A Visionary Chamber of Commerce President Fulfills Her Dream of a Lasting Legacy for Legends of Country Music
How fortunate for all of us in Panola County that the Chamber of Commerce hired a visionary like Tommie Ritter Smith as its President and Chief Executive Officer back in the early 1980’s. And how fortunate for Tommie that the first visitor she met as director was Howard Rosser from the East Texas Tourism Association in Longview.
“We weren’t real involved in tourism at that time,” says Tommie. “We had Lake Murvaul and the Jim Reeves Memorial, and that was about it. But Howard told me there was a big movement going on for tourism to be a primary source of economic development for small communities, and his organization was leading the way in that effort. He said, ‘Find something about your community that no one else has and capitalize on it!’ In my mind, that was Tex Ritter and Jim Reeves because they were both internationally known country music stars born in Panola County. So I set out to find a way to honor those two people. I found out that the widow of Jim Reeves had already established a museum for him in Nashville. Tex Ritter and my dad were distant cousins, so I had connections to his family that made it easy to get started with learning all about him.”
The Chamber made a deal with the city to move into the Hawthorn-Clabaugh house, with the understanding that the new Tex Ritter museum would be housed on the top floor. Pat and Gertrude Patterson had purchased the home and given it to the city, and the Chamber could just rent it from the City. The old Chamber office was then sold and the proceeds from the sale used for renovations for the museum.
Tommie recalls, “The renovation was very successful, and we were able to get volunteers to do all the work on the displays. When I contacted the Ritter family to see if they had things to donate, they invited me out to California to look at what they had. I could not believe it! They had a huge warehouse absolutely full of memorabilia—everything that Tex had ever had, I think. The family shipped it all to us in a huge 18-wheeler. We went through and sorted every single item, had it all appraised, and set about figuring out the best way to set everything up with the money we had available. We were all thrilled to open the Tex Ritter Museum in 1993!”
Then in 1995, Chet Stout told Tommie he wanted to make a sizable donation to the museum in memory of his wife, Johnny. “I had just been contacted by an organization called East Texas Arts and Entertainment based in Longview and Kilgore,” Tommie remembers. “They said they wanted to add Tex Ritter to their ‘Hall of Fame.’ I went to their ceremony and saw they were mainly just calling out names and giving plaques to families. I tried to make a deal with them for us to work with them and to house their Hall of Fame, but they declined, so we just decided to do our own Hall of Fame. We used Chet’s money to create the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame to honor other Texas country music performers, writers, producers, and disc jockeys who were legends. We filed the papers, created a logo, and started dividing the upstairs—part Tex Ritter Museum, part TCMHOF. We opened in 1997 and identified more than 300 people eligible by our rules to be inducted.”
Tommie insists she didn’t even begin to understand at the time how big this whole thing could become. She just wanted to honor Tex and Jim. But after she realized how much more memorabilia she had from California than she could possibly use, she contacted the people at the Gaylord organization who were doing all the displays for the Opryland Museum being created in Nashville. “I asked them if they would be interested in having any of it for Tex’s display in their museum,” she says. “Tex had been one of the first presidents of the Country Music Association and one of the first people to be inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, so they were very interested. They sent their head designer, Rusty Summerville, to Carthage to check us out, and Rusty did an awesome display about Tex Ritter using a considerable amount of memorabilia we had donated. About 70 people from Carthage, along with Tex’s son John, went to the grand opening. I think our experiences at that grand opening enabled us to see that this could be so much bigger than we ever thought, that honoring these musicians had much more potential than we ever dreamed. We all came back home and started getting serious about growing the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame.”
By 1999, space was getting pretty tight upstairs at the Chamber building. It was also not ADA-compliant, and environmental needs like proper lighting and humidity control for preserving memorabilia were not being met. “It was so exciting for us when the City decided to build us a new building next door.” Tommie says. “City Manager Charles Thomas was instrumental in making this dream happen. The new building opened in 2002 and included the museum, a gift shop, and a large community meeting and event room. In 2015 we added another 1,300 square feet to the building, ensuring that we can keep going for a long time. I am so grateful to the City for their support of this project. We could have never done it without them! “
Tommie reports that the TCMHOF attracts about 5,000 visitors per year, not counting ones who come for special events. An audit of sign-ins revealed that visitors had come from every state in the United States and 60 foreign countries. Some groups of 20 to 50 people arrive together on buses, but most are just individuals or small groups. Nearly all the money from the big fundraiser, the annual show, is spent on the museum, so there is not much advertising. Tommie says she is grateful that word of mouth is doing such a good job.
Obviously, Tommie has done a really good job, too. Her vision more than 30 years ago of honoring these two Panola County legends and thereby helping the local economy as well, has grown into a beautiful, sophisticated attraction in this small community that provides benefits for it that are far beyond those that can be measured in dollars and cents.