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The Story of the Swann Hotel – Jasper TX
The Story of the Swann Hotel – Jasper TX

A. L. Dunkin Home (1901) – (Known as the Swann Hotel since 1915)

Abner Littlejohn Dunkin was the son of Absolum L. Dunkin and Mary Elizabeth Gillum.   His parents were married in Bibb County, Alabama. He was born on February 16, 1858, eight years after they were married.  He was the youngest of four children. His death certificate indicates he was born in Mississippi.   Abner’s story is filled with contradictions such as his birthplace and other interesting facets of his life that remain a mystery.

It seems that his parents migrated into the Big Thicket of Southeast Texas in the mid to late 1800’s.  It is told that the family came by wagon train from Mississippi, along with other families.  Their trip was difficult and some times was halted so that families could stay long enough, in one place, to plant and harvest a food crop to enable them to continue.  The Dunkin family had sent their household belongings on ahead, by boat to New Orleans.  As they continued their journey from Alabama or Mississippi, they detoured to the gulf port of New Orleans to reclaim their goods before moving on into Texas.  

Eventually, they made their way to the area of Zavalla, Texas, an old Spanish town which survived the early war that freed Texas from Mexican Rule in 1836.  Five miles south of Zavalla a Dunkin settlement was established, and some times was referred to in later years as being at the Turpentine Camp and eventually Camp Nancy.  The area remained vibrant for the Dunkin Family before the 1860’s through the First World War. hotel-features-jasper-tx

There was an established township known as Dunkin, Texas.  It had an official school and post office.  Dunkin family members owned large blocks of timberland, surrounding a place called Camp Nancy or the Turpentine Camp.  The land was heavily wooded with the legendary virgin pines, which later contributed to the local economy.  Some of the land today stands in the protected Angelina National Forest Reserves.

The early Dunkin family lived ‘off the land’ and forest. The soil was not suited for extensive farming.  It is told that even before settlers built their log homes, family members, young and old, bustled about putting in a garden, building fences and constructing necessary outbuildings.  Cowsheds, chicken houses and sometimes cotton houses were built before the home place was completed.   In order to begin such a task, giant trees had to be felled and moved by ‘horse and man power’ to clear land with which to begin.

We expect young Abner’s family experienced these hardships in the heavy wooded area.   Actually, the Dunkin family found their new Texas home was much like it had been in upstate Mississippi, or Alabama.  The climate and terrain was very similar.

Life was difficult.  Many did not survive, especially the young.  There was no medical knowledge, past natural remedies handed down through the generations.  Mortality rate was high.

One of the surviving monuments to their struggle is still visible today is the Dunkin Cemetery, the resting place of the earliest family members and where family continues to be laid to rest today.  It is located at the sight of the original family home place, five miles south of Zavalla.

bed-and-breakfast-jasperThere is no tangible evidence of the life of young Abner, other than the tracks of his entire family as they moved to Texas and established their farm home.  We know that he became an entrepreneur of sorts, as a young adult.  His interests were more toward ‘business ventures’ such as cattle raising, establishing general stores and businesses which supported the farm trade in the area.

When he was 21 years of age, he was self-sufficient and had relocated in the area of Rockland, Texas, perhaps with one or more of his brothers.  He married young Susan Gray in May of 1879 in her hometown of Town Bluff on the river.  She was a mere 15 years of age.  They lived in Town Bluff for two years.  She was the grand daughter of a prosperous landholder in the area, Mr. Jeremiah Gray.

Town Bluff was one of the earliest settlements in the county.  It had one of the earliest ferries on the Neches River, as early as 1833, before Texas declared its independence.  During the very first session of the Texas Legislature, Town Bluff became the permanent county seat.  Since it was at the head of navigation on the Neches, Town Bluff received steamboats regularly until the arrival of the railroads in Tyler County in the 1880s.  The railroads eventually bypassed Town Bluff and simultaneously made river shipping obsolete and the town begin to dwindle. This tells us of the hometown of our Susie Dunkin and the Gray family.

