OAK LAWN’S Early Years

24 September 2018 22:05 น. Dallas, Featured ,

If one kind of tree were accorded primacy in Dallas history, it would probably be the oak. That seems to be the case, judging by the persistent popularity of the oak tree in neighborhood and street names, including Oak Cliff, Oak Lawn, Oak Grove, Oak Crest, Oak Hill, Oak Park, and such major thoroughfares as Oakland, Oak Lawn, Oak Grove, and Live Oak streets.

Turtle Creek at Oak Lawn, 1917

Turtle Creek at Oak Lawn, 1917

But the first area to be named for the oak tree that predominated in it was Oak Lawn. The original Oak Lawn was carved out of the 1,000 acres of farmland homesteaded by Obadiah W. Knight during the days of the Republic of Texas. His eldest son, Epps G. Knight, was later instrumental in placing building acreage on the market as the town of Dallas grew out to the area.

Oak Lawn got its name in the early 1870s while it was still a sparsely settled neighborhood in an unincorporated section of Dallas County 13‘ miles north of the then city limits. Four families from Tennessee and one from Central Texas moved into the area in the years 1872-74. They gave Oak Lawn its start. Two of the former Tennessee families were those of John S. Dickason and Henry T. Sale. Their names are perpetuated in the designations of Dickason and Sale Streets, two well-known thoroughfares in the Oak Lawn area. The third family from Tennessee was that of George Mellersh, who built his imposing brick home on the northwest corner of Cedar Springs and Oak Lawn, later the B. M. Burgher home, and the site today of Melrose Hotel. The fourth family from Tennessee located in Oak Lawn in the 1870s was that of the Rev. Marcus Hiram Cullum, patriarch and progenitor of one of the largest and most prominent family clans in the subsequent history of Dallas.

These initial inhabitants from Tennessee and John D. Andrews, who had moved from Central Texas, acted in 1874 to give Oak Lawn its name. They accepted it on “the suggestion of Captain Mellersh, and by common consent” it was approved.

John S. Dickason has left a rosy firsthand impression of Oak Lawn and Dallas in 1874, the year he arrived with a son and nephew from his former home in Memphis. In the first Texas entry in his diary, which was for May 6, 1874, Dickason wrote that Dallas was “a much livelier city than I expected, and a beautiful city. To behold it from the top of its three-story, stone courthouse, the scene is surprisingly lovely and grand.”

On Monday, May 11, 1874, Dickason reported that “in a 2-horse wagon, with G. B. and F. O. Sale,” he had ridden out “seven miles north over the grandest country of fine land and the grandest scenery I ever saw.” The next diary entry is for Tuesday, May 12, 1874, and reads: “This day threatening rain. Went [into] Dallas with Brother M. H. Cullum, his wife and daughter and G. B. Sale. Took another exhilarating view from the top of the courthouse. Found my land.” According to the diary, building expenses in Dallas at that time included $2.50 a day in wages for carpenters, $6 a thousand for cypress shingles, $1.75 for an ax handle and $15 to get a well drilled. Until the house was finished, the family paid $16 a month for board at a Dallas boarding house.

When it was laid out for residential development during the “addition craze” of the 1890s, Oak Lawn was a fairly small area bounded roughly by Lemmon Avenue, Turtle Creek, Maple Avenue, and Oak Lawn Avenue. Oak Lawn Avenue began as a thoroughfare for fine homes, although it is now a strip business community. In its heyday it contained the mansions of such families as those of Judge Wendell Spence, J. D. Cullum, W. W. Weston, A. A. Jackson, “Uncle Buck” Hughes, B. M. Burgher, Col. S. E. Moss, and Sam P. Cochran.

The Oak Lawn streetcar line branching off the McKinney Avenue line at Bowen and Cole crossed Turtle Creek at Cedar Springs to play a large part in popularizing the suburb. It made a loop along Turtle Creek, Hall, Hood, Rawlins, and Oak Lawn to Cedar Springs, thence back to Bowen. The streetcar company developed Oak Lawn Park, with a lake on Turtle Creek, now city property known as Lee Park. It provided a magnet to draw picnickers and other outdoor enthusiasts, who thought nothing of spending a nickel a head each way to visit the rustic park.

