and to book your reservations. While we didn’t swing by the Texas State Railroad on this trip – it doesn’t operate in February – we have ridden the train there before. We have a special place in our hearts for vintage trains and steam locomotives, so of course we loved it. Everyone should experience a vintage steam train ride at some time in their lives.

Oil Can Coffee Mugs:

We receive a small commission, at no additional cost to you, for any of the below items you purchase through our site. Your purchases help us to continue to bring you fun and interesting ideas and information on American travel destinations without a paywall or intrusive ads.

I think these 11 oz. collectible “oil can” ceramic coffee mugs are a hoot! Just click on the main images for more information. If you decide to buy, please buy by clicking through on our site:

Shell Oil


Houston’s Puttin’ On the Ritz!

The Majestic Metro Theater Is the Bee’s Knees!

By Ria Nicholas

Please read (or scroll) to the end of this post to browse some Roaring Twenties theme party ideas I’ve curated.

Just a few days ago I went with Jim Zura to help video a musical performance (without audience) at Houston’s Majestic Metro Theater at 911 Preston Street. I’d never heard of the place before, let alone been there. What an unexpected surprise! It was vintage, so needless to say, I fell completely in love with the venue.

The Majestic Metro is Houston’s only theater, built before 1930, to survive to the present day. It opened as a movie theater under the name “the Ritz” on April 15, 1926 – the year my mother was born.

The Ritz / Majestic Metro: view from foyer toward the auditorium; photo by Ria Nicholas

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Curio cabinet with projector in foyer; photo by Ria Nicholas

By then people were beginning to relegate the horrors of WWI and the deadly Spanish flu pandemic to history, and no one had reason to anticipate the coming deprivations of the Great Depression. The Roaring Twenties was a decade of post-war euphoria, economic prosperity and general optimism. Consumers indulged in purchasing automobiles, electricity and radios.

On August 18, 1920, Congress had ratified the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote. ‘Flaming youth’ began testing sexual mores as they set out to live life to the fullest while they could.

“Tomorrow we may die, so let’s get drunk and make love.”

– Lois Long (a/k/a “Lipstick”), columnist for The New Yorker

Movie stars Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino were the heartthrobs of the day.

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The first Academy Awards were still three years away, but the top grossing movie in 1926 was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “Ben-Hur: A Tale of The Christ.” Perhaps it played at the Ritz.

(The movie title’s reference to Christ, so antithetical to the sensual graphics of the movie poster, aptly represents the moral tensions of the decade.)

According to Publisher’s Weekly, the number one best selling book was The Private Life of Helen of Troy by John Erskine. The number one song that year was Gene Austin’s “Bye Bye, Blackbird.”

Louise Brooks, American film actress and dancer

Meanwhile, women were saying “bye bye corsets and crinoline.” Flappers raised eyebrows by raising hemlines, dropping waistlines and bobbing their hair. Coco Chanel infused a touch of masculinity into her feminine fashion designs; think Marlene Dietrich. For the modern woman, cloche hats and simple dresses with ornate jewelry were the style of the day.

Men wore three-piece suits – often pinstriped or plaid – with wide lapels and cuffed trousers. Oxford shoes were common and hats were a must.

This was also the era of prohibition and bootlegging, of speakeasies and all that jazz! And, speaking of jazz, this was the decade when the young Louis Armstrong hit his stride, introducing a free form musical genre known as “scat.” The era was sensuous and raucous and socially experimental. It was an exciting time in America.

Unlike many other theaters of the time, the Ritz was a relatively intimate venue, with a seating capacity of only 1,260. You can see its affordable admission price (5 – 15¢) displayed above the entrance on the black and white photo near the top of this post.

View into auditorium; photo by Ria Nicholas

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Photo by Ria Nicholas

In 1930, the Ritz changed ownership from Stella and Lillian Scanlan to local theater man, Will Horwitz and was entered into an alliance with the Interstate Theatre chain.

In the 1940s, the theater began running Spanish language films. Its name changed to Teatro Ritz and then Cine Ritz.

In the 70s, the Ritz, then owned by Alvin Guggenheim, switched to exploitation – low budget films that exploit current trends, niche genres, or lurid content. Guggenheim changed the name again, this time to Majestic Metro. The Ritz / Majestic Metro eventually closed its doors in 1984.

In 1985, businessman Gary Warwick purchased the building and put into motion its restoration. Today, this intimately elegant building in Houston’s downtown historic district serves as a special events venue. Its dance floor, banquet-style seating and state-of-the-art sound and light system make it ducky for receptions, parties and galas . . . or just hanging out to help with a video.

Bar stools in the back of the auditorium look out onto banquet-style tables. Photo by Ria Nicholas
Throw Your Own Roaring Twenties Theme Party!

We receive a small commission, at no additional cost to you, for any of the below items you purchase through our site. Your purchases help us to continue to bring you fun and interesting ideas and information on American travel destinations without a paywall or intrusive ads.

In case this article puts you in the mood to throw your own Roaring Twenties theme party, I put together a few ideas to get you started. Just click on the images for more information. If you decide to purchase, please do so by clicking through from our site.

Set of 30 fully assembled photo booth props straight from The Great Gatsby to help you capture all the fun.
7×5 foot photo booth backdrop – Great Gatsby / Roaring Twenties
Tableware for 24: plates, napkins, cups and plastic ware.
Set of 12 party invitations.
Black, gold, and white paper lanterns – set of 15


10 Galveston Time Capsule Adventures

The Little Island That Could

by Ria Nicholas

Scroll down for destinations and videos.

Galveston, Texas is a microcosm of some of the greatest social upheavals in U.S. history.  In a sense, the narrative of an entire nation is distilled in the sands of this diminutive 200-square-mile barrier island. Tattooed Natives, shipwrecked explorers, determined slaves, brazen pirates, and barons of industry all contributed to the exploration, exploitation and exaltation that molded her.

Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca, who was shipwrecked here in 1528, found himself enslaved by local Karankawa Indians. He dubbed the island “Isla de Malhado” or “Isle of Doom.”  The cursed French explorer La Salle merely called her “San Louis.”  Jean Lafitte, notorious smuggler and slave trader, organized a pirate camp on the island and named it “Campeche.” Ultimately, however, the island – and city – were named in honor of Count Bernardo de Gálvez, colonial governor of Spanish Louisiana and Cuba, who supported American patriots during the Revolutionary War.

Geography played a pivotal role in the success, demise, and rebirth of Galveston.  Following her official establishment as a port by the Congress of Mexico in 1825, Galveston quickly grew into a vibrant hub for commerce. Despite disruption by the Civil War, during which the city was blockaded, captured, occupied and recaptured, business continued to flourish. It even rivaled that of the port of New York City, earning Galveston the nickname “Wall Street of the South.”

Galveston Texas, 1885. color lithograph – lithographer unknown. Courtesy Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.

All that ended with the arrival of the Great Hurricane of 1900, which remains the worst natural disaster on record in U.S. history. With 130-mile-per-hour winds and a 15 ½ foot storm surge that swept over the entire sand-bank island, the hurricane claimed more than 6,000 lives and destroyed 3,600 buildings.

