The town had one policeman and a subscription fire department. The garbage was picked up intermittently, if at all, and the smell of raw sewage was always wafting by. Students drove the municipal bus when they weren’t in class, and mail delivery was almost as irregular.

Sound like a village in the most rural part of Mexico? Or a town in Spain that’s part of a Hemingway novel? Not exactly. The town was Preston Hollow, and it was an experiment in do-it-yourself government that ended in 1945 when its residents voted to join Dallas.

Yet in the town’s brief history, it managed to get caught in one of the most contentious squabbles in Dallas history – the post-war drive to fulfill what many saw as Dallas’ manifest destiny to expand straight up I-35, through downtown and up Preston Road all the way to Denton County.

The main obstacle was the Park Cities, but few in power – legendary leaders such as Woodall Rodgers and John Stemmons – were going to turn down a chance to get an area as desirable as Preston Hollow, then as now the site of expensive homes and prime real estate.

“It was all part of that Dallas mind set after the war,” says historian Darwin Payne, author of Big D: Triumphs and Troubles of American Supercity in the 20th Century.

“The goal was civic improvement, and no one saw how it was possible without those key pieces like the Park Cities and Preston Hollow.”

A developer’s paradise

Preston Hollow didn’t start out as a key piece. It started, like so many other things in Dallas, as a money-making venture. Developers had first taken not of the property as early as the Civil War, when much of the land was owned by the Wright family and an early Dallas real estate entrepreneur, A.G. Joyce, was selling lots there at the end of World War I.

At the time, there wasn’t much in Preston Hollow – no telephones and almost no city services such as sewage and paved roads. Preston Hollow was little more than cotton fields and a couple of dairies (including the Caruth family’s), located on the southeast and southwest corners of Preston Road and Northwest Highway. It was so remote that early residents, according to an informal history of the area in the Dallas Public Library’s Dallas collection, may have hunted buffalo here.

Development in Preston Hollow took off just before the Depression, when Ira DeLoache bought much of the land and started subdividing it. Preston Hollow quickly outgrew its water supply – a single artesian well – and the 200 or so homeowners living here in 1930 agreed to form a water district.

Commuters who worked in Dallas took the train to the city, which ran on the Cotton Belt tracks (where the Dallas North Tollway is today) and stopped at the Meaders Lane station just west of Preston Road. Residents shopped at Lobella’s gas station and general store at the intersection of Preston Road and Northwest Highway, and DeLoache’s office was catty-corner on the other side of Northwest Highway. (The office would later become the city hall.)

“It was great,” says Jimmy DeLoache, Ira’s son, who grew up in a house on the corner of Northwest Highway and Preston Road.

“All my friends wanted to come over from East Dallas and play. We could hunt, fish, ride horses, play in a hay loft, all that stuff. When my mother wanted quail’s eggs for breakfast, she’d say: Jimmy, go get me some quail eggs, and I’d go out to the yard and gather them. I had a 56-acre backyard.”

By the end of the decade, more than 1,500 people lived in Preston Hollow, and DeLoache faced a dilemma. The new residents needed services, which he couldn’t give them as a property developer. In addition, many of Preston Hollow’s homeowners had moved here to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, as well as what they considered Dallas’ burdensome taxes.

The solution?

Incorporate as an independent community, but one with a difference – no taxes, a mayor and city council that served without pay, and a zoning board to make sure the area retained its old-fashioned suburban charm. Or, as one piece of pro-city campaign literature put it, to protect Preston Hollow from “uncontrolled encroachments by gas stations, dance halls, night spots, chicken gardens, hamburger stands…and pressing establishments.”

Or, as it’s known today, urban sprawl – making Preston Hollow’s residents neighborhood activists 60 years before their time.

Setting the boundaries

When Preston Hollow incorporated in 1939, the area consisted of a little more than two square miles – from Northwest Highway on the south to Park Lane (with a small jog up Preston Road to Walnut Hill Lane) on the north, and from Inwood Road on the west to just past Preston Road on the east. But the idea of Preston Hollow included a much larger area, including the community of Sunnybrook on the west and Roxbury Park to the north.

The fledgling city faced trouble almost from the start.

Its first mayor, Joe Lawther, resigned shortly after taking office because he realized it was impossible to run the government without taxes. The zoning board, for example, could zone the town and the council could pass ordinances, but there was no money to enforce their decisions, let alone pay for fire and police protection.

