Railroad bypasses college town and Larissa is history

Published on Sunday, 20 April 2014 22:55 - Written by FAITH HARPER fharper@tylerpaper.com

One of the oldest towns in Cherokee county that was hailed for its devotion to education and its deep historical roots blew off the map after the Civil War.

The town of Larissa was once situated northeast of Jacksonville off today’s Farm-to-Market Road 855.

The town predated Jacksonville and had a higher population, said Shelley Cleaver, with the Cherokee County Historical Commission.

Isaac Killough and his family were some of the first settlers to the area, arriving in 1837, according to the Texas State Historical Association website. The land was disputed Indian territory.

Larissa was the site of the Killough Massacre, which became the justification for the Indian Wars in the state, Cleaver said.

In 1838, the Killoughs moved to Nacogdoches as tensions began to rise in the area. They were assured it would be safe to return to harvest their crops, but 18 were killed in the massacre, according to the state historical association’s website.

The sight was re-inhabited in 1848 by Thomas McKee and named Larissa after an ancient city of learning in Greece, according to the website.

McKee, a Presbyterian minister, moved away from the nearby town of Talladega because the town had a saloon, and built the first school in 1848 from money he received from selling a slave in Shreveport, La., according to the website.

The school became Larissa College in 1855. The school was operated by the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Cleaver said.

“That college … was compared to Yale University at that time, and it was one of the top colleges here,” Cleaver said. “In 1850, there were more students in school in Cherokee County than any school in Texas.”

The school grew to include separate male and female dormitories and a three-story college building, according to the website.

The town also grew to include a druggist, mercantile store, blacksmith, cabinet maker, physician and hotels that housed guests traveling to and from Tyler on the stagecoach trail, according to the Cherokee County Historical Commission.

The town also held the second-oldest Masonic lodge in the county, the Larissa Masonic Lodge No. 57, which was founded in 1849, according to the Cherokee County Historical Commission. A second lodge, Larissa Chapter No. 22 of the Royal Arch Masons was founded in 1852.

Cleaver said the town and its college were crippled by the Civil War, although the college only graduated one class in 1860.

A meningitis epidemic in 1872 aided the decline, and after Reconstruction, the railroad bypassed the town, according to the Texas State Historical Association.

“The Civil War ruined the college,” Cleaver said. “The people went off to the war, and when the railroad came through, it (stopped at) Mount Selman, and (residents) moved to be where the railroad was.”