Chalk/Ferguson Mill 1848 – 1900
By Charlene Carson
The Chalk Mill was the first of eight mills that would be built along Salado Creek between 1848 and 1880. There was practically no farming in Bell County territory when the Chalk brothers established their mill. People were mainly engaged in the raising of stock – cattle, horses, and hogs. These animals ran loose feeding on the lush grasses of the prairies, competing with the deer, antelope, and other wild game for the best grazing spots. In some places the land was rough and raw but not without its beauty. In the spring-time it was decorated with a variety of wildflowers including blue bonnets, verbena, Indian plume, sunflowers, and lilies of all hues and colors. The best unimproved land brought fifty cents per acre. It was into this setting that the Chalk brothers selected a spot on the Salado River to build their sawmill.
Prior to Chalk Mill, lumber for construction in the Bell County territory was whipsawed by hand. This was slow tedious work. The construction of a steam powered sawmill certainly expedited the amount of lumber that could be produced in a day. Building a steam powered sawmill was an innovative, forward thinking concept in milling at the time the Chalk brothers built their mill. Most millers of this time period were still using water powered sawmills powered by a water wheel.
In the late 1850s, the mill was equipped as a gristmill for grinding wheat and corn. Like most mills, Chalk Mill attracted settlers to the area and the result was an early-day community known as Chalk’s Bluff. If Chalk’s Bluff was like most mill towns it consisted of housing for the workers and their families, a general store, a school, churches, a perhaps a company office.
In 1850, after the creation and organization of Bell County, the new county commissioners recognized the need to expedite lumber from Chalk Mill to the fast-growing county seat town of Nolanville (Belton). The current roads through the county were mere trails which twisted and turned over the countryside and around hills and sought easy crossings over the creeks and ravines. In wet weather the black land roads became almost bottomless quagmires that were virtually impassable for loaded wagons
Therefore, on November 18th 1850, at the first regular session of the County Commissioners of Bell County, on the second day of the term, James E. Williams presented a petition asking reviewers for a road from Belton to Chalk’s Mill, ultimately to lead to Bastrop. The petition was received and County Commissioner James M. Cross, Jas. E. Williams, William Karnes, H. B. Elliott and J. C. Reid were appointed reviewers to study the project.
The reviewers would visit the neighborhoods involved, select a possible route for the proposed road, assess the damages to the landowners through which the road would run and report back to the court. The Commissioners Court usually approved the report and ordered the road overseer of that section to open the road for public use. Most of the landowners were eager for the roads, so there were usually no claims for damages
Road building was a “hands-on” operation. The road overseer would commission all able- bodied men, including their male slaves, to open and keep up the road. In his book History of Bell County, George W. Tyler describes road building as follows:
Opening a road consisted of cutting out the timber and brush, plowing one or two furrows through the open prairie to mark the route, removing large rocks and stumps, and cutting down the banks of streams where necessary. There were no bridges of any kind, but sometimes, logs or large stones were placed in the crossings of boggy branches.
This was a clumsy and inefficient system, but it did serve to open new roads and keep them open, which in turn kept goods moving between producers and consumers.
Whitfield Chalk immigrated to Texas from Tennessee in 1839 at the age of 28. While in route, all of his fellow steamboat passengers died of cholera; only Chalk and the captain survived. Upon his arrival in Texas, Chalk initially settled in Nashville, Milam County, but later moved to the frontier settlement of Georgetown.
Whitfield Chalk had served with the armies of the Republic of Texas and had fought almost continuously since his arrival in Texas in 1839. He fought in several major campaigns including the ill-fated Mier Expedition of Christmas Day 1842.
The Mier Expedition was one of the most disastrous of all the border confrontations between Texas and Mexico during the days of the Republic. Mexico was not ready to concede that Texans had won their independence. Consequently, Mexican troops were still invading and raiding Texas border towns. After one Mexican raid into San Antonio, Captain Nicholas Dawson gathered a company of 54 volunteers under a great oak tree in downtown La Grange and marched toward Salado Creek near San Antonio seeking retaliation against the Mexican invasion into San Antonio. Along the way, they were intercepted by Mexican troops and fighting ensued. Later known as the Dawson Massacre, the conflict left 36 Texas dead – including Dawson.
