John L. Bryan was born in North Carolina in 1813 and was educated by his father, a teacher by profession. He studied dentistry in Nashville and came to Texas in 1836. For several years he pursued his profession visiting the settlements along the Brazos River and traveling west as far as Austin. He located in Houston about 1843 and there followed the practice of dentistry the remainder of his life, becoming renowned in the manufacture of dentures. The Bryans were charter members of the first Methodist Church organized in the city of Houston.
Dr. Bryan had four sons from his first marriage with his wife Martha before she died in 1844. His second marriage in 1847 to Mary Ann Fitchett produced two sons and three daughters. He was prosperous in his profession and a successful business man, accumulating a large amount of property including 500 acres on the west bank of Goose Creek which he purchased from J. B. Ashe in 1857 and Valentine Dalton in 1858. One of his sons, Woodson, was his partner in the dental business. Bryan erected a building on his property to serve the community as a church and called it Harmony Grove. It opened as a school in the fall of 1859 under the tutelage of Mr. and Mrs. Kemp. This school was located just north of today’s Highway 146 bridge over Goose Creek at the Bayland Marina.
The Civil War caused great hardship and suffering, but the Bryan family was hit particularly hard. Four sons, Lewis Woodson, Alexander Mordecai and twins William Hardy and Thomas Pascal, entered the Confederate army at the opening of hostilities. William died at the battle of Corinth, Alexander died at Chickamauga, Thomas died in the Battle of the Wilderness and the eldest son, Woodson, who was stationed with the Signal Corps in Galveston, drowned in a boating accident while trying to save his younger brother, who also drowned. In the wake of these tragedies, Bryan sold his entire estate except for a 25-acre tract he retained for his homestead and 80 acres which would later be sold to Charles Durain. Bryan stayed in the area for a while, serving as presiding officer at the elections held at Black’s Store in the Goose Creek precinct through 1866 before moving to Houston.
In 1863, Bryan arranged for Rev Christopher C. Preston to take over teaching at Harmony Grove. Preston, who was born in Ohio in 1815, was a minister in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and had been a teacher at Mooresville Academy, Alabama since at least before 1840. For several years in the 1840s he ran the Franklin Institute in Columbus, Mississippi which is still in existence today. He left the teaching profession for a while around 1850 to work as a merchant but within a short time returned to teaching. The 1850 census shows four children named Smith, possibly orphans, living in the house. After a short time teaching at St. Landry High School, Preston sold the plantation owned by his wife and relocated to run Bellwood Academy which, according to “History of Sabine Parish, Louisiana,” was the most popular school in the parish. Besides the regular common school curriculum, he taught classes in Latin and French. The 1860 census shows him as a school teacher in Natchitoches, Louisiana with two of the Smith children and also a school teacher as a boarder.
At John L. Bryan’s invitation he left the academy in 1863 to assume teaching duties at Harmony Grove where Mary Jones’ son, Cromwell Anson Jones, was among the pupils. Preston also established a private boarding school on land which he had purchased from Dr. Bryan and called it Baytown High School.
This was a separate entity than the Harmony Grove School. The advertisement for the high school which ran in Houston and Galveston newspapers stated that students would be prepared for college or business and courses and French and instrumental music were available at extra cost.
The first classes at Baytown High School commenced in January 1864. By 1865, the institution was called Bayland High School, possibly because by then the Baytown Post Office had closed. The Civil War ended in April of that year and the economy which had been in turmoil for several years made continuing the institute as a private school untenable. The realization that a need existed to care for the many children orphaned by the war and the memory of caring for the Smith children years earlier inspired Preston to incorporate the school as the Bayland Orphan Home.
The incorporation of the home was approved by the Texas Legislature in August 1866 and opened on Aug. 13, 1867.
Preston had been elected as Elder in the Methodist church a month after the home’s incorporation. He had always been frail and by mid-1867 was in failing health so he resigned from his position on the board of directors to move north to raise funds for the home. He died in October 1867 while in Louisville, Kentucky on a fund-raising tour. Just three month earlier, John L. Bryan had died in Houston. Preston’s application for a patent on a crop-fumigating device was approved by the U.S. Patent office two months after he died.
After struggling for several years, the Bayland Orphan Home survived to care for the orphans in the Bayland area until it moved to Houston in 1888. The buildings are all gone now and subsidence has claimed much of the land but the home and the men who envisioned it played an important part in Baytown’s history.
Baytown resident Chuck Chandler is retired from the Exxon Refinery and serves as Vice President of Baytown Historical Preservation Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org