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Russ Clanton and the Danville Well

 

Russ Clanton and the Well

Russ Clanton and the Danville Well Many Years Ago

Note the Cistern in the Rear-left of Photograph

 

by Karen "Candy" Lawless 

    Here I was in that place again, I thought to myself. That beautiful, soft, peaceful place, outside of rural Willis, Texas. A great place to spend eternity, if I had to choose. As I had looked around at the faces of my family the day of my grandmother’s funeral, I realized that I really didn’t know them all that well—another curious but sad thought. The ones I did know were really only memories from my childhood—my Uncle John whom I adored as a kid was there and my Aunt Mary Ann who walked across the forest floor on the arm of her daughter, my cousin—all just childhood memories of Christmas—morning visits in my hometown of Beaumont, Texas. Now I began to ask, “Who were all these people, long in the ground, their graves surrounding the area where my beloved grandmother, my mother’s mother, would soon be laid to rest?” The names on the stones all sounded familiar—the Spillers, the Irvines, the Tabors, the Terrells. They represented my mother’s family with whom I would become so well acquainted a few years later through my research.

 

    These were the thoughts going through my mind as I sat there that day in January of 1996 at our family cemetery near Willis, Texas. That was the day I met old Mr. Russ Clanton, and even that meeting is vague in my mind, so overwhelmed as I was with that place, that quiet, peaceful place, and all those people that I didn’t know very well at all. But I remember my mother listening earnestly to him as he talked to her after the short service. As it turned out, Mr. Clanton was an old classmate of my grandmother’s from the Willis High School Class of 1926. He’d seen her obituary in the local newspaper and came to pay his respects. He told my mom that day that he probably knew more about her family than most anybody. Russ Clanton was sort of a fixture around Willis. He’d lived there most of his long life and had been born in 1906 on Esperanza, my great, great-grandfather’s farm, or plantation, as they called it back in those days. That same year, my grandmother was born there. Russ Clanton’s father managed the gin mill at Esperanza which in its day had been a tobacco and cotton plantation—another distant but delicious memory. The old house, completed around 1898 from what we can ascertain, was still standing although now occupied by another family. That thought brought those familiar pangs of sadness and regret to me, along with downright resentment. It was my great-grandmother’s home in my mind, and always would be. She had been raised there, and I visited her there when I was a child. The thoughts I had entertained of trying to buy it when my grandmother’s cousin put it up for sale a few years ago were just not realistic. My husband and I, with our two daughters, lived about an hour away and had just built our own house in a suburb north of Houston where we thought the environment would be a good one in which to raise our girls. I had no business taking on the task of restoring a huge old house and property—and no funds nor energy to do it anyhow. So, I had watched helplessly as the old home passed into the hands of another family. I visited Esperanza one day after the sale and took the new owner copies of family photographs and genealogy charts so that they could see whose home it REALLY was ... originally. “Don’t forget us,” I silently cried to the old house, “We were here.”

 

    I suppose that’s what the tombstones that surrounded me that day in 1996 were also telling me. In fact, I was sure of it. Once my grandmother was safely tucked into the family burying ground, and the relatives were all given goodbye hugs, I returned to my life. But the memory of that day lives on. Our acquaintance with Russ Clanton would prove to be fateful, and with his later assistance, I was to learn much more about my grandmother’s family and the town of Old Danville where they first settled in Texas, the Irvines around 1838, the Spillers in 1848 and the Tabor’s around 1841. In fact, the clues I extracted from Russ’ stories led me not only into a fascinating research project, but it also enabled me to find the exact location of my Spiller great-great-great-grandparents’ property on Old Danville Road, just down the road and around the corner from the cemetery on Shepard Hill Road. Russ told me I’d know the old water well when I saw the cement cover still on its top. I didn’t know at the time that this was the well—Hiram’s well as we later called it—that was used as a measurement to determine the exact location of the southeast corner of the Danville town lots, laid out around 1846-47 by a man named Daniel Robinson.

 

    The years passed, and on one of my mother’s visits, we decided to go over to Willis to pay a visit to the nice man we’d met at the funeral. Mr. Clanton, ‘Russ’ as we began to call him, was well into his late ‘80s, maybe early ‘90s at the time, and owned a little shop in the old part of Willis that was crammed packed with old ‘stuff.’ There was a little bit of everything in that shop. He sold me an old ‘Soda Pop’ bottle with the original stopper inside the bottle. I learned that day why it was called ‘Soda Pop’ or ‘Pop,’ at least by the Yankees, so I thought. Russ explained that when the stopper was pulled out of the bottle opening, it made a “Pop” sound. We always called soft drinks ‘Cokes’ no matter what flavor soft drink it was. As an adult, I explain those southern eccentricities by saying with a laugh and a shake of my head, “Well, I was born in Beaumont."

