Caring for Abandoned Cemeteries

Tombstone in abandoned cemetery in Hunt County

Tombstone in abandoned cemetery in Hunt County.

One morning in 1862 fifty-seven year old Confederate sympathizer Arthur Matthews was called out of his home near Warsaw, Missouri. A group of Unionist led him down the road where they executed him and left his body in the road. Out of fear of retaliation, none of the neighbors came forth to assist in the burial; Matthews’ widow and one daughter did the task, burying Mr. Matthews under a tree in the yard.

Two years later on of the Matthews’ sons died of yellow fever at Sabine Pass. James C. Matthews was hurriedly buried in an unmarked grave near the post. Yellow fever was such a dreaded disease victims were interred as soon as possible.

Shaped wooden grave markers.

Sometime in the late fall of 1865, Union supporter William Mathew Denning was in his field along White Oak Creek in what is today Franklin County, Texas. An unidentified person, believed to have been one of the returning Rebel soldiers who laid siege to Sulphur Springs and created terror and mayhem over northeast Texas, killed him. Denning’s wife and children hastily buried the body before fleeing to safety at Canton in Van Zandt County.

Alexander Marion Seay, his wife, six children, and mother, left Whitfield County, Georgia, in the fall of 1872. Seay was a crippled Confederate veteran seeking better land in Texas. The family arrived in Collin County, Texas, about Christmas time, but without the grandmother. An elderly and somewhat frail woman, widow Seay evidently died along the way. Once again, there was no time for a proper funeral or burial. Probably only stones or tree stumps marked her grave.

Unique arrangements of grave stones in Rains County

Unique arrangement of grave stones in Rains County

All of these are my ancestors. I can only hope there were prayers said for them. With the exception of Arthur Matthews, no family member knew where the gravesites were. Which brings me to a subject near and dear to my heart, abandoned or unknown cemeteries that dot the countryside and cities of America.

A cemetery is defined as a site designated to be used for the internment of human remains in the ground. A cemetery can contain only one grave or hundreds. Some are immaculate while others lie in wooded isolation along White Oak Creek. It is the latter that concern me and countless others interested in our heritage.

The Texas Historical Commission has an exemplary staff that specializes in abandoned cemeteries ( Recently I attended an excellent session for County Historical Commissions. We in the Hunt County Historical Commission are very interested for a very good reason.

Cast iron grave marker in Hunt County

Cast iron grave marker in Hunt County

With all the new developments around here, it is extremely important to locate and identify any and all of these cemeteries. If you know where one is, please contact me. We need to get explicit directions from the courthouse to the cemetery, photograph what is there now, and list it in the deed records at the County Clerk’s office. There is no fee, and you do not have to do this alone. Several members of the Historical Commission are adept at this task. We will help you throughout the procedure. So as the ads on television says, don’t wait any longer, contact us today. Let’s make a commitment to protect our heritage.

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Farming is Not for the Fainthearted

Cotton bales hauled into the compress at Greenville.

Slowly but surely manufacturing and technology have overcome and then rapidly passed other industries, including agriculture. But we can never ignore the importance of the farmer and his workers. They still battle many of the same problems they faced at the beginning of time. This week I read an interesting article in Southwest Farm Press of 19 October 2017. It presented a positive outlook for cotton farmers, the source of wealth and misery for most of the south since Colonial times.

Today the four leading cotton-producing states are California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Of those, Texas is the largest producer in the country with two very fertile regions: South Texas with access to Gulf Coast shipping, and the High Plains of West Texas.

The world cotton production for 2017 is estimated near 121 million bales. Of those, about 21.8 million bales will be produced in the United States, mostly in those four states.

Until the late 19th century, cotton was raised and marketed by the same individual. As prices dropped, farmers joined forces to create Farmers’ Alliances with co-operative warehouses. They planned to hold their cotton until prices rose; but with heavy debts the cotton producers found that difficult. Their aims included a fair price for their hard work; fair return from all business partners including gins, compresses and warehouses; and the control of their own destinies. Today’s cotton producers aim for the same results.

