Tragedy in New London

The New London school before the explosion
(historical photo)
In 1937, the New London school district in Texas was one of the richest rural school districts in America due to income from the oil and natural gas fields surrounding the small town. Over 10,000 derricks surrounded the area; eleven of them operating on the school grounds itself. That income enabled the building of a beautiful, 2-story, modern, steel-framed building where kindergarten through 11th grade classes were held. Just before the 1st day of spring that year, the school would become the site of the most heart-wrenching school day in America’s history.

On March 18th, at 3:17pm,the older students were in their last class, minutes away from the last bell. The children in kindergarten through 4
th grade had already been dismissed for the day. The PTA was meeting in the gym as L. R. Butler, the instructor of manual training, turned on a sanding machine in the shop room under the building. Unfortunately, there had been a slow, but prolonged gas leak from a 2-inch pipe. At that time, no one had thought to add a noxious smell to gas to enable detection of it so even though it had accumulated in a large pocket, it had been undetected because it was colorless and odorless. When Mr. Butler turned on the switch, an electrical spark ignited the gas which had accumulated in an enclosed 253-foot long by 56-foot wide space beneath the basement floor.

Minutes after the explosion
(historical photo)
The explosion was so massive that it lifted the concrete floor and the entire building into the air. When it crashed back down, the walls collapsed and the roof fell in. Bricks, steel beams and huge pieces of concrete rained down on the students and adults trapped in the classrooms. So powerful was the explosion that it was heard over 4 miles away and it threw a 2-ton piece of concrete through the air for more than 200 feet where it demolished someone’s new Chevrolet.

Stunned parents at the PTA meeting ran
to the school building and began frantically digging through the massive mound of ruble screaming for their children buried underneath. As word of the disaster quickly spread, the town’s residents came running with shovels and rakes. Roughnecks from the oilfields rushed to the school with heavy-duty equipment. Police, including members of the Highway Patrol and Texas Rangers arrived and pitched in to help.
It began to rain as darkness set in, but floodlights were set up and the workers continued digging through the rubble looking for victims all night. There were a few miracles as a survivor would be dug out of the rubble, but mostly, the heart-breaking screams of anguished parents were heard over and over as workers pulled another lifeless body of a child from the debris and it was identified.

It took seventeen hours for all the victims to be recovered. Garages, churches and even the roller rink were all used as makeshift hospitals and morgues. Of the 500 students and 40 teachers, school employees and visitors in the building, 294 had died that day. Another 17 severely injured victims died in the days and weeks following the explosion bringing the total number to 311.
Killed in blast
5th Grade
6th Grade
7th Grade
8th Grade
9th Grade
10th Grade
11th Grade
There were many horror stories. One family lost all three of their children; one mother could positively identify her ten-year-old’s body only because the little girl, while playing dress-up the night before, had used a crayon to color her toenails red. A set of twins was found lying next to each other, the boy’s arm in death reaching toward his sister. The youngest victim was only 4 years-old. He had been excited to accompany his mother on a visit to see his big sister’s class.
As the last of the debris was being removed from the site, a blackboard was found beneath a large concrete block. The message the teacher had written that day was still legible – “Oil and natural gas are East Texas’ greatest mineral blessings. Without them this school would not be here and none of us would be here learning our lessons.”
Within two months, the Texas Legislature passed a law requiring refiners to add a scent to odor-free natural gas. Today, because of the familiar stink of a chemical called mercaptan, another tragedy like New London will never happen again.



Postcard From Dobyville Ghost Town

Ghost towns are places where people lived and dreamed and died. They tell the stories of lost lives and abandoned dreams. Often times, the only thing left of an abandoned town is the graveyard. Such is the fate of Dobyville, Texas.

In the state of Texas, there are over 46,000 known cemetery's. No one knows how many others have been lost and forgotten. Time, weather, and vandals destroy the markers. People a generation or two removed from those buried move away and, over time, cannot be bothered to keep up the grounds. Weeds and brush eventually reclaim the land and erase any sign that people were buried there. Sometimes forgotten graves of those gone before us are bulldozed and paved over with highways and subdivisions.

Some of the known cemetery's are well-kept lush parks with mowed green grass, tall shade-trees and water fountains gurgling. Many others though are barren and desolate; quiet places offering stark reminders of our mortality. The Dobyville Cemetery is much closer to the latter than the former. The settlement of Dobyville was established in the 1850's by pioneers who wrestled the land from the Comanche Indians. By the late 1800's, Dobyville had dozens of residents and a post office, a cotton gin and grist and syrup mills. It also had a school, the Lone Star School, with 1 teacher for its 56 students.

