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History Nerds Unite in Dallas

This past Saturday, the secret society of Dallas historians gathered for our yearly convocation, the Legacies Dallas History Conference. We met at Dallas’ Federal Reserve Bank to eat breakfast sweets, buy rare books, tell each other insider history jokes, and listen to four brilliant presentations, plus mine which it would be immodest of me to call brilliant. Whether amateur historian or professional, or even a guest unfamiliar with our world, everyone had a good time.
I learned so much, enough to make it worth being someplace at 8:00 AM on a cold Saturday morning. First, if you were considering robbing the Federal Reserve Bank, don’t do it. Their security is phenomenal. If you are pure of heart, they will let you in, to see the wonderful architecture and exhibit, where you can learn more about everybody’s favorite paper product, money.
Two hundred and fifty guests were registered for this event, which has been growing for fifteen years. The papers covered a range of history topics. At a conference like this, some papers connect events in Dallas with larger national events. Princeton Williams’ How Dallas Became a Federal Reserve Regional Headquarters did that. Once he clued us in on what the federal reserve system does (and don’t pretend you already know) he explained how Dallas ruthlessly trounced the competition of such second-rate contenders as St. Louis and Fort Worth.
Sessions can also be about how a local individual kept Dallas up-to-date with national social trends. Jane Lenz Elder told us about Virginia K. Johnson, who established a Dallas home to help save “erring women,” which means prostitutes, in the early 1900s when progressive reform swept the nation. As was common, these reforms were often started by women like Virginia, who donated their time to help others.
I suppose my presentation fell into the same category-local example of national trend. I talked about the Neighborhood Heroes of the Cedars. The Cedars neighborhood, where Dallas Heritage Village is located in the city’s first park, was once an elite residential area, then a place for mills and worker housing, and then fell victim to urban changes after World War II. It was saved and revitalized by a history museum and energetic artists living in lofts developed by men like Bennett Miller. That sort of thing has been happening in cities all over the nation, but we did every single part better.
We enjoyed two sessions about Dallasites who might be termed crackpots. Cossette Faust Newton was a Highland Park matron who didn’t like that role or her neighbors. As Cynthia Shearer explained, Cossette built a giant ship in her back yard, calling it a pergola or pool house, and covered the front of her house with umbrellas to ward off bricks and dead cats she feared the neighbors might launch. When the evil agents of code enforcement got the better of her, she opened a museum to the memory of her “Garden Ship of Dreams” and to support the cause of crushing zoning laws.
We were left with the unfortunate idea that the Park Cities attracts nuts when Adrienne Caughfield told us about General Edwin A. Walker, who was not killed by the bullet that came through the window of his Highland Park home. Walker was a virulent conservative, a dedicated member of the John Birch society, and a former military commander who refused his military pension because he felt the federal government had persecuted him for trying to protect the nation. He moved to Dallas to dedicate himself to the mission of spreading his beliefs. He never met Cossette, but they would have gotten along well.
This conference is always fun, and it is open and accessible to anybody interested in local history. We keep the presentations light in tone but deep in information, and hope the audience understands that these stories explain little pieces of how Dallas became the place we live today. If you have been doing any research on local history, keep an eye out come spring for the call for papers on the Dallas Heritage Village website and Legacies magazine. Tickets for the conference usually go on sale right after Christmas. If you join us next year, we will share our breakfast treats and teach you the secret historian handshake, and you will have a good time.

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