White Deer Land Museum

Gray County – Lefors

Lefors can claim to be the first settlement in Gray County because the first legal claim to land by a settler was the pre-emption claim of 160 acres held by Travis Leach in 1880. Leach, a civil engineer who was an early surveyor and a census enumerator in 1880, operated a stage stand near present Lefors. The stage stand was a house of vertically placed logs with a dirt roof. The passenger and mail coaches that ran from Mobeetie to Tascosa stopped at the Leach house for dinner. Presumably Leach left the area after the untimely death of his wife; his claim became the property of Perry LeFors.

Photo of Eloise Lane

Eloise Lane

In 1882, Gustav (Charlie) Sweig (Zweig) filed on a pre-emption claim of a quarter section to the east of the Leach claim. Sweig’s wife Susanna was a lady-in-waiting to Mrs. B.B. Groom. In 1884, Henry Thut, Sr., brother of Susanna Sweig, filed on a pre-emption claim just north of the Leach claim. Alec Schneider, Sr., whose wife Lena was a sister of Thut’s wife Anna, came to the area in 1886.

Perry LeFors, who later married Emma Lang, sister of Anna Thut and Lena Schneider, helped Thut build a picket and sod house on the Thut claim. Later Thut built a larger house in which the Thuts provided hospitality, comfort and frequently medical care to travelers and cowboys. This house was the location of the post office established as Lefors on October 12, 1892 to supply a population of 50 in the surrounding area. (The U.S. Postal Service required that the capital “F” be changed to the lower case “f.”) Thut was the first postmaster; his only pay for his service was from the sale of two-cent stamps. The first mail carrier was James C. Short, a homesteader of 1889. Short carried the mail once a week from Mobeetie by horseback or buckboard.

In 1896, the first schoolhouse at present Lefors was built by donations of money and time by men of the area. The building was constructed near the river (North Fork of Red River) and the Thut orchard. It was a small one-room building set on poles to keep it above water at all times. Cottonwood , chinaberry, hackberry and walnut trees furnished shade and support for children’s swings. Drinking water was dipped from the river.

The next year Frank Williams was the teacher. Henry Thut, Sr., J.C. Rider and W.F. Taylor were directors. The 14 pupils were Annie, Henry (Jr.) and Charlie Thut; Vera and Emmett LeFors; Tilda, Lydia, Mamie and Emma Sohns Eunice McMahan, Clade Davis, Dora Short, Larry Rider and Mattabel Lovett. The first school term lasted only three months. The school building was also used for church, community affairs and dancing.

Previously known as Center (name used by George Tyng), the community took the name of the post office when it was chosen to be the county seat at the organizational election of Gray County on May 27, 1902. For a few years Lefors was a town with no residents; the only buildings were the courthouse and the school building.

The home of Henry Thut, Sr. was constantly overrun with people coming for mail, court cases and perhaps just visiting. According to western tradition, travelers on the American frontier were never turned away from a settler’s home. When court was in session, jurors often brought their own bedding, but lawyers usually came empty-handed.

Often the Thuts had no place to sleep because they had given up their beds. Anna Thut never knew how many people were going to be present for any meal. Probably in self defense, the Thuts built a hotel soon after the courthouse was constructed. The hotel sat on a sandy hill a mile north of the courthouse. It was a large three-story, white, box-style structure. A wide porch ran the length of the hotel. On this porch many a yarn was swapped, issues argued and recipes, remedies and gossip exchanged. Few trees grew in the sandy soil around the hotel, but a wisteria vine trailed across the porch, and enormous lilac bushes dotted the grounds. Inside, the post office took up a small space in one corner with a rolltop desk and pigeon holes for mail. On the top floor of the hotel were thirteen cots; the original plan was to provide lodging for the jury when it was sequestered.

Indoor plumbing and bathrooms were uncommon during the early years and the Thut Hotel had none. One outdoor toilet was the only accomodation until after 1920. A wash basin and chamber pot were placed in each bedroom and emptied each morning by the household help.

