Talk of Wilson County TX Historic Towns

by Barbara J. Wood
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Orphan Train

What a sad but heroic story of the children that rode the Orphan Train of Yesteryear. God's Speed young lady!!!
COURTESY/ The Colorado County Citizen, Vol. 164, No. 25 dtd June 23, 2021.  (Credit to TWCTHT Researcher, Mark Cameron , for submitting this article)

Spruce Orphanage

Wilson County Tx had only one orphanage that is known. The Spruce Orphanage is the only known orphanage in Wilson County. It started out in Sunny Side, Texas and was later moved to the west side of the San Antonio River 5 miles northwest of Floresville, Texas.

It was the fulfilling of God's Word that compelled this family to show compassion and take in 19 orphans and provide Godly homes for them in one of the worst times for orphaned children in the early 1900's. Joseph Fleming Spruce was a man of unwavering faith and undoubtable conviction whom opened his doors and changed these children's lives forever, perhaps saving their lives.

Joseph Fleming (J.F.) Spruce was born in Griffin, Georgia on May 6, 1852. At the age of 7, his family moved to Troupe, Texas to a farm 8 miles north of town where he grew up. He married Elizabeth Hearn White in August 1873 in Troupe at the age of 21. They had 5 sons born but only two made it to adult hood. These are Robert Elmer Spruce and John Henry Spruce. J.F. bought a farm nearby and became a licensed Methodist preacher.

It was during this time that the International Holiness Movement was unfolding in the South. (The Holiness Movement was the beginning of the Nazarene Church). So great was the movement's impact on many Christians that the churches were inadequate to accommodate the masses. Because of this, outdoor meetings were held anywhere outside.

J.F. Spruce attended one of those meetings in Scottsville, Texas near his home. There is where he met the Reverend John S. Keen of Highway, Kentucky. Reverend Keen was President of a Bible school in Highway (1891-1905). The two men talked about enrolling the entire Spruce family in the school, and this is when the Spruces moved to Highway, Kentucky.

J.F. Spruce was 42 at this time. J.F.'s wife and his two sons were the family members that attended the school. J.F., being a preacher, started doing mission work, visiting the unfortunate people who lived in the mountain region near the school. After the 4 years, they moved back to Troupe. Robert Elmer got sick the last year of school, and moved back to Troupe a year earlier.

It was during the mid-1890s that a half dozen families from Smith and Cherokee Counties (Troupe) moved to Southwest Texas and settled in the Sunny Side community. This is about 10 miles east of Floresville, Texas.

The Spruce family thought it a good idea to move to rich fertile land of South Texas, so they sold their farm in Troupe, and moved to Sunny Side, Texas in 1895 where they bought 200 acres and settled there. Elmer Spruce also bought 200 acres adjoining his father's land.

It wasn't long before J.F. Spruce was asked to preach three of the Sabbaths in the month at the Sunny Side Methodist Church, and Brother James A. King, of Floresville Methodist Church, preached the fourth Sabbath.

The community of Sunny Side had a local school where Professor Crisp taught (married Katie Rogers). Robert Elmer's health got better and he returned to Highway, Kentucky to finish his last year in the Bible school after his family had moved to Sunny Side. 

Reverend Keen, from Highway, Kentucky visited J.F. Spruce and after returning back to Highway, decided to move to Sunny Side with his family and open a new Bible school. He then sold his Bible school to W.H. Evans (Evans then managed orphans and ran the school until he closed it in 1905.) 

A few days later, the Keen family and 35-40 others from families that belonged to the Bible school arrived in Sunny Side in 1897. Wiley Woolsey (Elizabeth Woolsey Spruce's father) either sold or donated 10 acres of land on which to build. It was not long and a new Bible school was built. It operated from 1899-1901. It was the largest boarding school in Wilson County. The pupils numbered around 35 or 40.

Out of the blue, Reverend Spruce received a letter from the Stockdale pastor of the Methodist Church, requesting he be present at a called meeting to face trial for false teaching in the presence of the chief executive of the San Antonio District conference. He was accused of preaching error instead of truth. His accusers did not accept his Holiness Movement theory and excommunicated him. His membership and license from the church he loved so well, had been destroyed. 

In 1907, J.F. Spruce took in 19 children that had been abandoned by W.H. Evans in Kentucky who had formerly been responsible for them at the Bible school. His deserted wife, Myrtle Evans, and the 19 orphans (13 boys and 6 girls), and 5 of her own children, rode the Orphan Train out of Kentucky to San Antonio, TX where J.F. Spruce met them and took them to the large house in Sunny Side he had built for them.

