Sunday, September 18, 2011

1917-18: A Hot Time In Old Camp Bowie's "Entertainment" District? Not!

The moment in 1917 that the deal that cinched Fort Worth as the site of a huge new US Army training post was signed was a moment that changed Fort Worth and its residents forever. The post, which became known as Camp Bowie and was located across the Clear Fork just west of downtown, literally made the earth move. As the glow of success began to fade a little, one of the myriad problems that faced the Army and its host city was how to entertain the "Sammies" as they were called then.

This was no small problem.  It was estimated that there might be as many as 30,000 recruits flooding into town.  Almost all of them were between the ages of 17 and 21 and most were from small towns in Texas and Oklahoma.  The testosterone levels in the area between Stove Foundry Road and White Settlement Road and along Arlington Heights boulevard would be off the scale.  A situation that opportunist Rev. J. Frank Norris welcomed, but that presented a real logistical as well as moral challenge to the more level headed and less self aggrandizing.

1918 Camp Bowie Map ~ CH Rogers ~ Click to zoom
The Federal planners had already set up a War Service Commission that would deal with providing wholesome diversion and entertainment to the troops in the various camps that were building across the US.  And of course the churches and YMCA's, etc. were all enlisted. In addition, concession rights were granted to some for the operation of on-base amusement parks and facilities.  C.W. Parker of Leavenworth, KS. was awarded a two-year contract for Camp Bowie.

09-07-1917-Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Parker, a well known and respected operator of amusement parks and shows, decided to bracket the Post by refurbishing dilapidated Lake Como at the west end of the camp and by creating  a "Joyland" park In the triangle just to the south of the West 7th and Arlington Heights intersection.

Lake Como & Joyland Entertainment Sites ~ Click to zoom
There was lots of work to do to get everything ready and as could be expected help was hard to find and expensive. Parker also was looking for investors and merchants for the sites as well.

Construction went along fairly rapidly and Lake Como was ready by the first part of October, announcing a complete reconstruction and the largest US flag in the world at 80' by 150'.

10-12-1917 Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Construction lagged a little at Joyland, but finally the moment came....

10-20-1917 Fort Worth Star-Telegram
As the 1917 season progressed carnivals, musicals and variety stage shows were booked and toward the end of the year the were both professional and amateur fight cards.

11-25-1917 Fort Worth Star-Telegram
"Dainty Girls?" It is a little hard to see how most of these traveling attractions would appeal to the young men that were training daily in ever more deadly arts. Looking back almost 100 years, it appears that many of these shows & events were aimed at the local population.

02-15-1918-Fort Worth Star Telegram

As  the US moved into the European war the US Government ramrodded through a series of Draconian measures. One of them was to "protect" the morals and health of its its youth. This in spite of the fact that they were old enough to be sent into mortal peril to be used as cannon fodder in the muddy trenches of France. A military commission was set up and one of the first emergency rules that came down made keeping houses of ill fame a Federal offense.

02-08-1918 Forth Worth Star-Telegram
The idea was to inhibit soldier visits to districts like what was left of Hell's Half Acre in lower downtown Fort Worth.  The local news media pretty well put a damper on the reporting of any kind of ex-curricular activity like this or bootlegging which was of course rampant during Prohibition. However, the fact was that any soldier on leave could get on the streetcar on Arlington Heights Boulevard and be anywhere he wanted to be in minutes. There were plenty of stories of bootleggers and shady ladies in cars circling around the perimeter of the camp after dark providing drive-by service.

C.W. Parker's amusement concession seemed to start off well in the fall of 1917 as the troops were arriving. However, after the first of the year 1918, almost nothing is found about his operation. It seems to have dwindled away. There are several probable reasons:  The troops were training very heavily with a target embarkation to Europe in the middle of the year. Devastating epidemics including Spanish Flu and meningitis were flowing through the camp and the community and quarantines were common and long.  Although not reported very openly, hundreds and perhaps thousands of troops died at the camp. After the first divisions left to heavy fighting, the war came to an end sooner than expected and operations at Camp Bowie were cut back.

09-17-1917-Fort Worth Star Telegram

After the armistice, Joyland just disappeared as the lease was relinquished.  Lake Como, which had been a part of the Camp land agreement, settled back into its slumber.  There would be another attempt to resurrect it in the 1920's but Lake Worth had become the recreation place of choice. 

In spite of its enormous effect on Fort Worth which continues even today, Camp Bowie was really just a flash in the pan.  It was begun in 1917 and effectively done by the end of 1918, with no hope of it becoming a permanent post.  But while it was here, the Camp made the earth move..

The Stockyard Museum has large-format copies of the 1918 Camp Bowie map in their Museum Store.  This is the only good map ever published of the Camp Bowie area...

Images from the Electric Books Collection. 


  1. As an East Side boy, I am fascinated by such gargantuan forces at work on the far side of town. It's hard to overestimate the impact of this camp on Fort Worth, brief though its tenure was. Great stuff.

  2. Interesting history of that area. Thanks.

  3. I imagine that it must have been a massive undertaking in order to build a huge entertainment center for the troops. I really enjoy reading about Ft Worth history.

  4. Hmmm...Ironically, I just read an old newspaper clipping that indicates my paternal great-grandfather was a Lt Col in the Quartermaster Corps assigned to Camp Bowie. Although I never had the opportunity to meet him, he is now interred in Arlington National Cemetery.

  5. Ironically, here it is two years later and I just discovered that my paternal great-grandfather (whom I never met) was a Lt Col assigned to the Quartermaster Corps at Camp Bowie. Looking further, I also discovered he is interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Small world, indeed! ;)