By Ashley Kath-Bilsky
Quality Hill was the exclusive neighborhood in Fort Worth where, beginning in the late 1890s, beautiful Victorian mansions were built and owned by wealthy cattle barons, bankers, physicians, publishers, and businessmen. The mansions were situated along the top of a hill overlooking the Trinity River. The very first cattleman to build a home on Quality Hill was a certain Scotsman named R.D. (Robert Dickie) Hunter. Incidentally, Hunter also inspired a character in my Fort Worth based Western Time Travel, “WHISPER IN THE WIND” which will be released this spring. But I digress…
Hunter came to America in 1843. After first settling in Missouri, he took up mining during the Gold Rush of 1859. Hunter was nothing if not insightful, and it wasn’t long after the Civil War ended that he recognized big money could be made driving Texas cattle north to where railroads could transport them back east. He traveled through Fort Worth often on the Chisholm Trail and soon became a leader in the cattle industry. In fact, in 1884, at the first National Convention of Cattlemen in St. Louis, he was elected President of the National Cattle and Horse Growers Association. By 1888, however, Hunter could see the imminent end of cattle drives. He turned his attention back to mining and—with some assistance from the Texas and Pacific Railroad and other financial backers—acquired a coal mine. On 22 September 1888, he (and his backers) incorporated the Texas and Pacific Coal Company. The name was later changed to TP Coal, so as not to confuse them with the railroad. However, they still supplied fuel for the T&P Railroad. In little time at all, the company built a town for its mine employees called Thurber approximately 60 miles west of Fort Worth. At one time, up to 10,000 mine workers lived in Thurber.
Hunter also owned Green and Hunter Brick Company, a very successful brick company and little wonder since they used coal from Thurber to fire the brick kilns. The bricks were not only used to pave streets in Fort Worth and other Texas cities, but the great seawall in Galveston.
Needless to say, Hunter wanted to build a beautiful home befitting a prominent and respected citizen of Fort Worth. In 1897, he did so…at Summit and El Paso, on Quality Hill.
Among the cattlemen who first followed Hunter’s lead was George Reynolds. True, Reynolds made his fortune driving cattle north but he also founded the First National Banks in Albany, Texas and Oklahoma City. In what would often be referred to as “Cattle Barons Row” other millionaires followed: John B. (Bunyan) Slaughter, W.T. (William Thomas) Scott, and Byron C. Rhome, who built his home at 1024 Penn Street in 1902.
Even after first generation cattle barons began to die off, other wealthy cattlemen either built a new mansion or purchased one from cattle baron widows. For example, when W.T. Scott, Sr., died in 1901, a cattle baron named Christopher O’Keefe bought his home. And in 1904, the widow of Dan Waggoner purchased the home of Mrs. Hunter. Also in 1904, W.T. Waggoner (stepson to Mrs. Dan Waggoner), moved his daughter Electra and her new husband, A.B. Wharton, into Thistle Hill as a “wedding present”. W.T. Waggoner would later acquire John B. Slaughter’s mansion nearby.
Although most of these historic Victorian homes from “Quality Hill” are long gone, their beautiful architecture, craftsmanship and historical provenance sacrificed in the name of progress, there are a precious few that have survived thanks to the intervention of historical societies. And it is three, in particular, that I will talk about.
Located at 1509 Pennsylvania Avenue, smack dab in what is now the very congested hospital district of Fort Worth, Thistle Hill originally had a Colonial façade. However, in 1911, Electra Waggoner Wharton sold the home to another cattle baron named Winfield Scott (no relation to W.T. Scott), and he changed the home’s façade to a Georgian Revival design. Sadly, Winfield Scott died before he could live in the house. However, his wife and son resided there for many years. The ladies parlor just left of the Entry Hall remains a testament to Mrs. Winfield Scott’s desire to replicate a Parisian-style salon.
As it is with most historic sites, the Victorian era homes of Fort Worth's elite have some interesting trivia to them. For instance, each stately column at Thistle Hill is a solid piece of stone that was quarried in Indiana and shipped by rail to Fort Worth.
One of the most impressive features of the home is its Entry Hall crafted of quartersawn white oak and its Grand Double Staircase. As if the hall and stairs aren't breathtaking enough, look to the pair of stained glass windows framing a Palladian arch and plaster cove that has been beautifully stenciled. And it is here at the window where the first secret of the house begins. The stained glass window on the right is a true window and opens to allow cross-ventilation in a home built with all the modern conveniences of its time. Unfortunately, that did not include air-conditioning.