Carrying out bodies just removed from the wreckage – Galveston, Texas – 1900

Following the storm, resilient survivors buried their dead and set to work building a seawall along the beachfront. They raised the elevation of the entire city an astonishing 17 feet, lifting more than 2,100 buildings on jacks and pumping in tons of sand from the bay. 

Galveston’s come-back, rising from a maelstrom of despair to re-imagine herself a thriving tourist mecca, serves as a template for resilience in the face of present-day adversities.

Hotel Galvez, Galveston, Texas – 1911

With so many diverse threads woven into the cultural fabric of the city, laypersons and history buffs alike will find plenty to pique their interest.

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The Elissa, designated “The Official Tall Ship of Texas” by the Texas Legislature, is not a replica like so many of her sisters. She is a true original and one of the world’s oldest, fully-functional tall ships.

(Click on the link to view the video:)

3:26 minute video containing archival footage of an historic trip aboard the Elissa, shot in 1995 in standard definition

Launched in Aberdeen, Scotland during the final glory days of the Age of Sail, she sailed under various flags and names. Records show that Elissa carried cotton from the Port of Galveston in 1883 and 1886.  She ended up in the hands of smugglers, who tried to have her scrapped in Greece. Abandoned and altered almost beyond recognition, that should have been the end.

Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Roadell Hickman; courtesy U.S. Navy

But through an accident of good fortune and the tireless efforts of many individuals, she was eventually rescued and restored by the Galveston Historical Foundation. Today, the square-rigged barque joins the Galveston Historic Seaport as a floating exhibit. Tourists can walk her gangway and stroll her decks to better imagine the spray on their faces and the wind snapping the canvas!

For directions and information on hours and admissions, go to www.galvestonhistory.org.

We receive a small commission, at no additional cost to you, for any of the below items you purchase through our site. Your purchases help us to continue to bring you fun and interesting ideas and information on American travel destinations without a paywall or intrusive ads.

Whale candle holder

Sinking mausoleum.
Macabre fact: The grave markers in the cemetery on Broadway in Galveston actually represent only about 1/4 of the departed population buried there. As the graves slowly sink into the sand, more bodies are buried on top.

Galveston has taken center stage in the hurly burly of countless human dramas, both social and personal.  Through the centuries, nuns and prostitutes, entrepreneurs and felons have crossed her broad avenues and seedy wharves, and more than one bride, pale with anxiety, has paced the widow’s walk*. Is it any wonder that some folks consider Galveston a hot spot for paranormal activity?  Fun, even for skeptics, ghost tours offer an alternative to the traditional.  Several companies provide walking tours of noted Galveston haunts: the historic Strand, the scandalous ‘red light district’, and the weathered markers and above-ground mausoleums of old cemeteries.  Along with hunting for apparitions, guides relate fascinating historical detail and local lore.  Tag along to catch some eerie vibes.

The setting for this video is the second floor of Riondo’s Ristorante in the Hutchings-Sealy building at the corner of Strand and 24th Street. The building was designed by Nicholas Clayton (who also designed Bishop’s Palace, below) and built in 1896 to replace a previous bank building. It represents an early example of steel frame construction.

(Click on the link to view the video:)

4:03 minute video including an interview with Dash Beardsley of Ghost Tours of Galveston Island

Among the stories floated in the wake of the Great Storm of 1900 is that of a young schoolteacher who took refuge on the second floor of the building. According to legend, as the storm surge inundated the island, she stepped out onto the window ledge, pulling victims to safety. She sorted the living from the dead and cared for them for several days, until she succumbed to a fever and died. She is among numerous spirits reputed to haunt various parts of the building.

For information on scheduling and pricing, visit https://GhostToursofGalvestonIsland.com.

* A widow’s walk is a railed platform on the roof of a house in a seaport town, where wives could watch for the return of their seafaring husbands. Since many never returned, it was, as often as not, a widow’s walk.

Small wooden tic tac toe board with resin game pieces

Menard House – photo by Ria Nicholas

Houston founders, John and Augustus Allen, built this Greek-revival-style mansion in 1838 and sold it to Michael (Fr. Michel) B. Menard upon completion. Menard, who was a founder of Galveston and a signatory to the Texas Declaration of Independence, bought the home, probably for his second wife, who died within a year of the purchase. Surprisingly, it serves as an interesting example of an early pre-fab house. Constructed in Maine, it was shipped to Texas in pieces and reassembled at its current location.  The home passed from the Menard family to the Ketchum family in 1879, but fell into disrepair 100 years later.  It was slated for demolition until Pat and Fred Burns, in partnership with the Galveston Historical Foundation, restored Menard House to its original 19th century charm and opened it as a museum in 1994. The home was gifted to the Galveston Historical Foundation in 2018 and remains the oldest surviving structure on the island.

For directions, hours of operation and admission visit www.galvestonhistory.org.

(Click on the link to view the video:)

4:36 minute video tour of Menard House, historic neighborhoods, Bishop’s Palace and Moody Mansion

Bezrat Etched Globe Whiskey Decanter Set = 4 Whisky Glasses (10 Oz.) on Wood Mahogany Base Tray with 2 Side Handles – Gift Packaging – Antique Ship Whiskey Dispenser for Liquor:


Several historical neighborhoods dot the eastern end of Galveston Island. The Silk Stocking District, so called because its wealthy residents could afford silk stockings, nestles south of Broadway, along Rosenberg, between 26th and 23rd Streets. Once home to the Texas Cotton Press, it is one of the most intact residential areas in the city, with houses dating from the late 1800s.

Slightly to the east, between 21st and 16th Streets, the Lost Bayou District was originally contemporaneous with the Silk Stocking District, but on a slightly smaller scale. It features homes rebuilt immediately after the destruction of the Great Storm of 1900. Its name derives from Hitchcock’s Bayou, which was filled in during the 1880s and thus ‘lost.’

Photo courtesy the Coppersmith Inn

Moving just north of Broadway, between 19th and 10th Streets, we find the East End Historical District, with homes dating from the 1850s. Here, the pattern of progressive decay has been reversed, and rotting wood, chipping paint, and rusting metal give way to gingerbread and corbels, vibrant pallets, and wrought iron filigree.

We can experience the genteel ambiance and diverse architectural styles of century homes while strolling through these neighborhoods or by staying at one of their bed & breakfast inns. Bougainvillea and oleander blossoms spill over white picket fences. Colorful gardens surround shaded porches, caressed by the ubiquitous Gulf breeze and invite you to sit a spell and unwind. Check out Coppersmith Inn, Lost Bayou Guesthouse, Carr Mansion, or The Villa Bed & Breakfast, among others.

For directions and information on pricing and availability, visit https://CoppersmithInn.com.

Bishop’s Palace, a/k/a Walter Gresham House – photo by Ria Nicholas

The American Institute of Architects ranks this turreted 1892 residence among the most important buildings in America.  Constructed entirely of stone for Colonel Walter Gresham, the home became refuge to hundreds of hurricane survivors. Vintage photographs of the 1900 Storm show the structure looming, relatively unscathed, above mountains of mangled storm surge debris.

Main stairwell, above; architectural detail, below – photos by Ria Nicholas

In 1923, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Galveston purchased the home to serve as residence for Bishop C.E. Byrne, earning it its present-day moniker. Today Bishop’s Palace is owned by the Galveston Historical Foundation, and its carved and gilded details, stained glass, and luxury furnishings spark the imagination of tourists, who come to immerse themselves in the glory of her past.

