Tragedy in a Small Texas Town – The 80th Anniversary of the New London Explosion

Normally when I blog, it’s about our time at an RV park, dining at a restaurant, sunsets and sunrises, and visiting attractions. While today’s blog is about an attraction, it’s also about history, a history most people around the world are not familiar with but should be. It’s about tragedy and how to find anything positive that comes from it. And it’s about a man who has lived a very long life and has never forgotten the role he played so many years ago and how it forever affected his life.

Today, I was blessed to meet and visit with Mr. Marvin Dees. The two of us along with my aunt and cousin visited for about an hour at the London Museum, Café & Soda Fountain. I learned a great deal about this humble individual and here are just a few things. New London 1New Phototastic CollageMr. Dees will be 102 in November of this year and he still drives himself at his home in Tyler, Texas. On December 24, 1942, he received his draft letter and served in the Air Force during World War II, where he serviced C-54’s in California. He was happily married to his late wife for 70 years, until her passing when he was in his early 90’s. He graduated from Tulane University in Louisiana. While all of these are interesting facts about Mr. Dees, the following story he shared had a greater impact on me than any of the above.

On March 18, 1937, Marvin Dees along with four other crew members were working on the Pinkston oil lease in the east Texas community of Turnertown, which at the time had a population of around 1,500 people. Mr. Dees stated that by 1937 there were thousands of oil wells in the area, with a well placed around every five acres. The men were wrapping up their work day and putting away their tools when they heard a loud boom. Because they worked in the oil field, they thought a boiler had blown up at one of the many fields in the area. It wasn’t until a Texaco employee drove up to their site and told them there was an explosion at the New London School, five miles north of them, that they learned what the ground-shaking sound was. They didn’t learn until 45 minutes later when they pulled up to the relatively new school building what the impact was of the explosion. In 1937, the London School District was considered to be the richest school district in the state of Texas.New london 2

Huge piles of rubble were everywhere with one corner of the school still somewhat intact. After the initial shock of seeing what happened to the building that housed 5th  through 11th graders, plus post-graduates, the crew looked further and the tragic impact of the blast was revealed.New london 3

According to Mr. Dees, “Bodies were laid out around the perimeter. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing.”

Oilfield trucks and other workers arrived from all directions to assist in the recovery. Mr. Dees, who was only 21 years old at the time, along with others arriving on the scene began picking up debris in order to help find any survivors. Because of the enormous amount of concrete, workers used some of the oil trucks with wenches in order to move the heavy debris from the scene. As they were working, someone noticed a truck load of empty peach baskets. Many peach trees grew in the region at the time. A man suggested they form assembly lines and pass baskets full of debris from man to man in order to make the process quicker. These volunteers later became known as the Peach Basket Brigade.

“It took all night, “said Mr. Dees. “Pieces of bodies were picked up. Some were rescued, others passed on. It was heartbreaking to hear parents crying, going from body to body to see if they could identify their child. They took the wounded to churches in bread trucks, pickups, whatever they could. The Governor declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard. They added flood lights so we could work all night. We inspected every place a body could be. At around 1 or 2am, it started raining, which made it worse. We worked in a daze. By 10:30am, all of the debris had been removed. As a 21-year old, I did a lot of growing up that day. It’s like it just happened yesterday and it’s been almost 80 years.”

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At the time of the explosion, the Parent Teachers Association (PTA) was meeting at the school. During the search, a mother approached one of the searchers, according to Mr. Dees. The mother asked, “Have you seen my child? Did she die peacefully?” The man responded, “Yes, she died peacefully.” After the mother walked away, the man said “God forgive me. I lied to that woman. Her child died horribly.” It is estimated that 300 souls lost their lives because of the explosion.

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When I asked him if he attended any of the funerals, he told me he had not. A few weeks after the explosion, Mr. Dees was transferred to Arkansas for work so he didn’t know the details of the aftermath until he returned years later to the London Museum. He has been coming to the Museum and Café for lunch every Wednesday since he retired in 1979. According to museum staff, he is the last surviving rescue worker and there are only 2 or 3  survivors from the explosion.

An investigation was launched afterwards and it was learned that to save money, school officials decided to tap into an oilfield gas line to get free gas rather than pay for it, a common practice with businesses and homeowners at the time. Stress leaks developed in the pipe couplings below the floor. The high school was filled with the odorless gas. A spark from a sander that was turned on by a shop teacher in the woodshop ignited the gas, causing the explosion.

While visiting with Mr. Dees, he shared the secret to his long life was trying to find the good in everything, even tragedies. He said because of the New London explosion, millions of lives have been saved. Because of the accident, legislation was passed, first by the state government and later by the federal government, requiring a chemical be mixed into natural gas, giving it an odor. new london 7

After the tragedy was reported, including by a new reporter named Walter Cronkite, letters started pouring in from around the world. One particular letter stood out to me. In 1937 when German Reichs Chancellor Adolph Hitler shared his sympathies regarding the loss of the young lives, no one knew that this same ‘sympathetic’ leader would be responsible for the death of 1.5 million Jewish children, as well as millions of adults, less than a decade later.

