Inside Texoma: History of Wichita Falls

If you want to understand Texoma, you have to start at the beginning.

As the quote says, "You have to know the past to understand the present."

Understanding where we are in the world today is by finding out how we got here, and to shed light on the future of Wichita Falls, you have to understand how it came to be. There were two important families behind it--the Kemps and the Kells.

The saying at the time when these two men were so important in growing the town was to think like Kemp but work like Kell. Kemp was the visionary, he had all these great ideas bringing water supply to Wichita Falls and was very involved in bringing in other business--the opera house, news paper. Kell was driving force and worked hard to make those visions happen and come to life.

Not only were Kemp and Kell the best of friends--the two founding fathers of the Falls were also related.

Stacie Flood, with the Kell House said, "Mrs. Kell was a Kemp, was originally Flora Kemp and married and became Flora Kemp Kell, so the two were brothers-in-law."

And a powerful duo they were--the mark these two men made is even seen today.

"They were involved in just about every aspect of the city. They started  together as partner in local mill which is Atteberry today. From that they got involved in railroad to move grain around. They saw importance to move irrigation. Electricity gas, and bringing other business to town to help the city grow and flourish," Stacie said.

But what if the two hadn't made a visit to this once little prairie--do you think the city would be what it is if they hadn't come?

Stacie said, "Certainly not. They really helped Wichita Falls grow. In fact, originally the railroad ended in Henrietta, and Kemp saw the need to bring it to Wichita Falls, or the city would die, and he kept challenging them to bring the railroad to Wichita Falls, and they said no. So he finally said 'If I build tracks get private funding and lay tracks, will you run the trains?' And they said, 'Yeah, we'll pay you to run them on your tracks--we will even build you a depot.' They didn't think he would do it. But he got private funding and ran them. and they fulfilled the promise. built the depot. and rented the tracks from him. And later on they saw need to extend or we were the end of the line. So they extended them all over."
"Just from him?!?" asked Inside Texoma host, Ashley Fitzwater.

"Right," Stacie said.

"Didn't they ever say why they picked this area? Because they were originally from another part of Texas," asked Fitzwater.

"They were from Hill Country--Clifton, near Waco, and they were looking for new opportunities.

Originally kemp and kell in the 1880s were travelling by train from Clifton to Colorado--they thought that was next place," Stacie said. "They just happened to sit next to a gentleman named Judge Barwise, and he convinced them to come to Wichita Falls and see what we have to offer. They stayed in his house a few days and Kemp saw promise and stayed--moved to Wichita Falls. Ten years later, he convinced Mr. Kell to move to Wichita Falls."

Fitzwater said, "And Barwise might sound like a familiar name a school in town--he is the original settler in Wichita Falls, is that correct?"

"That's correct," Stacie said. "He is the one who stood on hill and--Ican't tell you whole story--
and said, 'I see before me a great city,' and there's a whole speech he gave when he first arrived and he really saw what he hoped Wichita Falls would become, and there was nothing here."

Although a lot has changed since Kemp and Kell made their mark, some is still the same--including the home the Kell family lived in back in the early 1900s, but the men weren't the only ones making history back then.

Stacie said, "The Kell House was built in 1909 as residence for Frank Kell and his family. His sister-in-law Minnie May Attics served as contractor and built it for him. This is fun, because women weren't allowed to sign contracts back then. But she did everything on a handshake, and she built this house based on hers. Hers was wood, this is brick. Hers burned, and this one is still here today. Kind of like three pigs."

When Kell moved in, his kids--aged three to 22 years-old--lived here until their deaths, and it passed on to Willie Mae, and she lived here until her death in 1980, when the Heritage Society acquired it, and turned it into a museum.

Still ahead on inside texoma...
We'll show you some of the luxuries afforded when you learn how to work like kell...

 The kell house extravagant, even today, and kept in the family for nearly 70 years. In fact, the Kells were the only family to live in house--which is unusual for a historic house museum, but also making it one full of history, right down to the books on the shelves.

