History of Lancaster, Texas

Although the town of Lancaster was not even platted until the early 1850's, it had its genesis in the settlers attracted to Texas from the midwest nearly a decade earlier by the tempting advertisements of "The Texas Emigration and Land Company", better known as the Peters Colony. Late in 1843, the Telegraph and Texas Register reported a settlement of twenty-five families on Elm Creek. Shortly thereafter came several families from Greene County, Illinois who were to play formative roles in the early days of Lancaster. Among these early settlers
were Roderick Rawlins, Honest A Bledsoe, and Thomas McKee Ellis, accompanied by sons-in-law Middleton Perry and Jones Greene (who brought with them the legendary quarter(mile) running horse Steel Dust, who would become one of the premier foundation stallions when the Quarter Horse registry was begun nearly a century later).

The first school in Lancaster was a one-room log-cabin affair built in 1846. Virginia Bledsoe (daughter of A), was the teacher. Initially she had only one pupil, Roderick A. Rawlins, who was destined to become her husband. The first frame school house was built in 1857, near the intersection of Jefferson and Third streets. Initially, the Lancaster School was private, and tuition-based. No school tax was instituted until 1869.
The first church service in Lancaster also took place in 1846, when several early settlers formed the First Christian Church. By the end of the 1850's, at least three major Protestant denominations were represented by congregations in Lancaster.

A Bledsoe is said to have initially surveyed and staked off the town in 1852 on the 430 acre Rawlins survey, modeling it after his hometown of Lancaster, KY, including a square, the traditional emotional, if not geographic, center of the community. Many of those whom today we consider to be "from Lancaster" did not live inside the town boundaries. The first year that census records for residents actually inside the Lancaster town boundaries is available is 1880, when 741 people were enumerated there. Most of these were employed in businesses and industries serving the wheat and cotton farmers, who were the backbone of the region. Before 1860, there were at least two early grist mills in the area, a cotton gin, and enough other early entrepreneurs, blacksmiths, dry goods merchants, druggists, buggy makers, etc., were present in Lancaster to supply just about every need of the area farmers and stockmen.

Lancaster, like most of the rest of Texas, was pro-secession in 1861. There was a recent history of insurrection among slaves in Dallas, after speaking engagements by abolitionists. In March of 1861 the county voted 3:1 in favor of secession, 741 for - 237 against. Two cavalry companies were organized in Lancaster, led by and made up primarily of men from the town and adjacent area, Company F, 6th Texas Cavalry, the Lancaster Guards, and Company I, 18th Texas Cavalry.

At first the War brought increased prosperity to Lancaster. The demand for flour from the Lancaster grist mills had never been higher, the blockade having preempted the supply to southern parts of Texas. The hastily formed Tucker, Sherrod & Co. contracted to deliver 100 pistols to the state of Texas by May, 1862, out of their factory on West Main St.
By 1863 though, the bleakness of war was a reality in Lancaster. The school was closed because both of the teachers were serving in the Lancaster Guards. Fathers, sons, and brothers fell in combat throughout the south. The effects of the blockade began to be felt in Lancaster too, through the absence of such commodities as coffee, salt, sugar, and clothing. This reality was only made more grim by the 1862/3 drought, which coupled with the depreciation of Confederate currency crippled the community economically. In the spring of 1864, Lancaster waited anxiously for news from the east, as the Union waged its campaign up the Red River. They were kept out of Texas, turned back at Mansfield and Pleasant Hill (Louisiana) by Confederate forces including a few Lancastrians with the 2d and 12th Texas Cavalry, but it was only a brief reprieve.
Lancaster suffered as did the rest of Texas during the collapse of military authority in the spring of 1865, and under the oppressive martial law of Reconstruction. War and drought had reduced the economy to such that few residents could afford more than the very barest necessities. Only in 1872, with the coming of the Houston and Texas Central Railroad to nearby Ennis, did the Lancaster economy really start to regain its ante-bellum strength. What had been a trickle of immigrants became a flood, many of them cotton planters, from the battle-devastated areas of the south. Proximity to the more and more heavily trafficked cattle trails brought a touch of south and west Texas into Lancaster, and no doubt enhanced the business of many a merchant.

The last quarter of the nineteenth century was a period of relative prosperity, a high level of civic energy, and a certain attention toward "refinement" in Lancaster. Resources depleted by the War and Reconstruction were rebuilt. The town became a city via the "over 1000" rule in 1893. Editorials in the Lancaster Herald vigorously advocated making the city a more pleasant place by getting the cattle out of the streets, the cessation of bronc-busting in the square, and banning the sale of alcohol within the city limits. Local telephone service came to Lancaster in 1881. It was operated out of a central exchange (an operator placed all calls) until 1919. The first long distance telephone line was added the next year. Fires on the square in 1877 and 1889 proved only temporary setbacks, as the city quickly rebuilt. The pace of social life remained strong. Musicales on the square in clement weather were sure to draw large crowds, and theatrical groups flourished.

