The Very Complicated Legacy of Dr. William Samuell
William Samuell’s bequest to Dallas—320 acres of land, a trust to create parks—should have been a blessing. Instead, it started a 70-year battle.
Dr. William Worthington Samuell
When the esteemed surgeon William Worthington Samuell died in 1937, his will was the talk of the town. In those days, Dallas was small enough that when Samuell didn’t like his high taxes, he took it up in a private meeting with the city manager. Everyone knew everyone, and everyone knew that Samuell had managed to grow even richer during the Great Depression while still tending to charity cases. After he was gone, the procession stretched 2 miles to the cemetery, where the patched elbows of his admirers rubbed against elegant furs and dark suits.
Rumor had it that Samuell had planned to give everything he owned to St. Paul’s hospital. But his first wife had died three years earlier after convincing her workaholic husband to take a vacation to Chicago for the World’s Fair, where she contracted amoebic dysentery at a fancy hotel. At her funeral, a priest suggested she was in Purgatory for practicing birth control, as she had tearfully confessed, so that her childless husband, a Baptist, could focus on his medical career. The jovial doctor tore that will to shreds.
Fresh air was therapy for him, and Samuell had also mentioned that he wanted to give Dallas a great park someday. After long hours working his nimble fingers at the operating table, Samuell would toss aside his suit, don a pair of jeans, and play barefoot in the grass with his dogs. His idea of summer fun was retreating to his remote, sprawling farm on the eastern edge of Dallas County, where he used mule power to dig a chain of reservoir ponds and raised the state’s first herd of shorthorn cattle certified tuberculosis free.
Samuell had barely recovered from pneumonia when he suffered a fatal heart attack at that beloved farm and died at age 59. His business manager found the will in a desk drawer, handwritten in his cursive scrawl on clinic stationery. After setting aside individual cash bequests for 23 relatives and friends, Samuell disposed of the bulk of his estate, which included land and investments appraised at $1.2 million (about $18 million in today’s dollars, accounting for inflation), using just 21 words. Hugh Brooks, an oil and gas attorney who all but ditched his practice to volunteer in recent years at the park opened on Samuell’s old farm, can recite them by heart. “Real estate is City Dallas Park Board for park purposes. Not to be sold. Bal. to Park Board as permanent foundation,” he says, counting off on his fingers. The gift amounted to more than twice the annual park budget at the time and made Dallas one of the richest park systems in the country.
Maybe Samuell was too busy to consult a lawyer. Maybe the economy of words in his will was characteristic of a man whose efficiency had built him a fortune as he removed infected appendices in six minutes flat. Or perhaps he kept it brief so there would be no mistaking his instructions. Whatever the reason, Samuell’s curt prescription for Dallas green space has been argued over ever since.
Most recently Brooks accused city parks directors of ignoring Samuell’s wishes, trashing his legacy, and looting his bequest, allegations the city insists are hogwash. By his count, the blue chip stocks Samuell left the city in 1937 should be worth at least $250 million today. Instead, at the end of March of this year, the value of the Samuell fund was down to $5.6 million—meaning it’s worth less than when the doctor died. “Dallas has raided and mismanaged the trust and Dr. Samuell’s legacy, to the point where today they can’t afford to maintain and develop his parks. So they want to get rid of them,” Brooks says.
The question of what happened to the Samuell trust grew so contentious that last year the Texas Attorney General’s office opened an investigation. Before it was concluded—before it was even started—the city had learned a lesson that every lottery winner knows: the bigger the windfall, the bigger the headache.
“Dallas has raided and mismanaged the trust and Dr. Samuell’s legacy, to the point where today they can’t afford to maintain and develop his parks. So they want to get rid of them.” - Hugh Brooks
Within a few years of his death, William Samuell’s name was already being misspelled on Dallas street signs and maps. Today he is all but forgotten as one of the city’s great benefactors, unless your child has been unlucky enough to attend the failing high school named for him or you drive Samuell Boulevard and the route that took him from farm to farm, past pasture and prairie later swallowed by the city limits. Dallas owns more than 1,700 acres of parkland because of Samuell’s gift, including Samuell-Grand and its extensive tennis facilities, the checkerboard of soccer fields at Northwest Highway known as Samuell-Garland park, and the sprawling Samuell Farm near Mesquite. There are other parks that don’t bear his name, including all or parts of California Crossing, L.B. Houston Nature Trail, Crawford Memorial, Buckner, Oak Cliff Founders, and Dallas Heritage parks.
Looking at all that land after the doctor’s death, park officials quickly went from being overwhelmed at the magnitude of the gift to chafing at Samuell’s restrictions, saying that the money he’d left wouldn’t be enough to fully develop all the parks. Could he possibly have wanted city officials to turn every one of the dozens of parcels of land he had left them into parks, even the 50-foot lots rented out with commercial buildings? Then there were the other claimants to deal with. A line of people wanting their share of Samuell’s estate trailed out the courtroom doors. County and state taxmen wanted a piece. So did relatives of Samuell’s deceased first wife. His wealthy widow, Addie Samuell, encouraged the doctor’s only sister to challenge the will, which “would actually give Addie all the property,” his niece Hazael Beckett wrote in her book Growing Up in Dallas.