 

     Russ loved to tell stories, so we sat transfixed while he spun his tales about the Spillers and lots of other folks I didn’t know. My mother, however, seemed to recall some of them from her childhood summers spent at Esperanza with her grandparents.  We really wanted to know about the Spillers at this point.  When Mother found her passion in the study of family history, I was just beginning to get involved as well.  As Russ spun tale after tale, we realized that on our next visit we needed to take a tape recorder.   It was too much information to retain by memory.  On our next visit, maybe a year later, we entered Russ’ shop armed with a tape recorder, pads of paper and pen, and lots of well thought-out questions.  We left with more knowledge of our family, a doorknob from the demolition of the old courthouse in Conroe, and a graduation picture of the Willis Class of 1926 revealing a young, handsome Russ Clanton and a young, beautiful, well-dressed Irma Louise Garrett, my grandmother.  I have this photo on the wall in my hallway now beside a picture of my other grandmother’s high—school class from Ocean Springs, Mississippi.  When I gaze at those photos, I am reminded of how fate works.  We just never know where life’s road will lead us.   

  

    The road that Russ Clanton led me down, through his stories, was Old Danville Road, northwest of Willis.  It was here, Russ told us, that the Spiller’s homestead was located.  We could find the spot, he said, by looking on the east side of the road for an old cement cover over the property’s water well.  It was STILL there, he declared.  And, his family had lived very near that spot later on in the 1910’s.  My mother and I decided we just had to find that land one day soon.  We thought about the possibility of taking Russ out driving around with us. Perhaps seeing the old site where the Spillers lived before their move to Esperanza would jog his memory into recalling more stories.  I was later to learn that this was the land where my great-grandmother’s grandfather had built his homestead. It was George Anderson Spiller’s second land purchase, made a few years after his arrival in Danville, but it was to be their homestead for almost 40 years, and was owned by descendants for many more decades. 

  

    We drove down the Old Danville Road a few times before we spotted the wellhead.  It was a nice, quiet country road with several homes scattered about.  The wellhead was barely visible through a bramble of vines and overgrowth on an old fence along the road, but there it was ... I was pretty sure anyhow.  I felt a sense of accomplishment at having located it.  Russ would be pleased.  The property overlooked a slight valley in the rear.  What a lovely spot for a home.  I quickly anticipated how it would feel to walk around on this property, sensing a connection to my ancestors who had lived and toiled here so many years ago.  But, not wanting to get shot by an irate landowner or get bitten by an irate snake, I didn’t dare climb the fence to trespass on what for me was hallowed ground, and reluctantly I kept going.  I was satisfied, at least for a while, that I had found the spot. 

  

    When Mr. Russ Clanton passed away in 2003, I realized sadly that we would no longer have our nice visits and be able to listen to his wonderful stories about a time long past.    I felt privileged to have known him and know that we’ll probably bump into each other again—somewhere, probably in that soft and peaceful place as I imagine it—in the presence of all those relatives of mine who he told us stories about.     

  

    By now I was heavy into researching the history of the Spiller and related families and had gotten very curious about the lay of the land around Old Danville.    “What was the history of this place?” I began to wonder more and more.    I was eager to learn the progression of my ancestors’ land ownership in the area from Old Danville Rd. to Esperanza, to the family cemetery.    I dove into the land records, and a whole new world began to reveal itself—the characters, families, and hints of the lives of those who lived along Old Danville Road, originally called Main Street.     

  

    One of the highlights of this journey was locating my great-great-great-grandfather’s original probate documents in the mysterious ‘black boxes’ in the Montgomery County Courthouse.    George Anderson Spiller died in 1854, only six years after the Spiller family’s arrival in Montgomery County, leaving a wife, two daughters and one son.    A few years later, the two Spiller daughters died of one of the prevalent diseases at the time, yellow fever or typhoid fever, leaving only Widow Susan (Diuguid) Spiller and her son, William Fielding Spiller.    It was William who later built    the plantation called Esperanza.    Along with George Spiller’s probate documents was a marvelous plat (or map) of his land as it was laid out when he died. To my delight, I found that Main Street was drawn right along the western edge of the property!       

