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Riis Christensen: The History of Dallas, Part III

Immigrants, Drugs, Booze, Bling, Drowning, Skyscrapers, Camp Dick, SMU Coeds, Shetland Ponies, Depression, the KKK, Black Betty, Deacons, Highland Park, Awl Biz, the Dallas Cowboys, and Cold-Blooded Murder

“Aaaaaaahiiiiiiiaaaaaaauh, aaaaaaahiiiiiiiaaaaaaauh
We come from the land of the ice and snow
From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow
The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands”
—Led Zeppelin,” Immigrant Song”

I cranked up that tune to the threshold of pain in my Volkswagen piece of “ship” as I emigrated from Louisiana to the new lands of Southern Methodist University and Dallas in August of 1978. I came from the land of melted ice and snow (early global warming), and the only hammer used was to intermittently beat my alternator into submission along the 425-mile journey. Webster’s Dictionary defines immigrant as “a plant or animal that becomes established in an area where it was previously unknown.” The word immigrant also accurately describes the entire population of Dallas circa 1900—previously unknown in this area.

In my last two blogs, I wrote about how Tejas was “discovered” by Spanish immigrant/explorers 27 years after Columbus sailed the ocean blue (wasn’t it blue before? And actually, Caddo Indians had been inhabiting modern-day Nacogdoches for thousands of years prior, except they lacked gun powder and syphilis), and how John Neely Bryan had hammered Dallas into existence in the mid-1800’s. What I’d realized prior to and during the writing of these blogs was how little I really knew about Dallas—this place I’ve called home for 35 years—as well as how little I really knew about the actual lyrics to “Immigrant Song.” (“On we sweep with threshing oar—our only goal will be the western shore”?!)

At the start of the 20th century, Dallas was the liquor, jewelry, book, and drug capital of the Southwest. (We’re still arguably the capital—we have Goody Goody, Northpark and Half Price Books. And we’re still the drug capital, if you count meth production and illegal sales of embalming fluid). We also led the world in the manufacturing of saddles and cotton gin machinery (whoa Nellie; the only bale-outs back then involved hard work). The population had increased from one buckskin Mr. Bryan in 1841 to roughly 42,638 residents by 1900.

In 1905, businessmen formed The 150,000 Club (how inclusive!) with the goal of getting Dallas’ population up to that level by 1910.(It was reached in 1915). As the city further threshed the oar of growth through the decades, it was transformed from an agricultural center to one of banking and insurance. Fashion retailing also sashayed down the expansion runway with the founding of Neiman Marcus, A. Harris, and Sanger Brothers “ready-to-wear” stores. (As opposed to the “not-quite-ready-to-wear” or “I-wouldn’t-be-caught-dead-wearing-that” stores.)

Although major floods had occurred at least four times in the 1800’s, none compared to the disastrous flood of 1908. The river rose to a depth of 52.6 feet deep, and stretched a mile-and-a-half wide. Five people drowned, 4,000 people lost their homes, and the city of Dallas went dark for three days. All telegraph and telephone service stopped, and all rail travel ceased. Oak Cliff was reachable only by boat, and Dallas’ only steamship had sunk years earlier.

As the water receded, citizens floated (couldn’t end sentence there) the idea of better flood control and a bridge to Oak Cliff. In 1911, George Kessler opened the flood gates on his master plan, which used levees to divert the river, consolidated different railroad depots into a central location, and called for new playgrounds and parks. The largest viaduct (viaduct? Why not a chicken?) connecting Dallas and Oak cliff was built and, at the time, it was the largest concrete structure in the world. (By the 1930’s, many of Kessler’s ideas were implemented, including moving and straightening out the path of the Trinity and confining it with more levees to prevent further flooding).

