History of Ellis County
Ellis County, in north-central Texas, is about 30 miles south of Dallas and encompasses 939 square miles (approximately 600,000 acres) with an estimated 1990 population of 75,400. Waxahachie, the county seat, boasts a present population of about 20,000 and is the principal town in the central part of Ellis County. Ennis, 18 miles east of Waxahachie, has approximately 14,200 citizens and is the principal community in the eastern half of the county.
Ellis County History - Overview
Ellis County, in north-central Texas, is about 30 miles south of Dallas and encompasses 939 square miles (approximately 600,000 acres) with an estimated 1990 population of 75,400. Waxahachie, the county seat, boasts a present population of about 20,000 and is the principal town in the central part of Ellis County. Ennis, 18 miles east of Waxahachie, has approximately 14,200 citizens and is the principal community in the eastern half of the county.
Since the middle of the 19th century, Ellis County has been an important agricultural center and one of the state’s leading producers of cotton. Today, cotton production has dwindled in volume and economic importance and has been supplanted by livestock production as the principal agricultural industry. The chief mineral of economic value is Eagle Ford Clay, which is worked for brick, although oil and gas production exists to a limited degree in the extreme southeastern part of the county. Various manufacturing and industrial concerns operate throughout the county, but are found in greatest concentration in the northern part close to Dallas.
The following paragraphs highlight many of the major events and historical themes in Ellis County’s development and are not intended to be a definitive history of the county. Instead, this background identifies some of the broad patterns in the local history and sets the stage for a more in-depth analysis of the county’s history.
Four major physiographic land divisions are found in Texas: the Gulf and Atlantic Coastal Plain, the Interior Lowlands (Lower Plains), the Great Plains, and the Intermontane Plains. Ellis County lies in the western most section of the Gulf and Atlantic Coastal Plain in the part known as the Blackland Belt. The Blackland Belt, or prairie, extends in a narrow band from the Red River of north Texas southward to San Antonio.
The topography of Ellis County varies from a hilly terrain cut by streams and creeks to that of a semi-level plain, with elevations ranging from 450 feet to 750 feet above mean sea level (Ennis, 571 ft.; Waxahachie, 551 ft.; Midlothian, 733 ft.; Ferris 471 ft.). The most hilly section lies in the western portion of the county extending roughly from the Tarrant County line north of Midlothian southward to Milford. The western edge of the county, between Maypearl and Britton, lies in a broad valley that varies from level to gently rolling terrain. In the southern part of the county, near Italy and along Chambers and Mill creeks, level terrain dominates the landscape. In the vicinity of Ennis, in the eastern part of the county, the topography is level.
The county is part of the drainage basin of the Trinity River, which borders Ellis County on the east and is one of the three major waterways of East Texas. All streams and creeks in the county flow in an easterly or southeasterly direction, with the exception of Mountain Creek, which flows south and empties into the Trinity River. The southern and Southwestern portion of the county are drained by Mill, Chambers, Onion, and Waxahachie creeks, which merge at the southeastern edge of the county and make their outlet to the Trinity River south of Ellis County. The eastern and northeastern portions of the county drain into the Trinity River through Village, Red Oak, and Bear creeks. A small part of the northwest comer of the county drains through Mountain Creek.
Nine distinct types of soil exist in Ellis County, ranging in texture from a fine sand to a stiff clay (see Figure 1). Houston black clay, well known in the Blackland Belt, comprises over forty percent of the land and is the most productive type of clay found in Ellis County.
Early Settlement and Political Organization
Since Ellis County is in north-central Texas, it was bypassed by Spanish, Mexican, and early Anglo-American settlement efforts during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Limited land speculation did occur by the early 1830s when a series of Mexican land grants were issued on land with frontage on the Trinity River. Only three were issued in present-day Ellis County (see Figure 2), and the earliest of these parcels was an 11-league grant awarded to Rafael de la Pena on October 22, 1834 (Ellis County History Workshop 1972:9). Thomas Jefferson Chambers received an 8-league grant on September 23, 1834, in the southwestern portion of the county and which extends into Navarro County (Ellis County History Workshop 1972: 10). The third grant, which included 4 leagues, was issued to Alexander de la Garza on October 22, 1834 (Ellis County History Workshop 1972: 1 1).
The issuance of these grants did not necessarily mean that they were settled in the 1830s. No physical or historical data suggest that these or other lands in present-day Ellis County were settled at that time. If settlers had come to the region, they likely were squatters with no legal property rights. Those who did hold legal title to property probably claimed the land because of its frontage to the Trinity River, which was considered the most desirable in the area. Consequently, the land likely was held for speculative purposes in anticipation of future settlement.
Following Texas’ independence from Mexico in 1836, the newly formed Republic of Texas aggressively sought new settlers to the country, and the government provided generous land offers as inducements. Several land grants were issued during the 1830s and early 1840s that resulted in substantial population growth. Among the most important of these was a grant that be came known as the Peters’ Colony, a venture concentrated west of the Trinity River and which included the northern portion of Ellis County. The land grant was awarded to W.S. Peters and Associates (later known as Texas Emigration and Land Company) in 1841 and included more than 16,000 square miles of land within an area bounded by the Red River, the Trinity River, along a line that ran from near present-day Ennis to a point near Abilene in central-west Texas and along another line that extended northward to the Red River. Six hundred families were to be brought into the area within three years (Webb 1952, II:366).
The Peters’ Colony advertised and recruited settlers exclusively from the Upland South, represented by the states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Missouri, and for several years sold land only to non-Texans. Families were given or could purchase, at reduced rates, up to 640 acres, and single men could receive up to 320 acres. By 1848, the company had introduced over 2,000 families to north Texas (Richardson 1981:145). This early attempt at induced settlement in the region contributed to the first organized Anglo-American habitation of Ellis County and established cultural and physical development trends that would endure for several decades.
