Historical Notes on the Town of Mt. Vernon & the County of Franklin

BASIC SKETCH OF MT. VERNON HISTORY

Mt. Vernon starts as a settlement near the Fanning Springs (on Holbrook Street south of the present town square). Affidavits filed to establish land titles soon after the Texas Revolution document the settlement by squatters in Spanish Texas commencing in 1818.

By 1848 the United States government established a post office; in 1849 a formal town site was laid out on land donated by Stephen and Rebecca Keith for the town of Mount Vernon. Since there were two other Mount Vernons in Texas the post office was called Keith and then Lone Star before the name Mount Vernon became available in 1875.

Franklin County was carved out of Titus County in 1875, and Mount Vernon was elected county seat in competition with other communities.

The county's economy was based in agriculture with corn and cotton, followed with over 500,000 peach trees in production in the 1920's; watermelons in the 1930's; and the state's top record production of cane syrup in the 1940's. The 1936 discovery of oil on C.G. Hughes land in the north part of the county led to diversified economy with oil production continuing today combined with light industry, manufacturing, and diverse agricultural endeavors. Mt. Vernon, as county seat, was assured a continuing vital existence as the economic center for the county. The town boasted churches, doctors, lawyers, and many varied stores in a day before people had the ability to travel far.

The town voted to incorporate in 1910 under a mayor/council form of government. In 1911 a bond issue carried for a public waterworks. Electric and gas utility service followed. Over 50 homes built before World War I are marked with signs designating the original owners and year of construction. Tour maps are available. There are over 20 official state historical markers. The Cherokee Trace runs along the eastern edge of the county south toward Nacogdoches. The Choctaw Trail runs through the county toward Dallas. The Bankhead Highway remains as Mt. Vernon's Main Street.

The downtown area reflects a small-town atmosphere. The central plaza has a picturesque gazebo and park benches. On the north side of the square is a classical revival 1912 white limestone courthouse with a chiming clock tower.

Mapped and marked for year round use are trails for bicycling and hiking, and scenic driving tours. Check with the historical association offices at 701 S. Kaufman St. 903-537-4760 for trail maps; and with the chamber of commerce at 109 S. Kaufman 903-537-4365 for information on accommodations, dining facilities and events. See www.mt-vernon.com and links to chamber of commerce, economic development, schools, historical association, genealogical, arts alliance, and other groups.

BASIC SKETCH OF FRANKLIN COUNTY HISTORY

Franklin County is the 8th smallest of the 254 counties in Texas; long and narrow with a north-south configuration. The county is old by Texas standards. The Cherokee Trace runs along our eastern boundary; a Caddo trade route which led from Nacogdoches into Oklahoma. Except for a few remnant prairies, the county was covered in virgin forest with the north half of the county in a region known as the postoak savannah and the southern half of the county at the northernmost end of the pine forests of southeast Texas.

Sam Houston and Davey Crockett both traveled the Cherokee Trace as they entered Texas and this area was home to very early settlement. After the Texas Revolution, the area opened for settlement and the land along the Cherokee Trace and the Choctaw Trail was soon taken. The last Indian Massacre in the eastern half of the State of Texas was on April 10, 1841, just east of the town of Mt. Vernon. Ambrose Ripley lost 8 children in the raid; a state marker 3 miles east of Mt. Vernon on US Hwy 67 tells the story of his losses in "the defense of the frontiers of the republic." Hard to believe today, although by the time of the Civil War, forests were cleared and land plowed for cotton and corn.

When LaSalle discovered the mouth of the Mississippi, he claimed all lands drained by it for the King of France. The Red River drains into the Mississippi, and France never released its claim to this region of Texas. With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Thomas Jefferson contended that the United States had purchased both sides of the Red River, and the claim was not relinquished until 1819 when the U.S. released its claim as part of the consideration for the purchase of Spanish Florida. Anthony Glass came through this county and along the Caddo/Cherokee Trace in 1808 as an agent for the United States government. His journal describes the same terrain and wildlife you will see today. We are in the drainage of the Mississippi River and this area was a no man's land with the United States asserting this region as being within the Mississippi Purchase. Glass kept a detailed diary and describes the mounds on the Daphne Prairie in language which is still accurate today on that unplowed virgin prairie - a tiny remnant of the original 30 million acres of blackland prairie the Texas pioneers first encountered. Spanish explorers of the 1500's probably came within present day Franklin County, given the meandering Indian trade routes that would have made travel easier for them.

By 1848 both Gray Rock and Mt. Vernon had been awarded Post Offices.

Franklin County was first a part of Red River County, one of the 16 original counties in the Republic of Texas. In 1846 Titus County was formed out of Red River, including present day Morris, Titus, Franklin and part of Camp County. In 1875, Franklin County was carved out of Titus County.

