A little history on the Old Settlers Reunion

By Gerre Joiner | Published Saturday, July 29, 2017

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As I write, hundreds of people are celebrating the Wise County Old Settlers Reunion. I’ve discovered that many of us who have lived in Decatur for years know very little regarding the origins and traditions of the celebration.

Find below a short history of the Reunion, from the Wise County Historical Society:

Gerre Joiner

“The Confederate veterans of Wise County are said to have held occasional reunions in the 1860s and 1870s. Old settlers invited both the Confederate veterans and Wise County pioneers to an 1881 reunion at Cold Springs. This was on July 12, the anniversary of Captain George Stevens’ victory over hostile Indians in 1874.

“About 5,000 people attended the 1881 reunion. The Wise County Messenger reported a successful day – ‘only the music being a failure.’ Events included speeches and picnicking.

“The Reunion moved to the present site in 1896. By 1900, it extended to three days, honoring old settlers on the first, the veterans on the second, and daughters and sons of Confederates on the third. Sometimes 12,000 people would attend, parading from courthouse to campground. Programs included candidates’ speeches, rodeos and sham battles. Evenings were devoted to visiting.

In 1909, the grounds were leased for 25 years. Later campsites were leased and improved by participants.

The Wise County Old Settlers Association, formed in 1904, sponsored a 1907 Pioneer History by C.D. Cates. Extended to a week, with visiting in daytime and stated events in the evenings, this reunion is now the oldest recurring public event in the county. The reunion is scheduled for the last full week of July of every year.”

A little more history is discovered when a “move-in” (like me) Googles the “Wise County Old Settlers Reunion.”

  • The “sham battles” featured in the historical compilation above interested me. I researched a bit and noted that someone reporting in a 1975 edition of the Messenger wrote: “The old veterans in gray invariably won.”
    The mock battles were discontinued when a young man lost an arm in a 1908 cannon loading accident.
  • The Native Americans were invited in the early 1900s to perform their war dances. They roped off an area in which they killed and prepared beef. The Indians hung the carcasses from a tree, cut off what they wanted and ate it without cooking it.
  • A pre-World War I pilot was contracted to land his plane on the Reunion grounds. He was paid to land and take off. The crowd watched as he crashed into the trees while trying to take off. Some unfortunate folks had to jump into a creek that served as the sewer system in order to avoid getting hit by the plane.
  • Through the years, civic organizations have led the way by presenting rodeos, hot air balloons, circuses and the like.
  • The first structures at Reunion were little more than poles supporting a roof. Blankets, cook stoves, milk cows and curtains were brought from home. The practice of erecting buildings that would serve as “camps” began in the mid 1930s.
  • Electricity was extended to the Reunion grounds in 1922, making it possible to have more evening (after dark) events.
  • The present pavilion (used for talent shows and other gatherings) was erected in 1948.
  • No reunions were held during World War II.
  • The end of an era was marked in 1941 when Calvin Newton Workman, the last Confederate soldier, died at age 93. A program was held in his honor during the 1939 Reunion. Thereafter, the name “Old Settlers Reunion” was adopted for the annual celebration.

For more in-depth information regarding Wise County, visit the Texas Historical Commission website (Search “Wise County”). Information here incudes history of early settlers, the mood of our county leading up to and including the Civil War years and local ties to the 1862 “Great Hanging in Gainesville,” during which 40 Unionists were hanged. Five were hanged here in Decatur during this same time period.

So, my observations are simple. There’s no down side to the Reunion celebration. The family time, fellowship with friends, the rides, the games, the making of fond memories … all these are wonderful.

Unless you’re a Union sympathizer.

You are welcome.

Gerre Joiner is a semi-retired church musician and has lived in Decatur since 1999.

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