June 1, 2011

Members of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks parade during a national reunion on Main Street in downtown Dallas, circa 1908.

In 1910 Dallas, a growing, chest-thumping city of commerce in northeast Texas, was earmarked as the best unoccupied site in the nation for a new college. Such was the stated opinion of the executive secretary of the General Education Board of New York. Such matters had received some but not significant attention in Dallas. Its businessmen had been preoccupied with commerce and growth.

Rapid growth was the basis for its chest-thumping pride. Between 1900 and 1910 the city more than doubled in size, jumping from 42,638 to 91,104. That spurt was continuing unabated. By 1920 the population reached 158,978, a nearly fourfold increase in just two decades. Classified by the U.S. Census Bureau as an “emerging” metropolis, Dallas became one of 19 American cities with a population between 100,000 and 200,000.

In the area of higher education … by 1910 the city could boast of a small college for young women that had been in existence since 1889, Saint Mary’s College. Its doors closed in 1930. Dallas also was the site of a medical school, organized in 1903 (moved to Houston
in 1943).

Dallas’ nearby rival, Fort Worth, although smaller, had made a successful overture in 1910 to bring to its city an established college, Texas Christian University. It had accepted Fort Worth’s offer of $200,000 and 50 acres for a campus after a fire destroyed its main building in Waco. In Houston, Rice Institute was preparing to open its doors. Even little Sherman, a town just a few miles north of Dallas along the old Preston Trail, had Austin College, which had moved there in 1878 from Huntsville.

Founded in 1841 by a wandering trader from Tennessee who envisioned a thriving trading post on the banks of the Trinity River, Dallas had been promoted loudly from that moment as the most promising site in North Texas. The arrival of the first two railroads in 1872 and 1873 … prompted an explosion in population.

A bird’s-eye view showed three major downtown streets – Elm, Main and Commerce. Commercial and retail activities, originally centered on the courthouse square, had spread eastward along the three main thoroughfares. The sidewalks were filled with pedes-trians in this day when downtown was the center of life in Dallas. Electric streetcars, horse-drawn carts and a growing number of automobiles crowded the streets.

Two outstanding new residential areas had been developed in recent years – Munger Place and Junius Heights – east of downtown. And just north of the city was the exclusive suburban development of Highland Park, incorporated in 1913 as a separate city.

Cultural amenities were not plentiful. Not until 1901 did Dallas get its first public library… . A modest art museum had been created at the same time by allocating space on the second floor of the library.

On all sides of the city farmers grew crops – mostly cotton – in the black, waxy soil, and Dallas became a market center. Texas was raising about one-third of the world’s cotton, and 60 percent of Texas’ cotton was raised within a 100-mile radius of Dallas.

One of the new develop-ments attracting attention in the area was aviation. In 1911 the traveling International Aviators put on a spectacular show at Fair Park.

The vision of acquiring a fine university for Dallas did not hold the same allure as did the miracles of flight, growth and commerce. But a sense of realization was dawning. To be a city of renown, Dallas must have a quality university to attract and to serve young men and women. It could be an ornament in the city’s crown.

But how to get one? Start one from scratch or find an existing university that could be enticed to move to Dallas? No matter. When Dallas decided it needed something for the betterment of the city, it generally found a way to get it.

Darwin Payne ’68 is SMU professor emeritus of communications and centennial historian. The full essay is included in From High on the Hilltop… Marshall Terry’s History of SMU with Various Essays by His Colleagues (DeGolyer Library and Three Forks Press, 2009).