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I highly recommend you take the time to visit the museum in New London. Located across the street from a beautiful memorial as well as the present West Rusk County Consolidated Independent School District, the exhibits are well done. It’s important that this story not be lost, not only for the memories of the victims, but also because of the impact it had on resolving an issue no one recognized until after the tragedy.

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After saying our goodbyes to Mr. Dees, we traveled down the road to the Pleasant Hill Cemetery to pay our respects to more than a hundred of the victims of the tragedy. I have other family buried at the cemetery and was familiar with it. I’d seen a few of the gravesites while walking to see my family, but I’d never really searched out the graves of those who were lost in the explosion. I captured a few photos to share with you, as I do believe it is important to understand the impact. These photos are not meant to disrespect the families. As a parent, I could not imagine the pain the parents suffered, some losing as many as three of their children.

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The 80th anniversary of the explosion is Saturday, March 18, 2017. If you so choose, take a moment of silence to remember the victims of one of the deadliest disasters in Texas history. Not everything you see is beautiful when you visit a community, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stop to learn about it.

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Until next time…safe travels!

The Texas Capitol and Beyond

As we sit in the RV this afternoon, listening to the rainfall on the RV roof this rainy weekend, it’s time to reflect on the past couple of weeks in the Texas Hill Country. What a wonderful time we’ve had!

It started with a trip to the State Capitol of Texas in Austin, one of my favorite places to visit when in the city. While all the photos below weren’t taken this week, I’ve included some of my favorites. From the Capitol grounds to the beautiful rotunda, the Texas  State Capitol building is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever visited and it certainly showcases the spirit of Texas.

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Austin has so much to see, I couldn’t include it all in this writing. Historic Sixth Street and South Congress Avenue provide for the best in people watching and offer the Keep Austin Weird environment for which the city is known. Of course, Austin is also the Live Music Capitol of the World. Even when walking down the sidewalks, the sounds of music can be heard coming out of many establishments, with musicians performing various genres around every corner.

A few other favorite places to visit in Austin include trying delicious delicacies from the numerous food trucks around the community. Dan especially likes Hey, Cupcake, as he loves their 24 Carrot cupcake, while I’m a big fan of the John Lemon. Great barbecue is everywhere in Austin, as are tacos. Torchy’s Taco, which started in Austin and has now expanded to other states, offers some of the best, in our opinion, but we mostly like to go there for their Green Chile Queso and Chips.

If you’re interested in the history of the lone star state, the Bullock Texas State History Museum is definitely worth a visit. In the summer months, visitors and residents alike line up on the Congress Avenue Bridge and wait for the world’s largest urban bat colony to make their appearance at dusk. And though the bats are fascinating, the viewing provides for another great people-watching opportunity.

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Spring is just around the corner and the wildflowers are slowly arriving. We have a few bluebonnets, the Texas state flower, growing right outside our RV door. But to see the finest collection of Texas wildflowers, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center offers some of the best chances to see the incredible color palette the former First Lady’s beautification campaign put into place. To see more natural beauty in Austin, we would also suggest visiting McKinney Falls State Park and Zilker Botanical Garden.

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Our last place of permanent residence was in Buda, Texas. Dan’s a huge fan of Cabela’s so no trip to Buda would be complete without a stop there. While he was shopping for all things for the outdoor sporting enthusiast, I decided to snap some photography and had a little fun with it, too.

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One of Dan’s friends who lives near Buda invited him to return to Cabela’s a few days later to attend the Capitol of Texas Police Chute Out. These respected officers from all over the country have mad skills on motorcycles. Dan did some volunteering and shot a few photos from his cell phone I thought I would share.

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And since we were right down the road from the legendary Salt Lick BBQ, we had to make the short drive to snap yet another photo of the infamous pit and enjoy a wonderful lunch. The flowers were blooming around the buildings and added to the already fabulous culinary experience. The restaurant is south of Austin and is located in the tiny town of Driftwood, Texas. While it may be a small place, it doesn’t lack in character and charm. Look carefully and you might just see boot fences, rustic buildings, and unapologetic U.S.A. pride. With the ever popular South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference and Festival right around the corner, you can count on a line of people from around the world waiting to enjoy the scene and the food.

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When we first decided to sell our home and go on our year-long RV journey, we stayed in the city of San Marcos, located about 30 miles south of Austin. Today, we are staying at another park (Longhorn RV Resort) in Niederwald, Texas. Since San Marcos is only a few miles away, we took a day trip and visited Dick’s Classic Garage. We’ve been there a few times but every time we go, a different collection of cars is displayed. I’m not a big car enthusiast like Dan but I can appreciate the incredible beauty of these restored automobiles from days gone by. It’s definitely worth a stop.

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We also paid a visit to Wimberley Glassworks, which is located in San Marcos. It’s also only a short drive to the scenic and visitor-friendly town of Wimberley. Going into the glassworks store, we had no real idea of what to expect. We were pleasantly surprised to find they offered free demonstrations. Since we have very little room for items in the RV and prefer to collect refrigerator magnets as they are small, we purchased a glass magnet from the store as a reminder of the magnificent work they offer. In our next frame home, we can see ourselves purchasing something from this terrific store.

