Mysteries of Mantua: Ghost Town Explored | VAHC Exclusive

There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction. – John F. Kennedy

Confederate soldiers were drilling down the main road through Mantua, and among them was my neighbor’s grandfather. I was about a quarter of a mile away from the downtown firing my 1851 Colt Navy, but I could almost hear them if I listened closely enough. Six quick shots later, I reached into my buckskin bag with Indian bead work, grabbed my powder flask and assorted tools, and sat in the dirt to go through all of the steps required when loading a cap and ball revolver. I repeated this for about two hours until the sounds of the drilling Confederates subsided and all that was left was the sound of my boots stomping towards the creek as I reloaded the smoking cylinder. The sounds of the soldiers seemed like only yesterday, but I was about 150 years too late. – Fall, 2014

My neighbor, Mr. Lewis Fifer, was almost 100 years old back in 1997 when I lived across the street from him. Knowing his grandfather had lived and marched here in what was once a pioneer town further reinforced my belief that I wasn’t there in Mantua as if I had been copy / pasted from the future in contrast to the past, but instead my presence was a continuation of events that began long ago. I did not take my phone with me on this adventure. I wanted to be totally alone and make it difficult to find my way around. Although my intention was to become lost, I had at my disposal a discovery I had made at the Van Alstyne Public Library – a copy of a hand drawn map. It was shakily drawn by someone who had apparently lived here those generations ago and had survived long enough to sketch a rough layout with a ballpoint pen. It was about as close to feeling like Indiana Jones as one could get. I also had on my person a copy of a survey made that showed the boundaries of the cemetery that accompanied the settlement. Sitting in front of a pile of books in the library and cross-referencing them with forgotten documents from a courthouse basement always prefaces any outing.

Mr. Fifer had once said Mantua was “pronounced MAN-CHEW-AY” and just across HWY 75 there is, at the time of this writing, a small billboard advertising a vast acreage of farmland to be developed under the same name, opposite from the site of the former downtown. It will no doubt be called “MAN-TOO-UH” as the generations following Mr. Fifer never seem to know how to pronounce the name of the town and settle on the latter.

Mantua was organized in Collin County out of an older settlement in 1854 by James W. Throckmorton (a future governor of Texas), William C. McKinney, and Joseph Wilcox from 200 acres of land sold to them by Younger Scott McKinney, son of Texas Revolutionist Collin McKinney. Lots were marked and sold to finance the Mantua Seminary for which the town was conceived. Of course, once the Houston and Texas Central Railway bypassed the town in 1872 two miles to the east, the inhabitants rolled their structures away about three miles northeast to a water stop for the locomotives. The structures comprised a new town named for a stockholder (and wife of the surveyor) for the railroad – Marie Van Alstyne. “Marie” was then dropped from the town’s name. Mail service to Mantua discontinued on 11 July of the next year. At present the site is farmland with the random house thrown in the middle here and there, as it has been since shortly after the Civil War.

The countryside grew wilder and wilder through which I passed, which will no doubt soon be bulldozed and built-up with the encroaching development of gated communities of faux stone facades and streets with fancy, meaningless names. I wandered into abandoned barns and animal pens, climbing over and under barbwire. Litter showed me that the barns had hosted visitors relatively recently, and spent shotgun shells were found sparingly. One of the barns had rat feces the length and breadth of one of its small rooms, less than an inch deep. There must have been feed left in that room. Square straw bales were still stowed away, looking stoic and frozen in time. I drew my revolver on a shot-up piece of corrugated metal and put three clean shots into the same hole at 70 feet. As the squirrels raced across the tin barn roof and chattered to a level that would’ve drowned-out a conversation, I knelt down on one knee and reloaded. The barns didn’t appear to be as old as Mantua had been, before it was dismantled and moved towards the railroad tracks a few miles north to become Van Alstyne. All of the nails I looked at in the construction of these barns and pens were all round. Behind me was a plowed corn field sparkling in the sun with melted glass, which remains a mystery to me as to why there is a lot of melted globs of glass in that particular spot. There were also pieces of brick and chunks of broken stoneware vessels.

