The Spicers Of Abilene

Rowan Spicer 1804-1865 > Rowan Lall Spicer 1851-1914

The Birth of Abilene

The Comanche controlled a large area of West Texas, New Mexico and the Indian Territory, known as Comancheria, and had fought Mexican and Texan settlers since the 1820s. During the Civil War, when the Union and Confederate armies were busy killing each other, the Comanche pushed Texas settlements back up to 100 miles.


A line of cavalry forts bordered Comancheria. Fort Phantom Hill was 15 miles north of the future town of Abilene.

After the Civil War, the United States began the Indian Wars to eliminate the Plains Indians as a threat to settlers. In the last major Texas battle, the Comanche were defeated at Palo Duro Canyon in September 1874; over 1000 of their horses were slaughtered after the battle, so that they could no longer survive as warriors. The last Comanche chief Quanah Parker surrendered in June 1875 at Fort Sill.

At the same time as the Indian War, the herds of buffalo that sustained the Plains Indians were being hunted to near extinction. In West Texas, the herds moved through a valley known as Buffalo Gap, and hunters camped there for easy slaughter; they only wanted the skins, and left the flesh for wolves and scavengers.

Buffalo Skulls
Buffalo Skulls: The Remains of a Herd

Buffalo Gap became a small town, and then became the seat of the new Taylor County in 1878.

The Texas & Pacific Railroad was chartered in 1871 to build a transcontinental route from East Texas to El Paso and on to San Diego. All along the proposed route, the wealthy and politically connected lobbied the T&P to get the tracks closer to them.

In 1880, several ranchers and businessmen met with H. C. Whithers, the T&P track and townsite locator, and convinced him to have the railroad bypass Buffalo Gap. Instead, the route would cross the northern part of Taylor County through their own land, and a new town named Abilene would be established between Cedar and Big Elm creeks.

Texas Railroads 1883
Texas & Pacific 1883

As the railroad pushed west, immigrants followed it.

From the Dallas Herald, January 29 1881 and February 3 1881:

The people here are living in tents and wagons. You can see them pressing to the front in wagons all along the line of the road. There is as yet no lumber or building material to construct houses. The road is unable to get its construction material to the front as fast as needed, much less to do commercial business, but in a few months where now you see only a tented field there will be a thriving town.

A traveler in today from Abilene, reports the woods full of immigrants. They are camped under tents, cliffs, wagons and other primitive shelters, each casting about for lands and a location. The immigration column keeps up with the advance of the railroad, and receives fresh recruits by the hundreds every day. All passenger trains going by Dallas are crowded with immigrants, and the dirt roads heading west are filled with their wagons. Of a sudden North Texas receives a boom in population not felt in many years. They are pitching their tents in a country they can make their fortunes in.

The first lots in Abilene were auctioned on March 15 1881, after months of advertisement in newspapers throughout Texas. 178 lots were sold during the 2-day auction.

TownLots DallasWeeklyHerald 24Mar1881

From the Galveston Weekly News, May 6 1881:

The land on which the town is located belonged to Messrs Simpson, Berry and Johnson. To induce the railroad to locate the town on this land, they gave them every alternate lot, so that one-half the lots are owned by the railroad, and the other half by the original land  owners.

This is the sixtieth day since the sale of lots commenced, and the magnitude of the business that has grown up in that short time is wonderful. I counted over 50 substantial business houses, besides numerous tents and booths in which various kinds of pursuits are followed, from a $40,000 stock of groceries to a candy shop. Some thirty odd new residences have been erected, and are occupied by intelligent, cultivated and refined families from all portions of Texas. Many of the families of merchants reside in the rear of their stores until dwelling houses can be erected for them, and one is never beyond the sound of saw and hammer in the town, from early dawn to dewy eve. Among the various pursuits here, there are ten or twelve bar-rooms, two livery stables, one bakery, laundries too numerous to count, three or four beef markets, three grocery houses, one hardware house, one furniture house, two dry goods and clothing houses, one bank, and twenty-five or thirty stores of mixed goods. Of doctors, I have seen but two or three. They seem to have but little to do. Last, but by no means least, there are a dozen lawyers here, who seem to have quite as much leisure time as the doctors.

There are also two ice-houses that retail ice at 2 1/2 cents per pound. Beef retails at 5 to 7 cents per pound, and is certainly the finest in the world.

The citizens have built a substantial school-house. No churches have been built yet, but several are in contemplation. About half a mile north of town is located the cemetery, which has had only two interments.

There are no wells in the town yet. The town is now supplied by numerous wagons with wooden tanks on them, called the Abilene Water Works, that haul water from an inexhaustible spring about half a mile from the depot, at 25 cents per barrel or 2 1/2 cents per bucket.

From the Fort Worth Daily Democrat, May 15 1881:

Some idea of the amount of goods shipped to this point may be gained from the fact that the railroad company having built a large depot, found it entirely inadequate to hold the goods sent there, and have been forced to erect a large tent covering almost an acre of ground for the reception of merchandise.

