The idea for this Symposium evolved from an effort to assemble and solicit historical information from retired Cotton Belt Railroad employees. While attending ETSU (now TAMU-C) as a student in the early '70's, Edwin Cooper befriended Mark C Standefer, fellow student and grandson of Cotton Belt Engineer, Cecil W. "Red" Standefer. Ed was a railfan and spent numerous hours visiting with the local railroad employees and taking photographs of the railroad.
As time went by, Ed became more and more intrigued by the railroad career of "Red" and finally set out to write a biography of this colorful character. In an effort to conduct research for this effort, Ed contacted Jason Lee Davis, Commerce area resident and son of Cotton Belt fireman, Harley Davis, in hopes of making contact with some of the local railroad employees who might have worked with "Red" or could shed some light on the life of railroad families from "Red's" era. This interest spurred an idea that Jason had been contemplating for several years and provided the incentive to initiate the first organized gathering of Cotton Belt "Rails." Jason partnered with, Dr. James Conrad, director of TAMU-C's James G. Gee Library Special Collections, as someone with mutual historic interest. With the assistance of Harley, known former railroad employees were invited to the first scheduled event hosted by Texas A&M University-Commerce and billed as "The Cotton Belt in Commerce - A Symposium."
The first Symposium was scheduled for November 30, 2006, the anniversary of the last scheduled Cotton Belt passenger train. Unfortunately, two hours prior to the start of the event, a sudden ice storm swept through the area resulting in the closing of the University campus. Despite the official closing of campus and resulting cancellation of the event, a number of individuals made the trek through the to Commerce, so a room in Education North was secured and a less formal gathering was held beginning with a slide presentation by Ed and followed by a wonderful discussion amongst the 13 former (and current) railroad employees present. The feedback from the attendees and the numerous recommendations led to the rescheduling of the event for the following spring. Thus, on April 16, 2007, the 1st Cotton Belt Symposium was successfully conducted with in excess of 65 attendees.
With overwhelming encouragement, a 2nd symposium, billed as "The Cotton Belt Symposium: Railroad Legacy and Lore" was organized and held on August 16, 2008, with over 75 attending. The 2nd event included a new partner, the Commerce Public Library. This event was also made possible in part by a grant form Humanities Texas, the state affiliate for the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The "3rd Annual Cotton Belt Railroad Symposium" was held on August 8, 2009, and included a growing list of partners supporting the efforts of the symposium.
The "4th Annual Cotton Belt Railroad Symposium," slated for October 8-9, 2010, marks the expansion of the symposium to a 2-day event and a luncheon.
We believe the legacy of the Cotton Belt and other local railroads is important to the region and worth preserving. Our heartfelt thanks go out to those whose participation and support have made this symposium series possible. We hope you will continue to join us as we celebrate the history of this legendary railroad and the people who kept in running.