Shortly after the Civil War, veterans of the North and South alike wished to celebrate the kinship and memory of their war experiences and sacrifices. Small groups of Limestone County Confederate veterans met informally to socialize and reminisce.
By 1888 they had begun to meet annually along Jacks Creek near where it intersects the Navasota River, known then as the “Pen Camp Meeting Grounds.” The next year they organized the Joseph E. Johnston Camp of the United Confederate Veterans, named in honor of the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Tennessee. This chapter became the 94th affiliate of the rapidly expanding UCV.
Starting in 1892, the veterans and their families started purchasing lots at $5 each to help pay for the first 20 acres of land purchased for a sum of $200 from the Mexia family. Over the years more land was purchased, and today the site consists of 76 acres.
In 1893, a large dance pavilion was built and became the social center of the reunion grounds. Today picnic tables are under the pavilion, and it may be rented for family reunions and other gatherings.
In the early days as many as 7,000 people attended the annual reunions in late July or early August during the week of the full moon. They came by horse, buggy and special trains from Dallas and Houston.
On display at the reunion grounds is a captured Union Cannon that was used during the Civil War. “Old Valverde,” one of the federal cannons captured by Confederate forces in the battle at Mansfield, La., saw action for the Confederate troops in the Louisiana campaigns with the Valverde Battery.
The terms of surrender signed on May 26, 1865, stated that all confederate artillery was to be turned over to the U.S. government. Rather than surrender them to Union troops, Captain T.D. Nettles buried the two cannons underneath a buggy house in nearby Fairfield. Here they remained during Reconstruction and were dug up when Grover Cleveland was elected president in 1885. One of these cannons is on display at the reunion grounds and the other is on the courthouse grounds at Fairfield.
During the days of the reunion the gray-haired veterans proudly fired Old Valverde each day at dawn and again at dusk. Some say this firing could be heard in the next county.
The reunions included parades, brass-band concerts, patriotic speakers, games and traditional southern food. The attendees would dance the nights away on the wooden floor of the pavilion, which is now recognized by the National Register of Historic Places for its unusual architecture.
Wildcatter Albert E. Humphreys struck oil in Limestone County in November 1920. The county population exploded, and Mexia became a boomtown at the center of one of the largest oil fields in the country. Humphreys contracted with the Joseph E. Johnston Camp for water and built a pump house on Jacks Creek to supply his wells. There are still some large rock chimneys here, remnants of the housing for the oil field workers of the 1920s.
Humphreys, affectionately known as “The Colonel,” was a devotee of Confederate history and offered to improve the reunion grounds. He built the Pure Oil Company clubhouse and bathhouse on Jacks Creek. Miss Mamie Kennedy was one of the last officers of Camp 94 and hosted lavish parties for The Colonel during the oil boom days. She also designed and landscaped gardens leading to the “Colonel’s Springs,” which became known as the “Flirtation Walk.”
After the end of World War I, time was taking its toll on the aging veterans. The reunions continued but on a smaller scale. By 1946, the charter of Camp 94 expired and the grounds fell into disuse. The Joseph E. Johnston Camp No. 94, C.S.A., was permanently chartered as a nonprofit corporation in 1965, and in September 1983, the corporation donated the Confederate Reunion Grounds to the state of Texas. They continue to serve as a gathering place today.
Today as you drive into the reunion grounds there is an archway off to the right with the sign “Miss Mamie Kennedy’s 1914 Confederate Flirtation Walk.” The trail winds through the woods to a swinging walk bridge across the creek.
A little farther around a curve is another trail leading to the “Colonel’s Springs.” On the archway over the trail is the following inscription:
“The Colonel’s Springs: To Colonel A. E. Humphreys, discoverer and developer of the great Mexia oil fields, beautifier of these grounds, maintaining them in honor of the Confederate dead and for the pleasure of the living veterans, their families and friends. This tablet is erected and this spring lovingly dedicated by the city of Mexia as a lasting expression of their admiration of this great and Godly man and his splendid achievement. ‘I will give to him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely,’ Rev. 21:6.”
This is a good place to visit if you wish to get close to nature and observe a little history. Take a picnic lunch, relax and make a day of it. There are several good picnic sites.
The reunion grounds are no longer a part of the state park system. The 80th Texas Legislature transferred operational control of this site from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to the Texas Historical Commission.
A new office building has been constructed just inside the entrance. Cost of admission is $4 for adults, $3 for students ages 6-18 and tour groups and free for children ages 5 and under. However, today is a Texas Historic Sites free day at 19 of the Texas Historical Commission’s properties.
John Watson is a Cleburne resident who can be reached at email@example.com.