An examination of land records at the General Land Office in Austin, Texas, revealed that the first grants issued in the region, besides those of the Mexican Colonial era, were awarded in 1844 and included the Henry H. Cone Survey (Abstract 240), the Charles Marlin Survey (Abstract 669), the John Shay Survey (Abstract 974), and the Robert M. Williamson Survey (Abstract 1108). Increased settlement in subsequent years resulted in the creation of numerous surveys in the area. In 1844, a total of 22 patents were awarded, and a year later 33 more were issued. Altogether, 98 grants were awarded in the 1840s (General Land Office).
Initial settlements in Ellis County and elsewhere in Peters’ Colony were dispersed, and an agricultural-based economy was established. Water was the most critical factor in settlement patterns during this initial phase of development, as most pioneers tended to select land near the many creeks that flowed through the region. Another factor that seemed to influence the location of the early settlements was the natural vegetation in the region. Land in the eastern section of the county was more heavily wooded and thus needed to be cleared before it could be made tillable. The lack of manpower in this sparsely populated region tended to discourage settlement in this area. Other sections, such as the Blackland Prairie belt that extended northward through the central part of the county, were more open and less wooded, and thus were significantly more conducive to farming and/or cattle grazing.
The first organized settlement in the county was founded by W.R. Howe, a native of Tennessee, who along with other families, moved to Chamber’s Creek in central Ellis County in 1843. This enclave was initially known as Howe’s Settlement but was later called Forreston.
Other settlements soon sprang up throughout the region. The area near Reagor Springs, south of Waxahachie, was first settled in February 1844 by Sutherland Mayfield, who was awarded a league and a labor in 1847 (Ellis County History Workshop 1972: 12). Jonathan, Samuel, and William Billingsley moved to the upper Red Oak Creek area in 1844 near present-day Ovilla (Webb 1952 1:558). In 1847 the Humble family from Mississippi relocated to Cummins Creek, and along with other Lowland South families, established the community of Oak Grove in the southwestern part of the county. Ferris, in northeast Ellis County, was settled in 1850 by two families from Tennessee.
Other communities were situated in strategic geographic locations. For example, Old Telico on the Trinity River was settled in 1850, and its founding reflected a desire to have a bustling river port on the waterway. The village was established with the belief that the increased number of settlers who came to Ellis County and subsequently established productive farms would need profitable transport systems to ship their raw goods to market. In the pre-railroad era, rivers were a primary means of transporting goods, and Old Telico and other communities on the Trinity River were established with the hope that they would become important centers for trade and commerce.
As was true for much of north-central Texas, most of the immigrants who moved to Ellis County during this initial phase of settlement hailed from the South. Those from the Upland South tended to settle in the central and northern parts of the county, which were part of the Peters’ Colony. On the other hand, families from the Lowland South, which included the states of the Gulf and Atlantic regions, generally settled in the southern and extreme eastern parts of the county.
Throughout the 1840s, territory that now comprises Ellis County was part of Robertson and Navarro counties, and increased settlement of the area brought political pressure to create a new county with its own centrally located and equally accessible seat of local government. In 1849 residents successfully petitioned the Texas Legislature for a new county. It was named for Richard E. Ellis, who presided at the signing of the Texas Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional Convention.
Three sites were initially considered for the county seat in 1849, but land owned by E. W. Rogers, near the geographical center of the county, was ultimately selected, and a town site was platted. The new community was named Waxahachie, as mandated by the legislative act that created the county. Joseph N. Wittenberg constructed a log building that served as the first county courthouse (Ellis County History Workshop 1972:22).
The 1850s witnessed substantial growth and development: the county’s population increased from 989 in 1850, when the first official census was taken in the county, to 5246 in 1860. General Land Office records likewise indicated growth, as the number of land grants awarded during the decade totaled 544 — a five-fold increase from the 1840s. Much of the population was dispersed throughout the county on farms in rural areas. The only community of any consequence was Waxahachie, the seat of government.
For much of its history, Ellis County has been a leading agricultural center in Texas because a significant portion of its land is on the Blackland Prairies, an extremely fertile soil belt that extends north-south through central Texas. A variety of crops has been cultivated locally, but Ellis County is best known for its high yields of cotton that were harvested during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Cotton farms prevailed in rural areas and gins dotted the landscape. Compresses, oil mills, and other cotton-related industries operated in the county’s largest towns. Profits from the cultivation and processing of cotton resulted in a construction boom that transformed the physical character of the county.
As profits from cotton continued to soar during the early 20th century, the local economy became increasingly dependent on the crop, which established a boom-bust cycle that, fortunately for the people of Ellis County, remained on the upswing for most of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite warnings from agricultural specialists (Bennett et al.) as early as 191 1 about the perils of one-crop specialization, Ellis County farmers resisted diversification.
Consequently, when cotton prices and demands dropped dramatically in the 1930s, the local economy declined correspondingly. Economic growth was stifled with little new construction, and several years passed before the county rebounded. As disastrous as it was to the county’s overall economy, this pattern left a rich architectural legacy that is evidenced by the many buildings and structures from the cotton boom. These structures are tangible links to this vitally important segment of the local history, and reveal much about the way people lived and the way Ellis County developed over time.
