As the Bonham business community neared the end of the nineteenth century, nearly all the traces of its frontier past had disappeared. The arrival of the Texas and Pacific Railway in 1873 helped stimulate a diversity of retail enterprises around the public square.
The north and west sides of the square had been, almost from the beginning, the prime location for businesses along with the three blocks south and east which were much slower to develop. The 1870’s and 1880’s saw the construction of many beautifully designed brick structures that replaced the mainly frame buildings of the business district.
In 1889, the citizens of the town were eagerly anticipating what was promised to be the hallmark structure of downtown Bonham when Horace C. Alexander began construction on a magnificent late Victorian style hotel building. Designed by local architects Sparger and Peters, the three story structure was built at a cost of $50,000.
The exterior of the building was of brick and limestone construction. Windows on the first and second floors were rectangular, framed by carved limestone pillars and capped by a limestone lintel. Bottom of the window sash was clear glass but the upper section had clear glass panels framed by small squares of colored glass, a popular convention of the time. Third floor windows were styled after Roman arches outlined by alternating sections of brick and limestone.
The parapet of the building was made of carved, decorative limestone with an off centered arch and pseudo columns topped with decorative finials. The ground floor entry was below this decorative arch and immediately above on the second floors were balconies where patrons could sit and look over the courthouse square.
In addition to 42 rooms and two suites, the hotel also contained a barbershop, coffee shop, dining room, a ballroom, and a hotel bar operated by Julius Knox. The ballroom was the scene of many a cotillion, private dinner, and recital performance. Roberta Dodd, African-American concert performer, once gave a recital in the ballroom for the families and friends of several local women who helped finance Dodd’s musical training and career.
William Jennings Bryan in his last run for the presidency of the U.S. spent a night in one of the hotel suites after his appearance and political campaign speech at the Steger Opera House. Curtis Aircraft aviator R. Walsh spent three days at the hotel in 1912 while in town to give a series of stunt flying performances at the race track north of town.
A1 Jolsen, long before his success as a blackface performer, was guest of the hotel along with members of a traveling company who appeared for a two night engagement at the opera house.
Around 1920 the hotel lobby and entrance were moved to the east side of the building and the ground floor was remodeled to accommodate several retail establishments including F.W. Woolworth which occupied the largest of these spaces.
By 1975, the hotel had been closed for several years, fallen on hard times, and suffered the indignity of being condemned. The two top floors were razed and the remaining ground floor revamped for retail space. An era had ended.
3. THE MOST DANGEROUS GUNMAN IN TEXAS
Texas Ranger, T.C. Robinson once described him, "He kills men just to see them kick. He can take two six shooters and turn them like wheels in his hands and fire a shot from each at every revolution." Others have described Fannin County’s most notorious native in similar terms.
John Wesley Hardin, however he may be described, was born just southwest of Bonham, at Blair Springs, on May 26, 1853. The second son of the Reverend James G. and Elizabeth Dixon Hardin entered the world in the family’s living quarters just back of the small rural Methodist Church built by his father at Blair Springs.
To this day western gunfighter aficionados still argue as to what events or experiences could have turned the son of i quiet mannered clergyman, descendant of an American Revolutionary War hero, and nephew of Texas Freedom Fighters into the most wanton killer in Texas history.
John Wesley Hardin killed his first man at age fifteen and added six more killings to his list before he was seventeen. By the time of his first arrest in Cherokee County in 1872, at least seven more men had met their fate at his hands.
He broke jail in October of 1872 and managed to evade arrest for the next several months. He tried his hand at cattle raising, but by 1873 he was back at his old pursuits when he became involved in the infamous Sutton-Taylor Feud in Dewitt and Gonzales Counties.
Some modern day writers have also tried to implicate Hardin in the bloody Lee-Peacock Feud which took place in southern Fannin County in the late 1860’s, but there is no acceptable evidence to support such a contention. The fact that Hardin relatives, members of the Dixon family, were active participants and supporters of Captain Bob Lee may account for this mistaken theory of Hardin’s involvement.
