Adventures of Lancaster, Texas Native: William Leonard Smith was born in Lancaster on March 1, 1874 to Mary Frances “Molly” Winniford and Thomas A. Smith, both Texas natives. Molly was the daughter of Rebecca Goodloe Douglas and Norvell Robertson Winniford, Dallas pioneer and county sheriff 1867-1870. William Leonard had at least one sibling, a sister named Minnie.
Leonard was also the grandson of Martha Angeline Ellis and Patrick P. Smith, and the great-grandson of Abraham T. Smith, killed by Indians on the Brazos River in 1841. Mary “Polly” Witt and Thomas McKee Ellis of Lancaster were also his great-grandparents.
As a young boy he had his share of turmoil: family lore says that, in the middle of the night his father, Tom, was running from the Younger Gang, which roved the north Texas area; another source says that Tom was hanged for cattle rustling! His mother remarried, and young Leonard was left with his grandmother, Martha (Ellis) Smith, who had married a second time to Thomas S. Ramby, after her first husband, Patrick, a horse dealer, died at age thirty in 1857.
Apparently Martha and Thomas gave Leonard a loving home, because family stories still affectionately label Thomas as “Pappy” Ramby.
As a curious young boy, Leonard picked up a Roman candle when it didn’t fire. It exploded, and he lost an eye, and wore a glass eye the rest of his life.
Leonard had an elementary school education, but left school after the seventh grade. He must have had an adventurous streak. A friend of later years said Leonard told him he had trailed cattle drives as a cook. He told family members that he once was hunting deer in Mexico, saw something move in the brush, and accidentally shot the horse from under a Mexican citizen. Understandably enraged, the Mexican roped and noosed him, preparatory to a public hanging (which seemed to be a festive public event!). Luckily, an English-speaking Mexican translated Leonard’s plea that it was all a dreadful mistake, and he offered to pay for the defunct horse. The offer was accepted and Leonard was allowed to hightail it back across the Rio Grande.
He later served in the volunteer army of the Philippine Insurrection, 1898-1899. When Manila fell, Leonard was one of the American soldiers who entered the office of Philippine President Aguinaldo. He retrieved from the presidential desk what he recognized as the Declaration of War between the Philippines and the United States. It was later offered to the Smithsonian Institution and to the Secretary of War. The letter from the Secretary of War to Leonard is in the possession of this writer.
In 1902, at age twenty-eight, Leonard attended the Gem City Business College in Quincy, Illinois, where he took courses in accounting and shorthand. In an autograph book signed by many of his classmates, he is referred to as the Iron Man, and his mastery of shorthand is noted in clever inscriptions, most in flowing penmanship and some in Gregg shorthand. He was tall, with a shock of reddish-brown hair, worldly and experienced – in short, a dashing catch. He wrote songs, short stories, and poetry, and was something of a romantic.
Leonard met Helen Edith (Burns) Schermerhorn of Quincy, and they married December 9, 1903. They moved to Springfield, Illinois, where he worked as a merchant for the Perkins Ice & Coal Co., and later to Indiana, where their first son, Leonard Inglis, was born in 1904. Leonard Inglis married Genevieve McEvoy in Dallas and their two children were Leonard Inglis, Jr., born in Dallas on July 11, 1925, and Patricia Teresa, born in Dallas on March 26, 1937. He and Genevieve were buried in Calvary Hill Cemetery.
Leonard and Helen’s three other children, all born in Dallas, were: Serene (1906-1988), married Jerry O’Neill in 1927. She died the next year, shortly after the birth of a son, and was buried in Grove Hill Cemetery. Jack Oak (1903-1979), married Fay Tindle (1911-1988). They had no children and both were buried at Little Bethel Cemetery in Duncanville. Sheila (1909-1999), married John Joseph Carr in Dublin, Ireland on November 15, 1933, and they had five children: Patricia Helen (me!), b. September 1, 1934 in Dublin; Margaret Serene, b. July 27, 1937, in Dublin; Michael Dennis, b. May 19, 1939, in Dallas, d. April 12, 1998, buried in Grove Hill Cemetery; Sheila Ann, b. January 16, 1944, d. Austin 1988, buried at sea in Gulf of Mexico; and Kathleen Fay, b. Dallas on June 29, 1948. Sheila (Smith) Carr died September 16, 1999 and was buried in Calvary Hill Cemetery.
William Leonard was a man of strong opinions. When he felt that the Lancaster schoolhouse was physically about to cave in, he took all four of his kids out of school, and damn the authorities!
Photos in the 1910s show him and his kids in Bear Creek on the Ramby farm, situated on the border of Dallas and Ellis counties. Other photos document a road trip to Galveston. He had a big open touring car into which he loaded his four children and wife Helen, and bounced his way down to the beach in Galveston. He was dressed in manly black swim shirt and pants to his knees, while Helen had on a white cap, dress to the knees, and black stockings.
A divorce in the mid-1920s rent the family. Leonard eventually sold his real estate business to son Jack and went off with his second wife, Eula Dell Crouch, to live in Uvalde. He had a midlife crisis, changing from a rather urbane businessman to a backwoods pioneer.
For a while Leonard and Dell lived in a car on land he bought at the end of a box canyon near Reagan Wells, northwest of Uvalde, TX. Then they lived in a cave while he built a log cabin, positioning cedar logs vertically instead of horizontally. He eventually amassed some two thousand acres of ranchland on the Dry Frio River. He built a water wheel on the river, which piped water up through the house. The water was first used for drinking and cooking, then washing, and finally, as it flowed out of the house, for watering chickens and cattle and for irrigating the garden.
Leonard was an efficiency fanatic. He left knives on the ground, pointed to magnetic north, to keep them sharpened. He had the passenger door removed from his brand new 1928 Chevrolet truck, so that wife Dell could quickly hop out, open the gates to cross the neighbors’ ranches, let him drive the truck through, then close the gate and hop back in. Otherwise, it took her too long to open and shut the truck door! He later took off the door on his side, too, because as they forded the many crossings of the river, water could course right through the truck without washing them away.
People in Uvalde County called him “Rattlesnake” Smith, and not because of his character! He wore a very tall black hat ringed with the skin and rattles of a snake he had killed. It was said that if something could be stated in five words, he would use three. Uvalde’s retired sheriff reported that to his knowledge, ol’ Rattlesnake hadn’t been in any trouble with the law, but he sure was a character! His very reclusiveness and close-to-the-vest behavior fueled the local rumor mills.
Leonard was said to produce the best cattle in the area, probably because he brought the water up to them, instead of having them scramble down steep banks to water. So when a buyer was heard, second-hand, to have complained about the price he paid for some of Rattlesnake’s cattle, Leonard drove over, handed back the money, and demanded the cattle back. No one could impugn his honesty!
William Leonard Smith died of pneumonia in Uvalde on March 14, 1940. He was buried first in Uvalde City Cemetery, but surviving wife Dell had his body reinterred in San Antonio at the Sunset Memorial Park.
By Patricia (Carr) Biczynski for Dallas County Pioneer Association’s Proud Heritage, Volume III.