Scurry County preservationist Paula Hatfield’s family roots are in East Texas, but since moving to the Snyder area in 1997, she’s devoted immense energy, enthusiasm and creativity to saving the heritage of her adopted West Texas.
The daughter of an Air Force father, she traveled the world with her family from birth till age 18, gaining an appreciation for the spaces and stories that are the lifeblood of our state, nation and world.
Locally, Hatfield has put her talents to use at the Scurry County Museum and its offshoot, the 1818 Art House, and has served as chair or vice chair of the county historical commission since 2006. Understanding the need to promote the county beyond its border, she accepted a position on the board of the Texas Plains Trail Region in 2011, stepping into the president’s role in 2014. She’s logged thousands of miles attending meetings and conferences, championing preservation causes and supporting communities much like her own through the Texas Heritage Trails Program.
When the historically significant Snyder Santa Fe Railroad Depot was threatened with demolition in 2016, Hatfield led a valiant struggle to save the structure. Although the Snyder preservation coalition diligently followed every possible track — from seeking to repurpose the depot with a different local use to creating a visitor center to even dismantling the massive concrete-and-stucco building and moving it — ultimately the railroad wouldn’t relent.
So when the heavy equipment moved in, Hatfield and friends did the only thing they could: they salvaged the most significant pieces for posterity, and documented the entire process as a cautionary tale for the future.
You’ve been a supporter of preservation in Texas for more than a decade, playing a leadership role in everything from the Quanah Parker Trail to the Bankhead Highway to Scurry County historic buildings. What’s one of the most significant successes you’ve participated in?
My first participation in a preservation project, in 2008, was to stop the Snyder Independent School District from demolishing a WPA gym built in 1936. The inventory and documentation of WPA and CCC projects has become a national objective, and educating local citizens about the value of the Travis Junior High Gymnasium was an important success.
What do you consider the major challenges in your community and county?
Saving the Travis gym from the wrecking ball was a motivation to stay the course with preservation. Finding the necessary funds for a long-term purpose is the most daunting aspect in saving a landmark structure. Explaining the historical and architectural significance of a structure is vital. Dealing with apathy, and cultivating conversations with property owners who’ve let structures deteriorate, is a steep uphill climb.
Where do you think your passion for preservation and local history comes from?
My first memory of a preservation effort was Jacqueline Kennedy’s work in preserving the White House and her stand to save New York’s Grand Central Station. A recent Smithsonian article quoted her as once saying, “We’ve all heard that it’s too late, or that it has to happen, that it’s inevitable. But I don’t think that’s true.” She continued, “Because I think if there is a great effort, even if it’s in the eleventh hour, then you can succeed, and I know that’s what we’ll do.”
On a Texas note, not far from Snyder — at the Harvey House in Slaton — with just hours left before demolition, a group was able to halt the wrecking ball. And the success story of preservation, restoration and repurposing of the Louis Curtiss depot in Post reinforced my resolve and the importance of saving structures.
restorations throughout Texas, such as the Harvey House, Post, Baird, Mineola and Marshall, have fueled my enthusiasm. Some were last-minute reprieves, but all had a living force behind the silent voices quieted by apathy, misunderstanding and neglect.
There are many components of history that attract me to preservation: a site, a story, a person. But I’m most fascinated by buildings. I love to visit other towns, states and countries. I want to hear their stories, see their buildings.
What are the greatest obstacles to overcome if Texas and the nation are to preserve places that matter?
We must harness the enthusiasm of likeminded supporters. At age 66, I’m finding a peer group at last that shares the passion of preservation, who’ll take time to work for a project. While social media can certainly be a positive force for change, it’s not enough to just leave a comment, like that page and check it off the list as “done.”
Finding investors with the money to see a project come to fruition is another major hurdle. And getting in the door with property owners — building a relationship with that revolving door of business owners and school boards and powerful railroad conglomerates — might be tedious, but it’s absolutely necessary.
Most important, however, is finding a long-term use for a threatened structure. I venture to say that every town has a structure worth saving — but what will its purpose be five, 10, 50 years down the road?
You and the Scurry County Historical Commission fought a pitched battle to save the depot. What was it about that particular cause, and Snyder’s railroad history, that drew your support?
It’s been a journey. After an email from Houston architect Larry Harris, who enlightened me on the significance of the depot designed by noted Kansas City architect Louis Singleton Curtiss, it was clear the historical and architectural significance of our 1911 Santa Fe Railroad Depot qualified as a worthwhile project. I quickly boarded a locomotive train, an Iron Horse, to save the Depot..
Talks began with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad in 2009. For the next eight years the Scurry County Historical Commission pursued avenues for repurposing the building, as varied as an authorized Texas Department of Transportation visitor center or a business incubator.
In 2016, with the help of Preservation Texas and the National Trust, thousands of supporters signed a petition that won the historical commission that kind of eleventh-hour reprieve Jackie Kennedy had described.
Tell us about the high and low points of the struggle. Was there ever a moment when your group just felt like giving up?
