Central Texas Storybooks

Central Texas Stories and Legends

Thomas H. Jones Mill
Landowner Turned Millwright
(1869-1883)

After enduring four years of Civil War and five years of harsh reconstruction policies, Texas, in 1870 was once again admitted to the Union.1 It would be another four years, however, before reconstruction was over and the control of Texas was restored to the people of Texas.

Meanwhile, the population of Bell County was growing. After the war there had been a steady flow of immigrants into Texas from the more poverty-stricken states of the South and many of those people came to Bell County to start over where good land was affordable and plentiful. One of those talented folks who settled in Salado was Col. Thomas H. Jones. Col. Jones was a man of many accomplishments and many firsts.

Col. Jones came to Texas in 1846, one year after the annexation of Texas, and settled on the Colorado River near Austin where he in engaged in farming.2 In addition to farming, Col. Jones was a contractor who was involved with the early building interests of Austin. He built the first stone courthouse; was a sub-contractor for the construction of the old State Capitol; and he also erected the Sampson Hendrix building, which stands today as the oldest structure on Congress Avenue and is one of Austin's premiere office buildings. Jones was one of five committee members to oversee the construction of the First Presbyterian Church of Austin City in 1851, according to the Austin American-Statesman in a 50th anniversary article on the church.

Jones operated a ferry on the Colorado River in 1851 in Austin. He was also, in 1856, one of the original trustees of the Austin Collegiate Female Institute, a boarding school for girls that closed in 1888. Later, he was a Patron of the Wesleyan Female Institute in Staunton, Virginia.

Col. Jones was one of the first landowners in the Salado area, and when Salado incorporated in 1867 for the purpose of building a footbridge across Salado Creek, Col. Jones became the town's first treasurer. Col. Jones was also one of five men who designed, engineered, and constructed this wire cable suspension footbridge; the first bridge of any kind to be built in Bell County.3

While living in Austin, Jones developed a friendship with Col. E.S.C Robertson, the energy push behind the founding of Salado College and, subsequently, the village of Salado. Their friendship developed into a partnership when the Jones family moved from Austin to Salado in 1867 so Col. Jones could pursue his interest in milling.

Wooden screw cotton press
A wooden screw press used for making cotton bales in Georgia, c. 1890.

In 1869, Col. Jones and Col. Robertson built a gristmill and mill race on 227½ acres on the right side of Salado Creek.4 After 1870 when cotton became an important agricultural crop in Central Texas, Col. Jones added another first to his list of firsts. He was the first of the Salado millers to add a water powered cotton gin to his mill, utilizing a wooden screw press.

When the teamsters arrived in Salado from Houston with their wagon load of new equipment, they put up an argument when Col. Jones told them his mill was about a mile downstream. The driver said that the contract called for unloading at the city limits. Col. Jones, of course, wanted the equipment unloaded at the mill site, so he courteously told the driver, "Go ahead and take the equipment to the city limits and unload it."5

The teamsters paused, looked at each other with a puzzled look and then proceeded to the mill site where they unloaded the equipment. Even though Salado had been incorporated as a town, few people, including the locals, certainly no one from Houston, knew where the city limits were.

Prior to the wooden screw press, gins had holes in the floor of lofts where lint was hand stuffed or stomped into sacks hanging through the holes. This formed a sack or bale of cotton. The wooden screw press was a screw looking device used to compress the cotton into wooden frames to form a bale. The screw press was slowly turned by hand or mules and was usually set up outside the mill itself. Although a wooden screw press seems crude in comparison with modern gins, that old wooden screw press was a great step forward at that time.

One of the hazards of ginning cotton is the ever-present danger of fire. The two things required to cause a fire are readily available - air and a combustible material. Fire can "flash" across cotton very quickly, especially when hit with a blast of air. The Austin American-Statesman reported on October 24, 1873: "From the Belton Journal we learn of the burning of Col. Tho. H. Jones's gin, a few miles from Salado," with the loss of 75 bales of cotton.

Col. Jones was one of the earliest members of Salado Masonic Lodge #296. He was the third Master of the Lodge following Col. Robertson and fellow miller W.A. Davis.6

In 1868 Jones became involved in what could have been a history changing event in Salado. The Cumberland Presbyterian Church let it be known that they were looking for a suitable site on which to establish a university.

Col. Jones headed a group of 80 Salado College stockholders who drew up a resolution to offer the Salado College building and grounds to the Presbyterians. Jones and other supporters of the resolution thought it would benefit both the village of Salado and Presbyterians to have the Cumberland Presbyterian University located in Salado.

