Q&A: Tom Charlton

March 6, 2006
Dr. Thomas L. Charlton is director of The Texas Collection and professor of history. Randy Fiedler spoke with him to find out the details of Baylor's celebration March 25 at its former campus site in Independence, Texas.

BaylorNews: Give us a very brief history of Baylor at Independence.

Thomas Charlton: Baylor was chartered by the Republic of Texas in 1845, and trustees voted to locate the university on Windmill Hill in Independence. The first classes were held in May 1846 in a frame building once used by Independence Academy, and those classes were very unusual nationally for that time because they were coeducational, with men and women in the same room. The decision was soon made to have two campuses, one for men on Windmill Hill, the other for women across Independence Creek, which the boys used to call "The River Jordan." In 1857 the first building was completed on the women's campus. That's the three-story stone building whose columns still exist today. The university struggled financially especially in the years after the Civil War, and in 1886 the trustees voted to relocate the men's campus to Waco and merge it with Waco University, keeping the name Baylor University, and at the same time move the women's campus to Belton, where it eventually became the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.

BN: Didn't the railroads play a big part in the decision to move the university?

TC: They did. Independence was a vibrant community during the Republic of Texas and during the period of the early statehood of Texas between 1845 and the Civil War. It was not so vibrant in the years after the Civil War because that's when the transportation routes were changing in Texas, and in fact the leaders of Independence were even opposed to railroads. They were strongly still in favor of steam boating and wanted everybody to put their eggs in the basket of transporting goods and people up and down the undependable Brazos River. The mayor of Independence and other leaders in town, including some of the Baylor leaders, knew about the coming of the railroads in Texas, but made a very fateful decision to rebuff the railroads. The railroads then built over toward Brenham and east Texas and up toward central Texas into the Waco area. Some of the big cotton plantations around Independence like the Seward Plantation were very, very productive, and the people who had been carrying cotton and other goods to the Houston-Galveston area for shipment to the east coast and to Europe could have used the railroad in a big way, and it probably would have meant the growth of Independence. But when the town leaders elected not to cooperate with the railroad that sort of froze Independence for a while, and the trustees of Baylor, seeing the handwriting on the wall, elected to move here to Waco in 1886. There weren't a lot of students and faculty members left after the Civil War anyway.

BN: Is Baylor's history in Independence something most people are familiar with?

TC: No. When we think about Baylor history these days, we mainly think only about what's happened in Waco. But Independence was the location of Baylor for 41 years, and that's a quarter of our history. I'm amazed at the number of people here on the Baylor campus who have never been to Independence because they don't even know how to get there, since it's not on a major Texas highway.

BN: What's left in Independence today?

TC: Not all that much, but what is there is very interesting and quite historic. Way back when they thought Independence was going to be a booming town in the 1870s and 1880s the elected officials figured out on a map grid where the blocks were going to be, but there were not many blocks ever built there. There are only a few streets in town, as well as a little store that's the nearest thing to a commercial establishment in the heart of Independence. It's made of the stones taken from the Baylor campus. There are also other little buildings where an old cotton gin used to be that are also made of stones from campus. What's left of Independence today is a few blocks around the crossroads of Highway 390 and Highway 50 next to the historic Independence Baptist Church, which is the second oldest church in the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Near that intersection is the house Sam Houston set up for his second wife, and Houston also lived in another house across town. There are also a lot of very historic groves of trees, including one right by the Independence Baptist Church, and that's a great place for having receptions out under the trees. One of the churches in town is a predominantly black church called the Liberty Baptist Church. Some of the members of this church are descended from the slave population that lived and worked in Independence before the Civil War. That's a story of Independence that has not been told very well -- the story of the black slaves who built Baylor, and on whose backs all of its buildings were constructed. The life whites had in Independence then was supported by slave economy, and so some of the folks who are members of Liberty Baptist today trace their families to that pre-Civil War period. Many of them are from older families than the people who belong to the Independence Baptist Church, which is the predominantly white church in town, which is one of the ironies of Independence today. There are state historical markers all over the place, around the town square and throughout Independence. There are two or three markers down at the old Baylor Park on the site of the women's campus and there is a stone marker on the male campus site on Windmill Hill that was erected during the Texas centennial in 1936. There's a state marker in front of the house of General Jerome Robertson, a house that someone is trying to restore that right now. There's also a new state marker in front of Liberty Baptist Church.

BN: What will Baylor be doing in Independence in March?

TC: On March 25, from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., we are inviting members of the Baylor family and the Independence community to come to the old male campus site on Windmill Hill. At 2 p.m. we will dedicate the new Baylor Park on Windmill Hill. Then, at 4 p.m., the new Independence village walking trail, which includes the Baylor campus, will officially open. There will also be a number of other community events scheduled throughout the day.

BN: How did the idea for a community walking trail come about?

