Hood County Texas Genealogical Society
HISTORY OF THORP SPRING
“High Hopes & Human Frailties”
from granbury! magazine – Summer 1986
A true ghost town? Not quite – but ghosts are everywhere.
From atop the hill, the view is magnificent – and, but for a mockingbird’s serenade, the quiet is deafening. Comanche Peak looms mystically through the haze in the distance. You can imagine, almost see, smoke signals rising from the mesa with the Brazos River snaking around its base. Nearer, a couple of miles away, appears the bustling town of Granbury, perched beside its lake and merrily preparing chic shops and the Opera House for another influx of tourists from Dallas and beyond. But closer, just below the hill, lies a strange and quiet settlement, its remnants hinting at better days.
The forgotten hamlet is called Thorp Spring, and it dozes on Highway 4 about three miles northwest of restoration-revived Granbury, the Hood County seat. Only one more “wide place in the road,” beside the swollen Brazos and on the fringes of Lake Granbury’s burgeoning recreational area, the obscure village has a rich and tumultuous history, a well-kept secret, long forgotten by most.
Just off the highway, a deserted church camp on a weedy expanse belies the fact that a major university had its beginnings and flourished there over a century ago. It still flourishes, but not at Thorp Spring. A prestigious relay stop on the stagecoach route west, the erstwhile town’s reputation as a summer resort brought travelers from afar to its icy sulphur springs; and the town square once buzzed with activity – now, one ancient, leaning building remains, as if tenaciously hanging on to proved what once was.
Back up the road, below the hill, a lonely windmill stands guard over an overgrown pasture that rambles to the banks of the Brazos, knee-high weeds hiding traces of the “showplace” home of Col. Pleasant Earl Thorp, who dreamed of, settled, named and nurtured the place. Remnants are hard to find – ghosts are everywhere.
A hardy pioneer from Virginia, Pleasant Thorp settled his family on the west banks of the Brazos River in 1854. Naming the spot for himself and bubbling springs in a branch of Stroud’s Creek, Thorp envisioned not just another frontier settlement but an important town, and he spent almost the next 40 years making the dream come true. At his death in 1890, the 81-yeaar-old pioneer had lived to see his vision become reality, for by the 1880’s the town’s population had boomed to over 1,000, and it was known statewide. Many later and lesser settlements are now familiar names. But something happened to Thorps dream along the way – like a little wild rose, the village budded from amid the thorns, blossomed for a short, glorious season, then withered. By 1980, the population of the once-vibrant resort and college town was estimated at 184. Pleasant Thorp could not have been pleased.
The darkly-handsome, stout young blacksmith wandered to the wild place called Tejas while it was still under Mexico’s oppressive rule. He fought in the 1836 revolution that created the Republic of Texas, married a young widow named Nancy Hicks Oldham McEwen, and started raising a family in Burleson County of the lower Brazos Valley, beginning a lifelong, generation-spanning love affair with the colorful country along the banks and bluffs of the Brazos River.
But, like many other restless adventurers, Pleasant Thorp was not yet content to settle down, not in that particular place. A few miles south, emigrant Virginians built their “new” Richmond, with white colonial houses amid mossy oaks. Maybe the “Old South” feel was too familiar, too much like Virginia. Maybe. But it was probably something else. Pleasant was still a young and ambitious man, and the pioneer drive was too insistent, the unknown too enticing. He dreamed of more and better land, for running cattle, horses, with some set aside for farming…perhaps a great rock house on a gentle slope…maybe even a settlement, with his name on it. Thorp’s vision was northwest, upriver, in the heart of the Comancheria.
