Saturday, June 25, 2022 Jun 25, 2022
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CONVENTIONAL WISDOM

How Dallas became a mecca for meetings
By Tom Peeler |

IT SHOULDN’T have surprised anyone that Dallas bagged the Republican Convention. Dallas didn’t even exist when Texas revolted against Mexico, but the 50th anniversary of Texas’ independence was celebrated here. Dallas played virtually no role in the Civil War, yet it hosted the reunion of Confederate veterans. And in 1908, Dallas captured the biggest national convention of the year- in July, with no air conditioning.

That’s the way it all began: one part determination and two parts gall, sprinkled liberally with civic pride and topped with good old-fashioned hospitality.

We had no Alamo; no San Jacinto. But in 1886, Dallas was a good place for an old-timer to whoop it up. The civic promoters who lobbied with the Texas Veterans’ Association pitched the fancy facilities and the excitement of the big city. Dallas had tripled in population to more than 30,000 since its last census six years earlier. By 1890, it was the biggest city in Texas. The veterans’ association bought the pitch-after all, a fellow who fought in a war 50 years ago never knew which whoop would be his last.

It was not a huge convention in terms of delegates (only 143 showed up), but a convention city has to start somewhere. Anyway, by the time you added the families and friends, the Ladies Veterans’ Aid Association and all the spectators, it was a respectable bash. The local facilities were more than adequate. A fine opera house had been built at the corner of Commerce and Austin three years earlier (at a staggering cost exceeding $40,000); it could seat 1,200 for speeches. Better than average hotel accommodations (at least by Texas standards) were offered by the St. James, the St. George and the magnificent Grand Windsor, all of which were powered by electricity.

The favorite celebrities in the delegation had actually been on the fringe of the Battle of San jacinto, if they had been there at all. Big Foot Wallace’s brother had died at Goliad, but Sam Houston had ousted Santa Anna before Big Foot ever made it to Texas. He did, however, manage to get captured by the Mexicans in a skirmish a few years later and escaped death only because he knew that black beans were bigger than white ones.

Rip Ford was here, but he too had missed the war for independence, although he served admirably in the Mexican War a decade later. He earned his nickname while serving as a captain in the march on Mexico City. It was his job to send letters to the families of casualties, and it was considered common courtesy to close each letter with a respectful “Rest in Peace.” As casualties mounted, Ford shortened the closing condolences to “R.I.P.”

No officer of the association would have dared to question the credentials of Wallace or Ford, but a few lesser lights seeking admission brought raised eyebrows. A motion was offered that would require members to furnish documentary evidence of service to the Republic before being accepted for admission. But when it was noted that one of the charter members himself had no proof of his service, except for a leg full of Mexican lead, the motion died for lack of a second.

The people of Dallas were fine hosts. A huge flag was suspended over the center of the stage at the opera house, and in front of the stage a huge banner read: “Welcome, Veterans-to our city, to our homes, to our hearts.” The veterans rode the streetcars free of charge, and the ladies of the city prepared complimentary meals at the hotels. The Dallas Morning News reminded the local citizens that most of the vets were too feeble to walk in the big parade that was to highlight the convention, so buggies and wagons were graciously loaned for the occasion.

The most exciting moment of the convention was the announcement that veteran A.B. Irwin, 69, had fathered a baby girl since the last gathering the year before. The baby, who was deemed the official child of the association, was renamed “Lane” after Walter P. Lane, president of the association.

The darling of the news establishment, R.P. Crockett, who was described as having “bent form and tottering step,” was the son of legendary Davey. R.P. was hounded by the press during his entire stay, answering hundreds of questions -none of which were about himself.

In 1901, the people of Dallas again looked to a brigade of old-timers for convention business. Charles L. Martin, a writer for The Dallas Morning News, conceived the idea of inviting the Confederate veterans to Dallas for their annual reunion. Hosting this reunion-the most prestigious convention in the South-would be quite a feather in the city’s cap.

Six weeks before the 1901 convention, Martin took the idea to the Commercial Club, the forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce, which passed a resolution in favor of the proposal. In no time, Martin was off to lobby with the Texas delegation of Confederate veterans, which was meeting in Waco to plan the trip to the big meeting in Memphis.

In the early days of the convention business, a phenomenon existed in this part of the country that no longer seems to be a major factor. In those days, there was a great deal of statewide pride, and a victory by a Texas city in the convention race was celebrated by the whole state. The Texas delegation-the largest of the state groups to go to Memphis- lined up solidly behind Dallas.

Martin and key members of the Commercial Club were waiting in Memphis when the delegates arrived, and the lobbying began immediately. The debate over where to hold next year’s convention was always a major feature of early 20th-century conventions, and this was no exception. The heated race soon narrowed to two candidates, Dallas and Louisville.

Everybody was a colonel at the old veterans’ reunions, so a contingent of colonels wouldn’t turn any heads. But Dallas had a secret weapon: its own general. Gen. W.L. “Old Tige” Cabell had served as mayor of Dallas after fighting valiantly for the Confederacy, and he went to Memphis to wage one last battle. By a vote of 1,243 to 1,046, Dallas was selected over Louisville as the site of the 1902 reunion.

Things had been so hectic during the campaign to capture the ’02 convention that no one had stopped to consider the logistics of the situation. More than 100,000 guests would be converging on a city with hotel space for 10,000 at most, counting the boardinghouses. An editorial writer for the News said that Dallas would just have to “spit on her hands and take a firm grip on the situation.”

The civic leaders of the city selected Christopher Columbus Slaughter, a no-nonsense banker and cattleman, to head the arrangements committee. Slaughter, who once ran cattle on 200 square miles of West Texas land, had the capacity for thinking big.

