roseopt.gif (8507 bytes) Special Collections Division
the University of Texas
at Arlington Libraries

Vol. X * No. 2 * Fall 1996

John W. Carpenter, a Texas Giant
by Shirley R. Rodnitzky

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Frank Stanton's poem, "Keep a-goin,'" hung for more than five decades on John Carpenter's office wall. It was his motto, and he lived by it. Carpenter was representative of Texans who had the pioneer spirit, valued hard work, and believed that with the right amount of drive and determination anyone could become a success. He was a giant in Southwest agriculture, business, and industry. In Dallas, Carpenter was prominently identified for more than three decades with virtually every civic, charitable, and community enterprise. When asked about his heavy community involvement, he replied, "I feel a very personal obligation to repay my community for the advantages it has afforded me. It is my duty to plow back as much good as I can." Although Carpenter had no political aspirations, he personally knew nearly every political figure important to Texas. Although he was a giant in steel, utilities, and insurance, he was always a willing mentor to Texas youths, the future farmers and business leaders of the state. In spite of Carpenter's success he stayed close to the land and enjoyed raising food, horses, beef cattle, and mules on the farms and ranches that he owned.

John William Carpenter, the son of Thomas Wirt Carpenter and Ellen Isaphene Dickson, was born August 31, 1881, in Corsicana, Texas, in Navarro County. He grew up on the family farm established by his father after the Civil War. His father's death forced him to become head of the family at age nineteen. In 1900, he took a job digging pole holes for Corsicana Gas and Electric Company to supplement the farm's revenue. In 1907, he became the president and general manager of that same company as well as president and general manager of the Corsicana Transit Company and the Athens Power & Light Company.

On June 18, 1913, in Palestine, Texas, John Carpenter married Flossie Belle Gardner, daughter of Judge and Mrs. Benjamin Howard Gardner. They had three children, Ellen Carolyn, John William, and Benjamin Howard. Home and family were of great importance to Carpenter. For him, family ties and loyalties marked the character, personality, and stability of a person. He believed that these qualities were essential to building a respected career or business. Those who knew him considered his interest in the families of his employees to have had an influence on the success of his various enterprises.

In 1918, Carpenter moved to Dallas where for a year he was vice-president and general manager of the Dallas Power and Light Company. In 1919, he became vice-president and general manager of Texas Power and Light Company. His energy and ambition brought him recognition as the dean of the Southwest electric power industry while serving as president of Texas Power and Light Company from 1927 to 1949. After 1949 he became chairman of the board and retired in 1953 as director and chairman of the executive committee. The utility company enjoyed a period of expansion and prosperity during the Carpenter years.

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SIGNING  TEXAS STEET CONTRACT: Secretary of Commerce Jesse Jones (seated at right) and a group of Texans watch as John W. Carptenter (seated left), dallas, president of the Lone Star Steel Company, signs a contract with theDefense Plant Corporation to set up plants in the long idle Texas iron ore belt. Left to right standing: Senator Tom Connally; John W. Snyder, vice-president of the Defense Plant Corporation; Representative Wright Patman; G. H. Anderson, director of the steel company; J. G. Peterbaugh, president of a McAlester (OK) fuel company; Speaker Sam Rayburn; and W. W. Lynch and F. M. Ryburn of Dallas. [July 18, 1942].

Carpenter also achieved distinction as chief organizer and board chairman of one of the nation's largest life insurance companies. He organized Texas Security Life Insurance Company in 1930, which through mergers, acquisitions, and consolidations, became the Southland Life Insurance Company in 1945. By 1959 it was the fifteenth largest publicly owned life insurance company in the United States. He was also the founder and first president of Lone Star Steel Company in 1942. In addition, his support was crucial to the success of the State Fair of Texas, to the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936, and the Texas agriculture and livestock industries. Carpenter operated one of the largest dairy farms in North Texas prior to World War II and served as president of the Trinity Valley Cattle Company from 1940 to 1946. His interest in education was illustrated by his service as a trustee and member of the board of counsellors of Baylor University, his role in establishing Texas Technological College (now Texas Tech University in Lubbock) where he served on its first board of regents, his membership in the advisory committee of the Bureau of Business Research of The University of Texas, and his service on the advisory board of the North Texas State Teachers College Ex-Students Association. For many years he held a commission as major in the U.S. Army Officers Reserve Corps. He received an honorary LL.D. degree from Texas Tech University and an honorary D.Eng. degree from Southern Methodist University.

Trin.jpg (16939 bytes)A major portion of the collection deals with Carpent's efforts to improve and control the Trinity River.

To underscore his deep concern for conservation and reforestation, Carpenter planted more than two million pine seedlings on his farms in Anderson County. Along with his friend, Amon Carter, Sr., of Fort Worth, Carpenter recognized the importance of the Trinity River to the future of Texas. Despite its periods of drought and flood, engineering studies revealed the stream to be the most important single water resource in Texas. He proposed stabilizing the river to reduce floods, harness its flow, and store the flood waters for utilization in the home, industry, and agricultural production. He also envisioned the Trinity as a link between Dallas, Fort Worth, and other Trinity Valley cities for the purpose of industrial growth and development. As a champion of Texas waterways, Carpenter served as chairman of the Trinity River Development Committee of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce and as president of the Trinity Improvement Association from its beginnings in 1928. The association sponsored surveys and studies of the Trinity River which led to Congressional approval of several Texas reservoirs and improvements to Dallas and Fort Worth floodways. He was also the prime mover of legislation that created the Trinity River Authority as the state agency for stream development. He served as a member of the committee that helped bring Texas its first national park, Big Bend National Park. He was later director of the Big Bend National Park Association and also the Big Bend Trail Association.

