By Dana Goolsby
Walker County- Just outside of Huntsville lies a forgotten community tucked away down a winding dirt road under the pines. Little remains of the early East Texas community, with the exception of one of the oldest burial grounds in Walker County and memories passed on from early settlers.
Martha’s Chapel is a church community located approximately seven miles southwest of Huntsville in south central Walker County. The area has been known by many names throughout its existence. It has been referred to as Johnson’s Chapel, Trinity Church, as well as Robinson’s Settlement. The site is on an unimproved road midway between Farm roads 1374 and 1791, also commonly referred to as Bowden’s Road and in more recent years, Demon’s Road.
The Rev. Moses Speer came to Texas in about 1837, to participate in the “Texas Mission” of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. The “mission”, of course, was to bring Methodism to the new Republic of Texas. Until Texas won its independence at the Battle of San Jacinto in April of 1836, the official religion of Mexican Texas was Catholicism, and the preaching of other religions was strictly forbidden.
Speer rode a circuit that included the towns of Montgomery and Huntsville, however, there were towns in early Texas at that time. He preached at gatherings in homes. He was revered as a good “soul-winner”.
William Robinson was a devout Methodist, and gave 30-plus acres of land to the “Texas Mission” to build a campground, church building, school, and it also contained a cemetery. The William Robinson Settlement was home to any preacher, of any denomination, especially circuit riding ministers. Robinson had two sons-in-law who were Methodist circuit riding preachers.
The Methodist church built on the land provided by Robinson is believed to have been the first church constructed in Walker County. The church was initially built in the 1830s and eventually became known as Robinson’s Settlement. The church shared its building with other denominations as well.
In 1840, the Rev. Moses Speer became seriously ill while staying at the Robinson Settlement and died. Speer was the first person buried in the cemetery where the first campground originally stood. Today his grave can still be found with ease in the cemetery.
In 1843, the fourth Texas Methodist Conference held its annual meeting there. Sometime after the conference the local congregation adopted the name Trinity Church.
In 1855 John C. Black donated twenty acres to the original Robinson grant, and a new building was erected near the old church. The original log structure was then moved and turned into a barn.
The designation Martha’s Chapel was possibly derived from one of the names of the first church members buried in the new church’s cemetery. Martha Palmer was the wife of church trustee Anthony C. Palmer and many believe the cemetery is named after her.
During the Civil War attendance at Trinity Church declined. Rev. James G. Johnson had recently returned to Martha’s Chapel in 1863, and constructed a smaller building that was known for a while as Johnson’s Chapel.
The surrounding rural neighborhood also maintained a school, though the bell rang only sporadically in the early years. In 1896 the Martha’s Chapel school employed two teachers, Miss Ona Randolph and Miss Mary Sterne. The schoolhouse remained as late as 1936 but was closed soon thereafter. By the 1990s only the cemetery remained at the site.
All that remains of this early pioneer settlement is Martha’s Chapel Cemetery. The cemetery sits beneath the a cluster of old pines and cedars, where the East Texas sunshine can only peer through from time to time. A stroll among the old tombstones tells the story of the early settlers who left their mark on the area.