Letter from: Kilgore, Texas

The Rangerettes and Beyond

The motto of the Kilgore College Rangerettes, football kick squad par excellence,  is “Beauty knows no pain.”  Some folks might scoff at such a saying but in East Texas,  home of the self-styled “Sweethearts of the Nation’s Gridiron,” those words have the weight of received wisdom. 

On a recent visit to the holy grail of halftime cheesecake, six members of the country’s oldest precision dance and drill team are warming up for an appearance in a local television spot.  They’re wearing their patented uniforms familiar from hundreds of Cotton Bowls, Thanksgiving Day parades, political conventions and other displays of unbridled patriotism:  bright-red blouses, flippy royal blue skirts, white leather belts, cowboy boots and fringed wristlets, and, of course, the trademark flat, white cowboy hats secured with a combination of hairpins, tight hatstrings and, it’s been hinted, glue.  To be sure, the last ingredient might seem a tad extreme but how else to explain hat angles that vary by nary an angstrom despite dance routines bristling with brim-brushing high kicks?  Besides, beauty knows no pain.  Right?

The minicam operator is finding his position and the squad is adding another stratum to their sweatproof makeup.  Some slide into splits on the carpeted concrete of the Rangerette Showcase, their pompom- and newsclipping-decked Hall of Fame.  Others have a squad sister grab an ankle and stretch it at an unnatural angle until their knee touches their nose.   A class of elementary school-kids on a field trip is mesmerized. 

The television crew is ready to begin.  The squad lieutenant hits the tape deck and out blares “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”  Her charges link arms.  Smiles sparkle.  Heads cock.  And the high kicks erupt.  “One, two, three, four...” the captain counts as  the boots whack the immovable hat brims.  On “twenty,” the Rangerettes leap as if goosed.  Six pairs of legs split in mid-air. Six pelvises hit the floor in a simultaneous thud.  The kids wince.  One boy involuntarily yelps, “Ouch!” 

Smiles and hats intact, the Rangerettes get up and do it again.

At the end of the session, there’s a rush to the souvenir stand.  Little cards that show a line of Rangerettes kicking when you tilt the card are a popular item, but there are plenty of other choices:  Rangerette sweat towels, Rangerette pillowcases, Rangerette watches, porcelain reproductions of Rangerette boots (a flower vase, perhaps?), the Rangerette cookbook and an enameled Rangerette necklace charm that goes for $26.50.

“It’s the same one I wore,” confides Martha Gibson Lee, museum docent and an active member of Rangerettes Forever, the alumnae organization.  Being a Rangerette was a formative experience for Martha Lee.  “We learned discipline, poise and self-confidence,” she says, as well as earning four phys. ed. credits.   “We practiced every day for three hours.  We were in better shape than the football players.” 

As Martha Lee shepherds the school group into the Showcase auditorium to see a film about the Rangerettes, many of the little girls clutch brochures advertising Rangerette summer camp.  Open to girls from third grade up, Rangerette Camp is not a prerequisite for making the squad.  But of the 15 former campers bellowing “kee-uck, kee-uck” along with 135 other high-school graduates at last August’s two-week tryout, 13 snagged coveted places on the 30-person freshman squad.  And for the next two years, they will participate in what their relentless p.r. machine calls “a distinctive American phenomenon”--as long as they maintain a C average and “high morals.”

How show business came to the gridiron had a lot to do with morals, in fact--the low ones demonstrated by the hard-drinking fans of the Kilgore College football team.  So much of the audience was ducking out at halftime to get sozzled that the college president got worried.  His solution:  A batch of bouncing coeds prancing around bare-kneed on the field might keep the fans in their seats.   Lending credibility to the enterprise was Miss Gussie Nell Davis, a 98-pound physical education teacher with the soul of Busby Berkeley and the personality of a Marine drill sergeant.  Thus, at the end of the second quarter of a game between the Kilgore Rangers and the Paris Dragons in October, 1940, the Rangerettes sashayed out--the kicks were only knee-high in those days--and a gridiron tradition was born.

Today, almost every college--and many high schools--with a football team fields a kick squad in the Rangerette tradition.  As good-will ambassadors for the U.S. State Department, the Rangerettes have performed their pelvis-pummeling routines in places as far-flung as Venezuela, Romania and the Far East.

But the Rangerettes are not Kilgore’s only contribution to the national scene.  The town’s greatest brush with fame resulted from the discovery of oil that led to the opening of the East Texas fields--one of the largest strikes ever in the continental United States.

About ten miles outside of Kilgore, down a dirt road winding through abandoned farmland and scrub oak thickets, an historic plaque and a working pumpjack mark the site of the Daisy Bradford Number 3, the well that started it all.  Wildcatters had been thumbtacking wells all around East Texas since the first big strike at Spindletop in 19TK.  The Depression had dampened the drilling but not the dreams. 

The first two wells drilled on Miz Bradford’s farmland had come up dry, and the rig itself collapsed as the roughnecks were manhandling it to a third site.  With no money left to fund more gear,  Columbus Marion “Dad” Joiner, a 70-year-old legendary wildcatter, ordered a third hole spudded in right where the rig collapsed, in the powdery red clay at the foot of a gentle hill.  Down through shale, clay and sandstone the bores went, down through more clay, siltstone and chert, down past levels where anyone could reasonably hope to find oil.  But “Dad” Joiner was adamant.  He knew there was oil down there--and he was right.  On October 3, 1930,  the bit hit the oil-saturated sponge of woodbine shale at 3,600 feet.  It spawned a gusher. 