Known names of some of the orphans are: Alma Safford, Louise Hamilton, Ada Sidwell, Effie Richards, Ruth Enlow, William Porter, Virgil Savage, Claude Savage, Charlie Anderson, and Paul Seay.

A nice large school house was near the orphanage. The building doubled as a church for Reverend Spruce to preach the Holiness Movement gospel. Some of the Sunny Side neighbors started attending the church and the congregation grew to a nice size. The school was a private school for the orphan children but any neighbor who cared to could send their children. Teachers in the private school were Robert Elmer Spruce, Bettie Crow, and Helen Mullinger.

In 1910, J.F. and his son Robert Elmer went prospecting in Old Mexico. Elmer sold all his land and J.F. sold 300 acres of his own land. On their return from Old Mexico, they each bought 300 acres along the San Antonio River 5 miles northwest of Floresville. Elmer's property already had a 1 ½ story house, a barn and a windmill, so he and his family moved in November 8, 1910. J.F. had to build his new home, so he moved later.

J.F. built a very large two story home with and upstairs and downstairs porches that wrapped three sides of the house.
It had 13 rooms with closets for the orphans and family members. The orphans lived upstairs. 

Elizabeth Woolsey Spruce (Elmer's wife) describes the two story house as follow: "It was painted white, built upon a small hillside with a lovely view. Vines covered some of the large porches both up and down stairs. The yard glowed with many brilliant flowers and a beautiful white picket fence matched the white painted house. It could be seen from several miles and often our friends passing on the highway 3 or 4 miles away would tell us they usually looked for our home across the San Antonio River." 

The home in the 1910 census, records the Spruce home as Rebobath Children's Home. It was not a formal orphanage per se. The Spruces simply opened their home to a group of orphans. It was never an official ministry of the Church of the Nazarene either, but rather an act of generosity and social ministry carried out by a Nazarene family to group of children in need.

A private schoolhouse was built on a small plot of land across the public road from the new orphanage. It also doubled as a church. Miss Lela Naylor was the teacher at that time. Sister Naylor taught all 7 grades and the children would attend Floresville schools after that. She boarded with Elmer's family for several years before becoming violently ill and died June 8, 1917.

J.F.'s health started to decline in 1917 and he decided to close the orphanage and relocate the children. Through the help of a friend, Rev. J.E. Fryer, each boy was placed in a Christian home where he could work for his expenses. J.F. and his wife took the girls to Hamlin, TX and enrolled them in a Nazarene school. They all lived in Hamlin for many months letting the girls become adjusted to the school and get acquainted in the community.

Nazarene families were eventually found that were willing each to take one girl and let her live with them and become like a "family" member. J.F. and his wife lived in Hamlin for a while longer before returning home to Floresville.

Immediately after J.F. and his wife left for Hamlin, his son, Elmer, and his wife moved into J.F.'s big two story house. It became theirs. J.F. and his wife returned home and moved in with his son and his wife and family. J.F. and his wife lived upstairs. Also after J.F.'s return from Hamlin, he started attending the Floresville Methodist Church where his son Elmer and his family had already started attending. Both families eventually became members of the Floresville Methodist Church.

Joseph Fleming Spruce died June 5, 1923. His wife, Elizabeth Hearn White Spruce died February 18, 1932. They both are buried in the Floresville Cemetery.

In 1940, Elmer remodeled the house and made it a one story. Sometime during the 1940s, Elmer leased part of his farm to the government for an air base. Through some evil deeds by some in government, Elmer was forced to sell that part of his farm. He could have taken the issue to court and had his opposers jailed, so he was advised. Rather, he deferred from law suit and sold the rest of the farm and moved away to San Antonio.

Robert Elmer Spruce died January 23, 1964 and his wife, Matilda Elizabeth Woolsey Spruce died January 2, 1969. They are both buried in Bethany Cemetery, Bethany, Oklahoma.

Only one orphan, Paul Seay, maintained continuing contact with the Spruce family. He got married in the home in which he had been placed, and returned to Wilson County where they lived on the Robert Elmer Spruce farm and worked until the Spruces retired and moved to San Antonio. He continued to visit the Spruces after they moved to Bethany, Oklahoma up until their deaths.

[Courtesy of Historian Mark Cameron, Wilson County Historical Society, May 29, 2017 Photos courtesy of Beverly Jones (Great Granddaughter of J.F. Spruce]