Take 108 north out of Stephenville, hang a right on FM 1188 and in a mile or so you’ll pass by Exray on your way to Liberty. If you ride on this road long enough, climb up and down all the hills and stay on the highway around the sharp turns, you’ll see Morgan Mill but Exray is interesting enough to make you pull over. Pay close attention or you’ll miss the one-room building, painted white, the only building still standing where once, almost a hundred and thirty years ago, Saturday afternoon shoppers made the stores’ cash boxes clatter. Today there is the wooden building where the Church of Christ congregation used to meet. It’s used now on occasion for a community gathering and at one time it was where Precinct 13 folks voted. There’s a nicely trimmed graveyard stretched out behind a long swinging gate. Graves of Confederate veterans are located there among the other pioneers who once plowed the land, bought sacks of sugar and rolls of calico at the Mercantile, before picking up month-old letters at the post office and loading in the wagon for the trip back down the hill.
Today there is a lonely visitor placing flowers beside a marker in the cemetery while the old church building sits idle, an infrequent meeting place that watches days grow into weeks and become months without hearing the turn of a key in the door. The hot dry August wind picks up a few grains of sand and tosses them against the siding, and the building shivers a little remembering other times.
Fred Little used to live down 1188. He went on to his reward a few years ago at age 93. Some of his folks still live on the home place. Fred grew up at Exray, left in 1940 but came back in ’74 and stayed around long enough so that we became friends. It was Fred who came up with the answer to a question I had often asked others. “Where did the name, Exray come from?”
Someone told me the place was so little, you could stand at one end of town and see straight through it; so they named it Exray. Fred told me another story. He said that they were going to name the post office Shelbyville because the post office would be in a general store run by the Shelby family. However some other town in Texas already had that name, so they wrote suggestions for a name on pieces of paper, shook them up good in a felt hat and drew out….Exray. Fred didn’t know who actually put the name “Exray” in the hat but that’s the story he heard and he said to me, “That’s as good as any!” And so it is.
Mae Shelby was born in Exray in 1906. She passed away several years ago but I used to visit her at Community Nursing home and talk to her about local history.
She had very clear memories of growing up in Exray when Main Street was lined with thriving businesses. She told me about the great mercantile store where her uncle, C.P. Shelby, sold everything from flour in cloth sacks to lamp wicks and coal oil lamps.
There was a Mr. Bridges who gave two acres for a cemetery in 1904. The first person buried there was Charlie Thornton and the second was Mae’s aunt, Moncie Camfield. Her grandmother, Rebecca Shelby, was buried there in 1904 and the cemetery holds the final resting place for many other members of her family including Mae herself. She told me that her grandparents came to Texas from Tennessee when her father was just 16 months old. She said they used to entertain her with stories about the hardships in Tennessee after the War Between the States and the trip by wagon to Erath County. Her grandfather walked behind the wagon for most of the trip, leading a milk cow. I tried to imagine how hard it would be to walk to Erath County from Tennessee and to lead a cow all that way! Chances are sometimes another family member walked and led the cow but the cow had to walk every mile.
Church services were held outdoors under the trees until a building could be built. Several congregations met there at different times. The church building was built for the Presbyterians and later it burned. The residents at Exray took up money and bought a building from Oak Dale which they tore down and moved to the new location, then rebuilt. This church building also burned, so they again took up a collection and built a third building for services. This served the community as the Church of Christ until the late ‘60’s when the congregation was so small, the doors were closed and members met with others at Huckabay and elsewhere. Today the building is used for lunches at funerals, graveyard workings and other times.
One of the first buildings in Exray was a school and it was no “little” school according to Mae. There were three teachers at one time with more than 100 students. Mae said that this school had a fine basketball team which won most of its games. School turned out for cotton picking and peanut harvest for about two weeks in the fall, so the boys and girls could help lay by the crops.
Exray is one of many places throughout our country with a history worth remembering. At first the Indians roamed these hills and valleys finally being chased out by pioneers looking for places to build homes, schools and churches. They came from other Southern states mainly, most after the War. They brought what they had in one wagon and many times they walked the many miles it took before they felt like stopping. Nothing, not even a death in family stopped them. They buried their dead beside the wagon trail and went on. Many times they walked across entire states but once they go to where they were going, they planted deep roots in this fertile soil and grew families and communities. Our ancestors faced death and starvation, Indians and crop failure, bitter weather and disappointment, but they stayed and they made the way easier for those who came after them.
Joyce Whitis is a free-lance writer. She has written Patchwork for the E-T since 1976. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org