Three months later on a Sunday morning, a test well on a neighboring farm blew in at 22,000 barrels a day and the East Texas oil boom was on.  The population of Kilgore exploded from 800 residents to 8,000 by Monday evening.  Well production skyrocketed, from seven new wells drilled every two weeks to over a hundred a day.  More than 1,200 wells were spudded in within Kilgore’s city limits, and the area near the railroad station was such a thicket of derricks that it was nicknamed “The World’s Richest Acre.”

Bars easily outnumbered churches, and the incendiary combination of liquor, money, roughnecks, lease hounds, oil speculators and camp followers was more than the local constabulary could handle.  With riots sweeping the town, the mayor sent out a frantic plea for help to the Texas Rangers, legendary peacemakers of the frontier.  It was answered by a single man, M.T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzales.  As the mayor despaired,  “Lone Wolf” went to work.  When the jail ran out of room, he chained prisoners to a trotline that he strung between the pews of the Baptist church.  Ever a modest man, he brushed off the town fathers’ grateful effusions with the laconic comment, “One riot, one Ranger.”

Stories like these, as well as Disney-style animated dioramas, nifty artifacts and a dandy film, are on tap at the East Texas Oil Museum in Kilgore.  As an added bonus, almost all of the docents have worked in the “awl bidness” in one way or another and are happy to explain the difference between a drill bit and a core bit, or describe the jet-engine scream made by a well coming in.

Of the 36,000-odd wells drilled during the boom, some 13,000 are still producing, their pumpjacks rhythmically pecking at the ground like prehistoric predatory birds.  Driving around the winding backroads and gentle hills,  you spot pumpjacks in the most incongruous places--in church parking lots, behind auto parts shops, in flower-filled backyards, next to the local Donut Shoppe, behind chainlink fences in the middle of cattle fields.  The small town of Van sits on top of a rich reserve leased to Union 76; all of its pumpjacks are painted in the company’s signature orange and royal blue.

Also near Kilgore is New London, a don’t-blink collection of forgettable buildings and an incongruosly imposing high school.  On March 18, 1937, the school suddenly exploded, killing 296 students and teachers.  The cause was traced to the build-up in the basement of odorless natural gas, one of the byproducts of all the drilling.  As a result of the tragedy, all natural gas today is scented with a malodorant, whose distinctive aroma instantly signals danger.  As for New London, a bigger school was rebuilt, a monument erected--and a baby blue pumpjack continues to beat in an enclosure abutting the school auditorium.

The money that was made from the oil boom tended to flow west, to the town of Tyler.  Tyler’s high-brow city fathers--who had more than enough money to influence a politican or three--were so appalled by the carousing in Kilgore that Smith County remains dry to this day.  The result:  six bars and nine package stores just over the county line on Highway 31.  And that’s not counting the Country Tavern.

Looking like a low-slung barn, the County Tavern is an East Texas institution. On the juke box, Tammy Wynette wails about “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and how she and Little Joe are going, sob, away.  The only source of light comes from neon beer signs and the Miller Lite fake Tiffany lamp over the pool table.  The Coke comes in glass bottles, the waitresses have gravity-defying hairdos and there’s no menu because they serve only three items:  pork ribs, beef brisket and, at lunch, a brisket sandwich.  One bite and you realize they don’t need to serve anything else.

The Country Tavern’s the kind of place that attracts everyone--Kilgore roughnecks, Tyler yuppies, young kids scratching the felt on the pool table while their parents engage in some boot-scootin’ on the meager dance floor.  Robert Duvall drops in regularly and there are the usual autographed pictures of Larry Hagman and George H. (as the former United States President is known, to distinguish him from his son,  George W., the present governor of Texas). They help consume 800-plus pounds of ribs every weekend, with a few onion slices, a dab of coleslaw and a dollop of potato salad. The Country Tavern does takeout, too, a useful thing to know if you’re stocking up for a football game.

These days, the game to catch is the one between the Kilgore Rangers and the Tyler Apaches, not so much for the game as for the halftime show.  The simmering rivalry between the Kilgore Rangerettes and Tyler’s own precision dance and drill team, the Apache Belles, recently came close to boiling point when the former Rangerette choreographer defected to become the director of the Belles. True to their breeding, however, the Rangerettes are gracious even when discussing the traitor in their midst.  “She’s one of ours, so we wish her well,” Martha Gibson Lee said gamely.  Beauty, after all, knows no pain.


BOX:  Kilgore is a two-hour drive due east of Dallas and a 90-minute drive due west of Shreveport, Louisiana.  The best place to stay is in Jefferson, a popular weekend spot for Dallas-ites that’s got more bed-and-breakfast establishments than residents.  For general information, call 903-665-2592; for reservations, call 800-833-6758.

The Rangerette Showcase is located at 1100 Broadway in downtown Kilgore.  It’s open Tuesday through Friday, from 10 to noon and from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.  For information, call 903-983-8265.

The East Texas Oil Museum is just down the block on Hwy. 259 and Ross St.  It’s opn Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.  For information, call 903-983-8295.

The Country Tavern is located at Hwy. 31 West; 903-984-9954.  Reservations not accepted.