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ARLINGTON

The Story of Arlington &Tom Vandergriff


by Clint Skinner
Arlington laid south of the Eastern Cross Timbers, an oak forest covering a small area of sloping hills. A vast prairie land called Eagle Ford stretched across on Arlington's other side and faded into the horizon. In this region, the Caddo Indians lived as the dominant tribe for hundreds of years. They concentrated most of their population along a waterway called Village Creek, named for the large number of settlements there. Europeans first entered the region in 1535 when Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca led his ill-fated expedition through Texas. The French followed suit in 1687 with La Salle heading the way. Eventually, settlers moved into the area and claimed the land as their own. This created strong friction with the Caddo Indians, and it continued to grow as Americans expanded westward.

The tension exploded on May 24, 1841 at the Battle of Village Creek. Led by General Edward H. Tarrant, the Texans obliterated the Caddo from the region and established a Texas Ranger post at Marrow Bone Spring. The post was named Johnson Station. Authorized by President Sam Houston, it provided protection against future Indian attacks.

Farmers started moving into the area and businesses soon followed. In 1875, a town was formed. The task of naming it fell upon Reverend A. S. Hayter, a large landowner in the region. He named the place after Robert E. Lee's Virginian home, Arlington. In 1876, Arlington transformed into an agricultural center when the Texas & Pacific Railroad arrived at Johnson Station, allowing settlers to quickly transport their produce.

By 1889, Arlington had grown considerably, possessing a trading post and twenty stores. It became a college town in 1895 with the erection of Arlington College. The population had reached two thousand by 1902. In addition to the fifty-two trains arriving and departing daily, the city had nineteen stores, four saloons, eight doctor offices, three barber shops, two lumber yards, and a national bank. Its citizens soon enjoyed the pleasures of water, electric, and gas utilities. During the 1930s, the city's population rose to four thousand. Arlington, however, remained heavily dependent upon agriculture. It wouldn't be until after World War II that the city would start industrializing. To meet this challenge, Tommy Vandergriff led Arlington in its rapid transformation from a sleepy, rural town into a busy, urban city.
Tom Vandergriff
Tom Vandergriff
Wikipedia
Tommy Joe Vandergriff was born on January 29, 1926 in Carrollton, Texas, the son of W. T. "Hooker" Vandergriff. Hooker and his father founded a Chevrolet dealership later that year. However, Hooker wanted his own car business and moved to Arlington. He would later take over the Carrollton and Irving companies from his father and add a furniture store, investment company, and Buick dealership, all under the name of Vandergriff Enterprises.

While Hooker ran his dealership, Tommy attended Arlington High School, where he developed a strong desire to be an announcer after his early-deepened voice allowed him to commentate baseball games. Tommy graduated from high school in 1943 and enrolled at Northwestern University, wanting to major in Public Speaking. He quickly transferred to Southern Methodist University before arriving at the University of Southern California. While attending college, he acquired his first job at KFJZ in Fort Worth. He also did radio work in Los Angeles and Hollywood. Apart from audio broadcasting, Vandergriff used his talents for announcing baseball games of the Los Angeles Angels. Vandergriff graduated from the University of Southern California in 1947. However, his insecurity of becoming successful in radio caused him to abandon his ambitions and start working for his father's Chevrolet dealership.

In 1949, Tommy Vandergriff fell in love with Anna Waynette Smith, a music professor at the North Texas Agricultural College. The two married a year later at the First Methodist Church of Arlington in March. A few months later, Vandergriff moved into the political spotlight when he became President of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce at the young age of twenty-five. He reluctantly entered the race for mayor in 1951 after more than a hundred people signed a petition. He ran an inactive campaign against the powerful, experienced incumbent B. C. Barnes. Yet, he defeated Barnes 613 to 329 in the largest voter turnout in the city's history at that point. On March 22, 1951, Tommy Vandergriff became Arlington's youngest and most popular mayor.

When he took the office, Vandergriff faced the daunting task of keeping the city in step with its industrialization and growth. It had always been an agricultural center, relying on its production of grain, vegetables, and cattle. However, Arlington's dependence waned as big corporations arrived on the scene with their factories, warehouses, and manufacturing plants. In 1951 alone, businesses acquired 1,293 building permits worth a total of 3,618,533 dollars. This sharp industrial increase helped create a large housing boom in 1952. With the help of residential projects instigated by companies through-out the country, three shopping centers and over two thousand houses were built. City officials quickly used this boom in predicting a population of thirty-five thousand by 1960. As the population grew, water usage increased, adding more difficulty to an already complicated problem.

