John Dunn’s (Smalltown) Mythic Proportions

About 110 years ago, a man named John Dunn lived in a one-room cabin out on E. McKinney, just past the “old wire bridge” in Denton. He was a single man in his 60s, who made a meager living by cutting wood, doing odd jobs, and was a “fortune teller” who was popular with college students and locals.

Known for being eccentric, John had a “peculiar manner of dress”; he possessed an old rabbit’s foot, “supposed to have come from a rabbit killed in a cemetery in the dark of the moon, and with the aid of that “conjure” he would essay to answer any questions propounded to him by means of the foot swinging pendulum-like on a string.” [Denton Record-Chronicle, Dec. 1, 1925, p.1]

John Dunn's home

John Dunn note

Students would visit his cabin to get their fortunes told, something that must have been a “lark” back then. Imagine, if you will, the sound of the prevailing winds blowing through the fields and once inside, the creaking of the boards, the tinkling of bones, or bits of metal hanging from string. Being a conjurer would require some kind of acting skill especially for one who hones their craft. And there would need to be props. The cabin would be lit by lantern light unless the travellers were there in the daytime and then there would be the dust motes and shadows.

John Dunn at home

Chief John Dunn, collector of rabbits’ foots and hoodoo. 08/08/1900 -Inscription on back of photo, Denton Public Library Archives

Speculation aside, what we do know about John are bits and pieces: He was described in two census records as a “black man,” and then, as a “mulatto” who had been born in Texas, somewhere ranging from 1847 to 1854. His father was born in Ireland, mother in Tennessee, and like many other people, John could not read or write. From several newspaper accounts, we know that he collected “curious trinkets, pieces of jewelry, old coins” [DRC Aug. 28, 1912], and that his job could be quite dangerous:

John Dunn 22 Oct 1909

Denton Record-Chronicle, October 22, 1909

As an “official local character” he was targeted by hooligans (my word) who broke into his home and stole some of his precious objects. Later, in 1917, an injury to one of his feet became gangrenous and had to be amputated.  One can only imagine what this lonely man had to go through.  A couple of years before, he moved from his home to another cabin located eight miles east of town out on the Jagoe farm.  One bitter cold night, on January 18, 1918,  the cabin caught fire. Neighbors found the structure in flames and made a search for him, but it wasn’t until the following day that the Sheriff found his body buried beneath the remains of the fallen chimney.

The tale should end there, but it doesn’t because of another story which was done about John and other “Peculiar Characters” in 1954. The editor of the DRC at that time decided to rerun the same story from 1925, but he spiced up the wording and added more details which came from another set of “old-timers” (“sons of the old-timers”?).  Anyway, these men described John as a “tall gaunt man whose long, straight hair proved his Indian blood.” This “newer” modern story was both vile and racist. It targeted the weakest and most unfortunate members of the community who it was suggested, were freaks.

What a lack of imagination (to say the very least).

John Dunn in Field

John Dunn, standing in a field near his home on E. McKinney Street. – Photo, Denton Public Library

I find myself thinking about that 1954 description of John and then looked at the photos above, but gol-darn it, they just aren’t clear enough! I picture some college students sneaking out and taking the unposed photos of this private man and sharing them with their friends. Who was he really?

It has been suggested by one of my co-workers that maybe John’s mother was one of the Cherokee or Chickasaw Freedman (someone of Indian and African American ancestry).  That could explain the odd clothes, the bones, and perhaps the storytelling.  As for his father, there is too much to speculate.

I have looked in the census for a child or young man by the name of John Dunn who might fit the description and in the 1870 census, found a 15 year-old boy named John Cook Dunn living in Coryell County, Texas, who, along with numerous brothers and sisters were listed as being “Servant” as their occupation. In a nearby prosperous farm, a white family by the name of Dunn, lived, along with a 33-year-old black woman (also with the last name of Dunn) who was their “House Keeper” and maybe the mother of the other of the young Dunns. But I am being hopeful.

I think John Dunn had a very important story to tell; I just can’t ask him any questions, only photos.