Epps G. Knight’s own large, white two-story home was on Cedar Springs between Welborn and Hood. The first was named for Dallas Congressman Olin Welborn, the second for Gen. John B. Hood of Confederate fame. Knight Street west of Oak Lawn memorialized the pioneer patriarch of the Knight clan, Reagan Street was named for John H. Reagan, pioneer Dallas district judge, later postmaster general of the Confederacy, then United States senator from Texas before becoming the first chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission.

There were older fashionable neighborhoods east of Turtle Creek which are now grouped within the larger Oak Lawn community. They included Thomas Avenue, McKinney Avenue, and most famous of all, Maple Avenue between McKinney and Reverchon Park.

Maple and Fairmount were later extended beyond the Katy Railroad tracks into original Oak Lawn. Lemmon and Bowser were also extended from Bowser and Lemmon’s Fairland Addition. This was bounded by Haskell, Cole, Knox, and McKinney Avenue. It was put on the market in 1887 following the abandonment of the area by a rival state fair held there the year before.

A start on the opening of Turtle Creek Parkway in the early years of the new century saw the rise of a number of luxurious homes on it between Gillespie (named for C. B. Gillespie) and Hall Street. These included the mansions of Sheppard W. King, Col. J. T. Trezevant, E. O. Tenison, and W. D. Felder.

The first two fashionable residence areas for members of the Dallas Negro community were also in the larger Oak Lawn area. Elm Thicket in the vicinity of present Lemmon and Inwood Road came into existence on the freeing of the slaves in 1865. The intersection of Hall and State streets became the hub of another, and is still a favored section embracing parts of Thomas, Washington, and other nearby North Dallas thoroughfares.

Nothing remains of Cedar Springs today but the ambling Cedar Springs Road that linked it with John Neely Bryan’s original town of Dallas four miles to the southeast, although a marker placed in the small park during the Texas Centennial points up the significance of this pioneer settlement.
Cedar Springs got its name from the source of clear, free-flowing water that filled Cedar Springs Creek and created a memorable oasis in a thicket of towering native cedars. It was “discovered” by Dr. John H. Cole who, with his family including three grown sons, reached there from Tennessee in May of 1843. It became an instant success, notably with emigrants then arriving, mainly from the United States, in covered wagons, by horseback, or afoot.

Services for tired travelers sprang up overnight: a pharmacy opened by Dr. Cole for the sick and ailing, blacksmith shops, stores filled with harness, saddlery and other supplies, and, in time, more inspiriting facilities. “It was known far and wide as ‘the’ town at the Three Forks of the Trinity,” it was recalled later by Ellis Cockrell, who arrived as a small child in 1845 with his parents, the Wesley Cockrells, “It was the point toward which every person coming into the county made—the hub, in fact, of all the region of settlement.” Some chose to stay at Cedar Springs, although most moved on after a rest to take up farm land in the settlement area not yet claimed by
newcomers.

In its heyday, Cedar Springs was a place to know and to remember. It quickly became the favorite trading center for a much larger and more populous part of Dallas County, the whole sector between Elm Fork and White Rock Creek on the north, then known as Farmers Branch. Among the first inhabitants of Cedar Springs were John Huitt, who was to become the first sheriff of Dallas County, and his Negro slave, Al, the first member of his race to be brought into the county.

Mills for grinding corn, wheat, and other grains were soon built, although there was no distillery at first. This latter lack was noted by Calaway H. Patrick, who recalled many years later that after signing a treaty with the Indians, arranged by President Sam Houston in 1843 at Bird’s Fort (near present Euless in Tarrant County), the Dallas County delegation returned by way of Cedar Springs. But they had to continue on to Bryan’s trading post of Dallas to replenish their personal supplies of liquor. “I bought eight quarts of whiskey from Bryan at 25¢ a quart,” he said, “and it was whiskey, too.”
But before long Cedar Springs had a still in operation. Ellis Cockrell related in after years that people took corn and rye there to be made into whiskey and peaches to be converted into brandy, the distiller getting a percentage of the grain or fruit as compensation.

