Swinging Between Poles: From a POW Camp to a Pageant

Tyler, Texas, hosts the site of Camp Ford, which constituted the largest Confederate POW camp west of the Mississippi. Thousands of Union troops taken prisoner ended up at the camp, with its four to five acres expanding to about twice that size to hold some 4,700 prisoners in the spring of 1864. In contrast to places like Andersonville, the mortality rate seems to have been relatively low and prisoners had some supplies to live on. Visiting today, the Bosun and I considered the marked difference between hot, muggy East Texas and the homes the Union prisoners would have left. The shade trees that now make the place an appealing park did not exist back then, and having just come from up north, I could acutely imagine the homesickness, longing, and woe the men must have felt far from home, far from the familiar ... not knowing when they might get back to the places where they belonged.

In the shade, looking at reconstructed tiny tent-cabins, I just felt sadness for all that. But according to the interpretive signs, the prisoners created a camp newspaper, drew, made crafts and art items, gambled, and even tunneled with plans to escape (one tunnel seems to have grown quite large, but within days of it reaching past the stockade, the Confederates expanded the fence, thwarting escape efforts).

After leaving the camp, which butts up to a Whataburger—a fact that just feels odd somehow—we headed to the Tyler Rose Museum, which boasts lovely rose gardens and grounds and celebrates a local pageant for teenage girls. Honestly, the Bosun and I both felt a bit awkward about the spectacle of the vaunted event. The museum displays sparkly dresses worn by participants, features videos about the show, and presents posters and memorabilia dating back to the start of the thing in the ‘30s. It also offers a movie and exhibits on the region’s rose-cultivation industry. We learned that the rose is America’s national flower. Something like 16% to 20% of American rose production happens in the Tyler area.

So the flower part was interesting. It’s just that the pageant part involved, perhaps, at least for us, an excess of excess. (And yes, I know I once went in for the glitter of competitive ballroom dance. I hear ya on that, but a dress that expands to have crystal-studded airplane wings maybe just feels like a bit much.)

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