Capsule History of Colorado County

written by Bill Stein

Nesbitt Memorial Library Journal, Vol. 3, Number 1, January 1993, pages 45-50

There are a few remaining copies of this edition of the Nesbitt Memorial Library Journal, at $6 plus postage. For more information, please contact the library at 529 Washington Street, Columbus, Texas 78934.

Colorado County, named for the Colorado River which traverses it, was created in 1836. It was originally substantially larger, but in 1837, part of it was used to form Fayette County, and in 1846, more territory was lost when Lavaca and Wharton Counties were created. A surveying error and subsequent border dispute with Wharton and Jackson Counties added the small panhandle on the southwestern tip of the county in the early twentieth century.

Despite repeated claims that Columbus was established in 1823, the great majority of the evidence suggests that the city was planned and named in 1835 and that it did not really take shape until 1837 or thereafter. Before that, the area that comprises present Colorado County was sparsely populated. Perhaps the most notable early resident was Benjamin Beeson, who was granted a league of land south of present Columbus in 1824. Beeson's large home near the river became a stopping point for travellers and soon acquired the name Beeson's Crossing.

Beeson's Crossing was superseded by Columbus, which apparently grew from the efforts of William Bluford Dewees and his partners, at first, Thomas Thatcher and Robert Brotherton, and then, Joseph Worthington Elliot Wallace, to establish a town. Indian raids continued to occur with some regularity, and the town grew slowly. Named the county seat when Colorado County was created, the first courthouse was constructed on what is still the courthouse square in 1847.

A few years earlier, German settlers, following the example of the man who called himself Friedrich Ernst, had begun settling in the northern and northeastern part of the county. Ernst himself had established the community of Industry in what is now Austin County but quite near present Colorado County. Many of his fellow Germans made it a point to travel to Industry to visit Ernst before deciding where to settle. Probably, the first settlers of Frelsburg, Bernardo, and Mentz were among Ernst's visitors.

To a large degree, but with the notable exception of the German farmers in its northern parts, the economy of the county in its early days depended on the labor of slaves on large plantations along rivers and creeks. In 1860, 45% of the people in Colorado County were slaves. Four years earlier, in 1856, the slaves had reputedly engaged in a conspiracy to murder their owners and fight their way to freedom in Mexico. Though the best evidence today suggests that their alleged plot was simply a figment of the overactive imaginations of the owners, numerous slaves were punished and three were hanged.

By 1860, there was strong sentiment within the county for the secession of Texas from the United States. After the election of Abraham Lincoln later that year, proUnion sentiment remained strong only among the German settlers in Frelsburg, Bernardo, and Mentz. During the Civil War, which followed the secession of Texas and the rest of the Confederacy from the United States, a number of the Germans remained pro-Union, some going so far as to participate in an organized resistance to the draft, many others resisting the draft individually. Still, one of the companies that Colorado County provided the active army of the Confederacy was comprised of Germans.

During the war, there were virtually permanent Confederate camps in or near Columbus and Alleyton, and a short-lived camp near Oakland. The Columbus camp was the site of a mutiny by a sizable number of Confederate cavalrymen, who, when asked to temporarily serve as infantry, saddled their horses and deserted. The officers who led them were subsequently arrested.

The Confederate cotton trade played a big role in the county's economy during the war. With the far western extension of the railroad at Alleyton, much of the cotton the Confederacy exported to Mexico came through the county. Still, with a sizable portion of the workforce serving as soldiers in the field, and with numerous local tax increases to help the county support their dependents, the economy was on shaky ground.

Things only got worse. By the time of the war, many southern planters had become convinced that they could not profitably grow cotton without slaves, and, after the slaves were emancipated, many went broke. Some tried to rent out their plantations. Others moved away, some to foreign countries where slavery was still allowed. In short, the county experienced a period of economic, and for that matter, political, turmoil.

For years before the war, so that the products of Colorado County and other areas could be more easily transported to markets, large amounts of time and money had been expended on efforts to open the Colorado River to navigation. Those efforts had finally succeeded shortly before the war, when a canal cut around a naturally occurring obstruction called "the raft" near the coast allowed river traffic free passage to the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, the canal, which had been a United States government project, was not maintained by the Confederate government during the war and became impassible.

