A Trip Down Memory Lane

We, at the Beaumont Heritage Society, are usually in full-out event mode at this time of year.  With the pandemic, nothing is usual. We are learning to adapt and innovate to address our museum’s needs and stay relevant in the community. That said, I thought I’d take this time to share with you how our organization got its start.

Did you know that we’ve been around since 1967? We are 53 years old – older than a lot of you! They’ve been good years, with many accomplishments in historic preservation beginning with the restoration of the historic John Jay French House all those years ago.  Maybe you were involved back then, or maybe your parents or grandparents were?  The project took a village of dreamers, doers, and supporters to accomplish.

It all began in 1966 when women from another community based nonprofit, the Junior League of Beaumont, formed a committee to study the old French home built in 1845 as a preservation project.  This was the same year that the National Historic Preservation Act was enacted, becoming the first national policy regarding preservation, and with it the National Register of Historic Places was created along with the list of National Historic Landmarks and the State Historic Preservation Offices. So much of America’s built history was being razed and lost forever.  Lucky for us, the project was deemed feasible and the idea of the Beaumont Heritage Society was initiated.

 On April 12, 1967, an organizational meeting was conducted at the First Security National Bank, now the First City Bank building, with Mrs. Dewey Gonsoulin presiding and with William Murtagh of the National Trust and Dr. William Seale presenting.  On that day, many notable Beaumonters were in attendance including Rosine Wilson, Mrs. Revere St. John, Don Anderson, Rolfe Christopher, John Millington, Lela Fisher Dies, Russell Phelps, C.A. Mitts, Mildred Hall, Mrs. Jack Osborne, and Mrs. Lamar Cecil.  As a result of the rampant destruction of historic structures in our own city, Rosine Wilson moved that the Beaumont Heritage Society be formed.

By November of that year, the newly incorporated Beaumont Heritage Society, with 74 members, voted to undertake the French House as a restoration project.  The Junior League supplied $27,400 to purchase the John Jay French House from the Merchant family and held it in trust until the Beaumont Heritage Society could raise matching funds. Membership drives and fundraisers were held and by October of 1968, membership had grown to 348, with total cash and pledges for the restoration amounting to $28,306.69.  With the matching grant requirement met, Junior League of Beaumont President, Mrs. James Dishman, presented the French Trading Post deed to BHS President, Mildred Hall.  By this time, the research for the restoration was complete, as was the excavation. You see, the home had been modernized, but the original bones were still there.

The Board voted to hire architect Rayford Stripling to prepare an overall preliminary plan and working drawings of the restoration of the French House.  President Mildred Hall appointed a special committee for the French House Restoration consisting of Bryan Hendrix, chair, Dr. William Seale, and Rosine Wilson – all authorities in various aspects of the project.  Over the course of just under two years, with the help of many members and donors from the Society, the Junior League, and the community at large, the French House was taken back to its original 1845 condition, furnished with period antiques and objects (some French Family), and researched extensively to tell the compelling story of one of Beaumont’s early frontier families, that of tanner and merchandiser John Jay French.

Did you know that our French family’s story began in America back in the summer of 1635, when Mr. John Jay French’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, William French, his wife Elizabeth, and their four children sailed from London to Cambridge, MA on the ship “Defence” to start a new life? You’ll have to come to tour the museum to hear the rest of the story!

The Grand Opening and ribbon-cutting took place on Saturday, February 28, 1970, with demonstrations of weaving, pottery making, and lace making. It would take until 1972 before the missing kitchen and dining wing would be replicated to match the original (based on old photographs and an archeological survey), and 1975 for the washhouse to be added.  The smokehouse and tannery were both constructed in 1979 from log buildings donated by the Fuller family that were dismantled.  Many antique pieces of furniture and household objects continued to trickle in over these years to round out the museum collection and aid in the interpretation of the time period of Texas history represented in the home of 1845-1865.

We’ve been providing education about the family and life on the Texas frontier on the grounds of the John Jay French House Museum to school children and to visitors from near and far ever since.  And, our preservation efforts didn’t stop there!  We couldn’t have been successful in impacting Beaumont’s historical landscape without people like you who care about our community’s history.  Keep an eye out for new takes on favorite events and thank you for being part of our story!

Alicia McKibbin

Executive Director

Posted in history, press.