County records in Franklin County date to 1836; when the county was organized, clerks were sent to transcribe the land records relating to Franklin County land in both Red River and Titus Counties. Invaluable genealogical records are preserved in our county as a result of this. When the Titus County courthouse burned in 1895, the records were lost except for those copied in Franklin County, which remain available today in our courthouse.

SOIL SURVEY OF FRANKLIN COUNTY, TEXAS, BY A.E. KOCHER AND W.S. LYMAN (1908)

Introductory Comments by the Editors

In 1908, the United States Department of Agriculture published a "soil survey" for Franklin County. The survey was published as a small pamphlet, and numerous copies still exist in Franklin County. The pamphlet is much more than any simple description of soils and includes a broad description of the settlement of the county, agricultural development and agricultural practices and production through 1908, and soil type descriptions for the county. What follows is worth study by any naturalist and is included on its merits in this book.

Description of the Area

Franklin County lies in the northeastern part of the State of Texas, in the second tier of counties from the Oklahoma line, being separated from Oklahoma by Red River County, and is the fourth county from the Arkansas line. It is bounded on the north by Sulphur River, on the east by Titus and Camp Counties, on the south by Wood, and on the west by Hopkins County. It is included between the meridians 95 degrees 6 minutes 30 seconds and 95 degrees 16 minutes west longitude and the parallels 32 degrees 57 minutes 24 seconds and 32 degrees 22 minutes 26 seconds north latitude. It is one of the smaller counties in the State, containing only 186,944 acres, or about 292 square miles.

Geographically, the county occupies a position between two natural divisions of the State. To the west occurs the broad treeless region of Central Texas, with its characteristic level or gently rolling topography, while to the east is found the more broken eroded district of East Texas. Each of these divisions is represented in the county, but the prairie region, which occurs mainly in the northern part, occupies only about fifteen per cent of the total area. Here the topography is quite level, and the few streams flowing through the section have comparatively shallow channels. The drainage is good, the principal stream in this region being the Sulphur River, which bounds the county on the north. This stream has its source in the Grand Prairie belt to the west and for several miles flows through black calcareous clays. During times of flood a large quantity of this fine material has been brought down and deposited over abroad, level flood plain, forming a soil of unusual strength and productivity.

The topography of the southern half of the county is considerably more broken than is that of the northern half, a condition due largely to erosion. In general, however, the surface features of the county are somewhat less broken than is usually the case in other East Texas counties.

By reference to the accompanying map [original booklet has map insert showing Texas with counties and rivers and streams], it will be seen that two prominent divides separate the drainage systems of the county. One of these, between Sulphur River and White Oak Creek, passes from east to west across the northern part of the county including the locations of Hagansport and Lavada. The second and more noticeable divide, separating the drainage systems of White Oak and Cypress Creeks, passes through the town of Purley and thence north and east beyond the limits of the county.

The drainage systems of the area are well established, several streams having attained considerable size before entering the county from the west. White Oak Creek, the largest of these, has its source near Sulphur Springs and after traversing the width of the county, enters Sulphur River about thirty miles to the east. Entering White Oak Creek from the south are several lesser steams, of which Big Creek is the most important. This stream, rising in the vicinity of Purley, flows nearly north for about ten miles and, with its numerous laterals from the east, completely drains this part of the county. Beyond the divide to the east and south the county is drained by Cypress and Brushy Creeks, the former of which has four important tributaries entering from the north namely, Panther, Broughams, Andys, and Smiths. Brushy Creek, which forms a part of the east county line, has several important branches entering from the west, among the largest of which is Dry Cypress Creek.

The area now included in the county received its first permanent settlers about the year 1836. These came from Tennessee, and for more than thirty years the immigrants to the county were natives of that State. In 1870 immigration began to come in from Georgia and Alabama, and five years later the county was organized. Settlement, however, was slow until 1887, when the completion of the railroad across the county encouraged development. The county is still but sparsely settled. In a total of 118,528 acres included in farms, according to the Twelfth Census, only 59,841 are under cultivation.

Mount Vernon, the county seat, is the largest town in the area. Winnsboro, on the southern line, has a population of about 900 and is an important shipping point for the southern part of the county. Another shipping point is Winfield, which is situated just across the line in Titus County, on the St. Louis Southwestern Railroad. Other small centers in the northern part of the county are Daphne, Lavada, and Hagansport. In this part of the county, development is seriously hindered by the absence of adequate shipping facilities. The St. Louis Southwestern Railroad, crossing the central part of the county in an east and west direction, connects the area with St. Louis and the principal cities of the north and with Dallas and Fort Worth on the west. The latter point is an important one because of the active demand for livestock at that place. The Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad, touching the southern end of the county near Winnsboro, provides transportation facilities for that place and vicinity.

