Belton Texas ~ A Historical Perspective
Lena Armstrong, City Librarian for 54 years and the unofficial historian of Belton, wrote the following synopsis of Belton’s history. She penned a longer version of Belton history, included in the two-volume edition of “The Story of Bell County” published in 1988 by the Bell County Historical Commission. Lena retired from the City in December of 1998, and subsequently passed away in January of 1999. She is fondly remembered and sorely missed.
In August 1850, the new pioneer town of Belton (first named Nolandville that was changed to Belton in 1851) was laid out in blocks, streets, and lots with the courthouse public square the center. It was designated County seat for the newly organized Bell County. Incorporated in 1852, it was the only town in the County and was the last place of civilization seen by the pioneers heading West by horseback or wagon train.
Within a month after lots were sold, a post office was established and mail was arriving by horseback. But in 1852, a stagecoach route beginning in Tennessee and ending in Brownsville was stopping weekly in Belton to deliver mail, new arrivals and freight. By now, the first courthouse was in use, a log cabin placed high on blocks as safeguard from devastating floods, provided all too frequently by Nolan Creek running very near the public square. In 1853, a two-story log jail was built followed by a school, hotel, church, saloons, stores and other businesses. Most were log buildings or pole shacks, but with a new surge of people, more permanent buildings were built. Stores were erected using native stone and were two-story with the business on the first floor, family quarters on the second. A number of these stores have survived and are still in use. The A.D. Potts building, built in the late 1860’s, not only is still in use but is still owned by the Potts family.
Just prior to the Civil War, Sam Houston stumped the State, urging people to not vote for secession. He made two speeches in downtown Belton, but his talks were not well received. He was booed so loudly on one occasion, he took out his two pistols, laid them on the goods box he was using for a podium, and dared anyone to interrupt him. They did not.
In 1858, the County commissioners built a new courthouse, spending $14,000 for a two-story limestone building replacing the first courthouse which had become completely inadequate for the population the County now served. Bellcountians so opposed the new edifice, they voted out of office every commissioner, replacing them with more conservative men. It was 26 years before a third (and last) courthouse was approved and built.
Over a thousand Bell County and Belton men joined the Confederate Army and Belton women did their part by meeting daily at the courthouse to sew clothing for the soldiers. There was only one sewing machine in Belton, and it saw constant use. As the War progressed, the effects of the War were felt strongly. Supplies and inventories, as well as currency dwindled and many stores were forced to close. War’s end, and defeat, saw all elected officials from the Governor to Mayors replaced with Union appointees. Federal troops patrolled the streets of Belton giving little protection to the citizens and their property. Outlaws roamed the area stealing, assaulting and killing to such an extent that Belton men decided to do something. In the dark of the night, bands of horsemen arrived at the County jail (still standing) where ten prisoners were jailed. The horsemen dismounted, moved into the jail and shot nine men to death. It is said that for decades after, outlaws rode wide around Belton. Sam Bass, on his way to rob a bank, refused to enter Belton, saying “Those Belton men are too tough for me”.
The 1870’s saw a boom with building, new businesses and new enterprises. A Belton group organized the Belton Telegraph company that was chartered and extended to Round Rock where it joined Western Union. The telegraph provided daily quotes of the cotton market, necessary for an area where cotton was King. The 1870’s also saw the formation of the now famous Belton Woman’s Commonwealth, a loosely organized group that in retrospect seems more a battered wives’ refuge than a utopian commune.
Belton met its first setback in 1881 when the City fathers, after meeting the demands of Santa Fe railroad representatives and putting up $75,000, found themselves duped out of a railroad in Belton. They sued, but the company built their own town that they named Temple. After many years, the Supreme Court finally ended the case in favor of Belton. Meanwhile, they contracted with the M.K. & T. and by 1882, the Katy’s depot was built a block from the courthouse. In the interim, Belton went “modern” with a water system and mains throughout town, an electric and telephone companies, a fire department, lumber yard, flour mill, plus newspapers, and banks. There was also a brand new college – Baylor Female College, now the University of Mary Hardin Baylor. Two beautiful parks, still maintained by the City of Belton, were acquired during these decades: the Confederate Park, donated to the City by citizens honoring the ex-Confederate Veterans; and the Yettie Tobler Polk Park, commemorating Mrs. Polk and her four children who drowned in a devastating flood that inundated Belton in 1913.
Belton got into severe financial difficulties before the Great Depression, but managed to work its way out by the 1970’s. World War II and the arrival of Fort Hood to the County brought economic relief and a surge of growth. Two large lakes built during this time provide tourist attractions and IH-35 makes Belton attractive to industries and businesses.