A history of Freestone County's prison land

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Published September 26, 2007
When Texas bought the large tract of land in Anderson County they also bought a small tract, about 600 acres in Freestone County, for the iron ore deposits to be used on roads and a low water crossing was made on the Trinity River to cut the hauling distance to Coffield. That’s another story that will come later.
Coffield was named for a generous citizen, I think, from Milam County, who was a strong supporter of Texas Department of Corrections (TDC). The land in Freestone County had served as an entrance to the river by the public since the earliest days of Freestone County.
The area known as Tyus Bluff and Board Pile was in this. It also included the old Tyus Cemetery – which created another problem – the public and friend, Bill Tyus, of Teague, was opposed to all of this being closed to the public.
Dr. George Beto, the TDC Director, finally got approval of the Commissioners Court to fence off the road and lock the gate. It was promised that TDC would maintain the cemetery and a key was left at the sheriff's office for anyone needing to get to the cemetery.
This was done as long as Dr. Beto and his successor, Jim Estelle were there. Later, after all we agreed upon was ignored, I had to contact the Wardens in later years for any action. I do not know what condition it is in today. When the low water crossing washed out, it lay without use for several years and became a private hunting area for TDC employees until The Texas Youth Council took it over and established a Wilderness Camp.
Accommodations were built, large staff was employed (probably two employees for each inmate), then outlaws were brought off the big city streets to this remote area. They could, and often did, leave here, walking into the more populated area usually stealing a vehicle, being caught, and returned.
I asked the kids what happened then and was told they gathered around an open fire or such and talked about what they did and why. The only thing I saw accomplished here was the inmates learning how to do it better the next time. It finally was called a complete failure and shut down.
Unknown to me and the public, the new director of TDC was a former bookkeeper, and I was told used it all for a private get away, wild parties, and eventually a shooting that was never reported. After this it all burned down (I didn’t do it, but glad it was gone).
I heard it was put up for sale but do not know its status today. Most of the escapees from units across the River crossed here and used the TU Generating Plant smoke stack lights for guidance. There were many good directors and wardens in the penitentiary system over the years, like Jin Estelle, Dr. Beto, and especially Wayne Scott, a Teague native, as well as the many wardens like Brenda Pursell Chaney, a Wortham school graduate.
The Coffield Unit was the largest in the Texas Penitentiary System on several thousand acres of rich Trinity River bottom and unimproved hill land in Anderson County and about 600 acres of unimproved land west of the river in Freestone County.
All bought, I think, from the Leonard Bros., rich Fort Worth merchants, who still own large acreage in Freestone County that has been beautifully improved. Today there about six new prisons on this land, including Beto I and II, Michaels, and others.
About the time I went in as Sheriff in 1965 Warden Bounds (who has family ties here) moved in with a few TDC employees and a small prison labor workforce that worked miracles at little expense to the state. The Unit was named for a dedicated man, Mr. H.H. Coffield, who was not only at the time chairman of the Texas Board of Corrections, but had lots of local, state, and federal connections and was farsighted in the need for prisons.
I never knew Mr. Coffield but heard lots about him. Friend, Roger Steward knew him well and had dealt with him in the oil production business. Roger said that after World War II, and all the surplus property – many times the only thing available or financially feasible – Mr. Coffield bought, sold and traded in this or knew if it was available and where.
This knowledge and assistance was used in building this Unit. I am told that shortly after the Labor Unions through the Legislature stopped prison labor doing this, there was too much competition.
After attending the dedication, I wrote in the May 1972 Sheriff's Report: “TDC Commissioner Pete Coffield, for whom this prison farm was named, was honored at an official dedication of this unit Friday. All kinds of wheels there to pay homage dedicated man. Gov. Preston Smith and Ben Barnes, Speaker of the House, even came on the same plane and on speaking terms. Introduction of guests and speaker made by Dr. Beto, executive director of TDC.
“Former Gov. Allan Shivers was the principal speaker. A real great turnout from all over the state present. Many changes and improvements made since Warden Bounds first came with a small force; have to see it to believe it.”
Never worked with or known a better man than Warden Bounds, always cooperative and involved with others. Attended many social and professional functions, I considered him a friend in many ways. Today, TDC, I am sure, is by far the largest employer in Anderson County.
Not sure Anderson County would have survived the oil business bust in the mid 70’s with about 18 percent unemployment. Virtually all the oil field service business on U.S. 84 shut down or went out of business, not sure they not ready for another bust.
The Tyus Cemetery has been inactive since 1935. It is the burial spot of Robert Malone Tyus, Sr. and his descendants. The nearby spot on the river where the house stood is known as Tyus Bluff. The cemetery has also been suggested as a burial ground for the settlements of Troy, Pine Bluff, and Boardpile.

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