One connection that any part of a country has with another part is that of names. One place in Newton County has a name that comes from one town of the thirteen original colonies – Salem. Salem is on the Sabine River in south central Newton County. Old Salem was settled in about 1835 and was named in honor of Seth Swift for his birthplace, Salem, Massachusetts. Among many others that were original settlers is the Holmes family whose descendants, Mrs. Blewett Holmes and her children, C.B. Holmes, George Holmes, and Mrs. Earl Nichols still have their homes in Old Salem. Another family of original settlers was the Otto West family. Two children and two grandchildren of this family still have their homes in this community.
In 1844 a post office was erected and two years later Salem was recognized by the Commissioners’ Court as a ferry and road terminal. This ferry provided an easy way to get across the Sabine River and into the state of Louisiana. It was located about three miles from the present day “heart” of Old Salem. Also according to Homer West, resident of Old Salem from birth, most people got supplies from traveling stores that traveled on the Sabine and stopped near the ferry boat landing.
In 1892 a logging camp of the Cow Creek Tram Company was established two miles south of the ferry. The Salem post office was soon moved to this site. In the winter, when the heavy rains came, the logging company would send its logs by way of the Sabine River to the sawmill at Orange. These logs had been cut and pulled by oxen to the edge of the river during the previous months. When it came time for logs to be afloat, a raft would be made to carry the cooking utensils and other supplies. In 1895 the logging camp was abandoned and the installation and personnel were moved to Call.
Along with facts, dates, and figures, that accumulate about a place come the legends or folk yams. Most of them arc based on truth but no one can tell after several decades have passed when the truth ends and legends begin. Nevertheless, the stories that are told arc interesting.
Many legends have been told about the men that floated the logs down the Sabine. One of these legends that almost every kid in Old Salem has heard is the legend of Belle. On an old tree beside the Sabine River there are five letters clearly carved into the bark. They read B-E-L-L-E. The story that goes behind these letters is one to be remembered. The legend has it that a man named Belle was hired as a log roller for the logging company in Old Salem. While rolling logs down the river to Orange, he got into a fight with another hired man. As you might guess, Mr. Belle was the unfortunate one and was killed. He was buried beside this old tree on the banks of the Sabine and since no one knew of his family the tree served as his tombstone. The inscription on his tombstone was simply his last name. Belle. Whether this story is true or not no one knows but to this day the letters B-E-L-L-E remain on this legendary tree.
In February of 1949 an oil well was discovered on the edge of Salem and was designated Salem Field by the Railroad Commission. Salem now has a few oil wells at various places in the community. Old Salem’s school was located at a site about three miles from the Sabine River. After a few years a new school was built about one mile west of the previous one. Now children of Old Salem attend school at either Bleakwood (thirteen miles away) or Newton (twenty-five miles away).
Although many changes have come about since the first settlers came to Salem, it is still a thriving community.