Stories and Characters

Ben Bickerstaff, Outlaw (Died 1869)

Elise Waerenskjold, 1815-1895

Cadwell Walton Raines, 1839-1908

Elbert Gray, 1895-1961

(Read all their stories, below.)

Ben Bickerstaff, Outlaw

In the Hillcrest Cemetery, in the middle of Canton, Texas, is the grave of Elvira Bickerstaff Thompson, a respectable pioneer, wife and mother, who came to Van Zandt County sometime around the 1850s and spent the rest of her life there.  Elvira had a first cousin, however, who was anything but respectable.  Her cousin Ben Bickerstaff made a name for himself as an outlaw in the chaotic days following the Civil War.

Ben Bickerstaff served in the 11th Texas Cavalry of the Confederate Army, and turned outlaw upon his release from the Army in 1865.  He joined up with other outlaws, Cullen Baker, Bob Lee, and Ben Griffin, and preyed on Black Freedmen, Unionists, and Union Army personnel.  

Ben operated out of Titus County, robbing, killing, and harassing individuals who did not share his political views.  He worked with a partner in crime, Joe Thompson.  (It's unclear whether Joe was related to the same Thompson family his cousin Elvira had married into.)  

 

Bickerstaff and Thompson were ambushed and killed in the streets of Alvarado, Texas, on April 5, 1869, by angry citizens, bringing their violent lives to a deservedly violent end.

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Above: Ben Bickerstaff, undated photo, probably post-Civil War.

Below Left: Historical Marker for Bickerstaff and outlaw partner Joe Thompson, in Alvarado, Johnson County, Texas.

This true story comes from the book Stories Beneath the Stones, written by Lawrence O. Greer and Benja Pittman Mize, who are members of the Van Zandt County Historical Commission.  Their book contains a wealth of gripping true accounts of real people in and around Van Zandt County.

Elise Waerenskjold, Farm Wife and Writer.

Elise Waerenskjold, a Norwegian immigrant, temperance leader and writer, arrived in Texas in 1847 and soon settled down in Van Zandt County.  She would spend nearly 50 years---until a few months before her death in 1895—in the county, in the Four Mile Prairie community.  In her quiet but active life, she became a mother, community leader, promoter of Texas as an immigration destination, and a valuable chronicler of the history of early rural Texas and of the Scandinavian immigrant communities in the state.

Elise Amalie Tvede was born in 1815, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor.  Raised in comfortable, cultured but not wealthy circumstances, Elise learned English, French, and German, in addition to her native Norwegian.  Early on, she showed an interest in social justice and the welfare of the poor.  At the age of 19, she took the unusual step for a woman of that time of opening a school. Later, she went to work as an editor of Norge og Amerika [Norway and America], a magazine promoting emigration to the United States.  She took the even more unusual step in her late 20s of divorcing her first husband, after a marriage lasting three years, based, as she stressed later in life, simply on “incompatibility.” They remained friends and corresponded occasionally.

At age 32, divorced and with no living parents or siblings, Elise decided to leave Norway and settle in America. She emigrated with a group of Norwegians bound for Texas, and arrived in October, 1847.  Soon after, she married Wilhelm Waerenskjold, one of the other Norwegian passengers on the trip. They got rights to a square mile of land and started a farm, in the Four Mile Prairie area of Van Zandt County.  The couple had three children, all boys, two of which lived to adulthood.

Life at Four Mile was good for many years, with the Waerenskjold family an active part of the community.  Elise and her husband were active in the temperance movement---Elise was relieved her husband had no tendency to drink.  They also often hosted church services in their house before a church building was constructed. Their house was also a frequent stopover for immigrants newly arrived in the country. Elise was active in promoting the education of the local children, including her own.

Farming was still hard work, and tragedy struck regularly, with rising and falling crop prices, crop failures, and frequent diseases.  The family, like the whole South, suffered financial setbacks as a result of the Civil War.  While Wilhelm and Elise did not support slavery and owned no slaves, Wilhelm fought for the Confederacy out of a sense of duty.  Elise rejoiced that her sons were too young to fight for a cause she didn’t believe in.  In 1866 came further heartbreak: The Waerenskjold’s youngest son died at age 8.  Several months later, Wilhelm, Elise’s husband, was murdered. The killer was not caught for eight years, and was convicted only of second-degree murder, receiving 10 years hard labor in the penitentiary. Elise was bitter that the punishment was so light. Later she wrote of the tendency of men on the frontier to resort to lethal violence during quarrels.

