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Preserving history: Greenwood native labors to restore Wise County’s past

By Kristen Tribe | Published Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A small log cabin sits on the side of the road in Forestburg. It bakes in the summer heat as cars whizz past, few slowing down to consider its story.

But Bill Marquis, who grew up in Greenwood, knows every log, groove and angle. He has restored this structure not once, but twice.

Marquis, who is known around the world for his restoration work, took on his first project when he was just a boy.

Sharing Stories

SHARING STORIES – Bill Marquis of Stony is an endless source of historical tales. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

In 1957, the then 9-year-old helped his father and a group of other men restore the cabin for the Forestburg centennial. “We brought it into town and made it the centennial headquarters,” he said. “I was probably in the way more than I was helping. But that’s what spurred my interest.”

Fifty years later, he revisited his work.

PRESERVING THE PAST – Bill Marquis stands on the porch of the Perrin cabin south of Decatur. Marquis restored this cabin and the Sam Woody cabin at the Wise County Heritage Museum in Decatur. He uses only tools that would have been available to pioneers at that time. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Sesquicentennial planners were looking for someone to make a few repairs to the work done for the centennial, and they called Marquis. They had no idea he played a part in the original restoration.

“I was the only one alive that had anything to do with it, and I went back up there and did it again,” he said.

Marquis, who lives in Stony with his wife, June, has no idea how many cabins he’s restored total, but his expertise has been requested everywhere from Gonzales, Texas, to London, England.

In Wise County, he has restored and rebuilt the Sam Woody cabin, which now stands in front of the Wise County Heritage Museum in Decatur, and the Perrin cabin, which remains at its original location south of Decatur.

Rosalie Gregg, with the Wise County Historical Society, said Marquis is a true preservationist.

Life in a Log Cabin

LIFE IN A LOG CABIN – A table is set in the Perrin cabin just as it would have appeared in the mid-1800s. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

“He believes in it, he thinks it should be done, and he knows the right way to do it,” Gregg said.

Marquis has never formally studied pioneer structures but instead learned by helping his father on projects. He said it’s really just common sense.

“Every cabin is different,” he said. “They were close, but every man had different tools.

“I can look at a cabin and tell what tools he had, so I look at it and use the same tools he had to put it back together.”

Found Artifact

FOUND ARTIFACT – Marquis found this piece of China, which has been dated to the 1870s, when he was restoring the Perrin cabin. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Marquis said to do it any other way is wrong, and it destroys the original work. He’s turned down jobs where he’s been instructed to use modern materials or restore it so that it meets modern-day code.

“They want me to use plywood and 2x4s,” he said. “To me, that’s lying to the public. To the kids that go there and look at it, they think they had plywood back then.”

Marquis says many settlers traveled three months or longer to get to Texas, and they brought only a few tools.

“They got here, and all there was were wild Indians and wild animals, and everybody wanted to kill them,” he said. “They had to fight all that and build something to be able to protect themselves from Indians, weather and game. And they had to do something quick.”

Building a cabin was truly a matter of life and death for settlers. Their chances of survival were slim anyway and without a cabin, they dropped dramatically.

“People think back to those days as a time of no stress,” he said, “sitting on the porch in a rocking chair. Well, that’s the biggest stress that they’ve ever been under.

“They were having to sleep under a wagon or a bunch of bushes until they could get something built, and most of them didn’t make it,” he said. “Just the tough ones stayed here. That’s why original Texans are a tough bunch of people.”

Although each situation is different, Marquis said it’s becoming more expensive to refurbish log cabins. He does all the work by hand, and he can usually complete two to three per year.

Unique Homes

UNIQUE HOMES – Marquis says every cabin is different. “They were close, but every man had different tools. I can look at a cabin and tell what tools he had.” Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Mark and Angela Duncum, who own the Perrin cabin, worked with Marquis for 12 months during its restoration, and Angela said his enthusiasm for his work is obvious.

“He knew he had a love for this, and there was no plan on how he was going to make money doing it,” said Angela. “He’s living his passion, and it didn’t matter to him what everyone else thought.

“He just wanted to do what he loved, and he’s found a way to do it.”

Marquis once had a real job, working in the aviation industry.

“Right out of high school I worked for Amon Carter airfield,” he said. He started out cleaning airplanes before becoming an apprentice mechanic.

He “spent seven years working on airplanes, and of course, did furniture and all kinds of stuff on the side besides that,” he said.

But eventually the rigid rules and corporate structure were too burdensome for Marquis.

In an act of defiance, he said he was the first airline employee to ever grow a beard.

“They sent a guy here from corporate that was an ex-Marine, and he was going to feel everyone’s face and make sure they shaved,” Marquis said.

He staunchly informed the corporate honcho that he would not allow his face to be touched.

“I just said, ‘I’m growing a beard,’ even though I hadn’t previously considered it,’” he said.

Marquis was fired, but he fought it through the union. He said the employee handbook stated a person must be clean-shaven, but Marquis points out that a person can have a beard and be clean-shaven.

Marquis won the fight. The company was forced to re-hire him and give him all his back pay. And then he quit.

“That’s kind of what happened in the airline business. It just wasn’t fun anymore,” he said. “And I don’t do anything that’s not fun.”

At that time he fully devoted himself to his restoration work and even opened a country store. He was able to dedicate himself to preserving the items and stories he collected through the years.

“I’ve always liked old stuff, and as a kid I loved old people and listening to their stories,” he said. “Most kids didn’t like old people, but I had sense enough to know that they knew more than I did.”

The young Marquis constantly brought home “treasures,” including old junk, Indian relics and the like.

“I played in those old cabins,” he said. “There used to be a lot of them in Wise County, and I was an only child and there weren’t any kids to play with so, all my life that’s what I did – work on old stuff, furniture, houses, windmills.”

At age 12, his family moved from the Greenwood area to Denton County, but he’s always had a heart for local history and has played a large part in preserving it.

“We may have moved to Denton County,” he said, “but I’ve always come back to Wise County and Greenwood to help.”

One Response to “Preserving history: Greenwood native labors to restore Wise County’s past”

  1. Rose Stuber says:

    I have driven by that little cabin many times and wondered what its’ story was! I am so happy that someone like Mr. Marquis can preserve our historical treasures!! Wonderful story! Thank you!!!!

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