The following was submitted by Mary Houlihan:
While going through some of my cookbooks (stay with me on this), I came across a cookbook that I inherited from (my husband) David’s mother. I can’t find a copyright date of it, but it was published by the Valley Lodge Women’s Auxiliary. Anyway, it has a “History of Simonton” area in it put together by the historical research committee which include: Ginger Weaver, Chairman; Irene Burhart; Margaret Bailey; Maurice Berkman; Mr. & Mrs. Earl Browning; Robert Gacke, Jr.; Rita Phillips; and Margaret Turner.
SIMONTON – A Brief History
“…the petitioner, Thomas Westall is worthy of the favor which he solicits and may be admitted as a resident of the new colony on account of his good qualities and circumstance and his well know application to agriculture….and because of his having a very large family, two leagues and two labors of land may be conceded to him.” So reads a portion of the original title to land granted Thomas Westall, a member of Stephen F. Austin’s “Old Three Hundred” colony, by the Mexican government. The instrument, dated July 19, 1824, is addressed “To the Hon. Commissioner, Baron de Bastrop” and is signed “Estavan F. Austin” in “Town San Felipe de Austin”, July 15, 1824.
Here begins the recorded history of the area that was to become the town of Simonton, land referred to in records as the Thomas Westall league. (According to the dictionary the old Spanish land league was about 4,439 acres.)
Actually Simonton history is concerned only with the description of the survey marks of the first league granted Westall starting “…at a point on the East margin of the Brazos River, where a land mark was planted a distance of five varas from a cottonwood thirty six inches in diameter…”. The English translation leaves the reader in suspense by including only part of one final paragraph as follows “…and the said Thomas Westall, in evidence of finding himself in real and personal possession of said lands without any contradiction whatever, shouted…”. Allow your imagination free reign. We do know the Baron de Bastrop and Stephen F. Austin were with him at the time.
The reader might inquire why Simonton isn’t named Westall. It was customary for settlers receiving land to live on the portion known as a “labor”, a piece of land just outside the fort large enough to allow room for growing food for the family. The league would be located elsewhere. Thomas Westall, along with some other members of the “Old Three Hundred”, probably lived on his labors just north of the present town of Richmond.
The first settlement at Simonton was in the late 1840′s when James Simonton and his family migrated from North Carolina to establish a plantation on the Brazos River. The town is named after him.
The census of 1860 shows the Simonton’s owned one of the largest and most prosperous plantations in Fort Bend County, valued at $435,000. Wharton’s History of Fort Bend County refers to the family as “opulent”. However, after the Civil War, when the large plantation was no longer profitable, tracts of land were sold to incoming settlers.
The next event shaping Simonton history was the advent, around 1888, of the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railroad. It’s said the company wanted the track to run through Pittsville (near what is now Fulshear) where the terrain was more level. However, the landowners in that area refused to sell the railroad a right-of-way because they believed the trains would scare their cattle. So the line was laid across the hills and creeks between Fulshear and Simonton. Water was as necessary as coal for the steam powered locomotives; and Simonton became one of the main watering stops. With the tracks, came the people. With the tracks also came the opportunity to ship the area’s farm produce to other parts of the country.
From 1898 to 1909, Simonton was the site of a prison farm. A Captain South was in charge of convicts who cleared the land from Simonton to the Brazos River for farming of ribbon cane for syrup. Until very recently, a barn used by these convicts as a mess hall, bars still on the windows, stood near the Simonton crossroads.
In 1906, D.H. (Dave) Mullins, who came to Simonton from Kansas, began growing potatoes on a commercial scale – 150 acres that first year. Later he and J.R. Spencer, also from Kansas, working together, planted 1000 acres of red potatoes. Other farmers followed suit; and during one of the best years, 800 railroad cars of potatoes were shipped out of Simonton to places like Chicago, Kansas City, and Cincinnati. The Simonton area had become one of the country’s major producers of red potatoes.
In addition to potatoes, alot of cotton and alfalfa meal were shipped out of Simonton. There’s an alfalfa dehydrator still standing on the nearby Hunt Farm; the meal was shipped to Ralston Purina in Fort Worth.
During the years that agriculture output was important, Simonton developed a busy “downtown”. There was as many as three general stores. One, owned by A.A. (Tom) Mullins, offered a hotel on the second floor with potato buyers and railroad men as regular guests. Another hotel located in the Scruggs home, was run by a Mrs. Bentley, who culinary skills made Simonton a favored meal stop for travelers. For a time, four passenger trains went through Simonton everyday; and the price must have been right. Even in the 1940′s the cost of a ticket to Houston was $1.04 and round trip was $1.90; a ticket to Wallis was seven cents. There was also a blacksmith shop, two cotton gins, a lumber yard, a post office and the railroad depot.
Of course, there were churches and a school. It was in 1893 that the first school was established in Simonton. A census of eligible school children taken in 1911 revealed 544 students. A school population of this size indicates a substantial community.
A commercial venture still in operation as Bailey’s Pecan Barn was started in the early 20′s by Frank Wells as a Ford agency. His daughter, Margaret Bailey, says it didn’t stay in business very long — perhaps because the dirt roads didn’t encourage automobile traffic. The roads weren’t even gravel until about 1926 and were more mud pie than road during the winter rainy season. Cars often were thoroughly mired; and their passengers would have to hike out or hop a train. The other possibility was to hire someone with a mule team to pull the car to freedom. There was one gentleman suspected by the townspeople of helping along the mud in front of his place — he had a mule team.