  

    Also at this time I was collaborating with a Danville study group, one of whom was David Frame, a Willis native now living in the Northeast. He knew the abstract business and was drawing a map of the area from the old deeds I pulled out of the courthouse. One of the study group’s goals was to map the town of Danville from its beginning. However, we’d been unable to pin down the location of the original town lots from the simple plat of the lots filed in 1848 by the developer, Daniel Robinson.  An anchor point was needed, a piece of property or landmark to tie it to the ground, so to speak.  The plat showed that the southeast corner of the lots were measured from the inside wall of a well, known in the records as Hiram Little’s well. Finding remains of Hiram Little’s well was going to be the challenge. The plat showed Main Street dividing the town lots right down the middle. When I laid eyes on the plat of George Spiller’s land with Main Street clearly marked on the western edge I was elated. Finally we had a break!  In the back of my mind I began to hear, “Could the Spiller’s well POSSIBLY have once been Hiram’s well?”  When I sent the Spiller probate plat to our mapping expert, David Frame, I received back an e-mail reply that said it all, “Bingo!”  The plat also had a known anchor point on the northeast corner.  We finally had a present-day known point to tie the Spiller land to a map which would verify for us that Main Street was now present-day Old Danville Road.  Russ was right about the location of the Spiller land, and I breathed a silent ‘thank you’ to him.   

  

    My thoughts about the Spiller’s well came to mind again once we were able to pinpoint the perimeters of the Spiller land.  It was looking more and more like it could be the well which had been known earlier as Hiram Little’s well.  Only one way to find out.  I’d have to trace the land ownership in the area from its beginning.  The beginning, of written documentation anyway, was a Spanish land grant made to Joseph Lindley in 1835.  It was a huge piece of land, and the land in question was contained within that headright—A28 on the map—the Joseph Lindley Survey.  Joseph gave his daughter a gift of land on November 8, 1845.  Sarah Lindley had married Daniel McGary, and we knew from later deeds that the southern boundary of the McGary tract was present-day Shepard Hill Road.  It now was clear that the Spiller land, Main Street, and the town lots of Danville were contained within the McGary tract.  I began to find evidence that a well was dug on this tract by Daniel McGary.  More deeds and more references proved that part of the McGary tract was sold to Hiram Little, and afterward, the well became known in the deed records as “Hiram Little’s well.”  Little sold the land to Jonathan Collard who then sold it to George Spiller. By following the land ownership, we’d proven that the well on the old Spiller land was indeed the same well referred to on the Danville town plat as Hiram’s well.  Subsequently, a later deed and plat filed by Dr. Charles B. Stewart clearly showed the Danville town lots with their measurements from the well-then marked “Mrs. Spiller’s Well.”  Bingo! 

  

    In the meantime, my mother visited with Russ Clanton’s widow, Miss Edith, who had a wonderful antique store of her own in Willis.    She is a lovely lady and gave my mother a picture of Russ standing next to the wellhead on the Spiller land where his family later lived.    In the background of the picture is an odd, domed-shaped structure made of red bricks.    I filed this picture away in the file cabinet of my mind.     

  

    It was now 2007, and the Danville research group wanted to have a field-trip day on-site at the Danville Cemetery with other descendants of Danville settlers. The entire Danville research group was there-except David Frame who couldn’t make it from Maryland that weekend—Karen Hett, Elsa Vorwerk and Bill Wood, Clifford and Gladys May, my mother, Carolyn Terrell and me.   Others, who had Danville ancestors and who’d all contributed to our knowledge of their families and the area were David Martin, Christine Hyman, Marilyn Dawson and her husband, Earnest, Clara and Joe Malak, and Teresa Tucker and her husband. Melinda Cagle, the editor of The Herald, a journal published by the Montgomery County Genealogical & Historical Society, was also there.  She was focusing the 2008 edition of the journal on the history of Danville and related articles.  Clifford May took pictures of the group and with him was his wife Gladys, who was President of the Montgomery County Genealogical & Historical Society at the time.  The cemetery caretaker, Randy Brown, stopped by to bring us a wash-tub full of iced-down bottles of water. 

