Part 1: Early Life and Work
Born in 1914 in Parker County, Texas, Daw (“TM”) grew up with little means. His father Elmer, a blacksmith and the speculating type, took wife Leona and young TM up to the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma and as far as Wyoming. They eventually returned to the outskirts of Fort Worth where they were able to build a house on property his grandfather owned. Leona’s father, William Lewis Slate, gave each of his six children an acre or so on the bow of the West Fork Trinity River off White Settlement Road, and so Daw grew up on the southwest corner of Athenia Drive and Slate Street (back then all dirt roads, even White Settlement which is now a highway). Our Mom would later be scared visiting her father’s childhood home in the early 1940’s when they carried her to the outhouse at night. They finally added plumbing when she was 8 or 9; electricity probably didn’t come much earlier. She remembers walking down to the end of Athenia Drive to a nursery and then down to the riverfront.
Volunteer fire car in front of 424 Athenia. Elmer kept a nice garden to the right with fruits and vegetables, and worked in a garage off to the left.
Mom has fond memories of playing with this stone garden church
Mom also remembers the tall “ice box” at her grandparents’ home. A new ice block arrived every other day, and either TM or Uncle Bob (still a teenager 14 years TM’s junior), made her summer snowcones with orange juice over shaved ice. Surely that was a refreshing treat in the Texas heat. Hard to believe we still have the ice shaver!
Daw started school in “Haney, on U.S. 80 between Fort Worth and Oak Cliff.” Now-defunct Haney was on a stretch of highway known as the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike which created a direct connection between downtown Fort Worth and downtown Dallas. https://oakcliff.advocatemag.com/2015/07/roadside-views-a-look-at-the-old-bankhead-highway/
TM first earned wages there when he was 7 in Uncle Todd’s (Mamie Beatress Slate’s husband) coffee shop washing dishes. They served home-style cooking and washed each plate before serving the next diner. TM recalled kitchen adventures later with amusement. Todd left large pans of baked sweet potatoes sitting on the open oven door to keep warm. One time TM turned quickly from his sink station and knocked sweet potatoes hither and yon on the kitchen floor. It being right before the lunch run, Todd calmly picked up the pan, gathered up the potatoes and set the pan back on the oven door.
The house in Haney was about two blocks off the highway. TM was forbidden to cross the highway but was sometimes allowed to go to the grocery store on the same side of the highway as his house. One day his mother gave him a dime to buy a loaf of white bread. On the way, he ran under a piece of wire fencing which caught him across the head and sent him tumbling. He returned home bloodied, limping, and ragged. His mother panicked, thinking he’d been hit by a car, but for TM the worst part was that he’d lost the dime from his hand. His spirits brightened the next day when he returned to the low spot and found his dime.
They also lived for a brief time in Borger, a Texas Panhandle town that boasted an oil boom in the early 1920’s. News that the panhandle’s first oilwell was drilled there in 1921 caused Elmer to pile Leona, TM, and in-laws William and Mary Slate into his Willys Knight car in search of work. Daw attended fourth or fifth grades there around 1924.
Daw later told how the family was driving along the highway while he was standing up in the back seat of the convertible, when suddenly he saw something bright on the side of the road and started hollering for them to stop. “I saw a little devil!” he hollered until Elmer turned the car around, at which point TM jumped out and grabbed it. It was an iron figure of a devil in a contemporary dress, painted bright red and crouched forward with coat tails blowing back behind him. It became TM’s favorite toy.
Eventually the family made it all the way to Wyoming; here he is in the snow, and with a friend .
Later, when living at the home on Athenia, TM attended Castleberry School in Fort Worth, a school with two rooms. The larger room could be divided by a screen that pulled across.
At Castleberry, three teachers taught grades 1 through 12, but as the number of students increased, the upper grades were dropped, and so in the seventh or eighth grade TM transferred. He chose to attend Vocational, a boys’ technical school in downtown Fort Worth, which moved to a new location on Samuel the next year.
When TM began attending Vocational School, his family leased their Fort Worth home and lived for three of four years on farm near Azle, at a place called Indian Springs. It was a dairy and chicken farm owned by a prominent lawyer (Mr. Alexander of Alexander and Bird law firm, who lived on the bluff in Arlington Heights). TM’s job was to milk the 7 Jersey dairy cows before sunrise. The opening to the milk shed faced east, allowing the rising sun’s warmth on TM’s back as he sat milking in cold weather. The milk was put through a hand-cranked separator, the cream placed into large bottles which were then stored in a contraption Elmer made to function as a cooler, with water constantly circulating around the bottles of cream. On Fridays the family churned the cream intro butter, then hand-formed it into half-pound molded shapes, each hand-wrapped in wax paper.
