Tuesday, May 28, 2024 May 28, 2024
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13 decades in 10 easy volumes.

DALLAS AND Fort Worth have been here more than 13 decades, but most of what has been written about them has been penned within the last 10 years. Local history has a way of going unnoticed while it is happening, unless it’s part of a bigger picture, such as the events that befell Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Cape Canaveral, Florida, and later on, Dallas.

What makes an interesting book about a place? First, it should be reasonably accurate. If it’s fiction you’re after, there’s plenty of that available elsewhere. Photographs help a lot. There are to date no store-bought words that can describe the foolishness of the Twenties, or the despair tempered by determination in the Thirties, the way pictures can.

There are some fascinating and valuable books about us, and those who journeyed along the trail that we now call Preston Road. These are the 10 best ones.

Dallas: The Deciding Years-A Historical Portrait, by A.C. Greene (Encino Press, $12.50).

“A river began it. Sluggish in summer, scant. A red and awesome terror in a wet spring. Too much river… or not enough.”

With these opening lines, A.C. Greene sets the pace for a spellbinding 44-page account of what went on around here during the first 90 or so years.

Greene makes no effort to immortalize our predecessors. When recounting the reaction to rumors that the fire which had destroyed most of the city in 1860 was started intentionally by slaves, he describes the town’s response as “furious, immediate and barbaric. But predictable.” In order to avert economic disaster, only three slaves were hung; all of the others were whipped.

The soul of the book, however, is the reason that it was allowed to be born. Greene and his cronies ran upon a hoard of old photos, the best of which are shared with us, 140 of them. Dirt streets, stiff collars, mule-powered streetcars, downtown Dallas sieged by flood, and other treasures since swept aside by the freeways.

How Fort Worth Became the Texas-most City, by Leonard Sanders (Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, $17.50). As is the case with our first selection, this is one that you can sit down with in one evening and learn an awfully lot about a place, and have a good time doing it. The focal point of the book is an accumulation of old photographs that were exhibited a few years ago at the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art. Leonard Sanders has bound these pictures of the past together with a delightful yarn, a factual accounting that’s more fun than fiction.

Take just one of Sanders’ real life characters, Longhair Jim Courtright, who was elected town marshal in 1876. Half the town had high hopes that he would clean out Hell’s Half Acre, the stomping grounds of the cowboys who hit town running after the long journey home down the Chisolm Trail. The other half was afraid that he would be bad for business. After being sent out of town on several wild goose chases after desperados, Courtright quit in disgust, and left town. The trips, it seems, were all scheduled so that he would be away on Saturdays, the biggest night of the week for the saloon keepers.

When Courtright returned, he had taken up with the other side of the law. He was captured in Fort Worth by two Texas Rangers, but broke loose during his last meal before being hauled off for trial. A waitress hid a gun for him under a table at the Merchants Restaurant. Courtright returned to town once more, this time to be gunned down in a duel with Luke Short outside the White Elephant Saloon.

Dallas Rediscovered: A Photographic Chronicle of Urban Expansion 1870-1925, by William L. McDonald (Dallas Historical Society, $14.95). This is another picture book, but it’s nothing like the first two. Only brief attention is given to Dallas’ first 30 years, and there are no photographs of people. What is offered, though, is a remarkable accumulation of old photos of Dallas architecture, a pictorial chronicle of an age of grandeur that most of us never imagined existed here.

Anyone having an interest in the neighborhoods of yesterday’s Dallas will find a bonanza here. The mansion homes of the magnates of cotton, banking, real estate, and retailing have all been resurrected. Sanger, Cockrell, Field, Tenison, King, Marsalis – they’re all here. The accompanying narrative relates how the prime neighborhoods developed, and how the leading residents made the money necessary to live there.

Architectural buffs will no doubt find it exciting to learn that we once had a lot more to show than the old red courthouse. Throughout the book, McDonald provides sadistic captions relating the year of the demise of these magnificent structures. He even names names, telling which insurance company, parking lot, or tire dealer now occupies the land.

Fort Worth: The Civilized West, by Caleb Pirtle III (Continental Heritage Press, $24.95).

“The river with no name never quite knew what to do with the land that sprawled away from its minnows and mud, whether to punish it or baptize it.”

Sound familiar? It’s the same river. Caleb Pirtle’s book is a slick publication that uses all the latest visual techniques to appeal to bookstore browsers. With inset photos, wide borders, and sepia tones, it wouldn’t look out of place in the Time-Life series on The American West.

Pirtle tells all of the more familiar stories; about Butch Cassidy, who hid out in Fort Worth, about Cynthia Ann Parker, who was stolen by Indians and recaptured by whites 30 years later; and of course, Longhair Jim. Pirtle takes on a little more flair for the dramatic than Sanders. Though most historians admit that they don’t even know for sure what Court-right and Short were fighting about, Pirtle has found a witness who heard the two tell each other good-bye before Short leaned over the wounded Courtright to shoot him between the eyes.

Pirtle offers a fascinating account of the fiery Reverend J. Frank Norris’ battle with the city fathers over Hell’s Half Acre and other matters. After preaching a sermon entitled “The 10 Biggest Devils in Town and Their Records Given,” Norris then focused on Mayor W.D. Davis on the subject of $400,000 in missing tax revenues. Davis called a meeting of all adult males in the city, and after haranguing them for two hours, concluded:

“This is a time for heads of homes to act and not a time for sissy boys. If there are 50 red-blooded men in town, a preacher will be hanging from a lamppost before daylight.”

