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San Angelo Lifestyles

On a Mission to Preserve History

Mar 21, 2019 03:25PM
written by sabrina tatsch  |  photos by sabrina tatsch & provided by judy gill

Where some may just see dirt, rock, mesquite trees and dried up creek beds, Judy Ayers Gill is discovering treasures of the past. Gill has been searching 281 acres of her family land for more than fifty years. “I’ve always loved looking for arrow heads, and when I started learning the history behind those, 
I wanted to learn all that I could,” said Gill. Gill’s family was among some of the first settlers in Knickerbocker, which is about eighteen miles southwest of San Angelo.Gill’s great-grandfather, Eugene Foster, purchased 900 acres in Knickerbocker in the late 1890’s and married the daughter of a rancher who was driving Longhorns to the area. He later went on to become a county commissioner and namesake for Foster Park.


 





 
Gill is a member of the Concho Valley Archeological Society. She has collected hundreds of artifacts directly from her family’s land and has gathered photos and memories in an effort to learn more about her family and the history of the land. “My grandmother made a map before she died.  The legend breaks down who lived where in Knickerbocker. It was dated 1890-1913. Then I have another map from the late 1920’s to 1940’s that shows walking trails and even baseball parks,”
said Gill.

Knickerbocker is currently an unincorporated community with a U.S. Post Office, two churches, two cemeteries and a community center. It’s not the booming economic town it was in the 1890’s and early 1900’s but still boasts an active community of about fifty residents. Residents, descendants and those from neighboring Dove Creek often gather for celebrations and events like the annual Knicky Picky. Gill lives in San Angelo but commutes to Knickerbocker for church on Sundays. “The Knickerbocker Community Church shut down for a while when everyone started leaving. We didn’t have enough money to pay a preacher, so my granddaddy would come up here on Sundays and read the Bible with a few others. That went on for about twenty years and then we had a historical marker put out front and people started coming again. The preacher gets half of what goes into the collection plate. I don’t think anyone else pays their preacher like that.”


The bell standing outside the church rings its historical significance with every sound. “The bell from the original Knickerbocker Community Church built in the 1880’s is still active today. Originally it was on the building itself but moved to a tower next to the church when the building was rebuilt in 1931. When a person in the community died, the bell was rung for each year of the person’s age. It’s a tradition that is still active today,” said Gill.
 
The historical marker and bell are just a couple of reminders that help illustrate the area’s rich history. “My great-grandmother was 94 when she died, and she would tell me stories when I was a little girl. Indians would come to the house, and the kids would hide while the father would go to talk to the Indians. Most of the time, the Indians were just hungry and would get a slab of bacon and be on their way. Those types of stories got me interested when I was a kid, so I was always asking my relatives to tell me stories.”

 









Gill has a vast collection of arrowheads, rocks and tools that she believes once belonged to the Jumano Indians who settled the area long before Knickerbocker received its name.  “All of these are surface finds.  Sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between just a rock and a historical artifact, but we know Indians used everything they could from the land. You look at the shapes of the rocks and can see they used them as tools to sharpen arrows, rub bark off sticks, chop and grind food like berries and corn. There are several with tiny holes drilled through. Some would have been for jewelry,” explained Gill.
 
Gill’s most treasured find is an obsidian arrowhead. 
“I sent it to the University of Missouri and they said it was the only one of its kind found in Texas, so they’re trying to find out how it got to my place, perhaps through trade.” Gill showcases her collection at the annual archeological fair and uses it to educate area school children. “I just love studying these rocks because they tell us so much about the ways the Indians lived and worked.”

 









Gill has also found treasures that give insight to the town that Knickerbocker was in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. In 1877, Morgan and Lawrence Grinnell and Joseph Tweedy started the Knickerbocker Ranch Company on 20,000 acres for 1,200 sheep. The post office was established in 1881 bringing more people to the area. As more residents moved in, the town grew, becoming a stagecoach stop. There were several hotels, two blacksmiths, one of which was also the undertaker, two saloons and at one time a Tuberculosis Sanitorium. “My great-grandfather  S.D. Arthur ginned the first bale of cotton in the area,” said Gill. At one point, the town was relocated about a mile away due to the need for water. Another time many buildings had to be rebuilt due to a fire. “Our land is where part of Old Knickerbocker was. It was quite the community then. It’s where the old blacksmith shop and saloon were located. Other members of the Concho Valley Archeological Society came and helped me search my land. We found quite a few things like slate from an old pool table that must have been in the saloon. There is also the leg to a piano, pieces of a handmade chain, bullets, horseshoes and even a Union belt buckle.” 

 






Gill believes the town started to decline in growth when the railroad bypassed Knickerbocker for San Angelo. “History has really made me appreciate life, especially learning about how the farmers used to struggle here. My grandfather wrote a journal about his life and it is special that we have that. It’s sad that people don’t communicate that way anymore.”

Gill is glad to pass the passion for history on to her son Sterling who enjoys seeking treasures, as well. “My mom would take me with her ever since I was about three years old. She got me into rocks and I just love looking for stuff. There is an old well on the property that is lined with rocks, I want to explore that further,” said Sterling. 

 






While we are capturing  just a small snapshot of the area’s history in this story, it’s the spirit of curiosity about the past, that Gill hopes to ignite as she ponders the past to understand herself, her family and the roots of her community. “There are so many things that we find that we have no idea how they got there. I’m currently working with the Concho Valley Archeological Society to try and schedule an archeological dig to see what else we can find.”† 
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