Though best known for the Star-Telegram, Carter also established WBAP, Fort Worth’s first radio station, which in 1948 became the first television station in the Southwest. He was responsible for bringing the headquarters of what would become American Airlines to Fort Worth and for securing government funding for a local aircraft factory that evolved into Lockheed Martin. Historian Brian A. Cervantez has drawn on Texas Christian University’s rich collection of Carter papers to chart Carter’s quest to bring business and government projects to his adopted hometown, enterprises that led to friendships with prominent national figures such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Will Rogers, H. L. Mencken, and John Nance Garner.
After making millions of dollars in the oil business, Carter used his wealth to fund schools, hospitals, museums, churches, parks, and camps. His numerous philanthropic efforts culminated in the Amon G. Carter Foundation, which still supports cultural and educational endeavors throughout Texas. He was a driving force behind the establishment of Texas Tech University, a major contributor to Texas Christian University, a key figure in the creation of Big Bend National Park, and an art lover whose collection of the works of Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell served as the foundation of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.
Amon Carter: A Lone Star Life testifies to the singular character and career of one man whose influence can be seen throughout the cultural and civic life of Fort Worth, Texas, and the American Southwest to this day.
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LAST OF THE EMPIRE BUILDERS
ON JUNE 24, 1955, Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson, Democrat from Texas, delivered a special address on the floor of the U.S. Senate. In this address, Johnson eulogized the recently deceased Amon G. Carter Sr. of Fort Worth, calling him "one of the great moving forces of our time ... a towering figure in the daily life of our citizens." Back in Fort Worth, the day after Carter's burial, fifteen thousand people paid tribute at his grave in the city's Greenwood Cemetery. Widely recognized across the nation as "Mr. Fort Worth," Carter left behind a city and state that in numerous ways reflected his influence. Evidence of the seeming infinitude of personal and business contacts he had amassed came in the form of condolences that poured into the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's offices upon the announcement of his death. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a close acquaintance of Carter's since their meeting during the Second World War, remarked that he was "terribly shocked and distressed to hear" of his death. Comedian Edgar Bergen lamented that "the people of Fort Worth have lost a great man ... I have lost a valuable friend." Former vice president and fellow Texan John Nance Garner shed some of his characteristic prickliness to say, "I have lost a dear friend." Entertainer and Broadway producer Billy Rose observed, "He was the last of the empire builders and Fort Worth is his monument." These telegrams and memorials illustrate the reach and breadth of Carter's professional and personal relationships, associations cultivated in his quest to be the foremost civic booster for Fort Worth and West Texas.
Carter was born into a poor rural family on December 10, 1879, and his early surroundings and childhood made it difficult to believe he was destined to become one of the most influential Texans of the mid-twentieth century. Despite the obvious shortcomings of his upbringing, he quickly demonstrated an ambitious, enterprising nature, first as a "chicken and bread boy" selling sandwiches to train passengers in his hometown of Bowie, Texas, at the age of thirteen. After spending his late teens and early twenties as a traveling picture frame salesman throughout the Great Plains, he settled briefly in San Francisco to work in advertising. Despite a promising future in California, Carter moved back to Texas, where he connected with Fort Worth investors looking to start a newspaper. By 1909, this daily had become the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Much of Carter's widespread influence emanated from his position as the founder and publisher of the Star-Telegram, turning it into the most widely circulated newspaper in Texas by the mid-twentieth century. Ever watchful of technological trends, in 1922 he established WBAP as the Star-Telegram's radio arm, and in 1948 added its television counterpart WBAP-TV. Due in part to Carter's presence and influence, Fort Worth and Tarrant County attracted many major businesses, such as General Motors and Bell Helicopter, and government-funded projects, including the Will Rogers Memorial Complex and the Frontier Centennial, that attested not only to the city's dynamism but also to Carter's innate ambition.
