Bonham, Like Topsy, "Jest Growed"
Bonham Daily Favorite, September 3, 1992
Frequently I am asked, "why did Bailey Inglish choose Bois d'Arc bottom as the site for Bonham?" My response has been that in all likelihood Inglish had no intention of founding a town but instead chose the site because of the richness of the land.
The United States in the first third of the nineteenth century was still very much a reflection of its agrarian society with a high percentage of its population living in rural areas. Towns existed primarily as seats of government, or education, or in a limited sense as commercial centers.
From the few extant records of the Inglish family it is clear, for several generations leading up to immigration to Texas, that at no time did they live within the confines of an organized municipality. Even as Bonham began to take shape Inglish chose to live on the outskirts.
Then why does Bonham exist? Perhaps "like Topsy she jest grew." Certainly Alexander Russell's 1837 general store provided something of a nucleus. Fort Inglish provided a central focus and the establishment of the post office there in 1840 served as a gathering place for those living around the perimeter. But Bois d'Arc, as Bonham was then called, had a serious rival in Fort Warren on Red River. Warren was more of an attraction for those who desired organized living.
The river offered ease of travel, goods were easily shipped by barge or boat, and most of the settlements of northeast Texas were scattered along the river. The seat of justice for Fannin County was located at Warren in 1839. One of the earliest schools in the area was in operation and a number of different businesses were thriving.
An 1842 act of the Texas Congress spelled the end for Warren. Each county was required to locate the county seat as near the geographic center of the county as possible. By accident and not design Bois d'Arc was at the center of the county (as far as the established settlement areas were concerned). By another act Bois d'Arc was designated seat of justice for Fannin County and the town's name changed to Bonham in honor of the hero of the Alamo. It is very possible that had this act not been passed Warren would be a thriving river town and Bonham a small rural settlement on the muddy banks of Bois d'Arc.
The creation of the county seat did provide the impetus for Bonham to grown, however slowly. At the midpoint of the 19th century the nucleus was well established and Bonham took on more distinct characteristics of a town. We have already had a fragmentary look at Bonham through the eyes of Englishmen Edward Smith but perhaps a more detailed picture is available from the long held memories of two men who came to Bonham as impressionable young boys and grew to manhood as the city grew. Locke Penwell arrived in 1849 when his father Dr. E.S. Penwell established his medical practice. The second, Ashley Evans, arrived in 1857 when his lawyer father established a law office. Both men, independently, recalled the same period, about 1860.
Evans remarked that when his family arrived Bonham was a struggling village of a few hundred people with a housing shortage. Penwell recalled Bonham as being a quiet serene hamlet belying its earlier tumultous history.
The following is a composite of both men's recollections:
The courthouse was the focal point of the community. Neither man recalled the story brick and stone structure of 1849/50 but do make reference to the 1860 two story stone building surmounted by a cupola.
One unusual aspect of the village was the mixture of business structures and residences in the area that we today consider to be the commercial area of the town. C.C. Alexander built a home just south of the square across from the present post office. John Hoffar had a home on the corner where the First National Bank now stands.
Just south of the square on Main Street the Alfred Pace home was on the east side and Thomas Allen's residence was directly across the street. The post office was also in Allen's home. The next block had the log residence of John Sheffield. On Center Street the C.C. Ridings home was where the Bonham State Bank parking lot is.
One of the largest commercial buildings was the two story frame structure housing the J.R. Russell general store. Next, on that north side was a saloon operated by G.B. Gideon, Robert Burney's saddle shop and a two story brick building containing the law offices of Samuel A. Roberts. At the west wend were two framed buildings, one housing the Oliphant store and on the corner another saloon operated by a man named Nixon.
An imposing structure housing the storage facilities of C.C. Alexander's enterprise was on the northwest corner. To the south was his two story retail store. Then the Z.B. Sims store, McKee and Whitsett's Drug Store and Dr. Kennedy's office. The law office of W.A. Evans was near the southern end and on the corner a cake and ginger beer shop run by Richard Alderson. The west side of the square was the most popular area on down into the next block. L.C. Delisle's "The Bonham Era" offices were also located on that block.
The southwest corner was occupied, at different times, by A.E. Pace's general store and a similar establishment run by Sim Nunnelee and John Hoffer. The first building on the south side was a log building housing the medical offices of Dr. E.S. Penwell.
In the middle of the block was another log structure containing several rooms. Initially this had been a hotel but both men recalled that it was a residence and boarding house. On the east end of the block was a disreputable building housing another saloon. Reportedly C.C. Alexander purchased the property for ten times it value in order to remove the offending structure. This was the later sife of the magnificient Hotel Alexander built by H.C. Alexander in 1890.
The east side was sparsely populated. A two story brick and frame hotel sat in the middle. On the north end was a stable for the hotel and on the south end, set back from Center Street was the log structure housing the Fannin County Jail.
Occasionally Evans and Penwell diagreed as to exact locations or the occupants of certain buildings. Most likely both were correct but the passage of time distorted their memories.
Fannin County Museum of History
One Main Street, Bonham, Texas