Challenges facing the 21st century cotton farmer are the same as those a century or more ago. These include reducing costs on per pound basis; increasing volume in the co-op; determining warehouse capacity and distribution; as well as improving marketing the co-op’s capital position.

Cotton bales after compressed and tied. They are shipped to Galveston, loaded on a ship for use in England or France.

A new cotton gin recently went into operation north of Cooper in Delta County. A century ago, almost every crossroad had a gin where cottonseeds were separated from the cotton boll. Then the cotton was baled and sent to a compress; another operation found in larger communities. The one in Greenville managed to set a record in the fall of 1912 for the number of bales compressed in one day. Then the compressed bales were shipped to Galveston via railroad. There the cotton was loaded on ships bound for England and France. World War I disrupted the sale of cotton to European countries but in the U. S., cotton production continued.

There is one cotton field between Greenville and Royce City on Interstate 30. It hasn’t been picked yet, so it would be a good adventure for children. Eighteen wheel trucks with flat beds are sometimes seen driving along the interstate carrying very large rolls of cotton wrapped in bright yellow plastic. One would think they were going to a gin, but definitely to some form of marketing.

There was another positive article in the Southwest Farm Press. We’ve all heard of the boll weevil, or Anthonomus grandis, as it is scientifically known. Around 1900 this little varmint migrated from Mexico into the United States and created all kinds of problems. It was carried by the wind. Scientists, farm agents, and farmers battled the boll weevil scourge. Through their hard work and vigilance, the boll weevil is under control. For the farmers’ sake, lets hope it stays that way.

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Russian Germans Come to Texas

The town of Old Glory, Texas, is located north on Abilene in eastern Stonewall County.

Russian Germans are also known as Volga Germans, but what in the world do they have to do with anything I write about? Well, they are terribly interesting and some ended up in numerous little villages in North Texas. Maybe you have eaten at Muenster or Lindsey on Highway 82 going to Wichita Falls. Absolutely delicious food. But not to be confused with the Eastern Europeans who located between San Antonio and the Gulf Coast during the Republic of Texas. More great food but different histories.

Between 1762 and 1763 Catherine the Great invited them to Russia to settle and introduce their advanced German agriculture methods to rural Russia. They were promised by the manifesto of their settlement several surprising rights. They were allowed to practice their respective Christian denominations, retain culture and language and allowed immunity from Russian taxes and military conscription for themselves and their descendants.

As time passed the Russian monarchy gradually eroded rights of the ethnic German populations, especially military conscription. About the same time, the Canadian and U. S. governments realized there was a long stretch of land from Saskatchewan southward to North Texas that was sparsely inhabited. It was the treeless high plains of North America. Few farmers were interested or trained in agricultural skills to farm the region. At that point Canada and the U. S. made the same offer Catherine the Great made to the so-called Russian Germans who accepted and began migrating here in the 1890s.

By 1900 some 100,000 Russian Germans lived on the High Plains. As immigrants do when most of the original land is taken, the Russian Germans descendants began to drift southward into Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas.

By 1904 a group of these Russian Germans, now calling themselves German Americans, settled between Double Mountain Fork and the Salt Fork of the Brazos River, five miles from the Haskell county line in eastern Stonewall County. They laid out the site for a town they named Brandenburg, but only a schoolhouse and general store were constructed. When the railroad arrived in 1909 it bypassed Brandenburg two miles west. So the Brandenburg residents moved over to the railroad, constructed a new town that they named New Brandenburg. This was a common solution everywhere west of the Mississippi River and maybe even east of the great river.

As Germany went to war with France, Russia, and Great Britain, the residents of New Brandenburg became slightly uneasy. As the war wore on, their fears increased. When the U. S. declared war on Germany, New Brandenburg residents agreed it was time for a new name: Old Glory. It became official in 1918 and today proudly honors the American flag all over the remaining village.

However, the fine folks in Old Glory were not the only German descendants who struggled because of the war. Even the descendants whose ancestors arrived in the Republic of Texas experienced fear and persecution during that time period. They were harassed during both World War I and World War II, even though thousands of their men served in the wars; they bought war bonds, and supported the U. S. war efforts. Hopefully such prejudice has been eradicated.