John W. Carpenter died of a heart attack at the end of a full day's work on June 16, 1959. Several thousand messages of sorrow and sympathy were received by the Carpenter family. Nearly every Texas city newspaper published a tribute. The Longview Daily News perhaps said it best: "Although we are the poorer for having lost 'Mr. Texas'. . . we are immeasurably the richer for the living inspiration of his friendship and example and the lasting contribution of his service to the cause of progress in Texas and the nation."

Special Collections Division is pleased that Ben H. Carpenter of Irving, Texas, has donated his father's papers to The University of Texas at Arlington. Early in 1996 more than 218 linear feet of files in 114 boxes of varying size were received. Since the transfer, the collection has been reboxed and inventoried. Much like a buried treasure, the boxes hold many gems waiting to be discovered. The division's remaining task is the organization and processing of fifty-plus years of twentieth century Texas history in this collection and the compilation of a detailed guide to the papers.

The papers have been sorted and placed into 205 smaller, more manageable boxes. They contain Carpenter's business files and other materials that he produced and collected during his career. Nineteenth century photographs, histories, legal documents, and reports dating back to 1891 concerning the Trinity River are also included. The bulk of the papers, correspondence, maps, financial and legal documents, speeches, studies, surveys, histories, and photographs trace Carpenter's efforts to spearhead the improvement, control, and development of the Trinity River. In 1955, Ben H. Carpenter was elected the first president of the Trinity River Authority by its twenty-four man board after serving as its temporary president. Indoctrinated with the "Trinity gospel" since childhood, Ben Carpenter was, at age thirty-two, one of the youngest men to serve as the head of a major government agency. A significant portion of the papers are Trinity River Authority records and files that reveal Ben Carpenter's work for the development of the Trinity River from the 1950s to 1980.

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Scene of cristening ceremonies of the blast furnace, "Flossie Bell," Lone Star Steel Company plant, Daingerfield, Texas, October 30, 1947. Mrs. Carpenter, for whom the furnace was named, formally christened it.

The John Carpenter Papers also contain records concerning the founding, construction, and operation of the Lone Star Steel Company, from 1930 to 1959; the operation and development of Texas Power and Light Company, from 1927 to 1959; and the Dallas Railway and Terminal Company, from 1914 to 1947. There are also files on Carpenter's role in numerous community clubs and organizations, as well as his industrial development activities, from 1908 to 1959. His diverse community service included being general chairman of the organizing committee that established the National Conference of Christians and Jews in the Southwest, a trustee of the National Safety Council, a director of both the Dallas Crime Commission and the Dallas Citizens Council as well as the Dallas Grand Opera Association. As a founding father of Highland Park Presbyterian Church, he served as president of the board of trustees and member of the board of elders.

Particularly well documented is his work in the Dallas Chamber of Commerce, the Dallas Citizens Council, the Kessler Plan Association of Dallas, and the promotion of textile mills in North Texas. His relationship with Amon Carter, Sr., of Fort Worth, and his efforts to cooperate with other area chambers of commerce is revealed. Files from his years as regent of Texas Technological College include minutes of the first meeting of its board of regents, commencement programs, photographs, and yearbooks. Carpenter enjoyed putting Texas on display. State Fair of Texas materials depict Carpenter's involvement in promoting the agriculture and livestock industries and include clippings, postcards, and programs from several of the State Fairs and rodeos in the 1930s and 1940s. His political files primarily involve the resolution of the conflict between the Lower Colorado River Authority and the Texas Power & Light Company in the late 1930s and early 1940s. These files include correspondence revealing negotiations between John Carpenter and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Congressman Sam Rayburn, and other Texas and national political figures.

Speeches, articles, awards, and newspaper clippings that reflect Carpenter's life and widespread activities are found throughout the collection. Carpenter was a historian at heart, leaving behind not only the usual letters and reports, but also an accumulation of many fine photographs, numerous newspapers, and publicity files of newspaper clippings, as well as several rare printed historical sources that document his activities and the companies that he established. One such item is an album of photographs by Charles Erwin Arnold depicting various Texas electric plants that were operating from 1924 to 1928. The album includes photographs of Pecos Valley Power and Light, the Sweetwater Plant and town scenes, and the Wichita Falls plant and town. It also has scenes of Burkburnet's oil fields and power and light exhibits at the 1927 Texas State Fair. Numerous photographs capture scenes at the site of the various stages of construction of the Lone Star Steel plant in Daingerfield, Texas, in the early 1940s.

The Carpenter Papers also include stock certificates for the Trinity River Navigation Company, 1891 to 1909; a copy of the City of Dallas charter for 1907; blueprints for a proposed textile mill in Dallas in 1924; a bound volume, Suggestions for the Industrial Development of Texas by John Carpenter originally submitted to the Honorable W. Lee O'Daniel in 1938; a scrapbook highlighting the war effort activities of the Lone Star Steel Company in 1943; programs from the dedication of the George Dealey monument in 1949 and the events commemorating General MacArthur's visit to Dallas in 1951; a master plan of the Trinity River and its tributaries, railroad maps, and maps of the major river basins of Texas; motion picture film, "Home to the River;" and film and radio scripts regarding the improvement of the Trinity River from the 1930s through the 1970s.

The papers are a gold mine of North Texas economic history. UTA Associate Professor of History, Robert Fairbanks, an urban historian, who examined parts of the Carpenter Papers, located a significant amount of material that filled the gaps in his current research on twentieth century Dallas history. He calls the Carpenter Papers "the best source yet on the mid-twentieth century power structure in Dallas." He notes that the collection "makes available for the first time minutes and reports of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce and the Dallas Citizens Council dealing with a variety of local issues." Fairbanks feels the Carpenter Papers "are quite simply the most important source on twentieth century Dallas since the George Dealey Papers."


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