In 1874, Hardin was back in the cattle business and he gathered two herds for a drive to market up the Chisolm Trail. When the drive stopped in Comanche, Hardin became convinced that Charles Webb, Deputy Sheriff of neighboring Brown County, was out to kill him. In a local saloon the two men met in a face-to-face confrontation and Hardin killed the deputy. Mob action threatened Hardin’s existence and he fled the town.
For the next three years he, his wife and children, were on the run through Texas, Alabama, and Florida. Texas Rangers captured him in Pensacola in 1877 and he was returned to Comanche to be tried for murder. He was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years at the State Prison in Huntsville.
Reportedly Hardin made several unsuccessful escape attempts before turning his attention to the study of religion and law. When he was pardoned in 1894 he was admitted to the State Bar of Texas.
In 1895 Hardin went to El Paso where he opened an unsuccessful law practice. Soon he was in trouble with the law again. On August 19, 1895 he was shot to death in the Acme Saloon by Deputy Sheriff John Selman and was buried the next day at Concordia Cemetery. Although the exact number is uncertain, some sources claim that Hardin killed more than 40 men in his lifetime.
4. MURDER OF SHERIFF RAGSDALE
Even twenty years after the close of the Civil War, a certain lawlessness reminiscent of frontier days still prevailed in areas of Texas. This was the age of the western gunfighter and numerous Texas feuds. This nation seemed to be in a state of restlessness. Criminal activity seemed to provide what seemed to be missing from the lives of those who had been disaffected by the war. Some of this criminal activity was to lead to one of the most horrifying crimes in the history of Fannin County.
In the autumn of 1884, a popular young Fannin County constable was elected to the county’s highest law enforcement position. Tom Ragsdale had won the office in the general election on the first Tuesday in November and on the 14th, was officially sworn in as the 20th sheriff of Fannin County.
Six months after assuming his office, Sheriff Ragsdale received a communication concerning a shoot-out in Indian Territory just north of Gainesville, Texas. The notorious Lee Gang had ambushed a posse, headed by Deputy U.S. Marshal, Jim Guy. Guy and two others were killed and members of the gang fled the scene. Communication to Ragsdale indicated that the two suspected members of the gang, brothers Sam and Eli Dyer, were headed to their home south of Bonham.
Eleven days after the shootings, Ragsdale was informed that the Dyer brothers had been seen at their parents home. The sheriff set about raising a posse of some thirty men. With such a large group, it seems probable that Ragsdale was acting on orders from the U.S. government to apprehend the Dyers.
When the group arrived in the vicinity of the Dyer farm, Ragsdale had the largest portion of the party remain out of sight at some distance from the farmhouse. Deputy Joe Buchanan, who was also a near neighbor to the Dyer farm, and the sheriff cautiously approached the house. They were met at the door by several women who denied having Sam and Eli.
Without the cooperation of the family, the two men were forced into the dangerous situation of searching several out buildings which surrounded the farmhouse. One old structure had its door fastened from the inside. As Ragsdale attempted to force the door, Eli Dyer fired one shot through the opening which entered Ragsdale's head in front of his ear.
As he fell, the brothers bolted through the door. Ragsdale was able to get off one shot which hit Eli who turned and fired again at the hapless man laying on the ground. By this time. Buchanan had come around one of the other buildings and was shot dead by Eli.
Eli was captured by the posse; Sam managed to escape, but was captured two or three days later hiding in an old building near his home. Sam was taken to the Fannin County jail and placed in the same cell where his brother was recovering from his wounds. At a preliminary hearing the case was continued because of Eli’s wounds.
By this time, sentiment against the two brothers was growing stronger among local citizens. The acting sheriff, James Evans, failed to recognize this and accordingly did not post any extra guards. At 2:36 a.m., June 12, 1885. a group of about 100 men entered the jail, forcibly removed the brothers, took them to a spot some 400 yards from the jail and hung them from the branches of a bois d’arc tree. The perpetrators were never identified.
