Martha Jane

Adus F. Dorsey II 

I have been thinking a lot about my Mom lately, every time I find myself standing by a crackling fire, hear the sound of a banjo or get a whiff of homemade dinner rolls I can feel her presence. 

My Mom, Martha Jane Wilkins, was born May 8th1931 in Honey Grove, Texas. Honey Grove is a small town 90 miles north and east of Dallas.Davey Crockett discovered the area of Honey Grove when he camped there on his way to join the Texas Army at San Antonio in 1836. In a letter Crockett sent back home to Tennessee, he wrote of an area with an abundance of honey-filled trees, hence the town’s name.

By the mid-1930s, the Great Depression had crippled the nation but a1930 oil find in Rusk County, Texas, had boosted the local economy and educational spending grew along with it. The East Texas Oil Field covered 140,000 acres and encompassed parts of five counties, it is the second-largest oil field in the United States outside Alaska, and first in total volume of oil recovered since its discovery in 1930.  East Texas towns with names like of Kilgore, Overton, Henderson, New London and Gladewater are situated on the surface of the field. At one time, downtown Kilgore had more than 1,000 active wells clustered in a tight area, making it the densest oil development in the world. 

It was in this hot and sweaty wedge of East Texas, where the smell of oil hung as a heavy in the air as a diesel spill and leaded gasoline was a nickel a gallon that my Mom, Martha Jane, grew up in the 1930’s. From what I know, my Grand Daddy Wilkins was a Hoover vacuum sales / repair man and Granny Wilkins wore bobby pin and toilet paper curlers on her head so often that I never knew she had real hair until I saw her lying cold and still in a coffin when I was seven. The Wilkins moved around a lot but never went very far and eventually landed near New London. Unbeknownst to my Mom, my dad was growing up not far away and attended elementary school in New London, Texas. In 1937 the New London school district was one of the richest in America. The New London School, a large structure of steel and concrete, was constructed in 1932 at a cost of $1 million, $18 million in today’s numbers. 

In Early 1937, the Rusk County school board canceled their natural gas contract and had plumbers install a tap into Parade Gasoline Company’sresidue gas line to save money. This practice—while not explicitly authorized by local oil companies—was widespread in the area. The natural gas extracted with the oil was considered a waste product and was flared off. As there was no value to the natural gas, the oil companies turned a blind eye. This “raw” or “wet” gas varied in quality from day to day, even from hour to hour. Widely known today, untreated natural gas is both odorless and colorless, so leaks were difficult to detect and mostly went unnoticed. Gas had been leaking from the residue line tap and built up inside the enclosed crawlspace of the New London school. At some time between 3:05 and 3:20 p.m., on March 18th, 1937, Limmie R. Butler pulled the fateful trigger on an electric sander. It is commonly believed that the sander’s switch caused a spark that ignited the gas-air mixture.

Reports from witnesses’ state that the walls of the school bulged, the roof lifted from the building and then came crashing back down and the main wing of the school collapsed. The force of the explosion was so great that a two-ton concrete block was thrown clear off the building and crushed a 1936 Chevrolet parked 200 feet away. Approximately 500 students and 40 teachers were in the building at the time. 

Experts from the United States Bureau of Mines concluded that the connection to the residue gas line was faulty. The leaking connection had allowed gas to silently seep into the school, and since natural gas is invisible and is odorless, the leak went unnoticed. The sanders switch is believed to have caused a spark that ignited the gas-air mixture. 

To reduce the damage of future leaks, the Texas Legislature began mandating within weeks of the explosion that thiols (mercaptans) be added to natural gas.The strong odor of many thiols makes leaks quickly detectable. The practice quickly spread worldwide.

Although my Mom did not attend the New London school at the time of the explosion, my dad did. And like everyone that live there, the New London school explosion story has resonated through out her life and mine, mostly because my dad narrowly escaped the blast that tragically shortened the lives of 318 teachers, students and some of my relatives that now rest peacefully on a gentle east sloping hill, in the Pleasant Grove cemetery. 

My parents met and eventually married in 1950. 

I am the second of ten children born in my family, growing up my Mother and I never really got on very well until I graduated high school and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. Thinking back on it from where I am now and trying to make sense of it all, I feel the distance between her and I at the time had a lot to do with the possibility that my leaving was some how going to be permanent. As life can sometimes be, my absence was only temporary. 

I moved to Utah in the 1970’s; my Mom came to visit me often. I relocated to Wayne County, Utah in the 80’s and it was only a matter of time before my Mom rolled up to my house in a Chevrolet station wagon filled to overflowing with all the Grand Kids. It wouldn’t have been summer in Wayne County with out her playing the banjo around the campfire and us all singing Grand Ma’s feather Bed. 

Sometime in the 90’s my Mom found a reason within herself to remain in Wayne County longer and longer year after year. At first she was staying in a camp trailer in a grove of Cottonwood trees across the street from my house and cooked her meals over a campfire, she absolutely loved it.  Eventually my Mom moved into the old Cannon house,  (now the Martha Dorsey Memorial Parking Lot, at the Torrey Ward)  and made all of our meals on a wood cook stove that Nellie Cannon had used when she lived there. Those were the best of days. My Mom married Keith Holt, Vera Mulford was the flower girl, Tasha my Siberian husky howled with delight at her wedding, the celebratory scene was priceless. Cancer claimed my Mom in 2005; my heart is still an open wound that has yet to heal. 

As one door closes many more seem to open. Not a day goes by that I am not reminded of my Mother, and the best part of it is, I have as many Mothers as I will ever need, right here in Wayne County.   

Reference: The East Texas Oil Boom, New London School Museum, A Generation Lost 

One thought on “Martha Jane

  1. Another great post, thanks! I recommend Wallace Stegner’s short story dealing with his mother passing away when he was a teenager “Fifty Years Too Late.”


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