To prevent other attacks, President Sam Houston ordered General Somervell to march about 750 men towards the border. Upon reaching the Rio Grande, the general stopped the men from going further due to a shortage of supplies. However, Colonel Fisher and a group of approximately 300 men, including Whitfield Chalk, continued on to the Mexican city of Mier to look for supplies. Fighting started, and Fisher’s men were outnumbered so they eventually surrendered. Chalk and William St. Clair, however, were able to escape the following night. After their escape, Chalk and St. Clair rejoined the Texas forces that had stayed north of the Rio Grande.
Fisher and his men, who the Mexican government viewed as a band of rebels, were held in Matamoros until ordered to be moved to Mexico City. En route, the Texans managed to escape their captors, but 176 escapees were recaptured and were sentenced to death by Santa Anna. This order was reduced, however, so that only one of every ten men, to be determined by lottery, was to be executed. To determine who lived and who died, each prisoner would draw a bean. If they drew a white bean they lived; a black bean they died. After writing letters home, the condemned men were lined up, blindfolded and shot. Known as the Black Bean Episode, this tragic event cost seventeen men their lives. The survivors were marched off to Perote Prison in Mexico City, where some died; others escaped, and still others were eventually released.
On August 5, 1844, Sam Houston, President of the Republic of Texas, recognized Chalk’s service to the young, struggling Republic by commissioning him as a Major of the Second Regiment of the First Brigade of the Militia of the Republic of Texas. Also, for services given to the Republic of Texas, Chalk was ultimately awarded $402.50 and a grant of 320 acres of land in Milam County.
During the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), which settled the boundaries between the United States and Mexico, Chalk served with the Texas Rangers under Capt. Shapley Prince Ross. Their assignment was to defend the homeland frontier between the Little River and the San Gabriel River against Indian raids, which were a strong threat to the settlers in the area. The Indian tribes who were in Texas long before the appearance of the white man were reluctant to make way for the newcomers. They realized that their long-standing way of life was threatened, so they fought back by raiding white settlements. Texas Rangers were called upon to protect the white settlements by squelching such raids.
On August 9, 1847, Major Chalk married Mary Elizabeth Fleming at Double File Crossing, located about four miles east of Georgetown, Texas. The couple would have nine children. Their names were William Thomas; John Whitfield; Henry A.; James Madison; Martha Estelle; Catherine M.; Luther Ira who later changed his name to Jefferson Davis; Jackson; and Martin B. Chalk.
After their marriage, the Chalks lived in the western part of Milam County, which was later divided into Williamson and Bell Counties. In 1848, Chalk was elected sheriff of the newly-created Williamson County and his brother, Ira Ellis Chalk, was elected district clerk.
When the 1850 census was taken the citizens of the newly formed Bell County were enumerated as citizens of Milam County. This census shows that the Whitfield Chalk and Ira Chalk families were living “On the Salado Creek” in the part of Milam County that became Bell County. Major Chalk gave his occupation as millwright. The family was living in Bell County in 1860 and once again, Chalk gave his occupation as millwright.
Around 1863 the Chalk brothers sold their mill to James Perry Reed a Belton business man who was prominent in the early development of Belton. Reed’s firm built the first Bell County jail, and Reed was president of the Lampasas Bridge Company, which built the toll bridge over the Lampasas River near the Shaw crossing. Reed’s residence, which he built, was on Wall Street in Belton. When the Rev. James Eldridge Ferguson family came to Bell County in 1867, Ferguson purchased the farm which included the historic Chalk Mill.
