Early History of Freestone County
In order to encourage the work of gathering historical data of Freestone County, The Fairfield Recorder, The County Paper, offered a loving cup to the school whose pupil prepared the best theme on the "Early History of Freestone County". Each school was given the privilege of entering three essays in this contest, and three themes from the Teague School and two from the Fairfield School were entered.
The papers were submitted to the History Department of Baylor University for grading. The following essay won third place in the contest and was written by Miss Evalena Cannon, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. H. J. Cannon, of Fairfield:
In Eastern Central Texas just where the oak trees give way to pines, is located what has been known for the past seventy-six years as Freestone County. Its oaks are bounded on the East by the Trinity River, and on the North its farms stretch into the oil fields of Navarro County. On the South is Leon County, while on the West is the County of Limestone from which Freestone was separated in 1851. All of this territory, with its adjoining counties, was known in 1836 as the Robertson Land District.
Into this district a few adventurers made their way and formed a nucleus for the settlements which later sprang up. At this time Freestone County was part of the Indian country, and with its buffalo and wild game of all kinds, formed a typical background for the pioneers who came to its forests and prairies of waving grass. Some of these adventurers were J. R. Yourie, who built his home on Walker Lake; later A. D. Kennard, William Jones, G. M. Huller, Sam Gorman and many others.
Through this influx of settlers, West Point became a trading post about 1840, being located on the Trinity River. On account of the water transportation it soon became a thriving village. A year or so later Pine Bluff, or Old Troy, was located higher up the river, and it too became a thriving town.
In the late forties the Southern planters came to moving to Freestone County, which was then a portion of Limestone County, the two having been formed out of the Robertson Land District.
In 1850, after the Southern planters moved in with their slaves and wealth, it became necessary to carve Freestone County out of Limestone, it having been surveyed in the fall of 1850 and spring of 1851.
Freestone County was officially organized; Fairfield was located, and by the vote of the people was chosen the County Seat, and town lots were sold out.
Nelson Tarber was chosen as first Chief Justice of the Court to be held in the County. The following spring, of 1852, the first District Court was held with Judge R. E. B. Baylor presiding. The District Attorney was A. H. Willis, who later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas.
Prior to the Civil War, as was the custom all over Texas, the lawyers followed the Judge from one place of holding Court to the next, and our records show Sam Houston, John H. Reagan, Roger Mills, Charlie Steward, Robert S. Goole, were regular attendants in our District Court which met in May and November each year. Our records also disclose that such men as General Gregg, Captain W. C. Wilson, Judge L. D. Bradley, John Whitt, W. F. Daniels, Jim Walker and S. C. Simmons were the earliest resident lawyers of the Fairfield Bar.
In 1852 D. H. Love donated ten acres of land upon which was to be founded a Female College. This school was organized in 1858 with a fine building erected as a seminary for the ladies to board in. This college was noted throughout the State as one of the most famous schools and many a grandmother of the most prominent families can point with pride to the education she received there. This historical college was the institution out of which have grown Baylor College and Baylor University.
The tax rolls kept at Austin, Texas, for the year 1860, show that Freestone County was the third wealthiest County of the State. This wealth was due to the slave property since at that time Freestone County owned over one hundred thousand slaves; and, too, the transportation facilities made Freestone County easily accessible.
In early days settlements were so far apart that often grain and cotton had to be carried great distances to mill or gin. The first cotton gin located West of the Trinity River, was built and operated by Mr. Stephen Claypool, about five miles North of Fairfield, and its site is now in the road bed of our highway leading North from Fairfield, through to Claypool Hill.
The first flour mill ever built in Texas West of the Trinity River and North of Navasota, was owned, operated and conducted by Mr. Washington Steward, and many a wagon load of wheat was hauled from the counties of Dallas, Ellis, Johnson, Hill and Navarro, to be ground into flour.
This conveyance was mostly by ox teams prior to the advent of railroads, which tapped the County on the East and West in the year of 1872. All products raised on farms and sold to the outside world, were conveyed to Houston by ox teams. Thirty days were required to make the trip.
In 1861 in the War Between the States, Freestone County furnished five companies of men as volunteers. These companies were commanded by Captain Wilson, Judge Bradley, Colonel Moody, Captain Maddoy and Captain Means; most of them never returned; they were either killed in battle or died from wounds and diseases.
The War Between the States affected Freestone County as it did all other Southern counties; though Texas was not the scene of much warfare, her people did their share towards helping the South, and her people underwent the same hardships.