Early Agriculture Efforts in Ellis County
The advent of agriculture in Ellis County began with the initial phase of settlement in the 1840s. Most early settlers in Ellis County were farmers engaged in small-scale grain production, mainly corn and wheat. Livestock production, on the other hand, proved to be profitable by the mid-19th century, and Ellis County became the state’s sixth largest producer of livestock by 1860 (Census of Agriculture:1860). Mountain Peak, in western Ellis County, was an early stock-raising community.
Ellis County’s earliest settlers, most of whom had immigrated from the Upland and Lowland South, quickly established an agrarian society that resembled the one they left behind. Small family-run farms were commonplace and food crops were typically the main harvest. Cotton, which later played such a dominant role in the county’s late 19th- and early 20th-century development, was grown in limited quantities. In 1850, for example, the census reported no bales of cotton in Ellis County, and by 1860 only 359 bales were produced. The average for Texas counties at that time was 3,843 bales (Census of Agriculture: 1860).
Upland Southerners comprised about 46 percent of the county’s population by 1860, and they principally grew cereal crops such as wheat and corn. By 1860 local farmers were producing over 88,000 bushels of wheat, which made Ellis County the fourth largest wheat producing county in the state (Census of Agriculture: 1860).
Immigrants from the Lowland South comprised a smaller percentage of the county’s population prior to the Civil War, but they also contributed to the expansion of the county’s agricultural economy and physical environment. Lowland Southerners had originally settled in eastern and southeastern Texas where a cotton-based economy and a plantation-slave system developed and thrived (Jordan 1966:670).
During the late 1850s, the Lowland Southerners began migrating to other areas of the state including Ellis County in search of additional farmlands. By 1860, almost 40 percent of the county’s population was of Lowland South origin. The increase of Lowland Southerners changed not only the county’s demographic and cultural composition but also its agricultural patterns. Cotton, which apparently was largely ignored by farmers from the Upland South, began to be planted more frequently in the fertile soils of Ellis County.
The emerging cotton culture also contributed to a substantial increase in the number of slaves. In 1850 census takers tallied only 87 slaves in Ellis County, although a decade later the number had risen to 1, 104. Despite widespread notions that virtually all slaves in the South (including Texas) worked on large plantations, slave schedules of the census records suggested that few such large plantations operated in Ellis County and, in fact, 140 out of the 197 slave-owners in 1860 had fewer than five slaves per household; only 26 individuals owned 10 or more slaves. This information, along with the county’s modest cotton production totals, strongly supports the conclusion that cotton had merely gained a foothold in Ellis County and that the plantation-slave system, though popular elsewhere in Texas, was almost nonexistent locally. Still, the county produced 359 bales of cotton, which paled in comparison to the state’s leading growers at that time — San Augustine and Washington counties — where 31,342 and 23,221 bales were ginned, respectively.
Early cotton-growing efforts were impeded because of the difficulty farmers had in getting their goods to market. Most cotton was transported overland by ox-cart or shipped by raft on the Trinity River, and towns such as Old Telico sprang up along the river as a result of this fledgling commercial trade. Nevertheless, poor means of transportation remained the most serious obstacle to successful and profitable cotton production.
By 1860, the county’s agricultural patterns began to change when local farmers began to realize that the region’s fertile soil was well-suited for the cultivation of cotton. Despite its relatively low cotton yields and its mostly non-slave holding population, Ellis County voted to secede from the Union, reflecting an awareness among local growers that cotton was the key to Ellis County’s future. Moreover, for the crop to be grown successfully and profitably, an ample supply of cheap labor was considered essential and the slave system met this need.
The Civil War disrupted the county’s development, and the loss of manpower and the redirection of resources toward the war effort altered agricultural practices. Exact statistics on county-wide yields are not known, but agricultural output no doubt was significantly less than in the years immediately preceding the war. Nevertheless, Ellis County’s economy remained firmly based on agriculture.
The Decline of Cotton in Ellis County
Although the Blackland Prairie region of central and north-central Texas continued to produce much of the state’s cotton in the 1920s, the newly irrigated fields of south and west Texas began to grow substantial amounts of the crop. Ellis County and surrounding regions thus began to lose their dominant position as the state’s largest and most significant cotton center. With the Great Depression of the 1930s, cotton demand plummeted, thus spelling the end of Ellis County’s most prosperous era. Most of the gins, compresses, and cottonseed oil mills were abandoned, and the textile mill in Waxahachie was forced to cut production until the company’s closure in 1934. Ellis County cotton production totaled 97,192 bales of cotton in 1930, but dipped to 71,124 in 1940, and 67,000 in 1950 (Census of Agriculture: 1930; 1940; 1950).
As less cotton was harvested, the number of tenant farmers dwindled. For example, 4,928 tenant farmers were reported in Ellis County in 1930, but five years later that figure had dropped to 1,236. The 1940 census recorded only 274 black tenant farmers in Ellis County, a total that was roughly half the number of five years earlier (Census of the Population: 1940). Many blacks left the rural areas in search of employment or federally funded relief programs in towns and cities. Although the black population in Ellis County dropped from 12,610 in 1930 to 10,694 in 1940 (Census of the Population: 1930; 1940), the total population of the county also decreased so that the percentage of blacks in the county remained the same.
The post-World War 11 years witnessed a further reduction in the number of tenant farmers, which resulted primarily from the introduction of more efficient farm machines that were designed to minimize the number of workers needed for agricultural plowing and harvesting.
The decline in the tenant farm system resulted in abandonment and neglect of tenant-related structures. Several structures were converted to crop-storage facilities. Brick piers and chimneys were noted in scattered areas as the only evidence of former dwellings.