I approached a deep drop-off of about twelve feet or more through which a winding, shallow creek meandered. Immediately imagining Native American tribes walking this creek I superimposed that image in my imagination with another; of future retaining walls and playground equipment butting up against the treeline of the creek… Second story windows peeking over the walls with their lights on at night, unaware they are living atop much older settlements… And those that will pay their HOA fees will, no doubt, incorrectly call it “MAN-TOO-UH”.

Adjusting my cavalry hat and climbing down the steep drop-off by grabbing vines and roots I stepped into the cold creek water. I walked slowly through the deep creek bed as though it was the winding corridor of some building, and it was as quiet as a church no less. I walked along the creek as the high walls of the creek hooked a right, and in rounding the corner it was like stepping into a deep trench carved by giants. If attentive, one can usually smell water moccasins nearby. That’s about the only warning one might get before being chased several feet from the bank of a body of water. It’s like trying to out-run another human for the first several feet. Although people tend to fear rattlers, at least they’ll warn a person that they are near. But this wasn’t rattler stomping grounds down there in the cool muck, and I didn’t smell any moccasins nearby. I had my mind more on looking for arrowheads.

I was not slow to take the hint that was thus thrown out to me – that of movement beneath the water’s edge some ten yards to my 11 o’clock. There I did indeed pause, not out of surprise but to assess the nature of the situation presented before me. Before I could quite process what was happening I had my six gun pulled in a cross-draw with a water moccasin racing towards me at the speed of a squirrel, its head reared-up like a cobra. The mean-eyed, territorial serpent was thus blown near in two by a lead ball no sooner than it had propelled itself two feet in my direction. The deadly snake sank to the bottom of the cold creek. With no phone and a good twenty minutes from the nearest road I would’ve been doomed had I missed my one shot. I took that as my cue to not take the next turn down the creek, a left turn, and looked up towards the top of the abyss I had found myself no longer interested in exploring.

 "There I did indeed pause, not out of surprise but to assess the nature of the situation presented before me."

“There I did indeed pause, not out of surprise but to assess the nature of the situation presented before me.”

Stepping to my right I forded the creek by taking advantage of a sandbar of gray mud, and grabbing onto the roots of trees I hauled myself up to ground level. Before I could fully gain my balance I teetered backwards on my heels for a potential good eight foot drop but, without looking what I was reaching for – if anything, managed to grasp a vine of thorns and saved myself a deadly fall. To this day, I do not know how I managed not to cut myself up on that fistful of thorns. That was the only time I recall ever escaping death twice within the same day, much less within one minute. I followed a trail of litter into the trees. A modern boot… Recent beer cans… A coffee cup from the 1980’s. I looked at the copy of the hand drawn map and directed myself to the patch of woods that used to be Jim Stinnett’s homestead.

From a distance it was obvious that the structures on Jim Stinnett’s former property were still in use, so that was a negative on getting any closer. I remembered there being several men by the name of James Stinnett in the historic Van Alstyne Cemetery, so it will take a visit to County records to dig a little deeper and find out which Jim owned the property on the hand drawn map. One of the pioneers of the area who arrived before Mantua existed was one J.A. Stinnett, and afterwards others of the same first name were born. I followed the road south and passed the unmarked Newt Taylor Cemetery, or the Mantua Cemetery as it’s often called, on the corner to my left. I planned on saving that location for last, on my return trip back to Van Alstyne.

As the road curved to the right, on the left side of the road was once the Mantua School. I kept walking and the road curved left, and on the right corner was the home of Jane Kemp. In tiny cursive writing the homemade cartographer wrote next to a little square representing a home:

Dr. Russell lived with Mrs. Kemp & was killed in cart. Drunk couple in buggy hit horse with buggy whip. Ran off, turned cart over and killed Dr.

Mrs. Kemp (Aunt Jane) made “coal oil balls” for 10 cents each for fireworks at Christmas.