Climate

The climate of Franklin County is mild and agreeable. The summers are long, but the heat is usually tempered by the cool breezes from the Gulf. During the period from 1894 to 1903, according to the records of the Weather Bureau station at Paris, the average number of days on which the temperature exceeded 100 degrees was 17, varying from none in 1895 to 37 in 1899.

The winters as a rule are moderate but are occasionally marked by sudden falls of temperature, due to "northers," or sudden cold waves from the North. These periods, however, are rarely more than two or three days in length and are not frequent. Plowing can be done during any month of the year, and the growing season is such that at least two plantings of most crops can be matured between the opening of spring and the first Wiling frost of fall.

The following table, compiled from the records of the Weather Bureau station at Paris, gives the normal monthly and annual temperature and precipitation, etc. [see Exhibit A at end of this article for reproduction of the chart].

From this it will be seen the coldest month is February, and the hottest months are June, July, August, and September; occasional temperatures above 100 degrees are usually recorded.

As a rule the rainfall is ample and well distributed, although dry years occur when considerable loss is occasioned through insufficient cultivation and failure to conserve soil moisture. The average yearly rainfall at Paris is 33.3 inches, of which 10.9, or nearly one-third, occurs during May, June, and July. The total precipitation for the wettest year is 48.1 inches, and for the driest year 18.4 inches. Of this precipitation, 3.1 inches are recorded for the growing months of June, July, and August.

The average date of the last killing frost in the spring is March 28, and of the first in the fall is November 15, giving an average growing season of 232 days. The latest recorded date of a killing frost in spring is April 12, and of the earliest in the fall is November 3.

Agriculture

Since the settlement of the county in 1836, agriculture has been the dominant industry. Until after the Civil War, only subsistence crops such as wheat, corn, potatoes and vegetables were grown. This was because the nearest market for salable products was at Jefferson, 65 miles away, and cotton was in very little demand. The methods in use during these early years were necessarily crude. No effort was made to cultivate the prairie soils, settlement being mainly on the sandy lands near the edge of the timber belt. The prairies, however, were highly valued as ranges for stock, and for many years the early settlers derived their sole income from this source. At the close of the Civil War the methods of agriculture began to change. New settlers came in from Alabama and Georgia and took up the sandy lands in the southern part of the county. At this time, cotton was high, and in a few years it crowded out wheat entirely, not withstanding the fact that cotton had to be marketed 65 miles away. About 1885, the growing of wheat was again attempted, but the practice soon died out and, in the year 1900, according to the records of the Twelfth Census, only 549 acres were grown, with an average yield of less than ten bushels per acre. Since this date practically all of the wheat products used in the county have been imported.

In 1887, a great stimulus was given the agriculture of the county by the completion of the St. Louis Southwestern Railroad, by which the county was placed on a direct line with the most important markets of the North. During the next few years settlement was rapid, but for the last decade the increase in population has been slight. A decided improvement, however, has been made in the agricultural methods and conditions. The acreage of trucking crops has been largely increased, and in the vicinity of Winnsboro the peach industry has been widely extended. According to reliable farmers, 80,000 peach trees were planted near this town in 1905, in 1906 there were planted 180,000, and in 1907 150,000 more; so it is safe to estimate that at the present time there are at least a half-million trees in this vicinity just coming into bearing. Young orchards are also being put out around Mount Vernon, and the prospects for financial success are encouraging. This activity shows an awakening to the agricultural possibilities of the county as a fruit district, for in 1900, according to the census, the total value of the orchard products was only $9,073. Vegetables have always held a prominent place in the acreage of cultivated crops, their total value in 1900 being $21,796.

During the year 1907, it was estimated that fifty carloads of Rockyford cantaloupes were shipped from Winnsboro alone, besides considerable quantities of cabbage, etc. In the same section, watermelons are beginning to be grown in a small way and give promise of being a success. The greatest efforts, however, have been devoted to the production of cotton and corn, of which 19,632 and 18,039 acres, respectively, were planted in 1900. From this acreage 7,058 bales of cotton and 318,730 bushels of corn were produced. During this year, 2,044 acres of oats were planted, giving on an average a yield of about 20 bushels per acre. Not withstanding the marked adaptation of some of the lowland soils to the production of forage crops and grasses, little effort is made to utilize them for this purpose. Only 396 tons of tame grasses were produced in the county in 1900, and since that date this amount has probably not been much increased, although considerable quantities of feed stuffs are annually imported from the West.

