Commerce, TX – Most area citizens know something about Cow Hill without ever having visiting the nearby community that preceded Commerce. Perhaps they discover the name when Jerald Thomas' iconic Cowhill Express Coffee Company sign catches their eyes on the Commerce historical town square. Other businesses and organizations in Commerce revive the name from time to time. If curiosity is piqued, inquirers learn that the settlement two miles northeast of town was named because cattle along the Middle Sulphur River escaped floods by climbing the south embankment to dry ground.
Encouraged to take advantage of a trade route that had opened and the completion of a new bridge on the South Sulphur River, in 1872, William Jernigin, a pioneer merchant in partnership with Josiah Jackson in Cow Hill, decided to leave Cow Hill and open a mercantile store at a site on the present northwest corner of the Commerce square. When Jernigan drove his wagon to the riverport of Jefferson to purchase stock for his store, he was asked what town name should be written on the crates. With no official name chosen for the new community at that time, Jernigin replied, "Just write Commerce on my goods," referring to the commercial contents of the crate. On his return trip to his new home, Jernigin glanced over his shoulder at the name on his cargo and decided that it would be ideal for the new town that was destined to become a center of commerce.
As Cow Hill declined, Commerce gained population, incorporated in 1885, welcomed the St. Louis Southwestern (Cotton Belt) Railroad in 1887, and celebrated the relocation of W. L. Mayo's East Texas Normal College from Cooper to Commerce in 1894. Many citizens know this outline of local history, but few have visited the site of Cow Hill. In an effort to locate what remains of the older community, a resident was sought who could lead a tour of historic Cow Hill. The guide selected was Robert Grove, a native of Commerce and owner of the Cow Hill Farm. He spent summers in Cow Hill with his parents, who bought their first land in Cow Hill in 1929. His father, Dr. Joe Grove, was head of the Industrial Education department at East Texas State Teachers College.
For this tour beginning early in the morning before the day's heat spoiled the excursion, Grove took a route from Main Street north on Park Street. A right turn on FM 71 took Grove to the eastern city limits of Commerce. After a left turn onto property owned by Dan Ouzts, Grove pointed to the spot where Josiah Jackson built his store once facing FM 71, which at that time was the highway connecting Cooper and Commerce. Grove never saw the store building, but he saw the Jackson home, which was still standing when he was a youngster. Today a giant bois d'arc tree grows just west of the store location. The Cow Hill community was scattered along two and a half miles of a ridge above the Middle Sulphur River that once kept cows secure and dry.
"I think I have identified the race track that operated across the road from Jackson's store," Grove says. "It is a level piece of land. There were several race tracks in the area." Within two miles of Cow Hill, across the Delta County line to the east, is the Hart Cemetery, where William Jernigin and his wife are buried among other pioneers from the Cow Hill community. Some of the earlier graves are identified by bois d'arc markers still standing among later stone memorials.
Cow Hill, whose enterprising leader, William Jernigan, became the father of Commerce, is still very much a picturesque community for its current residents.