"And tell us about where we are right now," Fitzwater questioned.

"We are in the library it was added on in the 20s, so Mr. Kell could conduct business here. When he was alive, shelves were full of his books. His favorite subject was Texas history, and when he passed, his family donated books to the University of Texas and started their history collection down there," Stacie, with the Kell House, responded. "The books now are...some are from his children, and others donated by the community--when the house became a museum--to fill out the shelves."

But the history in this home goes beyond the shelves.

"The desk was a gift to from Willie Mae to her father. She collected antiques from all over the world. She collected this and gave it to him as a present. And it's sat it here ever since," Stacie said.

Everything about the downstairs was the finest life had to offer at that time. After all, it was meant to entertain, although life long family memories were made in many of the downstairs rooms.

"The parlor was used for special occasions," Stacie said. "Three of the daughters were married in the parlor, they had several funerals in parlor, as well, back when you laid your family members out in the home."

All of the furnishings in this room are original. The piano was purchased in 1929--it's a player piano. Mr. Kell liked to tease his children a lot; he said he had to buy a player piano, though all of his daughters knew how to play, if he wanted to hear his favorite song, because none of them could play it," Stacie said. "In this room, even the carpet is original, and you can see how it was woven on a narrow loom. It was two feet wide and pieced together, so it could fit whatever room was needed. Pink and green were Mrs. Kell's favorite colors, so you will see them a lot."

The curtains are reproduced, because as time has passed, the originals just didn't hold up.
However, the fabric was remade and to date has even made a new place in history. It's now called the Kell Gardens pattern in New York.

Another reason history is being preserved so well is because the Kells kept everything, and the front room of the home is a perfect example.

Stacie said, "There's black stained glass around the door, nd Mrs. Kell thought it made the room to0 dark. She loved it before but saw what it did and said, 'This room is too dark,' so she took it out and put in plain beveled glass. But they didn't get rid of it, they put it up in attic and when the Heritage Society took over, we found it, restored it, and put it back."

Another interesting fact is that the Kell Home had one of the first private resident elevators in Wichita Falls--that was about the size of an old phone booth.

"Mr. Kell had fall in 1939, and was having a hard time after he recovered, so the family installed an elevator. Well, the problem was the grandchildren loved to play under here, and they were always afraid the elevator was going to come down and squish them. So Mrs. Kell could get a basket of eggs out of the fridge and put on the floor and she would bring the elevator down, and it would stop without crushing an egg. It has a pressure point on bottom that would sense if something was underneath," Stacie said.

The upstairs was more like home, and each room with its own story, but the one that stands out is know as the red room---or Willie Mae's room.

"This is the room that each of the daughters got, from the time they were engaged to the time they were married. Willie Mae, though she was second oldest, was last to get the room. She told her father 'Daddy, I'm just to old to get married,'" Stacie said."But she was a very independent woman, and she would have had to give up a lot of the things she loved if she were to marry. She was the first woman to earn a letter in a varsity sport at UT. She got 'T' in tennis, she formed the local chapter of the Red Cross and served as its first president. Then she decided that wasn't enough--this was during World War I--so she talked her father into donating an ambulance and she took it to France and drove it."

She also traveled the globe collecting antiques. Remember the old desk in the library we told you about?

"This was her room, and why would you want to give this up?" Stacie asked, as she and Fitzwater stood in Willie Mae's room.

Fitzwater said, "No kidding. Why did they call it the red room? Simply because of the red bedspread and red décor?"

Stacie replied, "It was always red. Willie Mae added touches, like the glass-wear paintings and some of the furnishings she brought from her travels--this desk here, she brought from Chinam the painting from Italy, lot of glass from Belgium and other European countries."

Although she never wed, Willie Mae was okay with that and lived a long and full life. She was in her 90s when she died and was the last of the Kell children to pass away.

The other historic Falls family, Kemp of course, but like we told you earlier, Kemp is the one with the vision. Another crucial family, stamping it's name on areas we still rely on today.

