Mayor Buckner & the Creation of Lake Jacksonvile
By. Deborah Burkett, Cherokee County Historical Commission
Summer fun in Jacksonville for many includes a day at Buckner Park; boating or skiing passed Buckner Dam at Lake Jacksonville; or attending end of school activities in Buckner Chapel at Jacksonville College. Who is this man whose name is linked to the city of Jacksonville and its past? Born 1895 on the family ranch, located on Hwy 84 between Reklaw and Mt. Enterprise; Buckner would attend college at Stephen F. Austin and teach school for a short period of time. In my interviews with locals he’s described as a moral man—a visionary who stood his ground and wasn’t afraid to take a chance.
Buckner owned a construction company and was a member of the Jacksonville City Council when Mayor Tom Acker decided to build Lake Jacksonville in the 1950s. Interesting to note up until this time, Lake Acker, constructed in 1922, supplied water to the City of Jacksonville. Lake Acker is located approximately 2 miles northwest of downtown Jacksonville and Lake Jacksonville is located in the Neches River Basin on Gum Creek, 5 miles southwest of town. Long before lakes and dams were built, these areas were being used by Indians. An ancient Indian trail led from the Caddo villages near the present site of Nacogdoches, crossed the Angelina River and traveled the length of Cherokee County northwest to the Brooks Saline on the Neches River.
The trail eventually became a road, commonly called the Saline Road and was used by pioneers as they settled East Texas. A survey map of Cherokee County prepared for the Texas Land Commission in 1851 marks two segments of the Saline Road which once traveled through Dialville, Old Jacksonville, Lakeview and Larissa. In the mid-1950s, Mayor Acker secured a Ft. Worth firm to study the Lake Jacksonville project. They presented three options in terms of possible locations. Acker then asked Bucker to review those options because Buckner’s expertise included major highway and bridge construction for the Texas Department of Transportation. According to L.H. Crockett, an accountant and longtime employee who went to work for Buckner Construction in 1962, “…Mr. Buckner didn’t like any of the options—the closest suggested location for the lake was 21 miles from Jacksonville…he felt that was too far away…” “But Acker sided with the Ft. Worth firm so Mr. Buckner decided to run against Acker for Mayor and won…” Buckner then hired an engineering group from Tyler and the idea of locating the lake where it is now was born. The lake would have a surface area of 1,352 acres, a 25 mile shoreline, and a capacity of 30,500 acre feet, with a watershed of more than 40 sq. miles. At a total cost of $829, 243.05 the lake would eventually provide the city with ten million gallons of water a day. Menefee Brothers Construction from Center, Texas, built the dam.
As construction of the dam began, disparaging phrases such as “Buckner’s Frog Pond” … “It’ll never fill up” …could be heard all over town. However, many were excited, couldn’t wait to visit the site as the photo illustrates. Two young couples from the New Hope community posed in their bathing attire near the dam, “before the lake filled up.” According to Kathy Hardy, “The couple on the right is my Aunt Marie Murphy Buckley and husband Orvan. Wish I knew the others...” Once the Dam was completed, it began to rain. And rain some more. Then in April 1957, the lake began to fill. The formal dedication was held August 6th of that same year. And finally on December 1, 1957, water began funneling into the spillway. A sure sign the lake was full. Mayor Buckner sent a telegram to Governor Price Daniels giving him the good news. Daniels had been at the dedication of the dam months earlier, along with thousands of people, which according to the Jacksonville Daily Progress—was more than the entire population of Jacksonville at the time.
Buckner soon gained the respect of his critics; many of those were among the first to sign leases for lake lots. In the early days of the lake, Harold Jones had a fishing cabin on the Maydelle side. I got to visit with his widow, Virginia, several weeks ago. She’s been living on that same lake property for 50 years but is now preparing to move. In order to be closer to family, Virginia was packing up her things the day we met. Full of spunk and vigor, Virginia, born 1934, shared, “Harold bought this lot from the Troup mayor about 2 weeks after the lake opened. Then later, when Harold and I married, I wrapped a house around his fishing cabin—a structure of my own design...”
