Tuesday, April 26, 2016

WHERE THE COTTON FIELDS MET THE RAILROAD


Each of my family members loves history. This means we enjoy finding new destinations and delving into the area’s past. Last week, my youngest daughter and I traveled to Ennis, Texas to look at their famous (well, at least here in Texas it’s famous) Bluebonnet Trail.

From a better year for Bluebonnets,
photo by Nelda Liles
Heavy rains the week before had caused grasses to grow taller than the flowers we sought in some places, but we were not to be deterred. After TexMex for lunch, we started at the Visitor Center. At one time the building had housed the Wells Fargo Freight Office.  I couldn’t help thinking of Wells Fargo stages and the danger they faced.

Armed with brochures and a map, we went next door to the Ennis Railroad and Cultural Heritage Museum. The small but interesting museum was converted from a Van Noy Restaurant building. The restaurant served customers from as many as ten passenger trains a day that once stopped in Ennis.

Sorry I can't get this to turn the right way.
I think I'll stick with my toothpaste.

Those of you not from Texas may not find this as interesting as I do, but this is the way towns all across the country grew.  This could be Anytown, Anystate, USA. Towns blossomed or died due to the railroad.

I had no idea Ennis had been such an important railroad center.  In 1871, the Houston and Texas Central Railroad, a forerunner of the Southern Pacific Railroad, purchased 647 acres of land in Ellis County at a price of $5.00 an acre. This established the line’s northern terminus.

Ennis depot in 1911
This two-story depot burned
A year later, the site was established as the City of Ennis, named after Cornelius Ennis, an early official of the Houston and Texas Central Railroad.  The first train ran through the community in 1872 on its way from Corsicana to Dallas. Citizens of Burnham, a small town to the south, responded violently to being bypassed and attacked the new community. They killed one man and wounded several others.

In its earlier days, Ennis had a “wild west” reputation. At one time the city contained 13 saloons and 6 beer halls. In 1883, Ennis National Bank held the title of the largest bank in the county with $100,000. on deposit. The outlaw gangs of Cole Younger and Sam Bass stopped in Ennis. Younger reportedly checked out the Ennis National Bank but decided it was too well guarded to rob.

 
Sideways, but Ennis
in its early days
In 1873, Jacob Shebasta, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, was the first of many Eastern Europeans to make this area home. The town has a strong Czech influence. Today the city is home to four Czech social halls as well as the National Polka Festival on Memorial weekend each May. (I have to admit we stopped for Czech pastries to take home. We bought cinnamon rolls and kolaches, which we jokingly call square donuts.)

Dancers at a past National Polka
Festival in Ennis
In 1891, the Texas and New Orleans Railroad, a part of the Southern Pacific, established a division point in Ennis. This led to the construction of shops and a roundhouse that employed several hundred men.  Ennis citizens contributed $25,000, 90 acres of land, and a 43 acre lake toward the project.

Here’s where Ennis officials were clever.  A contract was drawn up that stated that the railroad could NOT move its shops out of town as long as the City of Ennis was able to provide water for the railroad’s use.  The city built three lakes for this purpose: one in 1892, one in 1895, and the last in 1940. Between 1910 and 1915 the railroad tried to move the shops, but the community was supported in the courts, and the shops remained in Ennis.

The city was growing. By 1890, Ennis had two banks, a cotton compress, three cottonseed depositories, a cotton gin, a fruit-canning business, a brickyard, an opera house, and two weekly newspapers, the Local and the Saturday Review. In 1894 Ennis received its second railroad, the Texas Midland, which provided service from Paris, Texas, by 1897.

Old postcard showing cotton bales
waiting to be loaded onto trains

Today, Ennis is known as the Bluebonnet City because of the springtime beauty and abundance of the Texas state flower in and around the city. Ennis was designated by the 1997 State Legislature as the "Official Bluebonnet City of Texas" and home to the "Official Bluebonnet Trail of Texas." This year rains caused the Bluebonnet Festival to be rained out two of the three days. However, the Bluebonnet Trail still offered beautiful vistas.

Photo of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush
by Nelda Liles

The Kachina Prairie is one of the last remaining examples of Texas blackland prairies. Ennis' first bluebonnet trail was marked through this area in 1939. On our drive along the trail, we were lucky to see a herd of red deer but the Clydesdales were not out during our drive nor were the animals at the exotic farm. We were pleased to see longhorns, though.

Longhorn nibbling on bluebonnets,
grass, and Indian paintbrush

Ennis is home to the Texas Motorplex, a quarter-mile drag racing facility built in 1986 by former funny car driver Billy Meyer. It annually hosts the NHRA O'Reilly Fall Nationals each September, when hundreds of professional and amateur drag racers compete for over $2 million in prize money.

Our day was a lovely experience. We plan to go again next year if the rains don’t interfere with the bluebonnets. We didn't get to see all the lovely Victorian homes so we have to go again.

3 comments:

  1. Loved every word and description, including the sideways photos (don't you just want to scream when you cannot fix something on a blog?)I knew this about towns and railroads. Many communites have withered and died because the railroad passed them by. Larger ranches in the west part of Texas often were able to get a spur...which was a lifesaver for a community.
    I love this part of Texas, around Ennis. It's pretty country most of the time.
    Thanks for the tour, and for sharing your newly found informations with us.

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  2. I like your sideways pictures, Caroline. They suit you. ;-)

    I really enjoyed this post -- especially the part about the railroads. Imagine a railroad from Corsicana to Dallas! That's just a hop, skip, and a jump today, but I guess back then it was a fair piece.

    Those Ennis officials were pretty darn cagey, weren't they? Good on 'em!

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  3. I have never ridden on a train, but one day I want to do it even if it's just from Charlotte to Raleigh. I love to read about railroads and trains, but most of what I know is from the movies or from people who are train enthusiasts. I found out that trains actually have names, like The Cresent Moon.
    I made the mistake once of putting a train in a part of Wyoming that had no train. Research would have been a good thing there. I was under the impression that trains were everywhere which, as you've shown here, just isn't so.
    Don't smack me upside the head, but I've never heard of Ennis or the Blue Bonnet Trail. Interesting to know, Caroline.
    Regardless whether they are right side up or crosswise, I liked all your pictures.
    This was such an interesting post. All the best to you, Caroline.

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