But at least I can tell a better story than the one from 1954.

~Leslie Couture, Special Collections Department

 

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A Road By Any Other Name

Is still a road.

That stunk, I apologize.

Someone called a while back and wanted to know if Bonnie Brae Street had once been called Avenue I. They were looking for the place where someone once lived, but couldn’t find the street.

Guess what? It was.

Once upon a time, the name for the road was split with Scripture dividing the two names. The northern part of the road was – and still is – Bonnie Brae and the southern part was Avenue I. The people who lived along the length decided, and rightly so, that they would like their street to have one name and went to the City Council. The Council passed an ordinance to get rid of the dual names in 1961. So, Avenue I was no more, except in people’s memories which can be rather long.

Sadly, no song exists about Avenue I – or its’ glory days – although there are some who might remember the way it used to look. I would like to hear a description of that from someone (drop me a line?).

The first mentions – that I can find – of Avenue I are in 1919. As for Bonnie Brae – other than the literal term for a “a pretty hillside” –  it was once known as the Bonnie Brae Stock Farm. The 30 acre homestead, located “1-1/2 miles west of the courthouse on the turnpike” was owned by Chas. H. Smoot. This farm raised prize-winning Jersey cows, Hampshire and Shropshire sheep, and Broughton rams. Mr. Smoot purchased the land in 1914, but put the farm up for sale in 1920 and by July of 1925 had started the “Bonnie Brae Addition” with his first open house prominently advertised in the Denton Record-Chronicle.

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1940 Map of Denton, Texas, Denton Chamber of Commerce.

As subdivisions were added, a new arterial road was needed to reach State Highway 24 – something we all know now as University Drive, or US380 – and Bonnie Brae was lengthened, but it needed some serious straightening out first – judging by the map below.

1958 map of Denton, Texas.

Part of a 1958 map of Denton, Texas

And here is a aerial photo from our collection of the same road taken in 1964 looking west over UNT. If you look just in the background, just left of the middle you can see the strange configuration of the road and the still open fields. To see a larger copy check it out on the Portal to Texas History.

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View of UNT campus in 1964 with Avenue I/Bonnie Brae in the background.

I swear, the excitement in this town never ends.

-Leslie Couture

Special Collections

 

Wear Them Shoes

The title refers to one of my favorite Patrick Sweany songs, the lyrics of which keep popping up in my head whenever I think about my two jobs: being a municipal employee and working in the part of the library where preserving the past is in the job description. The image is relevant for both jobs.

Employing 1,383 people, the City of Denton is one of the top five major public employers in Denton, Texas. After working for the City for 20 years, I visualize it as a gigantic puzzle with many missing pieces as employees retire, leave, or die. The collective memory of numerous individuals who might be able to provide the answers to those questions that each and every person who lives in a city or works for a city has (or might have had).

The Denton Public Library keeps some of that history of which many items are on the Portal to Texas History website. Our newest collection, the Denton Municipal Collection, features various photos, newsletters, and documents from the early 1900s to the present. The collection is still growing and we will be adding new items each year as we “harvest” items from the different departments and individuals as they retire. We also encourage former City of Denton employees to contact us with items they would like to preserve or have added in this collection.

The newsletters are a wonderful addition and provide helpful context to these bits of historical and government happenings, such as this article that was in the Spotlight in Dec. 1966. It discusses the framework for the round room in the Civic Center, which was originally known as the Community Center.

Spotlight Dec 1966

The photos on the Portal cover the 1910s and upward, although we have yet to upload all of them. The photo below is one that will be added next year. According to the stamp on the cardboard holder, the negative was developed in October of 1973. I  used the library’s subscription to Newspaper Archives to search the Denton Record-Chronicle for apartment fires in 1973 and came to the conclusion that this fire took place on Tuesday, October 2, 1973 at the Cedar Crest Apartments located at 223 Avenue G – these apartments still stand, but are now called Vendi Place.  In the article, a student had a cooking fire, put it out and went to class, however the flames traveled up the vent and started burning in the attic.