However, by that time, another transportation system had taken the place of the river. The railroad entered Colorado County in 1859, when the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos & Colorado (BBB&C) reached the fledgling city of Eagle Lake. Established in 1856 on the banks of the small lake that was already known as Eagle Lake, the new city grew around the homesite of Gamaliel Good. Before the Civil War, the railroad extended up the bank of the Colorado River to the present town of Alleyton. That town was established by the railroad in 1860 on land acquired from William Alley.

The railroad's plans then called for it to go up the east side of the Colorado River to Austin, bypassing Columbus. But the citizens of Columbus were not prepared to be bypassed. In February 1860, they organized the Columbus Tap Railway Company to build aline over the river from Alleyton to Columbus. After the war, the BBB&C bought the Columbus Tap and, in 1867, completed the line into Columbus.

From there, after changing its name to the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio (GH&SA), the railroad proceeded toward San Antonio, establishing new towns along the way. The first of these was Borden, about nine miles west of Columbus, where, in 1871, the inventor and early Texan, Gail Borden, and members of his family had established homes. The next was Weimar. In 1873, the railroad reached an agreement with Daniel W. Jackson to build a depot and establish a town on his land in far western Colorado County. The town of Oakland, which had been established on the Navidad River by Andrew C. Hereford in 1856, was soon overshadowed by Weimar.

The cattle business had been important in Colorado County's economy almost from its beginnings. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Stafford family went well beyond their predecessors on the range and built up perhaps the largest fortune in the county's history. The Staffords were known for mercilessly suppressing rustlers and other perceived opponents to their interests. Twice in the 1870s, rustling in the area known as the Eagle Lake bottom resulted in near riots. The second instance, in which a well-organized gang of rustlers was subdued, if not crushed, by a gang of Stafford cowboys, and which therefore came to be known by the rustlers and their neighbors as the Stafford War, resulted in the deaths of at least eight men, some of them apparently innocent, none of them affiliated with the Staffords.

The operative patriarch of the Stafford family, Robert Earl Stafford, retired from the range, though not from the cattle business, and moved into the city of Columbus in 1880. In 1886-1887, he built the first high-culture facility in the county, the Stafford Opera House, in his new home town. Almost concurrently, he and a group of supporting cattlemen and citizens established the Columbus Texas Meat & Ice Company, a beef packing plant which seemed destined to govern the economic future of Columbus and the county for years to come. But Stafford's initiatives were cut short when he and his younger brother, both unarmed, were shot down on the streets of Columbus by the city marshal in 1890. Shortly afterward, both the beef packing plant and the opera house closed.

Meanwhile, in the Eagle Lake bottom, there were numerous incidents of violence between and among the tenant farmers, their itinerant hired hands, and a few .rough characters" who lived in or roamed through the area. Much of the violence was racially motivated. For the thirty or forty years after the Civil War, blacks exerted a powerful political influence over the county. Black men served as state representatives, county commissioners, and on the various city councils. Black electoral influence also manifested itself in the repeated reelection of Sheriff James Light Townsend, who, despite an apparent good record in the office, was widely chastised by many for filling numerous other law enforcement positions with his kinsmen and for failing to suppress if not actually fostering a climate of violence in the county.

After Townsend's death in 1894, his relatives squabbled over the sheriff's office. His deputy and cousin by marriage, Samuel Houston Reese, succeeded Townsend and held the post for four years. Reese's deputy and former Columbus City Marshal Larkin Secrest Hope ran against him in 1898, but was murdered in downtown Columbus before the election. Though Reese was not implicated in the shooting, he was voted out of office, and, a few months later, he and an innocent bystander named Charles Boehme were killed in a pitched gun battle downtown. The killings had two important consequences for Columbus. First, despite strong evidence to the contrary, Reese's children regarded their father's death as a cold-blooded, premeditated assassination and spent years exacting their revenge. In the several more gun fights in Columbus and elsewhere that followed, five more men were killed and five others wounded. Secondly, the killing of Boehme, who had been a farmer in town on business, and the continued atmosphere of violence in Columbus, persuaded many of his fellow farmers to take their business elsewhere, severely damaging the economic livelihood of the city.

