It was the Thursday after Easter in 1908. The Trinity River crested far above flood stage a few days earlier. Dallas had begun the recovery from the devastating flood, but the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks offered a reminder of good things to come in the morning paper. In just three months, Dallas would host the national meeting of the Elks. The entertainment committee, led by former mayor Ben E. Cabell, announced plans for “the biggest barbecue ever held in the world,” at the State Fair Grounds.
Dallas was an unlikely choice of venue for such an enormous event. Up to 40,000 visitors were expected in a city of barely 90,000 people. The Dallas Elks had lobbied hard in the past but lost out to Denver in 1906 and Philadelphia, then the third-largest city in America, the following year. Before the vote in Philadelphia to determine the 1908 host, the Dallas members launched a daring campaign that included a bank robbery stunt with six shooters and a ten-gallon hat. A William Jennings Bryan doppelgänger was employed to sway the voting members, and in the end the underdog won. Dallas now had to plan for the biggest party of its short history.
The Elks knew this was Dallas’s chance to impress visitors from across the country. They chided downtown business owners, no doubt still cleaning up from the flood, wanting them to beautify their businesses. Suggestions included a fresh coat of paint and decorations, preferably illuminated ones, at their own expense for the good of the city. “It becomes absolutely necessary, therefore, that Dallas put on her best clothes,” wrote the Elks in the Dallas Morning News. “This is a big town, and we ought to do big things,” they urged, adding a month later that, “Cheap bunting and washerwoman designs are not satisfying to our visitors or honorable to ourselves.”
For the centerpiece of downtown, the Elks designed a grand arch. On May 17, just sixty days before the grand event, four enormous steel legs rose from each corner of the intersection of Main and Akard streets. They formed the frame of what would become a gleaming white, blue, and purple arch lit with 150,000 light bulbs. It would outshine Buffalo’s brush-covered arch from the 1905 Elks meeting that rose like a grassy hill above their downtown streets. The Dallas arch would be modern and bright.
Another setback would further delay construction. A week later the largest flood in Dallas history left 4,000 residents homeless. The Trinity crested at an unheard-of 52.6 feet, a full 13 feet higher than the April flood. The T&P railroad bridge was toppled by the flow, and the entire structure broke apart as it was swept downstream. The city’s electrical system was crippled, and the pumps supplying fresh water were disabled. Even the pole-mounted lanterns downtown were extinguished for fear of fire. The city was in complete darkness for three nights.
Even after witnessing the devastation, the city pressed on with plans for the Elks and the grand barbecue. In a June 19th announcement in the Dallas Morning News, the Elks bragged that their arch would cost $20,000 (over a half million in today’s dollars). They still planned for 40,000 visitors even after news of the flooded city had dominated headlines across the country a few weeks prior. Plans for the ”greatest barbecue ever given in the world,” continued headlong.
As the event approached, details of the barbecue became clearer. Cabell engaged Professor Wiley George to “superintend the barbecuing of the meat,” which consisted of 15,000 pounds of beef and 4,000 pounds of mutton. George had forty years experience in barbecue, and Cabell trusted him to deliver. Back in 1885, George had so impressed a St. Louis writer with his barbecue that he wrote a lengthy description of the feast. The beef and lamb had been delivered to revelers at a Confederate reunion by the wagon-load. The writer praised its “woodland flavor” and said the meat “seemed to melt into a delicious memory as one ate.” W. L. “Old Tige” Cabell, a former Confederate general and Ben Cabell’s father, was in attendance and agreed with the assessment saying, “My boy, you know there is an old proverb that God sends meat and the devil sends cooks at a barbecue. God sends both sir.”
The cooks in 1885, besides George, were all unidentified black men. Neither the cooks nor the laborers who dug the 700 foot long barbecue pit at Fair Park in 1908 are mentioned in the reports, but plenty of details about the barbecue were recorded. George is quoted by the Dallas Morning News on the day of the event, July 14, 1908 saying, “This is the largest single cooking of meat I have ever had anything to do with, and, so far as I know, it is the largest that has ever been cooked in the entire country.” He also described his process:
Yes, there is an art in barbecuing meat. The wood is usually burned from fifteen to seventeen hours. When it is reduced to coals the meat is placed on poles over the trenches containing the coals, where it is allowed to cook anywhere from twenty-four to twenty-six hours. During the process of cooking the seasoning is applied. The seasoning is a mixture of butter, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, red pepper, black pepper, salt, onions, garlic and burnt sugar and burnt coffee. These ingredients are mixed according to an old recipe. The seasoning is poured over the cooking meat, and by means of tin tubes, which are inserted to the bones, the very centers of the largest quarters are saturated with it.