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Hauntings on the Square

Former Kress Building in Downtown Greenville

Kress building (now Landon Winery) where estranged husband shot his wife’s male friend and then turned himself in to authorities in the courthouse.

I know the title should be Halloween on the Square, the event we celebrate around the Hunt County Courthouse every year. But why not throw in a few local “ghost stories” to add a little flavor?

I know of two mysterious events right across the street from the courthouse, one in the courthouse, and one a block away. Plus, it’s supposed to be dark and rainy Halloween night. What a better time for real ghost stories.

Go stand on the front steps to the courthouse. That is the Lee Street or north side for newcomers. You can’t miss Landon’s Winery in the building that still has the original name Kress on the front. During the 1930s when the economy was rotten and jobs were scarce, marriages sometimes disintegrated from the stress. Such was one couple around here that had recently separated but not started the divorce process. The wife was having lunch with another man in a booth in the Kress soda fountain when the estranged husband walked by and spotted them. He walked in, pulled his pistol, and shot the interloper before turning around. He then walked across the street and turned himself in to the sheriff. The staff at Landon’s can point out the exact spot and often report phantom figures at closing times.

The site of the former Ende Hotel, where a fire started in 1883 that left much of Downtown in ashes and 13 dead.

Turn right and then right along Johnson Street to the intersection with Washington Street. On the opposite corner you will see My Sister’s Closet in a red brick building. That was the site of the former Ende Hotel that opened when the first trains arrived in Greenville in 1880. One evening in April 1883, a strong windstorm blew into town but caused no damage. During the night, occupants of the hotel and others were awakened by a loud crash followed by an explosion. The northwest corner of the hotel, which you are looking at, collapsed and the building was in flames. Fire spread to the east, south, and west side of the square. With no fire equipment, the citizens waited an hour for Sherman to send their fire wagon, horses, and men to help. Morning found the city in ashes, about thirteen dead from the fire, and the new courthouse destroyed. The courthouse was replaced with an almost identical structure, gradually the town rebuilt, but the insurance was slow to repay Mr. Ende.

Washington Hotel

Washington Hotel penthouse where an extremely polished gambler lost his life. With minimal investigations, the case remains open to this day.

A block down Washington Street away from the courthouse is the remains of the luxurious Washington Hotel with its lavish penthouse suites on the top floor. At the corner of Washington and St. John, look up at the window where the fire escape starts. That was the apartment of a prominent couple. On Valentine’s night she visited her mother in Dallas while he plied his trade as a gambler. After the card game he returned to the apartment. About one o’clock a shot was heard from there. The local policeman making his round ran into the hotel and with the night clerk made their way to the murder scene. Everything was in disarray, the gambler lay on the floor murdered, but his collection of diamonds was untouched. After a rather crude investigation, no murder charge was filed. The case remains open to this day.

Now, go back to the courthouse. Find a place where you can see the two jails sitting recessed a little on the roof of the fourth floor. Several years ago, a group of paranormal investigators spent a night in jail there. The next morning they reported a rash of paranormal activity, but with no names or stories. However, they swore the courthouse was awash with ghosts!

Hunt County Courthouse

Jails on top of Hunt County Courthouse where a paranormal group found much evidence of paranormal activities. Of course, the ghosts told no stories.

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From Wilderness to Commonwealth

Louis J. Wortham, member of the Texas Legislature (1909-1915) for Tarrant County.  Photo from Texas House of Representatives.

Louis J. Wortham, member of the Texas Legislature (1909-1915) for Tarrant County. Photo from Texas House of Representatives.

While in Santa Fe last month I made a pilgrimage to Dumont’s Maps and Books, one of my very favorite haunts there.  Mr. Dumont’s shop is not in the ritzy part of town with fine furnishings.  It’s near the railroad, rather dusty, and one sits on the floor to scan through books.  But he has good prices and works seldom found elsewhere.  Hence, I returned home with all five volumes of Louis J. Wortham’s History of Texas: from wilderness to commonwealth.

