The Writing Traveler: Merry Christmas, Kilgore

The painting Buck Schiwez created when he saw downtown Kilgore ablaze with Christmas lights in the midst of the dark, gray days of the Great Depression.

During the holidays, Kilgore settled down amidst a spectacular maze of lights that outlined many of the 1,100 downtown oil derricks.

Kilgore, for so long, had been shrouded in shades of gray to black, colors of the Great Depression that had been washed away by the dark tint of oil.

As Kilgore braced itself for Christmas, Liggett Crim decided to brighten the landscape of his hometown and decorate the front of his hotel with Christmas lights.

He could afford his little holiday venture.

The discovery well had been drilled on his mama’s land.

He did have a few extra dollars in his pocket.

His old friend and lighting expert, Knox Lamb, dropped strings of lights down each of the hotel’s five outside panels, topping them off with eight-foot stars, built by the Sam Brown Lumberyard for twenty-eight dollars apiece.

Crim, Lamb, and Ed Middleton drove out into the countryside and looked back on the glittering lights.

Caleb Pirtle

Downtown glistened.

But it was not enough.

Knox Lamb spent the next five days wiring more than fifteen hundred lights along each beam and crossbar of Liggett Crim’s derricks down by the depot.

They gleamed a deep, rich blue.

It was almost enough.

One by one, merchants throughout the town began adding lights to their own stores that lined North Kilgore and North Streets.

As the years rolled by, the merchants kept putting a few dollars aside and, when Christmas neared, they used them to buy more lights, putting more stars atop the derricks.

During the holidays, Kilgore settled down amidst a spectacular maze of lights, with more than fifteen thousand feet of wiring and eight thousand bulbs aglow throughout the downtown night.

It was enough to take your breath away.

When artist Buck Schiwetz developed a collection of Texas scenes for a national magazine, editor Ed Sommes took one look at “Kilgore Lights” and decided that Schiwetz had concocted the painting from the figment of his own imagination.

“It’s not real,” Sommes angrily told the artist. “It’s merely something you made up.”

Several years later, Sommes rode a train through Kilgore at Christmastime.

He glanced up at the array of lighted derricks that surrounded him, and, as soon as the train stopped, he promptly wired an apology to Buck Schiwetz.

Kilgore is my hometown.

I grew up in the shadow of the derricks.

For me, Christmas never arrived until the lights and stars shone brightly from high upon the derrick crowns and cast a warm glow upon a cold but silent night.

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