Circuses, Medicine Shows, and College Football

Dallas’ first skyscraper, the 15-story Praetorian building, opened to a huge public reception in 1909. It was located at Main and Stone—a site that had previously housed circuses, medicine shows, and college football games (things that all now happen simultaneously in modern stadiums, with the advent of steroids and mascots). The herculean marvel was heated by steam, had three elevators, telegraph and telephone connections in each office, and hot and cold running water that was sourced from two artesian wells. (And lease clauses that prohibited the delivery of ice and mineral water as well as the carrying of messages?) A rooftop observatory provided surrounding views of up to 20 miles to the naked eye, although clothed eyes couldn’t see past the Trinity. It was the first skyscraper to be built in the western half of the United States, and constructed for the bargain basement sum of $800,000! (It was later air-conditioned in 1948, and became home to the 21-department, three-floor “Tandy Craft and Hobby Mart” in the 1960s.)

In 1909, Dallas was thirstier than 100,000 spring-breaking coeds. Early residents had gulped water from wells, natural springs, and the Trinity, but these sources were mere shot glasses for the growing population. In 1909, the city began acquiring 2,292 acres of land for a reservoir that would become White Rock Lake. A new dam and pump house were completed in 1911. In 1917, fishing was permitted and sailing became a popular activity. In 1929, the land around the lake was designated as a park. The city ran a prison farm there, and during the Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps built many of the structures around the lake that are still standing today.

In the ’30s and ’40s, more than 500,000 people visited the lake each summer. During WWII, German prisoners of war were housed in barracks that had been constructed by and for the C.C.C. crews. Outboard motors were banned in the ’50s, and that drove many boaters to other lakes around North Texas. (“The Lady of the Lake”—a young, attractive woman clad in soaking wet ’20s flapper clothes—frequently stood in the middle of West Lawther Drive and stopped motorists, claiming that she had fallen off a boat. The unsuspecting drivers would take her to an address that turned out to be a vacant lot, and she would purportedly vanish upon arrival—leaving only a soaking wet seat behind). Nocturnal submarine racing became a popular spectator sport in the ’50s and ’60s, but park usage still declined. It has impressively resurged in recent years, arguably due to the invention of $500 running shoes, $5,000 bicycles, and spandex.

An important neighborhood for the birth of the Mexican-American community in Dallas evolved around 1910. Little Mexico (as you come south off the Tollway coming into Uptown) began as a Polish-Jewish neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century, but Mexicans began streaming north into Dallas at the start of the Mexican Revolution. Mexicans from all walks of life came to the Dallas area to take jobs in factories, in agriculture and with the railroads. The neighborhood was bordered by Maple Avenue, McKinney Avenue and the MKT (Missouri, Kansas, and Texas) Railroad; its northern portion is now the Katy Trail.

The Methodists Rise to the Occasion

In 1911, Dallas became the location for one of 12 regional Federal Reserve Banks. The Fed’s move took Dallas to the bank as a permanent regional financial center. Millionaire Dr. William Samuel purchased the first ambulance for the city of Dallas and later donated thousands to expand Parkland Hospital, as many people shot each other back then as well. Children’s Hospital was birthed in 1913. The next year peeled out with Ford’s opening of an auto plant in Deep Ellum for expanded production of the Model T—and you could still have any color you wanted, as long as it was black.

At that time, what Dallas was really lacking was a major university where rich coeds could booze it up with a Shetland pony named Peruna in a convenient central location for only $55,000 per year (adjusted to 2013 cost of attendance excluding frat/sorority dues, bi-weekly pedicures and massages, personal trainer, extensive seasonal wardrobe, fake ID, and requisite BMW convertible or jacked up monster truck/farm implement). The Methodists rose to the occasion and voted in 1911 to establish a university in Dallas, but only after the city bribed them with $300,000 and 666.5 acres of free land for the campus. In 1915, Southern Methodist University opened its doors. As SMU gets ready to celebrate its 100th birthday, Harvard is now known as the “SMU of the East” and all others bow to SMU’s academic and athletic prowess. (Pony up, Mustang Mania and go ’stangs!)