Ellis County experienced a dramatic fluctuation of the economy which affected the preservation and unique character of the county. As the infusion of capital into the county slowed after the 1950s, many of the rural and urban dwellings as well as the commercial and manufacturing establishments were left in their original state. Consequently, the lack of tremendous growth over the past decades has led to the survival of much of the physical history and heritage of Ellis County.
Early Roads and Transportation Methods in Ellis County
The contributions of different methods of transportation in Ellis County have played an important role in the development and economic progress of the county. From the earliest modes of transportation, such as crude roads, stagecoach lines, and river traffic to more modem developments like the railroad, interurban system, and automobile highways, the county’s growth and prosperity have been closely related to improvement in local transportation systems. These innovations have helped to change the county’s physical environment through their ability to 1) assist in processing and marketing farm commodities, 2) transport people, and 3) provide access to a wider range of building supplies and consumer goods. Transportation advancements have led the county’s evolution from a collection of dispersed, self-sustaining farm settlements to a more urban, agricultural-industrial center.
Those settlers who came to Ellis County in the 1840s and 1850s established communities along the numerous streams and creeks. The streams supplied fresh water and the timber growth along the waterways provided wood for fuel and sufficient building materials for general construction (Bennett 1911:8). Early roads, which were mainly wagon ruts, connected the small cattle and farming communities that, for the most part, were about 15 to 20 miles apart.
The first major road to traverse Ellis County was a military road established in 1850 that ran from the Red River to San Antonio (Richardson 1981:202). On the path from Dallas to Waco, the road passed through central Ellis County near Waxahachie, the newly designated county seat. With access to a major trade route, combined with activity generated by county seat designation, Waxahachie grew in population and gained significance as the central commercial and trading center for the region. Commerce and traffic generated by movement on the military route increased the business growth in Waxahachie in the form of general stores, livery stables, saloons, hotels and restaurants. Another road which linked Dallas with Houston passed through the eastern part of Ellis County by the 1850s. (Richardson 1981:202). The Commissioners Court of Ellis County declared these two roads as the first official roads in the county in 1860 and ordered basic improvements to their routes, such as the cutting of trees and stumps and the clearing of obstacles (Ellis County History Workshop 1972:261). Low-water crossings were maintained where the roads traversed creeks and streams.
Stagecoaches were a popular means of transportation through the 1860s. In Ellis County, stagecoach lines served as the first intra-county commercial routes that connected farm communities to one another. Small, family-run businesses, such as saloons, general stores, hotels, and restaurants, were established to support stagecoach-related traffic. The most important line was on the Dallas-to-Waco route, which passed through Waxahachie, Milford, and Five Points; a branch extended from Waxahachie to Milford passing by way of Forreston. Another heavily used line extended from Dallas to Corsicana and passed through eastern Ellis County (Ellis County History Workshop 1972:262).
Other stagecoach roads in Ellis County ran from Waxahachie to Corsicana through Reagor Springs and old Burnham (about 6 miles south of Ennis). This road branched off to Waxahachie, Alvarado (Johnson County), and Old Fort Graham (Hill County). The Kaufman Road served much of the northeast portion of the county. The limited commercial traffic on the Trinity River was served by a line from Waxahachie to Old Telico (Ellis County History Workshop 1972:262).
Commercial navigation of the Trinity River offered the greatest hope of expanded transportation services to communities in the eastern part of Ellis County. The river often proved difficult to navigate due to its shallow waters, frequent driftwood, and numerous sandbars; nevertheless, attempts were made as early as the 1860s to channel the river from Dallas to the Gulf of Mexico (Brown 1930). The largest and most important river landing in the county before the Civil War was at Old Telico. Area farmers hauled cotton and surplus food crops on wagons to the small river port where the goods were transferred to rafts and flatboats for shipment to markets downstream such as Houston. In return, the river traffic allowed farmers and merchants to receive a limited supply of consumer products.
Despite expectations that the Trinity River would develop into a major transportation route and thereby help tap the rich hinterlands of Texas, the waterway proved too difficult for safe and reliable shipping. Continued efforts during the third quarter of the 19th century to dredge, clear and channelize the river were not successful, which discouraged many farmers, merchants, and entrepreneurs. Moreover, the advent of the railroad (particularly the H&TC which paralleled the Trinity and competed directly with river-related traffic) doomed this mode of transportation. Consequently, by the 1870s, river port communities such as Old Telico dwindled in size or were eventually abandoned altogether.
Railroads in Ellis County
As it did elsewhere in the state and nation, the advent of rail service ushered in a new era of prosperity and development to Ellis County. The arrival of the railroads had a profound effect on community-location patterns, commercial-district placement, and industrial-site development. In most communities of Ellis County at the time, the attraction of the railroad line was vital for the town’s future. Many existing communities offered large land and cash incentives and other inducements to convince the railroad to build through their towns (Reed 1981). The railroad then established passenger and freight depots without having to buy the land. Railroad officials could raise additional capital by selling surrounding property and along the right-of-way to new merchants, farmers, and business speculators. As a result, most of the railroad lines were built through towns that already existed. However, several communities were initiated by railroad builders to conform to their general program of establishing terminals every 20 miles (i.e., Alsdorf, Ferris, Griffith) (Reed 1981). Some townsites were abandoned and were relocated to gain access to railroad lines.
The H&TC Railroad, whose main line stretched from Houston to Dallas by way of Corsicana, first reached Ellis County in 1871 and its arrival berated a new era in local history. The H&TC joined the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad at Denison to complete the first complete rail line from Houston to St. Louis (Ellis County History Workshop 1972:51). The H&TC extended through the eastern part of the county and spurred substantial development. The H&TC line extended through Garrett, Palmer (named after a doctor for the railroad), Trumbull (named after a railroad official) and Ferris before leaving Ellis County for its ultimate destination of Dallas.