The town of Rockland, the home base of Abner Dunkin, was ‘put on the map’ by the arrival of the East Texas Railroad in 1881.  The man, who brought the railroad to town, named it Rockland because of the exposed limestone bedrock of the area, which provided much of the building stone for Tyler County in the early days.

Abner’s brother, Mac Dunkin, started the first business in the Rockland area, which we believe Abner had a hand in, since his name appears on the legal documents concerning the ferry, under the Dunkin ownership.

Mac actually opened a saloon, in 1885, on the river at the site of the river ferry located at the present Neches River Bridge.   The first ferry across the Neches, near the town site, was taken over by Mac Dunkin after being started by a man named Graham about 1885. Mac owned and operated the ferry in conjunction with the saloon until the present highway bridge was built.

Mac was not new to the ferry business.  Mac Dunkin had previously owned a ferry near Fort Teran on the Neches River.  He bought it from a man named Boone and continued to operate it until he opened up a new saloon and ferry operation near Jasper.

Abner apparently continued in his cattle business in the area, as well as acquiring land.  He also built early mercantile stores in the Rockland.  He owned and operated Dunkin & Watson Co. there in late 1890.   His business interests were soon to include property holdings in Jasper and the surrounding community, where he expanded the cattle and land interests he held there.

THE STORY OF ABNER LITTLEJOHN DUNKIN

Swan-Hotel-Open-HouseThe Jasper Newsboy noted that in June of 1900 A. L. Dunkin ‘was in town from Rockland to look after his property interests in Jasper’.  He was considering a large construction project to be completed on the Northwest corner of the square in Jasper.  He continued his development in and around the city of Jasper in late 1900.

In September it was quoted in the local newspaper that he was to build his family home in Jasper, in order to send his children to the Southeast Texas Male & Female College, which had been chartered in 1876. The school was by all report, the finest education facility in all of East Texas. Apparently, the Dunkin family moved to Jasper in time for the 1900 Fall session at the school.  All of the Dunkin children attended there.

By this time Abner and Susie had six living children. Felix Peyton; James William; Rebecca; John Boykin; Grace Myrtle and Abbie Lillian.  They had lost a one-year-old daughter, Nannie Emma in 1881 and a son, Jerry Mack, age 3, in 1896.

We note that the Dunkin brothers were continuing in their business interests together.  Mac Dunkin was mentioned as having been in town from Rockland on business in May of 1900, just one month before Abner was to announce his move to Jasper.   Even though the family was to be moved, Abner continued his business interests in Rockland and in surrounding counties for quite some time.

In 1900 the Big Fire destroyed Jasper’s entire business section.  The businesses were not around, what is know as, the square proper now, because there was no square at that time.  Businesses were chiefly located on both sides of Houston Street from Austin on the east, to Bowie on the West.  The fire destroyed the entire block of businesses.

By this time the Spindle Top Oil Boom began.  And true to his business instincts, Abner was holder of mineral rights on some of the east Texas land involved in the emerging oil boom. In fact, it was not until May of the following year that a formal announcement was published that stated, “Mr. Dunkin will soon begin the erection of a handsome double story building on his property, north of the square.”

It should be noted here that Susie, the only remaining grand child of Jeremiah Gray, had inherited much land.  The original deed to the original A. L. Dunkin home property was deeded to her by her grandfather in 1890.  Today the house is known as the Swann Hotel, a Bed & Breakfast, and an establishment of outstanding reputation in the state.

Before the home was built, May of`1901, the newspaper noted “the carpenters are at work now on the Dunkin store and office building on the Northwest corner of the square in Jasper.  The building contains two stores and the second floor which will house the Dunkin offices.” It was completed in July 1901.  This building, being part of the ‘new downtown business district’, and was built after the fire.  As you may note, A. L. Dunkin had a keen sense when money was to be made and opportunities reached out to him.  However, his family was always most important to him and he wanted to be well established before beginning the family home place.

The family home was completed only after the commercial building was completed.  In June of 1901 A. L. Dunkin and his son Peyton traveled to Dallas where the son was enrolled in a Business College that same year.