To many, justice had been served.
5. FALL OF A RENEGADE
Although the Civil War was raging far from the Red River Valley in 1863. certain events occurred to remind the citizens of Bonham of the blood being shed by many of its young men. The most compelling of the events concerned Captain William C. Quantrill, notorious leader of a feared band of renegades who operated just outside the control of the Confederate Army. Quantrill was known to have wintered in the area of Bonham on at least two separate occasions.
In late November, just weeks after the bloody massacre at Lawrence, Kansas, perpetrated by Quantrill and his band, the group showed up in Sherman after crossing Red River at Colbert’s Ferry. They spent a few days in town before setting up camp on Big Mineral northwest of the town.
In the meantime, General Henry McCulloch, Commander of the Northern Sub-District of the Confederate Army, at his headquarters in Bonham, began to receive dispatches from various levels of command of the army. McCulloch was ordered to keep a check on Quantrill and his movements. Soon after, violent incidents, including murder and robbery began to occur in the area. Quantrill’s men. with good reason, were suspected of being the perpetrators of these incidents.
Yielding to the demands of the area citizens. McCulloch ordered Quantrill to appear at his headquarters immediately. Quantrill responded by riding into town with several of his company in attendance He went to the general’s office which was located on the second floor of the Fannin County Courthouse. His men hitched their horses outside the Bonham House Hotel, which was on this site, and took up various stances on the northeast corner of the public square.
McCulloch confronted the rebel leader with the accusations of area citizens, as well as the orders from the Confederate Army leaders. At that. McCulloch then ordered Quantrill's arrest. Two guards took possession of his guns and he was placed in a small room just oil the general’s office.
McCulloch then left to go to dinner, placing the guards in the room in which Quantrill was confined and another guard just outside the courthouse door.
Carelessly, one of the guards had placed Quantrill's weapons at the foot of a cot in the room. Somehow, he managed to divert the guard’s attention and regain possession of his guns. Relieving the guards of their rifles, he ordered them to remain silent and locked them in the room. At the bottom of the stairs, he surprised the third guard and took his rifle. Exiting the building, he shouted to his men that they were all prisoners. Quantrill quickly mounted his horse and he and his men galloped from in front of the hotel.
They circled the courthouse twice, in a display of bravado, shooting at the weathervane atop the building before racing out of town in a northwesterly direction.
When McCulloch was apprised of the incident, he ordered a company in pursuit.
Quantrill had too much of a lead and the band was able to get to Colbert's Ferry and across the river before the pursuing company caught up with them. Once in Indian Territory, the men were safe since the Confederate’s had no jurisdiction.
Quantrill returned to the area once more in 1864. By the end of the year, his band had disintegrated and he died later from wounds received in an ill-fated raid in Kentucky.
6. A TALENT TOO SOON GONE
An event occurred on a hot July afternoon in 1916 in the Tanktown section of Bonham that was to impact the American musical scene for nearly two thirds of a century. On that day, Willie Mae Christian gave birth to the third of three sons all destined to make important contributions to the jazz world.
Nothing that day seemed to portend that the squirming, crying bundle in Willie Mae’s arms was to change the face of American jazz. In 1939, barely twenty-five years old,
Charles Henry Christian auditioned for the great Benny Goodman at French’s Garden Room in Los Angeles, and as they say history was made.
Charlie Christian grew up in a musical family in Bonham with a father who led a popular dance band and a mother who’s sweet soprano voice was the mainstay of her church choir. His stay in Bonham was short however, when the family moved to Oklahoma City after his father lost his eyesight.
Encouraged by a music teacher in the Oklahoma City schools Charlie took up the trumpet and played in the school’s brass band. Despite his obvious talent for the instrument Charlie continued to express a preference for the guitar and began studying with "Big Foot Chuck" Hamilton. By the age of fourteen he was performing in clubs in and around the city.
