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Uncovering the Real History of the Belmont Conservation District

While researching our 100-year-old Craftsman in Old East Dallas, we stumbled on the truth.
By Geyden and Barry Sage |
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Elizabeth Lavin

Uncovering the Real History of the Belmont Conservation District

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Have you ever been surprised to learn that things that you’ve been told by professionals and experts about a particular subject are completely without merit? When my husband, Barry, and I decided to trace the ownership of our 1920s Old East Dallas Craftsman bungalow back to its origin, we were astonished by what we found. We began this project several years ago, teaching ourselves how to research this history along the way. 

What shocked us was not who built our house and lived here. That part was simple. Our house sits in the Belmont Addition, which lies between Vickery Place and Lakewood Heights, in the Lowest Greenville area. The first homeowner was a man named Clyde W. Higgins. He and his wife, Dorothy S. Higgins, lived here for the rest of their lives. They had one child, a daughter named Dorothy Jane. When Clyde died, in 1945, at the age of 60, he was chief of the Dallas field division for the Collector of the Internal Revenue. His wife died in 1960, at the age of 72, and their daughter sold the house in 1978. Eventually we came to own it. We bought it in 1997, our first and only home.

What surprised and confused us was the widely accepted history of the land on which our house was built. It involved thoroughbred racing and the Caruth family. It has been perpetuated in history books about Dallas, in newspaper articles, in an SMU class titled “Historic Dallas Neighborhoods,” and on Wikipedia. As we came to learn, it is all wrong. 

The current “history” of the Belmont Addition goes something like this: August Belmont Jr., a prominent New York financier who played an essential role in the development of the New York subway and whose father founded the Belmont Stakes, acquired the land in 1892. Some say he bought it from Captain Walter Caruth, who had a Victorian estate called Bosque Bonita at the intersection of Greenville and Belmont.

Belmont planned to transform the area into a luxury residential development. In addition to extending an existing streetcar line, Belmont had the land cleared and elevated for building sidewalks and streets. Utilities were run to the new lots. When the lots of the Belmont Addition were ready to hit the market, however, an economic crash in 1893 gripped the nation. Belmont was unable to sell his lots, and the site named after him remained vacant for more than a decade. 

Gingerbread Dreams: Walter Caruth built his “country home,” Bosque Bonita, on about 8 acres of land at the intersection of Greenville and Belmont, back when the land was surrounded by corn and cotton crops. He also had a residence downtown. The pool and the surrounding development, touted as a cool escape from the city’s heat, would come later.

Ted Dealey helped promote this history. The red-baiting McCarthyist publisher of the Dallas Morning News is famous for insulting President John F. Kennedy at the White House in 1961 and then publishing a full-page anti-Kennedy ad in his paper on the day of Kennedy’s assassination. But Dealey also wrote a column for the paper titled “Diaper Days of Dallas.” In a 1965 article, Dealey’s failure to mention the Belmont Addition drew a response from noted Collin County historian Captain Roy F. Hall, who wrote, “Anything August Belmont did in those days was news, and ‘Belmont Addition’ was the talk of the country.” The following year, when Dealey published a book of his columns, he included the information from Hall.  

Hall died in 1970, so we couldn’t ask him where he got his erroneous information. My husband and I spent countless hours searching the Dallas Public Library and News archives. We tracked down deeds at the Dallas County Records Building. We enlisted the assistance of the Texas General Land Office. And we bought or borrowed every book about Dallas history that we could get our hands on. Here is what we have pieced together, the truth about the Belmont Addition:

The Belmont Addition sits in a part of the original Allen Beard Survey. Beard received a land grant of 640 acres out of the Peters Colony’s second contract, on March 26, 1850, according to the Texas GLO’s headrights guidelines. At the time, the Peters Colony was 22 miles wide. It began at the Red River and extended south through portions of eight current North Texas counties. Six hundred forty contiguous acres of prime, unsettled land was hard to find, so Beard claimed 288 acres in what is now Dallas and the rest in Tarrant County. 

When the lots of the Belmont Addition were ready to hit the market, however, an economic crash in 1893 gripped the nation. Belmont was unable to sell his lots, and the site named after him remained vacant for more than a decade.

