History of Gainesville

Gainesville, the county seat of Cooke County is in the approximate geographic center on Interstate 35 located approximately 67 miles north of Dallas. In 1841, W.S. Peters and associates signed their first contract with the Republic of Texas "which provided that within three years, they would bring 600 families into North-Central Texas" into what came to be known as the Peters Colony. The first settlers arrived in the area after the newly created Peters colony offered 640 acres to each head of family and 320 acres to each single man, plus land for a church in each settlement. Before acquiring their tracts of land, these settlers were first required to swear allegiance to the Republic of Texas. They had to agree to construct a dwelling, to cultivate their fields, and to fence at least ten acres within three years.

William G. Cooke

With the constant threats of Indian attacks on this Red River frontier, the need for military protection became a most pressing problem. In 1847, Ft. Fitzhugh, named for Colonel William Fitzhugh, an experienced soldier and Indian fighter, was the first site of settlement in the region. The following year, the state legislature created Cooke County, named for William G. Cooke, a hero of the Texas War for Independence.

In 1850, Gainesville was established on a 40-acre tract of land donated by Mary E. Clark. City residents called their new community Liberty, which proved short-lived, as a Liberty, Texas already existed. Colonel Fitzhugh suggested that the town be named after General Edmund Pendleton Gaines. Gaines, a United States General under whom Fitzhugh had served, had been sympathetic with the Texas Revolution.

The first hint of prosperity arrived with the Butterfield Stagecoach in September 1858, bringing freight, passengers, and mail. The original station and stables were located at the northeast corner of Rusk and California streets. Although Gainesville was made a stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail route, Indian attacks stunted the community's growth.

During the Civil War, the Great Hanging, a controversial trial and hanging of suspected Union loyalists brought the new town to the attention of the state and came close to ripping the county apart. The Great Hanging was a tragic chapter in the history of America's most tragic war. The episode was one of those normal events in an abnormal era. The hangings were symptomatic of an entire nation torn apart by a bloody civil war, a time when death was as common as dirt all across the country, and of a people temporarily governed by fear and hatred; however the people of Gainesville still persevered.

General Edmund Pendleton Gaines

In the decade after the war, the county seat had its first period of extended growth, catalyzed by the expansion of the cattle industry in Texas. Gainesville, only seven miles from the Oklahoma border, became a supply point for cowboys driving herds north to Kansas. Two major cattle trails, the Chisolm Trail and the Shawnee Trail flanked Cooke County, and the cowboys would roar into Gainesville to visit the saloons, get supplies, gamble, and visit the "soiled doves." The merchants of Gainesville reaped considerable benefits from the passing cattle drives. An important gateway into the great grassland empire of Texas, Gainesville became an important hub of commerce and one of the most significant cattle towns in the state.

Kiowa Warrior

When the last of the major Indian raids occurred in 1868, the county population began to increase with the arrival of the "Katy" railroad in 1879. Cattle money also financed the construction of the new county courthouse in 1878 and provided much of the tax revenue to support local schools and the building of public roads.

Within 20 years, the population increased from a few hundred to more than 2,000. Gainesville was incorporated on February 17, 1873 and by 1890 was established as a commercial and shipping point for area ranchers and farmers. 

In the late 1870s two factors drastically altered the historic landscape of North Central Texas. The first of these was barbed wire. In 1875, Henry B. Sanborn, a regional sales agent for Joseph Glidden's Bar Fence Company of DeKalb, Illinois traveled to Texas. That autumn, he chose Gainesville as one of his initial distribution points for the newly invented barbed wire which his employer had patented the previous year. On his first visit to Gainesville, he sold ten reels of the wire to the Cleaves and Fletcher hardware store – the first spools of barbed wire ever sold in Texas.

But perhaps more important in closing the range and hastening an end to the great northern trail drives was the railroad. On June 22, 1878, workers of the Denison and Pacific Railway laid the first rails and crossties of a new extension from Denison to Gainesville. After sixteen months, they finally completed their 42-mile connection between the two towns. On November 7, 1879 people came from all corners of the county to witness the arrival of the first locomotive Gainesville. Then the following January, the Denison and Pacific became part of the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas system, better known as the "Katy". In 1886, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe extended its North Texas line from Fort Worth to Gainesville, thus linking Cooke County with one of the largest railway systems in the nation. So the coming of the locomotive, with it's huge smokestack and oversized cowcatcher, signaled the end of one phase in the history of Gainesville and the beginning of another.

Farming became very important to the local economy, and cotton was the major crop produced. Gainesville's economy continued to grow because of the high price of cotton.

North Side of Courthouse Square, circa 1870s

Boasting of a population of over 10,000, the town had acquired most of the trappings of modernization. In just the past eight years, the people of Gainesville had witnessed the introduction of the railroad, the telegraph, the telephone, and gas and electric heating. Cement sidewalks bordered the town's well-graded and graveled streets which were also soon to be illuminated with incandescent lamps.

In 1884, a mule-drawn streetcar line had run along California, Dixon, and Harvey streets, providing cheap transportation in the town's business and residential districts. The county had also erected two sturdy iron bridges over Pecan and Elm creeks to further improve travel in town. The municipality owned and operated a public water works, a dam having been built on Elm Creek in 1883 to create a reservoir which would hopefully provide the community with an adequate water supply.

After the turn of the century, automobiles appeared on county roads. The first airplane landed in 1911 – not because the pilot wanted to, but because of a navigational mistake on his part. The State School for Girls opened. Men marched off to fight in World War I.

Gainesville Community Circus

Because oil was discovered in nearby Callisburg in the mid 1920's, the town survived the Great Depression better than similar communities. Gainesville Jr. College opened, and under the name of North Central Texas College, it still exists.

Also contributing to Gainesville's relative well-being in the 1930s was the success of the Gainesville Community Circus which first performed in May 1930 and thereafter gained a national reputation. All of the participants were volunteers who built their own props and made their costumes. The circus survived for many years, and brought national attention to Gainesville through newsreels, radio broadcasts, and magazine articles. Many members of the circus were instrumental in starting and supporting the Frank Buck Zoo in Gainesville.

World War II had an enormous impact on Cooke County. Camp Howze, an army infantry training camp, was established on some of the best farmland in the county. The construction of the camp helped bring Cooke County out of the Great Depression by providing jobs. The county population doubled and the area boomed.

After the war, the circus resumed performing, oil continued to fuel the economy, the airport developed and new companies moved into the city. Gainesville's population grew steadily. Camp Sweeney opened to provide camping facilities for young diabetic patients and was visited by actor Gregory Peck.

Military Parade at Camp Howze

In the last several years, tourism has brought renewed prosperity to the area. The return of Amtrak on June 14, 1999 brought Gainesville back full circle to one of the original sources of its growth and success. In the early 1990's, Gainesville had 600 businesses and a population of 14,587. In the year 2000, the population was 15,538.

Information compiled from the following resources -

David Minor, "GAINESVILLE, TX," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/heg01), accessed April 8, 2008.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

Gainesville and Cooke County, Images of America by Shana Powell

Where the South and the West Meet, by Michael Collins