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Lord's Acre

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Folks called it the Lord's Acre.

In addition to whatever they might put in the collection plate each week, many farmers used to give the proceeds from one acre of their crop land to their church each year. Though not as common as it used to be, the tradition has endured in some corners of Texas, particularly Taylor County.

But like most customs, it has evolved over the years. Farmers no longer earmark the bounty of an acre of their land to give away, but once a year the farmers, ranchers and local merchants in the southern part of Taylor County donate food, crafts and other items to be sold at auction to benefit their church and its benevolent fund.

In 11-mile wide, 17-mile deep Mulberry Canyon, about 20 miles west of Abilene, the Lord's Acre concept can be traced to a charitable act on the part of one man in the late 19th century.

Sam Butman, whose sprawling ranch covered much of the canyon, in 1894 donated some of his land for a school. That marked the beginning of Taylor County's School District No. 28, better known as the Butman School. Butman and other ranchers and farmers in the area ponied up enough money to build a one-room, 20 by 30 foot school house on the land the rancher had conveyed for public use. Then they hired a teacher from Kansas for $65 a month.

By 1918, the school had enough students to justify a larger building, which the trustees paid for with the issuance of $1,250 in bonds. A year later, the school qualified for state support for the first time.

In 1928, the community built a wooden, open-air tabernacle on the property. It became a gathering place for social events, political "stump" speeches and musical and dramatic performances. The Butnam family also threw a rodeo and picnic at the tabernacle each year until World War II.

Eventually, the Butman School and 15 other small districts in Taylor County got folded into the Merkel Independent School District. Butman bought the land back from the Merkel ISD, but the family later deeded it to the Pioneer Memorial United Methodist Church, which opened in early 1951.

Two years later, pastor E.H. Phillips and one of his congregants, Tom Russom, heard about a church that had a yearly Lord's Acre sale. They investigated the fund-raiser and returned full of enthusiasm.

"They came back and got it all started," recalls 82-year-old Nell Butman Brnovak, granddaughter of the man who gave the land for public use. "Used to be they auctioned hay, corn or pigs, but now it's mostly homemade food and crafts."

The sale takes place each year in the old tabernacle, which has since been walled in for greater creature comfort. As many as 150 people turn out for the pot luck dinner and the auction that follows it, hands down the biggest social event of the year in Mulberry Canyon.

"Aunt" Nell and her husband, Frank, have not missed a Lord's Acre sale since the event started in 1953. "And there's not much of anybody here to contest it," she says. "We're the only old-timers left."

Always held the Saturday night before Thanksgiving, the event makes for a double November holiday for folks who live in and around Mulberry Canyon and its nearest town, Merkel.

"I used to start baking every Thursday," Nell continues. "I usually bring an Italian cream cake and a Bohemian coffee cake, but this year my back's been bothering me so I just did the coffee cake. It's an old recipe from my husband's family."

The church's most recent sale raised $9,154 - a record. The biggest part of that was $1,300 for a quilt made by some of the women in the congregation, but Judy Wilson's German chocolate cake fetched $180, and 10 limited edition Bona Fide Original Real Texas calendars by Beaumont-born, but Merkel-raised cartoonist Roger T. Moore brought $100 each. Nell's coffee cake went for $25, the lowest price anyone recalls it ever selling for.

"This Lord's Acre deal is a part of Texas most people don't know about," Moore says. "It's the real Texas, but now you have to hunt for things like this. West Texas people like to depend on themselves, but they have fun doing it."
Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" >
November 23 , 2006 column
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