Sunday, April 26, 2015

School dedication and warm memories

Sounds of birds chirping, a noise familiar with the boys and girls that played ball or hopscotch in the early 20th Century, presided over the jovial crowd in the Red River community of Illinois Bend, Texas. While some people were parking, a few walked by the side of the wooden 30x50 structure supported by large hand hewn pillars where they saw a concrete obelisk that read "Commemorating Rural Schools Montague County, Texas" and just beneath it, "Illinois Bend 1877-1944."

After dealing with buckets of rain and tornado force winds the last few days, the region caught a break and while the winds remained, sunshine made a return offering the community a chance to enjoy God's climate and celebrate the unveiling of a Texas Historical Marker.

People congregated underneath a pavilion, which featured rows of pews and chairs on the exterior, and were able to gleam at the former school where grandparents or parents attended classes, including Norene Dowd and Pauline Parker.

The ceremony began with a welcome from the Chairman of the Montague County Historical Commission, Janis Sneed.  Moments later, Billie Grigsby, president of the Illinois Bend Perpetual Care Cemetery Association, which was honored with a historical plaque last April, addressed the crowd. In a blue and white blouse that matched the sparkle in her eyes as she slowly brought the audience back in time.

While the community had a school, Valley Branch School District No 14, which once sat where the cemetery sits just off Farm Road 677, it was the work of the Masons who helped build a permanent school. In January 1893, W.W. Wickliffe sold land in the area of Burton Street and Third Street in Illinois Bend for one dollar to the Illinois Bend Lodge 665 A.F. According to the deed from Mr. Wickliffe, "It is further agreed and understood by all parties concerned, that the purpose of building a Masonic Hall, church and school house and furthermore that the upper story of said building was to be used, owned and controlled by Illinois Bend Lodge No 665 for Masonic purposes." The third floor, which was accessed via an exterior door, was where the lodge held their meetings while the first floor was used as a school during the week and a church on Sundays.

As Shannon Gillette came up to the podium, her piercing blue eyes began to glow as she started reminiscing about her grand father J.F. Frazier, who made the bell that hung in the bell tower. The bell rung a half hour prior to "books" or at the beginning of class. Additionally, if the bell rang, it also informed the community that help was needed.

Every September citizens and their families would congregate for a barbeque

Since the school was built before modern conveniences proliferated throughout the country, the building was heated by two large wood burning stoves (one continues to provide heat). Electricity did not come into the community until 1945. By then, the school past its peak. Student enrollment during the 1920's reached as high as 125, but by the end of World War II it dwindled, forcing students to attend school 15 miles south in Saint Jo. In 1987, two decades after the lodge merged with the one in Saint Jo, a group of citizens that remained in Illinois Bend created an organization called the Twin Community Club. Today, it is known as the Illinois Bend Community Club and they continue to meet one Tuesday evening a month and anyone is welcome to attend.

As trucks and SUV's gently glided down the gravel road back onto Texas Spur 677, echoes of children's giggles joined in with the howling winds .


  1. Kathleen Forshey-BurnsApril 28, 2015 at 1:50 PM

    Greg I sure wished I had of known about this...I would have liked to have attended it since my Anderson family was part of this area. Le me know the next time they do something with this area.

    Thank you
    Kathleen Forshey-Burns

    1. I will ask and find out, but every month they hold meetings at the school house.


    2. Hi Kathleen,
      My parents live in Illinois Bend and helped restore this old building. They are active in historical events in the area. If you like, I could put you in touch with them and they can give you details of meetings and events.
      I am living in Australia so not terribly familiar with what is going on there,
      Contact me at audreyashley at Hotmail dot com if you wish.

      And Gregory- thanks so much for doing a post on this and keeping the dream alive!!

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