A Historical Column From The Fayette County Historical Commission and Fayette County Judge's Office
Armstrong Colony - A Freedmen's Settlement (Part 2)
By Carolyn Heinsohn
Other than the written history of a community church, the stories about Armstrong Colony seem to be oral family traditions, passed down from one generation to another. With time, some facts are forgotten, and stories change. Therefore, the author has made an effort to compile the known documented facts into a written history. Hopefully, the community’s rich oral history will continue to be told by the descendants of the founders of this freedmen’s settlement.
Actually, the first freedmen family to move to the area that became Armstrong Colony was Harry Simms (1848-1911), born in Texas, the son of Brutes and Fer-berry Simms, and his mulatto wife, Ellen Pettit, (1845-1927), daughter of Harvey and Adeline Pettit, and their children. The parents of Ellen Simms were either from Arkansas or Tennessee, but were living in Gonzales County when they sold 100 acres of land on Peach Creek to their daughter and son-in-law, who also were living in Precinct 3 of Gonzales County, for $160 in July, 1874. The 1900 census indicates that Harry and Ellen had been married for 34 years and had nine living children. Although Harry’s tombstone indicates that his birth year was 1839, several documents indicate that he was actually born circa 1848.
The Frank Derry family moved into the community after the Armstrongs. In March, 1877, Frank Derry and his wife, Mariah, purchased 102 acres approximately 30 miles west of La Grange from N.W. Brown for $500. In the 1880 census, Frank Derry, born circa 1827 in Alabama, was shown to be living in Fayette County with his mulatto wife, Maria, born circa 1832 in North Carolina, and their nine children, a nephew and a niece. One of their daughters, Clemmie, was married to Emmette Simms, the son of aforementioned Harry and Ellen Simms.
Frank and Mariah later purchased an additional 100 acres on the waters of Peach Creek. They eventually sold 30 acres from each of their tracts of land to their two sons, Alex and Charley, plus another 34 acres to A.B. Kerr of Muldoon. By 1899, Marie had died, and Frank, age 71, married Melindy, age 55. In 1900, he was living in Armstrong Colony with a mix of children, grandchildren and a step-grandson. By 1910, Melindy must have died, because she was not enumerated in the census, and Frank was living with his daughter, Clemmie, her husband and their eight children.
The Sam Bilton family is also documented as one of the early families of the community. Sam purchased 150 acres on Peach Creek in the Menefee League from John Cline for $1200 in November, 1889. He had three unassigned promissory notes for $400 each; however, he was unable to pay the notes, so he was forced to sell his land and have the notes assigned to T.M. Connon of Flatonia. However, Bilton’s three sons, Sam Jr., A.B. and William, agreed to collaboratively pay the notes in order to keep the family land.
Others continued to find their way to the growing community, some of whom were the Browns, Burlesons, Grants, Greens, Henrys, Hunts, Jones, McKinnons, Nunns, Perpeners, Sanders, Warrens, Winkfields and Usserys.
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, that was established by Congress in 1865, provided relief to the thousands of refugees, black and white, who had been left homeless by the Civil War. Many blacks turned to the agency for protection, advice or help in finding lost relatives. Although the Bureau was dissolved in July 1870, it was most successful in Texas with its educational efforts. It helped establish 150 schools in the state with an enrollment of over 9,000 students. Perhaps, the Bureau influenced Jacob Armstrong and other nearby freedmen to establish a school for their children on Armstrong’s land soon after his purchase. The “school” was actually a brush arbor that had seats hewn from logs. Inclement weather would have been a definite factor influencing school attendance, but at least there was an effort to educate the children in the community, which was named after Jacob Armstrong, since he provided the land for the school and eventually the church.
Jacob Armstrong’s son, Frank, who married Clara Washington, was one of the first deacons of Armstrong Colony’s newly-founded Mt. Olive Church, along with Sam Bilton. The church, which was founded under the direction of Professor and Reverend O.E. Perpener, the first teacher and pastor, was organized in 1876 in the brush arbor that was serving as the “schoolhouse.”
The history of the church states that there were eight persons in the first church organization – six members of the Armstrong family and Rev. Perpener and his wife. As others moved into the area, they soon were sending their children to the school and attending the open-air church, which became the social center of the community. At first the church members met for prayer meetings on Wednesday nights, being called to worship by Jacob, who would blow a cow horn when it was time to meet. Light was provided by bottles filled with kerosene that burned with wicks of flannel rags. The church, which became known as the Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church, was eventually moved to a log cabin where services were held, and school was taught. An active Mission Society was later founded by the women of the congregation.
In 1914, Rev. F.D. Davis, a young dynamic minister, accepted the position of pastor of Mt Olive. Under his direction, the Baptist Training Union and a youth group were organized. He also launched a building program to create a new church building, which was completed in 1918 on an acre of land donated by Fannie Armstrong and Charlotte Bilton. That church, which had an interesting architectural design, was eventually in need of restoration, but instead it was razed and replaced by the present brick sanctuary in 1994. A fellowship hall stands nearby, and the Mt. Olive Museum and Cultural Center filled with historical documents, photographs and memorabilia of the community is located in the old “teacherage,” a structure that housed black teachers during segregation.
At one time, there not only was a primary school in the community, but also a high school known as the Albrecht School, both of which prepared many young people for college educations and careers in all walks of life across the United States. By 1992, there were 27 descendants of the first families who had obtained their college education at Prairie View College. The total number of graduates from other collegiate institutions is not documented, but undoubtedly, these families valued the importance of an education for their children.
Although the church and school were the spiritual, educational and social centers of the community, the Armstrong General Store, Cue Bilton General Store, Marvin Brown Store and Needham Store provided the necessities for the local people during the era when there was a larger population in the area, and transportation to Waelder or Flatonia was difficult. There were two gins operated by the Winkfield and Derry families when cotton production was significant enough to necessitate their existence. The Derrys also had a broom factory. The only remaining evidence of the once-thriving, small community is the church-museum complex on Armstrong-Derry Road, a well-kept cemetery located a short distance away, and the residences of a few remaining families, some of whom are descendants of the original families.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, oil was discovered in the area, so some of the families were fortunate enough to benefit from the short-lived oil production before the wells went dry. For those families with land and retained mineral rights, the newest oil boom related to drilling in the Eagleford Shale will provide some much-appreciated future income.
The majority of the descendants of those strong, pioneering freedmen, who pursued their dreams and persevered in their labors to carve out a livelihood in a community that they created, have spread out like the branches of a mighty oak, but their roots are still in the Armstrong Colony. Many return annually every August for the community homecoming event to reunite with their families and reconnect to their special heritage.Read more