The Keller Magazine

Tracing Keller’s Past

Keller author and historian Joyce Gibson Roach displays a 75-year-old quilt at the Wild Rose Heritage Center that was hand-stitched by prominent women of Keller.
Keller author and historian Joyce Gibson Roach displays a 75-year-old quilt at the Wild Rose Heritage Center that was hand-stitched by prominent women of Keller. Star-Telegram

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, in Keller and elsewhere, societal norms maintained that a woman’s place was in the home. Stories about women were largely relegated to recipes and quilting, while building businesses and leading town governments were left to the menfolk.

A few Keller women have stood out as trailblazers — like early settler Parmelia Allen, who, along with her adult children, founded the area’s first church, Mount Gilead Baptist Church. As one of the area’s first settlers, Allen created a homestead about 3 1/2 miles northeast of present-day Old Town Keller and was unique at the time because, as a widow, she could own property.

But women’s fingerprints have left their deepest impressions in the role of history keepers. If not for the diligence of a handful of them, many — and probably most — of the tales of the city’s founding families and early events surely would have been lost.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we visited with local historian Joyce Gibson Roach, a former teacher and 2010 inductee into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame who has devoted a good chunk of her life to sharing the stories of others and writing about small-town Texas and early farm and ranch life.

Roach doesn’t take much joy in talking about herself, but she knows a thing or two about the town’s unheralded historians who worked diligently to enable the community to preserve stories of its past for future generations.

These are the stories she shared.

Martha Ellen Lopp Price

In 1866, almost 20 years after Parmelia Allen and her family settled the nearby town of Double Springs, a young girl named Martha Ellen Lopp Price came to the Keller area. She was 15 and still living with her parents, William and Eliza Baker Lopp. The patriarch had mined gold in California before moving in 1851 to Missouri, then, five years after that, to Texas, living first in Parker County.

As an adult and a mother, Martha Ellen passed down stories to her daughter, who wrote down the facts about life on the Texas frontier.

The family endured Comanche attacks while in Parker County. William Lopp had held off a band of warriors until Rangers arrived, children on a neighboring farm were kidnapped (later recovered by a former slave) and an uncle had been killed north of Weatherford. For better protection, the Lopps moved next to the Army outpost, Fort Worth, for a few years before moving another 15 miles north.

Located in northeast Tarrant County, the Lopp place was five miles west of Mount Gilead Church, near today’s Beach Street. Martha Ellen said the family raised wheat, corn and chickens. They found plenty of wild game in the area: deer, antelope, turkey and prairie chickens. Her mother spun and wove cloth for the family’s clothing.

Popular social activities of the time were quilting bees that ended with evening dances, considered a wholesome pastime in Martha Ellen’s youth. Not long after the Lopps’ arrival in the area, Martha Ellen married David A. Price, who had served in the Union Army during the Civil War — which, according to her father, made him “a damn Yankee.” Fortunately, Mr. Lopp didn’t hold much of a grudge and gifted the newlyweds with farmland just north of Keller. For almost 70 years, the couple lived in a home built from logs cut on the property.

Martha Ellen’s brother, T.A. Lopp, helped bring the railroad to Fort Worth, along with the track that runs along Keller’s western edge. The rails went right through the Lopps’ pasture, and Martha Ellen remembered seeing the first train go by on May 9, 1881, a sight that reportedly filled them “with fear and trembling.”

Lyda Smith White

Born in the Indian Territory on Sept. 22, 1895, years before it became Oklahoma, Lyda Smith White spent most of her adult life in the Keller area, and for much of that time, she collected genealogies, newspaper clippings and stories about early residents.

White came to Keller with husband Hugh in the 1920s. She had met Hugh and brother Ray White while they were students at Arlington Training School (now the University of Texas at Arlington). The couple married in 1918, just before Hugh was sent to France during World War I.

The White family farmland included acreage west of Keller — where Central High School now sits on Ray White Road.

Hugh had trained to become a lawyer, but he preferred ranching and became well-known for developing Polled Herefords, then a new breed of cattle. Lyda was a true home economist. During the Great Depression, she worked for the then-Works Progress Administration, traveling around the area to show people how to make useful items from recycled materials. A dead tree could be used as a coat rack or as the frame of a bed with a mattress supported by strips of rubber from old tires. She could even show how to make a rug using unraveled threads from burlap.