The efforts of civic leaders to bring the railroad not just near, but into the city itself paid off in 1888, when the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad laid the Waco to Dallas line through Lancaster. A private line was laid between Lancaster and Hutchins in 1890, for faster access to the H & TC RR in Ennis. The national economic depression of the 1890's was no doubt felt in Lancaster also, but does not seem to have significantly impeded its development. In 1895 an Artesian well was sunk which produced 128,000 gallons of warm mineral water per day. The stockholders in the company which financed the venture may have had servicing a cotton oil mill in mind when the well was drilled, but Lancaster residents probably found greater enjoyment in the adjacent swimming pool.

Poised at the brink of the 20th century, there were 1,115 residents inside the Lancaster city limits, with hundreds more from the surrounding rural area who worked, worshipped, went to school, made their purchases, and found their entertainment in the city. Several of the young ladies and gentlemen of Lancaster who came of age around the fin-de-siecle formed the "1900 Club". They probably took interested note in 1902, when Dr. George Parks became the first resident of Lancaster to own an automobile. Electric home lighting came to Lancaster, in the form of the Texas Power & Light Co., when the Interurban Electric Railway (Dallas to Waco) was run through the city in 1911. Major fires in 1910 and 1918 focused attention on improving the volunteer fire department, and resulted in the purchase of considerably more modern equipment. The state created the Lancaster Independent School District in 1905, and over the next decade the voters approved several bond elections, initiating rapid improvement of facilities and curriculum.
Around 100 men from Lancaster and the immediate area served in World War I, many of them in the 359th Infantry, 90th Division. Henry N. Lacy, Robert G. Moffett, and Robert Davis, are the only men known to have died in action. On the home front, area farmers benefitted from a record wheat market, while Red Cross Committees rolled bandages, and prepared "care packages". Although there was nothing approaching the shortages during the War Between the States, food conservation was officially encouraged. Any Lancaster families that didn't already have a backyard garden planted one. At the close of the War, the influenza pandemic of 1918 closed schools and resulted in a conspicuously large number of markers in Edgewood Cemetery whereupon the year of death is 1918.

Debate over the evils of alcohol had been hot in Lancaster, almost since the city began, but in February of 1920, the debate was settled nationally when the Volstead Act (18th Amendment) prohibiting the manufacture, distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages became effective. As in the rest of the country, this stopped few from imbibing. It merely meant that "moonshining" and "bootlegging" became clandestine cottage industries. Preoccupation with debate over the effectiveness of the Volstead Act soon took a back seat to concerns far more grave which loomed on the horizon.
As a farm service center, Lancaster was savagely hit by the Dust Bowl (drought) and Great Depression. The farms and ranches of the region may have had better access to water than did western locales, but during many years the price of wheat, cotton, and cattle were so low, that it didn't pay to grow or raise them. The infamous Bonnie and Clyde paid a visit to the Henry Bank in Lancaster on February 27, 1933. Such robberies were so common at that time that much of the cash on hand was usually cleverly hidden, and less than $7000 (of about $16,000 actually in the bank on that date) was taken. In July of 1936, the winds that were raging across the southwestern prairies swept into Lancaster, lifting roofs off of homes, taking down utility poles, and toppling the 50,000 gallon water tower.

The climate and the economy showed little improvement until the early 1940's, and by that time the improvement was clouded by the fact that the country might soon be involved in the second World War. On October 15, 1940, Lancaster men were once again registering for military service. Considerably more men from Lancaster served in WWII than in WWI. The list of wounded and dead is a long one. Among those who gave the ultimate sacrifice were Charles Baumer, Ross Carroll, Godfrey Catlin, James Spillman, Billy Davidson, Fred Fouts, Rufus Mitchell, Edward C. Pool, Richard Russell, Carroll Tuley, Archie White, and Arlin Winniford.

Between 1900, and 1950, the population of Lancaster had remained steady, between 1000 and 2000 people in each decennial count, By 1960, however, it abruptly jumped to 7500, reflecting the general post-war trend toward urbanization. The quiet farm service community was becoming home to more and more people who made their living in industries outside the city, but preferred the quality of life in Lancaster. This trend holds true today. By 1980, the 1960 population was almost doubled, and its current population is almost triple that of 1960.

The city and its residents faced their most formidable challenge in 1994 when a disastrous tornado roared through. With the same steadfastness and drive that enabled them to spring back after the ravages of man and nature in the past, the citizens of Lancaster began to rebuild yet again, their homes and businesses, including some of the historic buildings on the square, several of which had been reduced to rubble. Contemporary Lancaster is a charming amalgam of the changes and innovations brought by the latter half of the 20th century, and the traditions, legacies, and people of the past.

Related articles from the New Handbook of Texas On-Line
Bledsoe, (Albert) A.
Clark, Randolph
Gun Manufacturing During the Civil War
History of Lancaster
History of Dallas County
The Lancaster Tap Railroad
Newton Creek
Peters' Colony
The Quarter Horse
Randolph College
Rawlins, TX
Ten Mile Creek
Tucker, Argyle William

The Dallas Morning News Corporation. The 1994/1995 Texas Almanac. 1995. Dallas, Texas.
Fehrenbach, T.R. Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans. MacMillan/Collier. 1968. New York.
The Lancaster Historical Commission, comp. Lancaster, A History. 1978.
US Gov't: NARA. Compiled Record of Men Who Served From Texas, 1861-1865. ND. (microform)