Pleasant knew the spot – he had seen it. Burleson County had been plagued with increasing Indian raids; and, with other determined to end the attacks, Thorp had joined the Army of the Republic of Texas. In January of 1841, he had ridden with Brig. Gen. Edwin Morehouse’s expedition, penetrating far beyond the frontier up the Brazos above a large double-mesa. The force included 125 soldiers and 115 friendly Indians. Maj. George B. Erath commented in his memoirs that the expedition was “the mistake of military characters, newly arrived in Texas,” who thought hostile Indians could be exterminated by carrying the war into their own country in the cold season and finding their winter villages. “Experience had already taught the Texas Rangers that the Indians were in their villages in the summertime only…in cold weather they scattered to hunt and feast on bear and other wild animals.”
During the futile foray, only two Indians were killed – those who stayed in Burleson County had encountered more hostile Indians. But Thorp wouldn’t soon forget the trip – he liked what he saw upriver around that majestic double-mesa, the river weaving a pattern around it. He saw the nearby land he wanted, even a certain spot, beside a stream with an Ioni Indian village spread upon it. Pleasant knew that someday, somehow, he would be back to get it.
In Burleson County, Indian problems mounted. Settlers formed militias, retaliating when they could catch the wily raiders. The frontier was warming to a bloody, moving battleground, a struggle for territory that would not be resolved for over 30 years.
By the early 1850’s, the new state’s population had swelled to over 212,000, and sheer numbers of settlers with land grants and dogged determination extended the frontier, pushing the Indians northwest, and problems abated in Burleson County. But Thorp then made his calculated move, for the cutting edge of the frontier had finally reached the land he coveted. Since Morehouse’s Expedition, he had gathered stacks of land certificates – trading, buying, whatever – to add to his 340-acre land grant in what would become Hood County. The pursuit of his dream would lead Pleasant many miles up the Brazos to that very different place “where the Cross Timbers seemed to struggle between mountain and valley for room.” It was a hardy land, requiring an even hardier pioneer. Treeless for miles, suddenly thick woods appeared. Mesas and undulating hills broken the horizon, but none so commanding as the double-butte, ancient companion to the Brazos. Comanche Peak loomed just a few miles from Pleasant’s land, “like a great ship of rock sailing inch-by-inch down the great river.”
Throp may have legitimately claimed his share of the valley, but so did Chief Buffalo Hump, Horse Back, Iron Jack and their people. They cared nothing for the white man’s surveys and land grants. They knew only that his was their ancestral hunting ground and “white eyes” were pushing deeper into their country, cutting trees, plowing ground, killing buffalo. John Graves, in Goodbye to a River, summed up the conflict matter-of-factly: “That the upper-middle Brazos ran through the Comancheria had a good bit of relevance…Because, though the Comanches were still calmly certain of their ownership, a new brand of un-Spanish whites had bee moving in with the odd notion that they owned it…” The Comanches certainly laid claim to their sacred mountain. For over two centuries they had roamed the mesa, chewing their peyote and chanting prayers to the Great Spirit from the butte where the river “peeked through the willows and cottonwoods…like streaks of silver.”
But Pleasant was one of the “white eyes;” and, like other land-hungry settlers, his eyes were on that virgin territory. In 1853, he made the long ride upriver to survey his more than 18,000 acres, extending five miles up Stroud’s Creek and seven miles up Robinson’s Creek from the river and also including acreage east of the Brazos. There was an understanding: The river was the “dead line.” Settlers stayed to the east, and the wild lands to the west were Indian domain. But Pleasant ignored this unofficial boundary, for most of his certificates described prime land west of the water. Just south of Pleasant’s land, Nancy’s father, Moses Oldham, also claimed 1,280 acres on the same side of the river.
After surveying his holdings, Pleasant rode home. His family now included stepson Buck, sons James and Henry, and daughters Mary Jane and Catherine Ann. The next season, the family moved to their new homestead to become the first settlers on the west banks of the Brazos in that area. Shortly after the move, another girl was born – Nancy Elizabeth, “Lizzie,” was the first white child born in a brand-new frontier outpost called Thorp Spring – Pleasant’s town.
