North Texas had at least three colonies in the nineteenth century: The commercial Peters Colony covered several counties; Dallas County had the French-Belgian-Swiss utopian colony of La Reunion; Denton County had the French utopian colony of New Icarie.
Falling somewhere between commercial and utopian in Hood County in the twentieth century was Kristenstad.
John Benjamin Christensen was born in Missouri in 1876. He earned a law degree from the University of Missouri and practiced law a few years in Dallas. Then he traded the brief for a blade: He opened a steam-powered sawmill in Sabine County in east Texas. His father, a farmer, had been born in Denmark, and the son admired the ability of Scandinavians to coax a living from hardscrabble farms. John established a colony of Scandinavian-American farmers, but the colony failed when the water supply went bad.
Soon after, while working to develop a shortline railway between Glen Rose and Walnut Springs south of Fort Worth, Christensen settled in the community of Rainbow in Somervell County, where he again operated a sawmill and again established a colony of farmers. But the colony did not have enough land. He failed a second time.
Christensen then became intrigued by the possibility of farming a tract of land within De Cordova Bend on the Brazos River in Hood County seven miles to the northeast.
Most people would look at that tract of land and see two challenges to farming it.
First, the land was almost inaccessible. The Brazos, like the Trinity, is a lazy river, its channel narrow and shallow, its path meandering drunkenly. De Cordova Bend is a fourteen-mile loop of the river whose two western ends are separated by only a strip of land called “the Narrows” (yellow line on 1884 map). That strip of land, only a quarter-mile wide, is all that kept De Cordova Bend from forming an island within its loop.
(De Cordova Bend was named for Jacob Raphael De Cordova [1808-1868], a Jamaican-born surveyor, land agent, and colonizer who in the 1860s wanted to harness the Brazos River to power textile mills to spin cotton.)
There were very few bridges over the Brazos River when John Christensen discovered De Cordova Bend. The lone road in and out of its peninsula passed through the Narrows and led west—away from the nearest big city where farmers could sell their produce: Fort Worth to the northeast. De Cordova Bend was thirty miles from Fort Worth by air but forty-five by road.
And most of that road was rugged. Hood County at the time was mostly rural. Granbury, the county seat, had a population of one thousand. Most roads were unpaved. Rural areas lacked electricity.
But John Christensen had a vision. He knew there was talk of damming the river upstream. That could change everything. He hoped that such a dam would boost the economy of the area and result in an all-weather road into the De Cordova Bend peninsula and electrification of rural areas.
The second problem with the land within De Cordova Bend was that it was heavily wooded—not suitable for farming without a lot of work.
But John Christensen looked at all those trees and saw lumber: lumber with which his farmers could build their homes, lumber with which his farmers could build their colony’s community buildings, lumber with which they could make products to sell to the outside world to supplement their farm income.
And he already owned a sawmill.
Christensen bought six thousand acres within the De Cordova Bend loop from former U.S. Postmaster General Albert Burleson and on January 1, 1928 founded the colony of Kristenstad (Danish for “Kristen’s Stead” (as in “homestead”).
Would the third time be the charm?
Christensen began advertising in newspapers around the country, seeking settlers for his new colony. He especially wanted Scandinavian Americans but accepted others who passed an examination of their character and ability.
He sold each settler a parcel of land—usually fifteen acres—for $40 ($600 today) an acre with a twenty-year note at 6 percent interest. No down payment.
Each parcel of land was accompanied by a “starter” cow.
The colony’s tenets were simple: Families should be as nearly self-sufficient as possible. They raised their own vegetables, fruits, meat, lard, milk, butter, and eggs and sold the surplus in Fort Worth: little to buy, much to sell.
Farmers were encouraged to diversify their crops: hay, corn, cotton, peanuts.
Early on Christensen had his sawmill relocated from Rainbow to Kristenstad so that as the land was cleared for homes, fields, and pastures the process could show a profit, not a loss. Each settler could fell trees on his land, haul them to the sawmill, and for a small fee get enough lumber milled to build his home. Only nails, shingles, and window glass were needed from the outside world.
Christensen as a sawmiller knew that sixty percent of a tree was wasted when it was sawed into lumber. So, he established a chair factory to use the waste. The factory made straight-back and rocking chairs, their seats made of stretched cowhide. The chairs were sold in several states.
And to make further use of sawmill scraps he established a factory to make charcoal, which also was sold to the outside world.
The colony also sold cordwood, fence posts, and pecans.
In fact, few natural resources were overlooked in Kristenstad. The colony had its own cement plant, using the abundant native limestone to (1) make cement for masonry and (2) make walls and foundations for Kristenstad’s houses and community buildings.
Kristenstad also had a print shop whose press was powered by an old “flivver” engine. The shop printed pamphlets for outside businesses and also printed a monthly community magazine entitled The Interpreter and Southern Dairyman magazine.
Dairy farming was a major part of Kristenstad’s economy and sustained a cheese factory.
The children of the colony also worked, picking grapes and making juice to sell and gathering flowers, herbs, roots, and barks to sell to pharmaceutical companies.
Kristenstad was an austere colony: no electricity, piped-in water, natural gas, telephone service.
Families provided their own heat and light: Heat came from wood-burning stoves, light came from kerosene lamps. Water came from a spring and the river.
