TALES OF THE CITY Fair Game

When you’re down, throw a party: Uncle Bob Thornton and his incredible Centennial coup.

The whiners were everywhere this summer, cursing their devalued Texas Instruments calculators, talking about an oil import tax, offering to sell all our banks to people in California, wailing, caterwauling, selling their Dallas birthrights for an ounce of inflated gold bullion. Building projects were postponed, deals canceled. LTV buckled, the Hunts neared foreclosure, and one savings and loan firm after another fell into LBJ’s tomb.

Normally-at times like this-we would throw a party. That’s what happened exactly fifty years ago, in the depths of the Great Depression, when R.L. “Uncle Bob” Thornton whipped the city into a patriotic frenzy and raised $15 million from public and private sources for the Texas Centennial Exposition. We had a different business philosophy then and for the next forty-nine years. It went something like this:

Bankrupt? Must not be a very good businessman. Must have made some bad decisions.

Overextended on credit? That’s why we’ve protected our solid Texas banking system from Yankee speculators.

Oil prices down? After a bust comes another boom. Cap the well, hold it in the ground, and wait on the East to run out.

Thinking about imports and tariffs? Don’t do it. Once the feds get into your business, they never get out.

Scared to make deals with the vultures waiting in Chicago and New York? Make deals in Dallas, among the brethren.

Need capital? Don’t sell. Find a new product and take it to market.

Need courage? Go somewhere else.

So where did the bare-knuckled, thick-skinned image of the Dallas businessman disappear to? What happened to the Institutes of Free Enterprise and the Self-Made Men and the Motivational Millionaires and the grandiose Center for International Business, which attracted economists and thinkers from all over the world until, suddenly, with little notice or fanfare, it closed its doors this summer? How can a drop in oil prices-the kind of precipitous drop the cattle industry has been dealing with since the 1870s-suddenly leave us full of sad-sack, immobilized potential suicides? It reminds me of the business leadership of Hot Springs, Arkansas, a thriving city until Governor Rockefeller closed down its casinos in 1967. Ever since then the small businessmen of the city have been saying “everything will be fine when we get the gambling back”-only the gambling has never come back, and the main street of town is full of boarded-up buildings.

“Everything will be fine when the oil prices recover.” This is a new sort of pessimism. That’s why I want to retell the story of Bob Thornton and the 1936 Centennial, since this month-during the Sesquicenten-nial Celebration at Fair Park-we have a chance to regain some of that vision.

First, you have to realize there was absolutely no reason for the state of Texas to celebrate its Centennial in Dallas. Dallas is the newest of the state’s large cities, not founded until 1842, some six years after Texas independence. Consequently, no battles were fought here, no statesmen bom here, no special Texas patriotism embedded here. In fact, as the most Easternized of Texas cities, during the Civil War, Dallas had almost as many Union as Confederate sympathizers. It was an unlikely choice for the celebration, when compared to the 250 years of San Antonio’s missions, presidios, Spanish and Mexican governments, and sheer natural beauty; or to Austin’s central location as the seat of government; or to the southeastern counties that made up Stephen F. Austin’s original Texas colony; or even to Houston, which had the state’s second most famous battleground at San Jacinto.

What Dallas did have, quite simply, was money. I don’t necessarily mean the city was any wealthier than Houston or San Antonio. It’s that Dallas had developed a mercantile class that regarded money as the ultimate tool-far surpassing family name or political influence-and was single-minded about it. The Texas Legislature, in its Depression wisdom, liked that style. In the act creating the 1936 Centennial celebration, the Legislature “selects and designates as the location for the holding of the central exposition and principal celebration that city or community in Texas that offers to Texas, through the Centennial Committee, hereinafter set up, the largest financial inducement and support thereafter.”

In other words, put up the cash and you get the party.

Uncle Bob Thornton, chairman of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce at the time but far from a household name, launched his campaign in August 1934, making Dallas the last city into the competition. (Everyone assumed the bidding competition would come down to Houston, San Antonio, Austin, and possibly Fort Worth.) Thornton cajoled 500 businessmen into convening for lunch at the Crystal Ballroom, where he gave one of his aw-shucks country-boy speeches that gathered in force and speed and intensity until the end, when he suddenly started shouting, “Okay, Bill, I’m puttin’ you down for $10,000 right now.” Then he would look across the room and point at someone else. “Dave! You look like you’re gonna make it $15,000. All right, if you say fifteen, then I’m going back to Bill and get another five.”

The famous Thornton Shakedown was good enough to get his operating budget into the six-figure range immediately-and he used most of that money to prepare one of the most expensive bid booklets ever designed. (The opulent thirty-seven-page gold-embossed full-color bid has been preserved in the Hall of State as a historic artifact.) The cities of Houston and San Antonio, by comparison, couldn’t even get their bids properly prepared by the deadline of September 1, 1934. When Thornton heard they were asking for an extension, he fired off a telegram to Austin stating that “The citizenry of Dallas without a single sectional objection stands ready and has its bid prepared to place before the commission”- suggesting that the delay was not only unprofessional, but unpatriotic.

