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YESTERDAY A Century of Dallas Characters

By Tom Peeler |

HAS THE TUG OF COSMOPOL1-tan life against the pull of Texas’ frontier heritage created a magnetic field here? Whatever the reason, Dallas has a distinctive history of eccentricity, led by these colorful characters:

Col. E.H.R. (Ned) Green, son of Hetty Green, heiress to a whaling fleet fortune, was Dallas’ favorite spoiled millionaire at the turn of the century. He had all the newfangled gadgets, including the town’s first horseless carriage in 1899, and he was first among locals to place an airplane order with the Wright Brothers. Green fell in love with a red-haired prostitute named Mabel Harlow and scandalized the city by installing her as his housekeeper.

LA. Pires, a Portuguese orphan, was arguably our greatest miser. ” Uncle Pie” was a hard worker and a wise investor who wore patched britches and lived in a one-room hovel in downtown Dallas. He ordered the same 35-cent lunch everyday at a local greasy spoon, but when he died in the 1920s, he left $3 m illion to Dallas charities at a time when a dollar a day was a living wage.

Wilford B. (Pitchfork) Smith, exlawyer and honor graduate from Moler Barber College, founded an iconoclastic newspaper called the Pitchfork in Kansas City, but moved the editorial offices to Dallas when he was forced to leave Missouri. The night before Prohibition became law, he held a wake for John Barleycorn at the corner of Main and Akard. He once sued a newspaper for the return of his nickel, claiming it had no news. When he was short of funds, he stamped “PAID” on his bills and mailed them back to his creditors.

J. Waddy Tate, a Dallas druggist, was elected mayor in 1929 after campaigning for the votes of people who “liked to fish or owed money.” He carried a yo-yo and was called the “hot dog mayor” for favoring the5-cent wiener and bun over a dollar chicken sandwich. He advocated donkey rides in city parks, removal of the spikes around City Hall to give loafers a place to sit, and elimination of all “keep off the grass” signs.

H.L. Hunt, the Dallas mega-mil-lionaire who has been likened to Daddy Warbucks, once wrote that in an ideal society, voting tights would be apportioned according to how much taxes a person paid. Rumored to be the richest man in America in the late ’40s, Hunt lived in a replica of Mount Vernon overlooking White Rock Lake and used his fortune to tout controversial right-wing views over the radio, at the same time advertising a line of HLH products ranging from peanut butter to shoestring potatoes.

O.L. Nelms son of a Lone Pine, Texas, sharecropper, quit school in the third grade to peddle fruit. He moved to Dallas in the 1920s, first selling candy and tobacco from a cart, then making a fortune in wholesaling and real estate. In the 1950s and early 1960s, “Thanks for Helping O.L. Nelms Make Another Million” became a familiar slogan on local billboards and in daily classified ads.

Sheppard King III was the grandson of a wealthy Dallas cotton merchant who built the residence which is now The Mansion on Turtle Creek. (The private dining room upstairs where Margaret Thatcher and other dignitaries have been entertained is called the Sheppard King Room.) Sheppard III, a local playboy following the precedent set by Ned Green, made news in the early ’50s by marrying an Egyptian belly dancer named Samia Gamal, who later slithered across the stages of Dallas strip joints.

Frank X. Tolbert a Dallas Morning News columnist and founder of Tolbert’s Chili Parlor, made national news in 1967 when he challenged a Holiday Magazine food critic to a chili cook-off in Terlingua, Texas, a Big Bend ghost town. A merciless prankster, he once convinced a rotund companion that the hotel elevator was out of order, sending the hapless victim down 11 flights of stairs loaded with suitcases, only to be greeted by a house detective who had been tipped that a fat man was trying to sneak out without paying his bill.

William Crush, a passenger agent for the Katy Railroad in Dallas, makes the list for one outburst of odd behavior: He staged a head-on collision of two locomotives in 1896. A crowd of 30,000 attended; three people were killed by flying debris. Ragtime pianist Scott Joplin composed The Great Crush Collision March to commemorate the event.

Can P. Collins, lather of Congressman Jim Collins, was an insurance executive (hardly a profession for an eccentric), but in the 1930s, he put his business on the back burner to concentrate on marketing Crazy Water Crystals, claimed to cure a weak back, constipation, nervous blood, and loss of memory. The “Crazy Gang,” radio performers hired by Collins to entertain and tout the crystals, included Mary Martin and The Music Man composer. Meredith Willson.