ENTERING MARSHALL by just about any route except Interstate 20 or U.S. 59, you drive through long stretches of residential territory with deep, shady front lawns and solid houses. The lush East Texas landscape suggests prosperity, stability, and age; trees shelter the streets, and azaleas and shrubs bank the carefully planted flower beds. Few neighborhoods could appear more seductive. A sense of both time and timelessness permeates the place. Here children have grown up forever in an unending chain of serenity. People have tended their dogwoods and daylilies with the same loving conscientiousness for ten, twelve, fifteen decades. Drive a little farther toward the heart of town and you’ll start to see smaller yards and shabbier houses, but all are still pervaded by the same atmosphere of continuity.
I recently went back to Marshall because I wanted to see how it had changed in the fifteen years since Bill Moyers made a documentary film about it. The film was the initial installment of a PBS series Moyers created called A Walk Through the Twentieth Century. By looking at his own hometown’s past and present—by interviewing its old-timers, remembering his childhood there, and evoking the natural surroundings of East Texas and the historical facts of Marshall’s demography—he let the town reveal itself to itself.
Moyers’ original intent was to scrutinize a specimen of small-town America. During the first half of this century, we were a nation of small towns, he said, and growing up in one provided strong roots and a sense of personal and civic identity. Usually, everyone knew everyone else, a condition that could prove both a comfort and a nuisance. Such places offered a good microcosmic view of what was going on in the nation.
I also had a personal reason for returning to Marshall. In 1985 I had spent a sizable chunk of time there researching a book. I’d been directed to the door of a second cousin, Inez Hatley Hughes, a retired high school English teacher and the director of the Harrison County Historical Museum, who was well known in town for her encyclopedic knowledge of the region and its people. It was she who told me about Moyers’ film. I’d been living abroad when it was televised, and after watching a video of the film, I realized that I had visited Marshall during an intriguing period: immediately after the film was shown, when the town teetered on the cusp of self-conscious change. More than anything, the film reminded me of my own hometown of Corsicana and the world I’d experienced while growing up there. Corsicana had a dense weave of relationships and neighborliness that linked almost everyone I knew. It had deep front yards of St. Augustine grass; it had the common history of generations, the Fourth of July parade, the high school football fever; it had the black section east of the railroad tracks that marked where the one community was painfully severed in two. I felt recognition swell and turn to homesickness as I watched. And suddenly I understood that in fact this film was universal. Moyers was right. It pertained to all of us.
Today Marshall has a population of 25,205. Its central shopping district, like those of other small cities, has long ago diffused into strip malls and a Wal-Mart. The old downtown still presents empty sidewalks, resembling so many dead downtowns throughout the fifty states, although a movement is under way to revive it. The magnificent courthouse that functions as the Harrison County Historical Museum—and which Moyers used as the centerpiece of his film—is slated for a $5 million renovation. The Texas and Pacific depot, too, once an elegant brick landmark for this railroad hub, will undergo a $1.3 million transformation into the Texas and Pacific Railway Museum. Bed-and-breakfasts offer old-world hospitality in several of the fine Victorian homes of the historic district. Other, more recent amenities are grounded in a far-thinking cultural pride: the Michelson Museum of Art, which houses the lifetime oeuvre of painter Leo Michelson, and the new Texas State Technical College campus, whose futuristic architectural flourishes defy the rest of the town’s postbellum ambiance. In short, Marshall’s outward persona is following the pattern of many towns of proportionate size throughout the country: It is cultivating the formalized charm of its past as a salable asset, while developing thruways to the next millennium.
This is not to say that Marshall is turning itself into the theme park that some other regional centers have become—a stultified version of the “old days,” decorated with marketable kitsch, a false nostalgia, and row after row of antiques stores. Marshall is a living, changing organism, filled with as many new faces as native Marshallites. It is like the town I grew up in and so many other small and midsize towns throughout Texas and the U.S. that are wrestling with the problems of economic shift, lost or obsolete industries, and new foundations for survival. They are all engaged in the same struggles of self-definition. Lately they all attract similar kinds of folks, moneyed people who want to escape the fast lanes of the big city to a slower pace and a homier style and who buy the hobby ranch just beyond the outskirts of a small town or an antebellum mansion in the historic district where they can sit on the gallery and sip a bourbon and branch.
Yet in some respects Marshall is an anomaly. The town that has been a seat of great change has also clung hard to tradition—including traditions that other parts of the country saw fit to abandon years ago. Many Texans regard Marshall as more Deep South than the Deep South itself. Before the Civil War, it was home to the largest slave population in the state; slave auctions were conducted up the road at Jefferson’s steamboat dock, where the Red River ran into Caddo Lake. During the war, Marshall was a Confederate stronghold and trade nexus for supplies; it also served as the wartime capital