East Texas Restaurateur Collects Historic Items for Display

Spend any time with history buff and Gilmer restaurateur Bill Starnes and it is immediately clear he has a case of the collecting bug.

The Tyler Morning Telegraph reports Starnes surrounds himself with old things, especially photographs and items that relate to the early days of Upshur County and surrounding areas.

But what makes his hobby unique from some others is that it's on public display, for all to see and discuss.

"I didn't get nerdy until I got older," he said with a grin, pulling out old Sanborn Maps from the area as examples. "I enjoyed history, enjoyed hearing the stories."

His two family restaurants, Hadden's on the Square, 101 W. Tyler St., and Walking S Steakhouse, 1053 Fawn Crossing Road, serve as the canvas and backdrop for his massive collection of artifacts that spans decades.

The walls of both establishments are blanketed in images and conversation starters.

"History's my thing," he said. "Anything history, I like it. Other people seem to like it, too. They ask a lot of questions."

Starnes is not a certified educator or a native of Upshur County.

He grew up in the Grapevine area and moved to East Texas in the 1980s in an effort to leave the rat race of a stressful nine-to-five career.

Feeling a personal connection to his new home, he immediately immersed himself in the area, learning all he could about its history and its people.

When the idea of having a museum in Gilmer was hatched, he joined in, believing that the area's rich history was enough to keep the doors open, and devoted time with local associations.

Much of his time today centers on whipping up original delicacies for the restaurants, but he still carves out time to explore forgotten days.

Some of his favorite past times include nosing around old cemeteries and picking through piles at garage sales.

"Sometimes I'd go to a garage sale and there would be old yearbooks for a quarter a piece," he said, explaining the books are always a treasure trove of who's who in a community.

A personal endeavor is helping locate and document lost cemeteries.

"There was a cemetery book published in '74 that listed only white cemeteries," he said. "I said, `We need to correct that' and we did."

Starnes, who is married with children and grandchildren, enlisted area Boy Scouts to assist in location and identification of the old graveyards.

Pause a few moments to look over his collection and time seems to melt away.

Almost every free square inch of his eateries, on walls, shelves and display cases, seems devoted to the past.

Faces captured in some of the old black and white photographs appear almost life-like with crisp details of people at work, rest and play.

Most of the images are copied from a collection of glass negatives donated to the Historic Upshur Museum by the old Hays Studio.

For every object, there seems to be a story.

"This is the old White Swan Cafe," Starnes said, pointing out several images of an old eatery. "Elvis ate a bowl of chili there."

At the steakhouse, for example, part of an entire wall is devoted to the carvings of Ervin McCellon, who used different types of tree species in his work.

The Rev. W.L. Dickson, who headed the old Dickson Orphanage, which served as the only facility caring for black children from 1901 until about 1943, is featured prominently in a main dining room.

Other photos represent the old Gilmer Post Office, Upshur County Oil Fields, area churches, schools, businesses and local Confederate soldiers who served in the Civil War.

"People still bring me stuff, old signs, road signs," he said. "Sometimes I'll trade for food."

Surprisingly, Starnes's favorite object isn't all that old: a large piece of stained glass from TGI. Fridays in Houston.

One might suspect the historian would be somewhat clingy about parting with his possessions, but that's not necessarily the case.

"Sure, I'd sell -- everything's for sale," he said, nodding in agreement. "But it would have to be a real special offer."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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