The roller-coaster ride is thrilling but scary. Just about the time you feel like you’ve made some headway with stakeholders or with a boost to save the building, something comes up — a change in leadership or property owner — and the process takes even longer than you thought.
It’s hard to keep enthusiasm moving once you’ve grabbed it. It’s so simple to me … why wouldn’t everyone see the importance of a structure? So many components attract one to a building, or a site, or a photograph or an oral history. But not everyone shares that same enthusiasm.
In today’s culture, we talk at length about recycling plastic bottles, plastic bags, rubber tires, glass, tin cans — as we should. But then we think nothing of tearing down an entire, irreplaceable building — dumping tons of debris in landfills — and erasing it from our landscape.
Once the demolition permit was issued for the Snyder Depot in 2016, how did your preservation group rally for action?
With last-minute help from Preservation Texas, the National Trust, our state representative, Dustin Burrows, an online Change.org petition and circumstances changing by the minute, by the hour, a 30-day reprieve was approved in that eleventh hour. Truly, I learned that preservation never sleeps.
Even though we had no feasible plan for adaptive reuse, and no financing for a nearly $1 million renovation, an angel buyer stepped forward with a plan to move the depot to Austin. But TxDOT weight restrictions and detailed engineering studies nixed the idea. By November 2017, negotiations between BNSF and the Scurry County Historical Commission wound up at an impasse. With our options exhausted, we had to realize we were going to lose the depot.
Still, you took a bold approach to showing others what it felt like to witness the demolition of a treasured building — by posting live video when the bulldozers knocked down the first parts of the wall to the final piles of rubble days later. What inspired you to devote this effort, even after the battle was lost?
The heavy equipment had arrived on site, preparing to raze the 106-year-old depot. We’d had a good bit of sympathetic media coverage. People found it sobering to realize it was really going to happen.
On the day of demolition, the commission knew we needed to document the event. On my 35-mile drive into town, it occurred to me I was going to have to step out of my comfort zone and embrace social media to capture and share the process with Facebook readers and our followers. It really was a last-minute decision. By the time I arrived on site, I was contacting the Texas Plains Trail and various media outlets, local and beyond.
The bulldozers cranked up, and I turned my camera toward the depot and talked. A few dozen friends and followers shared Facebook posts and Twitter feeds — and by the end of day one we had thousands of likes and comments from people all over the United States and Canada. By the end of the week, we had hundreds of thousands.
For the next 10 days, members of the Scurry County Historical Commission used live Facebook feeds to document and share the demolition. With guidance from the Scurry County Museum staff and productive conversations with BNSF, we were able to secure architectural pieces of the depot, and we filmed the tedious removal of those pieces as well.
Seeing firsthand, in real time, from the comfort of your home, across Texas, America and Canada what it looks like to actually lose a building can be a call to action.
Your Snyder group turned that footage into the inspiration for a documentary film. How did that come about?
The video footage and stills taken by the members of the historical commission were crucial in making sure the depot history, the story of Louis Curtiss and a key chapter of Snyder life were not lost.
Within days of demolition, the historical commission came up with the idea of using this material in a documentary. Through the Texas Plains Trail, we connected with historian and producer Doug Baum, a West Texas native who now runs the Texas Camel Corps outside of Waco. [See Authentic Texas, Summer 2018.]
Doug took the ball and ran with it, filming background and other interviews, editing hours of video and even involving his own family in writing the script and original music.
The result was a 17-minute film, Built to Last. We couldn’t have been more pleased, and we eagerly debuted it Oct. 18, 2018, at the Ritz Community Theater in downtown Snyder, itself a preserved landmark.
The film captured connections to the depot with real lives: an AT&SF telegraph operator who worked there; a person whose family worked for the railroad. Those voices bring the building to life again.
I was fortunate to have been there for the Built to Last premiere. What an evening — a sold-out house, and a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd at the 1818 Art House reception afterward. How do you think the event will benefit preservation efforts going forward?
We were able to work with the Scurry County Museum to actually bring some of the artifacts we saved from the building, and put together an exhibit at the gallery, which remained up for a month. Guests were invited to share their own memories of the depot.
I’m convinced that in years to come, the museum archives will help residents better understand our past and move into the future.
What’s really fantastic is that the demolished building is paying it forward. Roughly 15,000 original Coffeyville paver bricks from the depot grounds and passenger and freight platforms were salvaged — the museum was able to sell these pieces of history to start a fund for future preservation efforts.
What advice would you give other communities faced with a similar destruction of a historic building or place?
Don’t wait till the last minute to save a building — it’s a long and tedious project. I can’t stress enough the importance of finding funding, an investor. Bring people into your team with a keen understanding of investments and tax credits, and a longevity plan for the building.
Don’t be afraid to step up. Give it your all, and don’t give up. For me, it’s still emotional to talk about the depot and the fact that it’s gone.
It’s a part of me, it’s a part of who I am. It will always be a part of me just because I loved the building and I loved the story of Louis Curtiss. There’s a story of craftsmanship and how it was actually built and put together — the reinforced concrete, the size of the rebar that was used in the building, the fact that it stood here for 106 years, right here in Snyder, Texas.