The dominant playing style for guitarists of the period was based on the prevalent chord technique. It was during this period however that the young Christian began to experiment with and develop his own style of single string performance. Initially many jazz purists showed disdain for this new technique.
After signing with the Goodman organization, Charlie Christian shot to fame with meteoric brilliance. Over the next year and a half he performed with the famed Goodman Sextet and the full Goodman Orchestra on recordings, radio broadcasts and in sold out stage performances across the country. He also appeared at Carnegie Hall in the John Hammon produced concert entitled "From Spirituals to Swing."
In June 1941, he entered Bellview Hospital in New York suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis, an illness which had plagued him for most of his young life. In a month he was transferred to Seaview Sanatorium on Staten Island for treatment. On the morning of March 2, 1942, Charles Henry Christian died a few months short of his twenty-sixth birthday.
Funeral services were conducted at the Calvary Baptist Church in Oklahoma City on March 7. His body was sent to his birthplace at Bonham where he lay in state at Bethlehem Baptist Church. He was interred in Gates Hill Cemetery not far from his former homeplace in Tanktown. Still remembered by Bonham residents was the enormous floral tribute shaped like a guitar which was sent by Benny Goodman.
His memory had been kept alive for more than a half century by the members of the African-American community in Bonham. He is also honored annually with the Charlie Christian Jazz Festival in Oklahoma City.
In 1994, his unmarked grave was the site of a Texas Historical Commission marker placed there by the Fannin County Museum of History in tribute to one of Bonham’s most outstanding talents.
7. RUSSELL’S OPERA HOUSE
The oldest of Bonham’s two premiere opera houses was constructed on this site in 1874. Home to many locally produced productions, this facility was also the site of many performances from the popular traveling companies of the era. One such production stood out from all the many varied programs presented on the stage of Russell’s Opera House.
In 1889, several weeks in advance of a scheduled performance, the house manager contracted for a production of "Uncle Tom’s Cabin". When word of the booking first leaked out, there were some grumblings from citizens whose memories of the all too recent war and aftermath were still fresh; however, no large scale opposition to the performance arose.
As we are told, best laid plans often go awry. On December 6, the day before the arrival of the theatrical troupe, word reached Bonham by telegraph of the death of Jefferson Davis, esteemed president of the Confederate States of America. Bonham’s response to the news was immediate. The Fannin County Commissioners Court ordered the Courthouse to be draped in black crepe. Merchants displayed suitably draped photographs of the fallen leader, and special services were scheduled in the town’s churches.
Demands for cancellation of the theatrical production were made to the house manager whose reply was that such action was impossible since the contract was ironclad and the management of the hall did not have sufficient funds to pay off the obligation.
Shortly after noon the next day, the traveling company arrived in Bonham on the Texas and Pacific Cannonball. Their trunks and personal belongings were dispatched to The Burney House, a hotel located just behind the performance hall. Theatrical props and scenery were sent to Russell’s where some locally hired young men began to erect the meager scenery on the stage.
After an early supper, the actors crossed the alley and entered the theatre by the stage door. After a quick check of the props and scenery, the company went to the dressing rooms to prepare for the performance.
As curtain time drew near, the company manager became aware of a lack of noise and bustle usually present in the audience. Peeking through the curtain, he saw the entire audience consisted of six men sitting silently in the front row. He remarked to his fellow thespians that the house would be unusually slim that evening.
As the curtain rose and before the opening lines were uttered, the six members of the audience, as a man. stood, withdrew their hands from beneath their coats and begun firing their pistols at the newly installed electrical lights on the stage. Pandemonium broke out in the street below where a heretofore silent crowd had gathered with every kind of noise maker imaginable.
The actors lied the premises, grabbed their belongings from the hotel, and with the actress playing Little Eva leading the way. hightailed on foot to the T & P depot. Fortune smiled on the company lor a west bound" train steamed into town only minutes later and the company made it’s escape.
It was said that traveling theatrical companies avoided Bonham for some time to come.
