Gladewater: Making New From Old

A small town with "big eyes" managed to fill its empty downtown buildings with antiques stores. Shoring up that advance with a Main Street project, Gladewater now reaches out to nearby towns to strengthen its region of East Texas through education.

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Drive through just about any small town, anywhere, and in addition to the convenience stores, churches and funeral home, you will probably see at least one antique store. To paraphrase Repo Man, “Every town has one.” 

It seems as though the image of rural America is changing. Once largely identified with agriculture and other commodity-based activities, more and more it seems rural areas are associated with the quaint antique store devoted to the buying and selling of once personal artifacts. 

The question is why? 

Antique stores require little overhead, are easy to set up, and offer the entrepreneur multiple opportunities. Antiques, or at least “old” objects, can be picked up at estate sales and dealer shows, and simply brought down from the attic. Once set up, shops may create a loyal customer base through specialization (such as in period glassware), encouraging return business from collectors. 

These reasons explain why the individual entrepreneur may decide to open an antique store but they don’t account for the development of antique districts and the wholesale re-imaging of small towns. To get at this we must look to the larger rural landscape. 

The answer is simple: economics. 

As traditional commodity based economies fade, rural communities must re-invent themselves, diversify, or die. One way to re-invent a community is to re-invent the past, which becomes “heritage” tourism. Antiques tourism falls loosely within this category, as it focuses on the selective buying and selling of old objects. 

When embraced as a means of re-invigorating a community (whether by accident or design), antiques tourism can lead to the development antique malls and districts. With the development of these new “old” enterprises, other businesses, including cafes and motels, may come in to take advantage of the growing tourist market. 

Antiques and heritage tourism, with complementary economic growth and a revitalized community, may even potentially contribute to other forms of development, including Main Street designation. 

Such is the story of Gladewater, Texas. 

Boom and Bust

Gladewater’s population raced to 8,000 here in the 1930s.
Founded by the Texas and Pacific Railway Company in 1873, Gladewater is located about half way between cities of Longview and Tyler in Gregg County, Texas, and rests at the intersection of state highways 80 and 271. After its inception, the town grew slowly serving as a market and transportation hub for the sale and shipment of agricultural and lumber products. 

That all changed in 1931 when the first oil well in Gladewater struck black gold bringing the East Texas Oil Boom to town. During the boom of the 1930s, Gladewater’s population swelled from about 500 to 8,000. Following the boom in the 1940s the population dropped to about 4,450 but continued to increase slowly over the decades. Forty years later it had recovered to a little more than 6,500. 

With the boom, Gladewater’s economy became dependent on the oil industry and its related industries. Lumber and agriculture continued to be important but in a much reduced way. 

This economic shift did not serve Gladewater well. By the late 1970s and early 1980s the oil industry was drying up. Once a thriving, Gladewater’s downtown was largely abandoned by the late 1980s. The local bank owned 12 empty downtown buildings and at least 14 more stood empty. 

Kelley Snowden
The antiques revolution in Gladewater began here, in the old Wolens Building.
The Antiques Revolution

If anyone out there still believes that rural economic development takes place from the top down, you never met Beth Bishop. 

Beth Bishop was a “one woman economic development committee,” said the town’s Main Street manager Marsha Valdetero. In 1987 Bishop leased the old K. Wolens department store for $400 a month to set up an antique auction house. The old department store is a large two-story building and Ms. Bishop had room to spare. She encouraged (read that as cajoled, begged and pestered) “friends and competitors” to lease spaces and “open downtown antique businesses,” said Valdetero. 

Long story short, with Beth as a driving force, antiques tourism was born in Gladewater.  

Gladewater is in the northwestern corner of the county, west of Longview and north of Kilgore.
The “antique revival” of the late 1980s broadened the economic focus of the city. The economic landscape, once almost entirely dependent on commodities and related industries, rapidly diversified, leading to the development of a healthy service sector serving both tourists and local traffic. 

On May 24th, 1995, a mere eight years after Ms. Bishop opened the first auction house, the city of Gladewater won the title of “the Antique Capital of East Texas.” Four years later, Gladewater was designated a “Texas Main Street” city and now is also recognized as a “National Main Street City” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Kelley Snowden
Once the antiques revolution began, Gladewater began taking redevelopment seriously citywide. It became a Main Street city in 1999.

