Fig orchards, Satsuma orange orchards, and rice fields once flourished where Friendswood homes now stand. The last vestiges of them and the homes that the Quakers constructed are nearly gone, but the legacy left by those founders and early settlers remains. That legacy is the heritage of a way of life that did more to shape the character of the community than any brick and mortar building ever could.
In the spring of 1895, a Quaker named Frank Jacob Brown, who had been an adventuresome buffalo hunter, and a Quaker named Thomas Hadley Lewis, who was a college educated man, felt directed to this area of the Gulf Coast to establish a community dedicated to God. Starting Quaker colonies was a common practice of the religious sect called Quakers, or Friends, as they were part of the westward movement across the nation in the middle to late 1800s. (The terms Quaker and Friends are synonymous and used interchangeably.)
When Brown and Lewis came upon this area in northern Galveston County, they found 1,538 acres of prairie, well drained by Clear Creek, Coward’s Creek, Mary’s Creek and Chigger Creek, and beautifully framed with the dense woods along the creeks. Feeling this surely was their “Promised Land,” they negotiated with the owner, Galveston banker J.C. League, for a deed of trust, and on July 15, 1895 they recorded the name of the colony at the courthouse in Galveston. They named it Friendswood.
Word of the colony spread among Quakers in the northern and midwestern states, and soon more than a dozen families joined them. Friendswood developed as a farming community marked by hard work, simple, clean living, and a deep respect for God, family and education.
After the colony survived the Galveston Storm of 1900 with no loss of life, they used their sawmill to convert the swaths of trees felled by the storm into lumber for the construction of a two story building they called the Academy. It served them as church, school and community meeting place until it was replaced by the present stone church building in 1949. The Academy (high school) operated by the Quakers offered a classical curriculum through 1928, and in its early years attracted students from surrounding towns without high schools.
From 1895 to 1915, most of the newcomers were Quakers who came to be a part of the Quaker colony. Through 1920, the population was swollen by an influx of farmers, lured by Houston developers who advertised the Gulf Coast as a Garden of Eden where figs, oranges and rice grew practically wild. By the early 1920s, there were 17,000 to 18,000 acres of figs from Winnie to San Leon, and 17 fig-preserving plants. Two of those plants were in Friendswood.
Support personnel for the farms brought more people to Friendswood, and the early 1930s brought families dispossessed by the Depression looking for a new chance in life. Late in the decade, the newly developing oil fields east and west of the community provided jobs for more newcomers. The war slowed the growth in the 1940s, but the decade still saw the beginning of a trend of wealthy business and professional people from Houston buying up property along the creeks.
For the first 50 years of Friendswood’s life, it had a church, school, post office, grocery store and a fig plant or two. That was it. There was no doctor, no bank, no drug store, and no policeman, not even a newspaper. Up to this time it was a rural, predominately Quaker settlement whose history is authenticated by the Texas State Historical Marker located on Friends Church property.
During the 1950s, young families moving from Houston began to give Friendswood its modern, bedroom stature, but the population was still less than 1,000 in 1959. In 1960, farsighted local men put a plan into action for the incorporation of Friendswood, and the town elected its first mayor, city council, and a law officer – a move that helped prepare it to cope with the tremendous growth of the 1960s, as hundreds of NASA employees chose Friendswood as their home. Subdivisions, schools, churches, businesses and community organizations mushroomed. By 1966 Friendswood had its first medical clinic, pharmacy, bank, newspaper and police department. In 1969 the population was 5,200.
Growth continued unabated through the 1970s and 1980s. Today Friendswood is a suburban community of 29,000 with fine homes, churches, businesses, schools and organizations, but the past is remembered with pride.
The strong volunteer instincts of residents enabled the city to build a municipal building in 1965 without debt because residents donated labor, materials and funding. In 1971 they built a replica of the Frank J. Brown home to serve as a repository of Friendswood’s heritage.
That spirit of community involvement has continued as an unbroken tradition in Friendswood, demonstrated by enthusiastic participation in civic activities and the city’s Fourth of July celebrations.
New settlers have long outnumbered the Quakers, but the values they lived by are still viable, still working to make this a good place to live. Those values include an emphasis on the value of the individual and the individual’s role within the family and community, a deep respect for God and for education, a sense that a man’s life can be measured by the way he habitually treats his neighbor, and a tolerance and love that still operates to make newcomers feel they’ve finally come home.
Source: Friendswood, A Settlement of Friendly Folks by Joycina Day Baker is available for purchase at the Chamber office.