To address these issues, Vandergriff passed legislation in 1952 which provided eighty thousand dollars for upgrading and expanding the water and sewage systems, increasing the number of police and fire departments, fixing old roads and developing new ones, and improving street conditions. He in-creased the amount to 382,000 dollars the following year. He also worked hard finding new wells for the ever increasing water demand, and he collaborated with neighborhood cities and towns to create special plans and projects. Additionally, he developed a new filtering system for the city.

Tommy Vandergriff faced strong criticism and opposition for his efforts. His critics proclaimed his programs were too liberal and progressive. They also believed his budget cost too much money and wasted tax payer dollars. Tension rose between the two sides until it exploded in 1953. That year, Vandergriff's main opponents Jim Cannon and V. T. Irons figured they had enough of him and entered the mayoral race. In the end, the two men were slaughtered. Cannon received 348 votes while Irons scraped nine votes, even though he had officially withdrawn a few weeks before. The young mayor continued his reign.

Starting almost immediately after taking office, Vandergriff engaged in an annexation war with Grand Prairie throughout his early tenure. It started when the Arlington City Commission passed an ordinance to annex six square miles located within three thousand feet of Grand Prairie's western border and the Dallas-Tarrant County Line. The land ran along the southern side of Highway 80 from the county line to Watson Road and extended south to Finger-Holland Road. It contained the infamous horse track Arlington Downs and the 3D Stock Farm owned by E. Paul Waggoner. More importantly, General Motors was considering whether or not to purchase the land for a new manufacturing plant.

On June 1, 1951, the city commission announced the annexation, justifying the measure as a weapon against zoning. This infuriated Grand Prairie mayor E. Carlyle Smith because he wasn't consulted over the matter. Not long afterwards, he and the Grand Prairie Commission passed their own ordinance claiming ownership to the land. They went a step further and hired attorney Jesse Martin as legal backup in case the matter reached the courtroom. Eventually, after many long meetings with the Arlington mayor, Smith conceded defeat. With the annexation problem solved for the time being, General Motors bought 255 acres of the newly acquired land and announced its plans to build a manufacturing plant.

Believing it would make the city the industrial center of North Texas, Vandergriff tried to persuade General Motors to open a factory ever since he entered office. After several months of hard work, he convinced the corporate owners to take a look at the city. The executives considered the various facts and figures of the region then made their decision. They bought the 255 acres of annexed land from Ed Baker, Cleburne Walker, Curtis Mathes, Dixon Holman, and Jarrel T. Jackson for the price of 1,500 dollars an acre. The property resembled a rectangular shape, located near the Texas & Pacific Railroad and sandwiched between Highway 80 to the north and Jefferson Avenue to the south. The highway also served as the western border while Watson School Road became the eastern boundary.

From the start, General Motors intended to make a dual-purpose manufacturing plant. The building would be designed to produce Buicks, Pontiacs, and Oldsmobiles. It would also make tanks for the Army and Grumman planes for the Navy. The company announced its plans in April 1952, pro-claiming it needed between six to ten thousand workers to fully operate the factory. Construction of the facility began that same month and ended in October. The first car was completed in January. However, the plant didn't officially open until June 3, 1954. With its grand opening, Vandergriff finally achieved his goal. Yet, there were other matters to address.

Once again, Arlington and Grand Prairie clashed over the issue of annexation. Vandergriff wanted the entire Waggoner 3D Ranch inside Arlington's city limits, not just a percentage of it. After he revealed this desire, the city commission passed an ordinance for the annexation. Grand Prairie's mayor objected to the action because consistent reports emerged, claiming that a company called the Great Southwest Corporation had bought the ranch to create an industrial district. In the end, Grand Prairie lost the battle.

Tommy Vandergriff felt confident Arlington would soon reach its status as the industrial force of North Texas. Yet, he refused to sit on his laurels and started on a new task - making the city an entertainment and sports center. He first tried to bring professional baseball to Arlington, complete with team and stadium. His first initial efforts failed miserably; and he would continue to fail until 1971 when the Washington Senators moved to the area and became the Texas Rangers.
Arlington TX Ballpark
Ballpark
Photo by Rich Anderson
Meanwhile, Vandergriff made plans for an expansive park. He abandoned the idea after he and his family returned from a trip to Disneyland. Remembering the park's success and its impact on Anaheim, he contacted Walt Disney and attempted to persuade him to build another park. Walt turned down the offer, saying he had too many other projects in development. He actually had no intention of building another Disneyland, believing it would destroy the magic and uniqueness of the original. And so, Vandergriff waited for the right moment to make a second attempt to acquire a Disneyland for the city. That moment never came because of the actions of Angus Wynne, Jr.

