2015 Archives

Darwin Payne: Dallas’ Big Spring has a rich and important history


The following by SMU Professor Emeritus Darwin Payne first appeared in the Jan. 14, 2015, edition of The Dallas Morning News. Payne is the author of several books on Dallas history, including  No Small Dreams: Texas Visionary, J. Erik Jonsson, As Old As Dallas Itself and Dallas, An Illustrated History.

January 14, 2015


Darwin Payne
Darwin Payne

We're all hoping that Big Spring, Dallas’ newly realized but age-old attraction, will always be there at the edge of the Great Trinity Forest to remind us so pleasantly of how things used to be. Surely, with so much recent and positive attention (“Preserving Big Spring,” editorial, The Dallas Morning News, Jan. 3) that will be true.

Maybe, though, it will help our case even more if we remind ourselves that the reasons for its preservation are even stronger than most of us know.

There at Big Spring is where our city’s founder, John Neely Bryan, and his wife, Margaret Beeman Bryan, built a log cabin after the Civil War and lived there into the 1870s. They were attracted without a doubt by the spring’s convenient clear waters, plus the fact that the property had been deeded to Margaret by her father, who had settled in the area and claimed the property shortly after Bryan first settled near today’s Old Red Courthouse.

Bill Pemberton, who has acted as the spring’s unofficial caretaker for many years now and lives with his wife, Zada, in a house on the original property, tells us that the water flowing from Big Spring to White Rock Creek is known as “Bryan’s Slough.” Many stories have been passed down to Bill from family members who have lived there since 1880. That was the year Bill’s grandfather, Edward Case Pemberton, bought the 320-acre property from Bryan’s widow.

Big Spring in southern Dallas County Texas
Big Spring in December 2014
(Photo courtesy of Dallas Trinity Trails Blog.)

Case Pemberton farmed the land, for a while had a dairy that he named Bryan Springs Dairy, and owned a general store for nearby residents.

Going back farther, here — almost without question — is where the president of the Republic of Texas, Sam Houston, and his accompanying party camped in 1843 on their way to Grapevine Springs (now a park is named for it in Coppell) to meet with the chiefs of nine Indian tribes for peace talks. Arrowheads found at the springs indicate that Indians had frequented the place for many earlier years. As late as the 1920s, a lone Indian is said to have made his home in a tepee in a clearing near the spring.

Trees around the spring are also noteworthy. A huge bur oak is on the Texas Historical Tree registry. A pecan tree that is taller than the bur oak is nearby. A black walnut tree has an embedded railroad spike placed there by a Pemberton in 1908 to mark how high the water reached in that historic and devastating Dallas flood.

In my own early forays into Dallas history, I encountered in the 1970s a mention in the old Dallas Herald that said Bryan and Margaret were living at their place at Big Spring near White Rock Creek. I had never heard of Big Spring, and although I tried and tried, I could not discover where it was. Then in 1985 I encountered J.C. Pemberton who, knowing of my interest in Dallas history (but not of my effort to identify Big Spring) showed me the 1880 deed for the property his grandfather bought from Margaret Beeman Bryan. As I read through the deed, I was astonished to find “Big Spring” noted on the property, and the connection was made. It was right there on his property.

Later, when I began giving tours for the Dallas Historical Society, I always included the site on our South Dallas and Pleasant Grove itinerary. Without exception, Big Spring would be the highlight of each tour, for the existence of such a free-flowing stream in a wooded location within Loop 12 and with such an interesting past was highly intriguing to all.

To find out more about the history, see photographs and find out about efforts to save Big Spring, go to dallastrinitytrails.blogspot.com.

Related Link:

For her Engaged Learning project, Jewel Lipps, SMU ‘15, surveyed forest composition to identify and characterize riparian forest communities within the Great Trinity Forest at the Trinity River Audubon Center (TRAC) and from this data determined their successional stages. (Major: ENVS, CHEM; Mentor: Dr. Bonnie Jacobs). Read her blog.