In the 1933 novel Lost Horizon, British author James Hilton conjures up images of an earthly paradise he calls Shangri-La, a “Garden of Eden,” where people can escape the work-a-day world to play amid cooling waters and flowering glories of nature.
Grayson County’s Shangri-La, a special place to escape the terrible heat of a Texas summer, may have been—at least for the privileged—a private paradise known as Chapman Park.
Spread over a twenty-six-acre tract of land between Sherman and Whitewright, Chapman Park was the realization of a dream brought to life by the Chapman family of Sherman. Never open to the public, Chapman Park was a hidden retreat reserved for the Chapman family, their friends and invited guests.
Richard A. Chapman, a Confederate veteran from Tennessee, who came to Grayson County after the Civil War, was the patriarch of the family. In Sherman, he became a flour miller, an officer in the Merchants and Planters Bank and an investor in other local enterprises.
In 1908 he purchased the Anderson Milling Company, changed its name to the Chapman Milling Company, and eventually sold the business to his sons, George and Dick. Under the younger Chapmans, the milling business boomed, and in a few years, they were shipping flour around the world. In time, Sherman became the largest milling center in Texas.
After World War I and before the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Chapmans and their families lived large. The Chapman house and yard filled the entire 1300 block between East Lamar and East Houston streets. It had no equal in Sherman’s College Hill District.
The Chapmans were big game hunters who brought trophies home from Africa and Alaska. The need to have space to properly display their hunting successes appears to have been one of the major factors in deciding to create their own Shangri-La in a pasture southeast of Sherman on the Ida road.
The glories of Chapman Park might have remained a nearly forgotten part of Sherman’s early history had it not been for Sherman author and historian Jack Frost McGraw, who was fortunate as a young woman to have spent time at the Chapman family retreat.
In her book, A Pleasure Dome, Ms. McGraw describes how workmen, using mule-drawn equipment, created a dam and a lake where two streams met. The dam, which also served as a spillway, created a second sizeable pond on the downstream side as well, but it was the lake behind the dam that drew much of the Sherman writer’s attention.
It was not only the water and landscaping that help create the wonders of the Chapman Park. There also was an impressive lodge supported on stilts that jutted out into the lake.
The lodge housed the Chapman brothers’ extensive collection of hunting trophies—a stuffed bear and other animals, as well as mounted heads, horns and even fish. A trap door in the lodge led down to a small pier where canoes for the family and friends were docked.
In the 1920s, Chapman Park attracted the attention of Hollywood moviemakers. Scenes from the silent movie Love, Luck and Oil were filmed amidst the splendors of the Blackland Prairie paradise.
George Chapman died in June 1925, and with his death the gaiety of the parties at Chapman Park began to wither and die. During the 1940s when the country was involved in World War II, the property was left untended. Soon silt from plowed fields upstream filled the swimming pool and the lake. Tropical plants and trees died for lack of attention.
Dick Chapman died in 1949, his wife Nora in 1962. Heirs to the property sold it to new owners. The former lodge became a home. The old spillway was dredged out to make a stock pond, and the abundant overgrowth was cleared. Over the grand entrance to the property, the name “Merriman” has replaced “Chapman.”
Today, where Chapman Park once stood, there is a neat cattle ranch and a row of modern houses with well-tended native trees and plants. Gone, but not forgotten, Chapman Park is a reminder of how some Texans used to escape the heat of summer in style.