Was this the Dr. J. B. Russell (18 Oct 1830 – 2 Aug 1897) who was buried in the Van Alstyne Cemetery?

The road curved left and the former site of the Mantua Lodge / School was on my left to the east, across the field. There was no visible trace of anything ever having been erected there, from what I could see from the country road. In fact, the whole town on this main drag had been gone for generations.

I followed the fence looking for the one fence post that was made from the hitching post of the old Christian Church. I had seen a photograph of it in a January 1973 article of The Christian Courier with the caption:

HITCHING POST – W.L. “Bill” Lawrence of Anna, owner of the Collin County land where the old Mantua Christian Church once stood, shows a fence post he says once was the church’s hitching post. It still bore a hitching ring when this picture was made in August 1966.

The church was built in 1846 and dismantled in 1921. According to a Van Alstyne Leader article from 10 March 1994, “The bulk of the material still exists, as a barn west of Melissa.” Searching for the old barn would have to be a later adventure. It reminded me of how I had heard the Mayflower had been dismantled and made into a barn that still stood. Knowing the church-turned-barn probably still existed made me all the more want to locate the hitching post.

Raiders of the Lost Mantua

I could hear the old hymns fading a bit behind me as I walked further west, away from the church and the road it sat by. Buggies and horses were hitched, while many folks had simply walked to the service. The horses all waited patiently as the reverberation of the singing was intermittently muffled by my thoughts of heading in the direction of the creek. – Fall, 2014

I was hoping it was there. I’d been out here several times, cutting vines and crawling under barbwire in search of it. Even just happening to drive by the spot I would occasionally get out of the car and walk along the fence line buried in the thicket. Often trucks would slow down and ask me if I needed help, assuming I was having car trouble. It’s great to live in a place where people still do that for a stranger. Rabbits and birds scurried loudly in the underbrush as I crawled on my belly underneath the rusted barbwire and ancient wooden posts. It would be better to get a look from inside of the enclosure.

"I followed the fence looking for the one fence post that was made from the hitching post of the old Christian Church."

“I followed the fence looking for the one fence post that was made from the hitching post of the old Christian Church.”

Thorns tugged at my sleeves and wrapped around my legs and it felt like a crowd of people where grabbing onto me as I tried to pass. My boots, which came up to my knees, allowed me to plow-through the low limbs and thorns only to become ensnared about the ankles by tangles upon tangles of stinging plants. The Christian Church had been somewhere in the overgrowth. The little square on the map representing the church appeared to show the dividing wall down the middle of the building, long ways, separating the men from the women of the congregation. This placed the church facing east, towards the road, with the pastor’s back to the west behind the pulpit. There were two circles drawn behind the church on the map but I couldn’t figure out what they represented.

Further searching revealed more animal enclosures inside the woods, which had been plowed fields or cattle grazing after the church was moved but was now primeval thicket. I was fairly confident that, after about two hours of staring at hand-hewn posts, the hitching post was no longer a fixture of the fence as much of it had been replaced with modern t-bars. I was quite disappointed that the hitching post might have been discarded and I was determined to search again, some day.

I pushed forward, careful not to stick my entire leg into the animal burrows. Two brushes with death were enough for one day. I found a child’s blue, glass marble in the dirt. Further in the woods I found a piece of sandstone brick and the top of a large bottle that once took a cork and had turned purple in the sunlight. There was evidence of a barn that had burned down and the creek that ran along Will Stinnett’s homestead had modern junk thrown into it. Will Stinnett (1858-1930), also buried in Van Alstyne, is the best candidate to have been the one listed by the square on the map. There were shards of dinnerware in the dirt and, in inspecting them and rolling the glossy pieces between my fingers I wondered if these dishes had graced the table of a fine home on that lot between the creek and the church? I also figured that being neighbors with a church would almost obligate one to attend regularly, especially in those days.

