–EARLE’S CHAPEL: THE COMMUNITY—
(an excerpt from the narrative “Earle’s Chapel: A Little History (1840-1990)” written by Bettye Earle Raines showing research supporting her request to have Earle’s Chapel and the Earle’s Chapel Cemetery designated as Texas Historical Sites)
Earle’s Chapel, somewhat naturally defined by Prairie Branch on the east, Six Mile Creek on the west and Owl Creek on the north, was settled between about 1840 and 1855 by westward-migrating families, primarily from Alabama and Tennessee, reflecting the typical route of migration at that time. According to early records, a number of families that, at some time in history, came to be associated with the community, had arrived prior to 1850, the time of the first Federal Census in the new state of Texas. These included the Atkinson, Benge, Coker, Earle, George, Hammonds, Henderson, Jacobs, Lane, Ragsdale, Reynolds, Tatum, and Templeton families. The Grimes, Skelton, and Slider families had settled prior to the Civil War with the Lattimore and Morris families arriving shortly after that war. The Mims and Pledger families were in the community by the turn of the new century. It is highly probable that some of the family groups had known each other before coming to Texas.
The community was named for Elijah Earle (1804-1880), patriarch of the Earle family in Cherokee County. Elijah and his first wife, Maxcey Blanchet (c.1811-1852), with six of their children, probably arrived in East Texas by riverboat and oxcart, from Jackson County, Alabama shortly before Cherokee County was created in April, 1846. According to an old newspaper obituary for Elijah’s oldest son, James Cartney Earle (1829-1908), they settled “…a few miles west of what is now the town of Jacksonville…at a time (when) Larissa was the only town in Cherokee County…the county being in a wild and unsettled condition.” Some records suggest that Elijah’s younger brother, Drury, and perhaps Elijah himself, had been in Texas prior to the time that the Earle families established their homes in the area that was to bear their name. The Ragsdale family had come to Texas in 1835 and moved to the Cherokee County area in 1838. W. J. Ragsdale (1811-1884), who is buried at Earle’s Chapel, was a veteran of the Texas War for Independence and the Cherokee Wars. Isaac Reynolds, as a veteran of the Texas Army, patented a large survey of land, half-way between the Neches River and the present site of Jacksonville.
It has been suggested that early settlers tended to seek land similar to that from which they had come and Cherokee County appeared to meet this need for some of its first families. According to accounts passed down, Elijah and Maxcey Earle were disappointed at not meeting Cherokee Indian friends they had known in Alabama, but “…he liked what he saw and immediately bought 320 acres…”, the new land being remarkably similar to the farm he had left in northeastern Alabama. Isaac Reynolds “…could have marked out…any vacant land within the confines of the Republic but…the territory east of the Neches River reminded a Tennessean of the hills back home and that familiarity represented security and bolstered his confidence to survive this new land…”.
After clearing land and building a family house of logs, Elijah Earle built and operated a water mill on Prairie Branch (Mill Creek) that served an area within a fifteen mile radius. Such mills, which were used to grind the corn upon which the early settlers depended so greatly, provided a crucial service to the community and like many of their neighbors, the Earle family prospered in the new land they had chosen. The mill was later sold to members of the Morris family, who continued to operate it into the early twentieth century, as described in Captain H. L. Morris’s obituary in 1902, “…the old mill still doing service…”.
Most of the early families were farmers who grew corn, wheat, peas and beans, table produce, hogs, cattle, and sheep for their own use, and cotton as a money crop. According to the 1860 census schedules, some of the farmers had acquired slaves to help with the work but only one landholder, E. B. Ragsdale with seventeen slaves, reported more than two slaves that year. Most of the early farms in Earle’s Chapel were operated by the large families who lived on them. Substantial acreage was patented through land grants or otherwise accrued by many of the early families although by the time of the Civil War, these large holdings were beginning to be divided out among sons and daughters who established family farms adjoining those of their parents.
While some farming was necessary for subsistence and the chief livelihood of most of the early families, there were also craftsmen, laborers and tradesmen among them. George Clinton Benge (1802 – 1883) was a blacksmith, as was his son, John and they were woodworking craftsmen as well. A spinning wheel which G.C. Benge fashioned for his daughter, Matilda, who married James C. Earle in 1851, is still in existence. The Ragsdale brothers, Peter C., Edward B., and William J. were all brick masons. Edward also went into the mercantile business, first in Old Jacksonville and later in the new town. According to the 1850 census record, Peter C. Ragsdale was a speculator and two boarders in the Elijah Earle home, D. Lawson and L. Dutton, were ditchers. Drury Earle and Edward B. Ragsdale were surveyors, a useful skill during a period in which Spanish, Mexican, Indian, and Republic of Texas land grants were finally being settled.
