In the days of its greater glory, the town of Kilgore, in the pine woods of East Texas, boasted of being built upon the World's Richest Acre, where oil was pumped from 24 wells on a patch of ground in what amounted to the business district. There were, in fact, hundreds of oil derricks in town, and at Christmas they would be strung with colored bulbs. Astonished travelers would peer from windows of passing railroad cars at HAPPY NEW YEAR spelled out in lights amid those tall, throbbing skeletons scattered among the new homes built by the fortunate landowners of Kilgore.
The boom hit in 1930 when wildcatter Dad Joiner brought in Daisy Bradford No. 3, the famous well that opened up the huge East Texas Oil Field, five to 10 miles wide and 43 miles long, with Kilgore at its middle. Kilgore had been a farming and sawmill town set among forests, green meadows and silent, dark lakes full of big bass. Suddenly the area became notorious; speculators, merchants and drifters of all descriptions poured in from around the country. This was not what the new rich of Kilgore wanted to see happen to their town, not now that they'd made it, anyhow. The oil derricks on Main Street proclaimed a blessing—for the home folks. As for the arriving hordes, they would have to go somewhere else.
So they went—10 miles to the northeast, to Longview, on the opposite shore of the Sabine River; 28 miles west to Tyler, self-styled Rose Capital of the World; 120 miles west to Dallas, where the big banks are; 200 miles south to Houston, the seaport. Oil companies built office buildings in those places and brought in business and industry, which built more buildings. Meanwhile Kilgore remained a small town by choice.
Over the last few years salt water has crept into the Kilgore oil fields. The town has not gone broke—a popular estimate is that those wells that are left can pump another 40 years—but the derricks have been torn down. Only one remains, a monument to the days when it seemed the oil would never run out. While Long-view and Tyler continue the big-city hustle, Kilgore is fading into the past. Though large homes abound, there is no movie theater in town, no chain motel to speak well of, and the bars are honky-tonks out on the highway. The Town House Cafe still serves what may be the ultimate fried chicken, cream gravy and cornbread in all of America, but its reputation has not spread much past the bottom half of Gregg County.
And yet everybody keeps hearing about Kilgore. The reason is one fantastic woman, a few of her assistants and 65 mostly teen-aged dancing girls known as the Kilgore College Rangerettes—the first dance-drill team of its kind and, after 35 years, still probably the best. Thousands of high schools and colleges have copied the Rangerettes since Gussie Nell Davis created them in 1940. The Apache Belles of Tyler Junior College came along seven years later, and the televising of football halftime shows made first the Rangerettes and then the Belles nationally famous.
Naturally, there is a rivalry between the two, and if not more intense than that of their school football teams, it is at least of wider interest. When Kilgore College and Tyler Junior College play each other in football it could be argued that more people are in the stands to watch the girls at the half than to watch the game: the football teams are junior college, but the girls are big league. What the fans are seeing at halftime is Alabama-Oklahoma of the dance-drill world. It had been raining in East Texas for close to a month. The sky might clear up for a while, but the ground just wouldn't get dry. The rain made the pine trees sparkle and brought creeks up over their banks to form new ponds in the fields. As far as Gussie Nell Davis was concerned, it was the worst weather possible. She would rather freeze than see it rain all the time.
"Hey, down there, fourth girl from the end! I'm sorry you don't like the girl in front of you, but crowd up close to her anyhow!"
"Thank you, Miss Davis!" shouted the fourth girl from the end. This is the Rangerette Way to accept advice or criticism. There is a Rangerette Way to do just about everything.
"Another thing, girls! When you make your entrance onto that field tomorrow night, get out there fast! Be bold! If you're an instant late, the Apache Belles are liable to push you out of the way!"
"Thank you, Miss Davis!" they all shouted.