Carter diversified his contributions to the city of Fort Worth and the state of Texas during his time as Star-Telegram publisher. He is perhaps most remembered today for the western American art museum in Fort Worth that bears his name (he collected the art of Frederic Remington and Charles Russell — at the turn of the twentieth century, two of the most prominent artists of the American West) — but he made many other contributions to Texas and Fort Worth. Ever cognizant of the need for higher education, Carter lobbied for a state university for West Texas and was rewarded for his efforts when Texas Technological College opened in Lubbock in 1925. As early as 1911, he saw aviation's potential and promoted air transport whenever possible; within two decades he became one of the founding board members and investors of American Airways, later American Airlines. During the Great Depression and World War II, Carter leveraged his rising influence with the Roosevelt administration to gain New Deal dollars for construction projects in the city, as well as a Consolidated Aircraft plant that churned out thousands of B-24 Liberator bombers for the war effort. And, by striking oil in the 1930s, he became a millionaire and was thus able to contribute even more to his philanthropic efforts through the Amon Carter Foundation and to his personal collection of western American art.
While it is relatively easy to list Carter's numerous achievements, it is much more difficult to explain the man's rise from obscure, humble origins to become a builder of a regional media empire with widespread political and economic influence. At first glance, Carter's career embodies the "Texas Myth" described by historian Randolph Campbell, a legend that "depends on a generalized belief in the Lone Star State as an exceptional place in the world, the home of self-reliant individuals who take advantage of the bountiful opportunities provided by a new American Eden." This Texas myth complements Carl Abbott's argument that for many people, the idea of the frontier West (of which Fort Worth was unquestionably, if not wholly, a part) "emphasized personal success rather than community achievement." After all, Abbott continues, "the frontier has long been viewed as the true home of the expectant capitalist, the ambitious individual for whom enterprise is a calling to be tirelessly pursued." Carter certainly pursued enterprise not only for himself but also on behalf of what he believed was his city, demonstrating his belief that his success and the success of Fort Worth were inextricably intertwined. Yet, as much as Carter might have believed in the Texas myth, his actions confirm a certain acceptance of community values and government intervention. He needed Fort Worth as much as Fort Worth needed him. Never one to wax philosophical, he rarely, if ever, articulated his motives for his persistent promotion of the city. His communications with friends and colleagues persistently lauded Fort Worth and showed a man who developed an emotional attachment to his new home, but he never explained why he chose to lavish his attention, energy, and fortune on that particular city. This leaves scholars the task of analyzing the existing archival material to assess what his motives might have been. Carter's correspondence reveals an ambitious man possessing a large ego, an insatiable appetite for success, and dogged perseverance. A cynic might argue that this was purely exploitative on Carter's part, who realized that if Fort Worth expanded, so would the reach of his newspaper and, thus, his profit margins. While self-interest was certainly part of Carter's inspiration, the consistent enthusiasm with which he promoted his city's interests (as he interpreted them) and the close bond he developed with Fort Worth complicate the matter.
The image Carter developed as "Mr. Fort Worth" reflects what historian Blaine Brownell calls the "urban ethos," defined as "a general overarching concept of the city which stressed the desirability — indeed the necessity — of both urban growth and social order in such a way that they would be mutually reinforcing." The urban boosterism that Carter was so famous for (in 1952, Time magazine called him "a civic monument, which unlike San Antonio's Alamo, Houston's Shamrock, and Dallas' Cotton Bowl, can walk and talk at incredible speed") was "actually an expression of the urban ethos ... a rhetorical effort to achieve the realization of the corporate-expansive city by promoting urban unity, growth, and commercial-civic opportunities." Carter devoted much of his time and a good portion of newspaper space promoting these goals for Fort Worth, a reflection of his role as one of the "first Texas news barons," as historian Patrick Cox argues. Like other contemporary Texas media moguls, Carter influenced "public opinion and policy making" while maintaining "ties with the growing commercial concerns of the state and its dominant political class."
Careful study of Carter's actions within their historical context reveal that he synthesized the western urban booster ethic emphasizing aggressive urban growth, commercial development, and technological prowess with the New South business progressive philosophy. This message of business progressivism was very much in the tradition of New South boosterism begun by earlier newspaper publishers prominent in the New South movement in the 1880s, such as Henry Grady of the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Richard Hathaway Edmonds of the Baltimore Manufacturers' Record. Like-minded individuals promoted this vision for decades throughout Texas and other southern states. Carter was part of a wave of urban southern boosters, "newcomers on the make ... willing to take financial risks and to embrace modern technologies and economic associations." Like other civic-minded southerners, Carter "merged with national elites" in "believ[ing] that progressive reforms were good for business." By the latter part of his life, he had become a member of what historian George Green called the Texas "establishment," a "loosely-knit plutocracy of the Anglo upper classes" that regularly involved themselves in state and national politics.