In 1859, in response to the needs of the growing community, a log building was constructed on the present site of Earle’s Chapel United Methodist Church which served as a school, church, and community center for the families in the area. The school and church will be described in greater detail in the sections to follow. For a brief period, in 1874, the community was served by its own United States Post Office, Earl, with John F. Cryder acting as Postmaster. Until 1850, mail to the area was sent to Gum Creek Post Office, Cherokee County, Texas and later, to Jacksonville. With the institution of the rural free delivery program prior to World War I, Earle’s Chapel became part of RFD Route 3, its main address until recently when it became part of Route 9 out of Jacksonville.
Around 1903, very shortly after a telephone exchange was established in Jacksonville in 1899, some residents of Earle’s Chapel and its neighboring community, New Hope, constructed their own private telephone service known as Line #13. Nine or ten homes shared a single party line for which each paid fifty cents a month, provided three telephone poles, and handled all the maintenance. A few years later, Earle’s Chapel families nearer to Ironton joined that community in constructing Line #3, with a similar maintenance arrangement, hand-cranked telephone boxes and familiar ringing signals. Seven of Line #13’s ten original parties—J.C. Earle, Rufe Earle, Dave Gilliam, I.A. Grimes, Dave Morris, Earl Pledger, and A.P. Templeton—are buried at Earle’s Chapel cemetery, as are six of Line #3’s charter members—Carson Brittain, Albert Earle, Fred Ragsdale, Jack Reynolds, Tom Skelton, and Jess Slider. Regular dial telephone service did not reach the community until around 1955.
In the early days, maintenance of the roads was also a community affair. The County Commissioner’s Court would appoint a road overseer who would then “warn out”, or summon to work on the road, the workers necessary to complete repairs. In the Spring of 1860, for example, Drury Earle was appointed overseer of the road from Jacksonville to the Benge Settlement and he “warned out” John Reynolds, George Bobbitt, Hamby Harris, Eli Harris, Moses Reynolds, John Skelton, Adophus C. Martin, Mathew Brock, Sam B. Davis, J. M. Moore, Allen Atkinson, J. M. Green and Sam D. Moore as “hands”. A section of the main east-west road ran on the north side of the I. & G.N. Railroad, so that the Earle’s Chapel church and school were more strategically located than today. In 1928, the route was moved south of the railroad, roughly paralleling the present U.S. 79.
With the exception of the Earle-Morris grist mill and cotton gin, and later, with the coming of the railroads in the 1870’s, sawmills, there were no commercial establishments in Earle’s Chapel. Until the time of the Civil War, many of the settlers made the ten-to-twelve day roundtrip by oxcart to market their cotton in Shreveport and bring back supplies or the even longer trek to New Orleans. It was from one such journey to New Orleans that Elijah Earle brought back the first iron cookstove in Cherokee County.
The post-Civil War development of railroad transportation allowed the small towns along the route to develop into local trade centers for the farming villages that surrounded them. The growth and development of “New” Jacksonville after it was relocated on the railroad in 1872 provided such a center for Earle’s Chapel and similar communities.
It was not until 1926 that Carson C. Brittain opened a small grocery store on what was then S.H. 43 in Earle’s Chapel. At his previous location in Ironton, Mr. Brittain had installed the first one-stroke gasoline pump in the county and his 32-volt Delco electrical system in both locations was a community marvel in an area that did not have electrical service until the coming of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) program around 1940. The store continued to serve the community under several owners, including Charlie Grimes and A.M. (Booster) Earle, descendents of two of the early families, until U.S. 79 was re-routed in the late 1960’s, adversely affecting its location on the highway.
There seems to be no evidence that any substantial effort was made to develop the community into a township. Rather, it was typical of the many small farming communities around Jacksonville whose citizens availed themselves of the central town’s trade advantages while focusing much of their social life on the community church and school.
Until after the first World War, Earle’s Chapel remained a community of farm families who traded “in town” but sent their children to Earle’s Chapel School, attended Earle’s Chapel Church on “Preaching Sundays,” and buried their dead in the scraped earth cemetery alongside the church. During the twenties, its neighboring community, Ironton, began to expand, and in the face of substantial resistance on the part of many Earle’s Chapel families, absorbed the Earle’s Chapel school into the larger Ironton district. The church congregation remained active, however, and the cemetery continued to serve the needs of both communities, Ironton having neither municipal nor churchyard cemeteries.
Today, fifth and sixth generation descendants of the “First Families” of Earle’s Chapel remain on, or hold, sections of their family land. Others continue to live in the area, descendants of those who “moved to town”—Jacksonville—where they became part of the historical development of that city which celebrated its centennial year in 1972.
The community is marked today by a plain highway sign on U.S. 79—misspelled Earl’s Chapel—and on the County map, as in the days of its post office, Earls. Earle’s Chapel Road to the south is lined with modern homes, most of them modest in size, set in “…a little acreage.” The Chapel Road to the north, however, remains much as it has always been—a narrow country road leading off the highway, across the railroad built in 1872, and up the hill to the Chapel and the Cemetery.