When General Henry McCulloch arrived in Bonham in 1863 to take command of the Northern Sub-District of the Confederate Army, one of his first charges from his superiors was to ferret out the large number of suspected army deserters and possible Union agents who were believed to be present in the Red River Valley. In addition to placing Col. James Bourland in charge of tracking down these suspects, McCulloch also seemingly employed double agents to assist with the arrest program.
Two of these agents were a father and son team, L. L. Harris and Cap Harris. The I860 census shows an L. L. Harris, Shoemaker and a C. R. Harris residing with a Miller family near the community of Orangeville in southwest Fannin county.
The Harrises were suspected by an element of Bonham society as being Union spies. In fact, that persona seems to have been fostered at the behest of Gen. McCulloch. In a letter from Col. Bourland to McCulloch, he reported at the enrolling clerk in Wise County had stated that L. L. Harris “was sent here by the Federals as a spy.” McCulloch’s response was that “1 use (Harris) both against Yankees and our disloyal citizens, and of course, if he is useful, he must appear to be a Federal.”
In February, 1864, Cap Harris was captured with a group of men from Bonham about a day’s ride from Ft. Smith Arkansas. The group, composed of Union sympathizers and Confederate deserters, was trying to reach Union forces. After being imprisoned for about a month, Harris was released and returned to Bonham where the circumstances of his capture were well known. It was widely held that the Harrises were responsible for Dr. Penwell’s arrest in his flight to Ft. Smith.
The affair came to a climax on this spot nearly 2 years later in a showdown between the Harrises and Daniel W. Byars, a Texas Ranger serving as a CSA Lieutenant. According to eyewitness J. H. McDaniel, he and Byars were walking along the north side of the square in Bonham. As they approached the law office of Col. Samuel A. Roberts, Cap Harris jumped from the doorway and shouted, “goddamn you, draw your pistol” and began firing his own weapons. Byars returned the fire.
Another account says that Byars and young Harris had met earlier in the day when Byars swore at Harris and called him a “Fed.” Harris wenf home, told his father what happened, armed himself and returned with his father looking for Byars. After Cap Harris had fired the first shots, his father stepped between him and Byars and entered the law office wiiere he told the men there, “Gentlemen, I am a dead man. God have mercy upon me.” He then fell dead from gunshots exchanged between Byars and his son.
As Byars returned the fire, Cap Harris was shot once in the abdomen. Some report that he managed to stagger across the street before falling on the steps of the courthouse. He lived until the next day. Father and son were buried in the same grave.
The war between the states had ended 8 months before the shooting as Bonham residents were trying to recover from the devastating losses of war. Union government officials filed murder charges hut Col. Bourland paid Byars’ bail of 51,500 then allowed him to avoid northern justice for the next forty-seven years. In 1911 , an attempt was made to bring the case to trial and in February, 1912, after eye-witness testimony, defense attorney J. S. Merrill moved to quash the indictment and the case was officially closed.
9. ENIGMA IN A RIDDLE
Probably the most colorful and altogether mysterious figure of the Red River Valley was a man named Thomas C. Bean. Bean’s death in 1887 "about 70 years of age" set off untold numbers of lawsuits by bogus heirs to his estate, claiming literally hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Texas. All claims were rejected and more than forty years after his death, the remaining wealth went to the State of Texas.
It seems that Bean developed his foggy aura deliberately and for reasons that will never be known. A stoiy often attributed to him is probably the reasons for the myriad of stories that abound concerning the man and his life. Once asked about his background, Bean replied, "I woke up one morning and found myself in a bean patch so I named myself Tom Bean."
Bean showed up in Bonham about 1842. This was about the time that many of the early settlers to the Republic of Texas were beginning to locate their headlight claims. Republic and county surveyors were unable to keep up with the flood of requests for these headlights to be surveyed in order to establish legal claim. Bean, an experienced surveyor became licensed and opened an office and home in a log cabin just north of the courthouse on this site.
In addition to a long term career in surveying. Bean also found time to serve as District Clerk of Fannin County, Notary Public, and on a number of important city and county committees, as well as being elected to the position of Fannin County Surveyor in 1870.