When asked if she had worked outside the home, she replied, “Since the age of 11 when I ran the concession stand at a church resort in Oklahoma…years later in Jacksonville, I helped Philip Pavletich create Section 8 Housing—my name is on the 1981 plaque at Travis Towers…”
At the close of the interview, Virginia and I walked to the edge of the water. I asked what it was like fifty years ago on Lake Jacksonville. She mused, “Living at the lake was a story book time…It was magical...cooked a lot of hamburgers on this old stove…”
I heard similar refrains from Sandra Dickerson, who with her husband, Darold, have lived on the lake since 2005. She shared, “The Lake means peace and tranquility. It’s just beautiful! But it is also hard work…” Spoken like a true Garden Club member who spends a lot of her time working in the yard. If you prefer a smaller body of water for summer fun, the pool at Buckner Park is for you.L. H. Crockett shared that the initial idea for Buckner Park came from Hazel Tilton. She and another woman (possibly Hazel Decker) approached Buckner and asked him to donate his 10 acres on O’Keefe Road to the city for a park. And he did.
The large cement and brick monument at the entrance records the park was dedicated Arbor Day 1977, a Land and Water Conservation Project. That same year Buckner Chapel was also dedicated.
Thanks to Linda Thomas, Director of Library Services at Jacksonville College, for sharing information from the archives. According to John W. Gregson’s book, A Centennial History of Jacksonville College, Vol. 1, “The chapel was officially named the R.C. and Frances Buckner Chapel. Buckner gave an extremely large financial gift in memory of his father, R. G. Buckner who was a member of the board of trustees in the early 1900s.” Crockett once asked R.C. if he was kin to the Buckner Orphan’s Home founder, he replied, not as far as he knew.
In the heyday of Buckner Construction Company, R.C. went to Austin once a month and bid on construction projects for roads and bridges for himself and for other companies, as well. Shelley Cleaver remembers, “My daddy started to work for Mr. Buckner in 1941, I’d hang around the shop and started to work before I should have…One day Mr. Buckner told me to get in that water truck and drive it to the railroad yard in Palestine…the dust was so bad the highway department was going to shut them down…they needed water to spray the ground…I told Mr. Buckner I didn’t have my license—he said, ‘that’s ok—the truck doesn’t either’…so off I went in that ’44 model Ford…Mr. Buckner had got it during WW II in Bryan, Texas…when he built an air strip at the Army Air Force Base…” R.C. Buckner loved the family ranch and expanded it to 1,050 acres from the initial 500 his father had and from acres he purchased from other family members.
In 1954, Buckner became interested in Red Angus cattle when he heard of a small group of people meeting in Ft. Worth to organize the Red Angus Association of America. Two Black Angus would occasionally have a red offspring. Purists in the cattle business would dispose of, or simply give away these red calves. Soon R.C. let it be known he wanted them; built up his herd and in 1966-68 served as president of the national association. Crockett explained that for many years, R. C. had an annual Red Angus production sale in May or June. A huge tent was erected at the ranch; bleachers were made of square hay bales. There were always two auctioneers, dressed in tuxedos. “It was quite an affair…was catered too…” Crockett continued, “One year in Dallas, Mr. Buckner had the Grand Champion bull; a doctor from Georgia purchased it for a hefty sum. Because the ranch foreman was ill, my wife and I drove to Georgia and delivered the bull...”
Buckner’s herd became well known throughout the country. In September 1969, he had a dispersion sale. Two men from west of the Rockies, drove across country in a two-ton truck to watch Buckner sell 750 head. They ended up filling their truck with 20 Red Angus and would become leaders in the association. It is evident; the full story of R. C. Buckner is too big to tell here. Like others of Jacksonville at the time, he worked tirelessly as a civic and business leader; was devoted to family and church. He attended Central Baptist for over 50 years and was a veteran of World War I. R.C. married Sally Frances Arwine of Maydelle on February 16, 1935. They had two daughters, Bilye (Werner) and Bobye (Adamson).
Buckner was president of the Rotary Club and the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, served two terms as mayor. He developed and completed big projects. But one remained a dream; the extension of Lake Jacksonville. Buckner drew plans, even had maps made for another lake to be built downstream (Gum Creek) 4 or 5 miles from the Dam at Lake Jacksonville. But it never came to fruition. In 1972, Buckner sold the construction company to his nephew John Buckner, son-in-law Ray Adamson and longtime employee Bon Jackson. Robert Cook (R. C.) Buckner has been gone for 35 years. I’d like to think if he were here today he’d tell us to get up, get out and enjoy the summer in Jacksonville while remembering and appreciating the past.