THE BLOCK 97 CONTROVERSY
The “Block 97 Controversy” affected scores of landowners of Scurry and adjoining counties before the turn of the century. Many interesting and varying stories have developed from the incident. The Scurry County Historical Survey Committee dedicated the Historical Marker for Block 97 on April 11, 1973. For this occasion, Mrs. Burt (Dorothy Austin) Dennis gave an interesting and factual talk on the Block 97 story at the Union Methodist Church,6 miles west of Snyder. Other information on the controversy below is by R.C. Crane of Sweetwater and A.C. Wilmeth of Snyder, both of whom were early-day attorneys. The stories carry some repetition but of different vein, hence are considered valuable. They were both given in the early 1900s. Mrs. Dennis summed the dispute as a lack of communication between the Legislature and the General Land Office. In a portion of her talk she said: “It is strange that even today after 75 years, an aura of mystery and intrigue surrounds the history of Block 97-a most unusual portion of land situated mostly in Scurry County, partly in Borden with extensions into Garza, Kent, Fisher, and Mitchell Counties-containing some 612,00 acres. The dispute over Block 9’7 in a nutshell can be blamed on a lack of communication between the Legislature and the General Land Office, which resulted in two railroad companies, the Houston &Texas Central Railway Company and the Texas and Pacific Railway Company, being given right to this mammoth portion of land. Despite many court cases that followed, the title to Block 97was not settled until Bill No. 20 was passed by the Legislature in1899, sixteen long years after the initial surveying in 1873. Many cattlemen and settlers either had bought or leased portions of this block from the Houston & Texas Central Railway Company which had not fully established their title to this land by survey. The Houston & Texas Central Railway Company (they changed the name from “railway” to “railroad”) and thereby the purchasers had no recourse for damages when their title to the land was held void by the court. By this decision cattlemen and settlers had to pay for their land a second time if they wanted to stay on Block 97.
R.C. CRANE VERSION
R.C. Crane states that the subjoined story dealing with the question does not elucidate all of the interesting phases of it. The Houston and Texas Central Railway Company had received patents from the state of Texas for the odd numbered sections in the block-about 425 sections of 640 acres each, or about 272,000 acres-and sold to the ranchmen of Scurry and adjoining counties of the land so patented, before the question of the validity of the locations as made by that railroad was called in question. The state of Texas brought into the suit all parties who were interested in these railroad surveys, and as a result of the suit, all titles were invalidated. The ranchmen had bought these lands from the Houston & Texas Central Railway Company, the patentee. The lands had been granted under a law passed by the Texas Legislature in about 1854, under which every railroad was entitled to 16 sections of public land for every mile of railroad built in Texas.
Between the time that the ranch men bought the lands from the above-named railway company, the company had become in-solvent, and had undergone reorganization in the courts, and had been re-chartered as the Houston & Texas Central Railroad Company-a mere difference between the words, railway and railroad. But by the re-organization the new company had become ab-solved from all of the debts and obligations of the old company which had sold the lands under general warranty deeds. And so, after the final decision in the Bacon and Graves suits, the purchasers of these railroad surveys cast about to find where they stood as regards to their rights-they found that their grantor had undergone re-organization in the United States courts and had become completely absolved from aII liability on account of having sold these lands to the ranchmen. And consequently, the ranchmen lost the lands bought and the money paid for them, and were compelled to buy them again from the state of Texas. The immense amount of advertising for free land resulted in the bringing of many settlers, usually in their covered wagons, to Scurry County. 22 Crane, R.C.
