A tale of two uncles (Part 1)

Sometimes, when digging through old records, you happen upon seemingly contradictory “facts” that seem to leave no choice but to dig a little deeper.

Back in 1918 a man named Ed F. Bates wrote a wonderful book called “History and Reminiscences of Denton County.” In his book, Mr. Bates gave detailed accounts of the early history of the Cross Timbers. Much of the information that we now have, about the beginnings of our area of Texas, are due to the efforts of Mr. Bates. He wrote about the initial settling of the area west of Lewisville that was once known as Holford’s Prairie.

Little is known about John H. Holford. He was born in Kentucky in 1816. He moved to Missouri where he married and then brought his family to the Cross Timbers after his thirtieth birthday. The Holford’s lived here for about ten years, then moved on to the Hill County west of Austin where John died on September 20, 1881.

There were settlers living here before Mr. Holford came and many of the group of Missouri natives who came along at the same time as the Holford’s remained long after John moved on. The influence of the Holford’s gradually faded, but one of the early homesteaders who would have known the Holford family well was a pioneer named William B. Brown.

We learned from Ed Bates that William B. Brown came to be known as “Uncle Billy Brown,” by his neighbors. Uncle Billy was born in Tallapoosa County, Ala. in 1834 and he moved here in 1854. He fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War and returned to Denton County where he became a well respected member of the Holford’s Prairie Community.

Now the problem arises with the discovery of a story printed in the Denton Record Chronicle in 1949 about the early settlement of our area. According to the newspaper article, William B. Brown, better known as “Uncle Billy,” was the oldest citizen of the county and living with his wife Maggie in Argyle. But how could a man born in 1834 still be living in the Cross Timbers 115 years later and not be in the Guinness Book of Records? Well, perhaps the date in Mr. Bates’ book was wrong or could it be that there were two Uncle Billy Brown’s living in our area?

With the help of the records in the court house, old newspaper articles and the Emily Fowler Library in Denton, the mystery has now been solved. There were indeed two men named William B. Brown, they both were called “Uncle Billy,” they both lived here in the Cross Timbers and they both led long interesting lives and raised families, all of whom should be respectfully remembered.

Way back in 1801 a baby was born on a farm in South Carolina. The parents were Mary and Alexander Brown and they named their new son Edward. Edward probably had brothers and sisters, but we do not have any knowledge of them. The Brown family moved to Gwinnett County, Ga. where Edward grew up. He met a girl from Tennessee whose first name was Sidney, and in 1824 the two got married. Like most other couples of that time, Sidney and Edward lived on a farm and started growing a big farm family. We know of six of the children, three boys and three girls, but it is likely that there were more who did not survive childhood. Life was like that in the 1800’s.

This was an enterprising time in our history when Americans were beginning to seek opportunities in the West. Edward Brown moved his family from Georgia to Alabama and then on to Attala County, Mississippi. They would have known of the victories of Sam Houston’s army and the U.S. Army over the Empire of Mexico, and that the brand new state of Texas had land available and was seeking settlers. Around 1854 the Brown’s moved to Denton County, Tex.

It is known that Edward started farming in the southern part of the county but we do not know whether his wife Sidney lived long enough to make the journey to Texas. We do know that Edward Brown died in 1856, leaving five of his adult children and his farm. We also know that in 1871, three of the children of Edward and Sidney were still living in Denton County and sold more than 300 acres of the farmland that they had inherited. They were William Bryant Brown, his brother Edward P. Brown and their sister Mary Ann Rebecca Brown.

Now about the same time that the Brown’s were making their journey to Texas, a teenager named Josiah Phillips and his younger brother Joel arrived in Denton County. They came from Indiana and were probably orphaned. Josiah and Joel each received a land patent from the State of Texas. These gifts by the state were rewards for service done possibly by the deceased father or other relative of the two new immigrants. Texas granted many patents for those who fought for our independence from Mexico. Josiah received 320 acres and he also met and married a young lady named Elizabeth Cooksey. Elizabeth’s family had recently moved to Denton from Arkansas.