On November 23, 1854, Beard sold his land patent, all 288 acres, to the J.W. Barton family for the sum of $800 cash (about $25,000 today, accounting for inflation). The Barton family, who farmed 10 acres of the Robert Ray Survey just south of the Beard Survey, later sold their farm and 160 acres of the original 288 to W.H. Prather and A.C. Audrey for $7,000 (about $198,000 today) on February 16, 1886. We learned that Historical Book No. 74 of Dallas County, where this transaction was recorded, suffered great damage during a flood of the basement where it was housed, but we were able to locate this purchase in the historical index. The same records contain details of a partnership between the Audrey and the Prather families. On March 22, 1890, Prather and Audrey sold the 170 acres to Dallas businessman and agriculturalist Henry Exall for $100,000.

Exall was a Virginia native who enlisted at the age of 14 in the 10th Virginia Volunteer Cavalry for service in the Confederate States. After losing his first wife, Emma Warner, in 1875, Exall traveled to Texas on a business trip. He was pleased with the area’s commercial potential and decided to make it his home. Exall worked in real estate and banking and soon became a leader in the city. He is credited with helping to organize the North Texas National Bank of Dallas, serving as CEO of the State Fair of Texas, building one of the first skyscrapers, and being instrumental in the development of Highland Park. He was also a horse lover like August Belmont Jr. On his farm, Lomo Alto, in the north of Dallas, Exall pursued his agricultural interests and bred racehorses, one of which, Electrite, made him a fortune as a sire of trotting and pacing harness racers.

And that brings us to our big discovery. On May 1, 1890, Exall submitted a plat map to the city of Dallas for a new neighborhood. The development would be in the 160 acres he had purchased out of the Allen Beard Survey and 10 acres out of the Robert Ray Survey and would have 624 lots. He named his new addition Belmont—two years before August Belmont Jr. supposedly bought the land.

We surmise that the way this plat map was recorded later led historians to overlook its origins. In Dallas County’s record book from this time, the map of the development occupies a two-page spread. Everything seems contained on those two pages. But there is a third page of the record, and it is there that we found Exall had named the neighborhood Belmont. Turning that page brought us the truth. But we kept looking, just to make sure that August Belmont Jr. didn’t surface at some later point. 

On May 8, 1890, Exall made his first sale, three lots to Frank Irvine for $3,000 (about $85,000 today). These three lots are on the northwest corner of Belmont and Greenville. They include a double lot at 5701 Belmont Ave. and a single lot at 5511 Belmont Ave. These parcels may have seemed the most desirable in the addition because they sat directly across from Bosque Bonita, Walter Caruth’s residence. It’s probably no coincidence that Bonita Avenue terminates at the west property line of this tract of land.

From 1890 to 1894, Exall promoted and sold lots in the Belmont Addition to homebuyers and investors alike. The News published ads with headlines like “Where Life’s Worth Living” and “Affording a Magnificent View of the City.” Exall promoted the many improvements he planned for the area: “50 teams will be at work grading the streets through Belmont as soon as the weather will permit.” Another ad promoted a well that would provide artesian water. An April 1890 News ad laid out his vision for the Belmont Addition: macadamized streets, 5-foot-wide sidewalks, 1,000 trees, improvements from Ross Avenue to Belmont Avenue, and plans for transportation to the center of the city.

An August 1890 News article reprints a Philadelphia Times interview with that city’s district attorney, George Scott Graham, who said, “Dallas is growing rapidly. People are coming to it from all parts of the state and from other southern states and from the north. … Standing on the top of Belmont, where Col. Exall is planning a small town, you can look over the roofs and steeples of the thickly settled portions of Dallas on the border of the river and up on the other side to Oak Cliff.”

The September 27, 1890, issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper reported: “Another suburb, the rival of Oak Cliff which already reveals its great possibilities as a beautiful home resort is Belmont, the property of Hon. Henry Exall.” Everywhere we turned, we found all sorts of evidence of Exall’s involvement that had been overlooked.

It is said that the depression of 1893 halted Exall’s dreams. He was working on his plans for the Belmont Addition and a project north of downtown that he planned to name Philadelphia Place, now known as Highland Park. It appears he may have found himself a little overextended. In order to satisfy some of his defaulted loans, on June 5, 1894, a number of Exall’s Belmont Addition lots were auctioned off at the Dallas County courthouse door to the highest  bidder—none other than Adolphus Busch of the St. Louis, Missouri, beer family—for $20,000. The legal paperwork for the exchange was drawn up by August Busch, Adolphus’ son, heir, and attorney. Exall would continue selling cleared lots in the Belmont Addition to Busch and others until 1910. He died on December 29, 1913, just a few months after Adolphus passed away.

So how did August Belmont Jr.’s name come to be associated with the neighborhood that Exall named? We have an idea.

