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Community History: Businesses

Business History

Although Smith County was predominantly agricultural until the oil boom and World War II, there have been manufacturing and retail businesses here since the early days of salt manufacture at the Neches Saline.  Business history utilizes some of the same sources that are mentioned under the previous tabs, and others as well.

"How To" book

For a general "how to" book on researching the history of businesses, see:

Kerr, K. Austin, Amos J. Loveday, and Mansel G. Blackford.  Local Businesses:  Exploring Their History.  Nashville:  American Association for State and Local History, 1990.  At the UT Tyler Library at HD2785 .K43 1990.

Bibliography of Smith County


The general population census lists the occupation for each person, plus it may, depending on the year, indicate real property or personal property values.  Therefore you could find a particular person, note that he was a merchant with a large amount of personal property and a clerk or two living in the same household.  From census to census those circumstances might change.

There is also a Products of Industry or Manufacturing Census taken.  The questions vary according to the year.  For example, the 1860 Products of Industry Census gives the name and general location (Tyler beat) of John Winship's cotton gin factory, the number of employees, how many cotton gins he made, and what the value of his production of 1859 was.  The 1850 and 1860 Products of Industry censuses are now available in Heritage Quest.

Deeds and Probate

At the Courthouse Annex, corner of North Spring and East Ferguson, the County Clerk's office has both the deed and the probate records, although some of the old probate minutes and record books are at the Cotton Belt Building, corner of West Front and Glenwood.

Deed records are explained under the People tab.

Probate records are also explained under the People tab.  They can be used two different ways when it comes to businesses.  First, examine the settlement of the business owner's own estate.  His/her business property may be described in detail, and the files may include inventories.  Also, when other people die they may owe the business owner money, so his claims are filed in their estates.  If you wanted to know about a particular merchant in the 1870s, look in the estate records for anyone who died in the 1870s and see if they had outstanding bills with this merchant, perhaps with an attractive letterhead that would make a good illustration in a presentation or publication.  This approach works best early in the county's history when there isn't so much paperwork to dig through.

District Court records

These records are in the Cotton Belt Building (corner West Front and Glenwood) downstairs in the Records Department.  Then and now people sometimes buy items or borrow money and fail to pay it back.  The seller/lender may be forced to take the buyer/borrower to court to try and recover the money or property.  That ends up in District Court.  Check the indexes first, and then the minute books.  These cases can drag on and on, so follow through to the end.

Chamber of Commerce records

I am not sure what all might be in the Chamber of Commerce boxes at the Smith County Historical Society Archives, but it is worth a look.  There are also files at Tyler Public Library.   When I was working on the founding of Tyler State Park I emailed the Chamber of Commerce directly and asked if they had minute books going back to 1934.  They did, looked for Tyler State Park, photocopied the pages and mailed them to me.  If you don't ask, you won't know....

For a "moving" history of business in Tyler in 1955, produced by the Tyler Chamber of Commerce, see "Tyler, Texas--Where Life is Enjoyable"  A similar film was produced in 1913 for the Tyler Commercial Club--if you ever find a copy, please let me know!!


Maps are explained fully under the Communities tab.  They are most useful when looking for businesses in major towns, particularly Tyler.

Business Directories

Various business directories exist for Texas in general, depending on the year.  One of earliest is Texas Business Directory for 1878-9:  An Index to the Merchantile, Manufacturing and Professional Interests of the State, which is held by the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.  This is followed by The Mercantile Agency Reference Book (and Key), published by R. G. Dun & Co.  The Texas State Archives has 1878, and the Center for American History has from January, 1880, on.  Information is arranged by town, then by business name, with codes for number of employees, value of the company, and credit rating.  Some of the smaller towns have been reprinted in Chronicles of Smith County, Texas.

Harvard University Library has the original handwritten credit reports on individuals and firms for Smith County from 1847 through 1878 showing duration of the business, net worth, sources of wealth, and the character and reputation of the owners, their partners, and successors.  I don't know of anyone who has ever seen them.  They cannot be photocopied, and access is evidently highly restricted.  Anybody have a friend at Harvard?

City Directories

See City Directories under the People tab.  Besides just giving the name and location of businesses, city directories can also list owners and provide advertisements.


And, of course, newspapers are always a great resource for photographs, grand openings, advertisements, announcements of expansion, fires and storm damage, labor problems, and going out of business sales.  If you have the pertinent dates, great.  If not--it can be a needle in the haystack search.  See Newspapers under the People tab


Check with the Smith County Historical Society Archives for images of county businesses.  They have an extensive photograph collection.  Also check Robert Reed's webpage, A History of Tyler, Texas, Through Postcards for postcards of five banks, ten hotels/motels, seven railroads, six restaurants, ten general businesses, and twenty-eight various street scenes.

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