*State AP Wire
CANTON – The history of Van Zandt County, from ancient times to the 20th century, rolls along the Old Dallas- Shreveport Road.
Before barbed wire fences and paved highways cut up the historic road, it was a seamless stretch of prehistoric trade routes from Dallas to Shreveport established by the Caddo.
“Their trails were just like today’s highways with lots of places and villages in between,” said Elvis Allen, a historian with the Van Zandt County Historical Commission. “It meandered the way of the land: village to village, watering hole to watering hole.”
Today, the road has evolved to meet the needs of a new generation.
U.S. Highway 80, which runs parallel to the historic road, “straightened out a lot of the crooks and turns” when the highway was built in 1924, Allen said.
However, through the wooded countryside, deep furrows and scars alongside highways and county roads in northern Van Zandt County give way to the original route the Caddo established.
The road winds through rural neighborhoods, around cemeteries and past withered remains of centuries-old cotton gins spanning from Wills Point to Providence.
In some places, the road is narrowly passable by two vehicles, and in others, it is wide and coated in fresh blacktop pavement.
“Before Highway 80 was in, if you didn’t want to travel by railroad, you went this route” to Dallas or Shreveport from Van Zandt County, Allen said.
Allen traced the road across the county and found that the longest section is a 14-mile stretch in the eastern half of Van Zandt County. It begins at the Smith County line east of Providence and follows Farm-to-Market Road 857 across Grand Saline Creek about a mile southeast of Grand Saline.
From there, the Old Dallas- Shreveport Road picks up again at the intersections of Farm-to-Market Road 17 and Texas Highway 110. It follows along FM 17, turning north to Pole Town, where it leaves the original roadbed until about 300 yards east of the Creagleville Church.
With the exception of the “slight jog” in Creagleville, County Road 1117 follows the historic road for five miles west of Mill Creek, according to Allen’s research.
But centuries before Allen drove the route, French explorers took it for hunting and trading expeditions, trading with Native Americans as far west as “Comanche Country,” according to Allen’s research. Later on, Spanish explorers used the route.
“Very few trails were cut by European explorers, they used the trails built by the Indians,” Allen said.
Before Texas won independence from Mexico in 1836, emigrants traveled the road by following the ridge at the Red River in Louisiana, according to Allen’s research.
In the mid-1830s, the trail emerged as a main route into North Texas for cargo from the river port in Shreveport.
In 1841, William Smalling Peters contracted with the government to settle 800 families in North Central Texas and along the Old Road. When he failed to fill his contract, The Texas Emigration and Land Company took over his grant, according to Allen’s research. The colonization program and Peters’ land grant enhanced the Old Road as an immigration artery into North Central Texas.
Early deed records show surveyors listing “Indian Trail” as a boundary or point of reference, Allen said.
“It was instrumental in settling all these counties all the way to Fort Worth,” Allen said. “The Comanche were the only thing that stopped (immigrants) from going further west.”
Van Zandt County’s first courthouse was built along the route in 1848 at Jordan’s Saline near Grand Saline. Back then, the road was referred to as the “Old East-West Road.”
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the road was known as the “Texas Trail” and the “Great Texas Road,” Allen said. It was a major thoroughfare for troop movement and was a vital supply line for the Confederate’s Trans-Mississippi Department. They used the route to send cotton to Mexico from East Texas and the Southern states, where it was then sold and shipped to Europe.
The road has become somewhat of an obsession for Allen and another local historian, Kitty Wheeler. Both are members of the Old Dallas- Shreveport Road Preservation Association.
When Mrs. Wheeler, who is president of the Van Zandt County Genealogical Society, first started researching the road, she said she made many trips to find the full route.
“Finding the road was a goal of mine,” she said. “I’d travel it as much as I could.”
Two years after the preservation committee formed, the county designated it as a Historic Parkway. Since then, the historic preservation committee has installed 12 state historic markers.
The most recent marker, installed May 7, at Sand Flat Community, at the junction of the Dallas- Shreveport Road and Crockett’s Bluff Road, was one that Mrs. Wheeler researched. She said the committee has plans to have at least eight more sites historically designated.
Allen said their goal is to continue to define the historic route and publish its history so eventually people can take a self-guided tour.
“So many people don’t know that it exists, they think you’re talking about Highway 80,” Allen said.
He wants people to know that the Old Dallas- Shreveport Road was here first.
“We want to get a national historic designation because it deserves one,” he said.
Published Monday, May 16
Tyler Morning Telegraph