By DELANIA TRIGG, City Editor
Gainesville Daily Register
Cooke County —
W.T. — sometimes called “Billy” — Strong didn’t come to Texas with any illusions. In his memoir, he says that when his family talked of moving to Texas from Illinois, not everyone was sold on the idea.
“They (Strong never says who exactly) told us some pretty bad tales about Texas, but it was part of the U.S. and could not be any worse than Illinois with its long winters and chills and fever in the summer.”
“W.T. Strong — his memoirs” is a succinct look at life in early Cooke County.
Strong dictated the manuscript to Gainesville historian Lillian Gunter, who was herself a pioneer having initiated the first public library system in Texas. Gunter preserved Strong’s words, along with dozens of other stories from nineteenth century Cooke County residents and left the bits of information, often written on scraps of paper, in a big cardboard box.
At the time of her death in 1924, Gunter was planning an ambitious project. She wanted to write a comprehensive history of Cooke County.
Strong’s memoirs are a brief section of the work which her relative Y.A. “Pete” Strong would later compile into what are now known as Lillian Gunter’s Cooke County/Red River notes.
Pete Gunter, who edited the book with Robert A. Calvert, left me a copy of Strong’s memoir. I curled up with the pages Friday night and began reading. I didn’t stop until I read the final sentence.
Strong’s story begins as the family is preparing for the trip from Illinois to Texas.
He was 11 years old and said his father decided to leave Illinois to make a better life for his family in Texas.
Back then the government was selling 40 acres of Illinois land for $1.25 an acre.
Strong admits the Illinois land program sounded like a good deal to his dad, but paying even $1.25 an acre wasn’t easy at a time “when corn sold at ten cents a bushel and that was the only money crop in the country.”
Strong said his father happened to read about a place called Peter’s Colony near the Red River and decided Texas was the only place a poor person could acquire a home.
The town would later be called Gainesville.
Along the way, Strong saw some dazzling sights.
For instance, St. Louis “looked to me like it must be the biggest town in the world,” Strong said.
He writes of camping “just here and there as our fancy dictated,” crossing dangerous rivers, dealing with Native Americans and meeting some disgruntled ex-Texans.
“They would tell such things as that cattle all died in Texas and you could not make a living and nothing would grow and they discouraged one man so that he turned around and went back,” he said.
Throughout the story, I got a pretty good idea who Billy Strong was.
He was an honest, decent kid who had to grow up fast. When his father died in Oct. 1846, Strong took over as head of the house.
By the spring of 1847, Strong, along with his mother, was raising his first crop.
But everybody in the Strong household worked hard.
Since nobody had much money, the people of the time were also adept at bartering and hunting.
Finding food wasn’t especially difficult, he said.
The countryside was full of game including deer, antelope, prairie chicken, wild turkey and quail.
Residents also made a lot of their own farm equipment and even wove the fabric for their clothing.
“To get our clothes we planted a patch of cotton like a garden patch. Then we sat down in the winter time and spread the cotton down before the fire and let it get hot. Then we picked the seed out and wove it,” Strong explained.
Residents dyed the fabric with sumac berries and black hickory bark and pecans.
Strong talks of making shoes from deer hide or raccoon skin.
Early Cooke County residents were a sociable lot who helped each other during troubled times and enjoyed socializing.
Barbecues and other outdoor activities were favorite pastimes as were community dances.
Although we often think of Strong’s time as a period of lawlessness and remorseless frontier justice, most of the people seemed to pretty much behave themselves.
“There was liquor at all the gatherings in those days and everybody drank it, but nobody seemed to get drunk,” he observed.
Strong’s narrative is peppered with humor.
For instance, I laughed when I read about an incident in which two young Methodist girls wanted to dance, but were afraid their religion prohibited dancing. They approached their pastor for advice.
“They asked the preacher, Isaac Walker, if it was any harm for them to dance for they wanted to. He said it was no more harm for them to dance than to want to. So they danced, for they could not keep from wanting to,” Strong said.
I couldn’t help but wonder if the girls missed the point.
One of my favorite anecdotes involves a lonely man named Paul Roberson who was looking for a wife. Roberson, who was apparently given to drinking now and then, sobered up one day and decided he wanted to marry a widow named Mrs. Simmons. He bought the license, picked up Justice of the Peace W.L. Fletcher and showed up unannounced at Mrs. Simmon’s house.
“When they got there (Simmons) was busy cleaning up her house. They (sat) there a while and she kept right on with her work. Fletcher got tired and said, ‘Well Mrs. Simmons I came here to marry you and Roberson.’ She said, ‘Why Mr. Roberson never did say anything to me about getting married.’ Roberson said, ‘Well, I know I did not, but I thought it would be all right so I just got the license and brought the Justice of the Peace along. Seems to me this is as good a way as any.’”
Strong then says Mrs. Simmons changed into a clean dress and went through with the impromptu wedding.
The marriage was reportedly harmonious.
“...they always got along the finest kind together and were just as happy as could be all their married life,” Strong concluded.
Strong’s memoir is an account of lives that were anything but easy. His friends and neighbors coped with difficult circumstances and made the best of things with few complaints.
Even his memories of the Civil War are lacking any hint of self-pity or apathy.
Near the end of his life, Strong took stock of his memories and noted, “The pleasures of pioneering outnumber the hardships for me...old as I am, if I could hear of another country just like (North Texas) that was needed to be settled up in the same way, I would go to it. But here will never another like it, for I can remember how beautiful it looked, with fine grass and worlds of wild flowers everywhere, just plenty of game, every man your friend and every home yours as long as you wanted to stay.”
For a frontier man with little formal education, I’d say Strong had a way with words.