The council, for instance, approved a fire department with a truck and two full-time firemen, but never voted any money to cover the costs.

The city’s income came almost entirely from fees – mostly for septic tank permits – and traffic fines, which barely covered the few salaries it had to pay. The informal history in the library’s collection recounts all sorts of municipal wonders:

  • The town’s single police officer spent most of his time directing traffic at the intersection of Preston and Northwest, where he wrote enough tickets to pay for his salary.
  • The volunteers who drew up the city charter somehow managed to overlook a 30-foot strip of land within the city and didn’t include it in the annexation vote. That meant that when Preston Hollow voted itself dry in 1940, that part of town wasn’t dry, and an enterprising liquor store owner quickly set up shop. By one account, his store was the only place to buy liquor legally between Dallas and the Missouri state line.
  • The students who drove the city’s lone bus would often deviate from their route to pick up friends or to load a rider who promised cash if the bus would swing by their house.
  • Septic tank lines on the east side of town gave off horrible odors during heavy rains, and the city couldn’t do anything about the smell because there was no money to pay for sewage treatment.
  • The U.S. Post Office never figured out what to do with the town. Its mail was sorted in Addison and delivered to Park Lane, where the hundreds of residences had their mail boxes all in a row. If a resident had a package, they had to meet the carrier at Park Lane’s mail row and pick it up.

Looking for alternatives

And residents, who had voted to incorporate so they wouldn’t have to pay taxes, didn’t even want to chip in to help out.

Mart Reeves, who replaced Lawther as mayor, pushed for a subscription system, in which homeowners paid $25 a year to cover expenses. But even that failed, falling from a participation rate of one out of two residences in 1941 to one out of four in 1942. At the end of 1942, the council gave up and agreed to levy property taxes for police and fire protection.

This left Preston Hollow vulnerable when Dallas came calling in 1945, and Dallas made it easy for Preston Hollow to say yes. The annexation plan – or contract with the suburb, as Dallas leaders called it – guaranteed Preston Hollow, as well as the Park Cities, the right to retain local control over liquor sales, promised improvements in water and sewerage services, and mandated better roads to keep up with population growth.

In addition, almost everyone in Preston Hollow worked in Dallas and had ties to the community. Lawther had been mayor in Dallas, and Alex Weisberg, the first chairman of the Preston Hollow zoning board, had also chaired the Dallas board.

Dallas leaders were so eager to ensure Preston Hollow voters they had their best interests at heart that Rodgers’ allies in the Texas legislature were pushing through a bill that would have set up neighborhood zoning councils and permitted a large degree of local autonomy in zoning decisions. This was a mind-boggling concession, given the times (and it’s something many Dallas neighborhoods would dearly love to have today).

That was the carrot. The stick was an aggressive and expensive pro-annexation campaign, which featured colorful brochures (very rare at the time) quoting every advantage of the “merger,” a radio and newspaper blitz that included help from what Payne describes as “a very cooperative Morning News,” and plenty of threats about what would happen if Preston Hollow voted no.

Typical were comments in several full-page newspaper ads questioning the civic pride of those who opposed annexation, and warning of much higher taxes that would be necessary to pay for separate water and sewerage systems if annexation failed. Dallas already had hinted it could no longer afford to aid what passed for the fire department in Preston Hollow.

In fact, warned the chairman of the pro-annexation campaign, Dallas could not continue to exist as a divided city.

Turning over the books

The threats weren’t necessary. Preston Hollow approved annexation 300-70, and the city hall turned into a real estate office again.

The vehement opposition in the Park Cities, both of which rejected annexation in the same election, never developed in Preston Hollow.

Residents apparently were so tired of the stench from septic tanks and the lousy garbage service that annexation made sense in a way it didn’t in the Park Cities.

It’s no coincidence that Woodall Rodgers and a dozen other city officials hopped aboard a Dallas fire truck the day after Preston Hollow voted yes and toured the area in it, reminding Dallas’ newest residents what they were going to receive.

“When we moved out there, we didn’t have any of those problems because it was still the country,” Jimmy DeLoache says.

“But as soon as the population picked up, in the mid-’30s, we started to have problems. People wanted to get the mail picked up, and have a police department instead of a guy we hired to drive around, and garbage service.”

In the end, it seemed, independence was nice, but a fire department funded with enough money to put out fires probably was more practical.

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