Then, as now, farming was hard work often accompanied by hard luck. Margaret Turner, who was born and raised in the area, recalls that her father gave up his farm after losing crops three years out of four because of floods. In 1913, there was a record flood on the Brazos with water ten feet deep on the railroad bridge between Simonton and Wallis. Railroad officials placed ten tank cars on the bridge to prevent its floating away with the current. Simonton was flooded, of course, with the women and children evacuated to a Mr. Bower’s at Pool’s Hill. According to the account of Mrs. Muriel Mullins Cross, daughter of Dave Mullins, there was a shortage of food but an over supply of fleas who apparently evacuated, too.
Some years later, another stroke of bad luck, the onset of a disease causing blisters on the potatoes, brought about the decline in potato production. In the meantime, out in California, Luther Burbank had developed the white potato, a strong contender in the market place against the red potato grown in the Simonton area. Gradually, cattle ranches and some pecan groves replaced the acres of potatoes.
As agricultural output declined and railroad traffic dwindled, people started moving away, mostly to Houston with its growing industry and higher wages. The depot closed in 1953; and it wasn’t long before the last cotton gin closed down. Eventually, what was left was a small cafe, a pecan barn, the post office, a small liquor store and one general store — Berkman’s.
“Not a country store, but not a city store either” is the way a Houston newspaper columnist described Berkman’s. It was started by Harry Berkman, who came to Simonton from Poland in 1913. He worked in the general merchandise store of the Daily Brothers for some years with time out to fight in World War I. Then in 1935, he started his own store across the railroad track’s from Daily’s. His son, Maurice Berkman, is now the proprietor and the present Mayor of Simonton.
Gradually, the population had shrunk to about 200; and by 1957 Simonton had changed from a busy small town to a quiet crossroads community. Then came the beginnings of a new stage in the life of the town. Vernon Evans, owner of the nearby Rue Ranch, and his son-in-law, A.E. “Snake” Bailey, bought 850 acres of land along FM 1093 to be developed as a western community with stables and a small arena and club house, the hub around which houses would be built. The development was called Valley Lodge.
Evans and Bailey had lots of ideas for their development. For example, to promote the western theme they produced a “Frontier Town” not far from the club house by congregating several old buildings moved from their original sites. An old red hay barn belonging to Arthur Hilton, the previous owner of some of the Valley Lodge land, was used as the sales office. A hand hewn log cabin built by slave labor and a “General Store” face with portions of the old DeGeorge home built in Houston in 1890 were part of the scene. Then there was the Old Sealy Jail with hand forged bars, a building designated as the “Blacksmith Shop” and “Frontier Museum” and a double-pen house built by convict labor.
What had been an old ox bow of the Brazos became a fishing lake. A nine hole golf course and swimming pool were added. Street names were all western in flavor, the letters branded into the wood. A Valley Lodge Trail Ride Association was formed to join in the opening event of Houston’s Stock Show and Rodeo, the annual Salt Grass Trail Ride.
Another residential development was started in 1969 when builder Clarence Barnes bought over fifty acres on the south side of FM 1093 and started building homes.
In 1963 the Round Up was built on FM 1093. Also the brainchild of “Snake” Bailey, it is a large indoor rodeo arena in full swing every Saturday night, drawing people from Houston and elsewhere. It is a favorite spot to bring visitors to the Houston area for a taste of the “real west”. It seems that the Simonton rodeo has been listed as a tourist attraction in Houston Chambers of Commerce literature. When China’s strong man, Deputy Premier Teng Hsiao-P’ing visited the United States in 1979, the stop he enjoyed the most, according to some news reports, was the evening he spent in Simonton at the rodeo.
What put Simonton on the map in a more official sense was its incorporation as a village in January 1979, population 603, with a Mayor and five alderman, council m
eetings the third Tuesday of every month.
Houston is blamed for luring people away from Simonton during the post World War II years. Now Simonton is gaining population from Houston — people drawn to the banks of the Rio de los Brazos de Dios, as were Thomas Westall and other members of Austin’s colony the “Old Three Hundred”.
The following was posted years ago by another visitor:
Simonton, Texas is at the intersection of Farm Roads 1093 and 1049, on the Southern Pacific line fourteen miles northwest of Richmond in northwestern Fort Bend county.
The first settlement at Simonton was in the early 1850s, when James Simonton moved to Texas from North Carolina to establish a plantation on the Brazos River. After the Civil War, the plantation was broken up and sold.
The San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway built through the community in 1888, and Simonton was granted a post office in 1894. In 1905, John Spencer, Albert A. Mullins, and Davis H. Mullis moved from Kansas to Simonton and purchased a large tract on which to grow potatoes.
In 1910, the company of Spencer and Mullins Brothers conveyed property to the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway to establish a siding from which to ship potatoes throughout the United States. The Simonton area became one of the leading producers of potatoes in the country.
By 1914 the community included two general stores, a cotton gin, and 50 residents.
In 1925, when the community reported a population of 100, the Simonton school district served 181 white and 322 black pupils.
At that time the town had a cotton gin, three general stores, and five other businesses. The population of Simonton varied from 150 to 200 from 1940 to the 1970′s, when in began to grow, reaching 603 in 1980 and 910 in 1990. The community incorporated as the City of Simonton in 1979.
Source: S.A. McMillan, comp., The Book of Fort Bend County (Richmond, Texas, 1926)