K. B. Burchill: Street Gang Member

K. B. Burchill was a member of the original Fort Worth street gang: pioneers who have a street named after them.

Burchill also was a government official, a real estate developer, and an oil speculator.

But K. B. Burchill did it the hard way: K. B. Burchill was a woman.

Kate Belle Murray was born in 1847 in Watertown, New York.

At age fifteen she passed a teacher’s examination. Belle and her mother soon moved to Bloomington, Illinois, where Belle taught school.

In Bloomington Belle met and married George S. Burchill, a railroad carpenter.

For his health, in 1874 George and Belle moved to Texas, traveling by stagecoach to Dallas and then by horseback to Fort Worth.

Years later Mrs. Burchill recalled her early days in Fort Worth. Reverend W. W. Brimm of the Presbyterian church, she said, “must have been a saintly man.” She said he preached each Sunday in the courthouse, which was infested with fleas because under the courthouse floor “must have been five hundred hogs,” which during the weekdays ate the watermelon rinds discarded by farmers who drove their ox teams into town.

She said of the farmers: ”They gathered around the square, swapped yarns, did a bit of trading, and ate their melons, scattering the rinds to the hogs. Sundays the congregation wriggled and writhed, flea-bitten and uncomfortable.”

But, she said, Reverend Brimm never moved a muscle, setting an example of stoic calm, preaching instead of itching.

Mrs. Burchill also introduced a household item to Fort Worth: She strung the town’s first clothes line. Up to that point laundry had been hung on shrubs and fences to dry. Her innovation was the talk of the town.

Fort Worth would not have a public school system until 1882. In 1875 Mrs. Burchill opened a private school in the Fourth Street Methodist Church at East 4th and Jones streets.

By 1877 her school apparently was housed in its own building near the church. The Burchills probably lived in the same building.

Mrs. Burchill’s was not the only private school in town, but it was among the most successful. By 1877 her schoolhouse was being expanded. And she hired a teacher for “young ladies exclusively.”

In 1880 the Burchills still lived near the Methodist church. George was now a carriage builder. Belle was still teaching. Two of George and Belle’s children had died before age two. Now they had a daughter, Edna, born in 1878.

On May 25, 1881 Mrs. Burchill left education for government: She was appointed Fort Worth’s postmistress, although according to historian Mack Williams, Mrs. Burchill preferred the title “postmaster,” not “postmistress.”

She served as postmaster for two presidents between 1881 and 1894, with Fort Worth’s first postmaster, Julian Feild, serving his second term between her first and second terms.

In the beginning she had a staff of eight clerks.

One of her clerks was husband George.

Just as she had been an innovator with her clothes line in 1874, in 1884 Mrs. Burchill was again an innovator: She hired five boys to deliver the mail to homes and businesses. Mail delivery in 1884 was rare in towns as small as Fort Worth.

(Forty years later, in 1924 four of those five boys—three of them still working as mailmen!—honored Mrs. Burchill at her seventy-seventh birthday.)

Fort Worth in 1885.

In 1889 the post office was located at 511 Main Street, where Mi Cocina restaurant is today.

As postmaster, Mrs. Burchill was no longer teaching, but her compassion for children remained.

Fort Worth had many homeless boys, some of whom were bootblacks. Some lived in packing crates. Some got arrested for stealing to eat, for “shooting craps.” None attended school.

In 1887 Mrs. Burchill and Delia Collins, also a native of New York, established a home for these boys and helped them attend night school.

One night she was awakened and told that two baby girls had been abandoned on the steps of a saloon. Could she take them? Mrs. Burchill protested that her home was for boys only. But she promised to do what she could.

And with that, Mrs. Burchill’s home for boys became a home for children.

In 1888 Mrs. Burchill and Delia Collins persuaded county commissioners to buy a house on Cold Springs Road. Mrs. Burchill’s home for children now had a new home and a new name: Fort Worth Benevolent Home.

Mrs. Burchill was supervisor.

Fort Worth Benevolent Home was housed in a big steamboat gothic house that had been the brothel of madam Frankie Brown. A fitting conversion: Some of the children of the home were the children of prostitutes of Hell’s Half Acre. Mrs. Burchill and Mrs. Collins were known for their “errands of mercy” in the Acre. (Photo from UTA Libraries.)

In 1896 Mrs. Burchill reported seventy-five children living in the home. Twenty-two had been placed with families that year, seven returned to parents, eight readmitted to the home after leaving.

A big part of Mrs. Burchill’s job as supervisor was soliciting aid from the community. The home received little government aid.

Major donors included millers William Cameron and M. P. Bewley (flour and meal), Robert D. Hunter (coal from Thurber), Washer Brothers Department Store (clothing), and the original packing house (meat).

George S. Burchill died 1895.

In 1899 Belle Burchill resigned as supervisor of Fort Worth Benevolent Home. But she continued to help needy children. She lodged four or five children in her own home each summer so they could attend summer school. Indeed, daughter Edna recalled few occasions when the dinner table was without orphans. When Edna found that some article of her apparel was missing, she knew that her mother had given it to one of the orphans.

