Joe White retiring from East Texas Oil Museum after 37 years as director
One of Kilgore College’s treasures, The East Texas Oil Museum, will bid farewell this month to a man who has been with the museum since its inception 37 years ago and who has devoted half of his life to the preservation and public education of the East Texas oil field.
Joe White, the only director the museum has ever had, was recently named Director Emeritus by the KC Board of Trustees.
White plans to retire, but he won’t be a stranger to the museum. He said he’ll return to the museum next week to work half-time to write a history of the museum and to continue work on fundraising. Merlyn Holmes, of Kilgore, will take over as director of the museum effective Sept. 15, per board approval.
White, a native of Henderson, graduated from KC in 1963, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stephen F. Austin State University, and studied postgraduate at Texas A&M University in Urban and Regional Studies. He began teaching history as a graduate student at SFASU, then taught government at Blinn College in Brenham. In 1971, he moved to KC to teach history, government and economics.
White served as historical researcher for Museum Arts, Inc., in designing and building the East Texas Oil Museum from 1977-80 and was appointed in 1980 by KC President Dr. Stewart McLaurin as the museum’s director.
“Hearing that the administration had not hired a director, Lynn Welch, the museum’s job site secretary, encouraged me to apply,” White said. “I interviewed with Dr. McLaurin three times for a total of five hours, and finally he asked me if I wanted the job or not.”
White said he agreed to take the job but only if he could have Welch as his secretary.
“At that time, her (Lynn Welch’s) husband, R.C., was employed at KC and the nepotism policy precluded hiring her,” White said. “I said a person would be a fool to take this job without Lynn, as she had catalogued and tagged the thousands of artifacts donated to the project. Stuart (McLaurin) understood and agreed that Lynn would be the museum’s first secretary.”
Originally funded by Placid Oil Company (owned by the “H.L.” Hunt family), White said the museum honors the Hunt family along with the many pioneers that discovered and developed the field.
Today, the museum is funded through donations, grants and admission fees. White is presently undertaking his fourth annual fundraising campaign to underwrite maintenance and operation expenses.
The museum is filled with artifacts and oil field memorabilia that gives visitors a glimpse into the glory days of the giant East Texas Oil Field. White, along with Hyman Laufer and Lynn Welch, played a huge role in the finding and gathering of most artifacts in the museum.
“I did the historical research and worked with Mr. Laufer in finding people that had things and persuaded them to donate them. I had an old truck and Mr. Laufer had the contacts. 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.”
White said he would empty out old buildings and barns, hauling items in his truck to display in the museum.
“Every day for the last 37 years has been different. We have had visitors ask if we had this or that,” White said. “One day, three couples touring noted that we did not have Tea Leaf China. They were members of an international collector group and promised to bring us a set of Tea Leaf. Three weeks later, two couples arrived with a beautiful collection of Tea Leaf, now displayed in the museum’s Arp General Store in Boomtown.”
White said occasionally people will invite him to their homes to view artifacts they wish to donate.
“It truly is this kind of sharing by the people of East Texas that has made the museum so special. Every artifact has a story,” White said.
The first item donated in 1977 was a shaving mug and brush, given by former Kilgore News Herald publisher Charles Devall.
Since opening its doors in 1980, the museum has seen more than 1.5 million people walk through its doors.
“It has been an exciting 34 years, answering calls from film production companies like Clint Eastwood, or public broadcasting companies such as KERA of Dallas, WGBH of Boston and New York, and BBC of London and Aberdeen, Scotland,“ White said.
“The best advertising, however, is word of mouth, and our visitors have often taken extra brochures with them to share with neighbors and friends.”
Several major publications have also featured the museum over the years including the Texas Tourism Association, AAA, Mobil Travel Guide, Texas Highways and Texas Monthly.
White is a renowned public speaker on American history, government, the Big Inch Pipeline, World War II and the East Texas Oil Field. He provides programs for numerous civic clubs, petroleum clubs and pipeline clubs including the Petroleum Clubs of Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston and the Desk and Derrick Clubs in Dallas, Fort Worth and Tyler.
He has been a devout proponent in developing Kilgore tourism, chairing the Tourism Committee of the Kilgore Chamber of Commerce, serving as a member of the Kilgore City Commission from 1985-91 and has served as Chair of Executive Committee of East Texas Council of Governments.
White was also a Charter President of Kilgore Kiwanis Club, and led in the creation of the Key Club at Kilgore High School, the Circle K Club at KC, and chartered a new Kiwanis Club in Gladewater.
“My favorite of all the memories was working with Lynn Currin, sponsor of the Key Club, and getting the boys to obtain releases from their parents so that they could be a blood donor. The first blood drive produced 176 donors and a number were our young men.”
One donor that White is especially proud of is Kilgore Mayor Ronnie Spradlin who has donated several gallons, he said.
White also helped create Gregg County Senior Citizens, Inc., and served as its first president. Sponsored by the Kiwanis Clubs of Gregg County, the organization’s facility was located in Gladewater in the old Gregg County Library Building.
“Being allowed to teach at Kilgore College and chosen to be the first director of the oil museum has been a professional career that many would dream about. I was able to live the dream,” White said. “The museum has been my baby for 37 years, and you always want what is best for your baby.”