Another interesting feature about the staircase is found at the base where the banister’s railing and newel posts wind into a circular design. On the left side of the staircase, (not visible in the photo) in the very center of this overlapping, winding design, the last newel post was installed in the center of the circle but upside down. The reason for this is attributed to a old carpentry superstition that by placing the very last piece of the staircase in such a manner, “no harm would come to anyone on the stairs”. There may be something to it since, according to what I've been told, there has never been a record of someone being harmed or killed on these stairs.
Beautiful craftsmanship abounds at Thistle Hill, especially regarding its use of various woods. A lovely guestroom is done entirely in Birdseye Maple with its delicate swirling design to the grain that somewhat resembles a beautiful burl without the knots one finds in burl wood. Even the furniture in this room is made from Birdseye Maple.
The outbuildings on the property include a stable/carriage house, a teahouse, terrace, and the ruins of a water tower erected when the house was first built. Although water lines existed in 1899, it would take several more years before Fort Worth extended them as far as the Quality Hill area.
This Victorian residence was built in 1899 for the widow of George Ball, a Galveston Banker. Sarah C. Ball lived in this home until her death in 1904, at which time William H. Eddleman (a cattleman and resident of Weatherford) acquired the home. At that time, the purchase price was $25,000 (approximately $13,000 less than what it cost to build the house). He and his wife had one daughter, Carrie. And when the time came that Carrie fell in love with cattleman Frank H. McFarland and they wanted to marry, her father gave his blessing provided they not live far away. In 1921, Eddleman gave the house to Carrie. The couple resided happily with Carrie’s parents at the residence. After the death of her parents and later her husband in 1948, Carrie continued to live at the house until her death in 1978 – a total of 75 years.
An unusual looking special brass foot regulator can be seen just above the baseboard in the hall. By moving a lever slightly with your foot, one could increase or lower heat via chains connected to the coal burning furnace in the basement. A pulley system once used to lower a chandelier for lighting (or cleaning) can still be seen although you have to look for it is discreetly hidden above the framing of a window.
The formal dining room is elegant yet warm with its two built-in beautifully carved china cabinets, door pediments, and crown moulding that must capture and reflect light in its highly polished sheen. The Chinese patterned silk wallpaper was personally selected by Carrie Eddleman McFarland.
The six wall sconces were refitted long ago from gas to electricity, and although this chandelier is not the original Waterford one that Carrie owned, it isn't too difficult to imagine the room filled with warm light -- whether it was candlelight, gaslight, or electrical lighting.
The room seems to be almost breathlessly waiting for the return of its mistress. Personally speaking, the Ball-Eddleman-McFarland Historic House may have been the residence of cattle barons, but it resonates with the timeless memories of a happy, well-loved home.
Today, the Ball-Eddelman-McFarland House provides headquarters for Historic Fort Worth, which maintains both Thistle Hill and Ball-Eddleman-McFarland. All three of the Quality Hill homes featured in this post are recorded Texas Landmarks, and are also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. However, although Thistle Hill and the Ball-Eddleman-McFarland homes are open to the public for tours, and also for private rental for special events, this last Quality Hill is not.
The Pollack-Capps House
Located right next door to the Ball-Eddleman-McFarland House, the Pollack-Capps House was built in 1898 by Dr. Joseph R. Pollock. Dr. Pollock lived at this handsome mansion with his wife, Phoebe, until 1909. In 1909, the mansion was sold to William Capps and his wife, Sallie. Try to imagine if you will what it must have been like to see one spectacular cattle baron mansion after another, each one shining like a crown jewel at the top of the bluff above the Trinity River. And it wasn't just the houses themselves that bespoke success and privilege. The Pollack-Capps mansion also had its own golf course, tennis court, and a 3-car garage with a ballroom above.
The Capps family resided at this address until 1971. Today, the house is owned by a Fort Worth law firm.
As the 19th century came to a close and a new century dawned, the cattle barons and other families who resided in the Quality Hill section of Fort Worth were not just successful or wealthy, they were also founding members of the city who, together with their wives and children, became instrumental in its growth and advancements. And although most all the homes they built have long been demolished and forgotten, replaced by glass and steel office buildings or asphalt parking lots, it is good to know that Fort Worth recognized the historical significance of their contributions and has managed to preserve the mansions featured in this post. I commend those who volunteer and work tirelessly on behalf of historical preservation. There is still alot we can learn from the past. And homes like these do not just open the door to give us a glimpse into another era, they bear witness to time itself.
Thank you for taking the time to read my post. I truly appreciate it. ~ AKB
Historic Fort Worth
Texas State Historical Assn.
Fort Worth and Tarrant County: An Historical Guide by: Carol E. Roark (Tarrant Co. Historical Society - TCU Press 2003)
Photographs by Ashley Kath-Bilsky