Faded photographs from a century ago sprawled across a table inside the Somervell County Heritage Center this week. In one, a family stood in front of a white frame house with gingerbread trim. In another, workers toiled on a railroad bridge high above a river.
The limestone structure on Barnard Street once housed the First National Bank Building. Inside, it smells musty, a tantalizing scent to those who love to delve into the past and track their ancestors. It smells like history.
Betty Gosdin has been the face of the Heritage Center since 1995 when it opened. By Sept. 30, though, she'll likely be out of a job.
Gosdin has spent the past few days fielding calls from people expressing their disappointment that the center is slated for closure.
“They just can't believe it,” Gosdin said. “But what can I do.”
As Somevell County looks for ways to cut its budget, the Heritage Center jobs, as well as the full-time position at the Somervell County Historic Commission, are on the chopping block. County Judge Mike Ford broke the news to Gosdin, clerk Rhonda Duffie and the historical commission's long-time director Dorothy Leach late last week.
“I hate to do it,” Ford said. “It's hard for me and I've squirmed a lot. I don't fault anyone for having a negative reaction after years of giving their lives to something that's been their baby.”
Ford has not yet presented his budget proposal to Somervell County commissioners but expected to do so by mid-August. The county's next fiscal year budget begins Oct. 1, so commissioners must approve a new budget before then.
He said he wanted to give the employees as much advance warning as possible so they can look for other jobs or make other plans.
The Heritage Center will still have a budget for the building, air-conditioning/heating and other expenses. Ford said he hopes it can reopen with volunteers.
Other county departments will have their budgets trimmed as well, Ford said. Some job positions that have been open will not be filled. The bottom line is that he wants to avoid raising the tax rate.
“This is not over,” he added. “Until I put forth the budget, there are others that are going to be affected and making sacrifices.”
The county's current tax rate is 35.5 cents per $100 of assessed property value. Last year the county's tax roll totaled more than $3.25 billion and it's grown this year, Ford said. But so have expenses and requirements.
Ford added that closing the center and commission office in the Somervell County Courthouse are not “done deals” yet.
“If the county citizens want these things (such as the Heritage Center and historical commission to be open and staffed), I'm more than willing to raise the tax rate,” Ford said. “But I'm not getting an overwhelming impression from the citizens of this county that they want to raise taxes.”
The center's genealogy collection focuses on southern states, although it has material from every state. Books on Somervell County — some authored by Gosdin, Duffie and produced by the Heritage Center — fill nine shelves alone. Material about other counties and Texana consume other bookcases.
Upstairs, the repository holds microfilmed newspaper editions. Binders brim with county archival records, from death certificates to marriage licenses. Collections from prominent area families and local organizations reside at the archive as well, as do maps of churches and cemeteries.
Genealogists following the trails of their past have visited the library to pore over local obituary notices, birth and death records and U.S. Census data for many Texas counties. Computer workstations paid for by the Paluxy Valley Archives and Genealogy Society give researchers access to CD-ROM and the Internet.
Gosdin, volunteer Mary Taylor and Anthony Blanco, who works at the center part-time (paid for by the genealogy society) said it would be difficult to continue the center's activities with volunteers and fulfill its mission once the doors close. The center has been open six days a week and receives an average of about 20 visitors a day as well as many phone calls. (See a related Letter to the Editor on the Opinion page.)
“You might get volunteers to keep it open if they knew it was going to stop for a year,” Taylor said. “But not if it's open-ended.”
Suggestions have been made that the center's archives be given to another institution, such as Baylor University. But that's more than a hour's drive away.
“There's no sense in just boxing it up and putting it somewhere because it'll never be used,” Taylor said.