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FREER, TX

FREER, TEXAS. Freer is at the intersection of U.S. Highway 59 and State highways 16, 44, and 339, twenty-four miles northwest of San Diego and twenty-three miles northwest of Benavides in northwestern Duval County. It is the second largest town in the county. The area was originally called Las Hermanitas ("the Sisters"), for two hills south of the present townsite, and then became known as Government Wells, for a water well dug by United States Cavalry troops in 1876 on the property of A. J. Wiederkehr, north of the site of present Freer. When Norman G. Collins, who moved to Duval County in 1867 and later became the county's leading sheep rancher, bought 35,000 acres, the future townsite became part of his Rancho Americano. The German immigrant William Hubberd became one of the first settlers at Government Wells when he arrived to manage Collins's ranch; Hubberd bought his own land in 1876. Among the first settlers in the area may have been the brothers Paul and Joe White, who around 1900 settled in the valley of Rosita Creek, near the site of future Freer, to dig water wells for the local ranchers. Others followed them, including Harry and Arthur Lundell in 1905 and August H. Kramer in 1908. Jot Gunter also owned several thousand acres in the Government Wells area; in April 1904 the San Diego rancher Doss Seago had made a homestead application on the section of land that included the future townsite; in July 1905 he sold it to Encarnacion Rodriguez, who sold it in 1907 to Roxana Gunter. Five years later she sold twenty sections of land, including the site of future Freer, to a Houston real-estate promoter named C. W. Hahl.

Hahl advertised his land for sale in newspapers throughout the southwest and set up a sales office in San Diego with J. M. Momeny, who was later the superintendent of schools in Benavides, as manager. Hahl sold the land in eighty-acre sections for a dollar down per acre and fifteen dollars per acre with fourteen years to pay; to entice potential buyers, he reportedly hung apples on the mesquite trees. The first family on Hahl's Rosita Valley Rancho was the John W. Riley family, who arrived from Binger, Oklahoma, in April 1916. The Rileys pitched a tent three-fourths of a mile west of the current townsite. Several other settlers arrived the next year, including J. A. Powers, who built the first house on the site in 1917 but who left the Rosita valley three years later; William Patton Norton; and Daniel J. Freer. In 1917 Riley, Powers, and John Short built a one-room schoolhouse; nine pupils attended that first school in the Freer area. Virgil Guffey, another settler, was the teacher. The Daniel J. Freer family had been neighbors of the Rileys in Binger and came to visit them in Duval County. Daniel Freer liked the area so much that he took out an option on 160 acres adjoining the Riley property, but did not pay until his son Charles had looked the place over thoroughly. J. T. Johnson and his brother-in-law George Pricer arrived in 1919 and bought adjoining properties on which they built two-room houses, but they did not bring their families. In 1925 Johnson bought out Pricer and brought his family to the Rosita valley. That same year he and Charles Freer sent in an application for a post office. They submitted three names; Riley, Wendt, and Freer. Since the first two were already in use in Texas, Freer was selected. The first postmaster was Minnie Freer, wife of Charles Freer.

The single most important event in the history of Freer occurred three years later, in 1928. Three wildcatters drilling on the W. P. Norton property just southwest of what is now the Freer townsite struck one of the nation's largest oil reserves. The discovery of oil soon turned Freer into what Life magazine called "the last of the tough frontier oil towns." Shortly after the discovery of oil, Hahl sold the section of land on which the town would rise to D. L. Tipton, who laid out a townsite with lots fronting north and south. Tipton sold the property in January 1929 to A. H. (Big Boy) Compton, who had built a two-story hotel, a cafe, and a barbershop nearby in 1927. On December 20, 1930, Charles Freer bought the townsite from Compton and laid it out with lots fronting east and west. The town grew rapidly thereafter. The Great Depression and the discovery of oil in East Texas (see EAST TEXAS OILFIELD) in 1930 put an end to the first oil boom in Freer, but when the Heller-Suttle Number One well came in during the spring of 1932 it set off a second, even bigger, boom. By 1933 Freer was the second-largest oilfield in the United States and had attracted a flood of settlers from Oklahoma, Kansas, and other midwestern states.

The 1930s were a decade of phenomenal growth in Freer. The town had two businesses in 1931, but by the spring of 1933, when a fire that started in the Bluebonnet Cafe on Main Street came close to destroying the town, it had five cafes, four grocery stores, three drugstores, two each of meat markets, filling stations, pool halls, barbershops, and rooming houses, and one cleaner, one dance hall, one dry goods store, and some tourist cottages. The fire merely provided the citizens of Freer with an opportunity to display their resilience. In 1933 C. L. Day established the weekly Freer Enterprise, which ceased publication in 1972, and in 1934 the first chamber of commerce was founded. By 1936, when the community's population was estimated at 1,200, Freer had sixty businesses and was incorporated for a time. Two years later both the population and the number of businesses had doubled. The town quickly attracted a colorful cast of prostitutes, gamblers, drifters, and drunks, and a certain boomtown raffishness prevailed. At this time Freer had no jail, so the town constable used to chain drunks to the nearest telephone pole overnight. "Dr." B. F. Floyd, who had served as the first president of the chamber of commerce, later proved to be a pharmacist masquerading as a physician. He was arrested by federal agents but skipped his bail and disappeared.

Freer's main streets were not paved until 1938, which meant that when it rained, the trucks carrying bread and milk from Alice and San Diego could not reach the town. The town also had no potable water, no sewage system, and no bank, despite a monthly payroll estimated at $500,000. Not surprisingly, outsiders tended to sneer at Freer. In January 1938 Life headlined a two-page spread on the town with a reference to its "Squat[ting] in the Mud of Texas" and implied that vice ran rampant in Freer. The accompanying photographs emphasized the town's more squalid and ramshackle aspects. Yet such attacks only drew the residents of the town closer together. In 1975, when the town celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, a booklet put out to commemorate the occasion included several poems by Freer residents that acknowledged the town's lack of physical beauty but praised its warmth and unity. The town has continued to depend on the petroleum industry for much of its prosperity. Beginning in the mid-1950s a number of major petrochemical corporations, including at various times Coastal States, Exxon, Goliad Corporation, Mobil Oil, Phillips Petroleum, Texas Eastern, and Valero, have had plants in Freer. In 1990 Valero Hydrocarbons was still operating a small plant at Freer producing butane, propane, and natural gas. The estimated population of Freer had declined to 2,280 by the mid-1950s, but by the early 1960s it had begun a gradual increase that continued into the late 1980s, when the town had 3,735 residents and 103 businesses. In 1990 Freer reported 3,271 residents and 3,241 in 2000.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Dorothy Abbott McCoy, Oil, Mud, and Guts (Brownsville, Texas, 1977).

Martin Donell Kohout

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Martin Donell Kohout, "FREER, TX," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hgf06), accessed September 18, 2014. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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