A Brief History of Albany, Texas
Written by Shirley Caldwell, February 11, 2009
Albany’s birth began the demise of the county’s first town, Fort Griffin. It is a story ‘novel worthy’, or at least a good history, for only part of the story has been previously told. Well done, it would provide a good read or even a movie script.
Before the army established Fort Griffin, on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River, a frontier community had already begun developing, strung out along the stream. Settlers gathering wild cows eyed the Clear Fork region and selected plots for pasturing herds. Native Americans, who for centuries had used the wildlife-laden land for their hunting grounds, first the Apache and later the Comanche, resented the intruders and thought their warriors could scare the newcomers away by surprise attacks, but the newcomers were persistent.
Ironically, soldiers were sent in 1856, including Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, to a place along the river called Camp Cooper to protect and instruct Comanches living on a nearby reservation, one of just two in Texas. Trouble ensued (an amazing untold story), and the Indians were taken to Oklahoma Territory. The Texas Legislature created several counties in this area including Shackelford and Throckmorton just before the Civil War took all the soldiers away, some to the north and some to the south. For protection, settlers gathered in family forts like Fort Davis in Stephens County and Mugginsville in Shackelford County, but after the war, those disappeared as soldiers returned to build another line of forts across Northwest Texas as deterrents against raids from the north. In 1867, Fort Griffin was placed on a high bluff overlooking the river. Quickly, settlers moved in closer and a rudimentary town, also known as Griffin, formed on the “Flat” below soldier hill.”
Fort Griffin, late 1870s, showing both the military post and the Flat. The large compound in the right foreground is Frank Conrad’s emporium. Edgar Rye woodcut, courtesy Old Jail Art Center and Archive, Albany Texas.
Citizens met in August, 1874, under a large pecan tree on the north bank of the river at Griffin and petitioned to organize Shackelford County, the first of those created in 1858 to do so. Ft. Griffin became temporary county seat. (The original petition is now in the Robert Nail archives in Albany having been rescued by him when the ceiling of the district courtroom collapsed under the weight of old records more than 50 years ago.)
That September, the new court met in the Griffin law office of C. K. Stribling and George A. Kirkland. The following officers were present: County Judge and office of Precinct Justice No. 1, C. K. Stribling; Precinct Justice No. 2, W. H. Ledbetter; Precinct Justice No. 3, Joseph B. Matthews; Precinct Justice No. 4, J. S. Steel; Precinct Justice No. 5, John C. Lynch; County Clerk, P. J. Clark; County Surveyor, George A. Kirkland; and Sheriff, Henry C. Jacobs. At the second meeting, Jacobs read a proclamation from Richard Coke, Governor of Texas, setting an election for permanent county seat. Feelings ran strong that in order to escape the general unsavory atmosphere of Fort Griffin, the court should consider land proposed by Jacobs away from Griffin and closer to the county’s center. Conveniently, this was an area Jacobs thought would be attractive to a railroad, and he offered land for a courthouse, streets, alleys, and lots for some businesses and homes. Meanwhile, Jacobs set about acquiring the land. The election on November 8, 1874, determined that the Northeast Quarter of Section #1 of the Blind Asylum Survey on the North Prong of Hubbard Creek won over Griffin 54 to 39.
By May, 1875 the court began a picket courthouse and moved the records from Fort Griffin to “Albany”, a name suggested by Deputy Sheriff, William R. (Bill) Cruger in honor of his hometown of Albany, Georgia. Two years later, trouble boiled over to Albany from Griffin, still the dominant town, when the newly elected sheriff, John Larn, resigned under suspicious circumstances. The county, though in a flimsy $800 courthouse, decided to build an $8,000 rock jail and hired Ft. Worth architects in 1877. Before it could be completed, Larn was arrested. While shackled in a temporary jail, late at night masked vigilantes broke in and killed Larn. His partner, John Selman, escaped the area.
Griffin boomed through the buffalo hunting years and the Western Cattle Trail’s cowboy presence while the fledgling county seat struggled; but in 1881, the army left and the railroad came to Albany. The portent of Griffin’s future was clear. Even George Robson, Editor and owner of the Fort Griffin Echo – formerly the Jacksboro Echo – and champion of Ft. Griffin to the last, finally gave in and moved his newspaper to become The Albany Echo in 1882.
Albany remained the terminus of the Texas Central Railway for 19 years, and during that time it prospered and grew. Daily trains from southeast Texas brought carloads of lumber for building and took back buffalo bones for fertilizer and tons of choice limestone for building materials in cities like Houston. The readily available limestone became evident in Albany as well and leading newspaper editors such as Edgar Rye and Robson, though once bitter enemies, joined to promote a limestone courthouse. After an intense campaign, Architect James Flanders of Dallas was hired in 1883 to design a three-storied structure, with Rye as Building Superintendent. The details of this process are neatly told in a book entitled “For 500 Years” available for sale in Albany. Pride of the county, and recently restored, the Courthouse can be toured by prior arrangement with the County Judge.
Fortunately, Official Texas Historical Markers on the courthouse lawn placed by the Shackelford County Historical Commission record significant county history. These include a story of Clara Barton’s first trip to Texas and the life of Col. Edwin Dyess, namesake of Dyess Air Base. Another an inspiring War Memorial honoring the Georgia Volunteers was moved from the Courthouse to Bank Park.
Albany’s economy mainly relied on ranching and farming until the oilman in 1910 discovered the first commercial gas well in West Texas near Moran, a county town southeast on the railroad. This began an era of oil exploration and discovery that led to more prosperity for those willing to risk time and money. The Cook Children’s Hospital in Ft. Worth was made possible by the shallow and prolific Cook Oil Field just 5 miles northwest of Albany.
The longest-lasting effects for Albany have been the educational investments made in sons and daughters going off to good schools of higher learning, several to Ivy League institutions, and returning to family businesses and ranches to share talents and abilities that enrich the town. Albany still places a high premium on education and the grade school repeatedly earns the “Exceptional” rating. Last year, $50,000 was given in scholarships to Albany students going on to Colleges and Universities.
Such an example is Robert E. Nail, Jr. who attended Albany schools and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton where he established himself as a playwright. He returned to care for his mother in Albany. Bob or Bobby, as he quickly became known, filled in at Albany High School as drama teacher and became popular with students; so popular in fact that in 1938 the Senior Class asked him to write a little something different for their senior play. He responded with an outdoor production called, “Dr. Shackelford’s Paradise.” A smashing success, the Chamber of Commerce suggested the entire town join in and present it under another name — The Fort Griffin Fandangle. That was over 70 years ago, and though Nail died in 1968 the Fandangle has continued to be performed every year on the last two weekends each June. Call 325-762-3838 or visit the Fandanagle web site for tickets.
Another Princeton graduate to shade Albany ambience is the late Reilly Nail, Bob’s nephew. He took the original two storied rock jail inherited from his uncle and developed it as a nationally accredited modern art museum, The Old Jail Art Center, for which Albany is well-known. At that time, in 1989, it was the first museum between Albany and El Paso to be so named by the American Association of Museums (AAM).
Other Albany citizens have returned and contributed. The result is a cultural gem with a restoration cachet and western overtones — an anomaly in West Texas, an example anywhere of the close bond possible between heritage, architecture, and art.
Albany has been officially designated both a Preserve America Community and a Movie-Friendly Location.
Images provided courtesy of the Old Jail Art Center Archives