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We’re wrapping up our time in the hill country and head out to east Texas in the morning. As you can see, we’ve had a great time. Our favorite part of staying at Longhorn RV Resort are the longhorns and the donkeys. They usually show up in the afternoons by the dog park. Our springer spaniel mix, Sadie, was not a fan. Hannah, our border collie mix, couldn’t have cared less.

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Of course, the beautiful sunsets over the pond were right up there, too.

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Until next time, safe travels from the Eccentric Nomads!

From Palm Trees to Cedars

What a busy month we’ve had seeing more of our beloved Texas. We’ve written a great deal about the Lone Star State but there’s a whole lot of ground to cover in order to capture what is often referred to as Texas – It’s Like A Whole Other Country. If you travel east to west from Orange to Anthony, you’d have to drive 877 miles and north from Texline, in the Texas Panhandle, to Brownsville is 899 miles. To give you a bit of perspective, you could drive from Maine to North Carolina in about the same number of miles and go through six or seven states, depending on the route you chose. So, we’ve just touched the surface of the magnificence of this awesome state.

For six weeks, we stayed in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) at a 55+ active adult community, the Llano Grande Resort and Country Club in Mercedes, Texas, where I did some work camping for the park in the way of writing and photography. austin-7

Llano Grande is by far the largest park we’ve visited with more than 1,100 sites. It was really more like living in a small town than being at an RV park. Almost everyone has a golf cart, or rents one, which is what we did, and residents can be seen driving around the neighborhoods, waving at everyone as they pass. We’re not big socializers but for those who are, this park has a lot to offer.

One of our favorite amenities were the dog parks – one for smaller dogs and the other a large park with a big pond. Our springer-mix, Sadie, loves to swim so she was in her element, chasing a ball and jumping in the water. Hannah, the border collie-mix, on the other hand, preferred to roam the large park and sniff every blade of grass and mark her territory while greeting other dogs with her signature whine. They made friends while they were there and seemed to look forward to our morning and afternoon visits. austin-9

While Dan was tooling around in the park’s incredible wood shop, I spent the days and evenings interviewing residents or taking photos of the park or the events, most of which were held at the Hynes Event Center, a new meeting facility located on the park grounds. I had the privilege to shoot a number of concerts but my favorites were the Oak Ridge Boys and 7 Bridges, an Eagles tribute band. While the bands were great, the Poker Run in golf carts was a blast to watch. Golf carts filled with couples searching for clues throughout the park reminded me of the movie Rat Race. Probably one of the most unique things we saw was on Tuesday mornings, the Weslaco Farmer’s Market brought their fresh, Valley produce directly to the park in a wagon developed for Winter Texans, or those who drive down from the northern states and Canada to live during the colder months of the year. When I was in high school and college, I worked on the family farm and took produce to the farmer’s market, so I appreciated the innovation of the Weslaco business in bringing the product to the masses.austin-6

As a photographer, I have to admit the events and activities were a joy to shoot, but my favorite thing to do was enjoy the nature offered in the RGV. Wild parrots could be seen, and heard, by the office almost every morning. Dan, however, preferred to watch the alligators at the Estero Llano Grande State Park adjacent to the resort. His dream is to go gator hunting and catch one without losing an appendage. Good luck with that.

While we knew about the culinary scene in the Valley, especially for Mexican cuisine, which was fabulous, we found some wonderful restaurants offering a variety of other favorites of ours. The Fireman’s Breakfast at Joses Cafecito in Weslaco stuck to your ribs and kept you full throughout the day. We visited Smoking Oak Barbeque in Mercedes twice during our stay. I wouldn’t call us BBQ snobs, but having lived in the Austin area for a number of years, we are pretty picky about our smoked meats. These guys have it down and their service was above and beyond. Cortino’s Italian in Weslaco was our final culinary stop in our six-week stay. All I can say is yum!austin-8

Now we’re set up in Niederwald, Texas, at Longhorn RV Resort for a few weeks. The park is just south of Austin and we love it so far. The sites are large with plenty of room for our big rig. They have nice facilities including a wonderful on-site store with just about everything an RVer needs, including the ability to purchase pizza and wings. austin-10

Our favorite place so far is the wonderful pond at the park. The sunsets over the water have been pretty spectacular and we’ve enjoyed early morning coffee on the large deck overlooking the water. We’ve even had a couple of ducks show up at our site, obviously looking for handouts, but the dogs aren’t fans so we let the neighbors feed them instead. Longhorn cattle can be seen in the afternoons near the dog park. It wouldn’t be Texas without them.

We did have a scare last week when the area was under a tornado warning due to passing storms. We decided to head to a town nearby rather than stay in the RV. One of the smaller travel trailers was overturned during the storms but, fortunately, no one was hurt. Our RV was fine but we were out of power for a couple of hours. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about storms, staying in an RV during high winds is probably not the best idea.

Now that we’re in cedar country, we’re ready to explore this gorgeous area of Texas. While we’re doing our thing, I invite you to enjoy this view of the Penny Backer Bridge or the Austin 360 Bridge that I captured a couple of years ago when we were living in the area. Safe travels!

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