Winter garden – photo by Ria Nicholas
View of Sacred Heart Church from Bishop’s Palace –
photo by Ria Nicholas

(Left: Galveston’s striking Sacred Heart Church, built in 1903-04, sits just across the street.)

For directions, hours of operation and admission to Bishop’s Palace, visit www.galvestonhistory.org.

We receive a small commission, at no additional cost to you, for any of the below items you purchase through our site. Your purchases help us to continue to bring you fun and interesting ideas and information on American travel destinations without a paywall or intrusive ads.

Lighthouse Tiffany Style Stained Glass Table Lamp Night Light with Lookout Platform, 2-Lights, 8.5-inch

Moody Mansion – photo by Ria Nicholas
Main staircase – photo by Ria Nicholas

Galveston socialite Narcissa Willis had always longed for a grand home. After her husband’s death in 1893, she indulged in commissioning this impressive four-story Romanesque mansion.  The result?  Her children, now unable to secure a fair share of their father’s inheritance, abandoned her to the rambling thirty-one room residence, where she lived out the balance of her life alone.

Upon her death in 1899, the home was purchased by cotton magnate W.L. Moody, Jr., whose philanthropic legacy permeates the region to this day. The family celebrated their first Christmas at Moody Mansion a mere three months after the Great Storm leveled much of the island. Tourists lose themselves in the lifestyle of the rich and famous of the turn of the century as they wander the mansion’s 28,000 square feet, filled with the opulent furnishings, personal effects and legacy of this remarkable family.

Dining room – photo by Ria Nicholas

For directions and information on hours and admissions, go to www. moodymansion.org.


Long before a network of paved highways crisscrossed the land, and before passenger airlines took flight, travelers relied on trains to carry them to their destinations.

(Click on the link to view the video:)

7:26 minute video tour of the Galveston Railroad Museum with Executive Director, David Robertson

As passenger and commercial traffic in and out of Galveston picked up steam, so did the need for a railroad.  The Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe was founded in 1874 to ferry passengers and cargo to points throughout Texas & the United States.  The current terminal building was completed in 1932 and known as Union Station since it was a “union” of multiple railroad lines.  In the late 1970s, Mary Moody Northen and the Moody Foundation purchased the historic art deco building to save it from demolition. 

F-7A diesel locomotive in Warbonnet colors –
photo by Ria Nicholas

The Galveston Railroad Museum opened here, at the junction of 25th and Strand Streets, in 1983 to preserve Galveston’s railroading history. Sadly, Hurricane Ike flooded the museum with more than 10 feet of saltwater in 2008, destroying much of the museum’s collection. After three years of clean up, however, the museum reopened with forty pieces of rolling stock, including two F-7A diesel locomotives in Santa Fe Warbonnet colors.

The museum continues to add to its collection. A recently acquired mid-century modern private train car, formerly used by movie and television star Jackie Gleason, is available to rent for meetings. Various other areas of the museum complex are also available for events, gatherings, and wedding venues. On Saturdays, in addition to admission, the museum offers short rides – weather permitting – aboard an open-air caboose. Remember those?

For directions and information on hours and admissions, visit www.GalvestonRRMuseum.org.


The Strand, more than any other location, represents the heart and soul of historic Galveston. Located a stone’s throw from the waterfront, the eclectic shops and busy bistros of Strand Street reside in the cast iron-fronted, turn-of-the-century buildings that were the nerve center of Galveston’s economic heyday. 

The Strand, Galveston, Texas – photo by Ria Nicholas

Throughout each year, The Strand hosts numerous arts and entertainment events, including – most famously – Dickens on The Strand. This weekend-long holiday-themed Victorian frolic occurs in early December and is marked by plays, roaming vendors, costumed carolers, parades, feasts, and . . . of course, Victorian bed races. Shop or dine here any time of year, but if you attend Dickens on The Strand, be sure to sport your best Victorian finery and enter the costume contest!

(Click on the link to view the video:)

3:37 video tour of The Strand, The Grand 1894 Opera House and The Colonel Paddlewheel Boat

For more information on how to attend Dickens on The Strand, go to https://www.GalvestonHistory.org/events/dickens-on-the-strand.

Photo by John Glow; courtesy The Grand 1894 Opera House

The Grand 1894 Opera House, the official opera house of the State of Texas, recently celebrated its 125th anniversary. It survived not only the Great Storm of 1900 and several subsequent hurricanes, but many years of neglect at various times throughout its history. While Henry Greenwall raised $100,000 for the original construction, thousands of residents from Galveston, Houston, and across Texas poured $8 million dollars into its restoration between 1974 and 1990. The Grand passed through several iterations, including a Vaudeville venue and movie theater, before returning to its original glory.  Today, international stars of stage and screen, Broadway hits, music, dance, comedy and more grace its stage.  Immerse yourself in the opulence of the Gilded Age – perhaps in one of the velvet-draped loges – to take in a live performance.

For directions, ticket pricing and schedules, visit www.TheGrand.com.


During the 1800s, as commerce burgeoned across the frontier, and roads amounted to little more than ruts, flat-bottomed steam boats plied the shallow waters of rivers and bayous upstream from the Texas coast. They ferried cotton and other commodities to and from muddy riverbank landings. What started as a practical solution for commerce, soon evolved into an entertainment option. In 1831, actor William Chapman launched the first showboat. The idea caught on, and soon other family-owned showboats brought entertainment to small towns along inland waterways.

Photo courtesy Moody Gardens

Now we, too, can drift back in time with a dinner and dance cruise aboard the Colonel, a 675-passenger, replica 19th century paddle wheel boat. Note that dinner and dance cruises require advance reservations by the Monday prior to the scheduled departure date. Shorter, hour-long cruises around Offatts Bayou are available without reservations, weather permitting. Be sure to arrive early.

For directions and information on tickets and schedules, go to www.MoodyGardens.com.

Galveston, Texas lies on the Gulf of Mexico, just 50 miles southeast of Houston via I-45.

American History Road Trip would like to thank:

  • The Galveston Historical Foundation
  • The Galveston Convention & Visitors Bureau
  • The Galveston Railroad Museum and David Robertson, Executive Director
  • The Grand 1894 Opera House and John Glow, Photographer
  • Moody Gardens
  • Moody Mansion
  • Ghost Tours of Galveston Island and Dash Beardsley, Owner
  • Riondo’s Ristorante and Don McClaugherty, Owner
  • The Coppersmith Inn

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A Photo Essay on Jalopies

Truck #1 was located at an antique shop on Newport Highway (US 411), between Sevierville and Newport, Tennessee. We think it might be a 1951 or 1952 International Harvester truck. What do you think?

Witnesses to the American Road

by Ria Nicholas

Please read (or scroll) all the way to the end of this article to browse some collectable vintage 1/24 scale model “jalopies” I’ve curated for you.

I know, I know! Jalopies are not a destination we can visit. But what could be more iconic of the American experience – or more necessary for a road trip – than the American automobile? Whether you call them “classic cars,” “antique automobiles,” or just plain “vintage,” I have managed to photograph a number of jalopies through the years and find them both beautiful and sad.

Year: ? Make: ? Model: ?

