For more than 300 years Hemphill and Sabine County served as the overland gateway into the vast expanses of the Lone Star State.
Back in the days when Texas was nothing more than a vast empty wilderness on the northern frontier of Spanish territory in the New World, pioneers’ first sight of a new and largely unexplored territory came on the banks of the Sabine River.
A house, built by an adventurer who called Texas home at the time overlooked the ferry. It was one of two he built, the first one on the banks of the river, with the other, still standing today on a higher hill. The first was built in the early 1800s, with the house standing today built around 1830. It is considered the oldest log cabin in Texas and is located along Texas Highway 21, the El Camino Real; it’s just a few miles northeast of the East Texas town of Hemphill.
This part of Texas is known as Sabine County. Today the old ferry is beneath the waters of Toledo Bend Reservoir, but the Gaines-Oliphint House still stands and it should remind people of the countless thousands who crossed into Texas looking for… looking for many things, but with the conviction that Texas had it — whatever it
“All those people we read about in our history books coming into Texas, they came through here,” noted Sabine County Historian Weldon McDaniel. “Stephen F. Austin, before he got into Texas, spent the night on the other side of the river. The next day he crossed the ferry and traveled all the way to Milam, just a few miles west of here.”
There were a few ways to get into Texas back in the years prior to the Republic of Texas days; they could come by boat to ports like Galveston or Indianola, farther to the south. They could come by road as well in a couple of different locations.
The settlers coming from Appalachia from places like Tennessee and Kentucky, came through Arkansas and crossed the Red River near Texarkana, the path Sam Houston took. The large majority, though, came alonga great arc down from the Carolinas through Georgia and the Southern states of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. They came through at Sabine County, and their footprints are still found throughout the area and the role Sabine County played in the life of Texas cannot be overstated as there would not be a Texas without the role the county played in establishing Texas.
Sabine County began in December 1836, less than a year after Texas won its independence, when Sam Houston, the new president of the Republic of Texas, established it. It’s considered an original Texas county, one of 23. Settlers had been coming to settle in the area since the late 1700s as the El Camino Real was the main route into Texas. The ferry was established by Michael Crow in 1796. James Gaines, bought the ferry from Crow in 1812. In 1824 Gaines was named alcalde of the district. A few years later the first town in the area, Milam was established, as the number of settlers in the region began to increase.
James Gaines owned a large plantation around the Texas side of the ferry crossing the Sabine, along with operating a ferry-tavern, which was torn down before Toledo-Bend filled, but the home was never rebuilt and eventually its materials rotted. Gaines played a significant role in the early life of Texas, even serving as Sabine County’s representative to the convention held at Washington-on-the-Brazos that declared an independent Texas on March 2, 1836. He also served on the committee that drafted the Texas Constitution; then Gaines served as a Senator on the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Texas Congress.
Gaines eventually found himself in California during the big gold rush of the middle 1800s; discovering a large cache of gold and establishing a mining company that lasted for more than 100 years in the Golden State.
“He was quite an adventurous man,” Mr. McDaniel said of James Gaines.
The Gaines-Oliphint House was built by James Gaines for his in-laws. The house is the last house in the old settlement of Pendleton. While visiting the house, guests should look at some old log ends beneath the back porch of the old house. The pieces of logs were rescued out of the bottom of the Sabine River south of the Toledo Bend dam after it was built.
The logging industry always has been a big deal in Sabine County. Back before the railroads came through logs were sent down the Sabine to the sawmills along the coast. Back where the logs were sent downstream, the owners of the trees made their brands and stamped each end of every log with their brand.
“The landowners would register their brands in Sabine County and every county down to the coast, then they would register them in the Louisiana parishes,” Mr. McDaniel explained. “That way, if someone downstream found one of your logs washed up on the bank, they would see the stamp, and put it back in the river. When the log would get down there to the sawmill, they would check the stamp, and send the money to them after it was milled.”
Back to the Gaines-Oliphint house, the ferry brought people by the score into the vast regions of Texas, it proved a means of escape during the Runaway Scrape as Texans fled Santa Anna and his advancing army. The role the ferry and the county played during the early years of Texas cannot be overstated.
Once things settled down, as Texas secured its freedom with victory at San Jacinto, a battle in which many from Sabine County participated when Benjamin Bryant answered Sam Houston’s plea for soldiers in the fight for Texas, the government of Texas was established and Sabine County was officially organized by the government of Texas on Dec. 14, 1837, with its current-defined boundaries.
“It’s the only of the original counties to still be in its original borders,” Mr. McDaniel said.
In 1858 Hemphill became the county seat of Sabine County, taking the spot from Milam after voters in the county decided to locate the county seat in a more central location.
For years men used to gather at a corner of the courthouse lawn and play dominoes beneath a large cedar tree, next to the city well. Also, a large oak tree on the courthouse lawn came from an acorn from the Stephen F. Austin tree located in San Felipe. Also on the courthouse lawn is the old Sabine County Jail, which also serves as a small museum for the area. The county built the jail in 1903, with the current courthouse being built in 1906. The courthouse was renovated in the 1980s.
It is one of only a few jails where hangings took place, only one was ever held in the life of the jail. Sabine County utilized the jail until 1984.
Back in the 1940s, Texas and Louisiana began working together to build a lake on the Sabine River. For the next several years the states negotiated, and Louisiana came up with money from the Confederate veterans pension fund and the Texas Legislature ponied up the rest for the establishment of the lake.
In 1966 the dam was finished with officials telling homeowners it would take five years for the lake to get fully filled. Homeowners and landowners had their property purchased from them, and if a house was on it, it was given back to them and they were allowed to move it from the site.
“The thing is, 68 was a wet year, it rained and it rained, and the lake was full by 1969,” Mr. McDaniel explained. “A third of the county is underwater.”
While the lake was being built aerial photos were taken of all the area, documenting the land that would eventually be under water. Mr. McDaniel painstakingly collected many of these photographs and put them together, and a few years ago Hemphill had a, “What Went Under Reunion.”
“There were a lot of tears shed there,” Mr. McDaniel explained. “People would see the photos and they would cry and tell us that was the first time they had seen the old home place since it went under.”
More than 400 people attended the event for a stroll down memory lane.
A visit to Hemphill and Sabine County is a stroll down memory lane, even for someone who has never been there, because it’s the kind of town that makes people feel at home — no matter where they may be from.
Nearby Toledo Bend Reservoir provides a plethora of recreation activities including, fishing, golf and water recreation. There also are resorts and places to spend a few days, or forever.
As for Hemphill, it and the surrounding county is one of the great tales of Texas, so go and experience it.