Mesquite, Texas, just east of Dallas, is a bustling modern community, filled with all the modern amenities you’d expect. But go back about 150 years, and everything changes. This part of northeastern Texas that homesteaders encountered in the mid-19th century was mostly open prairie. It developed into a trading area for the local indigenous people, but for the settlers to this region, the area was far from modern. It was a leap of faith that they would be able to survive on their own and create a life mostly living off the land. Learning about these homesteaders gives you an appreciation of the amount of work that went into developing this community—and how difficult it was to survive by living off the land.
In the late 1870s, Mesquite—named for nearby Mesquite Creek—became a stop along the Texas & Pacific Railway, and nearly a decade later, it was incorporated. To get a sense of just what life was like for those early settlers, you can go back in time: The Florence Ranch Homestead has preserved a piece of that part of Mesquite history. Experience for yourself what it was like to live as the pioneers did in the 19th century.
“The Florence Ranch Homestead, or Meadow View Farm, was established before the town itself was platted, making it a grand example of early Texas farming,” explains Charlene Orr, Mesquite’s Manager of Historic Preservation.
David Walker Florence, the family patriarch, built the home in 1871 when he was just 23 years old. The house sat on a little more than 200 acres; over the next two decades, the property would grow to encompass about 730 acres, 300 of which were cultivated.
David and his wife, Julia (who was called Julie) had three children: John, who was a toddler when the family moved to Mesquite; Martha, who tragically passed away of what was then called a “summer complaint” (probably a bacterial infection common in young children at the time) in the early 1870s; and Emet, who was born in the family home.
It takes a village to keep a farm running successfully, as Orr explains. “The Florence family were known for their generosity when it came to neighbors in need,” she says. “In return, those neighbors would help with barn raising, crop gathering, and ‘hog-killing time.’” While today’s kids fill their time with sports and screens, back then, they were full participants in the farm. They fed and cared for the animals and helped with planting, harvesting, and other endless farm chores.
The ranch would eventually become known as Meadow View Farm, and, as Orr indicates, it was a busy place. The family grew hay and cotton, as well as raising Hampshire Down sheep, horses, and purebred Shorthorn and Hereford cattle branded with the ranch’s telltale terrapin cattle brand. (The terrapin is a species of freshwater turtle, and today, museum docents sport the brand on their aprons.)
Emet, the Florences’ youngest son, would eventually marry Perle Curtis; these two took over farming duties from Emet’s parents and added mules into the livestock mix. Emet also bred and raised prize-winning Percheron horses. These enormous, intelligent draft horses are incredibly muscular and are bred for heavy work—they eat up to 30 pounds of hay and grain each day, so it’s a good thing Meadow View had its own supply. His prize stallion, Robert Olbert, was the grand champion at the Dallas State Fair four years in a row. Some of Emet’s awards are on display at the farmstead, along with a photo of one of his horses.
Mesquite wasn’t the only place where the Florence family made an impact. The history of Mesquite is integral to how the region developed. David and Julie’s older son, John, studied medicine and went as far away from home as New York State to practice. In 1896, he headed back to his home turf—he and his wife moved to Dallas, where he was the Dallas County Health Officer and chief surgeon at Parkland Hospital. John was later among the group of doctors who founded the Baylor School of Medicine; he worked there as a professor of obstetrics. In 1905, he was appointed the State Quarantine Officer by then-governor Lanham. He and his family settled in Houston, which he represented in the 39th Texas Legislature.
Closer to home, the Florence family grew its acreage, and Emet’s wife, Perle, continued the family legacy of community-mindedness. She took part in many civic affairs and was a member of the Dallas Woman’s Forum and the Democratic Women of Dallas County. Perle was the Dallas County deputy county clerk for a decade and was also the first woman to serve on the Mesquite Parks Board.
As Mesquite grew and farming became less essential to the local way of life, it became apparent that the farmstead was an important piece of history. The house had hardly changed over the last century, making it a perfect candidate for designation as a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark, which it received in 1978.
Today, David’s great-granddaughter, Julia Schulz Morris, remains active in the Mesquite community and particularly in the homestead. In 1987, she and fellow heir Florence Florence Schulz donated the Florence Ranch Home and the four acres it sits on to the city of Mesquite, at which point it became Mesquite’s first historical park.
The structure itself is a prime example of the rural Texas architecture at the time it was built: west-facing, made with rough-sawn longleaf pine, square-head nails, and a central chimney constructed of handmade bricks. Additions were made to modernize the home in the 1890s, and electricity and indoor plumbing were added in the 1920s and 30s.
The Florence Ranch Home still has its original family furniture, household goods, and photos, and local school children are regularly offered tours to see what their town’s history is all about. The public is also welcome to take tours on Thursdays and Fridays from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., or you can arrange a special tour outside those days by calling 972-216-6468.
Written by Emma Walker for Matcha in partnership with Mesquite CVB.