In the 1890s, three new communities developed. The first, Nada, arose from the migration of a few German and Czech families from the Frelsburg area to the southern part of the county in the early 1 880s. The other two, Chesterville and Rock Island, were the creations of land promoters. In 1894, John Linderholm established the town of Chester in far eastern Colorado County. The town became known as Chesterville a year later when the post office was established. In 1896, the Rock Island Land and Colony Company established the town of Rock Island in the southwestern part of the county. In the same year, perhaps buoyed by Rock Island's early success, William Dunovant attempted to revitalize the existing settlement known as Cheetham a few miles to the southeast. His efforts, however, never got very far.

Meanwhile in Oakland, a young black schoolteacher named Robert Lloyd Smith was developing the Farmers Improvement Society. According to Smith's own account, after a preliminary meeting in December 1889, he organized the Village Improvement Society of Oakland in January 1890 with the intention of bringing "the American Negro up to a high standard of citizenship." Initially, the society encouraged only home beautification projects, but soon, improved farming methods and cooperative buying became part of the agenda. In less than a decade, poverty among the black community in Oakland had been mitigated to the degree that, as Smith wrote, you could not "pick out the location of the homes of the races by the exterior, or, for that matter, the interior of their dwellings," Smith's success in Oakland prompted quick organizational growth under the society's new name, the Farmers Improvement Society. Chiefly because of a too-generous benefits package, however, the society was chronically in financial trouble. Smith himself gave up teaching, served a term in the state legislature, then spent the rest of his life running the society, eventually moving to Waco where it had a bank.

Because he was a black man, Smith's election to the legislature in 1894 was an embarrassment to many county whites. Their resentment to the continued black electoral influence culminated in the establishment of the White Man's Party in 1902. Long before, the Democratic Party had been the only party of importance in the state. Republican nominees had no real chance to be elected. Therefore, the Democratic primaries, rather than the general election, determined who would occupy what position. The local leaders of the White Man's Party reached an agreement with the local leaders of the Democratic Party in which the latter stipulated that the White Man's Party nominees for local offices would automatically be nominated by the Democrats, effectively eliminating the Democratic primary, and, since only white men were allowed to vote in the White Man's Party primary, effectively disenfranchising blacks.

In 1900, the hurricane which devastated Galveston practically demolished the town of Eagle Lake. The destruction of the city gave impetus and perspective to the boom which was already underway in the area. Over the next dozen or so years, the wealth generated principally by rice farming would help build a newer, more opulent, city.

In 1898, William Dunovant, who owned a plantation near Eagle Lake, had planted the county's first rice crop. Buoyed by his success, he and others quickly converted vast acreages in the southern part of the county to the cultivation of rice. To get the copious amounts of water needed to grow the crop, many of the new rice farmers, including Dunovant, pumped water from Eagle Lake. In fact, more than once, the lake was virtually pumped dry, causing massive numbers of fish to die. As a result, the lake fell out of use as a resort. In 1912, John Henry Kirby of Houston, who owned a considerable amount of lakefront property, filed suit against Dunovant's irrigation company, charging them with devaluing his property by destroying the recreational value of the lake. In 1913, Kirby won an order requiring that the irrigation company replace the water it pumped out of the lake with water pumped from the river. The following year, four local residents caught the first fish taken on the lake in several years.

The rice industry led directly to the establishment of a new town. Named after a prominent attorney, the city of Garwood was laid out by the three partners in the Red Bluff Rice Company, Marcus Harvey Townsend and William Thomas Burford of Columbus, and Thomas Anderson Hill of Weimar, in 1901. A few years after it was established, many of the buildings from the fading city of Rock Island were moved to Garwood. Shortly afterward, Provident City, in Colorado County's panhandle, and Sheridan, near the old settlement of Cheetham, were established by yet more speculators. Garwood, whose founders had considerable clout in the county government, was buoyed by the early and controversial construction of a bridge across the river nearby and became far and away the most successful of the three new towns.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the county, farmers were beginning the long and slow conversion from the cultivation of cotton to truck farming, and, in and around Columbus, entrepreneurs were beginning to take advantage of the large gravel deposits in the area. The gravel industry would prove to be an integral part of the county's economy for most of the twentieth century. What was good for the economy, however, was not always good for the land. Insensitive pit owners frequently left behind battered, unsightly, and apparently useless terrain.