A.C. WILMETH NARRATION
A.C. Wilmeth states that in the settlements of a country, many interesting things occur of small interest at the time, but are history in the making, and should be known by the succeeding generations in order to properly understand the wherefores and the whys of little kinks in the title to the lands. None is more interesting than a survey in Scurry and Borden Counties known as Block 97. In 1873 the Houston and Texas Central Railway Company sent out surveying parties under Captain Jack Elgin to locate the strip issued to it by the state of Texas. The trip had to be made, of course, by wagon from Waco west, and it was late in the spring before the work was commenced, and little if any mail reached the party from the time it entered the field. The surveyors worked portions of Nolan, Coke, Mitchell, Scurry, Fisher, Stonewall, Kent, Borden, and Garza Counties. One large survey they, termed Block 97, containing 956 sections of land, the larger portion of which lay in Scurry County.
While the work was going on in the field, the Legislature was in session and created what was afterward known as the eighty-mile reservation; that is, it reserved from location by any others in the Texas and Pacific Railroad all the land lying within 40 miles north and south of a certain line. The surveyors knew nothing of this new law. They turned in their field notes, and the land they had surveyed was segregated from the public domain and recognized correct until about 1888, when two employees of the general office discovered the location had been made after this law had been passed and therefore was void. At the time of this discovery, under the law, public land could be purchased at 50 cents an acre and yet land in large bodies could be readily cashed for two dollars or more an acre, so Bacon and Graves, the land office employees who discovered the error, resigned, and securing the assistance of a group of moneyed men of New York, tendered the state applications and the money for all the land in Block 97 south of the north reservation line. This tender was at first refused, but it being re-tendered with threat of suit the then Attorney General Hogg ordered it accepted under protest and notified at the same time that the state would resist the giving of title.
Bacon and Graves, having everything to win and nothing to lose to test their claim and to get quick action brought suit against the Jumbo Cattle Company, which had several of these sections leased from the Houston and Texas Central Railway Company. This suit was hotly contested, but the decision was favorable all the way for the plaintiffs.
The victory was short, for the governor’ now the former Attorney General Hogg, ordered the attorney general Hon C.A. Culbertson, to sue all claimants. ‘The suit was filed in Scurry County and removed to Mitchell County and tried before Hon Wm. Kennedy’ one of the ablest judges of the state. The decision was in favor of the state insuring that all the surveys made after the creation of the 80-mile reservation were void. This, in effect, declared all of the said public land’ but denied recovery to Bacon and Graves because this was not the kind of land contemplated in the 50 cent act and further that they Bacon and Graves, had not complied with the terms of the law This case was also affirmed by the Supreme Court’ This decision also kept the money for the state. The money being thus confiscated caused the Legislature to be waited upon by the would-be purchasers and importuned to return the money’ The Legislature’ in order to get all question of title cleared up as to the state’ required the railway. Company and Bacon and Graves and the men who advanced the money to execute a release to the state before they were allowed to withdraw their tender money’
BLOCK 97 IN LIMELIGHT
During all of these years of litigation’ Block 97 was in the limelight of the newspapers and others claimed it was public land, subject to entry by the homesteader. One R, R, Lively owner of a newspaper known as “The Coming West”‘ made it his hobby for years, kept interest at boiling point. Hundreds flocked to this place of easily gotten homes’ but most of the land had been leased for long terms to local stockmen and they disputed every attempt to take it from them’ This caused many title lawsuits, generally of forcible entry and detainer’
HARD ON SETTLERS
The settlers were mostly poor and the long-continued suit made it hard for the settler to stay, it being unwise to put much improvement on this hazardous title. Finally, our Mr. Hogue attempted to mandamus the land commissioner, the state through it attorney general joined issue with plaintiff Hogue, and the plaintiff’s attorneys having agreed that the school fund was entitled to so such and that it had not received its portion and that there was not sufficient land yet left for it to get its portion, the Supreme Court held that the Legislature failing to have it segregated did not leave it subject to entry but that the state must keep the balance as school land.
The Legislature at its next session declared it all school land and gave settlers the prior right to purchase. Most of the settlers accepted and thus ended the long contest lasting something over10 years. Today, many people reside upon the Block and very few know of the ups and downs of the settlers that preceded them. Witmeth, A.C.