KHPF derrick builder leaves behind towering legacy

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They gave him a belt, but that didn’t mean Charles Miller was going to use it.

“He wore it one time,” says Darryl Gillcoat. “When he got back on the ground, he took it off, threw it in the back of the truck and that’s where it rotted.”

Gillcoat worked with Miller often in the midst of Kilgore Historical Preservation Foundation’s 30-year derrick program.

Each star-topped, Boomtown vestige is a memorial to an individual, a family, a company or crew – together, they’re also a monument to Miller’s craftsmanship.

He died Saturday, but his skyline remains.

Miller ran away from his northeast Louisiana home in 1961 – the 13-year-old joined his older brother in Kilgore and above it, disassembling the Boom-era horizon. Decades later, he was the man tasked with restoring it.

Kilgore Mayor Ronnie Spradlin, one of the organization’s founders, knew the man throughout the three decades of the derrick program, which ended in October.

“I used to order the bulbs for him,” Spradlin, and assisted the project by helping Miller wire the stars that crown the derricks. “He was just a quiet guy.”

It was Miller who hunted down derricks when a foundation donor stepped forward for a memorial. In plains and forests, he found them, took them apart and raised them again here on the World’s Richest Acre, the Commerce Street corridor nearby and elsewhere throughout the community.

“It’s almost like the art of derrick building died with him. He was one of the last oilfield people that could take down and erect a derrick without using cranes and giant equipment.”

The stoic craftsman avoided the spotlight, preferring to do his job off the ground, above the crowd, but he yielded to KHPF’s pleas and threw the ceremonial switch to light the derrick stars in mid-November 2012.

A Gladewater resident, Miller died March 10 in Longview at 71 years-old. Funeral services are pending.

Amanda Nobles knew him from the beginning of the project in 1987 when she was Main Street manager. She admired his handiwork in the following years and worked with Miller again as a KHPF board member and president.

“I really appreciate him,” she said, from the beginning of the project to his final contributions before health issues led him to hand the duty to new derrick chief Jose Dorado. “Had it not been for Charles, we would not have been able to get these derricks down in an orderly fashion, get them reconstructed.

“He knew it was a jigsaw puzzle, he knew how to put it together.”

Each derrick has its own identity, style and particular construction, Nobles said, and Miller knew them all, top-to-bottom.

“He was just extremely knowledgeable about the old metal derricks: how they worked, how they should be put together safely,” she added. “He was just so familiar with them, they were like old friends.

“And he loved it, too.”

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