Vehicle #2: This beautifully eerie image of a fossilized car, beneath an overarching Milky Way, is one of several spectacular night photos taken in the Big Bend area of West Texas by photographer Andrew M. Shirey.

Vehicle #3 is a truck located inside the East Texas Oil Museum in Kilgore, Texas. Can anyone identify it for us?

I invite you to help me identify their years, makes and models and to share your photos of jalopies to add to this post. (I’ve numbered the vehicles, to make it easier for you to refer to them.)

The above three cars were all located in Tennessee. Car #4 was offered for sale at an antique shop on Newport Highway (US 411), between Sevierville and Newport. We believe it is a Plymouth. Pickup #5 was abandoned off Boogertown (yes, you read that right) Road in Gatlinburg. It appears to be a Chevy. And pickup #6, a Dodge, was on display at a school bus diner and gift shop on US 321 near Cosby, TN.

We believe vehicles #7, #8 and #9 are all 1930s or 40s International Harvester trucks. Location: Silverton, Colorado, near the railroad tracks. Can anyone provide more details?

The Tremont area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was once a booming logging community known as Stringtown, run by the Little River Lumber Company. It was clustered around a hotel and post office and served by a railroad. Somewhere off the main hiking trail sit the skeletonized remains of a 1930s Cadillac, leaving visitors to ponder how it ended up among boulders and trees. Rumor has it, that it was used to run moonshine from a still during the Prohibition. More likely, it was left behind by the Civilian Conservation Corps, who had a camp in the area at the time.

#11. 1941 Ford Coupe; photos by Jim Zura. Use the slider to see its potential.

This moss-covered beauty is located at Ely’s Mill, at the end of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail in Gatlinburg, TN. Andrew Jefferson Ely built the mill in 1925 after the death of his wife and to escape urban living. He hired local craft folk to produce items to sell at the mill and used the mill – actually two mills – for wood furniture making and grinding grain.

Vehicle #13 serves as an advertising banner on Pittman Center Road in Sevierville, Tennessee. Cars #14 and #15 were located at the antique shop on Newport Highway (US 411) between Sevierville and Newport, TN. We believe car #15 is a 1947 Chevy Stylemaster.

The two images of jalopies below, #16, labeled as a 1927 Buick, and #17, an unidentified truck, were taken on the Caliente-Bodfish Road, east of Bakersfield, California in 2012. Both photos are by Jim Zura. Happy Halloween!

So what’s the difference between a vintage car and a classic car? (I had to look it up.) According to West Coast Shipping, a company that deals in cars from around the globe, a classic car is at least 20 years old. Vintage cars were built between 1919 and 1930. A car must be at least 45 years old to be considered an antique car. And if a car was manufactured after 1922 and is at least 25 years old, then it is an Historical Vehicle.

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Collect Your Own Jalopies!

We receive a small commission, at no additional cost to you, for any of the below items you purchase through our site. Your purchases help us to continue to bring you fun and interesting ideas and information on American travel destinations without a paywall or intrusive ads.

Each model shown here is a die-cast 1/24 scale model of the original. To find out more information, just click on the images below. If you decide to purchase, please do so by clicking through from our site:

1932 Ford Coupe
1934 Ford Coupe
1937 Ford Pickup Coca Cola delivery truck (The drink was first served as a beverage in Atlanta, Georgia in 1886.)
1937 Ford Pickup Truck
1940 Ford Pickup Truck
1950 Chevy Pickup with Harley Davidson motorcycle
1955 Chevy Bel Air
1956 Ford F-100 Pickup Truck
1958 Chevy Impala
1958 Chevy Apache Fleetside Pickup Truck
1958 Plymouth Fury


Battle of Vicksburg, MS: Civil War Victory Wasn’t Ironclad

The Sinking of the USS Cairo

by Ria Nicholas

Courtesy Missouri History Museum

Were they awestruck as they boarded her? Or skeptical perhaps, those Union soldiers? Did they brim over with excess pride, like the kid riding a brand new motor scooter on Christmas day, when everyone else just has a bike? Impossible to tell now. But all those feelings and more must have been tossed aboard alongside the artillery. After all, the USS Cairo [KAY row] was, for her time, an example of cutting-edge technology: an ironclad steam-powered paddlewheeler!

Flatboat; engraving by Alfred R. Waud

Imagine, if you can, a time before cars, trucks, trains, or airplanes, a time when roads amounted to little more than rough dirt trails. Transporting crops and other commodities was largely achieved using river boats. The efficiency of the trip depended on the speed of the current and the weight of the cargo. And the upstream leg of the journey, accomplished entirely by manpower, was arduous, to say the least. A round trip could take eight or nine months, and boat owners often found it easier to dismantle their boat, sell the timber, and walk home – along the Natchez Trace, perhaps – than to try to propel it back upstream.

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All that changed with the power of steam.  In 1769, James Watt invented the steam engine, but it wasn’t successfully applied to shipping until Robert Fulton designed his steam paddleboat, the Clermont, in 1807. The invention transformed commerce.

Simple steam power diagram; courtesy Σ64;
image altered to show ‘Paddlewheel’ instead of ‘Generator.

The power of steam essentially works as follows: When water is heated, it turns to steam and expands. If the water is held in a boiler – a metal tank – and prevented from expanding, it will build up tremendous pressure. A pipe and valve at one end of the boiler can be opened to release that steam pressure with great force. Harness that force through pipes and gears to turn paddlewheels, in the case of a ship, or driving wheels, in the case of a locomotive.

During the first half of the 19th century, steam paddlewheelers – either sidewheelers or sternwheelers – performed a variety of tasks. Towboats moved barges up and down rivers, ferries carried passengers, and snagboats removed tree stumps and other submerged hazards from the water. The most common steam paddle wheeler, the packet boat, carried both crops and passengers.

Turret of the USS Monitor after battle – 1862;
photo in public domain, courtesy US Navy Online Library

By the time of the Civil War, the concept of armored ships had been floating around for some time, but the need hadn’t arisen until the 1820s, with the development of explosive shell-firing guns capable of penetrating a wooden hull. Iron plating didn’t become practical, however, until the power of steam evolved to handle the additional weight.

In 1862, hard on the heels of the legendary ironclad USS Monitor, the Cairo was pressed into service to support Union troops in their capture of Memphis. Later the same year, she took part in the Yazoo Pass Expedition, a joint operation led by Grant’s Army of the Tennessee and Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron, during the Vicksburg Campaign. 

Due to its position on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg enjoyed a geographical advantage. The Union-led Yazoo Pass Expedition intended to bypass this bluff, snaking its way through the murky backwaters of the Mississippi Delta. Here it would enter the Yazoo River and approach unopposed. However, obstacles presented by having to breach levees and navigate a maze of channels and lakes, slowed the expedition, allowing Confederate forces time to construct a fort to block and repel the Federal fleet.

During the expedition, the Cairo earned the less-happy distinction of being the first ship ever sunk by a remotely detonated mine.  While attempting to clear mines, or ‘torpedoes,’ from the river in preparation for the attack, Cairo struck a mine. A group of Confederate volunteers, concealed along the riverbank, exploded the mine. In less than 15 minutes Cairo sank to the bottom of the Yazoo River. There the ironclad remained for the next 100 years, covered by a protective blanket of silt.

