Twenty years ago, the late Russ Kissick realized that school children in Plano didn’t know the history of their own hometown. He wanted to change that.
Teaming with architect Sid Wall and community leader Maggie Sprague, Russ helped launch the Plano Conservancy for Historic Preservation in 2001. Thanks to their vision, this year the nonprofit is celebrating two decades of keeping our city’s history alive.
Since that time, tens of thousands of visitors have streamed through the Interurban Railway Museum, the conservancy’s home base downtown. Residents have participated in conservancy-sponsored annual events, including the Archaeology Fair; Hike Through History, a downtown walking tour highlighting historic homes, buildings and points of interest; and Tombstone Mysteries, a community workday to clean and restore tombstones in historic cemeteries.
Many are surprised to learn that Plano’s first Anglo settlers arrived in the 1840s, eager to cultivate the area’s rich Blackland Prairie.
But the conservancy’s events do more than just teach people about local history, says Executive Director Jeff Campbell. “We have a wide cross section of people who show up to participate, to volunteer, to help clean the tombstones and just to be a part of the effort,” he said. “It really builds a sense of community.”
Funding for the Plano Conservancy comes from the City of Plano’s Heritage Commission, grants and individual donations. The museum’s historic building is owned by the city and operated by the conservancy. Originally, the building was a station for the Texas Electric Railway, which carried passengers from Denison, Plano, Dallas, Waco and points in between from 1908 until 1948. Visitors can check out Car 360, the museum’s restored Texas Electric Railway car, on the grounds.
While the Interurban Railway Museum was closed to visitors during the pandemic, the conservancy adapted with online and “do-it-yourself” activities, including a photography contest, a Haiku Through History poetry contest and a Haunted Plano scavenger hunt. Outdoor exhibits on city history continue to allow visitors to learn while safely socially-distancing.
Over the years, the conservancy has also published half a dozen books, including chronicles of Plano history, local historic cemeteries and the story of the integration of Plano ISD’s football program in the 1960s. The nonprofit has also developed two areas of specialization: cemetery restoration and railway history.
As a leading advocate for historic graveyards in North Texas, the conservancy has conducted multiple cemetery restoration projects in Old City, Davis, Plano Mutual, Bethany, Leach Thomas, Rowlett, Young and Baccus Cemeteries. In 2019 the conservancy received an Honor Award from Preservation Texas for its work at Davis Cemetery, a historically African American burial ground.
The enthusiasm of railfans – those interested in the history of trains and railroads – has extended the conservancy’s reach nationally. One of the Interurban’s original exhibits, Vital to Victory, telling the story of women who worked as conductors on the nation’s passenger railroads starting in World War I, is now on loan to a railway museum in Michigan.
In addition to Jeff, the conservancy is staffed with four part-time employees, a contractor who manages the archives and a small army of volunteers. Two longtime volunteer “Traveling Motormen,” Harold Larson and Jack Durnin, lead tours at the museum, visit schools to talk about railroad history, maintain the museum’s model train system and teach Railroad & Electricity merit badges to Scouts.
What’s on tap for the next 20 years? Jeff hopes to expand the conservancy’s focus from the earliest pioneers to tell the more recent history of our city’s evolution.
“We also want to tell the story of how we got from the days when Plano was a farming community to Plano as an international city,” he said. “That has a lot to do with the arrival of companies like Texas Instruments, EDS and Toyota. We want to keep telling that story.”
The Interurban Railway Museum reopens to visitors March 16. Public hours are 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 1-5 p.m. on Saturday. The museum kindly requests that visitors wear a mask and practice social distancing while indoors.Plano Conservancy >
901 E 15th Street
Plano, TX 75074