Follow the evidence.
That’s the philosophy of Kevin Stingley as he works to restore the F.W. Bonner Bank Building in Rusk.
Stingley, board president for the Heritage Center of Cherokee County, along with others from the museum, has taken on the project with the goal of restoring the building to its 1884 glory. At the time, the building housed F.W. Bonner Bank, which was the first bank established in Cherokee County.
Wade Bonner, F.W. Bonner’s eldest son, frequently rode a horse to Tyler with thousands of dollars in gold in a cloth belt his mother had made, according to a historical account. With $80,000 out in loans, the bank failed in the 1890s.
“The (Heritage Center) has always owned the building,” Stingley said. “About three (or) four years ago, the museum board decided it would be neat to move it here and got to thinking, ‘What could we do with it?’ We said, ‘Let’s move it here, landscape, restore, preserve it — make it look like the bank building in 1884.’”
It’s a fitting project for Stingley, a history teacher at Rusk Junior High School.
He said he’s loved history his entire life, and his family would always visit historical places during trips.
“It was just a natural thing for me to do. … It’s something I’ve always loved to do. Our main purpose is to restore it to its original look. The point is to make it look original and make it look as original as you can. If it’s not rotted, why take it off and replace it?” he said.
Built in 1865 by Christopher Chaffee, a promoter and cotton buyer from New Orleans, the registered Texas historic landmark was on South Main Street, where Austin Bank currently sits. The building was there 99 years.
It was eventually moved to U.S. Highway 69 then to its current location on Henderson Avenue for the purpose of restoration.
Over the years, the building has operated as a law office, music school, cigar rolling factory, mechanic’s shop, shoe shop and railway express office, according to a historical account.
The building had two rooms with a wall in between, which Stingley has no plans to rebuild.
He did, however, have a paint analysis expert come to Rusk three years ago for some research. Because boards on the wall were painted a blue color — as scraped off layers on the original boards show — Stingley has re-created the color to what it was in 1884.
“Never argue with the evidence …” he said. “We had (people asking), ‘Do you really want to paint it this color?’ But we have historical evidence that it was this color. We’re doing it based on historical evidence not on what somebody in 2012 thinks won’t look good. In 1865, obviously it did look good to them.”
Another thing people have questioned is Stingley’s decision to put the original 1865 door on the front.
He said the front door was a copy of the 1865 door that is at the back of the building.
But in the 1940s, the door frame was redone, he said, and two front windows were put in as well as a new door — a 1940s door was on an 1865 building.
“Why have a 1940s door on an 1865 building?” Stingley said. A photograph from the 1890s “shows a solid wood door and no windows, and we’re going to re-create that look. At that particular time, it was a dress shop and … several men and women were standing for a posed picture. A couple guys were leaning on the side rails and women were standing in dresses.”
He said the porch they stood on for the photograph rotted off and was rebuilt, but 90 percent of the building is original. He even pointed to nails that were pulled out of boards, which were original, as well as an old window lock.
Stingley said the inside of the building will be decorated to fit with the 1880s time period with items such as chairs, tables and pictures.
On the outside, there will be mulch and river rock walkways as well as engraved bricks that are being sold at fundraisers.
Workers are in the process of replacing boards on the outside, which was originally painted a red color.
Once complete, the building will be open for people to come in and look around and see what the first Cherokee County bank looked like in 1884, Stingley said.
“We’re getting real close,” Stingley said as he stood next to the doorway. “It didn’t look anything like this a year ago. There was old plywood, a counter in here that had a rail on it, and a lot of boards that were rotted.”
Stingley expects work to be completed in a month or two, depending on the landscaper.
In the meantime, Rusk Mayor Angela Raiborn said it means a lot that there are so many people whose main goal is to preserve Rusk history.
“They make efforts to make projects like this happen. … I’m excited for them. I appreciate that,” she said.
“Definitely it’s a great asset to the city of Rusk to have a building from the 1880s being preserved like a living breathing building people could go in and see what the bank looked like at that time. It adds a lot to the downtown area. … I know they’ve put a lot of effort, and I commend their efforts.”