Freestone County contributed about 600 men; some of the leaders were General Bragg, and Captain Moody and Nettles. Some time after the beginning of the Civil War the Val Verde Battery, consisting of four brass pieces used in shooting grape shot, were captured from United States troops in New Mexico; later these pieces fell in the hands of a company of soldiers organized here in Fairfield under Captain Nettles. At the battle of Mansfield several captured pieces of rifle cannons of steel were added to Dick Taylor's command; in some way two of the original brass pieces went to another battery of Taylor's command and were replaced by two of the rifle cannons captured in this battle.
When Captain Nettles' Company was disbanded here in Fairfield these four pieces (two brass and two steel) were kept by members of the Company who lived here; these were kept in L. D. Bradley's buggy house for a time.
During the Carpet Bag Rule, when Sandy Bragg, a negro, was made Chief of Police, they were buried out North of town; this was done to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Union soldiers. Years later the old relics were again dug up, this time never to be buried again; the brass pieces were cut in five parts and sold and the proceeds were given to Captain Nettles; the two steel pieces still exist, one of them being at Jack's Creek, near Mexia, on the Confederate Reunion ground, the other at the Reunion grounds at Fairfield. I visited the one at the Fairfield Reunion grounds the other day; it was lying on the ground in the brush, gradually rusting its glory away.
When the war was over, Freestone County, even under ordinary circumstances, would have been in a deplorable condition on account of the loss of so many young men and on account of the freeing of the negroes; yet, added to this was the military rule, and revengeful white men such as Culver, Charles, Willstocker, aided by the negro police. The first election after martial law had been declared, was held in 1872, when every voter in the County was compelled to cast their vote at the County Seat at Fairfield, and march between two lines of negro soldiers armed with muskets for fifty yards before they were allowed to vote; yet, under all these trying circumstances, our government at this election was restored to the people.
During the Confederate war there were two government tan yards located in Freestone County; one about five miles North of the village of Turlington, and the other about five miles East of the town of Fairfield. In these tan yards a leather was made with which the government made shoes for the soldiers. Also, during the war, about three or four miles East of the village of Butler, was a saline where the people of Freestone County were compelled to go in order to secure their salt, as it was impossible to secure prepared salt in the markets.
Many early settlers of Freestone County received donations of land because they had come at such an early date to settle the County; some of these were Hopson Burleson, Robert B. Longbotham, Joseph Love, Mary R. Austin, a widow; Sarah McAnulty, also a widow; Wiley Perry, Henry Awalt and Joseph L. Burnet. These men and two widows received four thousand six hundred and five acres of land each; these actually settled in the County upon this land, and many of the descendants are now numbered among our best citizens. At a later date the State was not so prodigal with its land, giving only three hundred and twenty acres as a gratuity to such families as McDaniels, Mannings, Edwards, Bannerman, Crawfords, Davis', Pruits, Epps, Malones, and many others. All of these, with their families, settled in our County prior to 1860.
In the early days of Freestone County the stage line ran from East to West, going each way once a day, and having four or five stops in the County: one at Butler, one at Mr. William Blithe's, now Turlington, one at Fairfield and one at Mr. Sterling Sims', now Simsboro. It is said that at one time General Sam Houston owned and operated this stage line.
West Point, at one time a village situated on Kennard's Bluff on the West bank of the Trinity River, and in the Southeastern part of Freestone County, was founded about 1840, and for a year or so was at the head of navigation on the Trinity River. It soon became a thriving village and had prosperous businesses---boasting of a population of about five hundred inhabitants; at which time Dallas could not boast of a single house. But on account of the abandonment of water transportation, the building of railroads and the creation of other towns more accessible and convenient, there is not a habitation left, nor a citizen in the town. Its present use is for fishermen's camps and the pasturing of goats and cattle.
About two years after the founding of West Point, navigation pushed its way up the Trinity River, and the town of Troy, also located on the West bank of the river, became an important commercial center, considering the times and conditions of the country. Yet, when Fairfield was located in 1851, Troy lost many of its former citizens, by their moving to Fairfield; and the same cause which reduced West Point to a wilderness, made Troy a place of sand dunes and mole hills.
Next following the line of stores or inns, was Cotton Gin, it having been laid out in early days by the owner of the land, Mr. J. S. Wills, and we are told that the naming of the town divided the early settlers into two hostile factions; one desired to call it Willsville, after the owner of the land, and the other faction wanted to call it Emlyville, after Mr. Wills' wife. About that time someone built a cotton gin there and everybody agreed to call it Cotton Gin. Cotton Gin also has fallen from its pristine glory on account of removals of many of its citizens to Mexia, after the building of railroads.