Fire at Cedar Crest Apartments, October 2, 1973 in Denton, Texas.   (Courtesy of the Denton Public Library)

Many of the people in these photos have no information written on the back and there are no accompanying notes, so if you know the name of someone in a photograph, or have something to add to the content, please contact us at genealogy@cityofdenton.com.

COD_Slides030Carroll Boulevard at Hickory Street, looking south – before it was widened to 3 lanes.

COD_Slides024

Looking at the corner of Locust and Hickory when Craven’s used to be behind the Denton County National Bank (now Wells Fargo).

 

For items that are on the Portal, their website has a link in the record of each item that says, “Corrections & Problems,” which allows you to add comments that they forward to us.

Thanks for reading and please take a look at the collections. Or come by the library and take a look at some of the items in our display case at the Emily Fowler Central Library. We’re open 7 days a week.

Oh no, now I’ve got a Beatles song stuck in my head…

Leslie Couture, Special Collections Department

Hidden History: Betty Jane Blazier Memorial Play Wall

Nestled in Quakertown Park between the Civic Center Pool and the Senior Center stands a rather unique, large, concrete wall. There are no clues on the structure as to its purpose, only a plaque that reads “In Memory of Betty Jane Blazier, 1915-1964, Teacher and Friend of Children”.

Incorporated into its long length are what appear to be tunnels, stairs, and random geometric shapes.  Is it an outdoor sculpture that should be admired from afar but not touched?  That description just does not feel right. The structure seems to extend an invitation to come and play, and in actuality that is what it is, a play wall.

Blazier 1962 Dadilian2

The play wall was built as a memorial to Miss Betty Jane Blazier, who was an instructor for the College of Household Arts and Sciences at Texas Woman’s University for 18 years. She specialized in child development and nursery education and served as the director for the on-site nursery school. She was also one of the founding members of the Denton Unitarian Fellowship. Miss Blazier died on July 20, 1964, at 48 years old, after a five year battle with breast cancer.

Funding for the project was organized by the Unitarian Fellowship who commissioned Dr. Richard Laing, then a member of the North Texas State University (now UNT), art faculty to create something that children would enjoy as a memorial to Miss Blazier. The play wall was specifically designed to help children develop a sense of mass and form and to encourage children to participate in active play.

The City of Denton Parks and Recreation Department built the foundation and the sand enclosure for the memorial. The structure itself was constructed by Alvin Ellis, under the supervision of Mount-Miller Architects. The project had the approval of the Municipal Complex architect O’Neil Ford. The play wall was dedicated in a public ceremony on December 13, 1970.

DRC 06 Oct 1970

So, the next time you are at Quakertown Park, take a moment, and yield to the call of the wall, just stop and play.

Are you curious about the history of any other places in Denton? Stop by the Genealogy and Local History Department at the Emily Fowler Central Library and let’s see what interesting information we can find.

Laura Douglas
Emily Fowler Central Library

Terri’s Farewell

It just so happened that my turn at a blog post came the same week I am leaving my post as Director of Libraries at the Denton Public Library. So here is my shout out to a great community and a stellar group of people – those who work inside the libraries and those who visit the libraries.

One of the best things I have learned, is it’s never about me. The work we put in at the library happens for one reason only, to serve our community. While I am proud of the things we have done in the past ten years, we wouldn’t have produced, created, hosted, and made available any of those neat things if the community didn’t want or need them. We truly exist to serve.

It seems that we usually get things right because feedback from our customers consistently tells us we do. That’s not to say we are out of ideas or are tired of listening! We can accomplish some really great things with the support and direction of our community. Listen, act, listen some more. It’s a great formula.

Soon, there will be a new Library Director in the pretty office at Emily Fowler Central Library. And out at Jazzfest. And visiting a school, a nursing home. Please welcome this new person! Let them know what makes Denton, and Denton Public Library, special. Listen to this new Library Director as they share some new, great ideas. And mostly, support your library. Let others new to your neighborhoods know what delights are available to them! Send a note to your Council member and let them know what the library  means to you.

