Church roots in the South still producing today

Many of the 100 or so Latter-day Saints in this eastern Texas community can trace their family history to the Mormon pioneers who settled here some 100 years ago. Today, Kelsey, seven miles west of Gilmer and part of the Gilmer 1st Ward, is one of the oldest existing LDS pioneer settlements in the South. The town reaches the century milestone this month. The original Kelsey Branch was organized Dec. 29, 1901. Among the year's centennial commemorations was a celebration July 21 — to coincide with the Church's 24th of July celebrations — when hundreds of members and friends gathered for hay wagon tours of historical sites in town, country dancing and pioneer re-enactments.

Primary children of Gilmer (Texas) 1st Ward (many from Kelsey) gather for opening exercises.
Primary children of Gilmer (Texas) 1st Ward (many from Kelsey) gather for opening exercises. Photo: Photo courtesy Jennings Means family

To coincide with the celebration, the Kelsey Centennial Celebration Committee also published Kelsey: Zion of the South, which explains how John and Jim Edgar from Alabama purchased tracts of land in 1898 and began writing to other Church members in southern states to join them. In November 1902, Elder Abram O. Woodruff of the Quorum of the Twelve dedicated Kelsey as a gathering place for the saints in the South. The first meetinghouse was built in 1901, a larger one in 1909. The latter is now a private home in Kelsey.

Today's residents aren't likely to pull up their Church roots any time soon.

"Most everybody's genealogy ties in together," said Bishop Grayson G. Child, speaking of members such as his wife, Malinda, whose great-grandparents were early settlers. "I'm one of the few people in the ward who can't trace his genealogy [to Kelsey ancestors]. They're great people here. They are very kind. They have accepted me and treated me like I've always lived here."

Many members of the Church in Kelsey have always lived here. Many others born here who moved away as children or young adults have since returned.

"My [late] wife and I decided this was home, and we loved east Texas so well. We had never found, in our opinion, any place more beautiful," said Byron Wade, who turns 95 years old next month. He and his wife, Emma, lived most of their married life in Kansas and Oklahoma but returned in 1983. Brother Wade's family moved to Kelsey when he was 8 years old. His wife was born here. She died in 1986. He later married Luella, also a Kelsey native.

He is said to be the oldest living person in Kelsey, while Mozelle McKendrick, 90, is the oldest person in Kelsey born here.

Brother Wade's mother, Berta Leake Wade, accompanied her husband, Jasper Wade, to east Texas in 1915. They bought 64 acres of farming land and lived in two small houses on the property until they could build one larger one. Brother Wade was one of eight children, seven of whom accompanied their parents to Kelsey.

Members from earlier days in Kelsey gather in front of old meetinghouse, now a private home.
Members from earlier days in Kelsey gather in front of old meetinghouse, now a private home. Photo: Photo courtesy Jennings Means family

He remembers that as a little boy it was his job to go out and light a fire under a black pot for his mother to wash the family's clothes. "That was my job," he said during a telephone interview, as he reminisced about his childhood. "We had every opportunity in the world. It was like one big family of Latter-day Saints. The home teachers found out the needs and took care of the poor and the needy. We were taught that as children."

Continuing, Brother Wade, who has served as a district president, branch president (three times) and as a stake patriarch, said families in Kelsey didn't have to ask each other for help. Members simply watched over one another.

Despite simple living, however, education was still paramount in Kelsey, Brother Wade emphasized. The first school house was built in 1901 and the Kelsey School District was formed in 1907, according to Kelsey: Zion of the South. Over the years, missionaries from Salt Lake City were sent as teachers to Kelsey, including Elder ElRay L. Christiansen, who later served as an Assistant to the Twelve.

Kelsey even had a 50-piece brass band, of which Brother Wade and his brother, J.C., were a part. J.C. played the fiddle and the saxophone, and Byron played the guitar and trombone and sang. In addition, the two brothers and two friends, Leo Case and Ben Dixon, had their own band and played for Church dances. "We played for the Church dances every Friday night. We played all over the county for dances. I could make more in one night playing than I could working a month in the field."

However, any money from Church dances, he added, went to the Church budget.

Brother Wade's nephew, John Wade, the son of J.C., said Kelsey has been a refuge for the Church in the south. "Nearly all the people, the original ancestors, came to Kelsey because the Church was here and because of the hostilities where they lived."

For Brother Wade, 68, Kelsey has always been home, except for the time he spent during the Korean War. He remembers Church members like Charles Shirley.

"He was the type of guy who would get the fire started in the Church [building]," Brother Wade related. "We had pot-bellied [stoves]. He always made sure it was going before Sunday School. When somebody called on someone to minister to someone, he always did it."

This same feeling of community seems to exist here today, as it did when Byron Wade rolled into Kelsey in the family wagon as a boy. He remembers his father telling him when they arrived, "Now you don't say Mister anymore. You say, Brother or Sister."

"Are they my brothers and sisters?" the boy asked his father.

"Yes, in the gospel."

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