TC: A man named David Wolff, who lives on Coles Road, has formed something called the Independence Preservation Trust, a private organization to promote historic preservation in town. Wolff is a very prominent real estate person in Houston and is the head of the transit authority that has just built the new light rail system out to the Astrodome. He and an independent historian named Ellen Beasley put together a new concept of a walking and driving trail for the Independence area. They chose about 20 sites where people can walk around, and each site has markers telling people what they're looking at. The markers are quite large and are sunken in concrete on very attractive pedestals. Baylor Park on Windmill Hill has two of the stops. The trail will be an interesting place where if you have about 30 to 45 minutes to drive and walk around with your camera, you'll get some beautiful pictures and learn a lot of interesting history.

BN: What can you see inside Baylor Park?

TC: There are cinder walking paths with metal edging that wind all around the park, and there are signs at different locations interpreting various items of interest. For example, there is an old well out there, and right next to the fence line is the original burial site of Judge R.E.B. Baylor. There's a little bell tower that's been reconstructed on the site, and you can get up on there a few feet and take photographs of the foundations of some of the old buildings that were once on the campus. There's also a small pavilion containing a number of interpretive plaques about the early history of Baylor. It's a pretty site that's had a lot of landscape beautification done, and there are flower beds that should be full of spring plantings, including bluebonnets.

BN: By the way, where is Judge Baylor buried now?

TC: After he died in 1873, his body was buried on the Baylor campus in Independence. In the early 1920s the remains were moved and taken to Belton and reburied on the campus of what is now the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. His burial site is now in the middle of campus, along with Texas historical markers for Judge Baylor and for early Baptist education in Texas.

BN: Why has Baylor spent money to renovate its old campus site?

TC: Our idea is to dedicate this site as more or less a symbolic gesture to the people around Independence saying that Baylor is interested in reaffirming its connection with the community. We're not only reaffirming the sense of Independence being a good place for Baylor to be, but for Baylor to have an ongoing presence there. That will be done partly through maintaining this beautiful park, but also through research projects all around the area and assisting the local residents with historic preservation projects. I also see Independence as the location of numerous future archeological digs, some of them on private property with permission from the owners. Another reason I think it's interesting for Baylor to look into its past down in Independence is because Washington County played such a central role in early Texas history after the state won independence from Mexico. Washington County was one of the most populated counties in Texas for several decades during the Republic and early statehood periods. A lot of the leaders of the Republic of Texas lived in Washington County, and there were only about three communities in all of Texas -- Galveston, San Antonio and Nacogdoches -- that had more people living in them. My thinking, along with Dr. Michael Parish over in the history department, is that a new study of Independence should be done, one with Baylor as an integral part of it, but not focusing exclusively on Baylor.

BN: Will Baylor students be involved in projects in Independence?

TC: I'm hoping that as several departments on campus learn about what's in Independence, their students will do research down there and their faculty members can do special research projects. Some of that has already begun. For example, the Baylor Department of Museum Studies is committed to helping the Independence Baptist Church with its museum, called the Texas Baptist Historical Museum. At the present time, the museum's artifacts have been moved out and taken across the street into storage until a decision is made on how to best exhibit them. The museum is a mishmash, meaning that it contains a lot of things that have nothing to do with Independence or Texas Baptist history. They're just old artifacts that various people have donated, even if they don't enhance the mission of the museum. For example, they have a huge collection of farm tools and various types of saws in the collection. Some gentleman around there had a collection of saws, and 20 or 30 years ago he walked into the Baptist church and said he'd like to give them to the museum. All of those saws have now been on exhibit for about 20 years in a museum supposedly dealing with Texas Baptist history. Now, there's nothing wrong with collecting saws, but the question is should they go back up on an exhibit when they mount the museum again? That's the kind of question students and faculty in our Department of Museum Studies, led primarily by Dr. Kenneth Hafertepe, are going to help the folks at Independence Baptist Church figure out by evaluating all their artifacts and trying to decide which ones should be exhibited and which ones should be retired.

BN: Would Independence be somewhere for Baylor groups to hold meetings every now and then?

TC: That's my hope. For example, the folks at the Baylor Alumni Association I know is thinking about the idea of developing a place where Alumni Association events such as picnics could be held. We have tens of thousands of Baylor graduates who live in the Houston area and are a 45-minute drive away. This could become one of the regular rallying points for the Alumni Association. I see Baylor Park as a place where a number of Baylor groups could go for various types of meetings. Departments could have retreats there and spend some time trying to appreciate what's gone on over the years at Independence. There are lots of uses for the park out there. For example, in the springtime the area is one of the greatest places in Texas to photograph wildflowers, especially bluebonnets. Washington County has tremendous wildflower hillsides and the bluebonnets can grow a foot or more high. It's going to make you want to go sit out in the bluebonnets and have someone take your photograph while sitting there. You're going to see lots of Baylor people from the Houston area out here photographing their children in the bluebonnets.

BN: Hopefully there will be lots of bluebonnets blooming on March 25.

TC: Oh, I hope so. I'd like to see the March 25 event be a feel-good kind of experience for the Baylor family, a chance for people who love Baylor to discover Independence and appreciate where the university was born, and to see that the surrounding community did not die. I also see this as yet another way to reconnect the university with its founding values. I hope the event makes sense for a lot of Baylor people.
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