Local trio work to bring Plano’s history back to life

Photo by Jennifer Shertzer

Step into the side room of the Cox Building and it feels like a walk back in time. There are slide projectors, newspaper clippings and even cassette tapes. Nearly every available space in the room is covered with photos, binders and other mementos from a bygone era. It may look like a random mishmash of memorabilia, but there is actually a method to the madness going on in here.

For more than a year and a half now, three local women have been meticulously sorting and organizing a vast collection of pictures and long-neglected mementos that had been stored away. Their goal is to identify what the photos show. After that, they plan to digitize them so that they can be uploaded to a website for the whole community to enjoy.

Nearly all of the items come from archives of the Plano Parks & Recreation Department, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018. At the time, former Parks director Robin Reeves told community outreach specialist Kelley Crimmins that she should go through the countless boxes of old pictures that had been sitting in the office for ages. Little did Crimmins know that it would become a labor of love. Together with Courtyard Theater Patron Service Attendant Pam Holland and local volunteer Melissa O’Neil, the trio has been whittling down the collection to a point where it is getting close to something presentable. Or at least they think it is.

“We just all came together and now we are this close-knit group,” Crimmins says.

The group typically meets a couple of afternoons per week. Work initially began with a few boxes and a handheld slide viewer at a space in the Oak Pointe Nature and Retreat Center. At the time it was closed due to  COVID-19. When the facility reopened, they moved to the Courtyard Theater space.

The women now have slide projectors to more quickly view the endless boxes of slides. Those projectors were once upon a time cutting-edge technology used during city council meetings.

Photo by Jennifer Shertzer

With so many items to go through, one of the group’s constant challenges is trying to determine exactly what they are looking at. One of the first things they’ve noticed is how quickly Plano has grown over the past half century. Many of the oldest photos highlight the city’s humble beginnings. Most people wouldn’t have a clue that those snapshots of country dirt roads or sprawling farms are today the sites of bustling businesses or modern neighborhoods.

Holland has become adept at playing the photo detective. It’s something she enjoys so much she literally sets an alarm on her phone to ensure she goes home at a decent time.

Her process usually starts with examining pictures for clues like identifying signs or city officials she recognized from a certain era. Things like utility lines or water towers help her get her bearings.

“We saw all these water towers and thought if we could just figure out where the water towers are we could kind of orient ourselves,” she says.

Of course, water towers have come and gone over the course of Plano’s history. However, thanks to a layered map put together with the help of business intelligence analyst Shari Forbes, Holland can find water towers along with information on when they were installed. She also has access to old aerial photos that, when viewed consecutively, provide a timelapse-style illustration of just how much the city has grown. By using this data along with her local expertise (and if she’s lucky, a date on the photo), she’s become pretty adept at determining where these unidentified photos were taken.

Many pictures reveal once common items that younger people would not recognize today. Things like giant computers, old-school printers and drafting tables now seem nearly as dated as a Model T. There are also photos of mustachioed police officers on the firing range with no protective equipment and dispatchers typing away on clunky typewriters. Smoking was also everywhere with ashtrays ubiquitous in just about every setting.

A few special photos show former City Manager Bob Woodruff at the Plano Balloon festival when it was held at Oak Grove Park. After he died unexpectedly in a 1986 car accident, the park would be renamed for him.

Woodruff was among the community visionaries who helped shape the modern city people recognize today. Many photos also illustrate just much the parks department has accomplished since its founding. Documents show evidence of planning decades in advance for some of today’s popular facilities. Pictures of long-forgotten events like “Picnic in the Park” and the “Plano Roundup” may also inspire the department to reexamine discontinued programs to see if they may find new life today.

It’s been a learning experience every day for the three women who have spent countless hours pouring over Plano’s past. Now they can’t wait to share what they have found with others.

“It’s been so much fun,” Crimmins says. “I’ve learned so much about the city going through all this.”

Photo by Jennifer Shertzer
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