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The Shaw-Kemp Open House

Written by Lana Robinson.

When modern pressures build, the thought of returning to a simple lifestyle and an idyllic community, like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Walnut Grove in Little House on the Prairie, tugs at the imagination. Folks longing for a taste of the slower pace of yesteryear find it at the Shaw-Kemp Open House, held every April (April 15, 2006) at the rolling Parker County farm of Mary Kemp and her late husband, V. Kemp Jr. In springtime, the fertile land here, settled in 1854 and known as Nebo Valley, awakens with wildflowers.

On Open House day, visitors can enjoy not only the colorful landscape, but also a flurry of activities replicating pioneer life. Nine structures here, some original to the property and others brought in from elsewhere in Parker County, open for tours. Local artisans demonstrate homestead crafts like tatting, spinning, dollmaking, woodchipping, and lacemaking while mu—sicians pluck banjos, guitars, and other stringed instruments. Visitors roam the grounds, enjoy carriage rides, eat tasty food, and peruse the family trees and photo albums of former inhabitants of this picturesque valley.

My husband, Mel, and I were among the 3,500 who attended last year’s open house. We arrived midmorning and fell in behind a caravan of cars that crept toward Mt. Nebo, an impressive peak halfway between Granbury and Weatherford. A blanket of bluebonnets spread out in all directions beneath a fluttering display of Texas’ six flags, creating a shutterbug heaven. We parked and trekked down the trail to a clearing at the foot of Mt. Nebo, where we happily stepped back in time.

Mary Kemp, the farm’s matriarch and the chief instigator of this popular event, headed up the welcome wagon. A willing band of 150 volunteers, many in 19th-Century apparel, played host throughout the daylong festivities, as did characters dressed like the cast of Mayberry R.F.D. These reenactors were added to the event in the 1980s, says Mary, “to help depict the people who might have lived here.” We also spotted Minnie Pearl and a circuit-riding preacher milling around in the crowd. Confederate soldiers performed military reenactments, the Weatherford Cowgirl Chicks equestrian team displayed their skills, and members of the Lake Granbury Vintage Car Club proudly showed off their shiny antique autos. Dulcimer players performed throughout the day, and the kids were fascinated by the friendly miniature horses and Longhorn steers.

With the help of her late husband, V., as well as numerous friends and relatives whose forebears settled the area, Mary has spent the past quarter-century restoring early dwellings and adding them to her collection. Fact-filled pamphlets make self-guided tours easy.

The centerpiece of the collection is a log cabin built in 1856 by Thomas J. Shaw, a farmer, stockman, and carpenter. Thomas and his wife, Louisa Ann, lived in this double-pen, cedar structure most of their lives, and they raised 13 children here. The couple’s portraits hang over the modest cabin’s solid-rock mantel, which sits above a primitive, stacked-rock fireplace.

The Shaws kept the original 485-acre homestead in the family for 121 years. When Mary and V. purchased a large section of the property in 1975, the rustic cabin was being used as a barn. “I told my husband that I wanted to fix up that log cabin and get a historical marker,” Mary recalls. “One day in 1980, V. came in and said, ‘I have my barn built now, so the cabin is yours.’ We completed the restoration that same year, and in 1982, we dedicated the historical marker with a big open house. We had so much fun that each year afterward, we hosted an open house on a Sunday afternoon. In 1995, we decided to make the Shaw-Kemp Open House an all-day affair.”

Just north of the 1856 cabin stands a two-story brick and stucco house that belonged to the Shaw’s thirteenth child, Jordan. The home is unchanged since it was built in 1918. Another jewel, the DeBeauford-Kemp House (built in 1909), lies just down the lane. During the festival, musicians play country and gospel tunes on its welcoming wraparound porch. Weatherford College acquired the dwelling in 1997, and Mary bought and moved it a few years later. Antique furnishings, assorted collectibles, and hundreds of dolls—Shirley Temple dolls, Patsy dolls, and Kewpies galore—await those who venture inside either home.

“I have many dolls from the 1800s, but I’m partial to the Kewpies,” says Mary. “My mother gave me a Kewpie doll she got as a girl that had a little grass skirt. The doll was destroyed in a house fire in 1983, and while I have never been able to find the exact one to replace it, I’ve found a hundred or so others while looking.”

Mary transformed a small house into a replica of the Nebo School, and she added a church. The building houses a coal stove from the long-gone train depot at Cresson, a 19th-Century blackboard and a slate board from nearby schools, and old desks, chairs, and books. Church benches from the 1800s, a communion stand, a songbook rack, and a century-old Bible number among the religious artifacts found here. The huge bell out front summoned children to class at the school until the 1920s. During the open house, children are allowed to ride on the old merry-go-rounds and seesaws on the playground.

Although Nebo Valley never had a grocery store or a post office, Mary’s collection does. At the Nebo Valley Grocery Store & Post Office, you can see four antique combination-lock mailboxes. Wooden grocery-store shelves are stocked with vintage canned goods, coffee grinders, eggbeaters, potato mashers, and other utensils. If you’re thirsty, fish out a cold soda from the metal Coca-Cola box outside. The building is easy to spot: Just look for the red gas pump topped with an antique Humble Oil globe out front.

As she has collected and restored these buildings, Mary has strived to capture different aspects of pioneer life: The Nebo Valley Barber Shop and Bath House—formerly a railroad line shack—features two 100-year-old chairs, a traditional barber pole, and other memorabilia. The Nebo Valley Bank building was once a grocery store that served customers some eight miles west. The Jail and Sheriff’s Office, a popular backdrop for family photos, boasts doors from the old Parker County Jail. The newest addition to Mary’s collection, an authentic 1890s log cabin, represents the office of Doc Tanner, who practiced medicine and dentistry in the area around 1900. A longtime Lubbock dentist donated the antique dental chair, and Mary found the foot-operated drill at an auction. (Back then, Doc Tanner charged $3 to deliver babies and $1 to pull a tooth.) The newly constructed Blacksmith Shop houses antique tools and farm equipment. And the old Corn Crib shed, a small wooden granary where farmers stored corn during the winter, rounds out the collection.

This annual event, now a quarter-century old, means a great deal to many people.

“I couldn’t do it without these dedicated volunteers, and it’s not just the Shaw and Kemp families,” says Mary. “The people of Parker County have stepped forward to make our open house a success. And the people who come are so wonderful.”

The Shaw-Kemp Open House welcomes visitors the third Sat. of Apr. each year (Apr. 15, 2006) from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. From Texas 51 South some 12 miles south of Weatherford, turn east on Kemp Rd., and follow the signs to the designated parking area. Admission: Free. Reasonably priced food (typically, hamburgers) and nonalcoholic beverages available. Write to 2603 S. Main, Weatherford 76087; 817/594-6837.

From the April 2006 issue.

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