The East Texas Oil Museum may be considered one of KC’s hidden treasures, although it does not attract many students.
One man has been with the museum since the idea was formed 36 years ago, treasuring every bit of it.
Museum Director Joe White said he has devoted half of his lifetime to what he calls his baby.
White, 71, has been director since its inception in 1980. He grew up in Henderson and attended KC from 1961-63.
“I chose to attend Kilgore College because it was affordable, close to home and had a strong faculty like it does today,” White said.
After teaching at Blinn College, as well as a few other East Texas colleges, he returned to KC in 1971 to teach history and government.
“I was looking to relocate. The day my wife, Ann, and I got the call to come to KC, I accepted it,” White said. “The next day, we got a call for an opening in Dallas and the next day a call from Galveston. God had his plan in the times and sequence he wanted me in Kilgore.”
In 1977, Dr. Stewart McLauren, the KC president at the time, interviewed White for the director position three times, totaling five hours.
“No one knew what this was going to be… I knew if I took this job and gave up my classes and this didn’t pan out, there might not be a place for me [at KC],” White said. “I wanted to retain my teaching position, but it turned out I didn’t have time for both.”
The museum was funded by the Placid Oil Company, owned by Haroldson Lafayette “H.L.” Hunt, Jr., who the museum is in honor of, along with the many oil producers and wildcatters.
Today, the museum is funded through donations, grants and admission fees.
White played a huge role in the finding and gathering of most artifacts in the museum.
“I did the historical research and… ferreting out people that had things as well as persuading them to donate them. Some people wanted to sell their items, but we just didn’t have the budget for it,” White said. “Basically, Placid Oil put up the money to build [the museum] and the people of East Texas filled the museum.”
Hyman Laufer, retired chairman of the biology department, and White became the “white version of Sanford and Son.”
They went out and emptied out old buildings and barns and personally hauled items in White’s old truck.
The Barber Shop exhibit contains some of the few items that were purchased by the museum.
White went out to an old barber’s home and dismantled the items and hauled them back to its new home.
White knows the story behind virtually every item, big or small.
“The old bench in front of the Barber Shop was hand-hewn oak, done by a man over 100 years ago,” White said. “I can still remember as a teenager riding my bike and seeing old men sitting on that bench in front of Gordon Brown’s
Store on North Marshall whittling and chewing tobacco.”
As vital as the donated items and money have been, the donated time from the volunteers has been even more important.
“We couldn’t keep this place open without their loyalty and help,” White said. “The museum doesn’t make enough money to have an extensive staff [considering] operating costs per day are around $800 to $900.”
As White approaches retirement, he hopes to be able to come back and work on a part-time basis.
“It has been a fun ride. My wife didn’t want me to take this job because she was afraid it would become my mistress… and in a way, it did,” White said.
He hopes to continue his research and write a book on the history of the museum as well as an autobiography.
He also has plans to write an abbreviated version of the two-hour-and-20 minute audio tour, which is available in English, Spanish, French, German, Mandarin and Chinese.
When the time comes to retire, White said he will miss all of the social interaction.
“I guess this is something akin to going through a divorce [or] losing a child… like being forbidden to see someone,” White said. “[The museum] means so much to me that I feel like I am losing my baby.”
White added he enjoyed being able to nurture and train the young people he has employed over the years.
“I am going to miss the bonding with the people, because you never know who is going to walk through the front doors,” White said. “Those people are the drive that push me to be the best I can be.”
White hopes any person who will someday take his place will love the museum the way he has.
“It is sad really… being cut off from your child… Though, it is like a cup of coffee. I can stick my finger in it, remove it and there would be no void,” White said. “There will be someone else to come in and pick up the reins… I hope and pray they are for this place as much as I do.”
White prides himself on attempting to interact with each guest that comes to tour the museum.
He hopes that his kindness will draw them in, his knowledge and passion will keep them wanting more and his warm heart will have you wanting to make him a lifelong friend.
For more information on the museum, such as admission and hours of operation, visit www.easttexasoilmuseum.com, or see page one