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Remembering New London

by Jamie Jones

School children arent supposed to die. But 79 years ago, on March 18, 1937, nearly 300
children perished in a natural gas explosion at the London, Texas school just southeast of Tyler.
Struggling oilfield families were proud to send their children to the school. Built just five years
earlier, it was the richest rural school in the world at the time. The school was a thing of wonder,
with indoor plumbing when many homes were still using outhouses, a modern chemistry lab, an
auditorium with a balcony, and the nations first lighted football field. No one ever suspected the
danger lurking beneath. For weeks before the explosion, several of the children and teachers
had complained of headaches, but since natural gas didnt have an odor at the time, there was
no indication of a leak, so people just chalked it up to seasonal allergies or some kind of bug
going around. It was only after the explosion that the headache sufferers put two and two
together.
In 1996, the London Museum opened its doors to honor the memory of the victims and survivors
of the school explosion. Located just across the street from where the London school was (and
where West Rusk High School is now), the museum is full of artifacts from the 1930s
community, victims, survivors, the school, newspaper stories, newsreels, and the like. It isnt a
happy museum, but it is a moving and unforgettable experience. Not only is there a museum
area, there is also a working 1930s soda fountain, and a small cafe. Remarkably, all of these
areas are staffed by volunteers, with the exception of a cook and one part-time secretary. Many
of the volunteers have been with the museum for several years, and most have at least one
connection to a victim or survivor of the explosion. Some are retired, with their former
professions ranging from Vietnam veteran to accountant, seamstress, telephone company
service rep, newspaper reporter, respiratory therapist, caterer, postmaster, English teacher,
librarian, secretary, pastor, oilfield worker, and electrician.
What makes someone want to work for free, 5 days a week, for nearly 16 years? John Davidson
retired in May 2000 after working for Kelly Springfield for over 30 years. The very next week, he
started volunteering at the London Museum. At the time, he and his wife Jean lived in Tyler, and
they both volunteered at the museum, one day a week for half a day. Over time, it grew to more
than one day a week; then as the volunteer staff got older, some couldnt come anymore, and
some passed away, it became a full-time effort for both of them. John is now the head docent
for the museum, and Jean is the cafe coordinator.
Asked why he donates so much of his time to the museum, John said that after he attended the
museum opening, he felt compelled to help. You see, John lived right here. His sister Ardyth
was 14 when she died in the explosion before John was even conceived. The museum exhibits
include a photo of his parents, and photos of his sister. He knows all of the stories, hes a
natural talker, and he thought that being a docent would be a good way to honor their
memories.
Johns parents told him about his sister, but didnt share many details. Like many other parents
who lost a child, they grieved for a long while; then planned his birth, and that was a big deal
since his parents were nearly 40 years old when he was born.
Earl and Madge Davidson started out in Paris, Texas where they owned a small store. Sebe
and Lena Miller, who owned a store in Oklahoma, stopped in for a Coke on their way to London,
Texas one day, and told the Davidsons about the oil boom, convincing them to sell their store
and move to East Texas. Once there, the Davidsons operated the Red and White store for the
Millers in Old London by the traffic signal. A few years later, the Millers went into the oil

Remembering New London

by Jamie Jones

business, and Earl built his own store in New London (a few miles away). After Ardyth died, Earl
sawed the store in half so he could move it, and then relocated it to Old London.
As a boy, Earl would send John outside to see what the oilfield workers needed when they
came to the store. Oftentimes, they were so dirty when they came by, they wouldnt come inside
for fear of messing up the floors, so theyd honk their car horn, and John would go out to see
what they needed, which was commonly something like a loaf of bread and a pound of bologna.
On one occasion, Earl told John to pay attention to the oilfield workers hands when he took
their orders, and to come back and tell him what their hands looked like. John told his Daddy
that their hands were always dirty, almost black with oil, and most of them had at least one
finger missing. Earl told his son he would do better than that; he was going to college, even
though John knew that his Daddy didnt have any way to pay for it.
The Davidsons store did pretty well until the big stores moved into the area. When the oilfields
started to decline, Earl sold the store and went to work as a butcher. Like many other families in
the area, they lived in a hand-built shotgun house, where there were few rooms and Madges
flowers desperately tried to grow through the floorboards of Johns bedroom in the winter.
Meanwhile, life went on. Earl loved baseball, and was a pretty good sandlot ball player. He
really liked to go to Tyler Trojans games (held at what is now known as Mike Carter Field), and
frequently let John invite one of his buddies to tag along. At home, he and John spent a lot of
time in the evenings throwing the ball to each other.
In 1953, John hit the first home run over the fence at the newly-constructed baseball field in
New London playing for his Pony League team. Earl was in the stands watching, and was so
thrilled, he stood up and started passing his hat to collect money for son. John doesnt think he
actually got any money, but he remembers how happy his Daddy was that day.
John graduated from London High School in 1958, and true to his Daddys word, he did not go
into the oilfield, but he didnt get a free pass to college, either. John worked summers at Pope &
Turner furniture in Overton and earned scholarships. He started at Kilgore Junior College, and
then finished his degree at Sam Houston. Home from college on one occasion, John took his
Daddy to the doctor in Tyler where he was prescribed heart medication. On the way home, Earl
asked John to pull over. When he did so, Earl threw the bottle of pills out the window,
proclaiming that he couldnt afford those pills, and if he had to rely on pills to live, he didnt want
any part of it.
At his college graduation, John noticed his Daddy in the stands and thought to himself that he
just didnt look right, appearing pale and weak, even from several yards away, and sure
enough, a few weeks later Earl died at the age of 62.
These days, John and his wife Jean live near New London. They have two children, Kay
Plucheck of Tomball and Kyle Davidson of Tyler.
You can find John Davidson at the London Museum from Monday through Friday, and hes
almost always willing to give a tour or tell a story. We think he does a swell job of preserving
local history and remembering the lives of everyone involved in the school explosion.
Visit the museum Web site at http://www.newlondonschool.org.

Remembering New London

by Jamie Jones

Pictured below:
Ardyth Davidson and Sebe Miller, Jr. in 1933 or 1934. Both children perished in the explosion
on March 18, 1937.

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