In a back room at the Smith County Historical Society Museum, Savannah Cortes’s attention is drawn to a small object among World War I artifacts on a table.
“This is one of my favorites,” Mrs. Cortes, the museum’s new manager, said as she carefully placed the object onto her palm. “It’s a compass. One like this would have been carried by everyone in the Army corps. At first I thought it didn’t work but it does.”
The century-old compass is now playing a role in helping the Historical Society find a new path forward. Over decades, the nonprofit volunteer organization had lost its way in fulfilling a mission of presenting the county’s history, said Scott Fitzgerald, vice president of the board.
But that is changing thanks to an upcoming exhibition and a new approach to attracting more people to the Historical Society’s often overlooked museum just off the downtown square, he said.
The World War I artifacts will go on view this week as part of “Wading Through the Blood: The Great War & Smith County Men,” the first major exhibition at the museum in more than 30 years.
THE EARLY YEARS
In 1903, the Carnegie Library Fund gave the city of Tyler $15,000 to build a library after the city agreed to spend at least $1,500 each year to operate it. A fundraising drive brought in enough money to buy a lot at 125 S. College Ave., and provide landscaping and furnishings.
Constructed of limestone and brick, the two-story Carnegie Library opened in 1904 with books on the first floor and an auditorium to host events on the second floor.
It was one of about 2,500 libraries across the United States partially funded by philanthropic industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who wanted to give as many people as possible access to the information and literature found in libraries.
From the beginning, Carnegie Library was a community resource. Records show:
- It was the first building downtown to have running water;
- During World War I, Red Cross volunteers used the second floor auditorium to roll and box bandages sent to treat the wounded;
- During the Great Depression, the library housed a Public Works Art Program which commissioned artist Douthitt Wilson to paint murals depicting scenes of American life.
In 1936, a $25,000 expansion doubled the size of the library. In 1979 it was added to the Register of National Historic Places. By this time, the building was too small to adequately meet the needs of a city library and increasingly needed repairs.
In 1980, the city built a much larger library across the street. Carnegie Library’s holdings were removed and the doors closed.
A few years later, the city began leasing the vacant building to the Smith County Historical Society to hold its archives and display history exhibits. In 1984, the building reopened as Carnegie History Center. The name later changed to the Smith County Historical Society Museum.
“We take incredible pride in preserving and protecting our local history and it is a great honor for us to do this from such a historic site,” notes a history of the building on the Society’s website.
Carnegie History Center opened with an exhibit featuring a series of dioramas depicting the county’s history from the days of Caddo Indian encampments through the post-World War II boom era.
The dioramas remained in place on the first floor year after year, decade after decade. It was the first thing visitors encountered.
“The display had not changed in 30 years,” said Fitzgerald, who noted that they looked dated and were crammed with too many objects.
“It was too hard to read the (information) tags,” he said. “We needed to use modern display techniques.”
Although Carnegie Library had been a center of activity, the museum rarely hosted events or exhibits that attracted crowds. Landscaping often was overgrown. Some of the windows had been covered over from the inside to protect artifacts, including the Depression-era murals, from exposure to sunlight.
In recent years, the museum seemed to have become an overlooked relic of the past. People more often were attracted to the nearby Gallery Main Street and events at the restored Liberty Hall theater.
“People were telling me. ‘I didn’t realize you were still here. I thought you had closed,’” Fitzgerald said.
WORLD WAR I
The new exhibit, “Wading Through Blood: The Great War & Smith County Men,” coincides with the 100th anniversary of the United States entry into World War I. The Historical Society is hoping to capitalize on renewed interest in the war generated by the milestone anniversary.
The Society also is using the anniversary to shed light on Smith County’s contributions to the war effort. It has identified about 1,200 men with strong ties to the county who fought in the war.
Volunteers are leading an ongoing project to uncover letters the men wrote to loved ones back home. The letters are being posted on the Society’s website, smithcountyhistoricalsociety.org.
The following is from a letter dated Oct. 9, 1917, by Cyril Parker, a wireless operator who served aboard a ship, to his family in Lindale.
“I am having a fine time. My work as a wireless operator and electrician is light and pleasant, while we seemingly have been isolated. .... I am going to try to get on one of our big destroyers now in service on the battlefront where real fighting is good all the time. I want to get into the middle of the fight, and be there when the last gun is fired, and see the white flag when the Germans float it in the breeze for we are sure to give the then the licking of their lives.”
Mrs. Cortes began volunteering at the museum last year, after moving with her husband to Tyler. She had just earned a degree in history from Texas A&M University.
She said she was surprised with how extensive the Society’s archives were after she began working with Tiffany Wright, the archives manager.
“I realized we are sitting on a massive amount of information,” she said.
She saw possibilities for new exhibits.
Fitzgerald said the board was excited about the energy and new ideas Mrs. Cortes was bringing to the organization. Earlier this year, the board hired her to manage the museum and expand the volunteer base.
All agreed that a top priority was giving the old building interior improvements to better present its archival treasures to the public. To transform the exhibit space, the Society has replaced dingy flooring with new carpeting, installed better lighting and removed the covering from some windows to let the sun shine through.
Instead of dioramas that section off the exhibit space into tight corridors, the new exhibition will feature an open setting displaying artifacts in cases and in other ways to give patrons a better viewing experience.
“We needed to maximize the use of the space and make it more user friendly,” Mrs. Cortes said.
The exhibit will be unveiled during a catered evening reception Nov. 18.
The artifacts on view will include uniforms, gear servicemen carried onto the battlefield, certificates that the government issued to recognize valor in military service and personal belongings of some of the men who fought.
The exhibition will be the first opportunity for the public to see improvements to the museum. Fitzgerald is optimistic that people who have not been to the museum in years will be impressed.
“Wading Through Blood” will remain on view into next year.
Fitzgerald said that the days of keeping one exhibit in place for years are over. New exhibits will go up about every six months. The board also is exploring other ways to turn the museum into more of a community resource.
“We are rediscovering things that we forgot we had,” Fitzgerald said. “The possibilities are limitless.”
Where: 125 S. College Ave.
Hours of operation: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; noon to 4 p.m. Saturday
*The Historical Society accepts donations from patrons.
NEW EXHIBIT RECEPTION
When: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Nov. 18
Cost: $40/members; $60/ nonmembers
Information: 903-592-5993 or smithcountyhistoricalsociety.org.