It has been my pleasure to serve this community. I am honored to have worked with some of the finest, most talented people anywhere. I know their good work will continue.

Terri Gibbs, Ex-Libris

In The Weeds, 5.9.17: Victoria Ebbels

In the early 1920’s, a young New York-trained artist moved to Denton to teach at the College of Industrial Arts, now known as TWU, and apparently became an assistant professor in Fine Arts. There is a bit of a mystery here, something in which we like to delve here at “In The Weeds”. Nowhere is she mentioned in the Daedalian yearbooks from 1921-1923. She is however listed as a faculty member from those school years in the College Bulletin, Historical Sketch of TSCW, The First Thirty Three Years 1903-1936 by E.V. White, Dean of the College. Why wasn’t she listed as an Assistant Professor in two editions of the yearbook?

Searching the 1923 Denton City Directory, she is found living at 1213 Carrier Street, which real Denton History geeks will recognize as the former name of the current Austin Street. Here is a photo of the house that occupies that address but we are not sure of its date of construction:

Ebbels 095

Interestingly, in the 1921 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map for Denton, the lot for that address appears to be empty: dentonjune1921sheet15. Was the house pictured above brand new when she lived there?

Here is the page from the City Directory with another mystery:

EbbelsDirectory002

Who is “Grace Ebbels” also living at this address? According to the 1920 census, she was Victoria’s mother.

Ms. Ebbels went on to have a fairly high profile career in art under the professional name of “Victoria Hutson Huntley” with her work in the collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Metropolitan Museum in New York, The Chicago Art Institute, etc.  The Smithsonian American Art Museum website has some examples of her work. She went on to have a long career and passed in 1971.

Written by Chuck Voellinger. Questions and comments can be directed to chuck.voellinger@cityofdenton.com.

 

 

 

Denton: First You Have a Little and Then You Have a Lotta

I don’t feel serious at all, so in the spirit of April fun, here are some pages, some press clippings that appeared in the Denton Record-Chronicle from years past; they were pasted into a scrapbook and lived in the City Manager’s Office for decades. This was one of the ways City Hall used to keep track of City history: a designated person would read the paper every day, cut everything out, and affix the articles into the scrapbook using rubber cement. The Library inherited many of these scrapbooks some years ago and here they sit in the Special Collections Department which you are free to look at – if you ever have time to take a gander. I like their chronological format and the ease of the turning page which doesn’t require me to look very hard for what comes next.

And yes, the theme of this post does reflect a criminal nature. The one below is not quite of the Darwin Award caliber, but it seems to me that if you’re going to rob a bank, you shouldn’t wear a fake mustache (they always fall off).  Call it a portent, if you will. They also used a pillowcase, a favorite method of many a cartoon character, but a little bulky. I wonder it had flowers on it, the article does not mention that.

Has anyone taken statistics on the favorite wardrobe and accessories of robbers, I wonder?

Awesome headline #1: Shotgun Power Stops Drug Theft

I like this particular article not only because the person was stealing a television (which is no laughing matter as they used to weigh a ton) and carrying a pillowcase (!) filled with drugs, but because this phrase was used, “The potential power of a sawed-off shotgun prevailed this morning on a drug burglar.”

An Exciting Car Chase Through Denton:

Favorite phrase: “flushing two of the three from around a Coca-Cola machine.”

Cool Technology! With the increase in crime came the need for more modern technology – which Denton delivered:

I had no idea this kind of technology was available in 1970.

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I’m ashamed to say that I have at times enjoyed the police blotter when the stories were funny. There is always the sobering human factor involved that makes it not-so-funny, although a good reporter can artfully soften the blow and make it more laughable.

Looking at 1970 made me wonder how much Denton has changed in terms of crime.  In 1968, Denton had a population of 39,846 and 970 criminal offenses. According to the Department of Public Safety’s website, Denton had 3,412 criminal offenses for the year 2015 and a population of 131,194.

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~Leslie Couture, Special Collections Department