Wortham created a valuable overview of Texas history from the Spanish era through 1920.  For an understanding of the chronology of Texas, Wortham can hardly be beat.  However, like most literary and historical works, it is fraught with errors.  Read it for the general story of Texas, but find another book when you want exact details.

In his introduction he states that he wanted to write a Texas history that was published in Texas, a goal he accomplished.  Granted there were publishing houses in the state in 1924 when the collection came out, I was intrigued that a historian should be so concerned where the work was published.  That’s where I began to look into Mr. Wortham’s past.

He was not a trained historian, but a legislator and journalist born in 1858 over in Hopkins County.  His father was the editor of the Sulphur Springs Gazette.  Louis followed his father’s footsteps, working for various Texas journals and for a while edited Current Issue, a weekly journal of comment in Austin.

In 1906 Wortham became involved in the Fort Worth Star.  By 1909 the Star merged with another Fort Worth newspaper to become the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.  Louis J. Wortham was publisher and president with Amon G. Carter advertising manager.

At the same time, Wortham represented Tarrant County in the Texas Legislature from 1909 to 1915.  That year Wortham was appointed Regent of the University of Texas, even though he was not alum.  In 1924 Wortham completed his masterpiece that was published by Wortham-Molyneaux Company in Fort Worth.

Wortham Family plot in Oakwood Cemetery, Fort Worth, Texas.  photo from Find A Grave.

Wortham Family plot in Oakwood Cemetery, Fort Worth, Texas. photo from Find A Grave.

Now the mystery of Louis J. Wortham.  Although he was born and reared in Hopkins County, he spent most of his public career in Austin and Fort Worth.  Yet, his death certificate of September 10, 1927 declared he died at his home at 2718 Wesley Street in Greenville, Texas.  Why Greenville and not Fort Worth?  He had resided in Greenville for one year and he died from kidney trouble.  The death certificate contained the clue.

Wortham’s first wife was Faye Becton Wortham (1858-1922) and his attending physician was Dr. Joe Becton.  My conclusion is that Louis Wortham developed kidney problems, trusted Dr. Becton who was his wife’s relative, bought a house in Greenville, and moved here for the remainder of his life.

That’s what makes history so interesting, those little clues.

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Bucking the Draft

Ship that took Lt. James W. Chatham to Bordeaux. Not a luxurious ocean liner but it did the job.

When the United States instituted draft laws in 1862, mass riots disrupted New York City, killing numerous civilians and injuring a multitude of others. After the Civil War, the concept of drafting soldiers was dropped. Only in April 1917 did the United States institute the plan again.

President Woodrow Wilson took a nation unfit for battle into the Great War that year. Each state had a National Guard, many of whom were guarding the border with Mexico. But these were little more than a local or state militia. Military training, equipping the army and navy, manufacturing weapons were all lacking, but the country soon had a semblance of war readiness. One of the first actions was to create local draft board that managed three rounds of drafts, organized by dates of birth.

Each round was held on Sunday so young men would not miss their work the other six days. Most newspapers in Hunt County did not print a Monday edition; so on Tuesday readers could read the names of everyone in the county who registered on Sunday. As a good citizen, if a reader noticed that some name missing, he was to notify the draft board immediately.

An incident occurred in early October 1917 that made the Dallas Morning News. “James W. Chatham, Jr., of Greenville who is now at Camp Travis, yesterday refused to accept a permanent discharge that had been granted him on industrial grounds. At the time of his examination Mr. Chatham held a responsible and highly specialized position at the Greenville cotton compress, but refused to file any claim for discharge. Thereupon his employers filed a claim with the district board. In the meantime, Mr. Chatham made personal request of the local board at this place (Greenville) that he be placed in the first 5 percent and stated that he would waive any claim in his behalf that might be pending. When notified that discharge had been granted him, Mr. Chatham wrote the local board that this was as much his war as any one’s, and that he was going to stay in the army until the end.”

