By KATE NOWAK | Special to the Democrat
PALO PINTO – Offering fascinating legend and lore along with postcard-worthy landscapes, this year’s Palo Pinto County Historic and Wildflower Tour takes place this Saturday beginning at 9 a.m. and lasting until 4 p.m.
Tickets are $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 Mineral Wells and Possum Kingdom chambers of commerce or at the various tour stops on the day of the event.
To give you an idea of what to expect, let’s take a quick peek at all the places along the designated route:
Palo Pinto County Old Jail Museum
Located in Palo Pinto and constructed of native sandstone in 1882, the jail housed the area’s scalawags on its top floor for just shy of 60 years. In 1940, when the current courthouse was built, a new jail was constructed on its third floor, and the historical old jail building bid farewell to its last prisoner. In years since, the Palo Pinto County Historical Association has successfully operated the old jail as a museum, offering visitors a glimpse of many of the interesting artifacts and memorabilia currently housed within its walls.
Leaving Palo Pinto, we’ll next head west, our destination Lovers’ Retreat. One of the most scenic spots in the county, in its heyday Lovers’ Retreat was a popular gathering place with regularly scheduled outdoor rodeos and other entertainment venues designed to both draw and please the crowds.
It was the rugged splendor of nature’s artwork, however, that garnered the most visitors, with many coming to see for themselves the gigantic stones hugging the banks of Eagle Creek, forming a network of crevasses, canyons and ledges along the bank.
Johnson League Ranch and Mausoleum
Let’s head west for a few miles and then turn south down FM 919 toward Gordon. It’s time to pay a visit to Johnson League. William Whipple Johnson and his brother, Harvey, came to Palo Pinto County from Michigan in 1878, lured to the area by the building of the railroad and the promise of new enterprise. Together the brothers settled in a small community of settlers that would eventually become Strawn. There they established a successful business selling cedar post to the westward-advancing Texas Pacific Railroad.
In 1905, following the death of his second child, Johnson purchased a league (4,428 acres) north of Gordon, where he and his wife then moved and where he hoped to build a community large enough to rival Thurber, the company town built by his business nemesis, Robert Dickey Hunter.
No visit to the Johnson League Ranch would be complete without first stopping by the Johnson League Mausoleum, the history of which speaks to both the love of parent for child and the heartbreak of loss. As previously mentioned, William and his wife Anna lost both of their children to disease prior to moving from their home in Strawn to Johnson’s League.
Opal Guest Chapel
From Johnson’s League, we will head over to Strawn to the old Presbyterian church.
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 having sat 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, 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, Guest began restoration efforts soon after the purchase was finalized.
Strawn Historical Museum
Our next stop 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 Scouts 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 stop using the facility, ownership of the building would revert to the city.
Palo Pinto Mountains State Park
We will head west again, venturing about two miles beyond Strawn’s city limits to an area designated as the newest state park in Texas.
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.
Back to Strawn to the Stuart home. James Nesbert 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 was 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.
We will be heading north on State 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 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.