The Thorps arrived at their new land with several wagons and teams and many loose horses. As the horses drank from Stroud’s Creek, someone spotted springs bubbling in the stream. The water was icy, with a strong, bold flavor, and Thorp knew from the Indians that is was a powerful tonic. The location where he would settle, near the spring, was the site of the Ioni village Pleasant had spotted and was a favorite campsite for Caddos and Comanches before the white men came with expeditions and surveyors. The Indians retreated northwest; but some, the Comanches in particular, were not to be evicted that easily. They only pulled back, to reappear on many a bloody, moonlit night to take vengeance on the “white eyes.”
Setting aside some land for the townsite, Thorp feverishly pursued his plans. Streets were laid out 40 feet wide, each reaching to a stream; and work was started on the big stone house, with Thorp’s few slaves providing much of the labor. But after five years, there were only five or six families settled at the village. There had been more who had retreated from the frontier’s edge, but there were still other stubborn settlers nearby and Thorp was not discouraged.
The year 1860 wasn’t a good one for Hood County for many reasons. Storm clouds of the Civil War were gathering, though that seemed far away to farmers fighting for existence because of severe drought. Times were hard for the pioneers – looking pleadingly to the heavens for rain; looking warily over their shoulders on moonlit nights for Comanches; looking in vain to the Federal army for long-promised protection; and looking suspiciously to the north amid grumblings of secession. Some surely wished they hadn’t left Virginia or North Carolina or wherever they had called home.
Pleasant didn’t suffer financially, for he was a frugal businessman, a shrewd “land baron.” In that “bad” year, his real estate was valued at $56,000 and personal assets at $18,000, a fortune at that time. And even more land came to the family when Nancy’s father died, leaving her an adjoining 640 acres.
With secession came realities of civil war, and frontier conditions deteriorated. Most young men were in the Confederate army. Federal troops that manned a string of forts on the frontier were withdrawn, and their absence was an invitation for escalated Indian attacks. Many desperate and frightened settlers gave up, deserting the area. But Pleasant was not about to abandon his dream or his land – the Thorps were there to stay.
During the “Comanche moon,” neighbor women and children trudged to Pleasant’s home to spend the night, leaving husbands or sons behind to guard cabins and stock. One man was stationed at Thorp’s house, while he, heavily armed, held an all-night vigil at the stables, for Comanches valued ponies second only to scalps. Occasional church services saw the men with pistols of their hips and the preacher with his six-shooter or Winchester on the pulpit. And Nancy and other women of the community were rarely without their own guns and knew how to use them.
After the war ended, the cutting edge of the frontier crept westward, and a semblance of “normalcy” came to the Brazos Valley. As huge buffalo herds were decimated, so was the red man’s fierce spirit. Pioneers pushed into and past Hood County, as the army finally battled the Indians into submission and onto reservations, and relative peace settled into the Comancheria, never again to witness the wild and free Indians who roamed the vast expanse.
More people soon settled in and around Thorp Spring; and, to Pleasant’s delight, the town began to flourish. He came to be known as “Col. Thorp,” that honorary title that accrued to many flamboyant or powerful figures. And the spacious house, begun before the war, was finally completed.
“Great-grandfather built a showplace of rock and boards brought from New Orleans by ox-cart,” wrote one of his descendants. It was indeed a real mansion for its time and place – a “land baron” needed the trappings, heavy stone blocks made it a good fortress against enemies, red or white, and the family was large. Besides, it was part of the dream.
The setting had been carefully chose, on a gentle slope rising from the east banks of Sulphur Spring Branch and nestled below a hill to foil winter winds. The two-story, dogtrot-style home was constructed on limestone blocks and handhewn boards and featured full-length porches and huge fireplaces, upstairs and down. Shaded by a towering live oak, it faced south, with a panoramic view of the townsite, Comanche Peak, and Pleasant’s beloved Brazos.
