The Wrights of Elwood - A Fannin County story
By Tim Davis
Aug 27, 2021
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Life in or near the Shenandoah Valley area of Virginia in the post-Civil War era was hard. The impact of war had left what historian C. Vann Woodward described as "the years of what would now be called ‘third-world’ poverty, stagnation, failure, economic dependency and exploitation." Such misery prompted many to leave for Texas and other parts of the country. While people, white and African-American, were suffering, some industries were managing to rebound thanks mainly to the influx of Northern money. Chief among them was the railroads.

Rail lines throughout the South were relatively short and disconnected making seamless rail travel impossible. Business leaders like Pennsylvania’s Tom Scott began buying up these lines and connecting them thus making rail travel easier. It was Scott and company that brought the Texas and Pacific Railroad to Fannin County in 1873. Leaving Virginia suddenly became easier.

That is what my maternal great-great-grandmother, Judith P. Wright, and her sons, James Edward Wright (my great-grandfather) and Thomas Henry Wright, did in the 1880s. Reacting to letters from relatives living in the Valley Creek area (about halfway between Trenton and Leonard) that described Fannin County as a good place to make a fresh start, they sold their Bedford County farm and hopped a train bound for Texas.

Circa 1894 the Wright family made their way to Foster's studio on the north side of the square in Bonham. Pictured are James Edward, Ida Mae, James Henry, Columia May (in James's lap) and Cora.

Once in Fannin County, the first year or so was spent tenant farming some land near Red River. While there, James Edward met a gal named Ida Mae Medley. She had come to Fannin County by way of covered wagon from Carbondale, Illinois. He fell for her because she was a good cook who made a great pan of biscuits, she for him because he refused to touch whiskey. They soon married.

The happiness of their new life together was quickly offset when James’s mother, Judith, died. While in Virginia slaves had done most of the domestic chores for her; therefore, she was ill suited for the hard life of rural Texas and her health failed. Since the family lacked the money for a proper funeral, she was buried in an unmarked grave on land along the river. The location of her burial spot remains unknown.

Some months later James and Ida Mae Wright bought some land in the Elwood area, established roots and raised a family. My grandfather, James Henry Wright, was their first born. More children soon followed; it was the age of large families.

Thanks to the fact that the oldest daughter, Columbia May Wright (she would later reside in Arkansas with her husband, Mr. O.W. Bass), was interviewed on tape in late 1986 reminiscing about her childhood, some details about the Elwood years remain. The typical farm life that she described was no doubt indicative of what rural life was like for a lot of families across Fannin County in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

To begin with she recalled a lean Christmas when the only gift her parents could afford to give her and the rest of the children was a big bag of candy. "Dad felt awful bad about it," she stated. To lighten the mood, he stepped out on the front porch with his gun and fired two or three shots into the cold night air. He claimed he was shooting at Santa Claus for bringing so little. "He had a keen sense of humor," she stated.

It was the age before radios, televisions or stereos, so entertainment was homemade. Music in the home meant that someone had to know how to play an instrument. She recalled that her dad bought a piano and was pleased when her little sister, Cora, learned how to play it. "He loved music," she stated.

For the ladies of the house, trips to Bonham, a seventeen-mile affair from Elwood by wagon, were few and far between. May recalled that she and her mother accompanied her dad to Bonham no more than twice a year. Often the trips were to the general stores on the square so her mother could buy material for sewing their clothes and quilts. "Mother sewed everything we wore," she stated. She laughed when she told the story of one such trip when her mother was under the mistaken assumption that her father had earned some extra money due to recently selling a mule. Once her father noticed the yards and yards of material his wife was gathering up, he felt obliged to remind her, "Ida, now remember, I didn’t sell that mule."

Church played an important role in their social lives providing such events as Sunday services, tent revivals and brush arbor meetings to attend. Sunday morning services were often followed by big meals at the Wright household. May stated that while most of the family was at church, her mother stayed at home fixing dinner. "We never went to church or Sunday school in our life that we didn’t bring home two wagon loads of people for dinner," she stated.

Perhaps one of the most exciting events in May Bass’s young life was the time the whole family loaded into the mule-drawn covered wagon and set out for Durant. Crossing Red River meant a ride on a ferry. She recalled that she, her siblings and her mother stood along the side of the ferry while her father stayed at the front with the mules lest they get spooked. When they reached the Oklahoma side they traveled through dense woods for a while before coming "out on one of the most beautiful prairies I ever saw . . . the wind was blowing and the grass just looked so pretty, you know, in waves." The beauty of it all was tempered, however, when her father stated that he thought they were lost. (No one likes to get lost while traveling these days. Imagine getting lost in a covered wagon!) Before long he regained his bearings and got them to Durant to visit with relatives. Returning home meant another long wagon ride and one more ferry trip across the river.

As time went on the Wright children grew up and, as children often do, they left home to begin lives of their own. They carried with them the memories of growing up on a farm in rural Fannin County.

In 1911, at the age of 62, James Edward Wright died and was buried in the Elwood Cemetery. Although Ida Mae outlived her husband by 28 years, she never remarried. Why? I like to think it was because she knew deep in her heart that no other man could measure up to James Edward, that no other man would love her as much as he did.

Note: I would like to thank James Bass of Arlington for a copy of the May Bass interview tape. Also, thanks to April Bass of Houston for sending me a copy of the circa 1894 photograph of the Wrights.