The (Burial) Plot Thickens: Bailey’s Bluff

Early in September 1882 William John Bailey sat looking out the window of a passenger coach on a train leaving Tennessee. Bailey was leaving his home state, leaving his family, leaving the farm where he had been born in 1860 and where in 1862, while his father was away fighting in the Civil War, his mother had died giving birth to twins. Family slaves had cared for William until his father returned home in 1865.

As Bailey rode that train early in September 1882 he was twenty-two years old and just four months out of law school.

The train he was riding was headed west.

Destination: opportunity.

As that train rumbled west, Bailey met a fellow passenger who offered him this advice: “Find a town that is going to grow, and buy farmland outside of town. Just hang on to it, and as the town grows, it will increase in value. And you’ll be comfortable in your old age because of the increased value of your land.”

Bailey took that man’s advice in two steps.

On September 9, 1882 Bailey took step 1: He stepped off the train at Fort Worth, a town that was going to grow as it became a railroad hub.

In Fort Worth Bailey hung out his shingle but struggled to make his new law practice a success. But he had other training: He wrote shorthand. With that training he became the first court reporter of Tarrant County’s district court. He also worked in Austin for newspapers of Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Houston.

In 1884 Bailey was appointed second assistant attorney general of Texas under John Dickson Templeton, who had been editor of the Fort Worth Democrat. Bailey served in this position for three years and then returned to Fort Worth to again practice law, being the junior partner of William D. Williams, who would be elected mayor in 1909.

In 1885 Bailey took step 2 of the advice given to him on that train in 1882: He bought his first tract of land outside Fort Worth. Bailey was an early developer of Fairmount, his addition being adjacent to Swastika Place.

Meanwhile, working in Austin, Bailey had met Stella Wooten. They were married in 1887.

In 1888 Stella, just as William’s mother had in 1862, gave birth to twins: Cullen and Thomas.

The 1890s led Bailey further into politics: He served as a state senator for this district from 1895 to 1899.

He also was a Fort Worth alderman and a school board member. (Photo from Texas State Preservation Board.)

As his law career and political career progressed, Bailey continued to follow step 2 of the advice of that man on the train in 1882: “buy farmland outside of town” as an investment.

But then W. J. Bailey had a change of heart. In 1874, when he was fourteen, Bailey had told his farmer father: “I don’t want to be a farmer.” So young Bailey had gone to law school, become a lawyer, learned shorthand—all of which a quarter-century later had earned him enough money to afford to become . . . a farmer.

W. J. Bailey recalled: “About 1900, wishing to retire from the active practice of law and having in my youth been raised on a blue grass farm,” he continued to “buy farmland outside of town” but now with the intention of farming, not developing. He eventually owned two thousand acres, most of it west of Fort Worth and stretching from today’s Rockwood Park south to Camp Bowie Boulevard and from University Drive west to River Crest Country Club.

In 1905 Bailey and Stella built a white two-story farmhouse where today Bailey Avenue intersects White Settlement Road. They were preparing to move from their home on Hemphill Street on the near South Side when Stella, age forty-two, died after a brief illness.
Bailey and sons Cullen and Thomas closed up the farmhouse and lived elsewhere for a while.

Life goes on. Two months after his wife’s death the Majestic Theater opened on Jennings Avenue. Bailey had built the theater and leased it to the Interstate Amusement Company as Fort Worth’s first “high-class” vaudeville theater.

W. J. Bailey may have become a farmer, but he also remained a businessman. Third son John Tilden Bailey recalled of his father: “For the most part, he was known as a farmer. Of course, when he wanted to impress someone, he called himself a capitalist. When he wasn’t interested in impressing anyone, he called himself a farmer.”

In 1907 Bailey the farmer became Bailey the businessman once again: He developed the southeast corner of his farm, laying out the William Bailey and W. J. Bailey additions on both sides of Bailey Avenue.

In 1908 George Montgomery, president of Arlington Heights Land & Improvement Company, described by Bailey as “a gentleman of pleasing address and debonair manner,” approached Bailey and offered to buy part of Bailey’s farm south of White Settlement Road. Bailey declined. Montgomery then offered to buy part of Bailey’s farm north of White Settlement Road. Bailey again declined. Montgomery then told Bailey that Montgomery could buy a tract of land adjacent to Bailey’s farm and fronting the Bailey home at a lower price than Montgomery was offering Bailey. “I told him,” Bailey later recalled, that “if he could get it at that price, I would be willing to become one of the purchasers. He said he would form a little syndicate of seven. I agreed to be one of the seven.” Others in the syndicate included candyman John P. King and future mayor William Bryce.

But soon Bailey became suspicious of the intent of the other six men. At a meeting of the syndicate “I told these gentlemen, if the object of their purchase was to establish a cemetery, they had better return my check. That I was unalterably opposed to a cemetery being established within proximity of my residence.”

