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THE HISTORY OF PLEASANT HILL

Summarized by Jean King Groce
December 6, 1990

For all members of the King family
-- past, present, and future --
whose roots meet in the sandy soil
of Pleasant Hill

Pleasant Hill is quiet now. The church building is gone, and the tabernacle stands empty almost all year. The grassless cemetery is disturbed only by the breeze that stirs its blanket of East Texas sand. Even though the casual visitor might be unaware of it, this peaceful place hides a rich history reaching back over a century.

Pleasant Hill is a sloping mound of land located in Franklin County, Texas. It is 7.6 miles southwest of the town of Mount Vernon, just west of Farm Road 900. In 1854 Gideon Edwards and his wife donated the five-acre tract as a site for a church and cemetery. A Methodist congregation was organized, and a church building was erected that same year. According to tradition, a woman remarked during a religious service, "This is truly a pleasant place." Mr Edwards then named the church and its grounds "Pleasant Hill."

The first church building was built of logs hewn square, with a fireplace and stick-and-mud chimney. Only plank shutters covered the windows, since glass was unavailable. Doors were homemade and swung on wooden hinges. The seats were logs split in half and hewn smooth with axes, and pegs were fastened to them for legs.

At the same time that construction on the church was underway, an arbor or tabernacle was also built. Since it had a wooden roof, it was called a board arbor. In an interview in 1937, long-time area resident J T Arthur told of the most influential church members in flowery style:

Among those devoted Christians and workers were Uncle Jack Bailey, Sister Anna Bailey, Uncle Jim King and wife, Uncle Bob Irby and wife, Uncle Ped Irby and wife, Uncle Bill Irby and wife, Sister Huggins, Uncle Joe Thompson and wife and many others we can not recall--one other is Grandpa Satterfield. These have all crossed over to the fairer land of sunshine and rest beneath the tree of eternal bliss.

From the beginning of its existence, Pleasant Hill became known as a camp meeting place. During a camp meeting as many as fifteen families would pitch tents at Pleasant Hill and live there for up to three weeks while revival meetings were in progress. Many of these families brought their cows along and kept them there so they could be milked every day. Other families who lived nearby would come to attend services but go home each night. There were early morning prayer services before breakfast, followed by group services held in the shade of large trees. Preaching and singing took place under the tabernacle, and evening prayer services in a grove of trees ended the day. Between services the people socialized, women washed clothes in the creek, and daily life went on.

Pleasant Hill around 1950As time went on, the church and tabernacle at Pleasant Hill showed signs of age. In 1888 the old "board arbor" was torn down and a new one built. The tabernacle standing today is a direct descendant of the one constructed in 1888, although it has been remodeled several times. The old foundation rocks are still visible, and the old beams overhead came from the 1888 building.

In the 1880s the old Pleasant Hill Methodist church was replaced by a new, two-story structure. Organizations such as the Grange, Greenbacks, and Temperance Union met upstairs. The lower story was used for church and Sunday school. Later this building was razed and a new, rectangular one was built.

Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, Pleasant Hill continued to be a gathering place for the residents of Purley, Greenwood, and other settlements in the area. Rosalie Davis recalled camp meetings:

Everyone in the community brought corn, tomatoes, onions--everything that goes into stew. Jack King and his brother Mack would cook it in washpots, stirring it with ax handles. And it was so good. We would have an all-day thing of it. Ice cream by the five-gallon cans, cold drinks of all kinds, and all kinds of things the women cooked and brought. . . Irish potatoes, roasting ears, fresh tomatoes, and onions out of our gardens. We would stay from nine o'clock in the morning till almost night.

One mainstay of the settlers' social calendar was the annual community picnic held at Pleasant Hill on the Thursday before the second Sunday of July. At first, no program was involved. The picnic was just for informal visiting and fun. Lunch was spread on tables under the trees, and people could buy ice cream and cold drinks for about five cents each. The profits were used for the upkeep of Pleasant Hill Cemetery. In later years the picnic featured a play presented by the young people of the community. They performed on a temporary stage built in front of the church. Leone Brown, born in 1905, recalled two of the plays presented when she was a child: "Over the Hill to the Poor House" and "The Little Clodhopper." In another play, Leone had the role of Lowiza Lovina Suzanna Wriggleford Custard, an old maid to whom a redheaded man knelt and proposed marriage. In addition to the picnics and plays, three-week singling schools were also held at the church.

