Written by Samuel Collins III
While driving down State Highway 6 in Hitchcock, TX in 2004 I noticed a Texas Historical Commission subject marker. The subject of the marker was Stringfellow Orchards. Mr. Henry Martyn Stringfellow had been a world renowned horticulturist in Hitchcock during the 1880s and 1890s. Mr. Stringfellow’s orchard was the most successful orchard in the area. I began researching the property and working towards acquiring it.
To my surprise, Mr. Stringfellow had a unique connection to the African American community. During the 1880s, after reconstruction in the South, black workers in the Hitchcock community were making $3 per week - or fifty cents per day. At the peak of business Mr. Stringfellow was paying thirty black workers at his orchard one dollar a day. Other landowners accused Stringfellow of driving up labor cost because of his dollar-a-day wage. The additional income had an economic impact on the African American community that is still evident today.
Upon further research I was able to discover that Frank Bell Sr. worked for Mr. Stringfellow in the 1880’s. Stringfellow mentions Frank Bell in his book “The New Horticulture” published in the late 1890’s. Before finding Mr. Stringfellow’s book, I did not have an African American family that I could link to the orchards. A letter written by Stringfellow’s adopted daughter Lessie Stringfellow Read in the 1950s only stated thirty black workers, but did not mention any names.
The Bell family is a very prominent African American family in Galveston County. Because of the higher wages that Mr. Bell earned at Stringfellow Orchards he was able to purchase land and build a home in Texas City, TX in an area called “The Settlement.” The Settlement was an African American community that was established shortly after the end of slavery in Texas in 1865. The 1887 Bell home still stands in Texas City.
Mr. Bell had several children, one being Frank Bell Jr. Frank Bell Jr. served in World War I and was a very successful businessman. He owned several businesses which included: a grocery store, hotel, lumber yard, service station/garage, café, barbershop, low income housing project and several Frank Bell subdivisions. Bell, Jr. and two of his business partners donated five acres of land in Texas City to establish the first Black County park (Carver Park) in Texas. His daughter Vera Bell Gary still lives in a home built on Bell property. Many of the Bell descendants still live in the Galveston County area.
My wife and I host an annual Juneteenth celebration at Stringfellow Orchards. In 2008 we invited the Bell family to return to the property where their ancestor Frank Bell Sr. had worked. More than 200 Bell family members attended. Mr. Stringfellow’s willingness to pay fair wages before it was politically correct has had a lasting affect on the African American community. This story sheds a different light on life in South Texas for blacks after reconstruction in the 1880s.
Sam Collins III is one of three National Trust Advisors representing Texas and owner of the Historic Stringfellow Orchards property in Hitchcock, TX.
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