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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"


by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

The old woman walked along one of McCamey’s unpaved streets, pulling a red Radio Flyer wagon. Occasionally she stooped to pick up a tin can or some other piece of junk as she shuffled along, checking garbage bins for food.

Her name was Pansy Carpenter. She lived in a scrap-lumber shack in an oil town that had seen its better days. But inside her home stood a piano, and on that piano sat framed photographs reminding her of what had been and what might have been, including a Mary Pickford-like portrait of a beautiful young woman.

That woman looked like a silent movie star, her blonde hair flowing like a golden waterfall, cascading in long curls down bare shoulders. Cream-faced, she had a sly smile and moist, knowing eyes. No wonder some young man fell hopelessly in love with her and asked her to marry him. No wonder she said yes to someone as handsome as she was lovely.

Though her looks could have given her a shot at Hollywood, Pansy opted for the circus world. She and her husband had a trapeze act in a traveling show. They drew big crowds and made good money.

All that changed in a moment.

Following the 1925 discovery of shallow oil in what became the Yates Field, McCamey grew from just a name printed on a plat to a town of 10,000 by September 1926. With money flowing almost as freely as gushing crude, Pansy’s circus troupe arrived and set up its big top at the edge of town.

One night, as hundreds watched, Pansy and her husband toppled from the high wire. If the circus hands had a net up, it did not work.

The fall killed her husband, and though Pansy survived, she had suffered a head injury. Either due to that or grief or both, she was never the same.

Pansy could have gone home to her family in Medina County, where she grew up and attended school, but she opted to stay in McCamey. She and her husband had driven to town in his new Model A, a vehicle she never learned to drive. But she kept the Ford as a monument to her late husband, setting its wheels in concrete so it couldn’t be stolen.

That’s the story McCamey old-timers used to tell, but there’s little on the record to back it up. Newspapers of the day devoted ample coverage to McCamey’s development, but a search of a newspaper database with millions of digitized pages does not turn up anything on a circus performer dying there or any mention of a performer named Pansy Carpenter. Nor do cemetery lists reveal any graves in Upton County that might be the final resting place of her husband, assuming his last name was Carpenter.

It may be that McCamey was in such a frenzy of prosperity at the time that no one thought it a particularly big deal for a strikingly glamorous young trapeze artist, tragically widowed, to have gotten marooned in a West Texas boom town.

“Who knows what the truth is?” the author of the “Pictorial History of Upton County” asked rhetorically in a half-page devoted to Pansy. The book contains the portrait of Pansy at the height of her career and two other images.

Apparently as handy with saw and hammer as she had been adroit on the ropes, Pansy built her own small house with attached garage. That’s where she kept the Model A. No longer able to make a living as a performer, she survived by throwing up and decorating shacks she rented to oil field workers. No slum lord, she sewed curtains, built trellis-shaded porches and turned flattened tin into architectural ornaments. When housing grew particularly tight, she also converted stripped-down car bodies into rental property, replacing missing doors or windows with wood.

A recycler before the word came into use, Pansy pulled her wagon all over town as she scavenged anything she felt could be repurposed — boards, boxes, corrugated metal, tin, cans, bottle caps, vehicle parts and oil field items. Someone later recalled that she once walked all the way to San Angelo, pulling her wagon, to buy a commode.

Early on she must have had to fight off amorous roughnecks and drillers, but that no longer posed a problem as her beauty faded with the passing years. Another photograph, taken when she was 40, shows that she had shortened her hair, which had long since reverted to its natural brown. Her cheeks gaunt, it looks like she didn’t get the best of dental care. The older she grew, the more reclusive she became.

Children were afraid of her, but those who knew her realized she posed no danger. In fact, while she often fished food from trash cans behind grocery stores or cafes, she frequently shared her bounty with people even worse off.

In failing health and no longer able to live alone, in May 1972 she sold her long-dead husband’s old car and went home to Medina County and what family she had left. Five months later, on October 28, she died in a Kerrville hospital at 78.

Pansy Carpenter Grave Medina TX Oak Rest Cemetery
The grave of Pansy Carpenter at the Oak Rest Cemetery in Medina, TX.
Photo cortesy Terry Jeanson, February 27, 2009

Her short obituary offered a few more details on her life. She was born in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) on Jan. 6, 1894, though her family soon moved to Texas. She had a brother in California, a sister in Oregon and a half-brother in San Antonio. Her death certificate shows her father’s name was Virgil L. Bennett, but the obituary said her brother’s last name was Carr.

McCamey’s Mendoza Trail Museum has on display one of Pansy’s wagons, some of her photographs and a collection of the artwork she created from found items.

Two hundred forty-five miles to the east, Pansy’s buried in Medina’s Oak Rest Cemetery, her simple grave marker revealing only her date of birth and death.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
February 26, 2009 column
Photographer's Note:
Enjoyed the story of Pansy Carpenter by Mike Cox. At the very end, when he mentions her grave marker, it seemed like a picture was supposed to follow. I made a little field trip to Medina today. Here is the picture. (The flowers were my addition. And before you ask, no, I couldn't find artificial pansies.) It was the shortest grave hunt I have ever had in a cemetery. I parked the car towards the end of the cemetery and found the grave in less than a minute! While I was there, I was thinking that Pansy was a lucky woman because there are people who have taken the time to remember her. - Terry Jeanson, February 27, 2009

Related Topics:
Small Town Sagas
Love & Marriage

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