So what was this responsible and highly specialized position? He was the cashier, not a highly trained engineer as suggested. On his draft card in a note stating that someone claimed exception for him on the grounds that he handled cotton and linters that are “assets to government.” (Linters were machines that removed short cotton fibers from cottonseeds.)

Chatham had two years of college, lived on Park Street with his parents, and probably looking for adventure. However, it seems he missed the real dangerous encounters. According to U. S. Army Transport Service Records, he departed the U. S. on May 31, 1919 for Bordeaux, France as a First Lieutenant in the Quartermaster Corps.

When the war was over, Chatham did not return to the cotton compress in Greenville. He appeared to have been a very organized young man who had a talent for industrial management. He served as traffic manager for Wichita Falls before becoming manager of Tuf-Nutt, a hardware manufacturer in the same town. By the 1930s he worked for the Federal Works Agency as a supervisor who administered a number of public construction, building maintenance, and public works relief functions and laws.

By 1940 Chatham, his wife, and three children were living in Detroit when he continued to work for the Federal Works Agency. He died a natural death in February 1981 where he is buried in Grand Lawn Cemetery there. I believe it is safe to say the cotton compress in Greenville did not suffer severely the loss of his talents. Maybe his boss should have asked his permission before filing a exemption claim with the draft board.

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Trails and Traces Across America

Santa Fe Trail

Author standing at the end of the Santa Fe Trail. In the background is the Santa Fe Plaza, the center of town, the end of the trail, and the oldest capital city in the U.S. Great history here.

During the 18th and 19th Centuries, people in America traveled. Some intentionally were on the move, intruding Europeans forced Native Americans off their lands, and slaves had no choice. For the most part, travel was by water, horseback, wagons, or foot. Two ways to travel were along a trace or a trail.

A trace can be described as a forest trail. The best known is the Natchez Trace, from New Orleans to Nashville. Farmers and boatmen floated goods and supplies down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to sell. After trades were made, they broke up their log rafts and sold the timber, too.

The trace took about thirty-five days on foot and between twenty to twenty-five days on horseback. The trace was simply a path created by Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians before the arrival of white men. The trace crossed swamps, rivers and rolling hills. Robbers and highwaymen lurked in the dark forest. Two famous men to travel the Natchez Trace were Abraham Lincoln and Meriwether Lewis; the former became a U. S. President and the former was murdered along the Trace after leading the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Pacific Northwest.

Trammel’s Trace is less famous but just as interesting. Known as the first road from the North into Texas, it began in Fulton, Arkansas, at the bend of the Red River and made its way to Nacogdoches and on to El Camino Real. This trace was 180 miles long and used by filibusters to smuggle mustangs from Spanish Texas to the U. S. in the 1820s. Highwaymen, gamblers and thieves found it lucrative. Gary Pinkerton wrote Trammel’s Trace: The First Road to Texas from the North. I highly recommend it.

Trails are much better known thanks to Hollywood and TV westerns. Cattle moved north to markets along the Chisholm and Western Trails after the Civil War. Families moved west along the Mormon Trail, the Oregon Trail and the Santa Fe Trail.

Traders and military couriers also used the Santa Fe Trail form 1821 to 1880. This trail covered some 1200 miles over semi-arid desert. The trek from Independence, Missouri, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, took from 40 to 60 days. Heat, lack of water, Plains Indians, and the chance of getting lost were dangers of the Santa Fe Trail.

A trail was much wider than a trace. Livestock and wagons travelled with comparative ease. No danger of highwaymen or robbers. Heat, lack of water, Plains Indians, and the chance of getting lost were the dangers of the trails.

Travelers along trails and traces had no GPS, no road maps, and really no signs like we have today. Guides were available on trails, but the trace was much easier to follow.

I had the opportunity to walk part of the Natchez Trace once. The roadbed was slightly lower that the terrain to each side. The shaded path and numerous trees reminded me I was in the woods and something could jump out at any moment. I’ve driven along different trails. They tend to exude feelings of thirst, fear of getting lost, and a sense of loneliness. But without them, how would our country have grown and developed?