In 1846, shortly after the annexation of Texas, Dallas County was created by the first State Legislature, with the town of Dallas designated as the temporary seat of county government. Dr. Cole was elected first probate judge when Huitt was elected sheriff. The first jury impaneled in Dallas County dealt with a suit filed by a resident of Cedar Springs. “I was a member of that jury,” W. P. Overton recalled some forty years afterward. “A daughter of John Huitt asked for a divorce from her husband. We gave it to her, and before sundown that day, Henderson Couch, foreman of the jury, married her.”

The first legal hanging in Dallas County grew out of a murder in cold blood committed in the Cedar Springs area in 1853, according to Overton’s memories. A more precise historian, the late John H. Cochran—whose father, William M. Cochran, settled in Farmers Branch in 1843—credits this gory event to Farmers Branch in the year 1852.

Writing in his Dallas County, a work published in 1928 by the Dallas County Historical Society, Cochran relates that the victim was a man named Wisdom who lived about one mile west of Cochran Chapel ( at present Midway Road and Northwest Highway). The death of his wife left Wisdom with two small children, one an infant. He hired a Negro woman by the name of Jane, owned by the widow Elkins, to keep house and take care of his children.

“One night, for some cause,” wrote Cochran, “Jane killed Wisdom while he slept, splitting his head open with an ax. I saw Wisdom as he lay weltering in his blood and dying. Although unconscious, he lived until about 8 a.m. the next day, with a deep gash in his skull.” John H. Reagan, later postmaster general of the Confederacy, still later United States senator from Texas, presided as judge in the district court where Jane was tried. Nat M. Burford was the prosecuting attorney. “I also saw Jane hung,” adds Cochran.
There is some confusion over just where Cedar Springs shaded into Farmers Branch, especially in the area south of present Northwest Highway. The latter was the premier farming area of Dallas County, with many prominent planter families including such clans as those of the Knights, Fields, Cochrans, and Marshes.

The legislature in 1850 ordered the selection of a permanent county seat in Dallas. Cedar Springs, backed largely by the Farmers Branch community, made a bid in the August 5 election for this profitable honor. Hord’s Ridge west of the Trinity (near present Marsalis Park) also got into the contest with Dallas. In this first goround, none of the three got a majority of the votes, with Dallas receiving 191 votes, Hord’s Ridge 178, and Cedar Springs in third place with 101 ballots. The runoff election was held August 31, when Dallas won over Hord’s Ridge by 244 to 216 votes.

“So Dallas was chosen,” recorded the community’s first historian, John Henry Brown, writing in 1887, “and has ever since remained the seat of ‘justice’ as well as the usual per cent of ‘injustice’ attending the administration of the law of this country. . . .”

The last word on Cedar Springs belongs, perhaps, to Wesley Cockrell, who said that after Dallas won out on the courthouse, Cedar Springs dwindled considerably. “The merchants and residents gave up the contest and moved to Dallas. At all events, before long there was nothing left at Cedar Springs.” He could not foresee, of course, that by 1966 the site of Cedar Springs would be a densely populated area in Oak Lawn—North Dallas, numbering many thousands in fine homes, apartments, and business enterprises.
Craddock Park, a nine-acre tract on Lemmon Avenue adjoining the new tollway, is the gift of the late L. Craddock and his wife Belle Craddock to the city park system in 1922. He was a pioneer Dallas businessman and investor. It has long been maintained by the city as a formal rose garden.

A business trip to Philadelphia in 1889 led to the creation of Turtle Creek Drive, the city’s most celebrated example of a parkway development. The two travelers were Col. J. T. Trezevant and Hon. Henry Exall. An item in the Dallas News of Sunday, June 30, 1889, told of the return to the city of the two men from a trip that included New York as well as Philadelphia. “A matter that struck Mr. Exall and myself,” said Trezevant, “is the necessity for parks in Dallas.

