There may be but 200 graves in Williams Ranch Cemetery, but thousands of historical stories must be buried there too. Stories of Indian raids and mob violence, hangings and hardships are legendary, but the tales of abiding love and enduring strength add to their richness.
Saturday is the day for the annual Williams Ranch Cemetery Association meeting and dinner on the grounds.
“I know, our meeting is the same day as the Brownwood Reunion, but that's just the way it happened,” said Rex Williams. “We'll be finished and plan to be here for the concert anyway.”
The business meeting will start at 11 a.m. Saturday at the cemetery, and, as is tradition, will be followed by a covered dish luncheon. The meat, paper goods and plasticware will be provided by the association. Others attending the event are asked to bring a vegetable, salad, side dish or dessert to share.
For questions or more information, call Debi Williams at (325) 985-3639.
Williams Ranch was a thriving frontier community in the mid to late 1800s. According to the historical marker, its namesake, John Williams came to the area in 1855. The town flourished and was most prosperous during the Civil War because of trade with Mexico. By 1874 the town boasted stores, saloons, a hotel, mill and blacksmith shop.
Williams himself died in 1871, and by 1875, Henry Ford and J.M. Parks had purchased most of the surrounding land and platted a townsite, which, they proposed, should be named “Parksford.” But the name Williams Ranch stuck, and was the name the town used when its post office opened in 1877.
Williams Ranch was a stage stop and a roundup point on the Western cattle trail. It claims historically to have had the first hotel, newspaper, telegraph and public school in Brown and Mills counties.
(The town was located in southern Brown County until 1887 when that southern portion of the county was combined with portions of Comanche, Hamilton and Lampasas counties to create Mills County.)
But perhaps one of the Williams Ranch community's most prestigious claims is that it was one of the towns considered as a site for the University of Texas in 1881.
According to the historical marker, Williams Ranch reached its peak of activity in the early 1880s and began to decline when the railroad bypassed it in 1885. Probably further pushing to its demise was an outbreak of mob violence, which, the marker states, was quelled by the Texas Rangers in 1887.
By 1892 the post office and all other businesses had closed. Only the natural springs that had been a lure for the Williams family in the first place and the cemetery remain. On the headstones are engraved the names of the area's pioneers, many familiar and prominent still in Brown and Mills counties – Forsythe, Head, Epley, Chesser and (of course) Williams.
If Williams Ranch was the business and commercial center of the area, Chesser Valley, 5 or 6 miles to the north, was the home of its most prominent settlers. In 1860, George Williams walked with 18-year-old newly married John Dan Chesser to the valley and showed him the section of land he had staked for himself. Williams helped Chesser stake off a section of his own where he and his bride would eventually have a family of 11 children.
At least two different articles – one a story in the November, 1944 issue of “The Cattleman” and the second a late 1950s article in the Brownwood Bulletin – give an account of the fate of one of the first men to be buried at Williams Ranch. The stories quote Mary Chesser (Mrs. Felix) Johnson, the daughter of John Dan and Elizabeth Epley Chesser, who remembered the “bloody Indian raids and the terror of the mob violence” along Chesser Valley, Williams Ranch 5 or 6 miles to the north of Williams Ranch. Johnson told the story that she had been told – since it happened a year or so before she was born – that on May 23, 1863, brothers John and Bill Morris, returning from a trip to Fort Sumpter, N.M., were attacked by Comanche Indians.
The brothers were within 12 miles of their home. Bill escaped, but John Morris was shot and scalped. The Cattleman article relates that Bill Morris arrived “breathless” at the Chesser farmhouse. Elizabeth heard his story of horror, and convinced nothing could be done to save John and that the Comanches would not come so far into the valley, she calmly cooked breakfast, insisting that Bill Morris join John Dan and eat before leaving the house.
After breakfast Morris and Chesser left, found the body of their brother and friend, and brought him back to the ranch, tied onto the “back of one of his own pack animals.” John Dan Chesser then worked most of the night “making a casket for the scalped man.”
But Johnson did remember the tragic accident involving Ellen Williams, the 3-year-old granddaughter of John Williams and the daughter of George and Jackie Williams. The Williams and Chesser families were spending the day together, Sept. 21, 1881, and all who were old enough had gone grape hunting. Little Ellen was too small to go, and she had wandered out onto the porch, snacking on a piece of bread. She stumbled against a long wooden flower box, and fell, breaking her neck on the edge of the porch.
“The Cattleman's” account is that since in the hot September weather, “the dead did not linger long” a prompt burial was in order. Elizabeth Chesser and Mrs. Bud Forsythe sewed all afternoon and through most of the night to make a funeral dress for little Ellen. And, just at dusk, the grape hunters returned “laden with a bumper crop of mustang grapes, themselves purple stained and dirty.”
There was no way to remove the stains on their skin and clothing before the little girl's burial in the Williams Ranch Cemetery.
Little Ellen's grave lies – so says “The Cattleman” article – “not too far from the graves of John Morris, several Indians, the victims of a dozen or more mob murders, and a few children who died peacefully and not by violence.”