For the cash-poor settlers of Texas, Bean was a godsend. To establish legal claim to these headrights, the owner had to meet mandated time limits to have their claims legally surveyed and recorded. Instead of demanding cash for his work. Bean most often took ownership of several acres of land from the tracts that he surveyed. It is unknown how many acres were expected per survey, but judging from the number of acres recorded in Bean's name in courthouses all over Red River, the "fee" was generous. It was said that he would not sell or fence his land so that poor people could graze their livestock on it.
Although active in the Masonic Lodge, Bean generally led a reclusive lifestyle. For all of his stay in Bonham, he lived in the small log cabin where he opened his first office. He seemed to prefer the company of the Negroes who worked for him, including a longtime employee named Sukey, who lived in a cabin to the rear of the property and acted generally as housekeeper and cook.
He had been described as a man of great intellect. He was an avid reader and he had an extensive library. He kept well informed on current affairs and he was a student of frontier politics. Gentlemanly and of quiet demeanor, he was always well dressed and appeared to be the opposite of the usual frontier surveyor.
He lies in a well marked grave in the oldest section of Willow Wild Cemetery, in Bonham. The final enigma is chiseled on his marker at the behest of unknown persons: "Born in Washington City, DC."
10. END OF THE LINE
Longtime Bonham residents well remember that this corner (intersection of North Main & Fifth Streets) was for a time the most popular spot in Bonham. The corner became the focal point for riders on "Dummy," the affectionate nickname of Bonham’s lone streetcar, as the first stop in the business district for the patrons who rode to town for their shopping expeditions. From this stop, all the stores and business offices on the square could be easily reached. The stop also became most central location for boarding the streetcar for the return home.
In 1891, the Fannin County Commissioners Court granted permission to the Bonham Rapid Transit Railway for the right of way over any street or alley "crossed by or along which this line might run.” This resolution capped efforts by a group of Bonham investors to bring to town the newest and most up-to-date system of public transportation. The automobile was still many years in the future on Bonham streets.
The two and one half mile system was constructed by Louis Berg and Associates who had only recently completed the San Antonio system which served as the pattern for the Bonham system on a much smaller scale.
The Northern terminus and the car barn were located in the Russell Heights addition in northwest Bonham, a residential area where most of the investors resided. This terminus also served the citizens of Bonham who were attending functions at the Fairgrounds, the Bonham Racetrack, the Ballpark, home of the Bonham Blues, or swimming and boating activities at Lake St. Clair.
The southern terminus was at the Texas and Pacific Railway depot south of the square on Main Street. The car’s schedule was generally timed to coincide with arrivals and departures of the six daily trains which stopped at Bonham.
Initially, the route chosen for the line was down Cedar Street to Tenth Street. Turning south, the line continued down Center Street to the corner of First Street, along that street and stopping at the brick sidewalk which led to the depot waiting room. Later the route was changed so that the line turned from Tenth Street down Main and to the depot.
The first method of propulsion utilized a steam "dummy” locomotive, which was simply a car unit with one end partitioned off and a boiler located behind the partition. This arrangement was designed to prevent the frightening of horses, still very much in evidence on the streets of Bonham. In 1896, the line was electrified and the company was retitled Bonham Electric Railway, Light, and Power Company.
At this time the original car was retired except for special occasions,and two closed electric cars were purchased. Fares were 5 cents one way, or 10 cents round trip. School passes were available for students at $1.25 each and later adult passes at $2.50 were made available.
As more and more automobiles took to the streets of Bonham, revenue on the line began a slow decline. After more than two years of losses the company board voted to discontinue the service and on February 1, 1915, the Bonham Rapid Transit Railway was no more. During the early 1940’s large sections of the tracks were dug up from the city streets and contributed to scrap drives for the war effort.
