Speaker Series: Stephen Benold, M.D.
The Williamson County Historical Commission sponsored the third event of a series labeled "A Toast to our Past" at the county courthouse in Georgetown on January 25, 2022. The title of this event was Williamson County and the Wild, Wild West. Dr. Benold's talk was the second of three presentations that evening.
Dr. Benold was introduced by January Raesz.
Due to my service on the Chisholm Trail Community Foundation, I had the great fortune to meet Larry Olson who was sharing proceeds from the sale of his grandparent's farm. His grandparents had emigrated from Sweden and eventually settled on land near Hutto. The encounter with Larry triggered my interest and research into the Swedish settlement in Williamson County for this talk.
In the 1850s, Swedes came to America and made their way to Williamson County in covered wagons over muddy tracts because they had been starving back home. In the mid 19th Century, Sweden was a wretchedly poor place and fully one-fifth of the population made the big leap to America to make things better.
It was Svante Magnus Swenson who initiated the mass movement to Texas in 1838. He bought land along Brushy Creek and persuaded his uncle to join him in rounding up Swedes to settle in Texas. The widowed sister-in-law, Mrs. Palm, and her six children were the first Swedish settlers on Brushy Creek followed by his brother and wife. A year later in 1854, the Nelson family arrived.
Swenson would pay the way for the settlers if they would agree to work for him for a year. He would then set them up as sharecroppers on his land. If they were frugal, as most Swedes were, they could purchase a piece of his land at some point.
In 1869, a member of the Palm family wrote to a relative in Illinois saying, "The summers here are pretty hot, but the winters are wonderful. The people are remarkably friendly. Most people who have lived here five years now own their own land."
There was steady immigration to the area for the remainder of the 19th century. An article in an 1867 Georgetown paper stated "70 Swedish families arrived this week."
The Palms and Nelsons eventually accumulated thousands of acres of land on Brushy Creek. At that time, the only towns in the area were Round Rock and Georgetown. Everything from Round Rock to Georgetown to Weir to Taylor to Hutto and back to Round Rock was referred to as Brushy.
The Swedes were frequently categorized with a particular church. There was the Brushy Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Brushy Swedish Methodist Church and the Evangelical Free Church. The Brushy Evangelical Lutheran became the Palm Valley Lutheran Church with beginnings in the 1860s. The Palms built a log house for a school and church and then built the current Palm Valley Lutheran Church. Their son was the first burial in the cemetery there.
The Swedish Methodist Church on FM 1460 was started in the 1880s by Charles Charnquist. He had started a Lutheran church in Austin, but had split and became a Methodist. He started a Methodist Church in Hutto and helped start one in Taylor, now Tenth Street United Methodist Church.
The Evangelical Free Church was on Hutto Road (CR 110) just south of Georgetown. The cemetery is still there but the church moved into Georgetown in the 1960s. It disbanded and is now the location of the Unitarian Universalist Church.
With the arrival of the International Great Northern Railroad in 1876, it became easier for immigrants to come. Most of the Swedes that settled in Georgetown came in the 1880s. The train also brought cultivators, reapers, windmills and barbed wire, making ranching and farming easier. Many Swedes moved east from Round Rock and Georgetown to farm the more fertile land around Hutto and Taylor.
The Swedes started Trinity College in Round Rock in 1904. The original building still exists by the Trinity Lutheran Nursing Home. During the depression, it was forced to consolidate with Texas Lutheran in Sabine.
During the First World War, most of the citizens of Round Rock were of Swedish descent. Many of the businesses were run by Swedes.
An exemplar of the Swedish settlement in Williamson County was the Nelson family. Andrew Nelson and his brother, August Nelson arrived in the 1850s and during the Civil War became freighters. They freighted materials for the Confederate armies and carried cotton in their wagons to the coast and to Mexico for sale. They were paid in gold and used it to buy land, becoming ranchers and farmers. As ranchers, they would drive their cattle up to Western Kansas.
August's son, John, chose to work in a Round Rock hardware store, and when it burned in 1899, rebuilt it as the John Nelson Trading Company. He went on to run a lumberyard, a broom factory and the Nelson Bank. John and his cousin Carl Nelson served on the bank board and on the board of the First National Bank in Georgetown. They started the Thorndale National Bank.
Carl's side of the Nelson family, the Andrew Nelsons, dealt with their land and had Tenant farmers and other agricultural pursuits.
Andrew's grandson, Thomas Nelson, earned a UT degree, fought overseas in the First World War and, upon his return, became the personal secretary of Congressman Buchanan.
Thomas's sister married Charles Avery, Congressman Buchanan's district agent. He also served as the very first commissioner of the Texas Highway Department in 1917. Charles was expected to follow the retiring Buchanan, but was beat by an unknown 28-year-old named Lyndon Johnson. The family believed the election was stolen.
Charles Avery's grandchildren are very engaged in philanthropy. They have given huge tracts of land for academic and medical complexes that were originally purchased by Andrew Nelson over 170 years ago.
On the John Nelson side of the family, grandson Tom Nelson serves on the Round Rock Community Foundation Board and is also very involved in philanthropy.