Throughout her long life, Elise Waerenskjold wrote, mostly letters to friends, but also many articles and letters to the editor of newspapers and periodicals.  Her favorite subject was the Scandinavian immigrant communities of Texas, and the superiority of Texas as a destination for immigrants.  She was a relentless Texas booster.  She contributed valuable information to the historical record regarding life in early Texas.  In her later years, with her children grown and one of them settled in Central Texas, Elise spent part of every year traveling to the various Scandinavian communities in Texas, carrying news and staying with her many friends.  She died at the home of her son Otto in Hamilton, Texas, in 1895, at the age of 79. Her collected letters and other writings have been published in two books: The Lady With the Pen: Elise Waerenskjold in Texas in 1961, and Light On the Prairie: New Writings of Elise Waerenskjold in 2016.

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Clausen, C.A., ed. The Lady With the Pen: Elise Waerenskjold in Texas, Northfield, Minnesota: Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1961, p. v.

Lorraine Barnes, “Lady With a Pen,” The Texas Star, January 30, 1972: 9.

Clausen, The Lady With the Pen, 156-157.

Ibid, 13.

Barnes, “Lady With a Pen, 9.

Clausen, The Lady With the Pen, 57-60.

Ibid, 14-17.

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Left: Elise Waerenskjold, around 1855.

Above: The Waerenskjold house at Four Mile Prairie, Van Zandt County. (Reproduced from the book The Lady With the Pen.)

Right: Wilhelm Waerenskjold, Elise's husband, around 1855.

Cadwell Walton Raines, 1839-1906: Soldier, Judge, Historian

Van Zandt County lawyer and Judge Cadwell Walton Raines had an eventful life, but his most valuable contribution was as a preserver of the history of the State of Texas.

Born in Georgia, Raines came to Texas in the 1850s with his parents, and lived in Rockwall and Paris.  He attended Princeton University, completing his junior year, then returned to Texas.  Although opposed to secession, he enlisted in the Confederate army in 1861 under Richard Montgomery Gano.  Raines had been offered an officer's commission, but refused it, saying he did not wish to lead men into battle, although he was prepared to fight.  He therefore enlisted as a private.  His war service was eventful: He was twice captured, but managed to escape.  He was also twice wounded and reported dead.

Following the war, Raines tried a variety of ventures, serving as a Methodist preacher in Arkansas and as a teacher in New Braunfels, Texas,  He practiced law in Canton, and served as Van Zandt County Judge from 1876-1878. 

During his tenure as Van Zandt County Judge, Raines was involved in the notorious County Seat War between Wills Point and Canton. Residents of Wills Point had argued that the county seat should be moved from Canton to their town, as Wills Point was serviced by the railway and Canton was not.  A referendum vote was held, and the votes came out supporting Wills Point.  After the county government records were moved to Wills Point in 1977, a group of Canton citizens marched, armed, on Wills Point to retrieve the documents. During the standoff, Judge Raines stated his opinion on the matter: "I helped count those votes. The election was fair and the records have been removed according to the law.  We take the law in one hand and the shot-gun in the other and in the name of the law we will defend the action of moving the records to Wills Point."  Fortunately, bloodshed was avoided.  In the end, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of Canton, as specific legislation had directed that Canton be the county seat of Van Zandt.

Judge Raines was also a newspaperman, publishing newspapers in Wills Point, Mineola, and Quitman. He eventually moved to Wood County and served as Wood County Judge, 1886-1890.

He had become acquainted with future governor James Stephen Hogg and was appointed by newly-elected Governor Hogg as State Librarian in 1891.  At the time, the State Library had hardly recovered from a devastating State Capitol fire in 1881. Governor Hogg made sure the Library had adequate funds to rebuild.  Raines served as State Librarian 1891 to 1895 and again from 1899 until his death in 1906, Raines led the state library through a substantial period of growth and began its Texana collection. The modern Texas State Library and Archives owes much to C.W. Raines.