11. BONHAM FROM THE START
The first influx of settlers into the area now known as Fannin County began in the early winter of 1836 when Dr. Daniel Rowlett brought ten families up Red River to a site about 16 miles northeast of present day Bonham. Because of the ease of river transportation most of these ten families chose to locate their homesteads along the river.
It was not until a year later that a second wave of emigrants began to spread over the interior of the new territory now claimed as a part of the newly created Red River County of the Republic of Texas.
In March of 1837, Bailey Inglish and a wagon train of some ten to fifteen families crossed Rocky Ford Crossing of Bois d’Arc Creek at Red River and followed the creek’s path to a grassy verdant valley near the confluence of Bois d’Arc and Powder Creek. There a new settlement took root.
After taking possession of their homesteads, the pioneers began construction of their log homes and outbuildings from the plentiful oak trees in the area. About midsummer, a young man named Alexander Russell arrived, hired some men to help him construct a spacious building, and shortly after, began to stock it with goods shipped up river from Jonesborough and Fulton.
Soon after, in response to the perceived threat of attacks by bands of renegade Indians, Inglish and some of his neighbors began construction on a two story log blockhouse and surrounding stockade. Comprised of ten or more residential cabins, a general store, and the fort, the settlement became a viable village. In the earliest days, the village was called both Ft. Inglish and Inglish’s Station. By 1839, the village was called Bois d’Arc after the watercourse just on the eastern limits of the settlement.
In 1843, the Texas Congress decided to move the county seat of Fannin County, which had been created from Red River County in 1837, from it’s location at Fort Warren on Red River to the village of Bois d’Arc.
Residents of the newly named seat of justice sent a petition, by their representative Dr. Rowlett, to the Congress asking that the town be renamed Bloomington. As the bill was introduced, a member of Congress made a long impassioned speech declaring that the heroes of the Texas Revolution were being forgotten and that no better way to sustain their memory could be found than to name the towns and counties for them.
With that, the bill creating the county seat of Fannin County was amended to change from Bois d’Arc to Bonham, to honor one of the defenders of the Alamo.
James Butler Bonham, a native of South Carolina, came to Texas in 1835 at the urging of his boyhood friend William B. Travis. Soon after joining a company commanded by Col. James Bowie, he arrived at the Alamo. Ignoring orders from Sam Houston to abandon the San Antonio post, Bowie, Bonham and others chose to stay and defend the former mission.
Twice during the nearly two week siege, Bonham slipped through the Mexican lines searching for volunteers to help the embattled defenders. Returning for the last time, he took his place on the battlements. The circumstances of his death are unrecorded, but it is believed that he died in an attempt to blow up powder magazines before the Mexican army could reach them.
12. What's In A Name
The founding fathers of Bonham decreed from the start that the business section of town was to center around a courthouse square. Pioneer John Simpson and his brother-in-law Bailey Inglish, insured that such would be the case when they donated sections of their land grants for such a purpose. Simpson constructed the courthouse in the center of the donated land.
The west and north sides of the square were much quicker to develop, and by the 1850’s were fairly filled with businesses. The first block of Main Street, just south of the square also became a popular location for a variety of business enterprises. This popularity was probably helped along in 1854 when the U.S. Postal Service located a new post office in the center of that block on the west side. From that time the section became popularly known as "Post Office Row."
By the 1870's both sides of this block were filled with a number of business establishments. In 1873, shortly before the arrival of Bonham's first train, the Texas and Pacific No. 33, city officials ordered the construction of a new sidewalk from the square to the T. & P. depot, then under construction.
By 1885. the north end of the Post Office Row was anchored by the beautiful new building housing the First National Bank. From that point to the south corner of the row. patrons could shop for necessities at one of two drug stores, have photographs made, find a variety of goods at a general store or stop for a meal at a popular restaurant. At the same time, mail could be picked up at the post office or a copy of the The Bonham News was available from their offices on the row.
The seamier side of commerce was also present. A local billiard parlor and gaming room was the scene of countless disputes and the local constabulary was often called there as well as to the two saloons in the same vicinity.