The town was laid out grid-style, with the railroad cutting it into North and South sides. Pine Street was the main street, running north from the railroad depot.

Abilene Map
Abilene in 1880s
Abilene Pine Street
Looking North on Pine St from Railroad, 1888
Ab PineSt 2019
North on Pine St from Railroad, 2019

Jay Gould was the preeminent railroad tycoon of the Gilded Age, and bought a stake in the T&P. He visited Texas to inspect his new railroad, and came through Abilene in May 1881 aboard his private car. A young cowboy walked in, not realizing it was a private car, and Gould snidely remarked to him that good society was lacking. The cowboy replied that they managed just fine without water or society. Gould died of tuberculosis in 1892 at the age of 56, universally despised.

When settlers first came to Abilene, the land all around was covered in the bones of the slaughtered buffalo herds. In April 1881, the bones brought $3 a ton, and a man with a wagon and team could collect 2 tons a day. By November, bones were worth $11 a ton.

Dried and charred bones produced a substance called bone black. Coarsely crushed, it was used to filtered impurities out of sugar-cane juice. It also made a useful pigment for paints, dyes and cosmetics, and acted as a lubricant for iron and steel forgings. Collectors made a few dollars per ton of bones. Shipped to rendering plants and furnaces in the big industrial cities, each ton was worth $18 to $27. Boiled, charred, crushed or powdered, the final product was worth as much as $60 per ton.

When the settlers first arrived, the buffalo were gone and the most common wild animal was the prairie dog, which was hated by the farmer and the rancher: they ate all the grass, and dug burrows everywhere. Prairie dog soup was served, prairie dogs were harvested, and prairie dog extermination became a booming business.

Small-pox was greatly feared, and sufferers were treated harshly so that others could avoid infection.

SmallPox Galveston_Weekly_News_1882-03-30_8
Galveston Weekly News March 30 1882

For the first 4th of July in Abilene, oodles of rational enjoyment were promised.

FtGriffinEcho 18Jun1881
Fort Griffin Echo Jun 18 1881

Since this was the Wild West, killings were common. In February 1881, John Snoddy was the first to be murdered in Abilene, and the first grave in the new town cemetery.

Snoddy Dallas_Weekly_Herald_1881-02-24_4
Dallas Weekly Herald Feb 24 1881

In March 1881, a crowd was watching a theater performance inside a tent when some cowpokes outside decided to shoot it up. 6 of the audience were wounded, and the shooters escaped unidentified. A vigilance committee was formed, which was soon replaced with a city marshall’s office.

The most notorious early killing involved Zeno Hemphill. He was born in 1852, came to Abilene in 1881 and made his living playing cards. On January 13 1883, he was playing in the Red Light Saloon with a cowpoke fresh off the trail, and there was a dispute settled with 6-shooters. Ross Breedling fell dead, and Zeno was charged with murder. Zeno claimed self-defense, and had Congressman Washington “Wash” Jones as his attorney. At the end of the year, his trial ended with a hung jury, and he continued his gambling career.

On January 8 1884, Zeno was at the Cattle Exchange Saloon and confronted City Council Alderman Frank Collins, who was leading an anti-gambling reform movement. Zeno struck Frank in the face, and Frank drew his pistol and placed it against Zeno’s head. Frank’s brother Walter, a deputy city marshall, rushed up and separated the men. During this confusion, Zeno drew his gun and shot Walter in the chest. A shootout between Zeno, Frank and Walter then commenced, as they all emptied their pistols at each other. When it was over, Zeno and Walter lay dead on the floor. Frank died of his wounds on March 14. The Collins brothers had served in the Frontier Battalion of the Texas Rangers. All three are buried in the Abilene Cemetery.

In 1883, an election was held to decide whether the county seat would stay in Buffalo Gap or move to the new boomtown of Abilene. Abilene won 905 to 257, and the demise of Buffalo Gap was settled. The Sante Fe Railroad later ran a track through Buffalo Gap, but it was too late to save the town from depopulating.

The Spicers Come to Abilene

In 1870, Rowan Lall Spicer was living with his widowed mother and siblings in Alabama. Also living with them were 6 of their former slaves, who had kept the Spicer name after emancipation. In 1869, when Rowan was 18, former slave Ann gave birth to a mulatto daughter Susan. Soon after, Rowan moved by himself to Texas, while the rest of the Spicers stayed in Alabama. Was Rowan the father? It’s speculation unless a DNA connection is found with a descendent of Susan; by 1880 the black Spicers had disappeared from the Census, so they probably changed their last name.

1870Census Alabama
1870 Census, Covington County, Alabama

Bettie Cowart was born in Mississippi in 1855. By early 1858, the Cowart family had moved to Trinity County in Texas, northeast of Huntsville, where Bettie’s youngest sister Rachel was born in May 1858.