Often in the evenings a judge, lawyers, cowhands, stragglers and local drop-ins sat in the lobby and played cards. The most popular game was pitch, and the phrase “high, low, jack and game” was often heard. Matches were used for counters. If anyone got really thirsty, he got up to get a drink of water.

The Thut Hotel played an important part in the development of Gray County as it became a familiar and important landmark. For years it was the only place for food and lodging between Mobeetie and Tascosa.

The first homes at Lefors were built by county officers. After the “white school building” was constructed in 1909, the first school building was remodeled as a home by Lawrence McMurtry, deputy sheriff. Siler Faulkner, county clerk, moved with his bride into the house in 1910. About 1914, Sheriff J.S. Denson built a frame house. Other early Lefors residents included C.L. Upham, county and district clerk, and Judge Robert E. Williams.

About noon on April 2, 1915, a tragedy occurred in the small community of Lefors. As Judge F.P. Greever of the Thirty-first Judicial District was leaving the courthouse, he was shot by a man who was angered by Greever’s decision in a community property suit. Greever was taken to the Thut Hotel where he died about 9 o’clock that night. The assassin shot himself to death soon after he shot Greever.

The discovery of oil in Gray County (1925) had a definite impact upon the peaceful life of the ranchmen near Lefors. Because of the break in cattle prices after WW I, many people were about to lose their land until oil companies came in to lease the land. An expression often heard was “An oil well is the best nurse cow there is.”

Oil companies found that trucks could not function well in the sandy soil and had to use mule teams to transport most of the oil supplies.

To the ranchers it seemed that each pumper wanted to build up a herd of cattle and had to be reminded that his company’s lease was for oil under the ground and not for the grass on top. At one time nearly every pumper and every fellow in town had a German police dog.

After Lefors was becoming known as the newest oil field city in the Panhandle, the State of Texas filed a suit claiming that the North Fork of Red River was a navigable stream belonging to the state and that Lefors was on an island (between North Fork and a dry creek bed) which was part of state land.

The dry creek bed crossed a corner of the old Thut place and went around an apple orchard and cemetery where two members of the Thut family were buried. City lots, homes, a city park, a cemetery and seven producing wells would be lost if the state won the suit.

George Thut, son of Henry, Sr., who had died in 1925, and other Gray and Wheeler county citizens spent some time in Austin convincing the attorney general and the state legislature that North Fork was not navigable and that even if it were, the state had no right to take it away from the people who bought and paid for the land years before.

In March 1927, an Associated Press feature story related some unique characteristics of Lefors:

“Lefors is the smallest county seat in Texas … it is the only county seat without a jail. The jail has been moved to Pampa .” (The jail had been moved from Lefors to Pampa in April, 1926. The sheriff was arresting 30 people a week.)

“Though on an otherwise treeless plain, the town is hard by a forest of giant cottonwoods.

“The water wells are only nine feet deep. When a man wants a well, he procures a post hole digger, bores down about nine feet, and obtains clear, sparkling water.

“The cottonwood trees bear grapes.” (Wild grapevines hung down like heavy thick veils from the cottonwood trees which supported them). “Although 50 years old, the town’s cemetery has only four graves.

“Near the town is the Valley of Lefors , formed by a branch of the Red River . This valley gives the impression that it is a corner of Japan , of an imaginary kingdom. While the plains may be swept by cold winds and the frost may creep down from the north, the valley is warm behind its rock wall shelter.”

Although Lefors was located at the geographical center of Gray County , it was not the population center. It had no railroad, sanitation system or fire protection. Roads to the county seat were almost impossible for three months of the year. People needing to register deeds and leases found it difficult to do so during the winter months.

Several elections were held for the purpose of moving the county seat. These attempts failed: to McLean on March 17, 1908; to Pampa on June 10, 1919 and on March 19, 1926.