Rev. James Eldridge Ferguson and Fannie Phillips (Fitzpatrick) Ferguson had met and married in Houston in 1854. After Ferguson’s service with the Confederacy in the Civil War, the Fergusons moved to Bell County in 1867. The Ferguson children were Sallie Alice; Alvah Fitzpatrick; Catherine (Kate) Rebecca; Joe Lee; Alexander McGowen; and James Edward, the future governor of Texas, who was born August 31, 1871, in the house overlooking the mill. After the Ferguson family settled on their newly purchased farm, the parson took up the job of a circuit riding Methodist preacher. He was gone for long periods of time leaving his wife and sons to manage the farm and run the mill.
In the late 1800s, a flood destroyed the dam at the Ferguson Mill. Ferguson rebuilt the dam with a concave arching upstream against the current. This was a radical approach in dam building but it proved to be successful so the family enjoyed a steady, productive milling business. After the parson’s death in 1876, Fannie and her children remained on the farm earning their living from the farming and milling operation. Fannie died in 1915, but the Alvah Ferguson family was still living at the farm during the flood of 1921. The milling operation was abandoned soon after the flood.
Meanwhile, by 1870 the State of Texas had passed a law granting a pension to the surviving veterans of the Texas Revolution. This law included special provisions for the relief of the Mier prisoners. When Major Chalk applied, his request was denied on the grounds that due to his escape, he technically was not a Mier prisoner. When Senator George W. Tyler of Bell County learned of Chalk’s situation, Tyler interceded on Chalk’s behalf and was successful in passing legislation that enabled Chalk to receive veterans’ benefits as a survivor of the Mier Expedition. Chalk’s name is now inscribed among those honored on Monument Hill in LaGrange, Texas, the burial site of the Dawson and Mier casualties.
In 1873 Chalk moved his family to Kempner in Lampasas County where he lived until his death on May 18, 1902. His beloved wife, Mary, died a short time later on January 1903. Both are buried in the Kempner Cemetery. Forty-two years after Chalk’s death, on Texas Independence Day, 1944, a historical marker was erected at his grave with full military honors from the United States government.
Ira Chalk’s first wife, Phoebe Love Fleming, was a sister to the wife of Whitfield Chalk. Ira and Phoebe had three children. Both families moved to Kempner and it was there that Phoebe died. Ira married Sarah Malvina Cooksey in about 1860 and the couple had eight children. Ira Ellis Chalk died November 22, 1873 and was buried in the Oak Hill Cemetery.
In describing their search for the Chalk/Ferguson Mill in 1928, Ruth Garrison Francis, a hometown Salado girl, wrote:
“The mill ought to be over there.” Dad started off to investigate. A few minutes later I was pushing through the heavy underbrush in the direction of his triumphant, “Here it is!” “It” was all that remains of the mill today, about eight feet of stone foundation wall on which the old wooden mill used to rest. That fragment is so overgrown with brush and tangle briar vines that only by accident would any one stumble upon it. Traces of the ford where the old road crossed the river can still be seen in the deep ravines which head down to the water on both sides of the stream.
We followed a foot path that led up to the old Ferguson home, which, like all the homes of the millers, stands on a hill some distance from the mill. The house is built of strong “rawhide” lumber, with a porch running the length of the house and a big rock fireplace and chimney at one end. Topping the white clay hill on which the house stands is a picturesque old mesquite tree and just below the twisted tree roots is another Sulphur well. Here, as at Ike Jones Mill, we found the well in possession of a bunch of plump and thriving hogs.
The Chalk/Ferguson Mill enjoyed a working life span of over fifty years before the floods of 1921 sealed its fate as an abandoned mill. Initially, the mill had the distinction of supplying fresh cut lumber for the construction of homes, offices, and businesses in the recently established county seat of Nolanville (Belton). During its latter years, it served the community by grinding corn and wheat for the settlers’ daily bread.
Charlene Carson’s book, “Gristmills of Central Texas” was published in 2017 on Arcadia Press. It is available for purchase at Fletcher’s Books in Salado and online. The Chalk Mill is featured in the book.