In the 1870’s, a colorful character appeared. Capt. Sam Milliken, a Kentuckian who had plied the Ohio and Mississippi rivers as owner of several steamboats, was lured to Thorp Spring by its location and excellent water. Milliken invested heavily, buying a large portion of Thorp’s acreage. Some of Milliken’s land was on Sulphur Spring Branch, and his vision was to promote the springs into a summer resort. The place already had some reputation as a resort, having been a rendezvous for frontier soldiers. Families also vacationed there, and it was not unusual to see the spring branch line with up to 100 campsites.
The enthusiastic Milliken plunged ahead, opening a feedlot and livery stable in anticipation of stage coach teams and travelers’ stock. He built a comfortable house to welcome tourists and a springhouse and bathhouses to accommodate the many visitors he hoped to draw for bathing, swimming and boating, and his wife welcomed overnight guests with appetizing meals and clean beds. Milliken’s venture became a great success in the 70’s, attracting a large share of the traveling public.
The town square became packed with a variety of enterprises and, of course, the post office. But there were not, and would not be, saloons, as there were in nearby Granbury.
The thriving village soon became a relay point for mail coaches on the Texas – Fort Yuma stage route, longest in the world in 1879. Originating in Fort Worth, with the Concord coach and six-horse team to Thorp Spring often loaded with tourists as well as mail, it switched to a two-horse surrey to Brownwood and then a two-horse buckboard for the long haul west to Yuma, Arizona.
Pleasant’s vision was becoming a busy, widely-known place, but not just as a resort. Thorp Spring became a college town!
In 1872, Pleasant had decided it was time for a bold move – he would build a school, but not just a cabin for a teacher and some books. His project would be a college, with one fine building at first. He chose a six-acre site west of his house, across Sulphur Spring Branch, on the highest point of the townsite. There he built a two-and-a-half story white limestone building; and he and Milliken began a search for its staff. They found the Clark family: The father, J.A. Clark, and his two sons, Addison and Randolph, all Christian educators who were disillusioned with the saloons and boomtown atmosphere of Fort Worth. Thorp sold his building to the Clarks at cost, taking notes for payment, the school was chartered AddRan Male & Female College, and its doors opened in 1873 to 13 students, including Lizzie Thorp. The college would continue to grow to become Texas Christian University, but not in Thorp’s limestone building, for in the spring of 1877, he evicted the Clarks, and the deed was cancelled.
A financial panic had turned boom to bust in Fort Worth, depressing the market for property Clarks hoped to sell to pay for the Thorp building. No payments were made for over three years; and, although Pleasant wanted the college, he and the elder Clark disliked each other and Pleasant believed there was a conspiracy to defraud him. Addison and Randolph attempted to intervene in the squabble, but a head-on clash between the stubborn older men could not be averted. Thorp told J.A. Clark to pay up or get out, and the Clarks were evicted at the end of the semester.
Fortunately, AddRan College survived. The Clarks sold personal property and scholarships, enabling them to build another building a short distance away and continue operation of the college. In 1889, when the Christian Church as given control of the college and J.A. Clark was no longer involved, Pleasant deeded twelve acres, comprising the campus, to be renamed AddRan Christian University.
After a brief attempt at a business college, Thorp’s building on the hill was never again used for school purposes. For almost a century, it stood “a silent reminder of high hopes and human frailties.”
The college that would become T.C.U. continued to grow, as did the town, its population topping 1,000 by 1890. And that was the year Col. Thorp died, with most of his dream intact.
There had been many other contributors to the town – farmers, ranchers, doctors, lawyers, shopkeepers, teachers and preachers. However, the leaders in the early days had been two men of different, though complementing, styles – the stoic Thorp, with land and capital, and the flamboyant Milliken, affable promoter-speculator. What this partnership apparently lacked was crucial: Neither man had the personality or inclination for “playing politics.”
During the busy, growing years, there had been two bad omens of things to come, and both events were largely the result of a lack of political influence. After Hood County’s boundaries were defined in 1866, Thorp Spring came in second in a hot political war that featured a series of contested elections and finally resulted in a commission of three out-of-county men locating the county seat in Granbury, then called Lambert Branch. There were “many men of influence and shrewd capacity” in favor of Lambert Branch, with “powerful influence brought to bear.”