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Visit White Rock Sometime

Wagon on the old Jefferson Road

Ox-drawn freight wagon along the Jefferson Road in northeast Texas. Slow going every day.

Some day take a drive north on Highway 34 toward Wolfe City. When you see FM 1566, turn left and drive down a slight hill to the old community of White Rock. The area is truly unique to Hunt County and the Blackland Prairies. The name White Rock refers to an outcropping of Austin Chalk that is close to the top of the ground in that area.

Originally the community was a camping place and later became known as Tidwell Creek. It was on the Old Sherman and Jefferson Trail, part of the Jefferson Road that began in the town of Jefferson, the second largest port in Texas at one time. The Jefferson Road entered Hunt County west of Cumby and split near Brigham Cemetery. The main road arched into Greenville along what was later the East Line and Red River Railroad or the Texas Midland Line. The auxiliary road went on to Sherman through Whitewright and Kentucky Town.

Freighters hauled goods mostly by ox teams on heavy freight wagons. Some used teams of mules. In muddy winter and spring weather, the wagons did good to travel two or three miles per day.

On the first Hunt County tax roll in 1846 Jonas Havens was listed as the first settler in the area. On August 28, 1857 Henry Pinney received a patent to establish the seventh post office in the county. It was known as Tidwell Creek. The following year Tennessean John M. Tittsworth started a school in White Rock. No exact date was found as to the time of the name change.

The first store in the area was a general store operated by Lem Kennedy. Kennedy and John Kiser ran the first saloon. Later a barbershop opened. By the beginning of the Civil War about ten families lived in the area.

In the 1870s the White Rock School had a large number of students. Some of the children came from as far as ten miles away. Their fathers blazed a trail through the thick timber. By 1890 the school had expanded to a two-story building with five teachers required for the large student population.

White Rock was a busy place with ten stores, two saloons, a blacksmith shop, a mill, and the cotton gin. Later the community boasted two telephone systems. Claud Lowry owned one of the telephone lines with a switchboard serving about seventy-five customers.

In the early days there were no churches at White Rock, but itinerant preachers held services in private homes when they passed through the area. The Pleasant View Baptist Church was organized in 1871 about a mile west of White Rock. In 1901 the membership voted to move to White Rock and changed the name to White Rock Baptist Church.

The Methodist Church met in the school until a church building was finished in 1898. In 1907 the church was damaged in a storm but quickly rebuilt. In 1920 Henry Grady May organized an orchestra for the church.

When railroads in the late 19th century chose to service Kingston and Celeste, White Rock began a decline. Businesses moved away, followed by families. Today White Rock is a small community in a lovely setting, well worth a drive there.

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Good Old Ben

Benjamin Franklin book

Reading Walter Isaacson’s biography was insightful into one of the most famous Founding Fathers, but one who is probably lesser known for his intellect. Isaacson brings the human being to the forefront of this almost mythical figure. Franklin was the only Founding Father to sign all four major American Revolution documents; the Declaration of Independence, Treaty with France, Peace Accord with Great Britain, and the United States Constitution. In later life he was President of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.

Where would the United States be today had Benjamin Franklin not shared his wisdom throughout most of the 18th century? Yes, we know he fiddled with a kite and skeleton key to discover electricity. He started the first free public library on this continent. He organized fire brigades and formed militias to maintain order in cities. He developed bifocals, something most of us use today. He created a smokeless wood stove that cleared the air for healthy breathing.

But those characteristics are not what made Franklin a true American hero. Born in Boston to a lowly shopkeeper and his wife, Benjamin ran away from home and ended up in Philadelphia while still a teenager. He studied printing from an older brother, working in print shops before opening his own. Owning his own shop allowed his to share his thoughts and expose new ideas in a particular way. He wrote parodies to slyly expose his beliefs. Once read, the audience thoughtfully recognized the true meaning of his work. He organized clubs to promote conversation and understanding among citizens.

Franklin’s first encounter with politics occurred in Philadelphia where he clashed with the Penn family, the Proprietors of the Colony of Philadelphia. Most of the colonies were Royal Colonies, meaning they answered to the King of England. But Proprietors had more leeway, answering only to Parliament.

