Sometimes the din of traffic, jumble of subdivisions and overwhelming military presence obscure Killeen’s pioneer history, when horses, wagons and errant livestock once roiled the streets.
A l cemetery is being recognized as a link to Killeen’s early history — the John Porter Blackburn Cemetery.
The pioneer burial ground has received an official state historical marker awarded by the Texas Historical Commission. It also received the commission’s historic cemetery designation, signifying it is important to the state’s history.
Dedication services will be at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the cemetery.
The Blackburn Cemetery had been in continuous, though infrequent, use for 159 years.
Few vestiges of its 19th-century origins remain. Residential houses surround the ancient plot on three sides. The most prominent is the former Bethel Primitive Baptist Church, Gothic-inspired edifice at 400 S. Gray St., which is now home to the Killeen Area Heritage Association.
The oak-log home of Blackburn’s son, John Churchill Gaines Blackburn (1832-1912), still stands. The structure survived at its original site until 1954, when a Fort Hood expansion prompted its removal to Westcliff Road in Killeen. It remained there until 1976, when the cabin was moved near the Killeen Community Center, Business U.S. Highway 190 at W.S. Young Drive.
The John C.G. Blackburn house, the Primitive Baptist Church and the Blackburn cemetery are among the few extant artifacts of frontier life in west Bell County amid rapid urbanization.
Tucked away in the middle of Brookhaven Estates subdivision, at the intersection of Traverse and Haven drives, the cemetery is a hidden gem of history and the final resting place of Blackburn (1786-1855), one of only a few veterans of the War of 1812 resting in Bell County.
Although the Blackburn cemetery includes less than 1 acre of land, the 37 bleached stones reflect important information about early settlers. When the first train passed through the new town of Killeen in May 1882, about 40 people lived there — many of whom were Blackburn relatives.
The only sizeable settlement then was the short-lived pioneer community of Palo Alto. John Porter Blackburn established claims in Texas, including land near the Palo Alto community. When the Santa Fe Railway carved a path from Temple to Killeen, Palo Alto was eventually absorbed by the larger railroad community.
Just before the beginning of World War II, Killeen was a country town full of farmers and Santa Fe railroaders. Until the 1940s, Killeen remained a relatively small, isolated agricultural trading center. About 780 residents were counted in 1900, and 1,263 people lived there in 1940.
Then, the Army rumbled in, and the town transformed seemingly overnight into a growing city.
With the massive urbanization, remnants of Killeen’s pioneer past seemed to sweep away like so much caliche in the wind.
Moving from Tennessee to Bell County in 1853, Blackburn acquired several hundred acres of land. He was the first to be buried there. That solitary acre amid modern houses is now the last remnant of Blackburn’s original property.
history of military service
Throughout the generations, the Blackburn descendants showed patriotism and military service as a high honor. Throughout the century, they served in the Confederacy, the Texas Partisans and the Texas Volunteer Infantry; others saw service in the Red River Campaign and the Vicksburg Siege.
Two of John Porter Blackburn’s great-grandsons, Lewis Gaines Fry (1895-1994) and Byron Fry (1896-1968) served in World War I and World War II, respectively.
Blackburn’s great-great-grandson, Wilbur McCorkle (1917-2001), also a World War II veteran, was the last person to be buried in the cemetery.
Hundreds of John Porter Blackburn’s descendants are still in Bell and adjoining counties. Many more live throughout Texas. Recently, kinfolks have repaired the fence and erected a new gate entrance.
The historical marker will permanently memorialize the Blackburn family legacy in the history of Killeen — long before the railroads and Fort Hood.
Another War of 1812 veteran, Robert Emmett Bledsoe Baylor (1793–1873), a 19th-century Texas Baptist leader and namesake for Baylor University and the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, was honored last week.
Baylor, who is buried on the UMHB grounds, was recognized Friday by the Jordan Bass Chapter, Texas Society, U.S. Daughters of 1812.
Dr. Steve Theodore, UMHB’s senior vice president for administration and chief operating officer, presented a proclamation. At his death in 1873, Baylor requested his grave be on the campus of Baylor University at Independence. His remains were reinterred in 1917 on the campus of what is now UMHB.