Tidbits of Shelby County History
Robert L. Parker
1830 – 1916

By Teddy Hopkins

Most towns have a typical way of manifesting themselves into being.  It could be a good place to set up camp.  There may have been natural resources that influenced a traveler passing by and recognized a future settlement.  Then there are placesthat have no significant eye catching value unless you are a squirrel, a rabbit, or maybe a deer running his trail.  Robert L. Parker, the County Clerk of Shelby County, Texas, resident of Shelbyville, not only a public official but also a man with a destiny, foundwith the help of county surveyor Sam Weaver what could only becalled a needle in the haystack.  That needle was the geographical center of Shelby County, Texas.  Late one night in 1866, Mr. Parker along with some trusted souls, relocated the Shelby County Seat to a place that would become known as Center, Texas.

Born in Bibb County, Alabama March 10, 1830, Robert L. Parker was the first-born son of  Matthew and Lucinda Parker.  Researching the birth of Robert’s siblings, the Parker family was in Mississippi in 1839.  In 1841, the family had moved to Louisiana. Sometimeafter 1850, Robert L. Parker had moved into Shelby County, Texas.  On August 19, 1854, R.L. (Bob) Parker was appointed as Postmaster of Buena Vista.  He later married Sarah A. Hilliard and according to the Shelby County Texas census of 1860 listed a one-year old daughter Ella, born in Shelbyville, Texas.

The political life of Robert L. Parker began early as a new Texan, being elected as the new County Clerk in the 1860 county election.  He had already established himself as a farmer possessing a $1000 of property value and a personal estate of $3000 as noted in the Shelby County Census of 1860.  Over the next five years, as County Clerk, R. L. Parker, being the way, he would sign his name on many property deeds,would become well known and well liked.  He and his wife by1865 have four children and are living in the Northern part of the county known as Buena Vista. 

It is evident now Parker is where he wants to be. He is the county clerk, a family man, and gifted with anentertaining personality. Parker has become familiar with Shelby County since working with the county surveyor, Sam W. Weaver who was elected to this office in 1866. As time passes by, Parker is aware that a Legislative Act from the Texas Congress in 1838, state that Texas county seats be geographically located in the middle of each county. Why did this interest R. L. Parker?One would have tolook into the future and weighthe actions ofR.L.Parker to know who he really was. The locals who dealt with him businesswise or otherwise, learned he was shrewd, smart, a witty man, and had a memory that could not be matched.Sam Weaver along with Parker, found the geographical center of the county.  It was six miles from Shelbyville, the Shelby county seat since 1837. It is interesting to note, that at some point in time Parker had acquired a survey in his name.  (R. L. Parker Survey A-573) that today is a short walk from the square of Center, Texas.

In 1866, Parker was reelected to a fourth term as Shelby County Clerk. With opportunity knocking on R. L. Parker’s door,he begins toponder the idea of relocating the county seat.  What did this mean?  A county seat meant a gathering of people, a place to do business, commerce, and a town.Being a man of means, integrity, and where- with- all,Parker organizes a local election giving the county residents the opportunityto exercise their right to support or reject this proposal to move the county seat.  Following the process of informing the county of the election and after due process, the results were in.  The moving of the county seat was approved in the election, but the Shelbyville residents objected. Tempers flared and fights broke out in Shelbyville.  For Shelbyville to loseits status as the county seat, would be detrimental to its existence.  It was already at the lower end of the county.  There was also a steep hill on the north side of town that was treacherous to travel during rainy weather.  The only recourse the Shelbyville residents had was to guard the Shelby County courthouse.  In the meantime, Parker’s recourse was to wait them out.  And that he did. With the passing of time and tempers cooling, even the courthouse guards had grown lax. Then one dark night in late summer of 1866, the Shelby County clerk, several trusting souls, and one wagon, with stealth assurance made their way to the courthouse.  Parker unlocked the door, entered with his helpers, and removed all the county records from the Shelbyville courthouse.  They made their way six miles northwest to a stake in the ground.  The next daywould reveal the ending of a chapter in the 29-yearlife of Shelbyville, Texas as a county seat.  When morning came upon the town of Shelbyville, the residents discovered what had happened.  Hurriedly, they set out following a fresh cut trail headed northwest of town. As the light of a new day reached through the tall pine trees of East Texas,the trackers from Shelbyville came upon a clearing,  and there out in the open they saw,  as one of Parker’s men, Ozzie Cartwright would say years later “ There wasn’t no houses there or nothin’ else, just the woods and that one little shack.”  As the Shelbyville trackers rode closer in, a small makeshift shack came in sight with a sign across the top that read, “Shelby County Clerk’s Office.”  Looking down from the sign there sat Shelby County Clerk R. L. Parker, sitting on a box, behind a small table, with a gun in his lap, said with authority , “ This is the new county clerk’s office, and we are open for business.”Sometime later, Parker was visiting with a friend from San Augustine and asked him to suggest a name for the new county seat.  The friend asked if it was the center of the county. Parker said, “Yes”.  The friend said, “Name it Center.”

Robert L. Parker would continue to be a guiding influence in public life.  In 1868, Parker was granted town property for his part in the building ofa new two-story Courthouse.  In 1869, Parker was elected district clerk of Shelby County and again in 1873.  He also was elected to the 15th Legislature as state representative for Shelby and Panola County 1876-1878. By the year 1882, the town of Center was well established, but without warning that early June 1st morning, the Courthouse was destroyed by fire along with all Courthouse records.  All would have been loss, but with his fertilememory Robert L. (Bob) Parker, reconstructed the majority of the records.  1885 would see a new two-story brick Irish style castle Courthouse constructed by J.J.E. Gibson.  Parker would continue to play a leadership role and contribute with his own businessventures in the little East Texas town called Center, Texas (Shelby County Seat) that was once just a stake in the ground.  Now a hundred years after his passing, we still remember Robert L. (Bob) Parker as the man who drove that stake in the ground: “The Founder of Center”.

Generation # 1 Descendants of Isaac Parker, Bibb County, Alabama; Ancestry.com, Robert L Bob Parker

Shelby County Historical Society Museum website; (shelbycountytexashistory.net) 1860 Census, R.L. Parker

Patricia R. McCoy, Shelby County Sampler (Lufkin, Texas, 1982). Mildred Cariker Pinkston, People, Places,

People, Places, and Happenings  Shelby Country Texas; author: Mildred  Cariker Pinkston; pg.88, 90; History of
 Shelby Co. Texas 1988 Vol 1, pg.882
 Happenings: Shelby County (Center, Texas: Pinkston, 1985)pg. 83.  Texas State Historical Association; Shelbyville,

Texas Federal Land Office: R.L. Parker 06/15/1871; Acres: 160; Shelby Co. File: 300; Patent # 566; Patent Vol. 38; Class: Shelby 3rd

People, Places, and Happenings: Shelby County (Center, Texas: Pinkston, 1985) pg. 90; Shelby County Sampler, pg.34,35; SCS Notes, pg.164,5, Ch.5, #3,#4

University of North Texas Libraries; Gammel, Hans Peter Mareus Neilsen. The Laws of Texas, 1822-1897 Volume 8, Book, 1898; Shelby Co.  Public Records, Vol. 8/ pg. 353; date: Oct. 12, 1868