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Cairo was located in 1956, and efforts to raise the ship finally succeeded in 1964. The thick Mississippi mud in which she had lain encased, had slowed the natural processes of corrosion and decomposition, which allowed for the recovery of numerous historical artifacts and for the restoration of Cairo herself.  Today, you can visit the final resting place of this ironclad paddle steamer at the Vicksburg National Military Park.

Travel Tips:

The Military Park, located at 3201 Clay Street in Vicksburg, Mississippi, preserves the site of the Battle of Vicksburg, a 47-day siege ending in the surrender of the city to Union forces – despite the Union’s loss of the Cairo and the failure of the Yazoo Pass Expedition.  It also commemorates the greater Vicksburg Campaign leading up to the Battle.

To visit, park your car at the Visitor Center, and purchase your entrance pass. The fee is about $20 per passenger vehicle. Various annual passes and passes for pedestrians and commercial vehicles are also available. While at the Visitor Center, we greatly enhanced our overall experience by watching the introductory video, which tells the stories of Union and Confederate troops, African American combatants, and local civilians.

From there, we started our 16-mile, self-guided driving tour of the battlefield, including 1,325 historic monuments and markers, 144 cannons, the Shirley House (the only wartime structure remaining inside the Park), the Vicksburg National Cemetery, and the USS Cairo.


I can’t end this blog post without mentioning the Vicksburg National Military Park Trading Card Program. VNMP teamed up with 145 other parks to create the Civil War to Civil Rights trading card program. The National Park Service offers more than 500 trading cards commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. You can only earn the cards by visiting the national parks in person, but you can preview them here.  

Vicksburg National Military Park presents ten cards, honoring the contributions of women, children, African Americans, and commanding officers – with unique and sometimes surprising stories. Collect the card for artillery commander John Wesley Powell, who went on to explore the Grand Canyon with only one arm, or the card for soldier Albert Cashier, who was actually a woman!

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We receive a small commission, at no additional cost to you, for any of the below items you purchase through our site. Your purchases help us to continue to bring you fun and interesting ideas and information on American travel destinations without a paywall or intrusive ads.

Armed with a simple pocket compass, a small boat, and an intense desire to find the USS Cairo, three men–Edwin C. Bearss, Warren Grabau, and Max Don Jacks–set out on the Yazoo River on a cool autumn afternoon in 1956 to locate the Civil War gunboat. What they found was the discovery of a lifetime.

CSS Virginia Limited 33 – Handcrafted Civil War Model Ship

Old Modern Handicrafts USS Monitor

Cottage Industry Models 96004 CSS Arkansas Confederate Ironclad Warship – 23 In.


Asheville, NC: A Little Castle for Three

Luxury and Excess at the Biltmore

By Ria Nicholas

The road trip from Knoxville, Tennessee to Asheville, North Carolina snakes its way down I-40 through the verdant Smoky Mountains.  We made the trip in winter, when gossamer shrouds of mist, prompted by the crisp December air, billow up from among the dips and hollows and dissipate in the early morning sunlight. This is the time of year when Biltmore Estate dons its best holiday finery. 

The 8,000-acre grounds of the estate sprawl out impressively, and at the distant end of an expansive lawn, the chateau anchors the horizon, resplendent as a crown jewel of the Gilded Age. Her spires and pinnacles held us spellbound; her 10 million pounds of polished limestone dominated both the landscape and our imaginations. 

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Refrigerator magnet

This is Biltmore House, America’s castle, the largest single-family home ever built in the United States! It was the project of George W. Vanderbilt, grandson of railroad magnate Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt.

Three generations of Vanderbilt – left to right: Cornelius, William, and George

Born into poverty on Staten Island, Cornelius Vanderbilt quit school at the age of 11 to work on the waterfront. By the age of 16, he purchased his first boat and used it to ferry passengers from Staten Island to New York and back. From these simple beginnings, he grew, first a steamship company, and later a railroad and shipping enterprise. At the time of his death in 1877, his estate had ballooned to $100 million – a staggering sum at the time.

In his inequitable will, Cornelius Vanderbilt bequeathed $90 million to his son William Henry, $7.5 million to William’s four sons, and the residue of his estate to his second wife and his eight daughters.

William Henry Vanderbilt, a business mogul in his own right, nearly doubled the family fortune. Unlike his father before him, he was a generous philanthropist but still left a fortune of nearly $200 million at the time of his death. The bulk of William’s estate was split between his two oldest sons, and, although George received far less money, his inheritance still amounted to several million dollars.

George W. Vanderbilt used his inheritance to design Biltmore in collaboration with architect Richard Morris Hunt and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (of Central Park fame).  The ‘House’ takes its cues from the châteaux of the Loire Valley of France, including Blois, Chenonceau, and, of course, Chambord.  As mind boggling as the other statistics attributed to Biltmore, is the $6 million dollar price tag ($1.6 billion in today’s money) on this extravagant country retreat for three: George, his wife Edith, and their daughter Cornelia.

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Beginning in 1889, one thousand men toiled for six years to complete the ‘House’.  George Vanderbilt finally opened Biltmore Estate to family and friends on Christmas Eve, 1895.

The home boasts some 250 rooms, including 35 bedrooms, a glass-domed winter garden, a banquet hall, library, music room, loggia, tapestry gallery, and massive four-story spiral staircase. In the basement, the family enjoyed their own bowling alley, gymnasium, and 70,000 gallon heated and lighted swimming pool.

The medieval banquet hall, with its arched ceiling towering 70 feet overhead, hosted guests at a 40-foot table, opposite a massive fireplace – one of 65 throughout the home.  In this banquet hall, the Vanderbilts entertained a variety of luminaries, including artists, politicians, and authors.

“Yesterday we had a big Xmas fete for the 350 people on the estate – a tree 30 ft. high, Punch & Judy, conjuror, presents & ‘refreshments.’ It would have interested you, it was done so well & sympathetically, each person’s wants being thought of, from mother to last baby.”

From the letters of edith wharton

Those with a penchant for the Downton Abbey television series will be tempted to draw comparisons to Highclere Castle, ancestral home of Lord Carnarvon, who financed the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb. The lifestyle at Biltmore did, in fact, resemble that portrayed in Downton Abbey.

Biltmore House Christmas Wooden 1000 piece Jigsaw Puzzle

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All that changed in 1930, when Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil opened Biltmore to the public, in an effort to draw tourists and stimulate the local economy during the Depression. Today, Biltmore welcomes 1.4 million visitors each year and provides employment for more than 2,000 people.  The Estate’s present 8,000 acres include several restaurants, extensive gardens, the nation’s most visited winery, luxury hotels, and a variety of shops.


Fashion maven, Gloria Vanderbilt, and her son, journalist Anderson Cooper, are direct descendants of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt.  However, they are not direct descendants of George W. Vanderbilt, who commissioned Biltmore House. George Vanderbilt was Gloria Vanderbilt’s great uncle, and therefore neither she, nor her son Anderson Cooper, inherited an interest in the Biltmore Estate.

Travel Tips:

No visit to Asheville would be complete without a pilgrimage to the Biltmore. We recommend pre-purchasing tickets, which range in price upward from $54, depending on the date of your visit and the amenities selected. Plan to arrive early and spend a good five hours or more traveling back in time and imagining yourself a Vanderbilt, as you wander the magnificent rooms and gardens.

