From a small settlement on the southern edge of the Red River, to a stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail route, Grayson County has come a long way in the more than 170 years since its founding. During its early years, the city played many roles— from a place of culture and learning as the home of multiple colleges and an opera house, to the center of what was one of Texas’ most populous regions.
The city of Sherman dates back to the origins of the state of Texas itself and its founding in 1846. That year, U.S. representatives accepted the annexation of Texas as the 28th state in the Union. As a part of early organization, state officials took on the task of splitting the state into more manageable pieces.
This process split Grayson County away from its neighboring Fannin County. At the time, representatives called for the founding of Sherman as the county seat of the new fledgling Grayson County.
“The name ‘Grayson’ for the county and the name ‘Sherman’ for the city were both selected by the state representatives,” said Ivert Mayhugh, president of the Grayson County Historical Society. “Of course, Grayson is Peter Grayson and Sherman is General (Sidney) Sherman, who was famous for capturing Santa Anna at San Jacinto near Houston.”
Mayhugh, who owns Touch of Class Antique Mall on Sherman’s courthouse square also operates the Outlaw Trails Museum on the third floor of the storefront. The museum offers a glimpse of antiques and artifacts from the beginning of Grayson County and the city of Sherman.
“After I bought this building, I got more and more involved with the local history because I thought it all was fascinating,” Mayhugh said. “The fact that the Butterfield Stage had come through here and almost all the land was given away was fascinating to me.”
While Sherman has always been the county seat, Sherman itself has not always been in the same location. As is common with many county seats, Sherman was originally placed near the center of Grayson County along what is now State Highway 289. However, the city moved shortly after due to a lack of water and timber.
“The exact location is still in question,” Mayhugh said. “The state has a marker in one location, but locals say it was elsewhere.”
While some early settlers moved into the region by the 1830s, the first large-scale efforts started a decade later with the founding of the Peters Colony, which covered parts of 26 North Texas counties, including Grayson, Cooke, Denton and Collin counties. The modern city of The Colony is named after the early settlement.
Among the arrivals with the Peters Colony was an early figure in Sherman’s history that Mayhugh has studied well due to surviving letters that described life early on in the city. Dr. John Brook is known to have arrived in the area some time around 1848 and owned the city’s first drug store, owned the land on which Touch of Class now sits and served as the city’s third postmaster. Brook and his wife are also believed to have been the city’s first public wedding in 1850.
Brook arrived in the United States from his native England in the 1840s. The colony and the promise of free land offered a new start to Brook and many early settlers.
“He was coming here because even if you were single you could get free land,” Mayhugh said. “Apparently that had been the appeal to him.”
Rather than spend his little remaining money on a horse, Brook and eight other prospective settlers decided to make the 250-mile trip from Shreveport to North Texas by foot. Brook was one of only two who saw the entire trip through.
Mayhugh said many of Brook’s accounts of the early city come in the form of letters he wrote to family in England. A group of nearly two dozen letters that he wrote were discovered in North Texas in the 20th century.
“We only have letters he sent. Apparently a relative kept them for a while (and) sent them back to relatives in Texas,” Mayhugh said. “They died and ended up for sale in a book store in Dallas.”
In his accounts, Brook said the closest town of note was Preston, near what is now Lake Texoma. Aside from about 25 houses, the city was known for being the home of cheap whiskey.
In its early days, the city of Sherman was of little note outside of the occasional raid by Indian tribes.
“The Indians were still retaliating for the five tribes being pushed out of the southeast,” Mayhugh said. “Dr. Brook never had problems with them, but you were always aware of them.”
The earliest estimate on the city’s population came in the late 1850s when the Butterfield Stage came into town on its route to San Francisco. At the time, it was estimated that Sherman had a population of about 600 people. The stage was originally meant to arrive in and travel through Preston, but negotiating and the promise of free ferry crossings led the early mail carrier to cross the Red River more east than anticipated and into Sherman instead.
Very little business was happening in Sherman prior to the civil war. During and immediately prior to the war, Sherman gained recognition as a Unionist stronghold, with notable opposition to secession.
“When they took a roll-call vote for secession, I think there were about nine counties in North Texas that didn’t want to secede from the Union,” Mayhugh said.
This tension led to some conflicts, including some Sherman residents who were among the 42 killed by Confederate state militia in 1862 in what was known as the “Great Hanging at Gainesville.”
During the late stages of the war, Confederate guerrilla leader William Quantrill wintered in Sherman in 1864. Among his band were infamous outlaws Frank and Jesse James, who would go on to lead the James-Younger gang. Jesse James also honeymooned in Sherman following his marriage.
It was in the decade following the war that Sherman began to make a name for itself. With growth to the west, a small but notable industry for buffalo hides developed, and Sherman was one of the hot spots for development.
It was during this era that Sherman leaders began efforts to make the city a cultural landmark, complete with an opera house and multiple colleges.
In 1876, Austin College, the oldest continuously operating college in the state, relocated from Huntsville to Sherman. Mayhugh attributed the relocation to several factors, including a lack of support in Huntsville, lack of railroad connectivity and several waves of yellow fever that gripped the college.
Despite the growth, Mayhugh said Sherman showed some reluctance to accept some modern amenities of the day, including the growing railroad system.
“Sherman originally didn’t want the railroad and what comes with the rail head— the drunks and the nightlife. It did get a railroad later on, but Sherman always had the idea … that it needed to be a nice community, with a nice hotel for travellers to stay in and maybe a nice opera house with things going on. Eventually, all those things did happen.”
By 1880 Grayson County was among the most populous counties in the state, with more than 38,000 residents. It was in this period that the county continued to grow and modernize, with grain elevators becoming commonplace.
“Agriculture was becoming more industrialized and agriculture became more than just raw crops,” Mayhugh said, highlighting the change from the hide industry to cotton.