A BRIEF HISTORY OF FORNEY, TEXAS
By Jerry M. Flook*
Forney, Kaufman County, Texas, is situated on black clay prairies drained by the East Fork of the Trinity River. It lies within a region of the state called the “Three Forks of the Trinity” when exploration by the white man began here in the late 1830s. Prior to that time these blackland prairies were occupied mainly by herds of bison and Spanish horses, or mustangs. These animals have lent their names to the two creeks running through town-Big Buffalo Creek and Mustang Creek. The grasslands were also the favored hunting grounds of several groups of Indians. By the mid-1840s two important roads had been marked out through the area-the Dallas-Kaufman Road and the Bonham-Buffalo Road-and intersected at a point near where Forney would eventually be established.
The first settlers in the area of present-day Forney did not began to arrive until about 1846, well after the Indians had been pushed west of Fort Worth. By that time much of the land had already been granted in large “league and labor” tracts to citizens of the Republic of Texas, most of whom never saw, much less lived upon, that land. The land that was not thus taken was available as headrights, 320 acres for single men and 640 acres for married men, provided they built a cabin and improved a small portion of the land. Settlement remained sparse along the East Fork until the end of the Civil War, but what families there were tended to concentrate along the two early roads just described.
The end of the war brought many changes to the area, including a steadily increasing influx of settlers, many from the war-torn South. It also brought a renewed effort to complete construction of the east-west railroad between Marshall and Ft. Worth, which had been stalled by the war. Apparently two land speculators of Ellis County surmised that the rail line would pass through the country near the intersection of these two Kaufman County roads and that there was money to be made by developing a town here. So Asa R. Newton and Harben H. Self in 1869 purchased a tract of land at this place and platted a town which Self named “Brooklin” or “Brooklyn.” Soon Brooklyn would boast a general store, a saloon, a blacksmith shop, and a church/school house/Masonic lodge hall building. However, by 1872 it was clear that the route of the new railroad (the Texas & Pacific) would miss Brooklyn, bypassing it about a mile to the north. In 1873 the T & P platted its own town where the rail line crossed the old Bonham-Buffalo Road (today called Bois d’Arc Street) and named it Brooklyn for the nearby village it was supplanting.
Almost immediately leaders of the new rail town encountered a complication when they applied for a U.S. post office. They were informed that the name “Brooklyn, Texas” was unavailable since there was already a post office with that name. In order not to have the untenable situation of the town having one name and its post office another, Brooklyn’s leaders were faced with having to ask the railroad company to change the town’s name. To make this more acceptable to the railroad, they suggested that the new name should honor John W. Forney, political figure, diplomat, nationally known journalist, and director of the T & P Railway Co. The railroad agreed, and the names of the town and its post office officially were one-Forney, Texas.
Forney in the 1870s and early 1880s was known far and wide as a hard drinking, hard gambling, and hard brawling frontier settlement, despite the best efforts of the town fathers to build a progressive, respectable, and law-abiding town. Several tales of those rough-and-tumble days survive and are the stuff of Hollywood wild-west scenes.
Before the coming of the railroad the economy of the area had been primarily subsistence agriculture and cattle raising. After 1873 access to distant markets provided by rail transportation stimulated rapid economic growth for Forney. In the late 1870s and early 1880s, before the fencing of the open prairies, Forney’s economy turned to the production of bois d’arc wood products and native prairie hay. Bois d’arc trees grew in abundance along the creeks, and the rot-resistant wood was made into bridge timbers, foundation piers, fence posts and paving blocks. Several streets of early Dallas were paved with Forney bois d’arc. But it was its native blackland prairie hay that brought Forney its first real fame.
The natural vegetation of the prairies on which Forney was built was primarily a mixture of tall grasses, which made especially nutritious and clean hay. At first the hay was often free for the cutting on the unfenced prairie, but soon large meadows were fenced off by their owners, and a thriving economy grew around the production and marketing of Forney Blackland Prairie Hay. Huge hay warehouses were built along both sides of the railroad in town, and local hay producers and hay merchants prospered. Forney Hay became famous nationwide.
Even as hay reached its ascendancy, cotton was becoming an increasingly lucrative crop around Forney. Gradually less and less hay was produced as more and more meadows were plowed up for cotton planting. By the second decade of the 20th century cotton had become king of the Forney economy. At that time there were at least six cotton gins operating in town and several more in the surrounding countryside, and 15,000 to 20,000 bales of cotton were exported annually by rail. A cottonseed oil mill was erected by Forney investors in 1910.
The wealth which hay and cotton brought to Forney around the turn of the century built many fine homes and churches, good schools, including the widely respected Lewis Academy, and a thriving downtown business district. A surprising number of the now-historic residences still survive, as do most of the business houses. These landmarks are now among the town’s most significant resources.
About 1914, with the growing popularity of the automobile, Forney found itself on the route of the new Dixie Overland Highway, promoted as the shortest, straightest, and only year-round ocean-to-ocean highway in the U.S. Then in 1931 the DOH route was further upgraded as U.S. Highway 80, bringing an even more dramatic increase in traffic and its associated commerce. Filling stations and cafés sprang up all along the route (now called Broad Street). What had once been “Gin Row” became “Filling Station Row.”
It was not, however, only the new highway that brought about the change in “Gin Row.” The decline of the cotton economy, beginning in the early 1920s and accelerated by the Great Depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s, struck Forney a heavy blow. The Texas Interurban Railway, a light rail commuter line completed through Forney in 1923, folded in 1932. Then in 1935 a tornado cut a swath of destruction through the business district and the east side of town, killing one, injuring several, and wrecking much property, including the cottonseed oil mill. The mill was closed down later that year, and one by one the gins themselves eventually went out of business, as fewer and fewer acres were planted in cotton. A mass migration of young people from the family farm to the big city drained away much of the community’s vitality and talent. By the end of World War II the town had ground to a virtual standstill.
After an extended slumber, Forney started to reawaken in the 1960s. The city joined the North Texas Municipal Water District, providing a higher quality and more dependable water supply. About this same time an antiques industry sprang up along IH-20 on the outskirts of town, and it is now its antiques that Forney is most widely known for. Also in the 1960s the general population growth of the Metroplex began to bring renewed residential construction to Forney and with it an economic shot-in-the-arm. Initially this revival was slow, but by 1990 the population surpassed 5,000, enabling Forney to lay claim to the advantages of being a home-rule city. New residences, schools, churches, and parks are now being added on every hand, and retail development is following.
The trains still pass through town as they did in 1873, but they no longer stop. The route of busy U.S. Highway 80 no longer runs down Broad Street. Virtually no cotton and only a little hay, corn, soybeans and small grain is grown in the surrounding countryside, and none is marketed in town. The last remaining cotton gin, which ceased operation about 1983, is now retail. But today, although Forney is marching into the future with a new and different economy, it nevertheless looks back with nostalgia on the old and takes pride in its heritage.
*Jerry Flook is the Author of Forney Country: A History of Northwestern Kaufman County, Texas (Forney Historic Preservation League, 1998). Find out more here.