As more and more people left their farms and moved to the cities in the 1920s and 1930s, the population of the area dwindled. By the late 1930s, the little Pleasant Hill Methodist Church could no longer support a congregation. The church was demolished, but the tabernacle was left standing. From the timbers of the church a tower was built on top of the tabernacle to hold the church's famous bell.

For a century the church's bell had served as a means of communication for the nearby residents. Its peal could be heard for miles, announcing church services on Sundays, community events, and family get-togethers. In sadder times, it tolled for funerals or to indicate there was a grave to be dug. It was the Pleasant Hill bell that gave the first warnings of the outbreak of the Spanish-American War and World War I, and it rang out to tell the community of the end of those wars.

The bell was purchased at the inspiration of Captain Marion Hastings, a Confederate Army veteran and prominent Franklin County settler. He wanted it to serve as a monument to Civil War veterans, both Confederate and Union, to symbolize a bond of unity between those who had fought on opposite sides.

The bell was cast in Liverpool, England, in 1872. Brought across the Atlantic by clipper ship, it arrived in New Orleans in 1874 and was shipped by boat to Caddo Lake and Jefferson, Texas. There it was loaded onto a freight wagon and hauled to the Stage Coach Freight Station, about two miles south of the present town of Mount Vernon. Captain Hastings organized the expedition that transferred the bell from the station to the belfry of Pleasant Hill Methodist Church.

Clifton King, a descendant of Captain Hastings' half-sister Winnie Louisa Thompson King, wrote a description of the dedication of the long-awaited bell.

It is easy to understand the excitement that gripped Pleasant Hill and the surrounding communities with the setting up of the bell in the church tower after much delay and expectation. Captain Hastings, always a showman at heart, enlisted the support of the citizens of Pleasant Hill, Mount Vernon, Mount Pleasant, and Sulphur Springs in planning a dedication which would point out the significance of the bell and its influence on the people in the region.

Only one year earlier, in 1873, Democratic candidate Richard Coke had defeated the Republican Governor Davis, a Reconstruction governor. Captain Hastings, perhaps still feeling his Confederate loyalties, was joyful at the outcome of the election and invited Governor Coke to dedicate the Pleasant Hill bell. Grateful for the heavy voter support he had received in East Texas, Coke accepted the invitation. Since the area lacked other means of transportation, Governor Coke and his party made the journey on horseback.

On a hot Sunday, July 14, 1874, about 1100 people gathered at Pleasant Hill for the dedication of the bell. The event was the high point of Pleasant Hill's history, and this was the largest crowd ever to gather there. Captain Hastings, acting as master of ceremonies, introduced Governor Richard Coke, who spoke on the topic of "The Rights of State Governments." In his address Governor Coke emphasized that the national government was to have responsibility only for truly national concerns. Everything else should be left to the states or to the people. Joining the applause that followed the Governor's speech, the bell rang out triumphantly. Clifton King reported, "It was a great day for the pioneers of Pleasant Hill, and the sound of the bell was for them the 'sweetest story ever tolled.'"

It was this bell, then, that was placed atop the tabernacle when the Pleasant Hill church was razed in the late 1930s. For the next 35 years, it continued to ring for the occasional burial in the carefully-maintained cemetery a few yards away.

As the years went by, camp meetings went out of style and were no longer held at Pleasant Hill. However, a Pleasant Hill Memorial Day continues to be held at the tabernacle each year on the second Sunday of July, when descendants of the Pleasant Hill pioneers gather to worship, renew old acquaintances, and pay tribute to their heritage. Those interested in the upkeep of the tabernacle and cemetery meet as members of the Pleasant Hill Memorial Association. They elect directors, or officers, to handle the collection of donations and to hire someone to mow and weed the grounds.