It was decided that a tent city would be erected at Fair Park, where the veterans would be quartered free of charge in separate regiments set up by states, just like in the good ol’ days. Soon, workers were frantically driving tent stakes and pulling lines in anticipation of the onslaught, and they would have made it, if the old vets hadn’t arrived two days early.

The bedraggled vets had spent many hours on crowded trains without sleeping accommodations and were anxious for a place to nap, but Colonel Slaughter told them that they ought to know how to take orders by now, and the orders were to report two days hence. Finally, after a band of Tennessee natives threatened to return home and forget the whole thing, the veterans were admitted to the grounds. General Gordon, commander of the veterans’ association, didn’t join the enlisted men in the Fair Park tents but set up a command post in the more luxurious quarters at the Oriental Hotel.

Even with the tent city, it soon became evident that Dallas couldn’t comfortably accommodate all of the visitors. Col. Slaughter and Ben E. Cabell (Old Tige’s son and the mayor of Dallas) published a plea for cooperation and assistance from local citizens. Anyone in Dallas, Oak Cliff or the suburbs who had a room to spare-or even space on the floor for a bedroll- was asked to prominently display a white sheet outside his quarters.

Still, the rumors flew that this time Dallas had bitten off more than it could chew. The News retaliated with a headline proclaiming: “STORY IS UN-TRUE, PLENTY OF ROOM HERE.” Reporters interviewed the throngs that were found roaming the streets long after bedtime in an attempt to prove that late-hour gatherings were because of hell-raising rather than a lack of sleeping quarters. It was also intimated that quite a few in the gatherings were tightwads unwilling to part with 50 cents for a clean bed.

The arrangements committee deemed it appropriate to import a class act for the occasion. The honored guest was the renowned Polish pianist, Ignace Paderewski. If the veterans had been given a choice, they would likely have opted for a fiddle and harmonica duet, so most of them hung around the campgrounds, swapped war stories and rode the Ferris wheel.

The city’s upper crust turned out en masse to hear Paderewski. The local papers printed tips on the social graces for such an occasion, such as the fact that ladies would be expected to take off their hats so that others could see the stage. All in all, the performance went well, but a local reviewer complained that many in the audience were apparently more interested in seeing and being seen than in listening to the artist, and at times the disorder was intolerable.

By the third day of the convention, it was reported that the greatest crowd ever seen in Texas had filled the city, perhaps as many as 200,000. One old-timer noted that if Lee had had half as many at Appomattox, he would never have surrendered. A grand parade was held, and then, to highlight the convention, the city of New Orleans was selected for the 1903 affair.

First Texas, then the South and (by 1908) Dallas was ready to burst onto the national scene by hosting the big event of the year: the convention of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. The moving force behind this masterstroke of convention politics was William H. Atwell, U.S. attorney for the northern district of Texas.

Atwell was a strong force within the order of Elks and was also head of the convention department of the Dallas Commercial Club. Taking his cue from Charles Martin’s success with the Confederate vets, Atwell mobilized the forces of Elks lodges all over Texas. The lodges threw their full support behind Dallas in lining up the 1908 convention.

The B.P.O.E. delegates were a far cry from the old soldiers of past conventions. These were college freshmen in 40-year-old bodies. They roamed the streets day and night singing such naughty ditties as Nobody Knows How Dry I Am and What Makes the Wildcat Wild? Those too hoarse to sing clanged cowbells and banged pie pans and milk buckets. The delegation from Mineral Wells rode jackasses into the plush lobby of the Oriental Hotel. The streets of the town became so clogged with merrymakers that the police finally gave up and roped off Main Street all the way from Harwood to Lamar for “pedestrian traffic.”

Dallas loved it. A huge, gaudy arch was built over Main Street sporting hundreds of electric lights and featuring a “WELCOME ELKDOM” sign that could be read for blocks away. Every business in town was decorated with purple-and-white (Elks’ colors) banners and streamers. The Robinson Seed Company even painted its chickens purple. Titche-Goettinger, Sanger Bros, and the other department stores featured drawings of elks in their ads and offered elk-head match-holders, cream pitchers, candle-sticks and beer mugs.

The city put on a feast for the delegates that was described simply as “the biggest barbecue in the history of the world.” Six-hundred-foot-long trenches were dug for the fire, and green poles were laid over them to hold the 10 tons of beef and mutton cooked to feed 25,000 delegates.

Police Chief Ben Brandenburg wasn’t about to allow the repetition of a grave error that had detracted from the Confederate convention. In 1902, the arrangements committee had printed dozens of badges reading “ASK ME!” that were intended for volunteer workers directing visitors. Somehow, a number of the badges fell into the hands of con men who used them to tout questionable establishments and activities.

This time, the chief kept a keen lookout for undesirables. Detectives imported from St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit and elsewhere spotted a number of known crooks and pickpockets at the railroad depot, and Brandenburg had them turned around before they were able to disembark. At the end of the convention, convention officials presented Brandenburg with a stag-horn umbrella.

There was no Paderewski concert this time, however. The entertainment, strictly for the common man, included a double-header baseball game by the Dallas Giants, a sparring match between old-timers John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain and an exhibition by world-champion wrestler Frank Gotch, who pinned three opponents in 24 minutes.

The biggest worry hanging over the convention concerned the weather. There had been 3,000 cases of heat prostration the year before in Philadelphia-a fact that attested to the skill of Atwell and his associates in selling the delegates on a location not noted for its frigid climate. Although the temperature in Dallas during the Elks convention in mid-July hovered between the high 80s and low 90s, not a single delegate was reported to be ill.

“You can write it across the front page of your paper,” said John K. Tener, the grand exalted ruler of the Elks. “Dallas has made good.”