World War I helped Dallasites break the surly bonds of earth. Love Field was established as a flight training center, and Fair Park was the home of the Camp John Dick Aviation Concentration Camp. (Folks, you just can’t make this stuff up!). Camp Dick housed a pool of graduate soldiers for instruction at Love Field towards the end of WWI in 1917-1918. The city ultimately bought “the patch” in 1927 to operate as a municipal airport. (University and Highland Park residents soon buzzed City Hall with noise complaints about heavy use of the east runway).

By 1920, a second wave of Mexican immigration (at the end of the Mexican Revolution) spurred Dallas on to become the 41st largest city in the U.S. That year, Dallasites mourned the death of Margaret Beeman Bryan. She had emigrated from lonely Bird’s Fort (in present-day Arlington), married John Neely Bryan, forged five kids, and had joined her husband in the planning and growth of Dallas—from a trading post on the banks of the Trinity with a population of two—to 159,000 upon her death. What a pioneer!

Kirby’s Pig Stand opened in September 1921. It was America’s first drive-in restaurant and had Dallasites squealing like pigs, or perhaps SMU was just playing Arkansas. A 1927 newspaper ad claimed more than “5,000 people in Dallas alone had their evening meal at the Pig Stands.” It was popular for “chicken-fried steak sandwich, fried onion rings, milkshake, pig sandwich, and its Texas toast.” Kirby’s Pig Stands paved the way for drive-in and drive-thru chow, and 35.7 percent of Americans who are obese and the rest of us just trying to ditch 10-20 extra pounds can thank Jessie Kirby for the original concept.

The era after World War I was unfortunately punctuated with a reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan. The Dallas Chapter was the largest in the country with 13,000 members. The “imperial wizard” was a cut-rate dentist named Hiram Evans. (Apparently, raising money for the Klan was like pulling teeth.) 75,000 citizens welcomed Evans to Klan Day at the 1923 State Fair. The Dallas Morning News fought back against the Klan’s popularity by helping Miriam Ferguson defeat Judge Felix Robertson (the Klan candidate) in a Democratic runoff for governor in 1925.

Deep Ellum and Highland Park

In the early ’20s, Dallas had one of the earliest radio stations—WFAA. (Dale Hansen was its first broadcaster, and to this day he still looks better on radio). Also during that time, women were entering the workforce en masse. 15,000 women were working in 125 different professions, trades, and occupations. Dallas became a major mecca for the textile industry—one that employed thousands of these women as dressmakers. The Magnolia Building opened in ’22. (In ’34, Magnolia Petroleum erected its neon Pegasus. It became one of the most famous landmarks in Dallas, and Mobil kept the logo when the companies merged in ’59).

Deep Ellum, along Elm Street east of downtown, was right on the eastern fringes of one of the largest freedman’s towns in the U.S. Elm was pronounced “Ellum” by many, and the name stuck. It was the center of the popular music scene, and cutting-edge black jazz and blues musicians such as Blind Lemmon Jefferson and Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter performed at Ella Moore’s Park Theatre, Hattie Burleson’s Dance Hall, The Harlem, and The Palace. (YouTube Jefferson’s “Black Snake Moan” and Ledbetter’s “Black Betty”!).

One of the most preten … uh … premier suburbs in Texas, Highland Park, was also developing during this time. In 1931, the first large scale multi-store shopping center in the nation was built—Highland Park Village. Highland Park incorporated, and its battles with Dallas over annexation lasted into the 1940’s. (Building McMansions—squeezing 6,000-square-foot houses with eight bathrooms and a re-gifting room onto 110′x160′ lots—was a concept that literally swept the Bubble later in the 20th century).

The Great Depression gave Dallas a new set of challenges. By 1931, more than 18,000 people were unemployed. Before the New Deal policy began, the city established a work-for-food program that helped many. Even during the closing of the banks, many businesses continued to operate as usual. The main reason Dallas did not suffer like other cities during the Depression was the discovery of awl—black gold, Texas tea. In 1930, Columbus Marion “Dad” Joiner struck a crude form of 10W-30 one hundred miles east of Dallas. Oil was booming in East Texas (since the Spindletop discovery in 1903), and Dallas was in the perfect position to benefit.
In the first two months of 1931, 28 businesses either formed or moved to Dallas due to the oil craze. Nathan Adams of First National Bank in Dallas was one of the first in the country to think of lending money using oil reserves as collateral. (I tried this, but my bank wasn’t impressed with reserves on my driveway from my son’s 4Runner). Banks made loans to develop the oil fields, and Dallas became the financial center for black bucks coming in and out of East Texas, the Permian Basin, the Panhandle, the Gulf Coast, and Oklahoma.

