Just as it’s an ill wind that blows nobody good, it’s an ill fire that burns nobody good.
Three times in the history of Fort Worth’s Bewley Mills fire led to good fortune.
The story begins with Murray Percival Bewley, born in Kentucky in 1845. His father was a grocer. By 1870 the Bewleys were living in Rumsey on the Green River. In the census brothers Murray and Elmore were listed as steamboat clerks. Older brother George was a steamboat pilot.
Murray and Elmore would become, like brother George, steamboat pilots. Murray would own his own boat. Soon after the census was taken, Murray married Hallie Samuel.
In 1877 came Murray Bewley’s first fire: His steamboat was destroyed by fire. Seeking a new start on dry land, he and Hallie moved to Fort Worth.
In Fort Worth Bewley first worked as a grain dealer.
In 1882 Bewley went to work as a wheat buyer at City Mill, founded in 1874. The mill was located at Bluff and Commerce streets. Soon after Bewley went to work at City Mill, the company reorganized, and Bewley became a partner. He helped to modernize the mill and to increase its capacity to two hundred barrels of flour a day. (The “Brown” in the ad was wholesale grocer Joseph H. Brown.)
Frontier towns like Fort Worth faced a hard truth: If you can’t produce it yourself—food, clothing, building materials, etc.—you will have to pay a premium to have it freighted in. Thus, a mill was a tremendous asset to a town. City Mill was not Fort Worth’s first. In 1856 Julian Feild, with David Mauck and R. S. Man, had built a gristmill and sawmill on the Clear Fork of the Trinity River near today’s Henderson Street bridge. Also in 1856 Archibald Franklin Leonard had dammed the Trinity River and built a gristmill just west of where Precinct Line Road now crosses the river in east Fort Worth.
By the mid-1870s Mark Evans had operated his Novelty Flour Mill northeast of the courthouse at Bluff and Jones streets.
Grain mills notoriously are at risk for fire because of the combustible dust they create. Sure enough, later in 1882 came M. P. Bewley’s second fire: City Mill burned. The company disbanded.
But Murray Percival Bewley overcame his second fire and started over yet again. With a loan from City National Bank he founded his own mill in 1883. Bewley launched his new venture with a name that recalled his steamboat days: “Anchor Mills.”
Anchor Mills was located on Front Street (Lancaster Avenue today) on the southern edge of town (a block south of today’s central fire station). The inset in the lower left locates Anchor Mills. Burnett Park is in the center of the photo.
Anchor Mills was a burrstone mill, using the ancient method of grinding grain. Bewley’s mill, like his riverboat, was powered by steam. In the beginning the mill had a capacity of fifty barrels a day. Bewley lived at 1122 Burnett Street in the “dw’g” (dwelling) to the right of the mill.
In 1886 Bewley updated his mill to the newest technology: steel or porcelain rollers instead of millstones. Accordingly he renamed his mill “Anchor Roller Mills.” The 1886 Wellge bird’s-eye-view map shows the mill on the edge of town.
Photo is from Greater Fort Worth, 1907.
Murray Percival Bewley died in 1906. He had lived to see the capacity of his mill increase to six hundred barrels a day.
Sons Edwin Elmore and Murray Percival Jr. took over their father’s business. But Junior found his passion—and talent—on the easel, not the ledger. Junior attended Denver Art School, Chicago Art Institute, and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He studied with William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri, became a well-known portrait artist in New York and Paris, and has been called Fort Worth’s first fine artist. His works hang in several museums and private collections.
In 1908 Junior built the five-story Bewley Building at 210-212 West 7th Street. The building included a fine art gallery.
The Bewley Building would stand long enough to house the original Clyde Campbell menswear store in 1949. The building was razed in 1974.
Junior’s mother, Hallie Bewley (1852-1930), was a patron of the arts (a founder and longtime president of the Fort Worth Art Association). Bewley Hall (1929) at the Woman’s Club of Fort Worth compound is named for her. When she died, she was remembered as “the mother of the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs” and “the mother of Texas art.” Clip is from the Port Arthur News.
Unlike son Murray Percival Jr., son Edwin did find his passion—and talent—in the ledger, and he continued to manage the business his father had founded. Edwin also served on the boards of Texas National Mutual Fire Insurance Company, Cook Memorial Hospital, and Fort Worth National Bank, was co-founder and president of State Reserve Life Insurance Company, a trustee of TCU, and a director of Fort Worth & Denver City and Rock Island railroads.
Edwin’s wife was Martha Jennings, daughter of Hyde and Florence Van Zandt Jennings, who was a daughter of Major Khleber Miller Van Zandt.
By 1907 Fort Worth had three grain mills.
About 1888 William Cameron had opened a lumber yard and flour mill on Jennings Avenue at Lancaster Avenue. In 1904 he sold Cameron Mill and Elevator, with a capacity of two thousand barrels a day, to J. Perry Burrus of McKinney. Burrus’s mill, of course, would move to Saginaw in 1936 and become the largest flour mill in Texas.
In 1904 Medlin Milling Company had built a mill (using two million bricks) on East 9th and Harding streets near King Candy Company. Capacity: 2,500 barrels a day.