Here I am with my daughter as we stopped for lunch at Biltmore’s Stable Café.

Stop for down-home Appalachian comfort food at the Stable Café, so named because it is located in the former carriage house and horse stable. You can’t beat the ambiance at this casual dining restaurant, winner of a 2020 Open Table Diners’ Choice Award. We thoroughly enjoyed it!

If you are over 21, take advantage of the complimentary wine tasting at Biltmore’s very own world-class winery, included with your daytime admission.

And if you’ve traveled from afar, or if you just want to extend your stay, you can reserve a room at one of several of hotels right on the Estate.

Biltmore Estate is located at 1 Lodge St, Asheville, NC 28803.

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Guide book featuring the Biltmore Estate and Mansion. Over 90 color illustrations of the house, interior and exterior views, the gardens, historic views of the estate, period furnishings. Includes list of original objects and furnishings in the Biltmore Estate Collections.


Silverton, CO: A Place Where the West Still Runs Wild

Ride an Iron Horse Into a Storied Past

by Ria Nicholas

Treasure Mountain Mine

The historic western mining town of Silverton, Colorado lies frozen in time in a high valley of the River of Lost Souls*. With only one paved road – a spur of the Million Dollar Highway – and a permanent population hovering at just 600, Silverton’s economy still benefits from the regular arrival of vintage narrow gauge steam trains from Durango.  

Beginning in the 1882, iron horses of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad Company traveled between Durango and Silverton, servicing gold and silver mines in the San Juan Mountains. Over the next 100 years, the mines eventually played out. But the narrow gauge trains, designed to handle sharp curves and steep grades, wisely traded their loads of ore for even more precious cargo: tourists. 

In a typical year, restored steam locomotives of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad ferry 200,000 visitors per year past the Hermosa Cliffs, through spectacular gorges carved by the turbulent Animas River, into the wild frontier.

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Durango and Silverton Narrow Guage Railroad Soft Coasters (Set of 8)

Despite colorful travel brochures and even more colorful descriptions presented by others, NOTHING prepared us for the awesome experience of actually traveling aboard the train!

The “Highline”
Silverton Depot

Arriving in Silverton, the train crawled past the depot where the tracks veer onto E 12th Street and terminate. The engine heaved one last sigh after its arduous 3,000 foot ascent and deposited us directly into the heart of town.

A stone’s throw from the terminus, lively ragtime piano music spilled from the stately Grand Imperial Hotel. Farther up Greene Street, the San Juan County Historical Society’s Mining Heritage Center steeps patrons in local lore.

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Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Train. Potholder, 8 x 8

In the other direction, the well-worn gingerbread of one-time saloons and bordellos on ‘Notorious’ Blair Street pique a voyeuristic impulse. While the ‘ladies’ no longer ply their wares, quaint curio and souvenir shops wink and beckon from every direction.

Red Mountain, near Silverton, CO

The two-hour layover in Silverton was perfect for grabbing lunch and browsing a few stores before embarking on the return trip.

But with so much ‘treasure’ hidden in these mountains, those in the know will rent a Jeep and opt for an overnight stay.

Remote Silverton spins a network of threads – nearly invisible trails – that reach up every narrow gulch. These rocky four-wheeler roads lure adventure seekers. They simultaneously thrill and unnerve as they snake through jaw-dropping scenery. Unpaved single lanes, with their impossibly sharp switch-backs, consist of nothing more than old burro trails carved into the granite over a hundred years ago by miners eager in their quest for silver and gold.

Mouse Pad Colorado, Silverton, Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Train, 8 x 8″

Abandoned 1884 Yankee Girl Mine near Silverton, CO

They lead variously to forsaken mines or to ghost towns where weathered wooden shanties, abandoned for a hundred years, bear silent witness to forlorn hope in a time when ore was king.

Others begin deceptively, with a gentle incline meandering through fragrant stands of conifers before transmuting into mere ledges that fall away precipitously just beside the passenger door. These lead to 12,000-foot elevations, where the air is rarefied and Alpine meadows, bursting with vibrant wildflowers and streaked by patches of remnant snow, surprised us with a wandering flock of sheep.

Where silver once flowed through her veins, tourism is now the lifeblood of Silverton. But as in old mining days, life in these parts can pose challenges. A semi-arctic climate and heavy snowfall limit train excursions to Silverton to the months of May through October (though shorter excursions out of Durango are available in all but January and February).

But the citizens of Silverton, descendants of miners and frontiersmen, are nothing if not resilient. They spring from wiry stock, as hard and rugged as the terrain. And when the snows of winter melt away, as they soon will, the high valley will again bloom and beckon tourists, awestruck by the riches of history and natural beauty.

Travel Tips:

Getting there: Although visitors can reach Silverton via a 48-mile drive up U.S. 550 from Durango, nothing beats a ride on the historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Plan for a full day: approximately 3 ½ hours each way, with a two-hour layover.

What to wear: Don’t forget to bring sunscreen and dress in layers or bring additional layers in a day pack. This should include a rain jacket or poncho, since weather in the mountains is capricious.

Grab a bite: We recommend breakfast at the Brown Bear Cafe, lunch at the Pickle Barrel, dinner at the Bent Elbow or a steak at Handlebars Food & Saloon.  Another of our favorites is the French dip at The Grand Imperial Hotel Restaurant & Saloon.

Stay the night: Silverton offers a variety of places to stay, including several bed & breakfasts, the Triangle Motel and the Grand Imperial Hotel. The massive granite Imperial Hotel was commissioned by New York perfume importer and mine owner, W. S. Thomson and was completed in 1883, a year after the first train from Durango reached in Silverton. The current owners (who also own the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad) fully renovated the hotel and filled it with furniture authentic to the late 1880s to enhance an immersive experience. To add to the fun, the third floor of the hotel is rumored to be haunted.

* The original Spanish name of the Animas River is ‘Rio de las Animas Perdidas,’ which means ‘River of Lost Souls.’

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Engine 486, built in 1925, was one of the last narrow gauge steam locomotives built for the D&RGW


All Aboard the Steam Train!

Ride the Narrow-Gauge Railroad From Durango to Silverton:

Video by Jim Zura. Music by Lacey Black.

In this 2 minute video clip, Jim Zura has compiled a small example of the big adventure that awaits aboard the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad as it winds its way through breath-taking mountain scenery along the Animas River in Southwest Colorado. As the name implies, the round-trip journey originates in Durango and treks – 48 miles north and 3,000 feet higher – to Silverton, a town with a permanent population of about 600, anchored, in part, by the Grand Imperial Hotel. There you can frequently enjoy, live, the musical stylings of Lacey Black.

(“Foamers” or “ferroequinologists” – extreme railfans – may notice something about the engine. If you do, send a comment.)

With more than 25 years experience in video production, Jim Zura offers a script-to-screen video service, from concept development to post production.

Lacey Black, a pianist, singer, and song writer, is one of the most sought-after musicians in Southwest Colorado. Her music is available on her website.

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Were Smoky Mountain Grist Mills a Tech Thing?

Making the Most of the Daily Grind

by Ria Nicholas

We were surprised to learn that Ephraim and Minerva Bales
raised NINE children in this tiny cabin!

