History Of The Museum

Design and Construction

The origin of the Wise County Heritage Museum traces back to a meeting in 1891 of the Northwest Texas Baptist Association that founded the Northwest Texas Baptist College, a four-year institution in Decatur. The first classes (1892 – 93 sessions) were held in the Cates Opera House located on East Main Street- just east of the town square. Land for this site was purchased through real estate agent C. D. Cates of Decatur. Twenty local Wise County men pledged $1,000 each (plus other smaller pledges and donations from other individuals) to guarantee the debts of the new school. The building was constructed of limestone quarried from the local area. The architect was W. A. Cann Architectural Co. of Wichita Falls, Texas and design was Victorian. An original construction contract was awarded in February 1892, to S. C. Kilgore of Denison in the amount of $20,855 with construction to be completed by September. Construction began, but a later contract was awarded to Ferrier Bros. and Wirz of Seymour in May of 1892 in the amount of $24,575 to be completed “at once”. The new building was opened for the fall semester of 1893 with 149 students. The institution’s first president was Dr. A. J. Emerson who served for four years until the school went bankrupt in 1896 and the creditors looked to the guarantors for payment of the outstanding debts.

Decator Baptist College (DBC)

The following year, the Texas Baptist Convention bought the property and formed Decatur Baptist College-the first planned junior college in the world. DBC was a preparatory school for Baylor University in Waco and taught many young people in preparing for church service along with other areas of study.. Dr. J.L. Ward served as President of DBC for 2 separate terms totaling 44 years. The last president of Decatur Baptist College was Dr. Otis Strickland. After over 67 years in Decatur, the school was moved to Dallas in 1965 where it bacame Dallas Baptist College. It has now grown into Dallas Baptist University.

After the school moved to Dallas, a local businessman, Coke L. Gage, purchased the entire Decatur Campus in hopes of bringing another college to the town. When this failed, he donated the former Administration building and just over one acre of land to the Wise County Historical Society, Inc. to be used as a county museum. It now houses one of the best family research facilities in the area plus the museum exhibits and an auditorium.

Restoration of the building started in 1967 and was ongoing for many years. There were many fund raising activities through the years, such as the annual Wise County Fall Out talent show, our monthly Gospel Opry program, and an annual Ron Hammer Gospel Concert. These activities along with the generous support of many former DBC/DBU students and faculty members and many other folks with ties to Wise County have helped us make the Wise County Heritage Museum one of the best in Texas.

Sadly the many years of work was all lost in March of 2023 when a fire destroyed the entire building and all it’s contents.  It was a devastating loss to the entire County.  However,  activity of preserving Wise County’s past remains our main goal and the Wise County Historical Society, Inc. and the Wise County Historical Commission continue to help educate citizens and visitors about Wise County history, DBC history, and the history of the Lost Battalion through exhibits, and presentations. Members attend conferences to study and work to keep the preservation of local history alive. 

some museum exhibits still available:
Woody Cabin
The Woody Cabin was moved from its original location on Deep Creek, near Boyd, to the front lawn of the museum. It was originally built in the 1850’s and is about the oldest surviving structure built in Wise County. It can be opened for tours during museum hours but is often the subject of pictures at any time.
all the below exhibits were lost to the fire
First FLOOR:
Lost Battalion Room
Our Lost Battalion Room honors the memories and great sacrifices of the men of the 131st Field Artillery, Second Battalion and the survivors of the Cruiser, USS Houston (CA30). These Soldiers (many from our area) were captured by the Japanese and held in forced labor camps for three and one half years where they were tortured and starved. Many of these men built the railroad, using only hard labor and hand tools, through the jungle leading to the bridge over the River Kwai. Some of the survivors from our area helped to build and set up this display.