THE BELLS — By Christian Hernandez
Eighteen miles north of Belton, in east Coryell County, lies the skeleton of a town that used to be full of life. It now lies dormant adjacent to a community that remains as tight knit today as it was when the town was just a small, welcome stop on an old military supply road to Old Fort Gates. It’s called The Grove.
“It’s a neat little place,” said Michael Barr, former principal of Gatesville High School and author of half a dozen local history books. “I know all about The Grove. I was born near there. My mother worked at the store,” the 62-year-old Gatesville native continued. “It’s a place that’s been my home.”
The history of The Grove goes back to the mid-19th century when local foliage inspired the name..
“There is a beautiful grove of live oak trees just south of the town,” Barr wrote in his book If You Blink You’ll Miss it. “In the hot summertime, in the 1840s and ’50s, teamsters would stop to rest under the oak trees. That’s where the name The Grove comes from.”
According to the Texas State Historical Association, the town was established in 1859 and within a year boasted a mill, a gin and two general stores — one of which was the W.J. Dube general store, arguably the most iconic building in the town.
Some believe, though, that it was the arrival of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in the 1870s that really stimulated growth in the town. The church sits just north of the town’s center and still holds services to this day.
With the turn of the century, the town would continue to grow into one of the most prosperous in Coryell County. It had a post office, grocery stores, two schools and at some point exceeded a population of 700. The community flourished until its people made a decision that would isolate the town from the rest of Central Texas that was quickly evolving without it.
In the middle of town is a hand-dug well that was made in the earliest years of its settlement.
“When Highway 36 was being built after World War II, the state offered to bring the road right through the middle of The Grove, but that would have meant paving over the old well.” Barr said. “Residents could not bear the thought.”
And so, the highway was laid half a mile north of the town. This would prove to be a costly decision for the people of The Grove.
“Progress killed them,” Barr said.
As time went on, the town withered. Farmers lost land with the construction of Lake Belton, and as cars became more affordable, people traveled on Highway 36 to Temple for all of their needs.
“I can remember gas on Adams Avenue in Temple was 15 cents per gallon,” Barr said.
With the ability to drive into Temple cheaply, it was easier to go to the big grocers that had a wider selection for less money.
“We wanted to buy our groceries at (the local) store,” Barr said, but the small grocers could not compete.
The Grove began to lose citizens, businesses and schools. The little town was dying. But something about this place made it withstand the test of time far better than its neighboring communities. That something was a man named Chester Moody Anderson.
John Graham owned W.J. Dube general store in 1972 when Anderson approached him about buying a few fixtures. Anderson, a man retired from the Texas National Guard, who lived in Austin, was an avid antiques dealer and collector. Graham wouldn’t sell him the items he wanted, but he made Anderson a deal that would change his life. For $5,000, he sold him the store.
“I guess the most wonderful moment in my life was when I bought this place here at The Grove,” Anderson said in a documentary that was released by Polka Works just last year.
After his initial purchase, Anderson would go about buying the surrounding buildings one by one until he owned the whole town.
Anderson would spend the next 37 years breathing life into the town and creating one of the most valued collections of antiques in Texas in the process.
He drove from his home in Austin to The Grove every weekend to give visitors free tours and history lessons and established monthly jamborees with free food, admission and live music.
“This town was supposed to die a long time ago,” said Jennings Brown, a writer for Cowboys and Indians magazine. The items from his collection of antiques were used as props in various productions over the years like The Lonesome Dove, Second Hand Lions, Chainsaw Massacre, The Alamo and Selena.
Currently the town lies inactive, but the surrounding community hopes it will be revived once more and become the Luckenbach of Coryell County.