In the late 1800s, scattered Appalachian [apple-AT-ch’n] farm communities consisted of independent, resourceful, God-fearing people, scrappy enough to wrest a living from the hardscrabble soil under their feet. If the Church acted as the spiritual head of the community, and the family epitomized its heart, then the grist mill constituted its secular stomach. Not much of anything could happen without a grist mill, but engineering one from scant frontier resources often meant having to ‘MacGyver‘ the technology on the spot.

“You didn’t make it without corn. Wheat bread may have been for special occasions, but everyone ate cornmeal, sometimes two and three times a day.”

— George Moore, Smoky Mountain resident

(Click on the link to view the video:)

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Smoky Mountains, Leconte Creek and Mt. Leconte (12×18 Art Print, Wall Decor Travel Poster)

This area of the country was less about amber waves of grain and more about sturdy stalks of corn. Although mountain farms produced wheat, rye, barley, and oats, it was corn that grew here in abundance and supplied the staff of life. It provided grits, spoonbread, hoecakes, mush, cornbread and more – often several times a day – but only if you had access to a mill.

The Reagan Mill sits beside a stream, with its flume to the right; photo by Ria Nicholas

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We discovered that Great Smoky Mountains National Park preserves four historic grist mills. Two of them, the Ogle Mill and the Reagan Mill, sit along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, just outside Gatlinburg in Tennessee.

In Cades Cove, toward the western end of the park, the Cable Mill, with its iconic mill wheel, churns away.

And on U.S. Highway 441, about a mile from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, not far from Cherokee and Bryson City, in North Carolina, Mingus Mill, the grandest of the grist mills, runs an efficient turbine. All four mills are easily accessible.

Map of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (Ogle & Reagan Mills),
Cades Cove (Cable Mill) and Mingus Mill (near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center) shown with red circles.

Outside of the Park, two further mills, The Old Mill and the Dollywood Mill, both in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee (near Sevierville), invite further exploration.

Simply put, water and gravity power grist mills. But the technology harnessing that energy actually varies a good bit. In any case, the force of moving water, through a series of mechanisms, turns the “runner stone” against a stationary mill stone, called the “bed.”

Mill stones -they cut rather than grind the grain. Photo by Ria Nicholas

The miller loaded dried grain into a hopper, which fed the grain into the space between the mill stones. The size of that space could be adjusted by the miller and determined the coarseness of the flour or cornmeal.

Grist Mill 1G – Basic Service

Tub mills, which originated in ancient times, were fitted with small, horizontal wooden wheels with angled paddles – a primitive kind of turbine. (These originally sat in a wooden frame or ‘tub,’ though these ‘tubs’ have since fallen out of use.) Sometimes these simple wooden turbines were placed directly on the edge of a stream to capture the power of the passing water.

Similarly, some mills with classic vertical water wheels were “undershot,” meaning the wheel sat directly in the creek, taking advantage of the flowing water to turn it.

Water falling from flume onto ‘turbine’ at the Reagan Mill

Grist Mill 2GAn Upgrade: The Ogle and Reagan Mills

Both the Ogle Mill and the Reagan Mill were tub mills, but they both made use of flumes, a kind of wooden ‘aqueduct’ that carried the water from a creek downstream to the mill.

These flumes permitted the miller greater control over the flow of water reaching the mill. Additionally, flumes were elevated. Tub mills that used a flume, increased the force on the ‘turbine’ by dropping water from a height at the end of the flume onto the angled paddles.

Note: The flume at the Ogle Mill (above, right) consisted of just a hollowed-out log.

Jim Zura and Ria Nicholas at Le Conte Creek

The Noah “Bud” Ogle Place, an excellent example of a mountain farmstead, lies on Cherokee Orchard Road, just outside Gatlinburg, Tennessee, near the entrance to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. After touring the homestead, we took the short, wooded walk from the main cabin to Le Conte Creek to see the primitive 1885 tub mill. Its flume consists of a simple hollowed-out log.

The Reagan Mill, built in 1895 by the multi-talented Alfred Reagan, is crafted from sawn lumber with a hand-split oak shingle roof. It sits directly on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, across the road from his homestead. Like the Ogle Mill, it was able to produce enough meal for his family and a few neighbors.

We grabbed one of the parking spots on the left side of the little one-lane road. From there we toured the Reagan home and the Reagan Mill just across the street.
Notice the flume carrying water to the mill.
Photo by Ria Nicholas

Grist Mill 3G – A Refresh: The Cable Mill

The Cable Mill sits alongside the Cades Cove loop in the western part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Built by John Cable in 1867, it made use of dams and millraces to channel water from Mill Creek and Forge Creek to the flume serving the mill. Watergates along the flume regulated the amount of water channeled to the mill, and a chunk rack (a giant wooden ‘comb’) filtered out debris.

Water from the flume is dropped at the top of the wheel. Cable Mill is an example of an “overshot” waterwheel. Photo by Ria Nicholas

Cable Mill is an “overshot” mill. That means its flume directs water to the top of the water wheel, rather than the bottom of the wheel sitting in moving water. The heavy mill wheel, mounted vertically to the side of the building, lends a ‘gravity assist’ to the falling water, acting like a flywheel. The whole process produces substantially more power than that achieved with an undershot wheel. This energy, passing through a series of gears, turns the runner stone. Cable Mill is capable of producing roughly 150 pounds of meal per hour.

Grist Mill 4G – State of the Art: Mingus Mill

The flume carries water from the mill race
downhill toward Mingus Mill. Photo by Ria Nicholas

In 1886, the Mingus family contracted Sion Thomas Early to build this top-of-the-line grist mill for $600. As with the Cable Mill, a millrace and flume direct water from a nearby creek toward the mill, and a chunk rack filters out debris. But whereas the flume at Cable Mill dumps water at the top of a vertical waterwheel, the flume at Mingus Mill dumps the water into a 22-foot high, four-foot-square wooden tower, called a ‘penstock.’

Water weighs a lot! One cubic foot of water weighs in excess of 60 lbs. As you can imagine, this ‘tower’ of water is extremely heavy. Twelve thousand pounds of accumulated water weight pushes the water down through a 15” pipe at the bottom of the tower with tremendous force.

Diagram by Ria Nicholas

The principle behind building up pressure in the penstock resembles the use of a boiler in a steam engine. The miller at Mingus Mill explained it to us by using the example of turning on your garden hose and holding your thumb over the opening. The gushing water from the 15″ pipe spins a relatively small iron turbine with many times the energy of water running over a mill wheel. Mingus Mill is capable of grinding in excess of 300 lbs. of meal per hour – double that of the Cable Mill.

We can see the penstock, which holds the “tower” of water, between
the flume cribbing, on the left, and the mill building, on the right. The turbine sits underneath the mill building.

Mingus Mill is located in the southern portion of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a short, easy walk from the parking lot off U.S. Highway 441, just north of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and near the Oconaluftee Indian Village.

Competing Technologies: Mill Wheel vs. Turbine

Rebecca Cable (“Aunt Becky”) –
daughter of John Cable; image courtesy the National Park Service.

