COOPER, Texas – Sitting by itself a few blocks from the downtown square, the old Texas Midland Railroad depot has been a Delta County landmark since its construction in 1913.
Passenger and freight trains once roared past the stately building several times daily, but the last iron horse thundered by more than 50 years ago. Today, the street is quiet. People drive by the station in their automobiles, barely pausing to take notice. Even the long, shiny railroad tracks that once trembled with excitement as a distant train neared town are long gone.
Likewise forgotten is the 4P Brand cannery that filled the building’s alcoves soon after the depot closed in the years before World War II. Workers turned out canned chicken that gave soldiers overseas a taste of home. But that enterprise, like many others dependent on the war effort, wound down with peace.
“After the war was over, the owner, Mr. (Harry) Patterson, didn’t know what to do with the building,” said O.T. Preas, a lifelong Cooper resident and a director of the museum. Mr. Preas, an octogenarian, still recalls roller skating near the depot some 70-odd years ago on the only navigable stretch of cement in town. He said it was after the cannery closed that the idea of using the building for a library or a museum arose. For a time, he said, the old depot was used for both. Eventually the library moved into new quarters, leaving the fledgling museum room to grow and expand.
This year, the Delta County Patterson Memorial Museum turned 25. To hear Mr. Preas tell it, its collection is still something of a library – a library of the lives of the men, women and children connected with the small county nestled between two forks of the Sulphur River.
“Our goal is to eventually get something from every family in this county,” Mr. Preas said. Because of Cooper’s small size, he says, the museum must rely on donations of time and artifacts from local people. As a result, its doors open only on Saturdays from April to October from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and for specially-arranged weekday tours.
“We get quite a few people that come through here, though,” Mr. Preas said. “Mostly, they’re people from around here who come in to look for their family’s name, or maybe some of their old things. It brings back a lot of memories. We get little kids who look for pictures of their grandpa, and want to see how things used to be.”
Each room of the deceptively large collection, in fact, takes visitors back to a different time. “A lot of stuff is even before my time,” Mr. Preas said, “and I’ve been here 80 years.” In the main room of the museum, near the front entrance, are the personal effects of hundreds of Delta County citizens. Old, fading black-and-white pictures take up the entire front wall, while display cases filled with ancient quilts, dolls, knitting needles, cuff links and antique razors stretch across another.
The floor is covered with a patchwork maze of donated rugs and carpets from local houses, and furniture from the 1800s and early 1900s fills the room’s center. In a nearby room, the remains from an old doctor’s office remind passersby of the luxuries of modern-day medicine. Filling the hallways are musty trunks decorated with stickers from Wesley College and East Texas State Teacher’s College – the forerunner to East Texas State University.
Old telephones hang on the wall overhead, with labels and descriptive tags protruding from even the smallest historical items. “East Texas State actually got its start here in Cooper,” Mr. Preas said, pointing to a small black-and-white picture hung high on one wall of the main room. “That was the first building of the school. It stood down on First Street, about three or four blocks from here. Well, it burned down, and Commerce said that they would help build it, Cooper didn’t have the money for it.”
In another room stands the remains of a switchboard from a rural phone office. As Mr. Preas moves slowly through the building, he pauses every now and then to point out a wooden ice chest – the predecessor to the modern refrigerator, a potbellied stove, or maybe a large, wooden whiskey keg that served time at the last legal distillery in the county untold years ago.
“We haven’t ever bought a thing here,” he said. “We’re kind of proud of this place, though.” Near the rear of the museum, Mr. Preas flipped the lights to the exhibit’s largest room – the garage. Housed in the dusty room are three different vehicles that once plied the roads of Cooper. Taking up the most space is a 1928 American LaFrance fire engine, bought brand-new by the Cooper Volunteer Fire Department and used faithfully until its retirement in 1946.
A 1948 Plymouth fills one corner, with a horse-drawn buggy sitting just a few feet away. “We used to have an old hearse in here, too, but someone took it for a while,” Mr. Preas said. In another room, the front desk from a post office is filled with old postcards and letters, some with postmarks that date as far back as 1890. In other corners, there are tools and leather horse tack, rusting lanterns, license plates and Confederate money shrouded in protective plastic.
The printing press from the Cooper Review takes up the majority of another room, while chipped and rounded bricks from the now-paved Cooper square sit idly on a shelf. “We’re always looking for more stuff to put in here,” Mr. Preas said. jingling the keys to the front door. “We’ll take just about anything.
“Just give us a ring anytime – we’ll come on down and open the doors for you.”
Distributed by The Associated Press
Copyright 1993 The Dallas Morning News Company