It’s difficult to describe Wise County Old Settlers’ Reunion to someone who’s never seen it.
“There are two big special occasions each year, Christmas holidays and the Reunion,” wrote Sue Cocanougher for The Wise Times back in 1969.
Nine-year-old Marley Gage of Paradise can describe Reunion as well as anyone.
“It used to be something the veterans went to,” Marley said. “But then people from all over Wise County started coming. There are rides and food, and everybody walks around and gets to see people they haven’t seen in a while.”
Tradition draws people back to Reunion every year. Most of those born in Wise County that attended Reunion as a child return every year.
The first Reunion, then called the Ex-Confederates Reunion, started in the late 1860s. The Reunion has been held at its present site at Joe Wheeler Park in Decatur since 1891. What started as a reunion of ex-Confederate soldiers has undergone much change in 130-plus years.
“The first time I came here was in a wagon,” said Richard Ivy, a resident of Wise County for 78 years. “It was the only time I came to the city all year.”
He recalls going to sleep beneath oaks at night and waking up in the morning to find fiddlers still playing music and all the grown folks still up. He said the difference between the Reunion then and now is “like daylight and dark.”
“There were no cabins at all,” he said. “People just slept beneath the old trees.”
Nowadays approximately 140 cabins stand throughout the post oak grove. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are simple wood or metal sheds with a screen mesh. Others look like two-story luxury gazebos, equipped with refrigerators and swamp coolers.
And now, a miniature castle, equipped with turrets and a deck sure to aid marvelous advantage in the annual water balloon wars, now rises. Marley’s parents, Will and Keely Gage, just put the final touches on their first-year camp. Marley also has two brothers, Nate, 18, and Luke, 16.
“I really, really like it,” Marley said. “It’s a castle! It’s awesome! You can throw water balloons from the top.”
The lot secured by the Gages was previously leased by a stonemason. A layer of cinderblocks was already there.
“We came up with the castle idea and decided to build it up,” Will said. “And my daughter kind of ran with the castle idea. She decided she wanted to be the princess. She wanted me to build a throne for her, but we didn’t go that far.”
The structure is strong. The walls are fortified with rebar and concrete poured into the cinder blocks. Will custom-built large, sliding wood doors to seal the front entrance. Turrets rise around the edges like rooks in a game of chess.
And it has creature comforts as well. One of the rooms is closed off with an air conditioner and several sets of bunk beds. A shower was added on the outside also. Perfect for what looks to be the hottest and dustiest week of the year.
“I wanted to build something my kids could use, and my kids’ kids could use,” Will said. “I wanted it to be different. It was some expense this year, but it will last for a long time.”
Other details include ivy planted along the sides that will eventually grow up the walls. Fresh sod was also added surrounding the structure in soft St. Augustine grass.
He hired Bridgeport artist Sabrina Polk to provide some of the final touches, such as lettering that looks engraved and large caste-like windows.
“This was a lot of fun to do,” Polk said. “He’s taken the camps here to a whole ‘nother level.”
Polk does a lot of web design, but she also paints murals and portraits. She jumped at the opportunity to add her artistic flare to the Reunion cabin.
“I hope this idea catches on, and I can do some murals at some of the other cabins out here,” she said.
Reunion has changed names almost as much as the fashion trends since its beginning. It was first called the Ex-Confederate Reunion. In 1883, it was changed to the Old Soldiers and Settlers Reunion. In 1943, Calvin Newton Workman, the last Confederate soldier died, and it was renamed Wise County Old Settlers’ Reunion.
Reunion used to change locations every year. There are records of early Reunions held in Chico, Greenwood and other communities around the county.
“It has to be one of the oldest reunions in Texas,” said Rosalie Gregg, chair of the Wise County Historical Commission. “It’s not like anything you can describe. You have to see it for yourself.”
During the early Reunions, residents reenacted Civil War battles and politicians gave fiery political speeches. The battle reenactments began to slow down after 1908. That was the year Grady Helm had his arm amputated after a cannon backfired. The cannon was never used again at Reunion.
Even though the cannons are gone, a castle has risen in the dusty woods, adding one more unique feature to an already unique event.
REUNION SCHEDULE OF EVENTS
(Entertainment events under the pavilion)
MONDAY, JULY 23
- 7 p.m. – Little Mr. and Miss Pageant for ages 6 months to 9 years. This year’s theme is “Gumdrops and Lollipops.” Applications are available at DATCU, Decatur Chamber of Commerce, North Texas Bank and Chalet of Jewelry. For information, call Misty Hudson at (940) 399-9160.
- 9-11 p.m. – Live DJ
TUESDAY, JULY 24
- 7 p.m. – Third Annual Decatur Chamber of Commerce “Put Yo Money Where Yo Mouth Is” Washer Tournament. Participants can enter at 6 p.m.
WEDNESDAY, JULY 25
- 7:30 p.m. – The Hinkles
- 9 p.m. – Cookin’ with Grace
THURSDAY, JULY 26
- 9 p.m. – Los Quimikos Del Sol
FRIDAY, JULY 27
- 9-11 p.m. – Six Market Blvd.
- 11 p.m.-1 a.m. – No Justice
SATURDAY, JULY 28
- 9 p.m.-1 a.m. – Jake Hooker and The Outsiders
Carnival ride bracelets are $15 Monday through Wednesday, and $20 for Thursday through Saturday.
Parking is $5.