Yet, as much as Carter embodied the twentieth-century New South booster ethos, he simultaneously reflected a quintessentially western urban ethos. Carter's and Fort Worth's orientation and identity ultimately faced the American West in both its real and mythological forms. Under his watchful eye, the Star-Telegram evolved into the primary newspaper for many West Texans, and their many intersecting interests were quintessentially western, according to historians of the Urban West. Carl Abbott proposes that western cities have "been distinguished by a special relationship with wide open spaces," even though "they hold all the region's population and economic power." Fort Worth fits Abbott's model in that, like his typical western city, it developed relationships with government and industry to help transform itself into a hub for defense and aviation because of its available space. Such connections are more often cultivated by aggressive, articulate, and ambitious boosters such as Carter than they are by faceless Chamber of Commerce members.
Just as Dallas, Fort Worth's rival city thirty miles to the east, served as the commercial hub for Northeast Texas, Fort Worth emerged as the de facto capital of West Texas, a "gateway city" to the arid yet increasingly fertile plains of the region. This western orientation so heavily promoted by Carter, whose public appearances were often punctuated by the cry "Hurray for West Texas and Fort Worth!" was mirrored by traditionally southern attitudes regarding Jim Crowism and the deep chasm between white and black citizens of the city as well as by the region's affinity for a one-party political system dominated by the Democratic Party. The city's population, like many others in Texas, was heavily southern in origin and in its perspectives on race and politics. And Carter, to be sure, never appeared to question this sociopolitical milieu. That said, Fort Worth's rapid growth in the twentieth century, with Carter serving as a catalyst, echoes that of western cities more than southern cities. In sum, it appears that the symbiotic relationship between the city and the man thrived in a context of a western economy developed in a southern social setting.
No discussion of Carter is complete without referring to the fierce rivalry he developed with Dallas. Enmity between the two cities was not something Carter created, but his aggressive boosting and rowdy persona provided nourishment for the rivalry — at least when he deemed it necessary. Whether the issue was an airport or the Texas Centennial celebration, he found ways to draw attention to what had once been a more traditional competition so common between cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As will be seen, this rivalry had much to do with outsiders viewing Carter as the primary power broker and spokesman for Fort Worth. Since their respective births, both cities featured enterprising male citizens who took it upon themselves to promote what they saw as their community's interests. But while Dallas had its Citizens Council, a select group of businessmen who dominated the city's politics from the 1930s until the 1970s, and Houston had its "Suite 8F" clique — a group that included Jesse Jones, owner of the Houston Chronicle, and William Hobby, owner of the Houston Post — Fort Worth in the first decades of the twentieth century had neither an organized coterie like the Citizens Council nor an elite clique like Houston's.
Loose organizations calling themselves the "Citizen Committee" or the "Good Government League" pushed for progressive business initiatives such as the adoption of a council/manager government in Fort Worth to replace the commission system, but none of these functioned in the same way as the Citizens Council or even San Antonio's Good Government League. By the 1940s, there were whispers of what Fort Worth critics called the "Seventh Street Gang," an informal group of businessmen such as retailers Marvin Leonard and W. K. Stripling, H. B. "Babe" Fuqua of the Fort Worth National Bank, and Carter's closest friend late in life, wealthy oilman Sid Richardson. These individuals, among others, met regularly in Carter's suite at the Fort Worth Club to discuss local politics and business initiatives. Such an informal group kept no records and had no fixed membership, but it seems safe to say that Carter dominated the group, such as it was. He was the only one, Sid Richardson excepted, who had national prominence and he controlled local media; Carter's unique position allowed him to exploit this power, and it just so happened that he had the personality and ambition to encourage such exploitation. Ironically, it was arguably his ability to dominate the city that contributed to Fort Worth's failure to match its eastern neighbor's success; "one-man rule" certainly had its drawbacks. In Urban Texas: Politics and Development, Char Miller and Heywood Sanders contend that at the turn of the century, Fort Worth was in a position to seriously challenge Dallas for supremacy in the region, as it was experiencing a faster rate of growth and possessed boosters just as aggressive as those of the larger city. However, they argue, "it appears that Dallas's businesspeople won this race by adopting a more sophisticated approach to economic development." Where Fort Worth focused on meatpacking and, later, oil, Dallas developed a much more diversified economy that reflected business leadership from across the spectrum of enterprises. When Fort Worth (and Tarrant County) was able to secure prominent manufacturing facilities during Carter's life, they were those of larger outside firms such as Consolidated Aircraft and General Motors. Though arguably the most famous individual in Fort Worth or Dallas by the end of his life, Carter left behind a city remarkably different yet still second to its eastern rival.