Self-sufficiency and the almost-encircling river rendered Kristenstad essentially a kingdom unto itself. But one connection with the outside world was Kristenstad’s post office. John Christensen was postmaster.
The post office was located in the colony’s community center, which also served as Kristenstad’s church when services and Sunday school classes were not held outdoors under a giant pecan tree called “the Temple.”
Among Kristenstad’s residents were a Baptist, a Lutheran, and a Pentecostal preacher who rotated in conducting nondenominational church services.
The community hosted dances: quadrilles and reels, traditional folk dances of Scandinavia. No modern dances.
There was even a baseball team.
There also was a school that taught classes through the ninth grade. The school had a library.
Outside speakers lectured on farming methods: how to feed livestock, how to propagate the paper-shell pecan trees that were plentiful on the peninsula.
Kristenstad may have been austere, but it was, according to newspaper accounts of the time, a healthy environment, with preachers conducting more marriages than funerals and doctors summoned more often to deliver babies than to cure illness.
In fact, Kristenstad at its peak had a population of about two hundred.
Newspapers of the 1930s often used the term utopian to describe Kristenstad, but John Christensen rejected the term.
“There does not exist here, nor anywhere else so far as we know, the dreamland, paradise, or ‘Utopia’ sometimes found in open pictures of this settlement.”
He also rejected the terms socialism and communism.
“There is no ‘ism’ in the Kristenstad plan but pure Americanism.”
John Graves in his Goodbye to a River in 1960 describes Kristenstad’s ideology as “ideal, rustic, those-who-work-eat semi-socialism.” He adds, “The country people around there sometimes refer back to the experimenters as ‘them communists.’”
More accurately Kristenstad was a co-operative.
Members of the colony cooperated by using their collective power to sell their products and to get wholesale discounts on goods and services. They chipped in to rent trucks to take their goods to market in Fort Worth.
The colony had its own marketing association to arrange the marketing of surplus crops and manufactured products and to supervise Kristenstad’s community store. Christensen bought supplies in wholesale amounts in Fort Worth and sold them to his farmers at cost in the community store.
Kristenstad also had an association that helped its farmers finance the purchase of livestock.
During slack time, especially in the winter, farmers could work in Kristenstad’s various industries to earn money—$2 ($30 today) a day—beyond that brought in by selling their surplus crops and livestock. Settlers also could buy stock in the industries to share in the profits.
But farmers owned their land and home outright. And participating in the cooperative marketing of goods and services and working at the colony’s industries were voluntary.
The colony had its own form of money to use within the colony. U.S. money was acquired only through the sale of products in the outside world such as Granbury and Fort Worth.
In 1931, while John Christensen was still hoping for an all-weather road to Kristenstad, a dirt road was cut from State Highway 10 (U.S. 377 today) to the Brazos River north of Kristenstad. Christensen built a low-water crossing over the river there and shortened the trip to Fort Worth by fifteen miles.
No longer did Kristenstad farmers have to drive west through the Narrows to get their produce to market in Fort Worth.
But Kristenstad had been in operation only twenty-two months when the Great Depression struck. Oh, newspapers wrote that Kristenstad was “depression-proof” because of its high degree of self-sufficiency.
But during the depression people in the outside world could no longer afford to buy the produce and products of the colony, shrinking Kristenstad’s economy.
In 1933 welfare agencies in Fort Worth offered loans to jobless men to build homes and work in Kristenstad. Now settlers came mainly from two groups: (1) farmers who had lost their farms and had heard of Kristenstad’s cheap land and (2) intellectual idealists—artists, professors—from the cities, seduced by newspaper accounts of a “utopia.” The farmers generally survived. But the idealists didn’t cotton to the manual labor and lack of amenities and soon left.
Still, Kristenstad might have weathered the depression if not for other misfortunes in the 1930s: The chair factory burned; livestock died in a drought.
Gradually the social experiment of Kristenstad withered on the vine as its remaining farmers sought better opportunities elsewhere.
Even Christensen and his family left Kristenstad and returned to Rainbow.
In 1937 came the final misfortune. John Benjamin Christensen, called by some “a soldier of fortune” and “a promoter,” by others “brilliant but impractical” and “a man forty years ahead of his time,” and by still others “a dreamer too generous for his own good,” died.
He is buried in Squaw Creek Cemetery in Rainbow.
In 1938 came the last round of newspaper headlines about the “utopia” on the Brazos. Christensen’s widow conveyed the land back to the Burleson family estates.
Fast-forward to 1948. Obadiah Paul Leonard purchased the property and in the 1950s—in a move that might have pleased John Christensen—developed the land into the largest contiguous pecan orchard in Texas.
But in the late 1960s Leonard and others formed Republic Land Company and developed Pecan Plantation residential community—with an air strip, marina, two golf courses, and a country club—on the western end of the former colony. The eastern end remains planted in pecan trees.
Also in the late 1960s, forty years after the founding of Kristenstad, the dam on the Brazos River that John Benjamin Christensen had hoped for was finally built. Also after his death the Texas Highway Department completed the all-weather road that he had hoped for. In fact, today two all-weather roads connect the De Cordova Bend peninsula to the rest of the world, shortening the drive to Fort Worth not for the austere farmers of Kristenstad but rather for the affluent residents of Pecan Plantation.