Friday, November 16, 2012


"Lone Star Historian" is a blog about the travels and activities of the State Historian of Texas. Bill O'Neal was appointed to a two-year term by Gov. Rick Perry on August 22, 2012, at an impressive ceremony in the State Capitol. Bill is headquartered at Panola College ( in Carthage, where he has taught since 1970. For more than 20 years Bill conducted the state's first Traveling Texas History class, a three-hour credit course which featured a 2,100-mile itinerary. In 2000 he was awarded a Piper Professorship, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West Historical Association. Bill has published almost 40 books, half about Texas history subjects, and in 2007 he was named Best Living Non-Fiction Writer by True West Magazine.  

The Navarro County Historical Society holds a banquet in Corsicana each year. I am a native of Corsicana and a longtime member of the Society, so I was enormously proud when asked to deliver the banquet address. The invitation was delivered by Bobbie Young, director of the Society and of Pioneer Village Museum in Corsicana. The event was held on Friday evening, November 9. The meal was excellent and the attendees were kindred spirits whose number included Sheriff Les Cotten, an avid local historian. An annual award, Navarro County Historian of the Year, was presented to Bruce McManus, who energetically tackles one historical project after another across the county.

My love for history was born and nurtured in Corsicana and Navarro County. George Owen, my great-grandfather and a Confederate veteran from Mississippi, brought his family to Navarro County in a wagon train in 1881. One of his children, seven-year-old Nannie, became my grandmother. The wagon train adventure was the most vivid experience of her life. She told me the story many times, and gave me a written account from an older cousin.  I identified personally every time I saw a Western movie with covered wagons at Corsicana's Ideal Theater, or at the Palace, the Rio, or the Grand. Nannie married Tom O'Neal, who came to Navarro County in the 1880s, a teenager from Georgia. The Owen and O'Neal families became landowners and cotton farmers, and Tom was an accomplished ginwright who built and managed cotton gins.

Navarro County was organized in 1846 and named after Texas Revolutionary patriot Jose Antonio Navarro. When given the honor of naming the county seat, Navarro chose "Corsicana," after his father's birthplace, the island of Corsica. The new town grew rapidly, and the first railroad reached Corsicana in 1871. After another line arrived in 1880, the population soon reached 5,000. The State Orphans Home was located in Corsicana, and so was the Odd Fellows Home for Orphans and Widows. There were handsome Victorian homes and churches and commercial buildings. 
Pioneer Village began in 1958 when this dogtrot plantation cabin was
moved from Chatfield to Corsicana's city park.
This antebellum plantation home was built on the western outskirts
of Corsicana by Roger Q. Mills, an attorney and prominent public
servant. Before the Civil War Mills was a member of the Texas
Legislature; he saw heavy combat as a Confederate cavalry
colonel; and after the war he served in both houses of Congress.

The magnificent First Methodist Church was erected in 1896.

 The bustling town outgrew its water supply. In 1894 drilling efforts produced oil instead of water. Soon there were derricks throughout the town, and Corsicana developed the first oil field and oil refinery west of the Mississippi River. In the early decades of the 20th century other oil fields were developed near Corsicana. The Corsicana Oilers fielded a superb baseball team in 1902, running away with the Texas League pennant and setting professional records which still stand (for example, there was a 51-3 rout of Texarkana which established all-time marks for runs and hits in a game, as well as future big league catcher J.J. Clarke's 8 home runs and 16 RBIs). 

One of my daughters, Dr. Shellie O'Neal, is the head of the drama department at Navarro College and has made her home in Corsicana for more than a decade. I asked Shellie to come to the banquet with me, and she also agreed to accompany me around town during the afternoon as I took photos for this blog. We started at Pioneer Village, an excellent collection of log buildings, as well as a Peace Officers Museum and a monument to Lefty Frizzell, Corsicana's famed Country singer.

We visited the site of Corsicana's discovery well and the original refinery. We photographed a variety of Victorian buildings, as well as the oldest structure at the Odd Fellows Home. We went to the home of Gov. Beauford  Jester and his grave. In 1949, during his second term, Jester became the first- and only - Texas governor to die in office. Temple Beth-El, built in 1898 with architecturally unique twin onion domes, was one of two Jewish synagogues on "Church Street." Today it is used as a community building.  

The Beth-El Temple, featuring twin onion domes, was built in 1898.

Following a few more stops, Shellie and I changed clothes and went to the banquet. It was a pleasure to address and socialize with fellow historians - a delightful evening in my home town. 

A park has been built at the site of
Corsicana's first oil well.
The oldest building at the Odd Fellows campus is the gymnasium/
auditorium, which had a swimming pool in the basement.

Gov. Beauford Jester died of a heart attack at
the age of 56.  Buried in his home town,
he is the only governor to die in office
during 166 years of Texas statehood.

A number of impressive old homes still stand in Corsicana.
Note the widow's walk atop the roof.

Statue of Country singer Lefty Frizzell

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