The Corpse in the Wedding Gown

By this time the founder of the Van Alstyne History Commission had arrived. A few weeks prior he had used his detective skills to network and interview people that led him to discover the missing train depot that had once sat downtown Van Alstlyne. We met at the corner where the Mantua Cemetery was, also now overgrown with trees. Before going on a wild goose chase we visited a house that was yards away from the eastern border of the cemetery. We knocked on his door and I asked him if he knew anything about the cemetery. His eyes grew fearful and his expression began to look pale as he said, “If there’s a graveyard next to my front yard I’ve never heard about it. Oh my, I hope there’s not one there.” He cut our visit immediately short, thanked us, and closed the front door on us. Standing on his porch we just looked at each other and walked back down his driveway towards the road.

“This was actually called the New Taylor Cemetery,” I said as we crossed into the trees. “He was a member of the church here.”

The VP added, “Rea A. Nunnallee wrote that Captain Newton Taylor had a tan yard. Instead of bark, he used bois d’arc apples, putting a lot of hides in the pits. He filled the pits with osage apples and water. Newt settled here before this place was called Mantua. It was founded out of an older settlement called Liberty.”

“I found the previous place where Mantua was nearly founded, on a creek that runs beneath Hwy 5 between Melissa and McKinney, but Throckmorton and Collin McKinney decided to come a few miles north to here,” I said as a sidenote.

“Instead of settling in the middle of nowhere I guess they decided to ride up here to where people had already established something and said, ‘Okay, we’re taking things over now. By the way, we renamed your town Mantua.’ I mean, why not?”

“Just imagine,” I said as we wandered separately into the trees, following animal trails, “There’s a lady buried beneath our feet who is buried in her wedding dress. Her name was supposedly Nancy S. McKinney and she died before her wedding.”

“The same day?”

“I don’t know. That would be messed up.”

Also said to be interred in this forgotten place is David Shanks (d. 1883), one Pauline Taylor (age 8 years), one Mary Taylor (age 4 months), and Nancy S. McKinney (the dead bride, which cannot be proven to be the daughter of Younger Scott McKinney, of the same name).

"Her last name was McKinney and she died before her wedding."

“Her last name was McKinney and she died before her wedding.”

I couldn’t get the dead bride out of my mind, like those Dia de los Muertos figurines of the skeleton bride that I always found depressing and for sale in the basement gift shop just off Alamo Plaza in San Antonio. We reached the creek that formed the northern border of the cemetery. Wondering if there were any bones that were jutting out of the face of the slope, or any gravestones that had slid down into the water, I walked the steep incline into the creek. Still thinking of the dead bride I found what looked like a finger bone and tossed it up to the VP, who snatched it in midair. “Nah, just a piece of gravel,” he answered as he tossed it back to me.

“Good,” I said out loud to myself. “I don’t want to think I’ve found another finger bone like I thought I had done at pirate Jean Lafitte’s fortress.”

“Yeah, no joke.”

I had with me a survey of the cemetery that was made to get a state historical marker for the site, but there was no state marker. Only word-of-mouth could direct a person to the wooded area behind barbwire. It’s said that the surveyors who had created the map a handful of years prior had found three gravestones, but we couldn’t find one piece of stone or any sunken graves either. I had read from another source that the cemetery had been designated as a historic site in 2011, but through all of my research before stomping-off into the wild I never got around to verifying that.

Finally, north of the creek we found handmade bricks, an abandoned chicken coop, a storm cellar with no door, and an enormous abandoned barn constructed with square nails. Looking up from the inside, I recalled the Sistine Chapel but instead of an enormous fresco there were letters on the roof planks which had once been signs. The old advertisements had long ago been cut into planks and repurposed by a previous generation to form the roof high up above. The beams of the barn were trunks hewn by hand and sturdily built, older than the tall trees that hid the barn from view.

Crossing the main road where the Confederate soldiers had drilled, the town was silent now that they had retired from marching. I removed my gun belt and pulled my buckskin shot bag from my shoulder and, wrapping them up together, held them in my arms like a newborn and headed back home. I would return to the Van Alstyne Public Library tomorrow and research my next adventure, an adventure for which I would be about 150 years too late. – Fall, 2014

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