Ennis, Ellis County’s second largest city, was established in 1872 by the H&TC to be a regional business and labor center for the railroad. Businesses drawn there by the placement of the railroad were first concentrated in an area east of the lines and north of Ennis Avenue. The decision by the H&TC to move its divisional headquarters and roundhouse to Ennis in 1891 provided further impetus for development (Ellis County History Workshop 1972:111). A roundhouse and machine shops were moved from Corsicana and relocated on a site just north of the original town site of Ennis. The company placed its freight and passenger depots in the commercial area on opposite sides of the tracks.
Because their community was bypassed by the H&TC, the citizens of Waxahachie organized the Waxahachie Tap Railroad in 1875 to construct a railroad from their city to Garrett and the H&TC line (Hardy-Heck-Moore 1985d). The Waxahachie Tap Railroad introduced quicker access to consumer goods and building supplies for merchants and residents of the community, and spurred development of a cotton processing and marketing industry there later. Despite grand expectations, the company soon experienced financial difficulty and was later purchased by the H&TC and incorporated into their system.
The Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railroad (GC&SF) arrived in Ellis County in 1882. When construction began, it was known as the Chicago, Texas & Mexican Central Railroad but was acquired by, and incorporated into, the GC&SF in July 1882 (Ellis County History Workshop 1972:51). The line extended through Wyatt and Midlothian. The tracks in Midlothian were laid through the east side of the existing central business district, which encouraged commercial growth in that direction over the next two decades.
Waxahachie was soon serviced by a second railroad, the Ft. Worth & New Orleans (FW&NO), which began service in 1885 (Ellis County History Workshop 1972:51). The railroad passed a few blocks south of the courthouse square, which resulted in the construction of many warehouses and industrial buildings nearby. The FW&NO also extended through Sardis, Britton, and Midlothian. Midlothian, in fact, became something of a rail crossroads in the region because it was serviced not only by the FW&NO, but also by the H&TC and the GC&SF.
The Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad (MK&T) was the fourth railroad to enter Ellis County, and its path roughly followed that of an old military road that extended north-south through the central part of the county (Ellis County History Workshop 1972:52). The MK&T reached Milford first in 1890 as it entered the county from the south. From Milford, the tracks continued northward and extended to Italy. The railroad then continued northward to Chambers Creek and Ellis County’s oldest community (Howe’s Settlement), which was renamed Forreston in honor of Captain Carr Forrest who donated land for a new, formally designated townsite that straddled the railroad (Webb 1952,I:619). The line was extended to Sterrett in 1889 where it was placed in the center of town (Webb 1952,H:670). Subsequently, the community grew westward so that the railroad line presently skirts the eastern edge of town. Red Oak, first settled in 1847, was the last community the MK&T railroad passed through before entering Dallas County. A small commercial district and residential neighborhood, mainly extant, developed around 1900 west of the railroad tracks.
Another rail carrier in Ellis County was the Texas Midland Railroad, which served the northeast portion of Ellis County and extended from Ennis to Paris, Texas. The builders of this line originally proposed an extension to Waco, but the Texas & New Orleans Railroad purchased the company in 1928 and canceled the plans. The railroad permanently abandoned the line east of Kaufman to Ennis in July 1943 because of destructive washouts near the Trinity River (Ellis County History Workshop 1972:113).
The International & Great Northern Railway (I&GN) was built through the southern portion of the county in 1902 (Ellis County History Workshop 1972:52). An abandoned railroad overpass on the former line between Italy and Maypearl is all that remains of the I&GN in the county. The Burlington Rock Island Railroad was built in stages through Bardwell, Waxahachie, Sterrett and Red Oak from 1903-1906 (Ellis County History Workshop 1972:52).
By the early 20th century, the complex railroad network that crisscrossed through the county (see Figure 3) helped tap the fertile farmland of the region and brought an important measure of culture, revenue, economic development, and population growth to Ellis County. Railroad development, combined with a more sophisticated agricultural industry, enhanced local economic growth as cotton and other crops and goods could be processed locally and then shipped more quickly, cheaply, and in greater quantities to markets nationwide. The economic trends established with the maturation of the railroad system were sustained through the early 20th century as farmers, with secured railroad access to Dallas and the industrial Northeast, turned to more mechanized farm practices to enhance production and profit. Grain elevators, cottonseed manufacturing businesses, and cotton-gin complexes and storage warehouses developed by the score in all areas of the county through the 1930s, and nearly always were adjacent to the railroad.
The railroads were also instruments in the growth of local consumer mercantile communities, which had their strongest growth from the 1880s until the late 1920s. With the railroad, county merchants and businessmen gained access to goods that were previously unattainable or too expensive, and subsequently established groceries, dry good stores, clothing and drug stores, hardware stores, and lumber and brick yards with a wide variety of product choice. Cotton-related profits enabled farmers to buy these goods. Throughout the county, areas in proximity to the railroad lines naturally evolved into the prominent commercial districts.
Two examples of this focused development are seen in Forreston and Ferris. In Forreston, the MK&T line runs north-south through the community with the extant commercial district along and west of the tracks and an abandoned cotton gin complex east of the tracks. In Ferris, the old H&TC tracks (now part of the Southern Pacific system) divide the community with a linear-developed commercial area west of the railroad.
