Ghostly footsteps walk through the once thriving community of Van Dyke, Texas…but that’s nothing new, is it? Texas is full of ghosts and once upon a times, and people such as I try desperately to record the memories of yesterday before every trace is lost forever.
This time, however, it was Jim Godfrey who asked me to add more about the little community of Van Dyke to Texans United. With his prodding and the long ago writings of both Ric’s and my family member, Alta Lane Dixson, I took a little walk today, a walk around the old neighborhood of Ric’s grandparents, the place where his mom and aunts and uncle (along with untold cousins) went to school, the setting for so many of the old stories we have heard time and time again.
If you will contact me with your own memories, I would love to add those to our collection.
Rickey’s family is tied into the Van Dyke community from its beginning through the Fritts family and his great-great-great grandfather, C.S. Fritts, who along with his wife, Sarah Lawson Fritts, Mr. and Mrs. H.N. Lumpkin, Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Martin, and a Mrs. Herring met on a hot August day in 1873 on the site of the present-day Zion Hill Cemetery and determined to build a church.
Mr. and Mrs. Martin donated about six acres of land for the church and the cemetery, and work was begun a meeting house. The congregation continued to grow, and Zion Hill Baptist Church becoming a fairly large congregation. They body met once per month, with services held twice on Saturday and twice on Sunday when it was “their weekend” for services. It was 1875 before their church building was ready to host those services.
Some of the early ministers to the Zion Hill congregation were J.R. Northcutt, J.T. Harris, F.M. Fleming, S.H. Powers, M.D. Williams, J.R. Fagan, Sam Green, and G.O. Summers. Church clerks were also recorded by Alta Dixon: C.E. Fritts, Silas Puckett, W.J. McDonald, J.N. Farmer, and J.A. Lane. Fritts and Lane also find themselves on Rickey’s family branches.
A decade or so ago, I sat down with the old minutes from the Zion Hill Baptist Church, and I found exactly what Alta Lane Dixon found years ahead of me. I found people without the funds to purchase easily the items they wanted for the congregation, people who hosted box suppers to raise the funds to purchase an organ, people who had to appoint a committee to figure out a way to come up with a stool to go with the organ!
If you have attended worship for as many years as we have, you have surely heard the term “churched.” How many times I have laughed with someone in our own congregation that we’d better be careful or “they” would church us. It seems that the folks at Zion Hill (and most everywhere else in those long ago days) actually upheld the practice of removing certain people from the congregation when their behavior was not becoming for a church member.
Cursing, not attending services, being drunk, dancing, and consorting with the wrong people were just a few of the vices that caused some members to lose their place on the pew when they were told to leave the fold.
The community of Van Dyke began to grow after the church was established in 1873, and children from the area attended school at nearby Salem, Gum Springs, or Cedar Point. According to Dixon’s research, some of the early day teachers of those children were Joe Davis, Oscar Callaway, Mr. Macon, (Kidd Macon’s father), Henry Ergle, Lona McGuire, and Mrs. C. A. Cathy.
The Lesley family was and is a name well known in the Van Dyke community, and on November 24, 1874, it was Robert “Bob” Lesley who became the last man to be killed by Indian attack in Comanche County. Mr. Lesley had gone out early one morning to call up the horses when he was killed. Robert Lesley was buried in the Zion Hill Cemetery, possibly the first to be buried there.
In 1887, the Free Will Baptists (more of Ric’s family) built a church building in Van Dyke, but I do not know the original location, and the original building was lost to fire. Another building was built and is known today as Gartman’s View Freewill Baptist Church.
Dixon said in her writings of Van Dyke, “According to some of the natives of Van Dyke, the first place of business was a general store, operated by John Tellus or Tullis. However, it is possible that a cotton gin was there before 1900, owned by Jim Lesley. About 1907, a group of famers bought the gin from Cattenhead and Beatty, and it became known as the co-op gin.
“The gins were operated by steam power and some of the old timers recalled that one autumn day when the yard was covered with wagons of cotton waiting to be ginned, one of the boilers blew up and the explosion was heard four miles away. The teams ran away, and the men took off on foot, but no one was hurt. Mr. Lesley also operated a grist mill where farmers brought their corn to be ground into meal.
“It was about 1903 when the first store opened, and for the next several years, it exchanged hands. Derle Nabors had the store in 1904 and was postmaster for a period of time. The mail was sent to Van Dyke on Route One out of Comanche. A few pigeon holes were set up for boxes. Mr. Nabors also had a side-line for making extra pennies; he went about the country selling medicine for the Van Fleet Medicine Company.
“The store sold grocery staples such as sugar, flour, pickles, starch, crackers, and a few notions, such as thread, lace, pins, snuff, Cloverine salves, caster oil, Liver Regulator, hard candy, and Big Bale tobacco. There was a small lean-to-room attached to the store, and Dix Carnes used that for a barbershop.”
It may also have been over this store that the Woodmen of the World conducted their meetings.
The year 1912 was a very busy year for the community of Van Dyke. According to Dixon, it was in this year that a school was erected within the community on land donated by Van Dyke Frost, making the walk to other community schools no longer necessary for the students of Van Dyke.
It was also in 1912 that the congregation of the Zion Hill Baptist Church decided to move its place of worship to the site where the actual community of Van Dyke had been established. The new church building had two stories, and the Odd Fellow Lodge used the top floor for their meeting place. Then, in 1913, the members erected a brush arbor, and their summer meetings were held beneath it. Eventually, the arbor was replaced with a tabernacle.
“Cotton farming, raising cattle, and selling pecans were the main money making projects. Before 1920, Comanche County’s first agricultural agent took some pecans from Walter Fritts’ place to the Dallas Fair, and the pecans won first place in the state on size and quality,” Dixon wrote.
By the 1930s, Rickey’s mom, Bobbie Jean Kerley (Jones) and her siblings attended school in Van Dyke after the school at Briar Grove (that only had seven grades) closed.
“W.D. Everett took his old pickup and fixed seats in the back of it for a ‘school bus’ and took us to school every day,” she told me. “There were several kids who couldn’t walk to Van Dyke because it was too far so we all rode the bus.”
“Entertainment in the early days at Van Dyke consisted of Snap parties, candy-breakings, protracted summer revivals, school exhibitions, and singings. Those who remember the early days recall that the open hills around the little village were ideal for magic lantern and medicine shows. The traveling shows would return summer after summer. Two of the men from the east in the medicine show married girls in the community and settled in the county,” Dixon wrote long ago.
In 1937, the second floor was removed from the church and the building remodeled.
The Van Dyke school was consolidated with the Comanche system in the 1940s, and although the community remained strong for decades, that loss always takes a toll. Although there are certainly families living on farms throughout the Van Dyke area, today there is not a lot left to show where once people laughed, played, cried, worked, went to school, and lived their lives…not much as all.