The Dallas Historical Society published the following in a 2014 edition of its Legacies: A History Journal for Dallas and North Central Texas: “With the Gilded Age barreling ahead at full speed, [Exall] succeeded, making impressive inroads in elite circles. He brought Adolphus Busch (with whom he would remain a lifelong friend) into a number of ventures beginning in 1890.” There are records of Busch being involved with the development of the Belmont Addition from its inception, in 1890. The abstract of title, in fact, shows that Busch financed the purchase of the Belmont Addition by Exall. And after the auction on the courthouse steps, Busch continued to acquire parcels. By 1911, he owned more than 478 of the original 624.

We thought we had gotten to the bottom of the story. We attributed the mistake to the fact that August Belmont Jr. and Adolphus Busch share two initials. We hypothesized that somebody saw these initials somewhere along the way and mistakenly connected the development to the name of the famous New Yorker, not the famous Missourian. And let’s not forget the 1965 book published by Dealey, in which August Belmont Jr. was given credit for naming the neighborhood.

But we knew our research, undoing the accepted history of the neighborhood’s name, would be scrutinized. We needed to turn over every stone where August Belmont Jr. might be hiding, so we kept digging.

That’s when we found the Belmont Land Company. Our previous research revealed that on June 23, 1911, the Belmont Land Company had purchased 478 lots from Adolphus Busch for $200,000, with a $40,000 down payment. Who was behind the Belmont Land Company? Could this have been where August Belmont Jr. entered the scene?

But we knew our research, undoing the accepted history of the neighborhood’s name, would be scrutinized. We needed to turn over every stone where August Belmont Jr. might be hiding, so we kept digging.

I had spent a summer devouring all 724 pages of David Black’s 1981 book The King of Fifth Avenue (an account of August Belmont Sr. and family), hoping to find glimpses of the Belmonts’ interest in our Dallas neighborhood. I found no mention of any activity in Dallas, but I learned that August Jr. died in 1924. We thought it possible that the Belmonts could have purchased the properties from Busch. Wouldn’t that have been ironic? To locate and purchase an undeveloped neighborhood that had borne your name for 20 years?

Finding out who was behind the Belmont Land Company proved to be harder than we anticipated, but after much digging, we came across the June 20, 1911, edition of the Tradesman. The Tradesman was published every Thursday and called itself “The South’s Authoritative Industrial Trade Journal.” Right there in black and white on page 57, under the Texas heading, was the Belmont Land Company. Capital: $40,000. Incorporators: Rhodes S. Baker, Ben T. Seay, and Jeff D. Robinson. Remember that $40,000 down payment on the Belmont Addition?

The group of investors wasted no time. In addition to the 478 lots they purchased from Busch, they began buying every lot they could in the Belmont Addition, some from Exall himself before his death. At the same time, they launched a creative and aggressive marketing campaign: “Beautiful Belmont” and “Artesian Water.” Their headlines ran in News display and classified ads. “OUR automobile is at YOUR disposal,” read one ad. “Phone us when you want to go out.” 

All of our research shows that Walter Caruth never owned or sold land in the Belmont Addition. It is also evident that August Belmont Jr., although a visionary in his own right, never owned this land and didn’t name the neighborhood. That honor belongs to Colonel Henry Exall. Why the name Belmont? We speculate that it was due to Exall’s love of horses or maybe just the prestige associated with the name. Looking at how the streets are named, we find many references to Texas: Palo Pinto County, Goliad County, Concho County, Delmar City, Fort Velasco.

As for Busch, what motivated him to buy unfinished land in the Belmont Addition on the courthouse steps? Did he intend to develop it? Did he want to see his friend’s vision come to fruition? Whatever the case, he was at the right place at the right time and did well. It’s fair to say that his downtown Adolphus Hotel, opened in 1912, was built in part thanks to the Belmont Addition.

What we have learned about the history of our Belmont Addition may or may not make a difference in our neighborhood today. The Belmont Addition of today is not driven by who owned the land when or who paved the streets. The Belmont Addition of today is walks with neighbors, front porch get-togethers, butterfly gardens, school fundraisers, the Fall Party, and much more.

When we set out on this journey, we wanted to know the original owner of our house, soon to turn 100 years old. What we learned instead is this: we must stay open-minded to the possibility that not everything we hear or read is true, that when information comes our way that may impact our lives or our history, it is our duty to search for the truth. Our little old house taught us a big lesson, and, in the process, it led us down a twisted path and helped us rediscover the truth.

Write to [email protected].

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