About the same time Franklin was named Post Master of all the colonies. He traveled from Connecticut to South Carolina while carrying out his duties. From these travels Franklin learned first hand about life throughout the British Colonies. Along the way he urged the colonies to join together for their common good as early as the early 1850s.

In 1857 Benjamin Franklin began a new service, that of political service. He was not a political genius, neither was he extremely well learned in religion or science, but his practical interest in these areas allowed him to mingle with rich and poor alike. Kings and leather apron manual laborers alike felt an affinity for Benjamin Franklin. Yet, Franklin often wore a fur cap to show he lacked elitism. Never did he own a powdered wig, the sign of a true gentleman.

Franklin represented the Colonies in England and France to achieve treaties and peace accords. Always fighting arbitrary authority in a peaceful manner, he stood for merit, virtue and hard work. Yet, he was pragmatic, often showing willingness to compromise after pushing his ideas to great limits. Such was the case at the Constitution Convention in the summer of 1787. Delegates differed on the form of representation. After strongly supporting a unicameral delegation, Franklin realized the need of smaller states to have equal representation. At that point he suggested two legislative groups, one with equal representation and the other with representation based on population. Without this compromise, the United States might have been a pipe dream.

On his death the French statesman Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot wrote, “He snatched lightning from the sky and scepter from tyrants.” For much more about this American hero read Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson.

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Prison Songs in Greenville

These words were scratched on the wall of the men’s jail in the Greenville Municipal Building.

For over ninety years the City of Greenville had no public space for its government. Back rooms of stores or saloons were used for city council meetings, other departments rented space in every thing from hotels to rooms adjacent to doctors or dentist offices. In the early days, the mayor was often a storekeeper using his storeroom as the mayor’s office.

By the 1930s the city decided it was time to have a real City Hall with space for police, water, electricity, fire department, and a real jail. For years the city had paid the county to share their jail. But the Great Depression that officially began with the stock market crash of 1929 created an inordinate lack of funds for anything but the most vital necessities. One of recently elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s main goals was to increase work for both manual laborers and professionals such as contractors and architects. He instituted the New Deal to help put people back to work.

Auditoriums, city halls, fire and police stations along with jails were acceptable to the Public Works Administration (PWA) programs. The first round of application began on August 19, 1933. Thousands of cities, including Greenville, applied for grants and loans of more than $25,000 upon completion.

Greenville submitted a very detailed document that included everything about the city, why help was needed, what the city assets were and what assistance was needed in the local opinions. One statement claimed that the “City of Greenville leased jail space at the abandoned county jail.” Well that wasn’t exactly true. It suggested that the jail was in derelict condition. However, when the new county court house was opened in 1929 all prisoners were moved to the fifth and sixth floors there. The city made a contract with the Hunt County Commissioners Court to renovate the old county jail at the intersection of Jordan and Stuart Streets as a city prison. Once the renovation, which the city paid for, was complete prisoners arrested by city officers would be held there.

The old jail had been empty for three years except for birds and an occasional tramp seeking shelter from the weather. Improvements were not to be extensive, just more habitable and sanitary when the first city prisoners arrived.

However, that was not what knocked Greenville out of the running for the grant/loan. All the money was taken by the time Greenville submitted its application. However, the mayor and city council held on to all that work and were rewarded in 1938 when the second round of application were taken. This time Greenville was one of 7,000 communities approved.

Two jails were built, one for men and the other for women who were given a kitchen to cook for the men. Both jails were racially segregated. The jails were stacked on top of each other with the women above. Under the jails were dressing rooms for auditorium performers to use. The Municipal Building and Auditorium opened on October 9, 1939 to the delight of Greenville, Hunt County and neighboring communities.

Often the prisoners could be heard singing prison songs or along with performers. Prisoners were detained there until the 1970’s. Yet they left their marks. One inhabitant scratched on the wall, “Please Lord, don’t let them take me to TDC (Texas Department of Corrections).” There were worse places than the Greenville jail.

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