Pirtle brings Fort Worth right on up to Woodie Woods and the Texas Boys’ Choir. Unfortunately, the last 55 pages are devoted to the “Corporate Sponsors” who helped cover the cost of publication. Anybody who shells out $24.95 shouldn’t have to read about Texas Refinery Corporation’s “Business by the Golden Rule.”

The Lusty Texans of Dallas, by John William Rogers (E.P. Dutton & Co., out of print). For some reason, people who write books about Dallas and Fort Worth seem to have a terrible time with titles, which is a shame because this one has a lot to offer to those who get past the cover. In fact, until the Seventies it was the best book written about either city. Rogers took the liberty of writing about the things that interested him. He shifts from Bonnie Parker to John Neely Bryan with no apologies. He’s as comfortable with Sam Bass and Belle Starr as with R.L. Thornton and D. Harold Byrd.

Rogers tells of things like the first car that came to town, and gives a good account of the growing up of music, entertainment, and the arts-particular passions of his.

Dallas Yesterday, by Sam Acheson (SMU Press, $15). Sam Acheson died five years before this book was published. Acheson was a columnist for the Morning News, and the book is a compilation of the best of his columns about the Dallas past. It’s difficult to do a book like this and bring it off with an apparent sense of logic and order. There has been some effort to group columns on similar subjects together, but inevitable choppiness in transition remains. Just when you want to go on to the next chapter to find out more on a subject, or what happened next, you realize that you can’t.

Nevertheless, this is a compilation of pearls for those who dote on the obscure. If you ever wanted to know why the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight wasn’t held here as planned, or how Cedar Springs got its name, this is the place to look.

Fort Worth, Outpost on the Trinity, by Oliver Knight (University of Oklahoma Press, out of print). Knight’s story was published in 1953, shortly after Rogers’ Lusty Texans of Dallas, but there is little similarity between the style of the two. Rogers did not become easily excited over an event, but Knight can hardly control himself. For chapter titles, Knight uses phrases like “Thundering Hooves,” “The Stolen Courthouse,” and “Blood, Lust and Gold.” He doesn’t begin with a meandering river, but rather with “Attack was imminent.” But between adjectives, there’s some good history to be found.

Knight tells the story of the impressions of a five-year-old boy when the first train came to town in 1876:

“The smokestack was the biggest thing about it. It had black smoke and a coarse whistle and big bell that scared me. I’d been threatened all my five and a half years with boogers. By golly, I thought, there’s the booger.”

He tells of the big battle over whether hogs should be allowed to roam the streets, and how the anti-hoggers won the special election in 1878 by just 13 votes. And of the sub-headlines that appeared in the paper after the narrow election of Rutherford Hayes: “The Bleak, Wintry Blasts of Discontent for Four More Long, Long Years. All Honest Men Look Sorrowful and Ashamed at the Result.”

The Book of Dallas, edited by Evelyn Oppenheimer and Bill Porterfield (Dou-bleday, $35). Maybe we were too hard on this book when it came out in 1976. Perhaps it was unfair to measure it against what it promised to be, rather than against what else had been done on the subject. Then again, for $35, maybe it wasn’t. Anyway, I’ve taken another look.

There is value within the pages of The Book of Dallas, located somewhere beyond Erik Jonsson’s introduction where he recalls getting off the train in Dallas and seeing “pretty girls in crisp clean cotton dresses,” and men who all looked “clean, competent and assured.”

Any book that has Blackie Sherrod on sports and A.C. Greene on power and politics can’t be all bad. Sherrod at times gives the impression that the history of Dallas sports is a bigger project than he’d care to bother with, but a halfhearted effort by Sherrod is still better than most of us can do. Greene also offers a good account of why the Dallas Citizens Council doesn’t call the shots in Dallas politics anymore.

Fort Worth: A Frontier Triumph, by Julia Kathryn Garrett (Encino Press, out of print). If Garrett’s book is anything, it is thorough. She goes on for 366 pages, and still just works her way up to 1872. But if you want to know everything about the early years of Fort Worth, this is the book for you.

Ms. Garrett obviously encountered great difficulty accepting the outcome of the Civil War. She relates several incidents of “impudence, insolence and disobedience” on the part of the ex-slaves. Perhaps the publication of such accounts in 1972 has, in itself, historical significance.

Dallas, 1952-1972, by Larry Grove (Crystal Charity Ball Committee, out of print). This one is bound to become a collector’s item. It was written to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Crystal Charity Ball, and was sold to and by members of the committee of the organization to raise funds for charity. It covers an era that no one else has dealt with, and covers it well. The 1957 tornado, the birth of the Dallas/Fort Worth Regional Airport, “Thanks for helping O.L. Nelms make another million,” and the Elm Street cave-in, all in words and pictures.

Establishing a library on Dallas andFort Worth is as hard as selecting the 10best books. As a rule, only the very latestis readily available, such as is the case rightnow with Caleb Pirtle’s book. You can stillget the Sanders book at Barbers in FortWorth, but don’t wait too long. The McDonald book is still in plentiful supply atDallas bookstores. If you have troublefinding the Acheson book, you can get itfrom the SMU Press. Greene’s book hasabout disappeared, but when last contacted, the Encino Press had a few returned copies left. If you’re patient andalert, you can find The Book of Dallasfrom time to time selling for half price,which is about what it’s worth. For theothers, hit the offbeat trail: Wilson Bookshop, Your Book Store, and Half PriceBooks in Dallas; and in Fort Worth, Anderson’s and Evergreen.