The other members of the syndicate refused to refund Bailey’s money and soon after confirmed his suspicion: The syndicate planned to establish a cemetery within view of Bailey’s front porch!

Bailey said he would withdraw his objection to the cemetery if the syndicate would develop between Bailey’s house and the cemetery a ten-acre residential addition so that Bailey would not have to look at the cemetery from his front porch.

The other syndicate members consented—except candyman King.

King brought the other five syndicate members around to his viewpoint.

At a later meeting of the syndicate Bailey tried to persuade the other six men to grant his concession.

They refused.

“I got up, bid them goodbye, and told them I would see them in hell before they should make a cent out of their cemetery.”

The other members of the syndicate filed for a cemetery charter with the Texas secretary of state. Bailey filed a protest with the secretary of state. The other members of the syndicate threatened to sue Bailey.

Then Bailey the farmer, Bailey the capitalist, became Bailey the gambler.

Part of Bailey’s sprawling farmland was a field of Johnson grass north of his house that had been settled in the 1860s by Captain Charles Turner. In the center of that field was a giant oak tree known today as “Turner’s Oak.” Bailey hired engineers to lay out that field in a gridwork of blocks. He hired laborers to clear the Johnson grass and grade the soil. Laborers cut streets between the blocks and paved the streets with gravel. A casual observer might have concluded that Bailey was developing a residential addition.

Except that the man Bailey hired to oversee all that work had an unusual resume: Rufus Orin “Odie” Phillips had been superintendent of both Oakwood Cemetery and Mount Olivet Cemetery, which had opened in 1907.

With Phillips conspicuously installed as overseer, Bailey invited one of the other members of the syndicate “out to see the cemetery I had started as a rival to the one they proposed to start. . . . My idea was to bluff the opposition off and then . . . turn my proposed cemetery into a town lot addition.”

Yes, William John Bailey was developing a shametery.

And Odie Phillips unwittingly was helping to “sell” the sham.

Soon after, with Bailey’s bluff apparently succeeding against the Gang of Six, Bailey was called out of town for a week. When he returned, he rode his horse out to see how work on his Potemkin cemetery was progressing. As Bailey was talking with Odie Phillips, Bailey saw a mound of fresh dirt nearby.

Bailey asked Phillips about the mound of dirt.

“That’s where we buried a man yesterday,” Phillips said, no doubt gratified that the new cemetery had its first resident.

“The hell you did!” Bailey said with dismay.

“Yes, sir. This is a cemetery, ain’t it? A man come along here yesterday and wanted to be buried and we just buried him.”

Bailey later recalled: “I turned my horse and rode out of the cemetery meditating. Well, it is fate. I’ll let it go. . . . I’ll not let him [Phillips] know that I was using him to bluff off the other fellows. Well, the other fellows quit, but I was in the cemetery business.”

Then came another death in the household of W. J. Bailey. In July 1908 son Thomas, age twenty, left letters to his father and twin brother Cullen and killed himself. (Despite its name, the West Side Hotel, in which W. J. Bailey had an office, was located downtown where city hall is today.)

Again, life goes on. In 1909 W. J. Bailey formally opened his bluff-gone-awry as Greenwood Cemetery. And Odie Phillips, who had been hired to “sell” Bailey’s bluff, was superintendent.

Bailey’s Greenwood Cemetery was so successful that it began to cut into the business of Mount Olivet Cemetery, which Flavious G. McPeak had founded on the old Charles Daggett homestead northeast of town.

McPeak had modeled his cemetery after Mount Olivet Cemetery in Nashville. Cemeteries at the time had a problem with ghouls. Yes, grave robbers. They dug up freshly buried bodies and sold them to the medical community for study. The Nashville Mount Olivet came up with the idea of a receiving vault, in which bodies were securely stored until they had achieved a condition that would render them unattractive to grave robbers.

After two relatively successful years in business, in 1909 McPeak borrowed $6,000 ($163,000 today) from Farmers & Mechanics National Bank and installed at his Mount Olivet a receiving vault with thirty-two crypts. The vault was built on the west side of the cemetery.

But by 1912, with his cemetery struggling financially as it competed with Greenwood, McPeak wasn’t able to repay the $6,000, and the bank foreclosed. The directors of the bank, including William Bryce, William Capps, and John P. King, paid off McPeak’s debt in 1912 and took over Mount Olivet.

Meanwhile, across town at Greenwood, W. J. Bailey, too, innovated. He provided streetcar service to his cemetery: In 1915 his Greenwood Cemetery Street Railway ran along Bailey Avenue from the Arlington Heights streetcar line along West 7th Street and Camp Bowie Boulevard. This ad boasts that Greenwood “has never had a funeral delayed” because of high water (despite a new levee system and the newly impounded Lake Worth, the Trinity River flooded in June 1915).

