Texas: Myths, Legends, and the Real Deal
Part 4: A Genuine Ghost Town -- In More Ways Than One
In the early years of the Texas republic, people of strong character trekked from the United States to settle the woodlands and prairies of the new country. One of those families was the McGarrahs, John and Polly and their children. They traveled in 1842 from Arkansas to the north Texas region. Here, John claimed a grant of 640 acres, a pleasant spot on top of a rise. Nearby were creeks to supply fresh water and the elevation would provide a decent lookout to warn of native raiding parties. John and family built a log cabin and started a trading post, mainly to barter with the friendly Kiowas who brought buffalo hides. Soon, another fellow named Tarlton Cunius arrived. He built a sort of open-air blacksmith shop made with a roof of tree branches. It was a good start. John McGarrah named his little settlement Buckner, after his previous residence in Arkansas.
Other families took up acreage in the area. John L. Lovejoy had real lumber shipped on the Red River and then south overland by wagon. With it, he built the first frame structure in the region and opened a general store near the McGarrah trading post. By the end of 1845, Texas joined the United States and Buckner gained a Post Office. Besides that, as deaths from disease, accidents, and wild animals were common in that era, a cemetery became a necessity, also.
According to an article published in The Democrat newspaper in 1905, a fellow named J. R. Wilmeth, who was likely quite old by then, described the town of Buckner in 1846. “A public gathering place where settlers could get news. . . Their gardens, sweet potato patches, fresh sodded pumpkin fields, and green corn waving above the fences gave the country a hopeful aspect.”
In early spring of the same year, the state legislature established Collin County in the northern area and ordered that a commission should select two town sites within a radius of three miles of the exact center of the county. This was to ensure that any farmer with county business could make it to and from the courthouse in no more than two days of journey. (Makes sense.) An election would then be held to choose which site would become the county seat.
Did the men of the newly formed county arrange for this commission? Of course not. Why bother to find the exact center? Buckner was where it was and it happened to be the only thriving community in the county.
Here is where the story grows a bit murky as several accounts give differing details. Perhaps no one wrote down a solid report at the time and years later, it all depended on people’s not-always-reliable memories.
There was a planned gathering for July 4th. Word was delivered to all settlements that an election and holiday festivities would be held in Buckner. Since there were no roads or bridges, people were advised to bring food and spend the day. There would be flag-raising, patriotic speeches, and dancing.
On that July 4th, maybe 75 men discussed the question of county seat and all agreed to go with Buckner, as is. --- Or they might have met on July 13 for an actual election of county officials and to discuss the county seat question. One way or the other, only the site of Buckner was proposed.
There was a discussion as to who was eligible to vote for the officials. Naturally, women and slaves weren’t. A larger discussion was about Spotted Tail, a Kiowa chief who’d befriended the pioneers around Buckner. Sadly, the men deemed he couldn’t vote, either.
Whether July 4th or the 13th, the actual election of officials was held. Those who could read and write helped those who couldn’t and Collin County gained a so-called Chief Justice, last name Roberts, plus several other officials to run the local government. John McGarrah donated fifty acres for town lots, laid around a public square. The site for a courthouse was chosen and streets were named Houston, Polk, Missouri, and Illinois.
Although people were satisfied with the selection of Buckner, Justice Roberts took his new job seriously. He knew the legislature’s rules for selecting a county seat had been ignored and this concern must have festered in his brain for months. In January, 1847, he took it upon himself to appoint a fellow named George White as surveyor, who was charged with finding the exact center of the county. This task took him six months, but eventually he reported that the center was either in East Fork Creek or in the middle of the creek's flood plain. (Again, depending on which account.) As for Buckner, it was seven miles from the center and didn’t meet that requirement of being within the three-mile radius.
Next, Justice Roberts appointed the commission to select two possible sites. The election to determine which might prevail would be held on November 1 in the usual public gathering place of Buckner.
For several days before this election, rain had come in buckets, which created a travel nightmare for anyone living at a distance. Voters in the northern and western parts of the county didn’t care much about the election. They just thought Buckner was the common sense choice --- and it wasn’t on the ballot, so they stayed home and avoided the rain-soaked ground. Voters in the southern part of the county couldn’t reach Buckner because all the creeks were overflowing their banks, to say nothing of the thick mud. At the end of the day, only ten votes had been cast, all for the proposed site six miles to the southeast of Buckner. Just before the poll closed, a fellow named Ben Baccus hustled in. When he heard about the previous ten votes, he cast his for the proposed site on Sloan Creek, three more miles in a different direction, reason being, “just for devilment.” The decision was made to name the new location Buckner.
Oddly, for months, everything stayed the same. People still came to original Buckner to transact business and socialize. Then, on the first of May, John Lovejoy abruptly hired two men and twelve yokes of oxen. They put his store built of lumber on skids and dragged it the six miles to the selected county seat location. That must have been a sight to behold, a building going across the prairie, inch by inch. He had paid many dollars to build that store and he sure wasn’t going to go off and leave it. After two days of hauling, they got the building as close to the center of the site as possible. The only other things around were wild prairie and wild animals. Three days later, John Lovejoy opened his store for business.
Next to be built was Our House Saloon, clearly an important establishment to some. Dr. Worthington built a small place for his office and a log structure was erected for a courthouse.
To add more trouble, the U. S. Postal Service refused to open an office at the new location of Buckner, saying the name was already in use! Well, yes. Original Buckner still existed! Thus, the handful of people who’d moved named their town McKinney, for Collin McKinney, signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence.
But what happened to John and Sally McGarrah and the donation of fifty acres? Was John very disappointed? Apparently, all those hopeful plans were scrapped. It appears that Sally and the children moved to the new town at a certain point and John went to California. Maybe he he hoped to strike it rich panning for gold. He died there in 1852.
The town of Buckner faded into obscurity. All that remains is Buckner Cemetery, on the pleasant rise. Old-timers claimed that it had a large number of graves, including that of Chief Spotted Tail. The earliest were designated by bois d’arc slabs. Over time, they rotted away. Even though the residents lived miles off, the cemetery stayed in use for several decades and later markers were stone.
Nowadays, Buckner Cemetery is surrounded by a once-a-month flea market and a very busy, four-lane road. For many years, it hasn’t been maintained. On most markers, the writing is either worn away, the stones are broken, or missing entirely. Only a few are readable. The names are Lawrence, Mary Jane, Parmelia, Franklin, Edna, Rury. Who were these people? Do their descendants have any knowledge of them?
A sign on the gate tells that restoration work will begin in 2022.