The Interurban System in Ellis County
The interurban electric railway system built in north and east Texas in the early 20th century enhanced the transportation services between many of the large cities of the state. Various interurban lines connected Houston and Galveston, Beaumont and Port Arthur, Dallas and Waco, and Dallas and Corsicana. By 1931, 10 interurban systems existed in Texas with a combined total of 518 miles (Reed 1981:497). The electric railway enjoyed a monopoly on passenger service since it vastly undercut the price of steam or rail passenger service and offered more frequent service, convenient stops, and lower fares to travelers. The interurban lines that serviced Ellis County were financed by the Texas Traction Company, which initiated operations on a Dallas-to Sherman line north of Ellis County in July 1908 (Reed 1981:498). The firm was reorganized as the Southern Traction Company in 1912 and an extension of the line was created to serve the area south of Dallas to Corsicana. A branch line was developed from Ferris to Waco that passed through Waxahachie (Reed 1981:498).
The expanded interurban line from Dallas to Waco, 97 miles, opened in October 1913 and paralleled the MK&T Railroad track through Red Oak, Sterrett, Waxahachie, Forreston, Italy, and Milford (Jackson 1981:2). A separate 53-mile line from Dallas to Corsicana opened the same month and followed the H&TC Railroad line through Ferris, Trumbull, Palmer, Garrett, Ennis, and Alma (Jackson 1981:2). In 1917 the stockholders of both companies agreed to merge all properties under the name of the Texas Electric Railway, which became the largest interurban system in the South (Reed 1981:498).
For Ellis County, the interurban system created a more efficient means of personal transportation and increased business traffic and sales for those operations close to interurban stops. New and expanded businesses were established in the towns that catered to the interurban passenger. The height of passenger traffic on the interurban system occurred in 1920 when it carried a total of 819,000 passengers (Jackson 1981:5). With the advent of the automobile and the highway system, the interurban began to decline, and by 1930, the interurban only carried 227,000 passengers (Jackson 1981:5). In order to successfully compete with railroad and automobile traffic, the Railroad Commission voted in April 1928 to allow the interurban to carry freight traffic (Reed 1981:498). Nevertheless, the interurban slowly reduced its services and eventually was forced to suspend operations completely in 1948. Abandoned interurban tracks in Italy and Ferris are the only remains of the electric railway system in rural Ellis County. A former interurban station (built 1923) is extant in Ennis and now houses a small retail establishment.
Automobile Highways and Bridge Construction
A new era in transportation was initiated in the nation and Ellis County with the advent and popular use of the automobile. The first improved roads in the county were gravel roads, known as “pike” roads, which linked various communities of the county, like Red Oak, Midlothian, and Ennis, to Waxahachie. The first of these improved roads was completed in 1908 and extended northward from Waxahachie, linking the city to Dallas, the largest distribution and commercial center in North Texas (Ellis County History Workshop 1972:264).
In the late 1910s, the growing number of automobiles and the need for adequate road systems motivated the federal government to assist highway construction in the states. The Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 authorized the Bureau of Public Roads to support state projects with federal funds. A supplemental road act in 1921 provided additional assistance for a state highway system, and monies appropriated with the legislation funded ambitious road and bridge programs in Texas, including Ellis County.
In the mid-1920s, Ellis County passed a bond issue of $350,000 and received additional federal aid of $632,400 for the construction of State Highway 6 (present U. S. Highway 77) from Forreston to Sterrett and State Highway 34 (present U. S. Highway 287) from Reagor Springs to Sardis (Ellis County History Workshop 1972:265). These highways provided farmers, ranchers, merchants, and travelers better access to all areas of the county. Later improvements in 1930 included the concreting of a portion of State Highway 6 from Waxahachie to Sterrett and extensions of the road to Dallas County on the north and Hill County on the south (Ellis County History Workshop 1972:265). An extensive program of bridge building accompanied the county highway plan as wooden bridges and graded river crossings were replaced with small steel and iron bridges. There are several extant examples of these early 20th century bridges in the county, such as the Warren Pony Truss-type bridge that spans Baker Branch on Curry Road southwest of Waxahachie. A good example of a Parker Through Truss bridge (built 1927), which was a later popular bridge type, is extant on former State Highway 6 over Chambers Creek.
Through the 1930s and 1940s, most transportation improvements involved road construction, widening, and maintenance. The county paved State Highway 34 (U. S. Highway 287) from the Kaufman County line on the east to the Tarrant County line on the northwest (Ellis County History Workshop 1972:265). This road served as the major east-west artery through Ellis County connecting Ennis, Waxahachie, and Midlothian. In the early 1940s, U. S. Highway 75 (present Interstate 45) was constructed from Dallas through Ellis County on the path of the H&TC Railroad (Ellis County History Workshop 1972).
In 1951 Ellis County residents voted a special ad valorem tax for improvements to farm-to-market roads. With additional state aid, many of these lateral roads were straightened, widened, and hard topped. Interstate 35 East was constructed through Milford, Italy, Forreston, Waxahachie, Sterrett, and Red Oak in the late 1950s (Ellis County History Workshop 1972:266).
Industry and Manufacturing
Although the economy of Ellis County has been largely dependent upon the cultivation of agricultural goods, many industrial concerns have also operated in the region and, likewise, have contributed to the county’s historical development. Most have been agricultural-related enterprises such as cotton gins, compresses, cottonseed oil mills and textile mills. However, Ellis County is also well-known for its many brick manufacturing plants, which were established in the northeastern section of the county, near the communities of Ferris and Palmer. These and other industrial concerns contributed to the county’s growth and development, and their successful operation would not have been possible without efficient and reliable transportation systems (the railroads) as a means of shipping their goods. These businesses have left a tangible mark on the county’s built environment and are representative of this important segment of the local history.