Rowan married Bettie on Aug 31 1873 in Grimes County, northwest of Houston. In 1880, they were farming in DeWitt County with their 3 oldest children, Georgia, Charles Alonzo “Lon” and Marvin.

Rowan and family moved to Abilene in a covered wagon in 1882, and lived in the wagon until their house was built at the corner of 7th and China (that intersection is outside the bottom right corner of this 1883 birds-eye map).

Abilene 1883
Abilene 1883

Rowan bought land to farm, and jumped in to many different jobs to make a living.

In 1886, he and George Lafayette Eslinger (1842-1924) partnered to buy a steam engine to run a sawmill.

Rowan AbNews 10Dec1886
Abilene News Dec 10 1886
Rowan Sawing TaylorCountyNews 31Dec1886

In 1885-86, Rowan and Eslinger had teams cutting and grading roads so that carriages and wagons could travel from town to town. These original dirt roads became the routes for today’s asphalt and concrete roads.

In 1884, Grover Cleveland was elected as the first Democratic President after the Civil War, and in 1886 Rowan was a member of the Taylor County Democratic convention.

Rowan Democrat TaylorCountyNews 23Sep1898

In 1887, Rowan was appointed sexton, responsible for digging and maintaining graves at the city cemetery.

Rowan Sexton TaylorCountyNews 13Ma71887
Taylor County News May 13 1887

On April 28 1893 the town of Cisco (population 3500), 46 miles east of Abilene, was destroyed by a tornado. 28 were killed, and every building was either destroyed or severely damaged. The entire business district, and every house except those on the southern edge, was blown away.

The T&P ran a special train from Abilene to bring emergency supplies and relief workers. Rowan was one of many Abilenians who went to Cisco to help rebuild it.

Rowan Cisco TaylorCountyNews 5May1893
Taylor County News May 5 1893

By 1894, Rowan was struck with religous fervor and joined a band of Sanctificationists, who believed that the existing Methodist Church was an emissary of the Devil. After they broke up a prayer meeting, Brother Burgess went to jail (anticipating a rapturous release) and Rowan went home. By 1898, Mrs Burgess was still preaching in Rowan’s home.

Rowan’s primary occupation was moving buildings: either the owner was moving to a new location and wanted to take his house with him, or a fancier new building was going up and the old one was sold instead of being demolished. In the years before motorized vehicles, buildings were jacked up onto wagons, and teams of horses, mules and oxen pulled the load to its destination. He moved houses, churches, hotels and other buildings around Abilene and the surrounding area for over 30 years, and his sons continued the business after his death. His obituary noted that he had helped moved the town of Tuscola, and moved part of Buffalo Gap closer to the Sante Fe rail.


In 1908 Rowan was arrested for public drunkenness and paid the usual.

Abilene Reporter May 29 1908

Rowan’s sons were notorious in Abilene, and often made the news.

Charles Alonzo “Lon” (1877-1949) had a “cutting affray” with his brother Cleve in 1912, after an argument about chicken depredations. Lon was cut during the knife fight and went to the hospital; Cleve was found guilty of aggravated assault and fined $25.

Lon-Cleve AbDailyReporter 1Aug1912
Abilene Daily Reporter Aug 1 1912

Marvin’s (1879-1942) first brush with the law was in 1895, when he was acquitted of theft. In April 1898, he and 4 others were arrested for attempted murder, when George Cranfill was beaten in his bed with sticks and stones. Marvin spent the next 6 months in jail, until he was released in September after the Grand Jury declined to indict him. In 1909, he was arrested for beating his wife Hattie, and sentenced to 2 days in jail and a $25 fine.

Grover Cleveland “Cleve” (1885-1947), Carroll Hutson “Hut” (1888-1968) and Sam (1893-1917) deserve their own stories.

In February 1909 Rowan was riding in a hack (a horse-drawn taxi) from Winters to Ballinger when the horse was spooked and overturned the hack, breaking Rowan’s collarbone.

Rowan died at his home at 702 China on October 19 1914 at the age of 63, and was buried in the Masonic section of the Abilene Cemetery (grave 35/5/1)

His obituary lists his surviving children: Lon, Cleve, Marvin, Hut, John, Lorena and married daughters Lavonia Holmes and Luella Jones. The obituary did not list firstborn Georgia, who died young, Sam, who was doing time in Huntsville Prison, or daughter Ollie, who had run off to California earlier in the year.

Rowan Obit AbReporter 23Oct1914
Abilene Reporter Oct 23 1914

Bettie lived 22 years a widow, then died at home on April 29 1936. She is buried next to Rowan in the Abilene Cemetery.

Betty Spicer Obit
Abilene Reporter April 30 1936

Their descendants are scattered across the country, from Texas to California to New York to Florida.

Rowan, Bettie and Ollie 1898
Bettie with Daughter Ollie, Granddaughter and Great-Granddaughter in 1936

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