We observed in Philadelphia and New York how such places are taken advantage of by all classes of people.”
Philadelphia’s establishment of Fairmont Park drew Trezevant’s warmest approval. He told how the park commissioner of Philadelphia had just bought twelve miles of land along both sides of the river for a parkway. “Now Dallas has an opportunity to compete with Philadelphia in the matter of parks,” Trezevant said. “Along what is known as Turtle Creek, from the city waterworks northward, there is found greater natural attractiveness along that stream than is found in Philadelphia. Every yard of it could be made a sylvan delight. It could be the most beautiful drive in all this broad state.”

Trezevant took the moment to say that, in a city growing as rapidly as Dallas, it was difficult for the mayor and city council to realize that “we ought to be laying the foundation for a city of a quarter of a million people, instead of only 50,000.” (Dallas the next year would be seen in the 1890 federal census to have a population of slightly more than 38,000, making it the largest city in Texas.)

Turtle Creek Drive and parkway, Trezevant thought in 1889, might well be extended northward “as far as the Cole fairgrounds.” The latter got its name from the rival state fair held in 1886 on the North Dallas tract bounded by Cole Avenue, Fitzhugh, McKinney, and Haskell.

Existence of Cedar Springs Road along Turtle Creek for the three blocks between Gillespie and Bowen proved the nucleus of the drive and parkway. On the same stretch Trezevant early in the 1900s would build his palatial home at Gillespie, Cedar Springs, and Dickason— now the home of the Cipango Club. He was followed by E. O. Tenison, Dallas banker, who in the same period built his palatial home at Dickason, Cedar Springs, and Bowen, now the site of a large insurance company complex. Other “mansions” of the period included two by notable cotton merchants: W. D. Felder, who built across the street from the Tenison home, and Sheppard W. King, who built across Gillespie from the Trezevant home.
Oak Lawn Park, now Lee Park, between Hall and Lemmon, and the first golf grounds of the Dallas Country Club between Lemmon and Blackburn, blocked any extension of Turtle Creek Drive northward. But after the country club moved to its present location in Highland Park after 1910 and Lee Park was cut through, the parkway was pushed northward along the creek to the city limits near Fitzhugh, where it joined the Highland Park section.

This final realization of the parkway came a number of years after Exall obtained extensive acreage along the creek’s upper reaches in the 1880s, on a part of which he established his famous livestock and horse-breeding farm of Lomo Alto.

Exall at that time had an earthen dam built across the creek to form what has ever since been known as Exall’s Lake (in present Highland Park).

By 1910 Dallas had hired the noted city planner, George E. Kessler, who in that year produced the city’s first master plan. It included plans for the creation of Trezevant’s dream of 1889 of a parkway along Turtle Creek.

Exall’s former farm property was put on the market as Highland Park by John S. Armstrong in the first decade of this century. Lakeside Drive was laid off as a major street in the suburban city.

Over the years the parkway has been developed with greater skill and continuing care by the Dallas park department, originally assisted by the Kansas City landscape engineering firm of Hare & Hare. It figured in a great controversy less than a decade ago (in the 1960s) when the city government decided to widen Turtle Creek Drive through Oak Lawn. Spectacular efforts were made by both proponents and opponents of this traffic improvement program to win public opinion to their side of the argument. But the widening project was finally carried out from Gillespie to Irving.

Both the city of Dallas and its park department have made memorable efforts since the widening to bring the parkway to a degree of attractiveness unsurpassed in the United States. Most critics in and out of Dallas agree that this beautification project has made Turtle Creek Drive one of the most elegant to be found on the continent. The late syndicated columnist O. O. McIntyre called Highland Park the “most beautiful suburb in America”; and he gave equal praise to Turtle Creek Drive—the main approach to Highland Park from Dallas.

Thanks to Mark Hare for sending image by H. B. Thevenet (his grandfather), early Dallas photographer. Text courtesy Dallas Yesterday by Sam Acheson.