The owner of the Great Southwest Corporation, Wynne had been responsible for developing a large neighborhood in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas in response to the sudden influx of military personnel returning from World War II. He named the community Wynnewood, which became the largest housing development project in the nation at the time. Entering civil service, he then helped in the preservation of Love Field Airport and the prevention of an attempted monopoly by American Airlines. He eventually stopped working for the local government of Dallas and focused all his energy on constructing the biggest industrial district in the United States when the project came to a close.

Unfortunately, the rivalry between Dallas and Fort Worth discouraged companies from leasing the land, forming a financial crisis for the GSC. Wynne and his staff decided that the best course of action was to find another source of income quickly. The men agreed to use the company's assets to build an outdoor sporting goods center with shooting ranges, fishing and boating ponds, a golf course, a bowling alley, and a small amusement park. These plans came to a screeching halt after Angus Wynne, Jr. visited Disneyland and decided that he wanted one like it in Texas, but with a completely different theme. He chose Texas history and heritage, which would be conveyed to the public through the popular teaching method of using the six flags which flew over Texas to tell the story of the Lone Star State. The end result was the first regional theme park in the world.
Arlington Texas - Six Flag of Texas
Six Flag of Texas
Photo by Clintus McGintus, Creative Commons
Six Flags Over Texas opened with great fanfare on August 5, 1961. Convinced that the park would be a phenomenal success, Arlington began to involve itself with the tourist industry. The city erected signs and billboards, produced bumper stickers and an assortment of advertising literature, established tourist hotlines, provided hospitality seminars for locals, and contacted state and national businesses and organizations to arrange for conventions. These efforts and the success of Six Flags forever placed Arlington on the map.

Vandergriff continued his quest to increase Arlington's stature by introducing legislation in April 1970 that would provide ten million dollars in bond money for two projects. The first three million would be used to purchase Turnpike Stadium from Tarrant County and renovate it in hopes of convincing Major League Baseball official to allow the city to have a professional team. The remainder of the money would go toward the construction of the first marine theme park in Texas. Originally, Vandergriff planned to build an oceanarium, but he changed his mind upon examining the success of Sea World in San Diego. The Great Southwest Corporation would enter a contract to build the park then proceed to operate the attraction. In exchange for handling the day-to-day management, the GSC would provide a certain percentage of admission profits so the city could pay off the bonds.

Unfortunately, with only thirty percent of construction completed by December, the GSC was forced to abandon the project because its parent company Penn Central faced financial ruin as a result of corruption and bad decision making. This meant that the city would have to complete the construction and handle park's daily operations. After lots of political fighting and negotiating, the city council member agreed to form a non-profit company to run Seven Seas so the government would not have to worry about the minute details of park management. Called the Arlington Park Corporation, it would also be in charge of the stadium and its potential baseball team.

On September 21, 1971, that baseball team became a reality when the owners of the American League of the MLB voted 10 to 2 in favor of transferring the Washington Senators to Arlington. The decision caused an uproar among the fans living in the nation's capital, but the team's leadership ignored the controversy and soon had the players in Texas to get ready during the off-season. It was during this time that the Washington Senators had their name changed to the Texas Rangers and Turnpike Stadium became Arlington Stadium.

After several delays, the thirty-five-acre Seven Seas* finally opened to the public on March 18, 1972. The bodies of water and their surrounding areas that the sections represented were the Mediterranean Sea, Caribbean Sea, Indian Ocean, Arctic Ocean, Sea of Cortez, Sea of Japan, and South Sea. Overall, there were a total of twenty-six attractions including a waterfall, seafood restaurant, lagoon, pirate ship, dolphin show, high diving show, pearl diving demonstration, and donut-shaped aquarium. It had performing seals, a killer whale, a variety of sharks, synchronized swimmers, plenty of fish, and live entertainers.