In the late nineteenth century, local women began organizing themselves into various clubs. Most of the early clubs had some connection with religion and exerted little influence within the secular community. Soon, however, other types of women's clubs emerged. In the first decade of the twentieth century, chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and of the Order of the Eastern Star began springing up around the county. These clubs contributed to the politicization of women by providing them with a knowledge of parliamentary procedure, a united voice, and, by affording their members the opportunity to be influential within them, the desire and self-confidence to broaden their influence.

Women began asserting themselves in county politics in the second decade of the twentieth century. There had been politically-minded women before, notably Bettie Munn Gay, a Columbus-area farmer whose published opinions were well ahead of her time, but it was not until 1916 that a woman ran for elective office in Colorado County. The first to announce, Willie Garner, was a candidate for county treasurer. The second, Summie Wilson, declared for county school superintendent a couple of days later. Both lost. In 1918, women were allowed to vote for the first time in the state and county elections, and Garner again tried for county treasurer. She again failed, but Blanche Baar became the first woman elected to a county office, winning the race for county school superintendent on the strength of an overwhelming vote from Eagle Lake.

During World War 1, the county was seized by jingoism to such a degree that persons of German descent, despite long residency in the United States, were virtually persecuted. Clubs and societies that had previously conducted their meetings in German ceased to do so. In one of the many incidents of violence, a German farmer near Eagle Lake was beaten because he refused to buy a liberty bond. The peak of the lunacy may have been the repainting of the sidewalk in front of the Catholic church in Columbus. The sidewalk, which had been a checkerboard pattern of black and red, was painted a solid color because black and red were the colors of the German flag.

As they had during the Civil War, the military maintained an active presence in Colorado County during World War 1. In 1918, the army set up a military airfield and training ground near Eagle Lake. Later that year, they practiced bombing missions by dropping live explosives on targets set up on the lake.

Before the war, county residents had begun campaigning for improvements to roads and to ensure that the proposed Houston to San Antonio Highway passed through the county. In 1918, bonds were approved to provide funds to build the Colorado County portion of the new highway through Eagle Lake, Columbus, and Weimar. Roadbuilding issues again dominated the politics of the county in the late 1920s, when, despite strong opposition in the Weimar area, voters approved the issuance of bonds to pay for the construction of State Highway 71, FM 109, and several new bridges around the county. After approval, legal obstacles to the issuance of the bonds, including a lawsuit filed by citizens of Rock Island, and to the building of the roads, including the obstructionist tactics of a Nada-area landowner, had to be overcome.

As it did in most of Texas, the Ku Klux Klan emerged as an influential force in Colorado County in the early 1920s. In 1921, the Klan staged marches in Eagle Lake and Columbus, avoiding the predominantly Catholic city of Weimar. Initially regarded by outsiders and many of its members as just another men's lodge, as the year wore on, the Klan's activities became more belligerent, and the county's residents split into pro and anti-Klan groups. The 1922 county elections served as a referendum on the Klan. Most of the candidates took a position on Klan membership and activities. Those who were perceived as pro-Klan lost. The Klan spent the following year trying to improve their image, then drifted out of the public consciousness.

For years, the county had been plagued by periodic flooding of the Colorado River. The floods, the two most disastrous of which occurred in 1869 and 1913, resulted in several deaths as well as tremendous crop and property damage. For much of his twenty year tenure as county judge, Joseph Jefferson Mansfield pursued various solutions to the problem, but it was not until after his election to the United States House of Representatives that he had any success. The Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) had been created in 1934, largely through the efforts of a Columbus native, Alvin Jacob Wirtz. In the late 1930s, through a series of political maneuvers and with the assistance of Congressman Mansfield, the LCRA succeeded in building several dams that both ended the flooding and provided power for the citizens of central Texas.

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