Throughout her life, she loved to teach others about growing and using gourds and the history of tableware, but her driving passion was in gathering recollections and records of the area’s earliest residents.

Sometimes she was joined in her history hunting expeditions by Polly Harmonson, who kept genealogies, wrote about the history of the First Baptist Church and crafted the material about Keller on the historical marker at Bear Creek Park. Roach says that Harmonson was known more for her careful records of births and deaths, while Lyda White focused on preserving stories.

White found a kindred spirit in Roach, who was a young married woman in 1962 when she arrived here with her husband, Claude. The two women shared a front-porch friendship and a penchant for retelling stories of the pioneers who had felled trees in the Cross Timbers to build homes and secured their cattle with prickly barriers of wild roses.

Before White’s death in 1981, she had begun to talk with Roach about the need for creating a formal record-keeping of the community’s history. “...She’d said, ‘Joyce, I was going to write a book with this, but I never got it written,’” Roach says. “’I want you to have these files and write the book.’”

With Lyda White’s collection providing the framework, Roach consulted other local histories and longtime residents to fill in more details. It was a 15-year effort, and in 1996, she published Wild Rose: A Folk History of a Cross Timbers Settlement, Keller, Texas.

Joyce Gibson Roach

From 1976 to 1985, Roach taught Texas history at Keller High School. Often on Fridays, she’d take her class on a walking field trip, from campus at what is now Keller Middle School across what was then two-lane Price Street (now six-lane Keller Parkway). They’d walk to the old part of town along Elm Street and on Bates, Hill or Pecan streets to “get a feel of the past,” Roach says.

More often than not, they’d end up at White’s house on Main Street for a short visit and a leisurely history lesson on her front porch. White would take her gourd dipper and ladle cool water from a metal can into paper cups for the students and tell stories of old time Keller.

Roach would frequently go by the house after school to thank White for the impromptu lessons, and the learning would continue. The older woman would invite her inside to show off her collections. She’d filled the file drawers of a huge, antique oak rolltop desk with hundreds of pages of history, some typed and others written in neat cursive on sheets from yellow legal pads.

“She knew that this was important and nobody else was gathering it up,” Roach says. “Nobody else thought it was important.”

Roach reports that her own interest in history-keeping came from hearing tales from her grandmother about Texas’ pre-Civil War era. Born in Cleburne in 1935, Roach grew up in Jacksboro hearing tales of frontier settlement and playing around the historic buildings at Fort Richardson.

Keller, however, was a slower burn.

“I didn’t get interested in local history until I started teaching,” Roach says. “I didn’t even like Keller that much until I started getting to know my students.”

While Roach found that some longtime Keller residents didn’t warm up easily to newcomers, White was different. She opened her home and her treasured collections to Roach — eventually tasking her with the job of continuing the research and publishing her always-meant-to-write book.

Leaving Keller High for TCU in 1985, Roach specialized in writing about small-town Texas and early farm and ranch life. Over the years, she has won three Spur Awards from Western Writers of America, one of them for The Cowgirls, a book about women in ranching history. Although she retired from TCU in 1997, Roach has continued to write about small-town, rural Texas — both histories and short stories.

In the past few years, she also has worked with Cathie Jackson and Paul and Peggy Harrison to establish the Wild Rose Heritage Center in Old Town Keller. The historic Jarvies House was moved from Main Street to Bates Street in October 2013. A year later, it opened as a community museum and a place to host programs on area history. Roach doesn’t enjoy attention focused on herself and prefers to point to the contributions of other women, but whenever I have a question about Keller history, she’s always my first call.

Like Martha Ellen Lopp Price and Lyda White, Joyce Gibson Roach does her best to preserve tales of the past, for without these women, much of Keller history would be lost.

“It’s the vivid stories that make the past come to life,” Roach says.

History Lessons

Wild Rose, A Folk History of a Cross Timbers Settlement: Keller, Texas by Joyce Gibson Roach is available at www.amazon.com for purchase ($20) and at the Keller Public Library for borrowing.

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