By Dr. Shaun Treat
Women’s History Month always reminds us how many incredible ladies have played key roles in Denton’s past, which maybe explains why that trend has continued ever since. We all know that Texas Woman’s University (est. 1901 as a successful lobbying effort by women) was the first of its kind in the state and still today the largest university primarily for women in the United States. Yet there’s always been something unique about Denton women. A few of our favorite true-life tales to share with y’all include a scandalous expulsion, an internationally-famous movie star, and that time Denton ladies saved the whole durn town from being burned flat to the ground.
The town of Denton was barely a few years old when the Civil War began in 1861, and I’ve already told the tale of the Prairie Match Mystery and the Great 1860 fire that played a role in Texas secession. It was a blistering 110 degrees that Sunday the 8th of July during an 1860 heatwave, when a fire broke out in the counting room of James M. Smoot’s general store, which occupied the outside southeast corner of the town square. In those early days, all the buildings were built of wood, which ignited like kindling to burn both hot and fast. A brisk southwesterly breeze quickly fanned the flames to an adjacent building where 25 kegs of gunpowder were ignited. The thundering explosion, heard as far away as Pilot Point, rained down burning debris across the Square and threatened to reduce everything to ash! Luckily, the church-minded women of Denton responded swiftly to the spreading inferno, despite the initial chaos and a dangerous shortage of water. "But the ladies (God bless them!) came to the rescue," the ‘Father of Denton’ Otis G. Welch breathlessly reported to the Houston Telegraph, "and not withstanding the almost intolerable heat of the sun, soon brought sufficient water to save several buildings which we had almost given up to destruction." Dressed in their Sunday best under crop-withering heat, the bucket-brigade of Denton ladies had saved the town from certain ruin and probably still had supper ready before dark! Boy howdy, frontier women were TOUGH, y’all!
Another wild story involves Bianca Babb, who is buried in Denton’s IOOF cemetery, made infamous with her biographical memoir recounting her days as a child captive of Comanche. Born in 1856 inside a covered wagon as her family traveled to Texas, Babb was ten when Comanche killed her mother and kidnapped herself, her brother, and a houseguest from their remote Wise County cabin. In a gripping account that later inspired the John Wayne movie The Searchers, Bianca’s memoir is unique in that it was a far more sympathetic portrait of Comanche than most luridly sensationalistic accounts of the day. Of her adoptive squaw mother and daily life with the tribe, she wrote, “every day seemed a holiday.” Considered by scholars to be a very important example of captivity narratives, Bianca’s memoir was written in the 1920s but she did not allow it to be published during her lifetime. Babb died in Denton at age 93, the last surviving Comanche captive and a most noteworthy witness to the cultural transformation of the Southern Plains frontier.
Denton’s biggest dame of fame, however, was arguably actress Ann Sheridan. Born Clara Lou Sheridan on the 21st of February, 1915 in Denton TX, the tomboy youngest of five was raised up on a ranch able to bulldog a steer, ride a horse, and shoot guns well enough to make boyfriends nervous. Clara attended Robert E. Lee Grade School and Denton Junior High, where she most enjoyed classes in drama and theater. When her sister Kitty secretly entered her in Paramount’s national "Search for Beauty" contest with a risqué photo, unbeknownst to Clara, the NTSU student was so mad seeing her picture in the Dallas paper that she drove down to confront the editor himself. One of 6 winners at age 19, spitfire “Ann” soon showcased in marquee Depression-Era Hollywood films with stars such as “Buster” Crabbe, Fred MacMurray, James Cagney, Errol Flynn, and Humphrey Bogart. Denton’s own Campus Theater debuted its opening night with Ann Sheridan’s “I Was a Male War Bride” in 1949, co-starring Cary Grant! The “Oomph Girl” was a popular pin-up during the 1940s, but she detested the dismissive monicker. My favorite story about Ann “keep-it-real-in-the-field” Sheridan is the one about a messenger boy delivering a revised script to her trailer, shocked to find her with her feet up on the table, leisurely smoking a cigarette and sipping a martini, with a foam-padded WonderBra awkwardly jutting out from the trashcan in a corner. Seeing the lad’s shocked expression at the bullet-pointed apparatus stuffed in the garbage bin, Anne arched an eyebrow and shrugged: “Well, I had to put it somewhere and the damned thing wouldn’t fit in the toilet.” The Texas Starlet still has admirers like Dan Mojica of Dan’s Silverleaf, who has a commissioned portrait hanging behind the sound booth in the legendary local music venue. So yeah, the “Oomph Girl” is kind of a big deal!
There are tales of Texas Wild Women a’plenty just up the hill at TWU, where the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame recognizes a number of trailblazers. There are plenty of cool stories there to be mined, but a personal favorite is that of Caro Crawford Brown, who was the first (and as yet only) female Texas journalist to receive the Pulitzer Prize for “Distinguished Local Reporting on a Deadline.” Brown’s 1955 stories for the Alice Daily Echo exposed decades of corruption in Duval County TX and brought an end to the Parr political machine that had intimidated local residents for 40 years. This intrepid small town reporter stayed on the case for over 2 years, often paying her own travel expenses as she faced bitter local political opposition while tracing a complicated trail of legal documents. Brown studied journalism at CIA/TWU in 1925, but it’s the backstory of why she didn’t graduate that is both bemusing but a bit infuriating. Y’see, the College of Industrial Arts for Women in the 1920s had a very strict dress code as part of an ‘honor code’ that very much reflects the societal roles for women of the day (that is, dresses required). As it turns out, The Lass-O editor Miss Caro Crawford was expelled from C.I.A. in 1926 and sent home “in disgrace” for breaking three rules in the honor code: Caro rode in an automobile with a man without the proper written permissions; she and her date travelled off-campus to a Fort Worth nightclub; AND she was out of uniform. Oh my, the scandal of it all!! Or perhaps further proof that well-behaved women seldom make history… much less help to change it!
Shaun Treat is a former professor at the University of North Texas and founder of the Denton Haunts historical ghost tour. Doc has written about numerous local places and personalities at his Denton Haunts blog, and is forever indebted to the great work of the fine folks with the Denton County Office of History & Culture as well as our local keepers of history like Mike Cochran and Laura Douglas at the Emily Fowler Library for their tireless work in helping preserve Denton’s intriguing past.