With all that Seven Seas had to offer, many felt it was destined for success. Unfortunately, the Arlington Park Corporation had suffered a loss of 576,000 dollars from the Texas Ranger Radio and Television Network, which obliterated the profit of 80,000 that Seven Seas enjoyed. Several members of the city council had no intention of allowing the company to repeat the same mistake twice. They passed legislation to place the park's management into the government's hands. To accomplish this, the council bought the corporation for 8.45 million dollars and assumed its enormous debt of 23 million dollars. The city council would be in complete control of Arlington Stadium and the nearby marine park, allowing the city to obtain all the revenue from the ventures.

Near the end of 1973, officials revealed the bad news that Seven Seas had suffered a loss of 550,000 dollars in comparison to the previous year's profit. To make matters worse, the government had a bond debt to pay. Leaders looked at the situation and came to the conclusion that a private corporation was needed to operate marine park and turn things around. Vandergriff went to work and secured a contract with Six Flags, Incorporated. According to the four-year agreement, Six Flags would make a rental payment amounting to sixty-five percent of the net profits in exchange for managing Seven Seas. It would then have the option of extending the contract for an additional three years.

As a result of the contract, many of the people who had applied for jobs at Six Flags Over Texas ended up working at Seven Seas instead. Likewise, managers were transferred to replace those who had been fired from the marine park. Jim Ashworth found himself appointed to the top position and given the task of making Seven Seas better. To this end, he had the entire park repainted and added new attractions. They included an elephant seal, three dolphins, several penguins, some monkeys, and a costumed mascot named Captain Jonah Wayne. The most significant new feature was the Seabottom Symphony, the world's first underwater puppet show. Throughout the season, musical artists like Donna Fargo, The Statler Brothers, Roger Williams, and Tammy Wynette.
Arlington TX - Seven Seas
Seven Seas
Photo courtesy Michael Hicks
Arlington TX - Seven Seas
Seven Seas
Photo courtesy Michael Hicks
Arlington TX - Seven Seas
Seven Seas
Photo courtesy Michael Hicks
Arlington TX - Seven Seas
Seven Seas
Photo courtesy Michael Hicks
Arlington TX - Seven Seas
Seven Seas
Photo courtesy Michael Hicks

The 1974 season proved to be a financially successful one, but not enough for the city to take care of the annual payment for the bond debt. On the first of October, the city council voted unanimously to close the gates of Seven Seas forever. The land would be leased to Six Flags for expansion purposes and all the marine wildlife would be auctioned off to the highest bidder. This proved to be a disaster. The theme park management team wanted no part of the Seven Seas property and refused to talk about the matter. The second part of the plan went sour when all the bidders acted on the assumption that the city was desperate to get rid of the animals and settle for any price, forcing officials to reject the results because the winning bids were too low.

While leaders sought a solution to the present situation, everyone started pointing fingers at who and what was responsible for the financial fiasco known as Seven Seas. Tales of corruption, cover-ups, and incompetence found a comfortable spot on the pages of local newspapers. Investigations commenced and hearings took place in an effort to find out various truths, both real and imagined. It soon came to an end with an unexpected offer.

Leisure Marine Corp entered into a joint venture with ABC to privately operate Seven Seas. In return, the city of Arlington would receive one percent of the gross income for the first five years and two percent for the next forty-five. It would also sell the marine animals to the companies for 125,000 dollars. This announcement produced great excitement for the council members because Leisure Marine Corp was owned by George D. Millay, the founder of Sea World.

Seven Seas opened for the 1975 season with renovations, more entertainment, new animals, and a different approach to marketing. Near the end of July, Millay complained about the financial woes of low attendance and high maintenance costs. He used the occasion to announce his future plans for what would become the nation's first water park. Once Seven Seas closed for the season, he would sell all the animals then begin the construction of water slides, wave machines, diving shows, and surfing pools. He remained true to his word by getting rid of the wildlife, but refused to renew the lease in the hope of securing a less expensive contact. Negotiations for the new agreement broke down and a new company took the joint venture's place.

President Donald P. Jacobs of J & L Enterprises was the new owner of the land tract. He planned to build a park which would make guests feel like they were visiting Hawaii. Under the agreement, Jacobs would provide an annual payment of 50,000 dollars during the first ten years of operation and 100,000 dollars or two percent of the gross income once the decade had passed. Most people remained skeptical about the park's success because of all the failures which had preceded it. Regardless of all the bad luck, Jacobs decided to press onward.