From all accounts, the Abner L. Dunkins prospered and grew prominent in the town.  He and Mrs. Dunkin were on the social circuit, noting that Susie was an officer in the local Order of the Eastern Star.  She also was a member of Woodmen Circle at Brookeland where Mrs. Dunkin was named Worthy Adviser.

The Dunkin ‘boys’, Jim and Peyton, were members of the elite “Jeff Davis Rifle Corp”, which was a military regiment of privileged and well educated young men of the community. Jasper’s Civil War hero, Capt. E. I. Kelly, organized the Corps.  The group was numbered at about forty and was composed of the ‘cream of Jasper’s young manhood’.

The Captain taught military science at the old Southeast Texas Male and Female College and was a strict disciplinarian and a stickler for military detail.  He felt it equally important that ‘his’ boys be trained in the fine art of social graces, manners and decorum – always ‘gentlemen’ of the highest rank.  He encouraged the highest of morals and the utmost respect for womanhood.  The group became widely known for its hospitality and elaborately hosted social affairs.  An invitation to the Amory was a guarantee of a ‘high social’ evening.  With equal aplomb, they could fight a sham battle with cannon and ball . . . or dance all night at a Rifle’s cotillion.

A.L., on the other hand, was involved in acquiring farm properties, oil investments and his growing retail business interests.  The family lived well until tragedy struck.

All the children were well educated.  Their youngest daughter, Rebecca, was just graduating with honors from her finishing school.  She was a beautiful girl with very fair complexion and long dark hair and considered as ‘the flower of the home and hearth”.  She was just sixteen, and promised in marriage to her childhood sweetheart, Carl Victor Patton.

Wonderful social events were planned and the whole community rejoiced in their young love.  Mr. Patton was the son of prominent hotel family, owners of the Belle Jim.  He was a student at the Peacock Military School in San Antonio.  The young couple had much potential and every one admired them.

Then, quite abruptly, Rebecca became irreversibly ill and she died from a ruptured appendix.  The entire town was grieved beyond description.
The whole town rushed to the family home to comfort the family.  When, at last, Rebecca’s funeral was arranged, young Carl rode on his horse to her gravesite, along with the cortege. He was described as so grieved he could hardly stay mounted on his horse.  It is speculated that he never recovered from his loss of his beloved Rebecca.

Most assuredly, Rebecca’s death was the undoing of her mother and eventually the entire family.  They continued for a time, in Jasper, but Susie declared she could no longer remain in the house where Rebecca died.  That was the beginning of plans to sell out the property on which stood the family home as well as the stores and offices, which fronted on the square.  In October of 1908 the deed was done.  A newspaper article revealed the sum of $15,000 was paid for the home and downtown commercial properties.

The first part of A.L. Dunkin and his family’s history came to a close at this time and they moved to a place called Waurika, Oklahoma.  Son Peyton had gone there the previous year where he found the potential of the area to be one of great opportunity.

References:

All of the material found here was gathered in the year of 2001 by Joe Seale the grandson of A.L. Dunkin.  His sources have been the Jasper County Historical Society, Jasper News Boy (oldest newspaper in the state of Texas), excerpts from journals and documents of record, on file in the Jasper County Courthouse.  Other sources for Mr. Seale included the first hand recollections of extended Dunkin/Seale family members.

Swann Hotel 1915

It was purchased in 1915 by Mrs. Mahala Swann, a widow and mother of six girls, and established as a hotel. Mrs. Swann began the hotel’s tradition of warm Southern accommodations mixed with the finest East Texas home cooking, a custom that she continued until her death in 1950.

The hotel then passed to Mahala’s daughter, Eugenia, who carried on the family business, as well as its traditions of Southern hospitality and fine food. Miss Genie, as she was known around town, soon became the unofficial hostess of Jasper. A devout member of the Methodist Church and many local civic clubs, Ms. Genie devoted much of her life to continuing and enhancing the reputation of the Swann Hotel.