This detail from a 1918 map shows the Greenwood stop at the intersection of West 7th Street, Camp Bowie Boulevard, and Bailey Avenue. (The Van Zandt School shown preceded the Van Zandt Elementary School built in 1922 on University Drive. )

In 1915 Bailey had another reason to be proud: Son Cullen, a graduate of Harvard Law School, was appointed chief of police.

Even after development of the cemetery and the Bailey residential addition, Bailey’s farm remained large: 1,1774 acres, most of that in cultivation and pasture. In 1915 the Star-Telegram showcased the farm as an example of a “country estate.” The feature included a photo of the main house and a secondary house and said of the farm: “It starts at the Arlington Heights Boulevard [Camp Bowie Boulevard] and goes north for miles.”

The feature said Bailey roamed his farm on his horse Frank and even rode Frank each day to his office on Jennings Avenue downtown.

In 1917 William Bryce, who had been a member of the syndicate of seven in 1908, asked Bailey if he would sell Greenwood Cemetery to Bryce’s current group of investors, which now owned Mount Olivet Cemetery.

“No.”

Bailey then offered to buy Mount Olivet Cemetery from Bryce et al.

Sold.

Also in 1917 Bailey, who now owned two cemeteries, added a natural sideline: He built a fifty thousand-square-foot greenhouse on the south side of Greenwood Cemetery along White Settlement Road and opened Greenwood Floral Company. Cemetery business during the flu epidemic of 1918 was so good that Bailey added another fifty thousand-square-foot greenhouse. The two large greenhouses partially shielded the view of the cemetery from his front porch.

Fast-forward to 1928. Bailey the farmer again became Bailey the capitalist. He decided to develop a large part of his farm southwest of his house. But wife Susa, whom Bailey had married in 1910, did not want the new residential addition to be platted with “square blocks.” She brought in Hare & Hare, a father-and-son landscape architecture firm in Kansas City, Missouri. Hare & Hare laid out Bailey’s upscale Monticello addition with curving streets. Hare & Hare would later design the landscaping of some of Fort Worth’s city parks (Botanic Garden, Fort Worth Zoo, Bluebonnet Circle Park), Oakhurst addition, and several public schools.

In 1934 W. J. Bailey had to suffer through 1908 all over again. His son Cullen, former chief of police and twin brother of Thomas Bailey, came to W. J.’s office for a closed-door meeting with his father. Cullen then drove to Forest Park and killed himself.

Once again, life goes on. By 1940 W. J. Bailey was eighty years old. He still lived in his 1905 farmhouse on White Settlement Road, but most of his original farmland had been developed, including Crestwood west of Greenwood Cemetery beginning in 1939. Son John Tilden was, like his father, a lawyer. And son William J. Jr. lived next door and managed the Greenwood nursery.

This 1952 aerial photo shows the Bailey house (BH), Bailey Floral (BF), Turner’s Oak (TO) at the entrance to the original cemetery, and Ahavath Sholom Cemetery (AH), which was carved out of Greenwood in 1909.

In 1949 W. J. Bailey began his final project: the Bailey industrial addition just east of Greenwood Cemetery. Cullen Street in that addition could be named after his father or his son.

William John Bailey died soon after starting his new development. In 1882 he had taken the advice of a man on a train—“buy farmland outside of town”—and died a wealthy man sixty-seven years later. Along the way to wealth he lost twin sons and a wife.

The Texas Senate passed a resolution honoring Bailey.

The Bailey family plot is located near Turner’s Oak just beyond the formal entrance to Greenwood Cemetery.

The twins.

John Tilden Bailey, who had managed Greenwood and Mount Olivet cemeteries for more than fifty years after his father’s death, died in 2012.

William John Bailey is buried seven hundred feet from where his front porch once stood on farmland where he once rode a horse named “Frank” and turned a bluff into a business.

(Thanks to retired Fort Worth police sergeant and historian Kevin Foster and to Mount Olivet Cemetery Association’s For Generations to Come: A History of Greenwood and Mount Olivet Cemeteries.)

This entry was posted in Advertising, Cities of the Dead, Downtown, All Around, Heads Above the Crowd, Life in the Past Lane, West Side. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The (Burial) Plot Thickens: Bailey’s Bluff

  1. Lara Sanders says:

    And here is a pic of the whole family! Taken in the living room at the Bailey Mansion!
    https://www.facebook.com/groups/1524300231183804/permalink/1639390969674729/

    And a photo of the Bailey Mansion on White Settlement Rd before it became the Elks Lodge!
    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10201961317987799&set=a.4596480443286.172395.1630476368&type=3

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