This Week in Texas Methodist History September 21
September 23, 1838 John Wesley Kenney Begins Survey of Rutersville
Within a few months of Martin Ruter’s death in May, 1838, Texas Methodists formed a town corporation to create a Methodist community named in his honor. The incorporators of the town saw their work as an extension of Ruter’s because the centerpiece of the town would be a Methodist school. Education was Ruter’s great passion. He had taught and written text books, and had even resigned a college presidency to come to Texas.
There were conflicting ideas about where the college should be located. David Ayres accompanied Ruter from Indiana to Texas and he believed that Ruter favored a location near his residence in Center Hill. Another possibility was Independence where the Baptists did establish a school or Bastrop, a fine city on the Colorado which had already attracted some Methodist settlers.
The trustees, instead opted for a relatively unpopulated league on the La Bahia Road (usually spelled in contemporary letters as “Labadee.”)
The signers of the town charter on June 25 were Robert Alexander, A. P. Manly, F. W. Hubert, Charles B. Howard, Franklin Lewis, Robert Chappell, Lindsay Rucker, and J. W. LeMaster. The provisions of the charter prohibited the sale of lots to anyone who planned to erect an establishment that sold alcohol or allowed gambling. Robert Alexander described the land as follows,
We have good water running the length of the league, high undulating prairie, cedar & oak on the land and splendid pine convenient say, 5 miles.
On September 23, John Wesley Kenney, who then held the post of County Surveyor for Austin County, one county to the east of the tract in Fayette County began subdividing the league into parcels most of which were 30 acres, five acres, or town lots. Although Texans had won their independence from Mexico, Kenney was using the old Spanish system of town surveying for Rutersville. The different sizes were intended to be used for different purposes. The town lots were intended for businesses, and possibly residences. The five acre lots were considered residential. Five acres was large enough for a house, garden, orchards and outbuildings such as corn cribs and animal sheds. The thirty acre lots were intended for corn and cotton, and the usual pattern in Texas at the time was for purchasers to purchase non-contiguous lots for this purpose so that everyone in the community would end up with parcels possessing different characteristics. For example one 30 acre tract might be wooded and exploited for construction materials and firewood. Another parcel might be prairie and good for crops.
The Fayette County tax rolls for 1840 exist and show that of the signers of the town charter only Alexander, Manly, and LeMaster owned town lots. The town company had been successful in selling much of the league, but the tax rolls show that several were unsold and under the agency of John Rabb, who also acted as agent for several absentee lot owners.
The original hope was to open two academies by April, 1839 (male and female), and then have the male academy grow into a “collage” as soon as practicable. In actuality Rutersville College opened in January, 1840, received its charter from the Republic of Texas in February, and in December provided the site for the organization of the Texas Conference.
Neither the town nor the college prospered, but Rutersville’s charter is the basis for Southwestern University’s claim as the oldest institution of higher education in Texas.