After his morning work, TM hitched a ride into town and caught a bus to vocational high school. On Saturdays, he chopped ice from blocks which he used to deliver the week’s butter and eggs to restaurants. He kept track of invoices and Mr. Alexander paid TM’s family their uncollected share.
TM also worked for Elmer’s gravel and sand business, through an arrangement made with a black man named Arthur Vining, who owned several acres of river-bottom land with a good source of gravel. Elmer had two mules which he would use to pull a large, wide plank he had made himself. It was pulled across the field, deep below ground to loosen and remove the soil and expose the gravel. The soil was placed in a pile and the gravel was then dug up. Two men sorted and sifted the gravel into grades by size. Elmer took orders from building contractors around Fort Worth – for soil, fine sand for plaster or coarse sand for mortar, gravel for paving, some large material for land fill.
TM drove the delivery truck to construction sites. On some jobs he just dumped the load, but sometimes he had to spread it out as well. If it needed to be packed down, he would drive the truck back and forth over it. The truck carried two and a half yards of material, which was the legal load limit they could carry on the roads. Patrolmen would stop loaded trucks, lay portable scales out on the road, and have the drivers pull the truck onto them, to check the weight. There was a fine for being overloaded, but Elmer was never fined.
TM was in Vocational’s work-study program, so he attended classes half a day and worked at United Motors the other half. When he was 15, he got his first vocational degree in auto mechanics, after which he worked for 2 years at a Fort Worth car repair shop. In 1931 when he was 16, Elmer gave him his first car, a 1925 Model T purchased a year earlier.
This was a card he could carry to show his training.
TM returned to trade school in 1932 for a more “advanced” shop degree. That fall he met “Billie” (Willie Jeannette Polk), and on March 1, 1934, they eloped to Oklahoma because she was too young at 15 to wed in Texas. Decades later, Mema chuckled from her leather recliner, “We were young and duuumb, Val.” They were married for 64 years. This picture was taken at the Fort Worth Fat Stock Show and Rodeo two or three weeks after they married.
Billie said Daw really just wanted to play football. He was a starting Right Tackle. In his later years we saw him limp from his bad knee, although it didn’t keep him from being an excellent golfer. He could block a punt in his day!
During the Great Depression, TM bought tools on payment plans and used pawn shop loans to make ends meet. (He kept the receipts.) He worked in FDR’s WPA program when they married, earning $14.00 per week. The young couple rented an apartment in Fort Worth. He also worked part time nights at Montgomery Ward’s big catalog operation in Fort Worth. (We have that card too, ha.) It was a large warehouse with rows of bins of catalog merchandise. Girls went up and down the rows on roller skates, picking up ordered items. TM was a stocker whose job was to keep the bins full. The girls notified him when a bin was empty, and he would retrieve merchandise from storage and refill the bin, perhaps with ladies’ slips or corsets of a certain style and size. He enjoyed this job for some months and was disappointed when he was let go after Christmas. The Christmas orders were finished, business declined, and the most recently hired people were let go.
However, the day after New Year’s Day, a friend came by and told him they needed a mechanic at Binyon-O’Keefe, the trucking firm where the friend was working. TM was hired immediately to maintain the big truck’s engines at night so they could be used during the day. Billie, left alone most evenings, would sometimes take a bus down to see a movie, then telephone him at work afterward. He would leave work and go pick her up; sometimes he’d have to go back to finish a job, so she would wait and they would have breakfast together.
Photo in 1935 of TM and Billie dressed up
TM was an excellent auto mechanic — so good and honest that people came from all over Fort Worth with their vehicles. TM told about one Fort Worth man who became irate when TM said his car didn’t need a major repair. The man became so obnoxious that TM went ahead and did the job, the only time in his life he ever charged for unnecessary work. That was his last job repairing auto engines, but he continued to work on his own cars until the era of electronic and computerized vehicles.
At age 22 (in 1936), TM became a professional welder, which remained his trade for 25 years. He specialized in “arc and gas” welding which, utilizing both electricity and acetylene, was highly pressurized and dangerous. He became an expert at repairing oil storage tanks and silos, sometimes doing the welding at lofty heights. In 1937 he worked for American Manufacturing Company in Fort Worth, which manufactured oilfield drilling equipment.
TM and Billie had their first child, Linda in 1938, in Fort Worth.
See the following chapters for TM’s wartime work and eventual business ownership that culminated in helping build the first Whataburger restaurants.