HOME ON THE RANGE: The city built the Texas Pioneer Homestead on Dr. Samuell’s farm. It was later used for Civil War reenactments.photography by Elizabeth Lavin
In 1940 the city found a sympathetic ear in Judge John A. Rawlins in the 116th District Court. However lovely a strand of pocket parks draped over downtown would have been, the judge thought it impractical for the city to make all of Samuell’s lands into parks. He divided the bequest’s 42 parcels into three categories: lands that must be sold, with proceeds deposited into the permanent fund of Samuell’s stocks and other investments left to support his parks; lands to be held and rented; and lands that must become parks. There were just seven parcels in that latter category, a far cry from what Samuell’s will stipulated. Judge Rawlins, it bears mentioning, was later voted off the bench because of conflicts of interest and questionable rulings. He went on to become one of the largest land developers in east Dallas County.
But even his grand compromise proved too difficult for the city to abide. Not long before the ruling, the Park Board became mired in a corruption scandal. In the aftermath, every detail relating to Samuell’s bequest was documented, down to the last cent earned from cotton and oats sharecropped on his farms and the disposal of a white mule named Peanuts with bad teeth, which was fed to the lions at the Dallas Zoo. And a decade after Samuell’s death, the city still had not developed any of his parks. The widow Samuell and community groups begged them to quit dithering on Samuell-Grand, the park abutting Tenison Memorial that would become the crown jewel in the Samuell bequest. Finally, in 1953, the park got its public swimming pool that would be forever mobbed with people. In 1964 an air-conditioned gymnasium and recreation center opened at Samuell-Grand, which attracted thousands of visitors from across the city to its acres of azalea and rose gardens before the ’80s-era budget squeeze.
If Samuell-Grand Memorial Park was the urban heart of the Samuell bequest, its soul was in the country. The Samuell Farm, 15 miles east of Dallas in an unincorporated area between Mesquite and Sunnyvale, began as a nature area popular with camp scouts. Then, in 1981, the city opened a working pioneer farm that drew day-tripping Dallas public school children, who made candles and stroked sheep’s wool at the petting zoo.
Those were the heydays. The more recent history of Samuell Farm reads like farce, an absurd story of what happens when you put a few city employees in charge of 320 acres and a bunch of animals out in the sticks, and then slowly turn off the spigot of funds.
A brouhaha over a concessionaire’s plan to serve alcohol at farm parties so close to the dry municipality of Mesquite erupted in arson in 1991. The Samuell Farm barn was torched, killing a horse, a miniature mule, and three goats. In that era, horses would escape from the farm and run wild down nearby streets. At least two were impounded by sheriff’s deputies, and one was struck and killed by a car. The cannon blasts of Civil War reenactors at the farm ruffled the feathers of the PETA crowd, not to mention civil rights activists who thought it improper to allow the fight for slavery to continue on city property.
A Samuell Farm worker who ran a bird refuge there accused the farm manager of purposely running down wild fowl with his city truck. She stockpiled their feathered carcasses in a farm freezer as evidence until she was fired in 1998, then reinstated and transferred to the Dallas Zoo, under allegations that she roughed up a first-grader who was getting ready to kick a duck.
About that time, Pat Melton began her 11-year (and counting) crusade over Samuell Farm when she first visited with her children for a community service school project. Melton, now a director of Human Rights Initiative, eventually got all the animals removed from Samuell Farm. USDA inspectors failed the ramshackle pens, and a city auditor agreed in 1999 that the beasts were in danger of “abortion, colic, and death” because of moldy hay. The audit and subsequent investigations also revealed that people—including city workers—had been dumping trash at Samuell Farm. At least 182 truckloads of rubbish were hauled away, including street signs, toilet seats, and chunks of asphalt and concrete road remains leaching into creeks. To add insult to injury, Samuell’s home, “which can be considered a historical landmark and an important part of history,” the auditor reported, was rotting away on a cracked foundation.
After the animals were gone, attendance dropped by half, and the city grew desperate for a new source of revenue at Samuell Farm. They considered everything from a “pizza farm” to an RV park. In the end, in 2001, they just shut it down.
A girl named Hannah Westbrook from Arlington wrote to Mayor Laura Miller, offering to donate her Tooth Fairy proceeds to help keep the farm open. It was a difficult decision, the mayor wrote back, but maybe Hannah could check out the naked mok rats at the Dallas Zoo’s new children’s area? If Hannah had any more concerns, the mayor suggested she consult Paul Dyer, the city’s parks director.