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Pete Kendall: New Hope Baptist Church was the last hope for many

Published: June 08, 2009 12:49 pm

New Hope Baptist Church is a welcoming place these days with a congregation that prides itself on kindness and reverence.

Once upon a time in the west of Johnson County, near the community of Goatneck, New Hope for some was Last Hope.

Keep in mind this was the 1870s, when tolerance was not necessarily a virtue in the hinterlands.

“Church minutes say that one woman was booted out of the church for wearing a red dress in church,” said Cleburne resident Harris Owens Jr., whose great-great-grandfather Otis Robinson Witham preached at Mares Hill Church and New Hope Church in the late 19th century. “Another woman was booted out because she was friends with a man who had been stealing hogs.

“If you got booted out of the church, you were disgraced. Nobody would have anything to do with you, wouldn’t trade hogs with you or anything else. You did not want to be kicked out of New Hope Church. It was the law back then. When somebody did something wrong, they would hold court after the services. They would have the trial right there in church.”

To get to Goatneck from New Hope in those days, you crossed Camp Creek, if you dared. Camp Creek was a spring-fed stream that emptied into the Brazos River on the Johnson-Bosque county line.

“You had to have a good reason to cross the creek because that was bootlegger country,” Owens said. “The sheriff wouldn’t go down there unless he had a posse to go with him. Old Giles Adams was born and raised there. He said when he was growing up, he was told, ‘Don’t any of you boys cross Camp Creek. You might not come back.’ South of Camp Creek was Goatneck back then. Now, it’s all Goatneck.”

We wrote about the Witham and Grafa families in a recent column. That sparked Mr. Harris’ interest. He asked if we’d like to know more about the Withams, and of course we said yes.

Turns out that Otis was the first burial, or certainly one of the first, at Cleburne Memorial Cemetery. That was in 1874.

He had died in 1872 and been buried at Cleburne’s first cemetery, bounded by Walnut, Chambers and Featherston streets, the present location of the Guinn Justice Center, or to be more exact, the former location of Rhome Field, where the Yellow Jackets once played football.

The way we hear it, which may not be exactly the way it happened, families of those buried at the future Rhome Field found out that Indians had been buried there in previous decades, perhaps centuries.

Because many white folks still took a dim view of Indians in the 19th century, some of the white families opted to have their kinfolk transplanted to Cleburne Memorial Cemetery.

So that’s where Otis now rests, in a lot at the corner of Farm-to-Market Road 4 and Washington Street.

His wife Phebe is buried with him. She passed on in 1914.

Daughter Stella Teasdale installed a benchmark in their honor. Go see it sometime if you’re into history.

The historical Otis Witham is remembered for more than his preaching and his multiple burials.

He was one of the 16 founding members of First Baptist Church. Didn’t know that, did you?

The future First Baptist congregation initially held services in 1867, when Cleburne was founded after the county seat moved here from Buchanan. Members met on land that B.J. Chambers, the reputed father of Cleburne, donated to the city for educational purposes.

“In the spring of 1868,” a First Baptist Church leaflet explained, “the Spirit of God prompted a few Baptists to invite the Rev. W.A. Mason, a mission-hearted preacher, to hold a protracted meeting [revival]. The devout Baptists erected a brush arbor on the south side of the lot where the present Ernest E. Guinn Justice Center stands today …

“Following the revival May 5, 1868, the church was organized with 16 members. The only charter members of record are the Rev. Otis Robinson Witham, his wife Phebe Mullis Witham, and two of their daughters, Sara Anne and Frances Mullis.”

Phebe was an important person in her own right in metropolitan Goatneck.

“Dr. Adams was one of the first doctors out there,” Owens said. “Before that, Phebe would be asked to make medicine. She knew how to grind the herbs.”

New Hope Church, Owens said, was where his grandpa met his grandma. Grandpa, the industrious Jacob Waggoner, “was a freight man,” Owens said. “He drove a wagon from Cleburne to Missouri. When he got to a river, he would tie two logs onto the wagon to float the wagon and freight across. He would leave the logs on the other side of the river so he could use them again coming back.”

In one way, Goatneck hasn’t changed dramatically in the last century or so. It’s still not a place you visit by accident.

“There’s a lot of history down in that part of the country,” Owens said. “Years ago, when you turned off Highway 67, it was a gravel road till you got to the state park. Then it was a dirt road. People said no strangers came down that road. There wasn’t anything there except bootleggers.”

And Baptists.

Cleburne Times Review, ohnson County, Texas

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