The earliest industrial concerns were modest operations and played a mostly inconsequential role in the local economy. Industrial and Manufacturing Schedules from 1850, 1860, and 1870 census returns revealed only limited industrial activity in the region. Most of these facilities were powered by animals, water or steam and employed fewer than 10 workers. Grist mills were the most common type of industrial enterprise in Ellis County during the middle of the 19th century, and their operation reflected the prevailing sustenance agricultural-based economy that existed at that time. Wheat and corn were the primary crops cultivated by local farmers who often had their harvests milled and then kept the finished goods for themselves.
Another early type of industrial facility was the cotton gin which became common after cotton was first introduced to the fertile soils of Ellis County in the 1840s. Gins were an essential part of the emerging cotton culture that developed in subsequent years. They extracted seeds from the fiber and then compressed the cotton into more compact and dense bales that facilitated their shipment to textile mills on the Eastern Seaboard or in Europe. Most of the early gins relied on horses or oxen as the source of power (White 1957:27). As a consequence, these gins were relatively small in size and scale and had a relatively limited production capacity.
Hans Smith, who settled on the south side of Red Oak Creek near present-day Palmer, reportedly operated Ellis County’s first cotton gin where he processed all locally grown cotton for two or three years (Texas Historical Commission marker files). No physical evidence of Smith’s or other early gin complexes are extant, but these structures probably were similar to contemporaneous ones built in other parts of the state. A typical early gin, as described by White (1957:27), was composed of two parts that included a gin house and a press. The gin house was a 2-story frame building that was open on three sides on the first floor. The gin stand, which processed the cotton, was on the second floor, and all the machinery that powered the gin stand was on the ground floor.
As cotton production totals for Ellis County soared in subsequent years, especially after the Civil War, many new gins were built throughout the county. Innovations in the gin equipment and new sources of power (steam) contributed to a proliferation of new and more efficient gins. Census records for 1870 noted that four gins operated in Ellis County, including one in Waxahachie, one in Milford, and two in Red Oak. A decade later, a total of 12 gins were in operation, most of which were in central, northern, and northeastern Ellis County. By the turn of the century, cotton gins were common sights in the numerous small farm towns of the county (see Figure 4). Gins, which represented the first step in the processing of cotton into a useable consumer good, typically were built near the farms to make them easily accessible to local growers.
The new generation of gin that became popular in the late 19th century was no longer housed in a small and crudely constructed frame shed, but rather operated from larger and more substantial frame or brick structures. In contrast to the slow two- to four-horsepower gin of the Civil War era, the gin of the late 1890s:
… contained 4 gins of 70 saws each with a double square-bale press and a suction apparatus attached, requiring an 80 – horsepower engine. Such a plant in constant operation will yield from 40 to 60 bales of cotton per day. The wagon, loaded with seed cotton, is driven under a flexible slip of a joint pipe and the cotton is drawn up by the suction created by an exhaust cleaner. By this separator and cleaner the dust, sand and leaf trash are sifted and drawn through by suction and thus freed from impurities as the cotton is conveyed through a distributor to the automatic gin feeders. After filling all the feeders the surplus cotton falls out and the ginner by means of a simple lever, causes the suction to change from the direction of the wagon to that of the overflow, and the overflow cotton is conveyed to gin feeders. From all the gins the cotton is conducted by a flue system to a condenser, and fed into one box of the self-packing revolving double press. In this way lint is ginned into one box while the bale is being pressed out in the other (White 1957:61).
Gins that are representative of this era are extant in Lone Cedar, Maypearl, and Five Points.
Although regarded as an industrial facility, gins were small operations that did not require much capital to construct. Therefore, they were built in great numbers throughout the county and, for the most part, were independently owned and operated. During the off season, they sometimes were used as grist mills.
Gins quickly became important local centers of activity and helped define communities in rural areas. Sometimes the establishment of a gin spurred other construction nearby, such as a store, school, or church. This pattern was common in Ellis County during the cotton boom era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Besides gins, another type of cotton-related industrial facility that played a significant role in the county’s historical development was the cotton compress, which packed the cotton into even more dense bales. Such a step was necessary to ship the cotton by way of ocean-going vessels. Unlike gins, however, cotton compresses were a major undertaking and required a substantial amount of investment to construct. Therefore, they were not built as frequently as gins. Cotton compresses typically were erected in the county’s largest cities, adjacent to railroad tracks.
Prior to the Civil War, the only compresses in the state were in Houston and Galveston. The cost and crude technology involved in their construction made it prohibitive to build them anywhere except in those ports where the cotton would be shipped to the textile mills. This scenario led to the development of a railroad network in the state, with most tracks terminating in Houston or Galveston. The H&TC Railroad, which extended through Ellis County, was one such railroad.
By the 1880s, however, innovations in the manufacture of equipment used in compresses helped to bring costs down, and the same railroad network that was built to bring cotton to the port cities also enabled the compress machinery to be easily transported into the hinterlands of Texas. All this led to the construction of a number of cotton compresses in the state, including many in the Blackland Prairie region, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Ennis Cotton Compress, for example, was established in 1885, and it had a capacity to handle up to 700 bales per day. Waxahachie at one time had two cotton compresses, both of which were erected near the railroad tracks. One of the structures (the National Compress Co. Building) is still used as a compress and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Another type of industrial operation that contributed to Ellis County’s agricultural-based economy was the cottonseed oil mill that utilized the seeds that were extracted in the ginning process. When cotton was first grown in Ellis County, the seeds were simply discarded as a useless by-product of the ginning process. However, when the seeds were pressed, the oil was found to be an effective soap and was also suitable for food oil, animal feed, and other uses. Like compresses, these oil mills were major operations and were erected only in larger communities with other cotton-related industries. During the early 20th century, Waxahachie boasted. three cottonseed oil mills.
