The town of Burleson (32°32′9″N 97°19′38″W) now sits along the border of Tarrant and Johnson counties. It was originally founded by a rancher and minister by the name of Henry Carty Renfro. Born in 1831, Renfro came from a Tennessee family who had originally settled in Cass County, Texas when he was about 20 years old. In 1853, he entered Baylor University when it was located at Independence, in Washington County. One of his mentors there was Rufus C. Burleson, a religiously conservative professor who had become President of the university in 1851.
Upon his graduation, Renfro remained in the Washington County area and in 1857 he briefly served as pastor of Independence Baptist Church. After leaving that pastorate, he continued to live in the area for two years, taking care of the family farm before selling the property in Cass County and moving to Johnson County where the rest of his family had resettled. He soon married, began ranching in the area and established Bethesda Baptist Church in Johnson County.
At the outset of the Civil War, Renfro’s mentor Rufus Burleson was chosen to serve as chaplain of the regiment organized by Joseph W. Speight, the 15th Texas Infantry, largely drawn from McLennan County. Colonel Speight had become acquainted with Burleson through Speight’s support of Baylor University and its Baptist sister school in McLennan County known as Waco University. Speight eventually brought Burleson to Waco to become President of that school. Beginning in 1862, Burleson served as chaplain of the regiment for about a year before resigning to return to Texas to resume his duties at the school. In his place, Burleson recommended Renfro to succeed him as chaplain. Renfro had originally enlisted in Company C of the 21st Texas Infantry Battalion which defended Galveston from the Union attack. Upon Burleson’s recommendation, he transferred to take the position as chaplain of the 15th Texas Infantry in 1863. Renfro would remain with that group for the duration of the war seeing action in many battles in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas including the battles of Bayou Borbeau, Vidalia, Mansfield, Pleasant Hill and Yellow Bayou.
At the close of the war, he returned to Johnson County where he farmed, ranched and traded in real estate while serving as pastor of a number of Baptist congregations. It was around this time that the railroad companies were crossing north Texas and reached the area where he had his farm. Though he never actually lived there, in 1881 Renfro conveyed his land to the Missouri Kansas and Texas railroad company, after negotiations with Gen. Grenville M. Dodge, with the stipulation that he be allowed to name the proposed town. The depot building, still in existence, was to be built on his former farm. Accordingly, Renfro named the town after his mentor Rufus Burleson and it began to rise in its current location. Renfro was a Mason, being a member of lodges in Grand View and Alvarado where he founded the Royal Arch Lodge number 132. He continued to prosper as a farmer and rancher as he preached widely in the area.
In the 1880s, Renfro came under the influence of more liberal religious teaching and began preaching and teaching “free thought” which questioned the orthodoxy and teaching of the traditional Baptist church. Rufus Burleson initially sought a delay for the action, but Renfro was dismissed from the Baptist ministry. However, Renfro continued to speak and teach on the subject until he died. It is believed that Renfro and his son James Burleson (Burlie) Renfro both contracted pneumonia on a short cattle drive from their ranch to Fort Worth, leading to their deaths within days of each other in March 1885. Some reported that he had recanted his more liberal leanings on his death bed, but his family strongly stated that he had not.
Despite their theological differences, Renfro and Rufus Burleson had apparently remained cordial through the years. Renfro was also well liked and highly regarded in the area. Burleson led his funeral service which was attended by over 1,000 people. He returned to lead the sevice for Burlie. Henry and Burlie Renfro were both interred in the family plot in the cemetery of the church he had founded, Bethesda Baptist, between Alvarado and Burleson in Johnson County. Henry Renfro was survived by his wife and a daughter. In 1894, his widow built a home in Burleson where she and later her daughter would live until the 1940s, when the daughter died. Mrs. Renfro later married a Burleson resident named Clark. The home, known as the Renfro-Clark home, is located at 128 Clark Street and bears a Texas historical marker and has been carefully restored and maintained over the years.
The first lot in Burleson was sold in October, 1881 and a post office was opened the following year. The business district of the town suffered a devastating fire in 1895. Now considered to be a suburb of Fort Worth, for many decades, it remained a tiny community of under 1,000. During the heyday of the Interurban, it was a stop on the line running from Fort Worth to Cleburne until ridership declined with the popularity and availability of personal transportation by automobile. More recently Burleson has grown to a population of between 30,000 and 40,000.
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