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Cottonwood
A Tough Little Town
with a Peaceful-Sounding Name

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
As 19th century newspapers often said of moribund individuals, George W. Franks realized he "could not live." Please, he struggled for breath to say, bury me with Tom.

George wanted to share the same grave with Tom Jones because they were best friends. Not only were George and Tom good buddies, they enjoyed a profitable business relationship. The two operated a saloon in Cottonwood, then a thriving little town in southeastern Callahan County.

Born in Berryville, Ark. in 1857, Jones came to West Texas from Leavenworth County, Kan. at some point before 1880. Not only did he and George soon go into partnership, Jones lived with George, his wife and their two children. For George, Tom was like a younger brother.

Everyone in town would lament what ended up happening, most particularly George.

Cottonwood dated back to 1875 or 1876, not long after the U.S. Cavalry and Texas Rangers cleared the frontier of hostile Comanches and Kiowa and in the process opened half the state to settlement. J.W. Love, the first homesteader in the area, wisely chose acreage near Cottonwood Springs at the head of Green Briar Creek about 10 miles east of the first county seat of Belle Plain. (That place became a ghost town after the new town of Baird was established.) Good soil and a reliable water source enabled Love to bring in a good crop his first year of farming. Since land only cost $5 to $15 an acre, other farming families soon arrived to put down literal and figurative roots in the vicinity of the springs.

By September 1882, Cottonwood had a post office with Lenson C. Helton as first postmaster. Not a year later, however, the government shuttered the facility in April 1883 and did not reopen the office until that August. Even then, the office only opened when mail arrived.
Cottonwood, Texas main street, 1890s

Cottonwood, Texas, late 1890s
Photo courtesy cottonwoodtexas.com

Few things are as peaceful sounding as the wind rustling the leaves of a cottonwood tree, but despite its pastoral name, Cottonwood, Texas soon earned a reputation as being tougher than a cotton boll.

Though he would not have opportunity to relish the honor, a man named Gabe Starr has the distinction of being the first person to die at the hands of another in Cottonwood's wild early days. Starr annoyed someone at a dance and ended up doing one last jig on the floor with a bullet hole in him.

The second and third victims of gun play in Cottonwood were Wash Brown and Jule Haggler. They had a falling out in one of the town's two saloons and took their fight outside to Main Street. While it would seem logical enough in the days of the Wild West for one of the men to have shot and killed the other, a recent arrival from Indian Territory-someone later remembered only as Moss-settled the argument by killing them both. Why Moss felt compelled to intervene with double deadly force is not explained in what little has been written about Cottonwood. Perhaps he was having a bad day. Or maybe he had been a party to the argument.

In December 1882, George Franks and Tom Jones threw a party at their saloon. Excessive sampling of their inventory led to a difference of opinion among friends. Alcohol seriously diluting their mutual regard, the two compadres stepped out to Main Street to resolve the issue Dodge City-style.

Given the temporary chemical impairment of their reflexes, both men did some impressive pistol shooting. Each put a bullet or two into the other. Tom died on the street where he fell, but George lived long enough to become sufficiently sober to realize he had killed his best friend. That's when he asked that they be buried together.

The two BFF's were homicides numbers four and five for young Cottonwood.

The sixth resident to die with his boots on was Jim Champion, stabbed to death by someone named Vaught. After the knifing the killer made for the brush where he hid out for a couple of days before committing suicide.

Someone named Thompson became the seventh homicide victim when a fellow named Scarf Daniels brained him with a wagon yoke over some matter or the other.

The town's eighth murder victim was Martin Bowen, who had a "difficulty" with George Hambrick while the two hoed cotton in a field belonging to John Heyser. Not packing a pistol or even a knife, Hambrick did the best he could with what he had, beating Bowen to death with his hoe.

If anyone else died violently in Cottonwood, it's not mentioned in a history of Callahan County published in 1986. Despite eight killings in only a few years, the town continued to grow, reaching its peak population of 360 in 1890. Cottonwood lost its post office in 1975 and by 2010 the U.S. Census showed only 40 residents. The only remaining building is an old bank built in 1911.

Today, the once busy Cottonwood Cemetery is quiet as, well, a graveyard. Among 500 or so graves, there's the weathered tombstone for George Franks, noting his birth on New Year's Day 1848 and his departure from this world on Dec. 12, 1882. Next to it over their common grave is the simple stone of Tom Jones. The narrow, white marble slab bears only his name with no mention of a friendship cut short by whiskey and lead.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" April 25, 2018

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