The Texas Country Music Hall of Fame and the Tex Ritter Museum started with humble roots but quickly took on a life of their own.
Tommie Ritter Smith, the organization’s president and CEO, was involved with the venue even before the idea became a reality. Former Carthage city manager Charles Thomas said Smith had been the driving force behind the site from day one, which had a lot of support from civic leaders like Chet Stout and Lynn Vincent.
“It was Tommie’s hard work that really got things going,” Thomas said. “She did most of the promotion and work to get people involved.”
Smith said the community, its leaders, Tex Ritter’s family and the contacts she developed in the country music recording industry quickly joined in and helped push the idea of considerable way.
That was in the late 1990s. But his involvement in promoting Carthage and Panola County started much earlier.
“I was fresh out of Panola College and came to work here at the Chamber of Commerce in 1982,” Smith said. “I had no idea.”
But the then board of the chamber of commerce saw the promise and arranged for her to learn chamber business from scratch by sending her to management school. room provided by Southern Methodist University.
“I had the chance to work and study at the same time. I went to school for a year, worked for a year and would go back to school for a year,” she said. “Also at this school, I had the luxury of meeting other chamber directors from all over Texas and from all over the United States.”
This network provided contacts across the county to bounce ideas off and share best practices.
As she applied what she learned on the job in Panola County, Smith became involved with the former East Texas Chamber of Commerce and worked with its executive director, Howard Rosser.
“Howard came to me and he said, ‘Tommie, what you need to do to be successful in promoting tourism in your city is find out what no other city has of your city and you focus on that,'” Smith said. “It didn’t take me long to realize, thanks to Jim Reeves and Tex Ritter who were world-renowned country music legends, that we had something unique.”
Thomas said while a number of counties may have had a celebrity who had achieved fame outside of their immediate community, it was unusual for two people in the same entertainment field to have achieved national celebrity status and widespread international.
“Tommie took that and ran with it,” he said.
Smith said that in the early 1990s, she went to work to meet Ritter family contacts and collected memorabilia from Tex Ritter’s time in movies. Working with local volunteers, she secured permission from her chamber’s board to set up displays on the second floor of the chamber’s offices in the historic Hawthorn Clabaugh Patterson House on Panola Street.
Smith said she was “not a museum person”. But to counter this lack of knowledge, she and her late husband, Bill Smith, decided to learn what they could.
“We traveled all over Texas studying exhibits, screen depth and height, graphics and other details,” she said.
It was on the second floor of the chamber building that the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame and the Tex Ritter Museum first opened.
“We split the top floor between the Tex Ritter Museum and the Hall of Fame,” Smith said.
Around this time in the 1990s, local promoters received an invitation to travel to Nashville, the Country Music Museum, the Grand Ole Opry and the Gaylord Opryland Hotel. She offered to lend memorabilia, which had been collected locally, to a new museum the Gaylord organization was developing next to their hotel and convention center.
“We did a major Tex Ritter exhibit at the Grand Ole Opry Museum,” Smith said. “We took a loaded Panola County bus and met John Ritter (Tex Ritter’s son) at the grand opening,
The local leaders making this trip to Nashville realized on this trip what Smith had achieved earlier in his efforts.
“It was an eye opener for our group, they realized for the first time how important Jim Reeves and Tex Ritter are to our culture,” she said.
In 1997 the property next to the chamber offices on Panola Street became available for sale. With the help of benefactors and the city of Carthage, organizers have paved the way by using revenue from the city’s hotel/motel occupancy tax to fund the purchase of the property and advance planning for the future site.
Thomas said city leaders used what was classified as the local economic development corporation’s 4B fund to promote tourism. He said some people have questioned the use of these funds for the museum, but after checking with Texas state officials, the use of sales tax funds for this purpose has been judged. legal and appropriate.
“With these funds, we were able to hire an architect and move forward with the development of a first-class facility that we were really proud of,” said Thomas. Smith said the new site was occupied in 2002 with an investment of about $4 million and about 5,000 square feet of floor space.
About a decade later, a major expansion took place, which nearly doubled the hall’s square footage.
From the earliest days of museums being located on the second floor of chamber offices, care and attention to detail has gone into displays to honor those highlighted and protect materials. Experts in the field of professional museum operations were retained and their advice followed, Smith said.
“We really had no idea what it took to run a first-class museum,” she said. From safety issues to an emphasis on humidity control to preserve clothing, sheet music, posters and musical instruments, a lot of detail goes into the operation, Smith said.
“This city has been amazing in the level of support she and the chamber have provided,” she said. The venue’s reputation has grown to average more than 4,000 visitors a year with guests from all 50 states and about 60 foreign countries, Smith said.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think this vision would achieve this level of success,” Smith said. Since the early days, the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame and the Tex Ritter Museum have been more than static displays highlighting the important roles of Tex Ritter, Jim Reeves and other Texans who helped shape the music industry. country music what it is today.
One of the museum’s biggest and most loyal supporters since the early days has been Tex Ritter’s son, John Ritter, and the Ritter family.
“When Tex died, John moved his mother to California to be close to his family,” Smith said. With this move came years of Tex Ritter memorabilia, which had been in storage and which the family allowed Smith and the Tex Ritter Museum to share.
“It was just overwhelming,” she said. “We put the donation in a truck and took it back to Texas. It took almost two years to browse and catalog.
The volume of these donations was so large that the Tex Ritter Museum was able to loan items showcasing Tex Ritter and country music roots along with other venues in Shreveport and Nashville, Smith said.
Each year, the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame has inducted new members while showcasing talent in the field of country music. Smith said that before the COVID pandemic, the annual showcase was a sold-out event every year. She hopes he will return to that level of guest drawing for the 2022 show.
Smith sees the future of the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame and the Tex Ritter Museum as bright for years to come as new stars arrive on the country music scene and Texas continues to solidify its place in the industry. entertainment.
In addition to inducting artists, she considers the venue to host other contributions to Texas country music, such as songwriters, producers and dance halls who have played a part in the industry.
In Carthage, that will likely require another addition to the museum to house exhibits on the inductees, she said.