On March 9, 1928, an election was held with 3,672 votes for and 1,386 against moving the county seat to Pampa . McLean filed an injunction claiming that 1,000 votes were illegal, but Judge Willis ruled that the petition was invalid. Because Lefors refused to give up the records, Pampa sent its fire truck on March 16 with men to load the records and transport them to Pampa . The records were stored in the First Baptist Church basement at Pampa , and a twenty-four-hour guard was set up.

The courthouse building at Lefors was dismantled and the lumber sold to various individuals for building their homes.

A.H. Doucette, County Surveyor of Gray County , had filed a plat of the original town of Lefors on August 12, 1926. Mel Davis and J.W. Shaw are credited with developing the townsite and the land adjoining. The city was incorporated in 1928, but the incorporation was dissolved March 15, 1929. The city voted again for incorporation on August 23, 1929. A council type of government was chosen with a mayor, five council men, secretary, city marshall, constable and justice of peace.

The intriguing quantities of natural gas attracted the Peerless Carbon Company of Pittsburg , Pennsylvania , to Gray County , choosing a site five miles southeast of Lefors. Bernard C. Johnson, who built a plant in 1930, was the superintendent and manager until his retirement in 1961. The plant was purchased by the Columbian Carbon Company which continued the operation until the mid-1960s when the plant was closed and dismantled.

The Columbian Carbon Company operated three “channel carbon black” plants in Gray County . The “Coltexo” Plant was situated southeast of Lefors, neighbor to the Peerless Plant, and was one of the larger plants in the Panhandle, beginning in 1928 and operating until 1964. A second plant on the Saunders lease, approximately four miles south of Pampa, was also begun in 1926 but was closed in 1935 because of lack of an available gas supply.

The oil industry continued to boom in 1929 and 1930. Besides the Combs Worley leases, the Davidson, Jackson, Mel Davis, Bull and Bowers were listed among those most productive. Leases were selling anywhere from one to five dollars an acre. One of the most expensive leases was purchased by Phillips Petroleum Company when it paid $1 million for the north half of Section 88, Block B-2, H.& G.N. Survey, located ten miles southeast of Pampa. Later Phillips paid $1.2 million for the south half of the same section.

Around 1929, W.K. Bigham began the business of moving houses. At sometime he moved the old Thut Hotel from north of Lefors to the northwest part of Amarillo. It was still standing in 1985.

In 1932, the Fort Worth and Denver railroad was built through Lefors. The first train on the line gave free rides to Childress and back. This was the only major railroad constructed in the United States that year. The last year the FW&D was listed in the Pampa city directory was 1969.

In 1936, the WPA (Works Progress Administration) built some streets in Lefors. The water and sewer systems were completed in 1938 at a cost of $84,000. The volunteer fire department was organized in 1939 and a fire truck purchased State Highway from Pampa through Lefors to McLean was paved in 1934.

Street lights were erected in 1948, and new school facilities were built in the early 1950s through the passage of a $3,000,000 bond.

The closing of the carbon black plants, including the large plant on the Saunders ranch in 1964, caused many families to leave Lefors. Business establishments which had reached 30 in 1931 and grown to 35 by 1940, decreased to 25 by 1950.

The disastrous tornado of March 27, 1975, destroyed 60 percent of the town, killed one child and injured 40 others. A new post office building was erected and repairs made on many houses.

The few businesses that remain in Lefors are housed in single story buildings, scattered throughout several blocks and shaded by large, old trees. Unpaved, sandy roads mark the residential area, largely occupied by employees of the oil and gas industries.

Despite the advantages of a central location in the county, sub-irrigated soil conductive to gardening and fruit orchards, and oil resources, the population of Lefors never exceeded 1,000 residents. The town still lies quietly in the canyon valley of the North Fork of Red River.

Many residents of Gray County have fond memories of picnics under the cottonwood trees, wading in clear water after being warned to be wary of qucksand, gathering wild plums to make delicious plum butter and enjoying the beauty of wildflowers which still cover the countryside in the spring.

Over 200 Articles, written by Eloise Lane, were published in the Pampa News. These articles may be accessed by clicking on each section below. A list of articles will be revealed that are linked to a page containing the text of the article.

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