Even more important for Dallas in that decade, SMU went 12-0 in football in 1935 for the National Championship. Although they lost to Stanford 7-0 in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day in ’36 (this is balanced reporting), the trip earned them a check that paid off the 10-year note on Ownby Stadium.

After a lengthy campaign, the state of Texas chose Dallas as the site of the Texas Centennial Exposition. Dallas had a long history of hosting the State Fair of Texas. More than 50 buildings were built in Fair Park, and in 1936, over 10 million visitors, including FDR (32nd president of the U.S.), came to see the $25 million spectacle. (That would equate to around half a Jerry Dome today).

Before WWII, Dallas was a relatively minor manufacturing player in the U.S. The leading industries here were food processing (driving through Kirby’s), apparel manufacturing, and printing/publishing. During World War II, Dallas served as a manufacturing center for the war effort. In 1942, the Ford Motor plant in Dallas converted to war-time production, producing only jeeps (acronym for “General Purpose”) and military trucks. War-related industries and companies such as North American Aviation propped up Dallas’ industrial workforce to over 75,000.

The Mercantile Building topped out in 1943. It was built on the site of the former post-office (circa 1889), which had a clock tower and gingerbread architecture. The Merc ran with that theme and featured a clock tower with clocks on all four sides. (A man with one watch always knows what time it is. A building with four clocks never knows what it is?) It was the tallest building in Dallas at 31 floors and the only ’scraper to be finished during WWII due to steel shortages.

John Stemmons Jr. and Trammell Crow

No Dallas real estate blog about history during this time would be complete without mentioning John Stemmons, Jr. and Trammell Crow. “General Flunky” was the college dropout Stemmons’ first job title at Industrial Property Co. in 1931, a company his father had founded. Their business was to develop land reclaimed from the erection of levees along the upper Trinity. Business was slow at first due to the Depression, but John Jr. rose to President of IPC in 1945.

Stemmons loved “the village”—which is what he called Dallas, and “If it’s good for the village, it’s good for me” was his mantra. (One of his greatest contributions to Dallas was increasing the water supply. But he is best known for gifting 100 acres of land for the right-of-way for Stemmons Freeway which opened in 1959, and was so named after his father, Leslie Stemmons). He said that his father had taught him that, “The best way to have a satisfied customer is to sell them something, and by God, let them sell it at a profit; and they’ll come back to you and you can catch them again.” He left behind a legion of “cousins, brothers, and deacons” upon his death in 2001.

Stemmons and IPC teamed with Trammel Crow on many ventures and they built over 2 million square feet of warehouses together. Crow grew up in abject poverty. He was the fifth of eight kids who lived in a rented one-bedroom house off Fitzhugh in east Dallas. He plucked chickens, cleaned bricks and unloaded boxcars—all before the age of 10. He worked his way through SMU at night, and became the youngest CPA in Texas at the age of 24. He built his first warehouse in 1948 and leased it to Ray-O-Vac Co. It was bigger than what the battery boys needed, so he talked Decca Records into leasing the rest, and his career as a speculative builder began.

Spec space was a radical concept back then, because buildings had been built and occupied by a single company prior to Crow’s multitenant development. He became the biggest warehouse developer in Dallas by the late ’50s, with more than 15 million feet. His 5 million-square-foot Trade Mart draws 200,000 buyers annually from 80 countries and generates over $8 billion in sales annually. Crow said that his “intentions were to mart-ize everything.” His company brought office buildings such as Chase Tower and Trammell Crow Center to life, and altered skylines across the U.S. “Work is more fun than fun” was his favorite saying. (Crow died in 2009, but left this tidbit behind: “You do right because it is right. Always. In every case. Big and small, now and forever!”)