Carter's exceptional qualities make it difficult to find a comparable figure in the South or the West. Most urban boosters operated collectively, not individually, and those boosters who emerge as more forceful figures, such as Jesse Jones in Houston or George Dealey in Dallas, did not enjoy the ability to implement "one-man rule" or speak singularly as Carter was able to in Fort Worth, nor did they possess Carter's ebullient, yet petulant, personality that attracted attention nationwide. In addition, Carter's formative business experiences as an adult were in sales, a fitting beginning for someone who took it upon himself to sell not just newspapers but a whole city. Layered on top of these qualities was a mind enamored with a plethora of interests ranging from art to osteopathy, canals to universities, yet always somehow in a way that reflected steely resolve (or stubbornness), not peripheral, momentary amusement.
Somehow, even with Carter's clear influence on Texas and Fort Worth in the first half of the twentieth century, very little scholarly material has been written about his life and legacy. The first academic work about Carter was a thesis written by Samuel Kinch Jr. in 1965 entitled "Amon Carter: Publisher-Salesman." The focus of the thesis is Carter's work in running the Star-Telegram, so while it does cover essential features of Carter's background, its purpose is not biographical. Jerry Flemmons, formerly a reporter for the Star-Telegram, wrote the first of two books on Carter: Amon: The Life of Amon Carter, Sr., of Texas in 1978, followed twenty years later by Amon: The Texan Who Played Cowboy for America. While these two books have a good narrative and humorous anecdotes, they also suffer from some glaring weaknesses, such as a lack of citations, poor organization, and little analysis of Carter's character. In addition, the biographies have a dearth of historical context and fail to place Carter within the framework of urban boosters so prominent in southern and western cities in the first half of the twentieth century, or within the broader context of American history. While Flemmons admits that the cowboy character that Carter loved to play in public was primarily an act, he contributes to this image by regaling the reader with numerous stories that reinforce this representation. The Carter caricature that leaps off these pages makes the reader wonder how such a cartoonish figure was able to wield the influence he did. Unfortunately, any modern scholarship that addresses Carter in a cursory manner is in the unfortunate position of having to rely on these flawed works. Oliver Knight's Fort Worth: Outpost on the Trinity, published in 1953, includes a several-page overview of Carter's life that was constructed in large part by the subject himself. Two newer works that have done some deeper analysis of aspects of Carter's career are Patrick Cox's First Texas News Barons, which ably looks at Carter as one of a select few prominent Texas newspaper publishers in the early twentieth century, and Mary L. Kelley's Foundations of Texan Philanthropy, which examines Carter's well-noted benevolence within the broader context of early Texas philanthropy.(Continues…)
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
Foreword, by Bob Ray Sanders,
CHAPTER 1. Last of the Empire Builders,
CHAPTER 2. The Formative Years,
CHAPTER 3. Building a Media Empire,
CHAPTER 4. Laying the Foundations for Political Success,
CHAPTER 5. For the Exclusive Benefit of Fort Worth,
CHAPTER 6. Waterways, Airways, Oil Production, and the Home Front,
CHAPTER 7. Triumphs and Trials in Peace and War,
CHAPTER 8. The Final Decade,