Josiah Phillips was 29 years old and was raising cattle on his ranch in southern Denton County in 1861, when the Civil War started. There were two different men named Josiah Phillips who came from Texas to fight in the war. We do not know for sure that Elizabeth’s husband fought in the Civil War, but we do know that her Josiah died in 1862 leaving her a young widow with a ranch in Denton County.

In Denton there were very strong feelings being roused by the war. William Bryant Brown volunteered in February of 1862 and joined Company G of the 18th Texas Cavalry Regiment. He was 28 years old and promoted to the rank of First Lieutenant. He was active in several battles and was captured and spent some time in a Union prison but returned to active duty through a POW exchange. William was wounded in the Battle of Atlanta on July 22, 1864. William, along with the rest of his unit, finally surrendered in June of 1865. He was paroled and made his way back to Denton County to resume his life here.

Confederate Veteran William B. Brown set out to get back to normal here in southern Denton County. He and his brother, Ed sold some of the land they inherited and started buying other real estate. It would seem that they were trading up. William joined the Free Masons and donated five acres of land in Holford’s Prairie to Masonic Lodge 201. William was also a member of the Presbyterian Church.

In 1868 at the age of 34, William married Elizabeth Cooksey Phillips, the 28 year old widow of deceased neighbor Josiah Phillips. In 1869 Elizabeth gave birth to a little girl who they named Jesse Ann. Then in 1871 a son named William Lee was born and in 1876 another daughter named Jennie. In the meantime, William continued to farm and raise cattle and become a trusted neighbor to many in the community. He donated land for the construction of a church and school at a place he called Roger’s Chapel.

The arrival of the railroads in Denton, Lewisville, Grapevine and Argyle brought a new level of prosperity to the area and the Browns were well situated to take advantage of it. As more people moved into the county, William and Elizabeth grew to be two of the more senior land owners of our area. The couple prospered and their three children grew up. In 1886, Jesse, the oldest daughter, died at the age of just 17. In 1892, Lee, their son, got married to a girl named Bunnie Hix. Two years later William’s 54 year old wife, Elizabeth, died.

Brown’s daughter, Jennie married a man named W.R. Richardson and moved up to Denton. William’s son, Lee, worked at a lumber yard in Denton but then moved to Cleburne, Tex. where he managed a large lumber company. With both of his children away raising families of their own, William continued living on his farm but in August of 1897, he married a widow named Palmyra Hackney Brooks. Myra was only 37 years old when she married William, but she had four young sons to raise, ranging in age from 9 to 15 years old. One year later, 64
year old William became a father again; this time to a baby girl who they named Willie Brown. As the four Brooks boys grew they took over many of the physically demanding tasks of life on a Texas farm. It would seem that they also became quite fond of their aging stepfather. They sometimes called him “Old Rip,” because the tall lean William had grown a long white beard. The stepsons thought that made him look like Rip Van Winkle, a fictional character who slept for 20 years and then awoke to a completely changed world. Many of William’s friends and neighbors took to calling him “Uncle Billy.”

Sometime after the turn of the century, William and Myra decided to sell the farm and move into town. They sold the farm and bought a large boarding house on the corner of Hickory St. and Avenue A in Denton. It was situated on the edge of the campus of the brand new Texas Normal College and Teacher Training Institute. Myra was planning to run a boarding house for college girls and let her husband take it easy. Not long after the move to Denton, 9 year old Willie Brown died of Typhoid Fever. Then in 1913 William received word from Cleburne that his son, Lee, had died of meningitis.

With all of the children and stepsons gone or grown up and leading lives of their own, Myra ran her boarding house while “Uncle Billy” became a well known senior citizen of Denton. Being one of the last remaining veterans of the Civil War and one of the very oldest pioneers of the county William B. Brown was a very colorful character around the town of Denton. Then on Sunday morning September 18, 1921 “Uncle Billy” died. He was 87 years, 7 months and 14 days old. He is buried in the I.O.O.F. Cemetery in Denton.

Next month we’ll tell you about another “Uncle Billy Brown.”

Contact Jim Morriss at [email protected]


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