The next town or village was Butler, founded about the year of 1850, by the McDaniels, Gills, Mobleys, Whitts, and others, and within whose borders the wealth and aristocracy of Freestone County dwelt. In 1870 it boasted of paying one-third of the taxes of Freestone County, but its renown has faded away.
Next in line follows Fairfield, laid out in 1851, upon one hundred acres of land donated to Freestone County by David H. Love. Once flourished there the old Southern aristocracy and Fairfield was the scene of many historic events. Now it has to give way to towns more fortunate in having railroads, and its chief claim is of being the County Seat.
The next is the village of Stewards Mill, with its store, having begun in 1866, in proximity to Mr. Stewards' flour mill. The mill is gone, but the store is still there with many nice homes around it.
Another village was Cade, named for Mr. Cade Hays who opened the first store there; but when the T. & B. V. Railroad was built in 1905 and 1906, Cade faded away, and we now have the prosperous town of Streetman.
I will not take the remainder of the villages in the order of their foundation, but will refer to them geographically, beginning on the West going East and Southeast.
In 1872 the town of Wortham was laid out by an association known as the Groesbeck Association; this town being upon the railroad and surrounded by fine farms, has for years been one of our most important towns. And in the fall of 1924, oil was discovered within its corporate limits, and has added millions to its wealth and its streets are congested with its necessary traffic.
Lying about eight miles East of Wortham we find the little town of Kirven, named after Judge 0. C. Kirven, located on the T. & B. V. Railroad, it, too, like Streetman, dates its birth in the year 1906. This town has a bank, churches and school, as all the rest have, and it too is fairly prosperous.
Traveling South down the T. & B. V. Railroad, some seven or eight miles from Kirven, we find the village of Simsboro, with a store and a magnificent oil pump station. This town or village, I believe, is the youngest one in our County; it has good people, with their Southern hospitality, as all the others have.
Further South, four miles from Simsboro, we arrive at the city of Teague---the principal town of Freestone County, laid out by the Valley Route Townite and Loan Company.
In the year 1906 it embraced within its borders the old village of Brewer. Teague is the divisional point of the T. & B. V. Railroad, this Railroad having its roundhouse and divisional offices in this city. The population of Teague is three or four thousand people. There are many fine homes, public buildings, churches and park; with all the modern improvements such as water, lights and fire department that the larger cities possess. But I must pass on.
Some six or seven miles South of Teague, on the T. & B. V. Railroad, is located the village of Freestone, which derived its name from our County. This smaller town has several stores, churches, and a gin.
Further South down the T. & B. V. Railroad lies the little town of Donie. It, too, was founded in the year 1905, and is a prosperous town of some two or three hundred people.
The next two villages that I shall mention probably should be omitted, but history should state facts, even if they are brutal. First, is the former village of Mills, once boasting of its fine community interest, stores, churches, etc., but now we must draw the mantle of charity over it, because it is a place of the past.
Next following is the village of Luna, which was once a prosperous country village with its stores, churches, school and gins; but the building of Teague and the removal from this place of all the commercial enterprises is like its former sister village, Mills---a thing of the past.
Traveling East we find the village of Dew, which was located and named under Cleveland's first administration, who refused to have it named Blaine after one of the most prominent citizens, Major William Blaine, because Cleveland thought it was an attempt to criticize James Blaine, the Republican whom he had defeated for president. Dew is noted for its churches, schools and society, there being several stores, two churches, two garages and a gin.
Traveling East on the Exall Highway, we come to the former village of Lanely, but we find only a nice schoolhouse and a church left.
The seat of justice of Freestone County is a large brick building, with beautiful architecture; it is set upon a lawn around the square.
The first courthouse was a small log building of one room; the second was a brick building consisting of four rooms downstairs and one upstairs; the third was built of wood in l889, it being much larger than the other one.
Freestone County has a corps of able officers, although they have had difficulties, there having been two oil booms near or in the County. The first was at Mexia, which caused an influx of the lower class of people, and an increase of the violations of the prohibition laws. To quiet this great disturbance, it was necessary to call the rangers of Texas.
Then in 1924 the boom at Wortham began, and it, too, caused a disturbance but this has almost come to a close.
The most important sign of progressiveness of Freestone County is the good road program undertaken in 1924; actual construction of the highways leading from East to West across the County is now under way, and it promises to be one of the scenic highways of the State. In addition to improving transportation for commerce, it will open up new territory for tourists. So that we see Freestone bids fair to regain its ante-bellum prestige.
Re-printed in 1997 by
Donna L. Ritter
from the original newspaper article
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