Of course upgraded technology has its price. A mill wheel could be built by local blacksmiths and carpenters for a reasonable sum. But it had to be replaced relatively often. The heavy wheel had to be mounted vertically to the side of the mill building, and it turned in one direction, while the runner stone, sitting horizontally, turned in another. In the process, the mill building itself suffered from continuous jostling.

Water pressure shooting from the bottom of a penstock was strong enough to require an iron turbine. And an iron turbine had to be fabricated at a foundry or machine shop. The one at Mingus Mill was imported all the way from Ohio – at much greater expense. However, the turbine lasted a long time; the original one at Mingus Mill is still in use to this day. Additionally, since the turbine and the runner stone turn in the same direction, the stress produced on the mill building is negligible.

For families who didn’t own their own tub mill, grist mills served as gathering places – usually on Saturdays – where folks could exchange their latest gossip and barter for other commodities. They brought their grain, and for a “miller’s portion,” a fee of one-eighth of what they brought (approximately one gallon per bushel), the miller would grind and sift it, and they would leave with cornmeal or flour – and the stories shared by their neighbors.

The mills and other projects in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are generously supported by Great Smoky Mountains Association and Friends of the Smokies.

The Old Mill In Pigeon Forge – A Restaurant ‘Plug-In’

Another grist mill in the area (but outside of the Park) worthy of mention, the Old Mill in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, has served as the town’s premier landmark since 1830. It was built by Isaac Love, who also built the forge that lent the community its name.

The Old Mill in Pigeon Forge is lighted at night. We try to make a point of dining at the restaurant here (building to right of mill) at least once every time we visit the area. Photo by Ria Nicholas

The mill, which has operated as a grist mill from the beginning, has simultaneously served in other capacities. Subsequent owner and Union sympathizer*, John Sevier Trotter, also utilized The Old Mill to power looms to produce cloth for the uniforms of the Army of the Potomac. After the Civil War, Trotter further employed the building as a sawmill, before ownership passed to A.T. Householder. Householder added the mill dam we see today and installed a generator to bring electric lights to the town. All the while, the mill continued to function as a grist mill.

Old Mill historian, Jimmy Proffitt, shared the following information with us:

Historic photo courtesy The Old Mill
Photo courtesy The Old Mill

“[The grist mill] is still in full operation. The Old Mill Restaurant is located next to the mill and was built in 1995. The Mill still grinds primarily corn, and we grind over 400,000 pounds of it each year. We also grind wheat in-house, and [we] mix and bag a total of 700,000 pounds of mill product a year. We grind both white and yellow corn into corn meals and grits. We also provide the grains needed for our two restaurants for freshly baked bread at our Pottery House Café and for breading and recipes at both restaurants. We sell it online and in 2 locations on [our] property. . . Ours started out as a tub, then added a turbine in the late 1880’s when the mill was expanded and the large breast wheel (midway between undershot & overshot) was added. In 1920/21 a 2nd turbine was installed in the [penstock], which is the one we continue to use today. Our stones are still completely water powered and are the 2nd set of stones to be used in the mill; the first set is on display in our General Store. Not only did the water power the stones and the knitting mills on the 2nd floor during the Civil War, it also powered the saw mill, all the while the grist mill was still operating. It has been in continual operation since being built in 1830, with the exception of transfer of ownership a couple of times (It’s only changed hands 7 times), and for a few months during the depression. The previous owners had it for 67 years, converting the grain room and storage addition to the General Store in the 1950’s.”

*Even though Tennessee and North Carolina seceded from the Union, the majority of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina mountain folk weren’t slave holders, were rugged individualists and were distrustful of wealthy secessionist landowners. Most were loyal to the Union – so much so, that some communities made serious proposals to secede from the Confederacy and rejoin the Union. They viewed the conflict as a “rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.” Redford Gatlin, for whom Gatlinburg was named, was the town’s only Confederate sympathizer. He was run out of town!

The Grist Mill at Dollywood – The Next Generation

Dollywood, nestled into a valley of the foothills at Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, serves as the premier theme park in the region and draws visitors from all over the country. Owned by music icon, Dolly Parton, it offers many unique thrill rides and attractions and is built on the values and heritage of the Smoky Mountains.

One of the many sights, sounds – and aromas – of the Park, the Dollywood Grist Mill is located in a section called Craftsman’s Valley. The mill was constructed in 1982, but is patterned after the historical mills of the area and utilizes traditional crafts and crafts people. It is the first fully functioning grist mill built in over 100 years.

The Dollywood Grist Mill is very photogenic. We loved Dollywood, not only for its various rides, shops and shows, but also for its Eagle Mountain Sanctuary, the country’s largest population of non-releasable Bald Eagles. These and other birds of prey are housed in a 30,000 square-foot aviary under the care of the American Eagle Foundation and with permits from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Photo by Ria Nicholas

The scent of freshly baked cinnamon bread, made from flour milled right on the premises, emanates from the mill and lures tourists from every direction. They are encouraged to explore the mill, and a miller stands ready to answer questions.

Today, if we want bread, we just run to the nearest grocery store. We don’t give much thought to where our bread comes from, how it was made, or the history behind bread-making. But maybe we should. I know the next time I pop a slice in the toaster, I’ll pause for a moment of appreciation.

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Travel Tips:
Two Feathers Cabin in Pigeon Forge, TN is located just 1 mile behind Dollywood. The cabin features 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, jetted tub, hot tub, and air hockey table. Book your stay with us!

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a leisurely 5.5 mile one-way driving loop accessible from Cherokee Orchard Road in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Please note that RFMNT closes during the winter months. Aside from the historical buildings mentioned in this article, you can experience babbling brooks, rushing streams and a number of waterfalls, as well as excellent hiking trails there.

Cades Cove

Cades Cove is a leisurely, scenic, 11 mile, one-way driving loop that can experience heavy traffic during peak tourist times: in summer, during autumn (the colors are spectacular) and on weekends. Allow for at least two hours to drive the loop, more if you stop to walk the trails. Note that the loop is closed to motor vehicles but accessible by bike or on foot each Wednesday, from June 17th through September 30th. The loop can close at times due to heavy snowfall.

Mingus Mill

Mingus Mill is located one-half mile north of the Oconaluftee Visitors Center in Cherokee, North Carolina on US 441. A miller is on site to demonstrate from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm daily mid-March through mid-November and on Thanksgiving weekend.

Weather and Clothing

Although the climate in eastern Tennessee is mild, the area does experience four seasons (an occasional blizzard is possible), so be sure to dress accordingly. We also recommend comfortable walking shoes or hiking boots. Temperatures always run colder at higher elevations, and U.S. Highway 441 between Tennessee and North Carolina can close due to inclement weather during the winter.

Animal Encounters

Wildlife experts estimate that about 1,500 black bears inhabit Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Additionally, elk (which grow to 650 pounds and sprout impressive racks!) have been reintroduced into the Park. That means that an animal encounter is a real possibility. Both black bears and elk can inflict serious, possibly fatal, injuries and should be viewed from a respectful distance of at least 50 yards (150 feet)!

And, of course, never feed a bear! Feeding bears is not only illegal, it causes them to lose their fear of humans and to associate people with food. This can lead to aggressive behavior toward humans, which means that Rangers have no choice but to euthanize them. Ergo the saying, “A fed bear is a dead bear.”


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Great Smoky Mountains National Park Truck with Sign 12″ x 18″Art Print Poster:

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