Improvements in the transportation network obviously aided efforts to ship cotton to markets and also contributed to the development of the compress and cottonseed oil industries; however, as early as the 1870s, cotton growers in Ellis County and the rest of Texas began to resent the shipment of their own goods to textile mills in England or the eastern United States and then ultimately returned to Texas as a finished and expensive product. The authors of the 1870 Texas Almanac pondered:
Where is the sense in supposing that the machinery which turns cotton into cloth should be located one thousand or two thousand miles away from the place where the raw material is grown? What commercial or other necessity is there that a bale of cotton should be taxed with the cost of transportation, of cartage, of warehousing, before it can be turned into cloth? Why should all this waste be contributed to enrich communities far from the locality where the crop is planted? People do not want raw cotton; as a general thing, they want cotton cloth… (Texas Almanac 1870:167).
Although such sentiments were “pressed relatively early in Texas’ cotton-boom era, little initially was done to erect textile mills in the state primarily because of the vast capital needed for their construction. During the 1890s, several such factories were built in the state’s leading cotton centers, primarily along the Blackland Prairie Belt. Among those erected was one in Waxahachie in 1899-1900. A significant portion of the financial backing came from local townspeople who believed the investment would lead to even greater economic prosperity. The mill began its operation with 204 looms and 9,000 spindles but almost doubled its capacity by 1907. The company also built a large boarding house and 24 dwellings for the textile workers.
Brick Manufacturing in Ellis County
Although the role of cotton and agricultural-related enterprises virtually overshadowed the economy of Ellis County during the early decades of the 20th century, brick manufacturing was another component of the local economy. The soil in the northeastern portion of the county contained a good supply of Houston Black Clay that was found to be useful for the manufacture of brick, and the communities of Ferris and Palmer became leading brick-producing areas in the state. Other important brick-manufacturing centers in Texas included Bastrop County in Central Texas and Henderson County in East Texas. The Texas brick industry was quite profitable during the 1910s and 1920s, as indicated by the steady rise of the value of bricks: 1890, $700,000; 1900, $1,171,017; 1910, $2,863,930; 1920, $6,298,407; 1925, $6,305,487 (Texas Almanac). It was during these years when industrious men organized almost a dozen brick companies in Ellis County in order to supply the increased demands for building materials in a rapidly developing state.
Ferris, which lies in northeast Ellis County near the Dallas County line, was once regarded as the principal brick manufacturing city in the state. Located on the main line of the H&TC Railroad, Ferris possessed superior transportation services that connected it to the larger markets of the state. One of the first brick manufacturing operations was begun by T. J. Hurst of Dallas, who established the Ferris Pressed Brick Company in 1895 (Ellis County History Workshop 1972). The company’s success led others to the area, and according to the Texas State Gazetteer, six brick plants operated in Ferris by 1914 including Atlas Press Brick Works (1895-1918), Diamond Press Brick Company (1910-1923), Ferris Press Brick Company (1901-1923), Globe Press Brick Company (1904-1923), Lone Star Press Brick Company (1905-1923), and Texas Press Brick Company (1909-1926) (Texas Secretary of State files). By 1921, two more brick industries were added to this number (Sanborn Map Company).
These enterprises were located north of Ferris about a mile out of town and several extended into Dallas County but were still within the city limits of Ferris. The brick industry in Ferris reached a new height in 191 1, when the combined plant daily output averaged 300,000 to 350,000 bricks with a total capacity of 520,000 bricks (Texas Magazine). When compared to other cities in proportion to population and number of brick industries, Ferris was considered to be the biggest brick manufacturing town not only in the state and nation, but in the world in 1911 (Texas Magazine).
Palmer, just eight miles south of Ferris and also on the main line of the H&TC Railroad, likewise was a brick-manufacturing center. The Palmer Pressed Brick Works began operations in 1902, and the Standard Brick Company was established later in 1910. In 1929 these two companies merged to form the Barron Brick Company, which operated until 1973 (Texas Secretary of State). These enterprises were located about a mile north of town with access to the railroad right-of-way.
The entire process of brick manufacturing occurred within the company’s several-acre site. The clay was taken from the clay pits that were adjacent to the plant and brought into the storage shed. After the clay was cured, crushed, and pulverized, it was mixed with water to form a muddy substance. When it was brought to proper consistency, the mud was forced out through a mold in a continuous, rectangular column. The columns were cut into brick shapes and dried for 48 hours. The bricks were then taken to the kilns and heated for 9 to 10 days at temperatures reaching 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The color of a brick depended upon the character of the clay and shale and the temperature and manner in which the heat was applied. After several days of cooling, the bricks were stacked in the yard to await transportation (Crosby 1932:7).
The brick manufacturing companies in Ferris and Palmer generally produced fire-bricks, a long-lasting and durable brick. These bricks were mainly used for construction purposes in the Dallas area. The brick companies usually sold to construction firms and not directly to the consumer, although nearby lumber yards were known to sell the locally produced bricks. Each brick company usually had some kind of marking or symbol on their brick to distinguish it from others. For example, “Globe” appeared on bricks produced by Globe Press Brick Company, “Diamond” on the Diamond Press Company bricks, “Atlas” on the Atlas Press Brick Works bricks, and “Palmer” on the Palmer Pressed Brick Company bricks (Steinbomer).
A few brick companies advertised their brick to consumers, such as the Acme Brick Company of Fort Worth, which operated a plant in Ferris during the mid-20th century. One advertisement in the Texas State Gazetteer of 1914 stated that brick is a logical building material because a brick building earns dividends through higher rentals, has a low cost of up-keep, and has lower insurance rates and premiums.
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