By KATE NOWAK
part 2 of 2
While most may think of April as a time for celebrating fools and spring showers, some of the local folk in Palo Pinto County are more apt to think of it as the perfect time for celebrating history. They have good reason. Ever since 1837, when Bigfoot Wallace first planted his reportedly big feet on a portion of the 948 broken and hilly square miles that make up the county, the area has been steeped in a rich and varied history worthy of celebration. That’s why every other year the Palo Pinto County Historical Commission hosts a driving tour, opening wide the gates to yesteryear and giving history buffs an opportunity to venture through the beautiful Palo Pinto Mountain range and straight into the past.
Offering fascinating legend and lore along with postcard-worthy landscapes, this year’s biennial tour, aptly dubbed the Palo Pinto County Historic and Wildflower Tour, will take place April 27, the last Saturday in April, beginning at 9 am and lasting until 4 pm.
As with past tours offered by the commission, you will be free to start the tour at any point along the way; but to give you an idea of what to expect, let’s take a quick peek at all the places along the designated route: From the Johnson League, we will head over to Strawn, located in the furthermost southwestern corner of the county. Our first stop there will be the old Presbyterian Church, now the Opal Guest Chapel.
Built in 1917 at a cost of $10,000, this beautiful building was home to the North Fork Congregation of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church for over half a century before being closed to weekly services in the early 1970s. After sitting vacant for almost 30 years, the little church might have succumbed to the wrecking ball had it not been for the loving attention given it by local rancher Jimmy Guest and his wife, Jerri, who purchased the old building in 1997. Guest’s father, James, had been an elder of the church and his mother, Opal Hodgkins Guest, had been his Sunday school teacher there. He’d also been baptized in the church.
Motivated by childhood memories and a desire to honor his parents, the Guest’s began restoration efforts soon after the purchase was finalized. The restoration was not an easy one. Bulging walls had to be pulled back together with the insertion of steel cables, and the toll taken by time on the church interior had to be erased. With painstaking devotion, Guest oversaw the restoration of the beautiful stained-glass windows, pews, light fixtures, doors and even the original church bell. When finished, the little church was named the Opal Guest Chapel. Today, the restored building stands as tribute to the town’s heritage and faith and is regularly put to use for public meetings, weddings, funerals and baccalaureates.
Our next stop in Strawn will be the Strawn Historical Museum. The small one-room tile structure housing the museum was built 60 years ago to provide housing for the local Boy Scout troop and was originally called “The Boy Scout Hut.” Since the land had been granted to the Boy Scouts by the city, it was stipulated that in the event that scouts ever stopped using the facility, ownership of the building would revert to the city.
Eventually, the local scout troop was discontinued and in February 2001, a group of interested citizens met in the building and officially renamed it the “Strawn Historical Museum.” Later, a memorial park was created on the museum grounds as further tribute to the town’s founders, pioneers and past and present citizens.
With a purpose of protecting, preserving and sharing Strawn’s history, the little building now houses a varied collection of photos, newspapers, furnishings and artifacts and memorabilia from various homes and businesses in the area – donations. Located just south of City Hall, the museum is open for a few hours every day of the week except Monday.
Leaving the museum, we will head west again, this time venturing about 2 miles beyond Strawn’s city limits to an area designated as the newest state park in Texas. Since the planning and development process has only recently begun, an opening date for the park has not been set as of yet, but anyone who travels to the location will quickly see why the area was selected; the rugged terrain abounds in picturesque views of surrounding hills and valleys. Containing creek beds, valleys, hillsides, mesas and deep ravines, the park also boasts a variety of mammals and numerous birds. While Palo Pinto Creek flows along the northern edge of the property, the main water feature is Tucker Lake, a beautiful reservoir built in 1937 and containing an abundant population of largemouth bass, catfish and crappie.
After hearing Park Ranger John Ferguson’s overview of the developmental timeline of the new state park, we will return to Strawn and drop by the Stuart Estate for a visit. James N. Stuart and his wife, Sallie Saphira Allen Stuart, came to Texas from Missouri in 1859 in an ox-drawn wagon. Along with other Missourians including the Allen and Martin families, the couple were accompanied on their journey west by Sallie’s sister Emmaline Jane Allen and a young man named Stephen Bethel Strawn. Bethel Strawn and Jane Allen were married and settled with the Stuarts in the North Fork area that would later bear Strawn’s name. The Stuart and Strawn families ran cattle together for several years and both James and Bethel were instrumental in bringing the railroad through the area.
The Stuarts’ eldest son, Thomas Burton and his wife, Ella, built the current Stuart home in 1917. With double-bricked outside walls and a 6-foot-deep, double-brick foundation, the home was built to last, and that it has done.
After remaining vacant for a number of years, the home has recently been beautifully restored and is now inhabited by Thomas Burton’s great-granddaughter. Furnishings once belonging to the home’s first inhabitants have been lovingly and painstakingly recovered to replicate their original state as closely as possible. A horn chair from the famed Buckhorn Saloon in San Antonio once purchased for their father by Thomas Burton’s children remains in the house, as do the hall table, front bedroom furnishings, a round table on the sleeping porch and a cupboard on the front porch, all furnishings once belonging to Thomas Burton and Ella. While the house now boasts a modernized kitchen, the old kitchen cabinets can still be seen in the studio apartment conversion of the old washhouse and garage.
Having sheltered numerous generations of Stuarts before being lovingly restored, today the home has returned to being the haven of family warmth and love it was originally built to be.
We will be heading north on Highway 16 next, our destination the historic Belding Ranch. Numerous generations of Beldings have occupied the family ranch house that has grown like topsy over the years since Henry Belding first settled in this area. Though family members of each generation have added on, the little one-room cabin that Henry and his wife first moved into back in 1859 still remains at the home’s core.
As you drive past the entrance gate and follow the road to the ranch house you’ll notice both split rail and rock fences along the way, much of the latter built by an itinerate fence builder fittingly named John Rock. He and his family traveled throughout the area by wagon building sturdy rock fences wherever they were hired to do so. Some of the finest examples of his work can still be seen on the Belding Ranch.
That wraps up our quick look at the April 27, 2013, Palo Pinto County Historic and Wildflower Tour. Cost of tickets is $10 per adult and $2 for children, ages 6-15. You may start your tour at any of the eight locations along the way and proceed as you wish. Tickets are available for purchase at the various tour stops on the day of the event.
For more information about the history of Palo Pinto County and this year’s tour go to "www.palopintohistory.com. Advance tickets or information available by calling the Mineral Wells Area Chamber of Commerce at (940) 325-2557; Possum Kingdom Chamber of Commerce at (888) 779-8330. Advance tickets also available at the Jail Museum in Palo Pinto, open Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. On tour day, tickets are available at all tour stops.