Raines was a historian himself, writing many respected reference books and journal articles, and was a co-founder of the Texas State Historical Association.  He married twice: First to Mary Bowden of Nashville, Tennessee, in 1861, and then, upon her death, to Isabella Mason of Amarillo, in 1901.  He had four children.  He died in 1906, and is buried in Round Rock.

Historical markers on C.W. Raines are located both in Canton (Courthouse lawn) and in Mineola.

For those interested in viewing portraits of Van Zandt County Judges, the hallway of the courthouse in Canton has pictures of most of the Judges, including Raines, placed there by the Van Zandt County Historical Commission.

(Below: Left, Portrait of C.W. Raines, circa 1970; Right, Raines and his wife in the Texas State Library, 1890s.)

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Saving the Boy in the Well

Elbert Gray, 1895-1961

On February 5, 1912, a 2-year-old boy fell 60 feet down a well, landing in 18 inches of water.  Unhurt, young Calvin Stepp was still in trouble.  The partially-bored well had been abandoned after the diggers hit solid rock, with the sides of the chute only 13 inches wide.  There was no adult – not even the child’s frantic mother -- thin enough to be lowered down the well to grab him.  He was too young to grasp a rope, too slippery with mud for rescuers’ lowered hooks to catch hold of him.  Terrified, Calvin was standing in cold water, in a dark tunnel, calling for help. 

And help came, in the person of Elbert Gray. 

Gray, just 16 years old himself, heard the news of the little boy in the well, as he milled about with other shoppers at the First Monday market in Canton.  A call went out for any adult who might be small enough to be lowered into the well.  Gray, who was known as a “nervy” young man, was also quite small and thin – 4-feet-six and 90 pounds.  He immediately volunteered, although no mention was made of any reward.

Gray went by buggy the 3 miles outside Canton, to the farm where the drama was playing out.  Men looped a rope under his arms and lowered Gray feet-first to the bottom of the well. Although the teenager fit, it was a near thing – Gray was scraping the sides.  The bottom of the pit was pitch dark, but when he got to the bottom, he grabbed the frightened boy and called to be raised.  Unfortunately, both victim and rescuer were by then cold, damp and slippery, and partway up, Gray lost hold of Calvin, who fell to the bottom again.  The boy cried for his grandfather: This at least reassured the rescuers that he was still alive.

Gray was pulled to the surface.  His arms and face were scratched and bleeding, but he asked to be lowered down again, this time head-first with a rope tied around his ankles.  Several in the rescue group advised him that this was dangerous, but he maintained he wanted to try it. 

So Elbert Gray went down the well again, this time head-first, holding a rope in his hands. He asked the men lowering him to do so quickly, so he would have less chance of passing out.  As he went down into the darkness toward the crying boy, he called out, “All right, Calvin. Grandpa is coming.” Now in a better position to help the child, Elbert tied the rope around Calvin.  Both were then pulled to the surface.

Calvin, miraculously, was totally unhurt, and Elbert Gray was only scratched.  Both were undoubtedly cold from the ordeal.

The community collected money as a reward to the heroic 16-year-old: $50, which would be roughly $1000 today.  Word of the rescue made it to the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, which awarded a Carnegie Hero medal to Elbert Gray in 1913.  He and little Calvin Stepp would keep up with one another periodically for the rest of their lives.  Gray died in 1961; Stepp in 1984.  Gray spent his whole life in Van Zandt County.

One hundred years after the harrowing incident, the Van Zandt County Historical Commission applied for a historical marker to commemorate Elbert Gray’s selfless act.  The Texas Historical Commission agreed the story merited recognition.  The Elbert Gray Historical marker was unveiled on December 8, 2012, with Commission members, local officials, and – most importantly – relatives of Gray and Stepp in attendance.

The Elbert Gray Historical Marker can be viewed at its location in Greenwood Cemetery, grave site of Elbert Gray, close to Wills Point.

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Elbert Gray in 1913

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Calvin Stepp in 1913

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Elbert and Calvin as adults

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Above: Elbert Gray Gravestone Left: Gray Historical Marker