BOIS D’ARC BLOCKS Battle Dallas Mud

19 May 2018 18:22 น. Dallas, Featured

BOIS D’ARC TREES, apparently a universal favorite among the first settlers in the Dallas area, had everything to commend them except their fruit. Also known as Osage oranges and horse apples, these inedible pack­ages of seed about the size of a Texas grapefruit were of little use to man or beast and reflected no credit upon either Osages or horses.

ELM ST Before Bois D'Arc Blocks

ELM ST Before Bois D’Arc Blocks

The most obvious advantage of the bois d’arc was its ability to grow fast. That included its adaptability to the black waxy soil of the area. Thus bois d’arc plantings became general throughout Dallas and neighboring territory, as settlers “fenced” their 640-acre-or-more tracts of land with such hedges. Remnants of these hedges are found today in residential portions of greater Dallas, including Highland Park and University Park.

Aside from its utility as a self-perpetuating fence and its fair-to­middling qualities as a shade tree, the bois d’arc is famous for its tough quality as a usable wood. French explorers working southward from Canada named the tree “the wood of the bow,” after noting that the Indians used it as an exceptionally strong yet resilient bow with which to “fire” their arrows.

Victor Doerle, a blacksmith and wagon-maker by trade, was a pioneer Dallas craftsman much attracted to working with bois d’arc. Doerle was the first man in Dallas to manufacture bois d’arc wagons. It was said that he repeatedly won premiums for such vehicles at early­day county fairs in Texas. He was known far and wide, in fact, as “Bois D’arc” Doerle. In 1872 Doerle’s shop was located on the south side of Commerce between Houston and Record, where the new coun­ty courts building has been erected.

But the largest task ever assigned bois d’arc in Dallas was to lift the city literally out of the mud, that is, to pave streets which during prolonged wet spells became almost impassable. This was true as late as the 1880s when the job of street paving was tackled in earnest. Two men are accorded first place in the experiment which was launched in 1881 to try bois d’arc blocks as paving material. The first was the noted city engineer William M. Johnson, who is credited with having been the first ever to install bois d’arc block paving in Dallas, “or any­where else.”

Johnson had perfected a way of cutting and treating such wood blocks and held a patent on the process. One big job remained, though: to find some public-spirited citizen with enough faith in bois d’arc to pay for an actual strip of it. The city at that time did not con­sider itself liable for any part of the cost of street paving. The full cost was expected to be borne by owners of the abutting property on both sides of the street. Such a bold person was found in Tom L. Marsalis, Dallas wholesale grocer, later a leading real estate developer and the acknowledged “father” of Oak Cliff. Marsalis’s faith in bois d’arc was so great that he agreed to bear the cost of a ninety-five-foot-long strip of it on the south side of Elm Street east of Murphy. His succesful grocery concern was on the adjacent property. Actual paving work was done by Miller & Bell, contractors.

By the middle of the next decade the Johnson-Marsalis gamble on bois d’arc street paving was said to have paid off handsomely. Dallas by that time had become the largest city in Texas, with a population in excess of 38,000. Marsalis was widely complimented for demonstrat­ing that this kind of paving was a success by having it laid in front of his store at a time when the people of Dallas “were afraid to experi­ment.” It was also said that because Marsalis’s example was followed by so many other Dallas citizens, “the streets of the city are well paved today.”

The fact of the business, though, is that the experiment did not work out well in the long run. The wooden blocks were uniformly cut and when first laid on the street base appeared to form a perfect cov­ering. But the great drawback lay in the fact that the wood blocks were surcharged with the natural sap of the bois d’arc. The main diffi­culty arose during hot weather in Dallas. The relentless Texas sun proved that the wood blocks lacked “dimensional stability”—which is to say, they would swell and buckle under the heat. Worse yet, the sap would ooze out on the top side of the paving, a heavy, sticky sub­stance that was very unpleasant—not to say maddening—to fire horses and other draft animals then in general use.

Other types of paving were tried in that period. Brick paving was to prove more popular later, but its high cost, among other factors, worked against its more widespread adoption. The real competitor to bois d’arc turned out to be macadam, which was tried out experiment­ally at about the same time that Marsalis laid out his test section on Elm Street. The first trial of macadam was on Ross Avenue, a favored residential thoroughfare, between Oleander (now North Ervay) and the Houston & Texas Central Railroad (now the route of North Cen­tral Expressway). Laing and Radicam were listed as the contractors.

By the end of the second decade of the present century most of the bois d’arc street paving had been replaced with brick, macadam, or concrete, although a few stretches persisted, notably in the downtown business district on Jackson and Wood streets. Marsalis’s place in the local hall of fame rests more on his development of Oak Cliff than on his introduction of bois d’arc paving. And Johnson is better remem­bered for other contributions, including his designing of City Park, the first unit in Dallas’s park system.


Courtesy Dallas Yesterday by Sam H. Acheson.  Photo Courtesy George W. Collection at SMU’s DeGolyer Library.