In 1900 the county produced 108 acres of alfalfa, but the acreage at the present time is probably much less. This condition is due, in large measure, to the fact that the soils used were not those best adapted to the plant. The county possesses several soils which if properly drained and protected from standing water would be well adapted to alfalfa. These are the Houston clay, Wabash clay, Sanders clay loam, Wilson clay loam, and Wilson loam. Although the adaptability of the sandy meadow lands to the production of sugar cane is quite generally recognized throughout the county, few fields of more than one-half acre in extent are seen on any farm. As the yield ranges from 250 to 500 gallons of syrup per acre, which sells readily for 35 to 50 cents a gallon, it would seem that a greater effort should be made to produce the crop commercially.

During the last two years, considerable attention has been given to the production of peanuts. The sandy soils in the vicinity of Winnsboro and Mount Vernon are well adapted to this crop and return yields of 45 to 95 bushels per acre. The average price of the nuts is about 95 cents per bushel, most of the crop being disposed of at Marshall and Terrell, where mills for the extraction of the oil have recently been located.

The rotation most commonly practiced throughout the county is little suited to the requirements of the soils. Cotton and corn, being the chief crops grown, follow themselves or each other in the rotation year after year. The commendable practice of planting cowpeas in the cornfields at the time of the last cultivation is becoming more common but is not yet as general as it should be. Ridge cultivation is still employed on some of the soils, but it is being recognized that this method favors the loss of soil moisture and the practice is gradually giving way to level culture. Cotton seed has been used as a fertilizer for several years, but the use of commercial fertilizers dates back only a few years, as is shown by the fact that according to the Twelfth Census only $124 was expended for this purpose in 1900. Since then the county s expenditure for fertilizer has increased several thousand dollars.

As a rule, the labor used throughout the county is cheap, but the efficiency is usually rather low. The average wage in 1908 for day laborers was about 50 cents a day or from $10 to $15 per month and board. Although a few large tracts of land are held by individuals as forest, or for grazing, the average size of farms in the county is relatively small, being in 1900 only 77.9 acres. During that year, the percentage of farms operated by the owners was 44.1, but since that date many of the tenants have acquired title to lands and now operate their own farms. The rental paid is on the usual share plan, by which the tenant furnishes everything but the land and buildings and receives one-half the crops. When the tenant furnishes only the labor he is given one-third of the corn and one-fourth of the cotton. Until the development of the trucking industries within the last few years the value of lands in the county was very low. Most of the land can still be bought for the $5 to $10 an acre, but in the vicinity of Mount Vernon, near Winnsboro, and in the heavy bottoms of the Sulphur River the value ranges from $15 to $30 an acre.

As is common throughout the most of the South, the greatest hindrance to the agricultural development is the continuance of the one-crop system. Cotton and corn are the chief crops grown, but a greater effort should be made to introduce a more diversified system which will include the growing of live stock, fruits, vegetables, and truck. While a few small herds of cattle are being grazed on the prairies, the number that is still being kept in the county is far below that which should be produced. Not only should a greater number of animals be kept, but there is an urgent need for the introduction of improved breeds of stock, and to this end it is imperative that the production of grasses and feed stuffs be first given additional attention.

JOSHUA FOSTER JOHNSON

A Bit of Local History from Carolyn Teague, Mount Vernon Main Street Alliance,
“Monday on Main Street,” January 14, 2013

Joshua Foster Johnson, farmer, minister, lawyer, and politician, was born in Rutherford County, Tennessee, on September 28, 1824. In the fall of 1847 Johnson and his family moved to Titus County, where he purchased a farm near Mount Vernon. In 1849 he was elected representative from Titus County to the Third Legislature; at age twenty-five, he was the youngest member. He had been an ardent advocate of annexation in 1845, and he consistently supported measures that would ensure peaceful relations between the national and state governments. After his term in the legislature he returned to his expanding farm, which by 1860 was worth more than $38,000 and was worked by twenty-five slaves. In 1852 Johnson was baptized at New Liberty Baptist Church in Mount Vernon. The next year he was ordained a minister there. For the rest of his life he divided his time among farming, politics, and preaching at numerous small Baptist churches in Northeast Texas.

As an elected delegate to the Secession Convention in 1861, Johnson was one of the eight members who voted against secession. He also signed the "Address to the People of Texas," which urged citizens to vote against the ordinance. With the outbreak of the Civil War he returned to his farm, refusing to fight for or support the Confederate government. At the end of the war provisional governor Andrew Jackson Hamilton appointed Johnson county judge of Titus County. After his judicial term Johnson was elected a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1866 from Titus County. He supported neither the radical Union nor the extreme secessionist factions.

After the convention Johnson returned to his ministry. Ill health forced him to retire from the pulpit in the summer of 1876. That winter he contracted pneumonia and died at his home near Mount Vernon on February 15, 1877. He is buried in the Mount Vernon Cemetery.