To become either a National or a Texas Main Street City is no small feat. These programs provide grants for downtown revitalization but redevelopment must be framed within the context of historical preservation.  In honour of the city’s newfound focus, the Gladewater Chamber of Commerce adopted the slogan “Gladewater, Texas, Treasuring the Past while embracing the Future.” 

Today

While antiques tourism has done well in Gladewater, this type of effort doesn’t work in every town and is not a panacea for economic revitalization. 

In its favour, Gladewater has its location – approximately 30 minutes from both Longview (population 78, 248) and Tyler (population 91,146). In addition to the antique district, Gladewater keeps itself in the news with multiple festivals including “Gusher Days” (devoted to its oil boom history), the Round-Up Rodeo (a nationally sanctioned PRCA event), an arts and crafts festival, and the Gladewater Black Rodeo. These are just a few of the many events hosted by the city. All total there are nine events held throughout the year that attract both local and tourist traffic. 

While these events bring in much needed dollars, Gladewater continues to grapple with issues that face many smaller towns. One problem is the continued out-migration of young people. In many cases they may not go far, relocating to Tyler or Longview for jobs, but even this takes a toll on the town. To address this problem it has been proposed that the city court medium and even smaller businesses to help provide jobs to keep the young people at home while maintaining the “small town” feel of the city. 

Another way to keep them at home is to not send them away in the first place to pursue their college education. The idea is to provide and encourage students to use distance education to obtain as many college credits as they can via online instruction. That way recent high school graduates remain in Gladewater and work while getting the college credits they need. 

When they do leave to finish their education, the idea is that they will return faster armed with a college degree. In an ideal world, these recent college grads will opt to live in Gladewater while they work in Longview or Tyler — that is, until Gladewater itself can offer the types of jobs to keep kids in town. To put this plan into motion, the city, school district, and surrounding community colleges are working together to give their young people continued educational support while encouraging them to stay in the local area. 

The last thing Gladewater wants to do is “hollow out the middle.” It wants to keep its best and brightest close to home where they can do the most good. 

However, to keep the kids at home you have to offer opportunities. That brings up another issue — continued economic diversification. 

Kelley Snowden
Development is a do it yourself job. Gladewater is proof.
Gladewater recognizes that it must continue to diversify not only to survive in today’s  global economy but  also to attract people who will want to live and work in the city. While antiques tourism is a vital part of the local economy, business is seasonal and varies with the larger state and national sense of economic well being.  To ensure that Gladewater continues to grow, city officials, including the mayor’s office, agree this will require a regional approach to economic planning. 

Gladewater can’t accomplish this entirely on its own and instead of ignoring or competing with its neighbours, the town wants to work with them to improve everyone’s chances of increasing their overall economic health.    

Conclusions

While antiques tourism may offer a platform for small town revitalization, it is only one piece of a larger puzzle. 

Gladewater was revitalized and re-imagined in the late 1980s primarily through the efforts of one woman.  Her legacy is a thriving antique district and a healthy service sector economy. To keep the town growing however it will take more than just individual efforts, antique stores, and local festivals.  

Gladewater, like other smaller towns, continues to face problems, including the out-migration of young people and the development of long-term economic diversification.  While rural economic development must be spearheaded at the grassroots level to get the ball rolling, it’s important to know when you need reinforcements.  Gladewater called in reinforcements in the shape of both state and national recognition to get itself on the map as both a Texas and national Main Street town.  Now it is calling on its community and neighbours to work together to bring about improved regional economic development.  

Gladewater is a small town with very big eyes. It recognized its individual place in history and made that history a vital part of its overall re-development through antiques and heritage tourism. Today it sees itself as part of a larger regional economic landscape whose members must work together to secure a common future.  

The trick for the future is not whether Gladewater can pull this off. It can. The trick will be in keeping its feet firmly planted in its vision and not being swept away by “progress.” 

Kelley Snowden is the program manager at the Center for Regional Heritage Research at Stephen F. Austin University, a long-term resident of East Texas and a regular Daily Yonder contributor.

 

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