Tracking Down a Photo Location & Discovering a City Pioneer: D. M. Clower, The Man Who Brought the Telephone to Dallas

by Paula Bosse

house_RPPC_1909_ebayMystery house, Dallas, ca. 1908 (click for larger image)

by Paula Bosse

Not too long ago I came across the above photo which had been made into a real photo postcard.” It was postmarked January 12, 1909, and it contained a chatty message.

“A very good picture of our house. Cold as can be here today – guess I will freeze going to the theater tonight. Quite a good deal of snow and sleet. All doing fine – wish you were here to help me make candy & pop some corn. Tom Dechman from Okla. City spent today with us. Maud.”

house_RPPC_1909_ebay_back

Such a nice photo of a modest little house in Dallas, probably taken in 1908. When I saw it, I thought it would be cool if I could figure out where it was. There wasn’t much to go on from the postcard, though. But, as it turns out, there was just enough information to put the pieces together and figure it out. Someone asked me recently how I track down things like this. Basically, I look for a long time in a lot of different places. Here’s how I found out where this mystery house was.

Using Ancestry.com, I found Virginia (“Virgil” — sometimes “Virgie”) Cavaness in Monticello, Arkansas. She was born in 1871 and would have just turned 37 years old when she received this card. The familiar tone of the postcard message indicated to me that Virgil was probably a close friend or family member.

I found Thomas Dechman in Oklahoma City — he would have been 23 when he visited Maud. He probably wasn’t a close friend or immediate family member because she writes his full name out. According to the 1909 Oklahoma City directory (accessible on Ancestry.com), he worked alongside his father, A. F. Dechman, at a wholesale produce company.

Then I checked the Dallas Morning News archives and found this from Dec. 30,1909.

clower_dmn_123009DMN, Dec. 30, 1909

Tom Dechman was Mrs. A. F. Dechman’s son. So I searched on “Maud Clower.” Maud was D. M. Clower’s daughter, born in 1877. Mrs. A. F. Dechman was her sister Annie, and Tom was her nephew.

In 1906 Maud had married Jesse (J. D.) Patterson — and Virgil had attended the wedding.

virgie_dmn_090206DMN, Sept. 2, 1906

I checked to see where Maud and J. D. Patterson were living in 1908/1909. Most directories are available on the Ancestry site, but, as it happens, the 1909 directory is one of the very, very, very few historical Dallas city directories that is available online (for free) — you can access it here. I found this under the street directory section. (Street directories help with knowing which blocks specific addresses were in as they show addresses with their occupants and they show which cross-streets those addresses were between; this is extremely helpful when trying to figure out where things were when streets had different names and when trying to figure out where things were before all of Dallas’ street numbers were changed in 1911.)

clower-patterson_1909-directory1909 city directory

So there it is. When Maud sent that postcard to Virgil, she and her husband were living with her parents at 491 N. Pearl Street. The house in the photo was at the southwest corner of N. Pearl and Thomas. It’s always helpful to check a street map from about the same period for context and to make sure you’re looking at the right location — many street names have changed over the years, and if a street named “Forest” is being referenced, for instance, you need to know that Forest Avenue and Forest Lane are absolutely nowhere near each other. Below is a map drawn about 1900, with the location of the Clower house circled in red (this is one of many maps found on the Portal to Texas History site; the one below is a detail of the map found here).

clower-home_map-ca1898

I also checked out Sanborn maps to see if the house in the photo matched the house that was actually on the lot at N. Pearl and Thomas. It does. To see what the general footprint of the house looked like in 1905 (the Clowers lived at 491 N. Pearl from about 1905 to 1910), see here. In the 1921 map (by which time the address had been changed to 2221 N. Pearl), you can see that additions had been made to the house since 1905 and that it looks more like the house in the photo (a room now juts out at the right and there is an out-building behind the house); see the 1921 Sanborn map here. To see what that Uptown block looks like now, see here (N. Pearl is on the left, looking south). Quite a change! It took me a long time to realize just how essential Sanborn maps can be — they are incredibly useful, and I try to use them whenever I can.

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I really didn’t expect to track down the actual address of an unidentified house found on a picture postcard, but persistence pays off. A bonus of this persistence was that I ended up learning about the very interesting man who owned the house — a man who played a pivotal role in the development of Dallas: Daniel Morgan (D. M.) Clower. Clower was an electrical engineer who, in 1881, installed the very first telephone in Dallas (for Judge John Bookhout) and ran the city’s first telephone exchange; he also set up phone systems in other cities. In addition to his work for Bell Telephone, he also ran Dallas’ electric company for many years and was responsible for setting up the city’s first electric street lights and helped in developing electrified rail systems in the region.

During the Civil War, Clower was a Confederate telegraph operator in the 1st Louisiana Regiment (see Clower’s fascinating obituary below). When the Union army was advancing after the fall of Vicksburg, Clower directed (and helped in) the destruction of the Confederate telegraph system he had helped set up, in order to prevent its being commandeered by Yankee forces — he and his men raced to pull up over 40 miles of wire and equipment, loaded everything on wagons, bugged out, and then used the same wire and poles to string a new Confederate line into and across Texas.

clower-telegrapher_dmn_010822DMN, Jan. 8, 1922

The war ended before Clower had completed his line northward from Houston, but his efforts had helped lay the telegraph infrastructure that the state of Texas relied on for decades afterward.

I’m not sure who the people are in the top photo of the house. When that photo was taken, D. M. Clower and his wife would have been about 73; his daughter Maud and her husband would have been in their early 30s. It’s either D. M. and his wife Ellender standing together with a mystery bearded man in the foreground, or it’s Maud and her husband, with D. M. in the foreground.

You never know what you’re going to discover when you read a 106-year-old postcard and wonder where an old house used to be.

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Postcard found on eBay.

Daniel Morgan Clower was born in Alabama in 1835; he arrived in Dallas in 1879, coming from Comanche, where Maud was born in 1877. Clower died in 1927 at the age of 92; Maud died in 1948. His wife, Ellender Paralee Clower, died in 1917 (at which time the couple had been married for more than fifty years).

More on Clower can be found in the pages of The Dallas Morning News:

  • “Telegrapher Tells Civil War Episode” (DMN, Feb. 1, 1924) — a fantastically cinematic account of Clower’s past, in his own words
  • A photo of Clower and Eli Sanger, (DMN, May 1, 1927) — what might well be the last photo of Clower ran in the News just a few months before his death at the age of 92; also in the photo is Eli Sanger, of Sanger Bros. (Clower once had a business in Millican, TX when Sanger’s opened there at the close of the Civil War, and he proudly boasted that he was one of their first customers)
  • “Daniel Clower Funeral Held” (DMN, Aug. 19, 1927) — Clower’s obituary, with photo

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Copyright © 2015 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.

 

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