In 1974 Pleasant Hill Memorial Day fell on July 14, the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the bell. On that day Armon King, a grandson of settlers Jim and Lou King, climbed to the roof of the tabernacle to repair the broken rope of the old church bell. He found that the bolts had been loosened, apparently in preparation for theft of the bell. In response to the situation, the directors of the Pleasant Hill Memorial Association voted to remove the bell from the Pleasant Hill grounds so that it could be protected and preserved. The following October the bell was sold at auction for $750 to Mrs Cleo Gossett and her daughter, Mrs Robert F White, both of Mount Vernon. Mrs Gossett, who grew up near Pleasant Hill, now displays the bell in the front yard of her home about one mile north of Mount Vernon on Highway 37.

A notable feature of the cemetery at Pleasant Hill is the official state historical marker at the grave of Captain Marion Hastings. Erected in 1970, the inscription reads:

CAPT. F. MARION HASTINGS (Nov. 17, 1823 - April 25, 1905) Confederate veteran. Enlisting in 1861, Dade County, Mo. Served under Generals Sterling Price, Joseph O. Shelby, J.S. Marmaduke, in raids in Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana. Surrendered June 13, 1865, at Shreveport. Moved to Texas in October 1865. Was a Franklin County Commissioner 1877-1881; County Judge, 1886-1890. He married Harriet J. Irby of Yalobusha County, Mississippi. They had six children.

A newspaper article in the files of the Franklin County Historical Survey Committee, written while Captain Hastings was serving as County Judge (1886-1890), states, "There is not a more popular man in the county, nor a more painstaking, capable public official." Captain Hastings' obituary in the Mount Vernon Optic does not mention his part in obtaining the bell for Pleasant Hill, but eulogizes him as "influential because of his rugged honesty, successful because of innate ability and energetic action, loved for his charitableness." The obituary also mentions that Captain Hastings "was buried at the family plot in Pleasant Hill Cemetery Thursday with Masonic Honors and a very large concourse of friends gathered there to pay the last tribute of respect."

Clifton King and Representative Neal Solomon, the former a relative of Captain Hastings, were influential in the Texas State Historical Survey Committee's decision to place the marker in Pleasant Hill Cemetery. Their efforts resulted in bringing attention not only to the life of Captain Hastings, but also to the cemetery itself, one of the oldest in the county.

The most recent Pleasant Hill Memorial Day was held on July 8, 1990. About 60 descendants of the early settlers, including a large contingent of Kings and a sprinkling of Irbys, met at the old tabernacle for a midmorning worship service. An old-fashioned "dinner on the ground" followed. Families had brought a generous assortment of food to share, which they spread on picnic tables under the trees. After the meal, old and young renewed acquaintances, walked the path to the still-flowing spring, and wandered into the fenced cemetery to look for familiar names on headstones. At 1:00PM the Pleasant Hill Memorial Society met at the tabernacle to elect officers and arrange for the upkeep of the grounds during the coming year. By mid-afternoon the annual celebration had ended, and Pleasant Hill was quiet again.

Shelton King (1896-1973) often told that once when he was visiting in nearby Stringtown, a mule fell into Aunt Liz Stinson's well. The well caved in, and someone rang the old Pleasant Hill bell to signal for help to pull out the mule. Now the bell has been removed, and there are no longer many mules around Pleasant Hill to pull plows or to fall into wells. However, the stories and the memories remain. They are kept fresh by pioneer family descendants such as Eileen King Balli, who traced the King family genealogy and by chance discovered much information about the history of the Pleasant Hill church and cemetery. They are enlivened by the remembrances of 85-year-old Leone King Brown and 79-year-old Armon King, as well as Hix and Milton King (all now deceased) , all who attended the Pleasant Hill Memorial Day every year. They are extended into the future by great-great-grandchildren of Jim and Lou King who now count the annual Memorial Day as a traditional part of their summers. As a remnant of the pioneer past and a tie that links scattered families, Pleasant Hill still lives.

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