Mills typically processed grain for both human and animal consumption: wheat flour, corn meal, and livestock feeds. Bewley’s signature product was Bewley’s Best flour, which competed head to head and biscuit to biscuit with the signature product of Burrus Mills: Light Crust flour.
The Bewley-Burrus competition extended to sports. In 1910 the city’s mills formed a baseball league. Bert King Smith of Smith Brothers’ Grain Company (East 6th and Pecan streets) was married to Maizie Bewley, daughter of Murray Percival Sr.
Just as Fort Worth has been known as a cow town and a railroad town, it also was a major mill town. By 1910 Fort Worth’s mills had eleven elevators with a total storage capacity of four million bushels. The Star-Telegram spoke of Fort Worth as “the grain center of the Southwest.” That title must have made B. B. Paddock bust his buttons. In 1873 Paddock had predicted that Fort Worth would become a great railroad hub.
And it came to pass.
But the railroads were just the start. As Fort Worth began pumping iron, the city became attractive to other industries.
For example, Swift and Armour built packing plants here in 1902 largely because of the city’s rail facilities.
Likewise, mills needed railroads to bring in fuel coal and raw grain and to take out processed grain.
For this reason Burrus and Bewley mills were located on the Texas & Pacific tracks south of downtown; Medlin and Smith Brothers mills were located on the Missouri-Kansas-Texas, Rock Island, Fort Worth & Denver City, and Santa Fe tracks east of downtown.
In May 1910 came the third fire of fortune in the history of Bewley Mills. At the Medlin mill complex on East 9th Street a fire broke out in the middle of the night at White Wolf Mills, the livestock feed division of Medlin Milling Company, and, encouraged by an ill wind, severely damaged the feed mill.
In August Medlin filed for involuntary bankruptcy.
In September Edwin Bewley bought the Medlin mill for $250,000 ($6.5 million today) and relocated his Anchor Roller Mills to the Medlin property. In 1912 the company incorporated as “Bewley Mills.” The B and K on the aerial photo locate the mill and King Candy Company.
By 1911 the Bewley mill had a daily capacity of one thousand barrels of flour, by 1913 1,200 barrels. The mill had its own dynamo, driven by a six hundred-horsepower steam engine, for electricity. Over the next few years the mill was expanded until the complex, with its ten-story elevator, was a skyline unto itself on the east side of downtown. Edwin Elmore Bewley, like Joseph in Pharaoh’s Egypt, “stored up grain in great abundance, like the sand of the sea, until he ceased to measure it, for it could not be measured.”
Listen to the Chuck Wagon Gang sing “The Church in the Wildwood” (1936) on YouTube.
Edwin Bewley died in 1946.
Edwin Bewley’s father would have been astounded at Fort Worth’s milling capacity by 1946. The 1946 city directory said Fort Worth, as a railroad hub, was the “largest terminal grain market in the South,” with storage capacity of 23 million bushels, flour-milling capacity of 8,500 barrels a day, and feed-milling capacity of 3,100 tons a day. All of these mills and elevators were located on a railroad. (Photos from W. D. Smith, Fort Worth in Pictures, 1940.)
By 1946 Bewley Mills, with 450 employees, had a capacity of two thousand barrels a day and a storage capacity of one million bushels.
But the mill ground to a halt in 1957 after Flour Mills of America bought the mill and lost money operating it.
The mill was sold in 1968 and destined for demolition. Crews began to try to bring it down. They pecked away at it a brick at a time. They banged on it with wrecking balls and jackhammers.
And still it stood.
On July 2, 1969 came a fourth fire in Bewley history: A four-alarm fire swept through the derelict mill.
And still it stood.
But by then the mill had been consigned to the status of Cowtown yoostabe. Fire could no longer burn good or ill for Bewley Mills.
Damage caused by the four-alarm fire: zero.
The Bewley mill was a whitewashed fortress of reinforced concrete, a looming cathedral of commerce. This ten-story monument to a former riverboat pilot who wouldn’t give up was built to stand, not to fall, to grind wheat into flour and corn into meal until the end of time.
But finally in 1971 the monument fell, yielding to 150 pounds of dynamite.
With the mill-as-monument gone, this monument remains. Murray Percival Bewley, wife Hallie, son Edwin, and daughter Maizie Bewley Smith are buried in Oakwood Cemetery. Murray Percival Bewley Jr., who died in 1964, is buried in France.
Besides the family monument at Oakwood and a ghost sign on the Dunnagan Building on Jennings Avenue, two buildings survive to remind us of the Bewley family and its mills. The bulk of the mill was located on the north side of East 9th Street. But two buildings on the south side of East 9th Street were not demolished in 1971: In 1945 Bewley added to its mill complex the five-story building on the left, built in 1908 by A. B. Crouch Wholesale Grain. That same year Bewley built the four-story building on the right.
Today in a narrow no-man’s-land cut off from the rest of the world by Spur 280, three railroad tracks, Interstate 35, and Interstate 30 the two buildings are forgotten relics of good fortune forged in fire.