Stemmons and Crow enjoyed a huge lift as did the entire village after WWII—just like the city had experienced with the completion of the railroads. Five new businesses opened a day in 1949, and 13 new manufacturing plants opened every month. The population grew to 434,462.

Another Modern Wonder?

Central Expressway was an idea George Kessler had thrown out in 1911—where Dallas would buy land from the Houston and Central Texas Railroad for “Central Boulevard.” The portion from Downtown to Mockingbird opened in 1952, and at first it was hailed as another modern wonder. But population growth soon overwhelmed the roadway and it earned its reputation as one of the most poorly designed and heavily jammed freeways in the U.S. ($600 million widened it in the late ’90s and eliminated tight clover leaf interchanges and short drag strip on-ramps).

In 1952, Senator and future President Lyndon Baines Johnson (as in LBJ Freeway, kiddies) opened the State Fair when Big Tex made his initial debut. (Howdy folks—f-f-f-f-f-fire!). Elvis gave a huge Cotton Bowl crowd a big hunk of burnin’ love in ’56, and a tornado got Oak Cliff all shook up the next year—killing nine and injuring 170 people. The DFW Turnpike (I-30) opened in ’57, and in ’59, Southland Center hailed as the tallest building west of the Mississippi at 42 stories.

In 1958, Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments invented a version of the integrated circuit. This event soldered Dallas as a high-tech manufacturing center and assured that Neanderthals like me would soon be able to calculate 4.5 percent of any number. Dallas became the third-largest technology hub—companies such as Ling-Temco-Vought (LTV) further strengthened growth in the area.
Dallas became the first modern-era NFL expansion city with the addition of The Dallas Steers. (So which one … never mind.)

They were subsequently called the Dallas Rangers, but the American Association Dallas Rangers baseball team already had that name (duh); thus, on the third try they became the Dallas Cowboys. In order to get the franchise, Clint Murchison Jr. and Bedford Wynne purchased the rights to the “Hail to the Redskins” fight song and threatened to no longer let the ’skins use the song during games. Redskins’ owner George Marshall had opposed the Dallas expansion, but soon acquiesced. This early confrontation between the Cowboys and Redskins helped to fuel one of the most heated rivalries in the NFL (until Buddy Ryan started running up scores in Philadelphia). The franchise was awarded on January 28, 1960, but only after the college draft had been held, so the NFL’s first expansion team played without benefit of skilled young college draftees. (History once again repeats itself during the Jerry Jones era).

At 12:29 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, an act of cold-blooded murder was about to occur as a confused and troubled sniper crouched behind boxes at an open window on the sixth floor of the Texas School Depository and fingered the trigger of a mail-order 6.5mm Italian infantry rifle.

Tune back in to D Real Estate Daily on November 11 for a rich review of the most notorious site in Dallas and little-known events that put the President of the United States directly in the crosshairs.

Riis Christensen is a self-described amateur historian, pre-pubescent comedian, and semi-professional real estate broker at Transwestern. He can be reached at riis.christensen@transwestern.net.

SOURCES: The Book: Dallas/Fort Worth Real Estate Hall of Fame; The Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Society; Dallas Yesterday, Dallas Rediscovered: A Photographic Chronicle of Urban Expansion, 1870–1925; An Illustrated History; The Lusty Texans of Dallas; The WPA Dallas Guide and History; Wikipedia; Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce; NewsBlaze.com; Trammell Crow, Master Builder: the story of America’s largest real estate empire; Austin Business Journal; Yahoo! Finance; Dallas Business Journal; Lost Japan. Lonely Planet; The Dallas Morning News; Houston Chronicle; Pioneer Stories: The Handbook of Texas Online.

2 comments on “Riis Christensen: The History of Dallas, Part III

  1. Great article. I particularly like the bit about the genesis of the Cowboys-Redskins rivalry – never knew that! How can I find Parts I and II of the series? Thanks for this most interesting piece.

    Reply