Later, aggressive politics again came into play when the all-important Fort Worth & Rio Grande Railroad route was, some say, imperceptibly diverted from its natural course toward Thorp Spring, swerving to pass through the winning town, once again Granbury.
Those two defeats, taken separately, didn’t seem to matter for a time, though there were lingering bitter feelings, but they eventually emerged as the first two strikes against the stability of Thorp Spring. The third strike came as a series of other events over a period of time leading up to the turn of the century.
Capt. Milliken was killed trying to stop a team of runaway horses. Larger and finer vacation spots were developed, tourism dropped off sharply at the resort on Sulphur Spring Branch, and it was closed. The cotton gin burned; and, with the coming of the railroad through Granbury, stagecoaches were phased out. The loss of Milliken and Thorp, the prime movers, was a blow. But, in 1895, the decision was made to relocate AddRan Christian University to the growing town of Waco, and that was the final blow from which the town would not recover.
There was a gradual withering. Some businesses closed and others moved to Granbury. After AddRan moved, Thorp Spring still maintained a college for years, in one form or another, but never so large or popular, and the school was closed for the last time in 1930.
Pleasant and Nancy Thorp’s “showplace” was occupied for some years by their son Jim’s family, and then by Jim’s son, John, until he died there alone in 1935, having burned most of the furniture in the big fireplace. Long abused and in disrepair, the house partially collapsed and was finally razed. Few signs remain, just weeds, cactus, and scattered pieces of limestone. The land is no longer family-owned, but there must be some vague poetic justice in that the Brazos River’s dammed up, broadened waters have captured a good bit of what was Col. Thorp’s property. The Indians claimed the land once, Thorp claimed it for a long time, but the river won and possesses a part of it forever.
What remains of a pioneer’s vision sleeps in its own time-warp by the swollen Brazos near where it becomes a full-blown lake, and water backs up to cover the mouth of Stroud’s Creek where its natural springs bubbled up cold sulphur water. There’s no downtown, just a smattering of churches, a fast-food store or so and a couple of service stations along the highway. The hilltop where Thorp’s first college building stood is bare; and, a short distance away, the university campus is a lonely sight, with its few ancient structures and foundations, fragments that suggest grandness in a bygone day.
What had long been an Indian campsite became home to Pleasant and Nancy and other pioneer families in the mid-1850’s. Over the next four decades, the town boomed, despite having lost the battles for the county seat and railroad route. But when AddRan was moved to Waco, where it would be renamed Texas Christian University before moving to Fort Worth, the decline began.
What once was a stop on the stage route no longer has a post office. Acreage Thorp gave to the county for a park at the spring is an untended haven for red ants and bull nettles by the backed-up water.
There is some new construction, and two or three small businesses have opened around the perimeter of the hamlet. Some fairly new homes are scattered in the outlying areas, while remaining older homes are mostly along the highway and up the hill leading to the site of the first college building. Not far away, a crowded subdivision creeps to the shores of Lake Granbury’s backwaters. Perhaps as Granbury’s high-successful historic restoration efforts continue and the lake’s recreational facilities grow, Thorp Spring will spring to life again – or maybe not. Whether it does or just continues to doze matters little in the overall scheme. What does matter, maybe, is that this place was once a man’s cream-come-true and somehow represents that part of the pioneer spirit that stubbornly pursues a goal and makes something happen, whether it works out or not.
Pleasant and Nancy Thorp are buried with many descendants and other pioneer settlers in the old cemetery [Thorp Spring Cemetery] right outside of “town,” on a hill above Blue Branch of Stroud’s Creek, under the ever-watchful eye of Comanche Peak, and just a stone’s throw from the Brazos River – always the river.
~ Web Page by Virginia Hale ~