For decades, a treasure trove of Cooke County history sat in a dusty cardboard box in the attic of a Garnett Street home.
The Lillian Gunter papers were written on receipts, bits of old wrapping paper, canceled checks anything Gunter could find to record her conversations with people who helped settle the county.
Gunter’s sister, Rosa Gunter Beasley inherited the papers when her sister died in 1924. She eventually gave the papers to what was then North Texas State University where staff members stored the collection in a file drawer in one of the university’s history buildings.
For years, the collection was untouched and likely forgotten.
It was a situation that troubled Gunter’s relative, A.Y. “Pete” Gunter, then chairman of the university’s philosophy department.
Pete Gunter said he recognized the value of “Aunt Lillian’s” collected work and organized the papers he calls “a great, big tossed salad of handwritten material” into a cohesive narrative.
”When I became chair of the (NTSU philosophy) department, I wrote out the hen scratch in English and utilized the services of a departmental secretary to type it up in the early 1970s,” he said.
He added an index, and although he wasn’t completely satisfied with the finished product, he said he knew the work had been preserved and could be read by others.
To understand the scope of Gunter’s project and the efforts she invested in preserving the history of Cooke County, it is important to note that Gunter was no ordinary woman.
She was the daughter of a Red River plantation owner whose family sent her to school in the East.
She studied at Sacred Heart Convent in St. Louis and spent three years as a student at the Wesleyan Female Institute in Stanton, Va.
Her education complete, she returned to her family home in Sivells Bend, and when her father died, she became the property manager overseeing all the family’s land holdings.
Lillian Gunter was an energetic landowner who took a hands-on approach to running her estate. She was also a lifelong literacy advocate who decided the state needed a system of county libraries.
Once she made up her mind to get the project off the ground, Lillian Gunter traveled to Albany, N.Y. to study at the New York Library School. She also completed a course of study with the California State Library System.
“This background and her sheer determination enabled her to write the legislation for the Texas County Library System and to lead the fight for its passage in the state legislature,” Pete Gunter wrote in an introduction to Lillian Gunter’s Cooke County/Red River notes.
In addition to her statewide efforts, Lillian Gunter was responsible for Gainesville’s Carnegie Library — the building which now houses the Butterfield Stage Theater.
Lillian Gunter also wanted to bring library materials to rural parts of the county. She created a branch library system for the county and organized the area’s popular book mobile project which put books in the hands of students in rural communities such as Myra.
Pete Gunter said early versions of Lillian Gunter’s Cooke County/Red River notes were an archetypal chaos.
After he organized and typed the manuscript, “at least they could be read,” he said.
What fascinated Pete Gunter was the honesty of the narrative.
“Written history is completely sanitized and lacking humor,” he said. “Lillian’s (work) is the stuff that really happened.. This is real, gritty, bloody and funny.”
He said he can image his aunt Lillian interviewing people such as early Gainesville pioneer W.R. Strong and recording the interview afterward.
“Many (of her writings) were no more than jottings on the backs of receipts, wrapping paper, envelopes, anything available on which she could write some old settler’s recollections or comments,” he said.
He distributed the Lillian Gunter papers to the UNT Historical Archives and the Morton Museum of Cooke County.
He said it is gratifying to find references to Lillian Gunter’s materials in published articles and books.
“Historians of all stripes have them useful,” he said.
But Pete Gunter said he was dismayed to find out the papers weren’t readily available in Gainesville.
Believing the Gunter papers had been lost, he set out again to preserve Gunter’s writings.
At a friend’s urging, he said he improved the Gunter papers, adding new materials, providing consecutive page numbers and compiling a more complete index.
The finished manuscript is more than 800 pages and includes an introduction.
Pete Gunter said he plans to donate a copy to the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History in Austin, the UNT Archives and the Morton Museum.
“I didn’t want to see it lost,” he explained.
Pete Gunter said the Lillian Gunter papers will be available online in about a month through the Cooke County Library’s digital archive — a project led by Texas A&M-Commerce archivist Michael Aday.
Pete Gunter said the primary source materials contain accounts of incidents that should spark the interest of residents. The stories include tales of outlaws such as Frank and Jesse James who had a hideout in the Sivells Bend area both before and after the Civil War.
Residents will also recognize place names such as Blocker Creek near the community of Rosston and the town of Uz in Montague County.
“A lot of people don’t know their ancestors’ stories. I’m really delighted they’re putting this online,” he said.
For information on the Cooke County Library and the Morton Museum of Cooke County’s online archive visit www.tamu-commerce.edu.
Look for a review of W.T. Strong’s memoirs as told to Lillian Gunter in Wednesday’s Register.