By the 1890's the reputation of the row had deteriorated to the point that women and children were forbidden to walk down the west side of Main Street. After the removal of the post office, the section became known as "Panther Row." The origin and meaning of the word "panther” is unknown.
Legends abound that there were a number of shootings, knifings, and killings along the row. The only documented of these stories concerns an incident on December 27, 1930 when Fannin County Commissioner Sam Powers was shot and killed on Saturday night about 8:30, when a number of persons were still shopping or attending the nearby movie theatre.
Powers had shopped at Sid Smith’s grocery and made a purchase. He then went up the street to another establishment. Witnesses saw Jim Robinson leave his Magnolia Service Station just across the street and begin to pace up and down along the block. When Powers emerged from the building, witnesses saw Robinson pull a revolver from under his coat and fire seven times at Powers. Robinson then stood over the body and refused to let anyone touch it until the authorities arrived. Robinson was placed in the city jail until he was released on bail the next morning.
At the trial a month later, testimony revealed that the two men had feuded for years and Powers was once heard to threaten Robinson’s life. After a short deliberation. Robinson was declared not guilty. From that point the deterioration of the row continued until the 1980’s when most of the buildings were razed.
1. Dr. Penwell's Ordeal
In 1848, a young graduate of Indiana Medical College arrived in Bonham with his wife and young son, seeking new horizons and a place to practice his medical profession. Dr. Eli S. Penwell constructed a building on the south side of the Bonham square to house his medical offices and a temporary residence for his family. The young physician and his family soon became popular members of the community and Dr. Penwell’s practice began to grow. An active member of the Masonic organization, Penwell soon became involved in a variety of civic endeavours.
For twelve years, the family enjoyed a prominent place in Bonham society. Because of his rapidly growing medical practice, Dr. Penwell built a comfortable home two blocks west of the square. However, as rumors of war began to be a constant topic of conversation among Bonham citizens, Dr. Penwell’s good fortune began to take on a darker hue.
To his friends and practice, Dr. Penwell soon began to express his opinions concerning the necessity of preserving the Union at any cost. Anti-secessitionist feelings were generally strong in Fannin County, but an equally vocal element of the population in support of the Southern Cause began to look with strong suspicion upon those with differing ideas.
Despite his stand, Dr. Penwell, at the outbreak of hostilities enlisted in a local militia group, the Stanley Light Horse.
Soon after, a group of men under command of Col. James Bourland began to scour the countryside looking for "Union sympathizers." Reportedly, Penwell was on the list of men who were being hunted. The physician contacted others who were in the same situation and a plan to escape to Ft. Smith was devised.
Under cover of darkness, on February 3, 1864, the dozen or so men'made their way into Indian Territory where they were joined by a group of deserters from the Confederate Army. Among this group was a suspected double agent, Cap Harris ( see SHOWDOWN marker ). The group was captured less than a day out of Ft. Smith and were being returned to Texas when they were turned over to a company of Texas troops.
One night as the prisoners and their captors continued toward Texas, the Texans decided to hold a court for Penwell. A great deal of drinking ensued throughout the "trial" and Penwell was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.
A rope was placed around his neck and thrown over a convenient limb. Penwell was hoisted into the air and left dangling. In their drunkenness, the soldiers failed to notice that his toes were just barely touching the ground and the tree limb bending beneath his weight. Left there all night, the doctor was discovered still alive in the morning where he was cut down. Later, he was turned over to Gen. Samuel B. Maxey in Arkansas.
General McCulloch ordered him to be returned to Bonham to be court-martialed "and hanged". Penwell was tried at Doaksville, found innocent, and set free.
Fearing for his life and safety and with the help of his friends, Dr. Penwell was able to escape to Mexico. Eventually, he made his way to Shelbyville, Illinois where he maintained a medical practice. After the war, he was joined by his family and remained there for ten years. The Penwells returned to Bonham in 1875 where Dr. Penwell resumed his medical practice. He died in 1892.
2. Hotel Alexander