And what a man mr. Kemp was--when it came to romancing his wife, this man went beyond chocolates and flowers.

"Mr. Kemp laid out the Floral Heights edition, named after his wife," Stacie said. "She was quite a character herself. She said he could name it after her but had to plant 100 trees. Well, he turned around and planted 1000, and he didn't stop there."

Mr. Kemp also built a new building that's still used today, all for his beloved Flora.

"The Kemp Center for the Arts--which used to be our public library--that was a Christmas present from Mr. Kemp to Mrs. Kemp. He asked her one year what she wanted for Christmas, and she said, 'I want a public library for our community.' She had been working hard at that for many years and had never really seen a localized library. They had out of someone's house where you could check out books but not a big library, and that's what she wanted," Stacie said.

And originally they were building a new house, and he was going to donate his house, but they decided that wouldn't serve purposes and they built the Kemp.

Although Kemp and Kell have passed, and their descendants are spread out.

"Several married and moved away. The Kells had six daughters and one boy, Joseph. Joseph was killed in a car accident before he ever had children, so the Kells that are related to Frank Kell all have different last names," Stacie said.

There are some that still live in community, but most are spread out throughout Texas and nation. The men's names live on in the Falls.

Wichita Falls city leaders say the future of our city surrounds downtown Wichita Falls, and downtown is so important because this is where it all began--on the corner of 7th and Ohio.

Christy Graham, downtown developer, said, "On September 27th, 1882, the Fort Worth-Denver Railroad moved the railroad two miles west of where they were orginally going to put the line, and that brought in a city center. They had town lot sale--the most expensive went for $1,200 and majority went for $200-500.

People came and bought lots and our town was no longer a prairie, it became a city," Graham said. "And one of the buildings making it into the city we love today, is the historical Hamilton building."

"The basement was actually dug by mules, and they were in process of building when Mr. Hamilton bought the building.  It was going to be a medical facility, and he bought it and then added four stories, making it a 12-story building," said Graham.

"And what did he used it for?" Fitzwater asked.

"Mainly offices--doctors, lawyers, whoever wanted to rent," Graham responded.

Although today's work is performed, yesterday's artifacts remain.

"It has its original mail shoot that the people who are renting offices can go put mail in, and it goes to the bottom floor," Graham said.

Woodwork in the lobby is also original to the building--you don't see that today, and it also had original elevator doors on the first floor that have big 'H' on it. The 'H' for Hamilton stood for the man who ran it all--Mr. Hamilton was a major oilman and real-estate tycoon, who added on the best of the best when it came to a finishing touch.

"I invite people to drive by and look at this building, it is one of the most beautiful buildings downtown and look up to top of the building, because if they look at the corners it actually has an indian head with headdress, and symbols on the building are American Indian symbols and have different type meanings in indian nation," Graham said.

The extravagent building even includes a top0floor library and a ballroom that is still danced in today.

Graham said, "The ballroom truly reminds me of ballrooms overseas in some of the castles with its ornate ceiling, big stone fireplace, big metal candles and big windows."

And when talking about the Hamilton Building, you can't forget the Hamilton parking building; the sign still towers over downtown. Although the sign is an original from the 50s, the inside had been complety remodeled.

"What we are looking at here is the Endergy building, the  backside of the Hamilton Building that was built as an elevator-accessed parking garage," Graham said. "What happened is people renting space would drive their cars up and park them, and a parking attendant would get the cars and drive them onto the elevator, and each car had ita own slot, and the elevator would go up and put into the individual spot."

It's now used as an office building and a workout facility.

Time now to go  back to the site of where it all begin and where the land auction took place.

The area today known as the La Salle Crossing Apartments, is a historical location that developer Christy Graham and her husband refused to let go to waste.

"This building is now on the national register of historic places because of its significance," Graham said. "The city was looking at demolishing this building when we bought it, so we basically resurrected it from the dead...and the Texas Historical Commission wanted us to bring it back to the 1944 box look, but it was ugly, so we actually brought it back to the 1923 look, which allowed us to but manserts, which gave more character."

