Tools of the Trade
In the year 1884 Blinn College was established in Brenham, Texas, the Lone Star Brewing Company – the state’s first large, mechanized brewery – was founded in San Antonio, the new state capitol was halfway to completion after the first burned down, and Uriah Hix Shine picked up his leather bag, saddled his horse Charlie, and trotted down the road on his first outing as a doctor in Southeast Texas. Born in 1857, Dr. Shine practiced in the region from 1884 until he passed away in 1916. Though he didn’t find a working cure for cancer – he had a “cure” recorded in his journals – or make lasting improvements to medical practices, he did leave a family legacy, as men are wont to do. One member of that legacy now servers as curator at the Ice House Museum and Cultural Center in Silsbee, Texas, and she is planning an exhibit that includes the belongings of her great-great ancestor.
A career as a high school choir teacher might not seem an obvious training ground for work as a museum curator, but Susan Kilcrease says it was that very experience that taught her about “performing, putting on a show, and reaching people with information through the emotional language of the arts.” Kilcrease brings those lessons, the discipline of a music major, and a lifelong passion for history to her position at the Ice House Museum. Taught to read maps by her father – legendary surveyor Darrell Shine, who surveyed millions of acres of Southeast Texas in his time – Kilcrease has spent years mapping the movements of her ancestors. She’s fascinated by the way the land gives way to civilization and then takes it all back once the people are gone; where once someone lived and worked, now there is wilderness again. That fascination is apparent in her work as curator, despite the fact that she has only held the position for a few months.
Kilcrease was hired as the curator for the Ice House in March of 2020 . . . right as COVID-19 shut everything down. Some people might have taken that as an excuse to relax, but not Kilcrease. She immediately took to Facebook, creating a dense stream of content and gathering a responsive local audience. She watches those engagements closely to determine what to pursue as she puts together a program for the museum. Typical postings about miscellaneous artifacts, events and exhibits generate “polite chatter,” but she’s found that when she digs into local history and presents it in a way that is relevant or engaging to her followers, the activity explodes! Two of the museum’s major projects were established in this fashion.
With COVID-19 putting pandemics into the public consciousness, Kilcrease began searching for evidence of past epidemics. She found letters and diaries from 1918 which contained the struggles people were going through during the Spanish Flu, which killed 2,000 people locally. A volunteer group in Silsbee cooked gallons of soup and left it at the doorsteps of infected families in an attempt to take care of people while minimizing the spread. During this series of postings, the Ice House reached over 30,000 people on its Facebook page. The combination of local history and modern relevance ignited people’s passion for history and its lessons and led to the creation of the medical exhibit Kilcrease is now preparing. Not only will the exhibit feature her ancestor, Dr. Uriah Hix Shine, but at least three other local doctors along with the relics of their trade.
Another set of posts which has captured the imagination of locals is Kilcrease’s hunt for the Kirby Lumber Company, a sprawling complex that once employed hundreds of people and was for a time the largest yellow timber manufacturer in the Gulf Southwest. When the company finally closed its doors, the trees it had once harvested enclosed it, completely hiding its presence. The Ice House Museum’s Facebook page has been active with both amateur and professional sleuths, comparing maps and drone footage, researching property ownership and looking for other clues that might reveal the company’s sylvan grave. Having discovered the canyon near the original site, Kilcrease and an army of excited volunteers are waiting on permission to go exploring. She hopes to make an exhibit of the effort in the future.
The Ice House Museum and Cultural Center is one of the only museums of its kind in the nation. Few ice houses have been spared and renovated into historical centers, and fewer still have focused on their former usage as an indispensible part of the residential food preservation supply chain before refrigeration was invented. While the Ice House Museum made nominal gestures towards this history, Curator Kilcrease is making it a central showpiece. Among the projects she has been working on are a replica 1920s kitchen displaying how “iceboxes” were used and a 1903 Studebaker wagon which was once used for deliveries between Kirbyville and Beaumont and which was purchased from Huntsville with money given by a Silsbee graduate.
The Ice House Museum is a unique piece of American history, and represents a niche moment in technology that is rarely preserved. Under Susan Kilcrease’s direction, it is shaping up to be a fascinating center for history, exploration and education. It’s only twenty minutes or so north of Beaumont in Silsbee, Texas, an easy addition to an itinerary that includes other great activities in the area. Like maybe bird watching.