BURNING BUSH COLONY
BURNING BUSH COLONY. The Burning Bush Colony was a short-lived Methodist settlement on the Smith-Cherokee county line just south of Bullard, near the site of present Bullard High School. The colony was a project of the Society of the Burning Bush, a splinter group of Free Methodists who broke away from the Methodist Church in 1900 and organized the Metropolitan Church Association. The movement, commonly known as the Burning Bush, was headquartered in Waukesha, Wisconsin, just outside Milwaukee. Fervently evangelistic, the movement grew quickly during its first decade. The group was heavily subsidized by two wealthy members, Duke M. Farson, a bond broker from Chicago, and Edwin L. Harvey, a millionaire hotel keeper.
After 1900 the group established communal colonies in Virginia, West Virginia, and Louisiana. In 1912 plans were laid for a colony in Texas. The site chosen was a 1,520-acre farm near Bullard. The land had originally been part of the Joseph Pickens Douglas plantation, and the property included a stately two-story antebellum mansion. In 1907 it was purchased by Charles E. Palmer, who planted pecan, peach, plum trees on the land. Duke Farson, acting on behalf of the church, arranged to acquire the land from Palmer in exchange for a tract of land in Idaho, a small plot near Chicago, and a hotel and brickyard in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Representatives from the church arrived in Bullard in 1912 and set up headquarters in the old Douglas house. The next year 375 members of the church arrived on a chartered train. They were temporarily housed in the mansion and the surrounding grounds, while work began on small clapboard residences and a two large dormitories for single male and female colonists. Work was also started on a large wooden tabernacle, which became the focus of colony life.
The colonists gave up all their worldly possessions upon joining the church and lived communally. They had a communal storehouse and ate in a common dining hall. No class distinctions were recognized. Contact with outsiders was kept to a minimum, but visitors were welcomed and treated hospitably. Liquor and tobacco were forbidden. Those who committed transgressions against the colony's strictures were not punished, but were taken to the church and prayed and wailed over.
Most of the colonists' time was occupied with work and worship. Religious services were intense emotional experiences. One local resident later remembered that the "Bushers would even turn back flips in church and roll around on the sawdust floor." Much of the service was devoted to singing, during which the congregation jumped up and down. Because of this practice, the group was sometimes called the "Holy Jumpers."
The colonists supported themselves primarily by farming. Most of the original settlers were from northern states, however, with little knowledge of southern farming practices, and despite the use of tractors and other modern machines, they reaped poor harvests. As a result, most the revenue generated by the colony came from the sale of nuts and fruits of trees that had been planted before their arrival.
From the start financial problems plagued the colony, despite its receipt of large subsidies from the Metropolitan Church Association and Duke Farson. During later years, many community members sought work outside the colony and turned over their wages to the church. Even with this additional revenue, the colony was forced to buy groceries on credit from a local merchant, J. L. Vanderver. In February 1919 Vanderver brought suit against the church for $12,000 in unpaid notes. The county sheriff seized the land and buildings and sold them at auction in Tyler in April 1919. The colonists dispersed, most of them returning to the North, but a small number remained in Texas. The old mansion and other buildings were eventually demolished, and by 1990 only a few foundations and a pecan orchard marked the site.
T. Lindsay Baker, Ghost Towns of Texas (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986). Edwin Smyrl, "The Burning Bush," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 50 (January 1947). Marker Files, Texas Historical Commission, Austin. Tyler Courier-Times-Telegraph, September 23, 1962.