There was one opposing voice to this resolution - the voice of the original donor of the land, Col. Elijah Sterling Clack Robertson. Robertson pointed to a college charter provision prohibiting the institution from becoming sectarian. Upon hearing Robertson's arguments, Col. Jones immediately withdrew his resolution agreeing that the charter should be honored. Furthermore, he used his influence to change the minds of all but a few of those who had favored offering the site to the Presbyterians. With this issue resolved, the Board of Trustees moved quickly to enlarge the college building to accommodate the ever-increasing enrollment.7

Site of the T. H. Jones Mill
A Salado Historical Society Landmark Award marks the remains of Col. Thomas H. Jones Mill. Photographed on February 14, 2015.

The Thomas H. Jones Mill was in operation until Col. Jones's death in 1883, at the age of 67.8 It was located on what is now a part of the Salado Mill Creek golf course near the old Hole 9. A portion of the original rock wall and a sprocket remain at the site. The Salado Historical Society designated the site with a Salado Landmark Award in 1986.

Col. Jones married the former Maria Van Zandt, daughter of Jacob Van Zandt and Mary (Isaac) Van Zandt. Their ten children were Linton Jones, Olivia O Neal Jones, Emily Eliza Jones, Rufus Rutillius Jones, Isaac Van Zandt Jones, Mary Ann Jones, Lucy Cook Jones, Khebler Jones, Thomas Henry Jones, and Mary Louisa Jones. Maria Van Zandt Jones was born in 1822 and died in July 1863.9

Maria Van Zandt Jones's brother, Isaac Van Zandt, was a Representative from the Republic of Texas to the American Congress and at the time of his death in 1847, was a candidate for Governor of Texas. Van Zandt County in northeastern Texas was named in his honor.10

Thomas H. Jones died at 7:35 a.m. on February 28, 1883 at his son-in-law's home in Austin. The Austin American Statesman of March 1, 1883 printed the following obituary.

Obituary
Died, Wednesday, February 28, at 7:35 a. m., at the residence of his son-in-law, Mr. Walter Caldwell, in this city, Thomas H. Jones, Esq., of Bell County, Texas.

The deceased was a native of Halifax county, North Carolina, but was chiefly reared in Tennessee. From the last-named state he moved to Texas in 1846, and settled as a farmer on the Colorado river, a few miles below Austin. There, widely known for his probity, public spirit, beneficence and enterprise, he resided about twenty years, and thence he moved to Bell county. During his residence in Travis county, scarcely any public enterprise was originated in or around Austin, dependent on private liberality for its successful establishment, that did not receive at his hands a generous benefaction. To Bell county he carried the same fibered spirit, and the churches and educational interests of his new home were large beneficiaries of his open-hearted munificence.

For several years his health had been in a declining condition, and during the last few months of his life his suffering was intense and acute. Few are called upon to bear such physical anguish as fell to his lot, and rarely, when it does befall them, do they sustain it with as much patience and fortitude as he did. As husband, father, friend, citizen and master of servants he was a bright exemplar of the virtues that should adorn each several relation, and from a personal and intimate knowledge of the lamented dead, extending over a space of more than forty years, the writer can justly say of him, that he was the peer of earth's noblest and best in all that constitutes true and lofty manhood.

For the last two years of his life the consolations of the gospel were his, and only a few days before his departure, no longer able to articulate distinctly, he whispered in the ear of a friend, "I have no further hope of this life, but of the life to come I have a strong hope, based only on the infinite love of God in Christ to lost sinners."

He has left a widow, who was his second wife, four children of his first marriage and one sister, besides a wide circle of remoter kindred and very many friends, to mourn him gone and wish in vain for

"The grasp of vanished hand
And sound of voice forever still."
J. H. H.

Thomas H. Jones
June 21, 1816 - February 28, 1883
Burial: Oakwood Cemetery, Austin, Texas.

By Charlene Ochsner Carson
Page last updated: February 21, 2019

Footnotes:

  1Tyler, George W., History of Bell County, edited by Charles William Ramsdell, Ph.D., The Naylor Company, San Antonio, 1936, p. 244.
  2Bell County Reprinted Biographies, Central Texas Histories and Biographies, Volume V, Newhouse Publications, Honey Grove, p. 78.
  3Tyler, History of Bell County, p. 286.
  4Kelsey, Michael W., Nancy Graff Kelsey, Ginn Guinn Parsons, Empresario's Son: E.S.C Robertson of Salado, Prairie Queen Publication, Belton, 2017, p. 242.
  5Bowmer, Martha, Bell County Revisited, An informal, pictorial history of Bell County, Temple, 1976, p. 317.
  6"Masters of Salado Lodge, 1867 - 1985" Salado Lodge #296 A.F. & A.M.
  7Tyler, History of Bell County, p. 358.
  8"Obituary, Thomas H. Jones," Austin American-Statesman, March 1, 1883.
  9"Thomas Henry Jones," Ancestry.com.
  10Bell County Reprinted Biographies, p. 78.
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