By 1901 daughter Edna had become a professional singer and toured on eastern vaudeville circuits, where her baritone voice was much in demand. She reportedly once sang behind a screen at a society musicale in New York City. Listeners were astonished when they saw that the singer was not a man.

After Edna began her singing career, Belle Burchill often accompanied her on tour. Into the twentieth century Belle remained a reminder of the Victorian era, always wearing a bonnet. Once when she was in a New York City department store a salesman asked her which country she had come over from.

She smiled and replied, “Oh, I’ve just come over from Texas.”

About 1909 Mrs. Burchill entered another profession that was male-dominated: real estate development.

Before her husband died, he had bought acres of raw prairie southeast of town.

Now Mrs. Burchill platted that prairie and began to sell lots south of the community of Polytechnic Heights. Playing on her surname and the elevation of the land, she named her addition “Burch Hill.”

Burch Hill addition is located roughly between Burchill Road on the north and today’s East Berry Street on the south and between Vaughn Boulevard on the east and Mitchell Boulevard on the west.

In 1909, as Mrs. Burchill was developing Burch Hill, some residents of Polytechnic Heights were campaigning for Poly to be annexed by Fort Worth. Mrs. Burchill campaigned for annexation.

By 1914 Fort Worth Benevolent Home had become “Tarrant County Benevolent Home” and was located on East Lancaster Avenue near Tandy Lake.

The orphanage burned that year.

Mrs. Burchill was among civic leaders who pleaded with the county to immediately rebuild the home. She recalled the founding of the home and stressed its ongoing social importance.

Rather than become part of Fort Worth, Poly in 1910 incorporated. And when it incorporated, it annexed Mrs. Burchill’s land.

This annexation she protested. She claimed that the city’s incorporation had been invalid, but she lost in court.

The main street through Burch Hill addition was originally named “Bowman Springs Road,” so-named because it led to the area named for the family of musician Euday Bowman near Kennedale.

Even in 1925 the road still appeared on maps as “Bowman Springs Road.”

Note the street named “Edna” in Burch Hill addition. That street is now Burchill Road South.

Also note that the city of Polytechnic had a water well on the creek to the north.

Bowman Springs Road was soon renamed “Burchill Road,” inducting Belle Burchill into the Fort Worth street gang.

A year before William Knox Gordon struck oil at Ranger, oil was still a male-dominated profession. But Belle and daughter Edna, with J. A. Templeton, incorporated Fort Worth Oil Development Company and drilled a well on Burchill land.

A dollar down and a dollar a week: In 1922 Fort Worth finally annexed Poly,  and Mrs. Burchill increased her promotion of Burch Hill addition.

This ad boasts about the advantages of Burch Hill, convenient to “Polytechnic High School” and the “new high school,” which were the 1907 Poly High building and the 1922 Poly High building (later Poly Elementary) on Nashville Avenue.

Also shown are Texas Woman’s College and Tyler’s Lake.

The ad boasted that “Many of the lots have water, lights and gas.”

Burch Hill addition was easy to reach from the city: Vaughn Boulevard had recently been paved, the addition was near the View Point stop on the Cleburne interurban on the west (along today’s Mitchell Boulevard) and two blocks from the Poly streetcar line on Bishop Street on the east.

The map shows, in addition to Edna Avenue, avenues named “Burchill” and “Murray.” Those streets no longer exist by those names.

Two years later this ad boasted that every lot had a water connection and that “some of the lots have Gas, Sewers, Electric Lights.”

By 1925 Mrs. Burchill was seventy-eight, and Edna’s singing career was confined to local events. Edna rose through the glass ceiling that her mother had cracked: She gradually took over her mother’s real estate empire. In fact, Edna climbed the ladder a rung higher: She also became a home builder.

In 1926 mother and daughter built themselves a showcase house on an oversized lot in the curve of the road at 2901 Burchill Road. Burchill Baptist Church across the street later owned the house and possibly used it as a parsonage. The house still stands.

Mother and daughter sold a large tract of their land to Chester Wilson, who in 1930 developed Avalon Heights addition between Burch Hill addition and Cobb Park.

Streets of Avalon Heights included Burchill Road, McKenzie, Littlejohn, Quinn, Christine, and Brooks (west of Mitchell Boulevard).

Because the site of the National Guard armory in Cobb Park is dedicated to Belle, I suspect that Edna donated the land for the armory. The Burchills had platted Brooks Street, which borders on the armory.

Kate Belle Burchill died in 1937. She is buried in Oakwood Cemetery.

After Mrs. Burchill died, daughter Edna continued to sell lots and build houses. In 1938 she advertised two houses on Burchill Road. The houses still stand.

Edna Burchill lived in the house at 2901 Burchill Road until 1957.

She died in 1963.

Today signs such as this one are reminders of K. B. Burchill, the Fort Worth street gang member who tied on a bonnet and broke through the glass ceiling.

Fort Worth’s Street Gang

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