  

    This group first visited at the cemetery, verbally identifying our Danville ancestors, and posing for group photos. Afterwards, a small group comprised mainly of our little Danville research group progressed down Shepard Hill Road and turned North onto the Old Danville Road.    Our first stop was at a home on the northern end of where the old town lots had stood.    There was a well on his property which we examined, but I knew that it was on the wrong side of the road to be the Hiram Little/Spiller well.    Our caravan of cars proceeded back the way we came so that I could point out what I was sure was the Spiller’s old wellhead.    We all gazed at it across the fence when one brave soul, David Martin, decided he had to have a closer look.    I glanced around nervously, hoping we wouldn’t be seen.    We were trespassing, for goodness sakes. And, we’re not kids-we’re all grown-up, respectable, tax-paying citizens-and history junkies, I conceded.    So, I pulled on my handy cowboy boots (I’m from Beaumont, remember) that I’d thrown in the back seat, just in case, and proceeded to climb the fence with everyone else.    I was finally going to be able to touch the well and examine its interior as well as see the lay of the land from a better angle.  

 

Hiram Little/Spiller/Danville Well

First Examination of the Danville Well/February 2007

From Foreground to Back: Carolyn Terrell, Karen Lawless and David Martin

 

    The cement top was pushed over by a small sapling growing up from the outer edge of the well.  We could see that its roots were beginning to damage the interior stone work of the well.  However, we could see down into it and observed beautiful stonework down into its recesses.   

  

    After snapping several photos and vowing to return and remove the sapling, with permission, of course, I began to look around.  If this was the Spiller well, then I should be able to locate the low, brick, domed structure shown in the background of the photo of Russ standing by the well.  The cement ‘top’ looked like the same one in the picture even though it was now pushed over almost on its side.  After a few minutes of tromping through the high grass, praying I didn’t cross a rattler, I was absolutely stunned and elated to see the remains of the brick structure, now identified as a cistern.  It was almost hidden from view by overgrowth and trees, and it was filled with trash.  I couldn’t believe my eyes!  This was it!

 

 

Cistern

Cistern Discovery/February 2007

Melinda Cagle, Karen Hett, Karen Lawless, Carolyn Terrell

 

Note: The discovery of the cistern together with the photo of Russ Clanton from decades earlier confirmed that the well was in fact the Spiller well which Clanton had described to Karen Lawless. Subsequent research proved that this was the same Hiram Little well used as a landmark to survey the Danville Town Lots as shown on a plat filed in 1848.

 

 

    We snapped more pictures of us in front of cistern and scurried back to our cars afraid we would hear the warning shots of a shotgun or worse, the police showing up and hauling us all off to jail for trespassing.  I was smiling to myself all the way back home that day.  Thank you, Russ, I said again, silently. 

  

Prologue - 

  

    Since that day in February 2007 out at the well and cistern site, David Martin and I have met with the landowner after a slightly rough start.    He wasn’t all too pleased to discuss the old well, viewing it as a problem on his property.     But, once David explained to him that I was a Spiller descendant, he agreed to meet with us.    He had purchased the property from Dr. Will Spiller, my great-grandmother’s brother, who had been a dermatologist in Galveston and who inherited the Spiller homestead property after the death of his mother and grandmother.    He sold it to the present landowner in the 1970’s.    The old Spiller home was long gone, having burned probably sometime after W. F. Spiller moved his wife and 12 children to Esperanza a couple of miles to the east and after his mother had died in 1897.    The landowner listened to our idea of clearing the brush away from the well and cistern so that we could better study the structures and take pictures for our research. We even fessed up to our earlier trespassing, and after more discussions, he graciously agreed to give us unlimited access to the property. We set a date to meet out there again with tools and equipment to begin clearing the site.     

  

    An article detailing my research of the Danville town lots, the well and cistern, and the old Spiller property can be found at Journey to Danville along with additional photographs.  I am also researching many of the inhabitants of the Danville Cemetery and am the contact person for that private family cemetery.  A Web site with many individual biographies can be found at Danville Cemetery

  

    The well site was cleared one hot Saturday.  We returned once to cover the well with chicken wire.  The cistern still contains trash, and frankly, I think that it may be protecting it more than hurting it.  So, we’ve left it alone to time.  Through the Texas Heritage Society, plans are being made to further document the importance of the well site and the vanished town of Danville, now only farmland, by obtaining a Texas Historical Landmark designation. Once again, “Thank you, Russ Clanton” for leading me to the well. 

  

Karen “Candy” Lawless

 

Texas Heritge Society