A man with a passion for history

OFF THE CUFF

Last February and again last week, I had the pleasure of spending time with a man I consider to be one of Texas County’s true “originals.”

His name is Joseph Neal, and he’s about as passionate about the county’s history as anyone could be. But his motivation for that passion goes beyond simply finding out cool stuff to feed his own hunger. He’s sincerely concerned about keeping alive the stories and memories from days long gone.

Neal frequently points out that those stories are being lost in time as elderly people who hold them in their minds pass on.

“We need to hear about the people who used to live here and the things they did, and share them with younger people,” he says. “If someone doesn’t do that, a lot of information is just going to be forgotten.”

In his effort to preserve as much local history as possible, Neal runs a business called “The Barn Savers” that’s involved in painstakingly dismantling old buildings and funneling the usable wood to sources that repurpose it.

“It’s either that or they’re going to just fall down,” he says. “It used to be that people would just burn them a lot of times. At least this way the wood – and the story behind it – sort of lives on.”

When he talks about what he does, you can hear Neal’s passion and excitement for history in his voice. But you can also hear a bit of melancholy disappointment when he talks of how such old buildings are on the endangered list and are becoming more rare with each passing year.

“It’s too bad, but there’s really nothing that can be done,” he says. “It’s just too expensive and impractical to refurbish and try to preserve them all.”

When I was young, I was one of those guys who “didn’t get” history and I was largely uninterested in learning about it. As I’ve aged, my viewpoint of history has done a complete 180-degree turn – especially with regard to local history.

And wow, is there a lot of that in these parts. Texas County is a virtual gold mine of fascinating stories and accounts of former residents, and I’m in agreement with Neal that it would be a real shame if most of that stuff gets lost in time.

Knowing where we came from and how we got to where we are is integral to understanding the way society is shaped. On a local level, the only way that information has any hope of being passed is simple: Word of mouth. The Bible says “lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel” (Proverbs 20:15) and the “ears of the wise seek it out” (Proverbs 18:15).

There’s no substitute for knowledge of the past. And again, there’s no way for it to exist in many cases except through conversation.

Anyway, if you have an old abandoned building on your property that appears to be on its last leg of existence, it could well be that Neal and his Barn Savers bunch could make good use of it and you might consider getting in touch with him. He’s also on a quest to discover the location of a cabin once lived in by James Milton Neal – whether or not it’s still standing.

Either way, call him at 417-217-8418. I can safely say he’d love to discuss some local history with you.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. His columns are posted online at www.houstonherald.

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