This past Saturday North Texans awoke to very sad news. Overnight, the 130-year-old Wise County Heritage Museum building caught fire and the fast-moving blaze quickly overwhelmed firefighter’s efforts to contain it. Thankfully, no one was injured, but the building and the history contained inside appear to be a total loss. It was an event that is sure to alarm all of us who work to preserve our history and historic structures.
The Heritage Museum held a special place in the hearts of many who grew up in Wise County, just northwest of Fort Worth. The building was constructed in 1893 and was originally the home of Northwest Baptist College. After the college went bankrupt in three years, it was purchased by the Baptist Convention and became Decatur Baptist College. According to the Decatur Chamber of Commerce, DBC was the world’s oldest junior college and a preparatory school for Baylor University. The school operated there until 1965 when it relocated to Dallas to become Dallas Baptist University.
In 1965, the building and property were privately purchased and donated to the Wise County Historical Society for use as a museum. Exhibits were collected under the guidance of Mrs. Rosalie Gregg and residents donated family heirlooms, historic furniture, and documents. Most notably, the museum housed artifacts relating to the Lost Battalion – a battalion of soldiers from Decatur and other West Texas cities that were captured by the Japanese during World War II and held as prisoners of war for 42 months. The forced labor they endured included construction of the Burma Railway, which was portrayed in the movie Bridge on the River Kwai.
In addition to the above exhibits, the museum featured an extensive library of over 6,000 books, maps, documents, family files, funeral home records, school census records, and more. Staff was working to digitize the collection but, as any genealogist will attest, hard copy files are essential to in-depth research.
The museum grounds were also home to the Woody Cabin after it was moved from its original location near Deep Creek. The 1856 cabin was associated with Sam Woody, one of Wise County’s original settlers, and was built with hand-hewn logs. Woody guarded pioneer settlements as part of a Ranger unit and members of Native American tribes visited Woody’s cabin to trade with him.
The Wise County Historical Commission and Wise County Historical Society, Inc. were headquartered in the building, and the monthly Gospel Opry performance at the GC Rann Auditorium was a local favorite. The museum will be missed by so many who enjoyed the activities and those who had artifacts from their families located inside. Mourners gathered at the site almost immediately to see the damage for themselves and try to comprehend the loss. The Decatur Fire Marshal’s Office is investigating the cause of the fire in partnership with the Tarrant County Arson Task Force.
Texas Historical Foundation extends its deepest sympathies to the Wise County Heritage Museum and Historical Commission staff for this enormous loss of Texas history.
All photographs courtesy of Texas Historical Foundation Board Chairman Bruce Elsom. For more photos, please visit our Flickr page.