Hawaii Kai opened in June 1976 with very little fanfare. For five dollars, adults could enjoy dolphin shows, diving shows, sea lions, Polynesian dancers, musicians, singers, and a petting zoo. All the employees working at the park came from the Kamehameha School of Honolulu, some of them receiving scholarships in return for their participation.

The attendance figures were incredibly low. Jacobs tried to fix this problem by hosting luaus for twelve dollars a person, but it was no use. On the eleventh of September, he filed for bankruptcy and closed Hawaii Kai. The city council decided it would never again invest in the entertainment industry, but it would continue supporting the Texas Rangers. In 1977, Tommy Joe Vandergriff resigned as mayor for reasons unknown.

That same year brought about the grand opening of Wet 'N' Wild in Orlando, Florida. George Millay had finally realized his dream of building America's first water park. Unfortunately, the park lost 600,000 dollars during its first season and investors started considering the possibility of abandoning the venture. Fighting the urge to permanently close it and count his losses, Millay believed the park would rebound during the second season. He was right. Wet 'N' Wild had a wonderful year and talks eventually began about the possibility of building another water park. The first location he chose was Arlington. Opened in 1983, it lasted until 1995 when Millay sold the park for unknown reasons to Six Flags. The name was changed to Hurricane Harbor, then called Six Flags Hurricane Harbor two years later as part of a re-branding effort.

The 1990s also provided a new home for the Texas Rangers. Approved for funding during 1991, the Ballpark In Arlington was completed in April 1994 and hosted its first game, an exhibition match against the New York Mets. The stadium had its name changed to Americaquest Field in 2007 and Globe Life Park in 2014. Regardless, residents for the most part have insisted upon calling it by the original name. The latest development for the Texas Rangers has been the announcement of a new stadium to replace the current one. Despite the controversy sparked since the news arrived in May 2016, it seems like plans are moving forward. However, because the project is both a private and public endeavor, an election will have to take place.

Like Globe Life Stadium, the current home of the Dallas Cowboys had its origins during the 1990s. Owner Jerry Jones originally wanted the city of Irving to expand its Texas Stadium by increasing the seating capacity and adding a retractable roof. However, after his announcement in 1994, the city council refused to honor his requests and he began looking for a new home. Jones held private negotiations with Arlington while holding out hope that Irving would agree to making the improvements. By the end of the century, no deal had been reached with Arlington and Texas Stadium remained in its current state. Jerry Jones then decided to conduct some research other cities that might be interested in building a new stadium.

In April 2004, Jones announced a proposition to make Fair Park in Dallas the new home of his football team. Out of the 650 million dollars required for the project, the city would have to provide 425 million through an increase in hotel and car rental taxes. The local government condemned the offer and refused to hold a special election on the matter.

Undeterred by the refusal, Jerry went straight to Arlington and began negotiations with the city council. The members voted unanimously to allow the public to vote on the matter. According to the new deal, the city would spend 325 million dollars through a tax increase and Jones would pay the rest, even if the project went over budget. The measure was passed and Cowboys Stadium was completed in 2009 at a cost of 1.15 billion dollars. The sports venue had its name officially changed to AT&T Stadium in 2013.

Arlington TX Cowboys Stadium
Cowboys Stadium
Photo by Mahanga
The latest development in the city began in August 2013 with the adoption of the Metro Arlington Express. Before that time, Arlington had maintained its negative reputation for being the largest American city without a bus system. Beginning in 1980, the matter of having a transit system periodically entered public debate, always ending in defeat at the ballot box. The city council eventually came up with an idea to bring public transportation without the need for voter approval. The University of Texas in Arlington would help finance a test project partially funded by the local budget. It involved providing a bus route from CentrePort Station near DFW Airport and College Park Center at UTA with an additional stop in the entertainment district. The endeavor was a remarkable success and the program was renewed in 2015. It will have to continue going through the renewal process until the voters decide to permanently fund it.


© Clint Skinner
May 7, 2017

*Author's note : Do not bother looking for the remains of Seven Seas. Almost everything is gone and there is no plaque, marker, or sign to remind visitors of its existence. Located at the intersection of Convention Center Drive and Copeland Road, the majority of Seven Seas is now a parking lot. A large hotel stands at the area where visitors entered. The only remnants are a few water features near the hotel's swimming pool and a pavilion currently used to host weddings.

Resources :
Arlington-tx.gov
Dallas Morning News Archives
Sfot.net
Tshaonline.org
Wikipedia

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