Same Old Reunion?
“There are two special occasions each year in Decatur ~ Christmas and Reunion.” Sue Cocanougher
As temperatures inch toward 100 degrees one word enters Decaturites minds-REUNION! Most know Reunion as a county-wide tradition with a carnival atmosphere. Approximately 140 permanent cabins placed throughout a grove of trees come in all shapes, sizes, and vintages. There is even a castle! Many Texas towns have something similar to Reunion, but Wise County is one of the oldest. The ritual is a little hard to describe to outsiders. As Rosalie Gregg from the Wise County Historical Society says, “You have to see it for yourself.” Cabins lie dormant all year until the week before the anticipated event at which point observers hear the sounds of weed eaters, smell the scent of cleaning products and see the sight of old mattresses being flung out in a pile of trash. Most with just screens and no running water, the glorified shanties holding lifetimes of memories become home for a week. The week’s festivities kick off as the cabins are decked out in their finest to fit the chosen theme for the year. The observance of Reunion has been a part of many people’s lives for as long as they can remember and it’s the tradition that brings them back year after year. Multiple generations of families flock to the campground drawn by smells of barbecue and fair food and the flashy rides lighting the night sky. Children skip ahead of parents and grandparents with wide-eyed excitement. Some come for the live music and dancing while others come looking for major bragging rights from winning the giant “Put Yo Money Where Yo Mouth Is” washer tournament. On the hottest, dustiest week of the year, everyone knows that Reunion is here!
Joe Wheeler Park, named after the only general to serve during wartime in two different forces, has been home to the oldest recurring event in County history since 1896. In the 1860’s under the harvest moon Confederate veterans would occasionally gather in covered wagons around bonfires to reminisce with old comrades before the scramble of the fall harvest. They would talk unceasingly about the glory days of the South sometimes inviting the venerable pioneers to join them. The meeting was known as the Ex-Confederate Reunion and was held to aid the old and disabled soldiers. Gatherings were carried out in several different places such as Chico and Cold Springs before settling in Decatur. In 1883 the name was changed to Old Soldiers and Settlers Reunion. People would bring blankets and sleep out under the grove of trees. Many would stay up all night telling stories and children would wake up to the sound of hushed conversations and fiddle music. For some, this was the only time of the year that they left home. The Rock Island excursion train full of merry -makers would pull into the station where stagecoaches waited to shuttle them out to Reunion. The old rebel yell signaled the new arrivals to the grounds. Civil War battles were re-enacted, and fiery political speeches were given. Five thousand attended in 1881 in celebration of the anniversary of Captain George Stevens’ victory over hostile Indians in 1874. In the late 1890’s large crowds came to hear admired politicians such as Governor Charles Culberson and Congressman Silas Hare. Over 10,000 people came to hear one of Senator Joe Bailey’s famous speeches championing conservative causes. By 1900 Reunion, held the last full week in July, lasted for three days. The first day honored old settlers. The second day was devoted to remembering Confederate veterans. The third day honored the sons and daughters of Confederates. As many as 12,000 would gather at the Courthouse and parade to the campground. Men were decked out in top hats, linen dusters, checkered vests and high top button shoes while women wore long skirts with multiple petticoats, mutton sleeves, bustles and knee-length button and lace shoes all under the blazing July sun. It was a time of remembrance, to swap stories, share food and unite the community. By 1908 the re-enactments came to an untimely end when Grady Helm had to have his arm amputated after cannon backfired! In 1909 the park grounds were leased for 25 years. Later, campsites were leased and improved by participants. The Wise County Old Settlers Association was formed in 1904. Reunion was extended to one full week with visiting during the day and scheduled events in the evenings. Each generation has tucked away memories of past Reunion’s and added their touch to new ones. In the 1920’s Popcorn, peanuts, lemonade, and brass bands filled the campground as well as the “Flying Jenny” which was a homemade wooden merry-go-round which whirled in a horizontal circle while the feet were left dangling. The first permanent campsite was established in 1937 by Mr. and Mrs. T.G. Rogers. In 1943 the last Confederate soldier, Calvin Newton Workman, died. Hence the name was changed to Wise County Old Settlers Reunion. The present pavilion, the third to occupy the encampment, was built in 1948. A children’s playground was added in 1953.
The old settlers would find little today to remind them of the origins of Reunion. While much has changed over more than 150 years of its history, Reunion still unites the community as it did in the beginning by greeting friends and neighbors young and old alike.
Cliff D Cates, in his 1907 book about Wise County, makes the following dedication:
“Dedicated to the Old Settlers of Wise County whose memories and faces I am profoundly gratified to perpetuate.”
Reunion is about memories. Many more faces have made their mark on Wise County since 1907, and we continue to be profoundly grateful to all those who have gone before to make Wise County the great place that it is.