"Tell us about building that we are i,n and why it's so special to our history," Fitzwater asked.

"We are in the building orginally called the Studio Hotel," Graham said. "It was built by Wiley Wyatt. He built five buildings, but this is the only one left. We took over in '97 and remodeled and opened it in '99 and made it into apartment lofts."

Fitzwater asked, "What made you want to do that? Why did you think it was so important to take a piece of history and make it function today?"

"My husband and I love old buildings," Graham responded. "He flies for a living and saw what they were doing there. It was his baby--Ii just came along for the ride."

"And a ride it's been. You have learned so much about the history of our city. What would you say has surprised you the most?" Fitzwater asked.

"When researching to put the depot on for our district on the national register, we did 18 moths of research to put our district on national register, and when I was doing it, reading, I found a lot of cute stories," Graham said. "When Quanah Parker used to bring his tribe to Wichtia Falls to celebrate or to shop, people couldn't hang anything red on clothes lines. Indians loved red. So at then end of day, he would have to round up all tribes and find out what they had on and where there was red. If they didn't have it before, they would track it down and pay everyone for things they had taken."

Fitzwater asked, "So  why red?"

"That's just the color they liked--they just loved that red," Graham said.

"Anything else that you can tell us about this building? And I know you said it was used for a hotel, so whatever happened? Why did that not continue?" Fitzwater asked.

"Well, there used to be a large 7-story building where our parking lot is now, and that was built by Wiley--the same person who built our building," Graham replied. "It was called the Texan Hotel. It was Mother's Day, May 14th 1942. The building had caught fire and seven people were killed. It destroyed the first  floor of this building, so it was remodeled in 1944 and was one of the first air-conditioned drive-in hotel apartments, as well as the Marchmen, it was one of the first air-conditioned buildings in Wichita Falls too."

Another notorious piece of Wichita Falls history is the  bank robbery of 1896, where Graham says two men robbed the bank---located where Gidget's Sandwich Shop is today open for business--and also directly across from the building Graham owns today. Not only did two men rob the bank, they also killed a man there. His name was Mr. Frank Dorsey.

"That became a pretty big story in our area too, right? With the man Mr. Dorsey was, he was just working at the bank," Fitzwater queried.

"He was just working at the bank. I think he was in his 30s. He was a very well liked man in the community, and people were just devastated that he had been killed," Graham said.

"Who was responsible for the bank robbers' deaths? I read that the townspeople took charge," Fitzwater said.

Graham said, "They didn't take charge. If you read the hisotry of the Nack Robbery, the Texas Rangers actually knew that a bank was going to be robbed. They didn't know which bank, so they were actually here for four days waiting for bank to be robbed, but so were the bank robbers. So as soon as they left and got on the train, they got word in Bellevue that the bank had been robbed."

But it wasn't just the crime commited that made history, it was also the way the criminals were killed--lynched right in  front of the bank building.

Graham says it was the only time in the history of our city that hangings took place, and the vegence and act of revenge started when the Rangers got ahold of the men responsible.

"Then they (Rangers) got off the train and went up into Indian territory, which was Oklahoma at the time, and caught them and brought them back," Graham said. "And then the vigilante group went down and broke them out of jail, dragged them down the street and piled up boxes and hung them right there."

A story about the birth of Wichita Falls that will live on as legend in our city's history.

We'd like to give a special thanks to those who made this story possible:

Thanks to the Wichita Falls Times Record News, the Wichita Falls Museum of Art at Midwestern State University, the Lester Jones collection, "Images of America (Wichita Falls)"  and the book's author, Kenneth E. Hendrickson, Jr., and thanks to Arcadia Publishing Company.

We would also like to thank  the Kell House Museum and Stacie Flood, the Hamilton Building,     developer Christy Graham, and La Salle Crossing Apartments.