Researchers investigating history behind mystery trunk at Millard's Crossing

NACOGDOCHES, TX (KTRE) - It's been shrouded in mystery for years, locked away inside one of the historical homes at Millard's Crossing in Nacogdoches.

But now researchers at Stephen F. Austin University are trying to decipher the mystery. It's a trunk labeled TJR, and it could have belonged to famous politician Thomas J. Rusk nearly 160 years ago.

Dr. Perky Beisel, an associate professor of public history at SFA, says for years she has overlooked the mysterious trunk.

"We don't have good records for a lot of the stuff out there that have been given to us since then. We don't know where it came from so the trunk and some other things have some mystery attached to them," Beisel said.

Beisel says the trunk is reputed to have belonged to Rusk, but there hasn't been much inquiry into its manufacture until now.

"If we could go back in time to 1840 and ask somebody in New York who Thomas J. Rusk is they would know who he was. He was a nationally recognized politician and that's why people knew where Nacogdoches was. The opportunity to have something that is of his that went on his travels to Washington and New York and New Orleans—everywhere that he traveled. Maybe it was with him during the revolution—that's pretty special," Beisel said.

Rusk was one of the many early immigrants into Texas. He was an early settler, and founder of the Republic of Texas, Beisel said. He served in the military and worked with Sam Houston and was later elected to the U.S. Congress.

Beisel and Dr. Robert Z. Seldon Jr. have been working on researching more into the trunk's history and successfully completed a three-dimensional scan of the trunk last week.

"I love historic preservation and artifacts and that's what this is. Not many towns have an entire village like Millard's Crossing. She was a pioneer in preservation in Texas with Ladybird Johnson and they were contemporaries and worked together. I don't see why we shouldn't all be out here supporting it and you know, I think it's really great, and if we can preserve artifacts like this and do the 3D, we can give teachers packets for their classrooms that students can use," Beisel said.

Millard's Crossing was created by the late Lera Millard Thomas, the wife of congressman Albert Thomas. She was also the first woman elected to Congress from the State of Texas. It's a historical village full of Thomas' vision and artifacts she collected throughout her lifetime.

"It's fun. I mean, this is why we get into history and why we do it. Me, in particular, with artifacts to think that you're holding something, you're looking at it—that somebody in the past they packed clothes to go off to the Texas Capitol or to go to Washington and to think that this is something they knew," Beisel said. "So many things have changed. Regardless, even if it isn't his, it's definitely a historic trunk so somebody had a lot of memories with this thing and that's what's really neat—to be able to touch the past."

Beisel says the trunk is nailed shut for its preservation, but it was opened 15 years ago. Nothing was inside it. However, Beisel says it is neat to research it and says if it does turn out to have belonged to Rusk, it would date back to the 1830-1850 time period.

"I think there's a fair chance before the Civil War, which would put it as old as it has to be in order to be his. But so far from the preliminary research, it fits very well in that early 19th century," Beisel said.

Right now, Beisel says she will be allowing her students to write grants for the trunk's preservation and conservation, starting on Wednesday. Beisel says she does the research for free and Millard's Crossing does need funding to ensure the artifact remains intact.

"My job is a public historian for SFA. My graduate students are paying for the pleasure because they are in class and this is an assignment and that's what we teach them—how to do work that the public needs. Millard's Crossing can't afford, we can't afford to hire a $200 an hour consultant," Biesel said.

But even if the trunk isn't Rusk's, Biesel says it will stay put at Millard's Crossing.

"I think it would be really great and I would hope the community would support an artifact that has national significant. It's just one more reason for people to come to Millard's Crossing," Biesel said.

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