WW II soldier killed in action near the
end of the war
Hard times and the hard limestone underlying the ground began to make it too hard to earn a living and the town began to decline in the early 1900's. Better job opportunities became available in larger cities and better roads made it easy to get away. The post office closed in 1900 and the school consolidated with the Lake Victor school district in 1921. In the 1940's there were few residents to take part in the community spring rabbit drive. The annual community event took place on a Saturday in late March or early April and families would gather for a day of hunting and picnicking, but by 1949, only a few scattered houses marked the community on county highway maps. Only a cemetery remained by the 1980s.

Although still active, the Dobyville Cemetery is a typical quiet, country resting place where love ones, recent and from years past, rest in eternal peace. Few people know about this place and drivers on U.S. Highway 281 will speed past it without seeing, without knowing that here lies people who lived their lives, dreamed their dreams, loved and were loved, laughed and cried and at one time, were important to someone.
Baby's grave - always sad to see

Another child's grave. RIP little one

Postcard From Graceland

You know how sometimes you hear stories about a thing or person for years and you begin to build it up in your head until it's pretty much larger than life? Then when you actually see it or meet the person, you suffer major disappointment. I'm afraid such was the case with me and Graceland.

I'm not a huge, go-nuts fan of Elvis; never have been. A long time ago, there was a girl I wanted to impress and since she was an Elvis fan, I bought a couple of expensive tickets for us to see the King of Rock 'n Roll in person when he came through town. He came out to the strains of Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" – the theme from Stanley Kubrick's 2001 and began singing. The crowd went wild, especially the girls. I looked around confused. He sang a few songs then wiped his sweaty face with a white towel and threw it to the audience in our direction and this rather quiet, sedate young lady I was with turned into some kind of ferocious, get-in-my-way-and-you-die primeval beast! She got that towel and I became a little bit scared. She hung on to that thing for the rest of the night, guarding it like a mother bear with a cub. The concert was pretty good and my mission was accomplished as she was duly impressed. We didn't last, but I have no doubt she still has that towel.

Of course I had heard about the home of Elvis, the mansion known as Graceland; the rooms, the grounds, the parties that went on there. After his death, it became in my mind a sort of shrine, a bigger-than-life edifice. A while back, my daughter, who knows about Elvis but is not a big fan either, for some reason wanted to visit Graceland. The wife wanted to go also, so what the heck, let's do it.

Living Room
We arrived in Memphis on a Thursday evening with tickets for Graceland the next day. We drove by it on the way to our hotel and I have to say, it certainly didn't look like much from the street. Even the surrounding area was past its prime. The street in front, Elvis Presley Boulevard, was full of potholes and needed repaving. Not a good first impression.

I'm not sure exactly what I expected, but the next day, we parked in a lot & took a van across the street to the house. After waiting until our ticketed time, we were escorted inside. I guess I had expected the rooms to be large and ornate rather than the small, shag-carpeted glitzy kitsch-filled rooms most of them are. I'm sure they were cool back-in-the-day when Elvis was there and I'm also sure I had built the place up in my mind so much that anything less than spectacular was bound to be a bit disappointing for me. The house is over 17,000 square feet with 23 rooms, but throughout the tour of the rooms we were allowed to see, I just could not get over how small they were.

The TV Room. Yes, that's a strange
monkey on the table.
The 13-acre grounds were rather impressive and the Trophy Building where all of his jumpsuits, gold records, movie posters and awards were on display was very impressive. I spent more time there than I did in the mansion itself. His airplane, named Lisa Marie, was also cool to go through. The Meditation Garden, where Elvis, his parents, and grandmother, Minnie Mae Hood Presley, are buried is very nice and serene. Visitors are usually naturally quiet when visiting. Across the street is a museum of Elvis memorabilia that is certainly worth visiting. And of course, there is also a gift shop where you can purchase all sorts of Elvis-related souvenirs and mementos.

The kitchen where Elvis had his fried peanut
butter & banana sandwiches made
In spite of the disappointment over the rooms, the visit was worth the price of the ticket (at the time of this writing - $47.50 for adults, $42.75 for seniors and students, $22.50 children 7-12) if it doesn't put a strain on your budget, mostly just because it's cool to be there and tell your friends you have.

One place I would not recommend eating at is Marlowes Ribs and Restaurant on Elvis Presley Blvd. Our experience seems to be in the minority though as the place gets a number of good reviews. This is supposed to be one of Elvis' favorite places to eat, but if it was, they must have served him a lot better food than we were. My wife's plate of sliced beef was nothing but a big glob of fat and my daughter's chicken tenders were served cold. When we complained and sent them back, the waiter acted like we were being entirely unreasonable and a pain in his neck. A different waiter brought them back a while later and apologized, but the wife's brisket was still half fat and rather gross. Plus the place is in an area where we didn't feel very safe after dark. You may very well have a totally different experience than we did, but we'll never go back there.

The infamous Jungle Room
So go to Graceland, get your picture taken in front of the famous gates, and enjoy your visit, just don't go expecting it to be the Taj Mahal!


Inside Marlowes