The morning of the barbecue, a procession passed underneath the now completed Elks Arch on their way to the fairgrounds. The barbecue began at noon, but many arrived earlier to watch the cooking. Diners were served at long tables by a group of 150 black waiters who “wore white jackets, aprons and caps, and worked like lubricated lightning,” according to the Dallas Morning News. Sides included “sweet and sour pickles, chili, bread and a special brew of beer.” It should be noted for Texas chili lovers, this recipe called for “300 pounds of condensed chili and 1,000 pounds of beans.” More than five hours after it began, the estimated crowd of 30,000 had all been fed. At the end, George wiped his brow and told a reporter, “That was a barbecue; never was another like it.”
Dallas had pulled off what seemed impossible for a city of its size. Private homes had been opened up, and Pullman sleeper cars had been parked along the railroad tracks in downtown to provide lodging for the crowd that was half the city’s population. A city recovering from two devastating floods in as many months had rallied to throw the biggest barbecue the country had ever seen. When it was all over and the visitors had left town, it was the arch that remained in downtown as a reminder of Dallas’s bolstered reputation across the country. Said Mayor Stephen J. Hay: “It will make the center of attraction on every festive occasion.”
It would be a stretch to say the arch was universally beloved. Some called it gaudy, and those who walked past it daily complained that it choked off the sidewalks. In response, some metal sheeting was removed around the base in 1909. The following year, it was called out as an embarrassment by an out-of-towner. J. Horace McFarland was lecturing around the country touting the City Beautiful movement. He told his audience in Dallas: “I wish I hadn’t had to see that horror of an arch in Dallas that has been thrust upon its streets. If you really care for the dignity of Dallas you will get a few sticks of dynamite and let it do its work quick.” That lecture was on a Saturday. The following Thursday, the arch would become the backdrop for a tragedy that put Dallas in the national spotlight for horrific reasons.
On February 23, 1910, two-and-a-half-year-old Mary Beuvens went missing. After a brief search, she was found in the second floor of a barn on the family’s property with Allen Brooks, a black man reported to be at least 57 years old. He tended the furnace of the family and many others in the area. Brooks was arrested and taken to the county jail, where Sheriff Arthur Ledbetter was already on alert for a “movement against the jail.” He called in deputies from around the county to guard the jail and protect Brooks. Brooks was indicted for rape the following day, and a crowd of about 200 gathered behind the jail that evening. They left before any violence erupted, and Brooks was moved to various jails outside Dallas for his safety.
The trial was set by judge Robert B. Seay for March 3. That morning Sheriff Ledbetter and Ben Cabell escorted Brooks from McKinney into the Dallas County Courthouse, now known as the Old Red Courthouse, in downtown Dallas. The trial was quickly called to recess on the request of Brooks’s defense lawyer, who had just been given the case after the first one quit in protest. The crowd heard rumors of a continuance, but any delay was unacceptable to them. A large number of the mob rushed the courtroom and fought with the deputies gathered inside. Ben Cabell was one of them.
Before he was mayor or running the Elks barbecue committee, Cabell had been the county sheriff, and before that a Deputy U.S. Marshall under his father’s command. In that position, Cabell helped stave off a lynching attempt in 1892. Henry Miller, a black man, shot and killed Dallas police officer C. O. Brewer while resisting arrest. A mob gathered outside the jail demanding Miller be released to them. Cabell, among others, guarded the jail and told the mob to disperse. Sheriff Lewis warned the crowd from a second story window, “I will shoot before I allow this prisoner to be taken out.” The mob heeded the warning. A year later, after several appeals and a failed plea to the governor, Miller was hanged inside the Dallas County jail. The newly elected sheriff, Ben Cabell, placed the black hood over Miller’s head before pulling the lever of the gallows.
While trying to protect Brooks, Cabell and 150 other law enforcement officers were overtaken by the mob after a melee that seemed to consume the entire courthouse. They cornered Brooks in a second-floor room and tied a rope to his neck, throwing the other end out the window to another portion of the mob gathered below. They yanked him out out the window, and he landed on his head on the ground below. The fall either knocked him unconscious or killed him. Not a single shot was fired in his defense.
A crowd of 2,000 to 5,000, depending on the account, watched as he was dragged several blocks to the Elks Arch in the middle of the day. A young man climbed a telephone pole near the arch with the rope in hand, and hoisted Brooks’s body up until he hung above the crowd. People ripped his shirt into pieces for souvenirs. His shoes, pants, and coat were already gone from the dragging. Some in the crowd tried to burn the body, but police cut the rope and took the body away. The Dallas Morning News reported that one of the mob’s leaders addressed the crowd praising their efforts, adding, “That noblest of all orders, the Elks, builded [sic] wiser than they knew when they erected that arch, for today it was an instrument of swift justice.”