By the day of bid submission, word leaked out that Houston had desperately engineered a last-minute fundraising effort to get beyond the $1 million range, hearing that Thornton had somehow managed to get assurances of cash and bonds ranging upwards of $3 million. (San Antonio had fallen far short of $1 million, and Fort Worth and Austin, fearing embarrassment by Thornton, had decided not to bid at all.) Thornton had engineered a blitzkrieg hit-and-run campaign, coming out of nowhere at the last minute- and then working night and day to lobby his bid through the selection process. He made a quick trip to Chicago, site of the 1933 World’s Fair, for fundraising advice, then started working on the commission members who favored San Antonio’s bid. Expecting that the commission members would split down the middle-half for Houston, half for Dallas-and that there would be a small minority voting for San Antonio on foolish ’’historical grounds,” Thornton sought out the San Antonio votes and lobbied for Dallas as a “second-ballot” choice in the event no one received a majority on the first ballot.

On September 7, a full two days before the commission was scheduled to meet in San Antonio to make its decision, an Austin newspaper reported that Dallas had won the contest. Civic leaders from other cities were infuriated, and demanded an explanation from the commission chairman, Cullen F. Thomas of…er, uh, let’s see now, where was he from? Oh yeah…Dallas. Embarrassed and frightened that the committee would be compromised and the Centennial would become a source of sectional feuds, Thomas made a speech the next day at the commission’s noon luncheon.

“The announcement was unfounded and unfortunate,” he said. “I desire to say in this presence and to the world that the commission as a body has not considered for one moment the question of location of the Texas Centennial. 1 must say also that in so far as I know, as individuals no member of the commission has ever expressed a preference. From the beginning of their task in the matter of location the purpose of the commission has been to conduct its duties with utmost , fairness to the end that all men may applaud the sincerity and justness of their decision.”

The next day Dallas was chosen. It happened on the second ballot, after the first ballot broke down Dallas 13, Houston 8, San Antonio 6. San Antonio shifted its support to Dallas on the second ballot, and it was all over-just as Uncle Bob planned it.

Harry Benge Crozier, an exuberant toady of Thornton’s who happened to write for the Morning News, explained the battle as follows:

“It was a day of determination. When the commissioners began their session it was anybody’s battle. Dallas won the Centennial over bids of Houston and San Antonio and it won because Dallas made the best offer.

“There was the consideration of hallowed grounds and of nobility of enterprise, but the men and women who composed the Centennial Commission took thought also of the fact that the sons and the daughters of the men whose blood was let at the Alamo, at Goliad, and at San Jacinto have had something to do with the building of the Texas that is. They have thought, too, that Dallas, a community of typically Texanic Texans, is representative of the Texas that the fathers had thought to build.”

I think it may be beyond even the imagination of a Morning News civic booster to believe that Dallas should have the Centennial because Bowie, Fannin, and Crockett died dreaming that someday they would get to live in a place like Dallas. For that vision, I’m willing to credit only one man-Uncle Bob. I wouldn’t be surprised if he used it in his bid speech.

The fundraising continued right up until the opening of the Centennial Exposition, which was so successful it continued for two years, supplemented by appropriations from the state and federal governments. In many ways that Centennial celebration represents the founding of modern Dallas. It made Thornton the czar of Dallas from that day until his death in 1964. It occasioned the founding of the Dallas Citizens Council when Centennial bond sales were running too slowly to suit Thornton and he formed a group of “Bosses” to make quick decisions. He called them his “yes and no men.” “Fifty bosses, no subs. You come to the meetings or you ain’t there and you take what happens.” And after 13 million people visited the exposition grounds, its permanent deco buildings representing the first real money the city had ever allocated to the fine arts, Fair Park became the lasting symbol of prosperous, can-do Dallas, much as the Arts District is today. (Perhaps this is why Thornton continued to treat Fair Park as his personal domain until the day he died. Thornton fought the integration of the fairgrounds for years, preferring to let blacks attend the fair on “Negro Appreciation Day.” With the courts and public opinion turning against him. he had to give up more and | more real estate until he drew the final line that could not be crossed in his “beloved” Fair Park. You could integrate the Women’s Building, the Hall of State, and even most of the Midway, but you would never integrate Uncle Bob’s two favorite Midway rides- Laff in the Dark and Dodge-em Scooter. It took a federal court to break down that final arena of segregation in Dallas. The whole story, by the way, is superbly told in Jim Schutze’s new book The Accommodation.)

Of course, the symbol of Fair Park as the achievement of a glitzy, go-go city didn’t have much reality behind it at the time. It was the world’s largest public-relations event. Of the $15 million spent on the Texas Centennial, not a single dollar can be shown to have paid a direct dividend in the form of invested capital or stimulation of new businesses. The celebration itself suffered a loss. “It’s the best loss you ever made,” Thornton told his business friends.

This year, by contrast, Uncle Bob’s descendants are trying to get an interstate banking bill passed in the Legislature. Why? So that if MBank gets in any more trouble, they can sell it to a holding company in another state. MBank, of course, used to be Mercantile Bank-the same Mercantile National Bank founded by Uncle Bob in 1916.

We’re a different city now.

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