These tales could change how you think about Lakewood.

Her sons may not have liked it, but Betty Hathcox still remembers how much she appreciated taking them shopping for shoes at one of Dallas’ finest department stores — just blocks from her home off Gaston Avenue.

“It was a very beautiful store, and it was so convenient,” says Hathcox, who has lived in the neighborhood for 55 years. “The store was quite unique back then, something that big in the neighborhood.”

Her destination? The suburban location at Skillman and Live Oak of Volk’s Bros., then one of the city’s leading retailers, comparable to Neiman Marcus.

“You used to be able to get anything there,” says Hathcox, who bought her sons Stride-Rite saddle shoes, something of a rite of passage for boys who grew up in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

“It was very exclusive — good men’s clothing, a women’s department, even jewelry.”

Don’t be surprised if you didn’t know about Volk’s. There are many things about our neighborhood that even two-decade residents don’t know, despite their best efforts to keep up.

It’s one thing to stay current with Lady of the Lake lore — like where her cemetery is supposed to be — or to realize that Swiss Avenue is actually named for a group of Swiss settlers.

But it’s another to know about Volk’s, the prison camp at White Rock Lake that housed German soldiers during World War II, the Gaston Avenue coffee shop where Chili’s founder Norman Brinker got his start, or any of a dozen other things that have helped make this neighborhood what it is today. All you have to do is look.

 

Suburban finery

The four biggest retailers in Dallas after World War II were Neiman’s, Volk’s, Titche’s and Sanger’s. So the fact that our neighborhood had a Volk’s was a big deal. In those days, the leading department stores were all downtown; Neiman’s, for instance, had only one suburban store, at Preston Road and Northwest Highway, well into the 1960s.

And by all accounts, Volk’s was an impressive store — not just because of the quality of its merchandise (it was where neighborhood women bought hats for Easter, and Hathcox still has some jewelry she purchased there), but also because of its design and layout. The main entrance on Skillman, near the middle of the building, was an atrium, and the highlight of the atrium was an indoor-outdoor goldfish pond.

“My mother used to drag my brother and I down there to go shopping,” says Alan Clarke, a life-long Casa Linda resident, “and the only thing that made it worthwhile was the goldfish pond.”

But Volk’s suffered the same problems that plagued so many other local retailers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as malls changed people’s shopping habits, and residents moved to more distant suburbs. Colbert’s, a local women’s clothing chain, bought Volk’s in 1970, and the stores became Colbert-Volk’s. The downtown store closed in 1973, and the Skillman store disappeared by the early 1980s. Colbert’s hung on until the late ’90s (there was a store in Casa Linda almost to the end), and then it, too, went out of business.

Stalag on the lake

It sounds too good to be true, like an urban myth about a hitchhiking female ghost. German soldiers — from the legendary Afrika Korps, no less — were housed at a prison camp at White Rock Lake. And to make it sound even cornier, one of the prisoners supposedly wrote to a Dallas newspaper after the war, saying he had enjoyed his time in town so much that he wanted to move here.

Turns out it was no myth. There really were 300 German prisoners at the lake in 1944 and 1945. Sally Rodriguez, a city employee who is the lake’s unofficial historian, has seen both plans and pictures of the camp, which was located near Northwest Highway and Buckner Boulevard, near where the Norbuck baseball diamonds are today.

The prison was originally a camp for the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era program to provide work for the unemployed. The work included planting trees, clearing picnic areas and building much of the lake’s infrastructure, including the administration building on Northwest Highway (which was a general store for many years), between 1935 and 1942. The Army used the CCC camp for basic training, and then the Germans arrived in 1944, staying until October 1945. The prisoners worked at Fair Park, where they repaired tents and other equipment.

The crappie are running

In the early spring and late fall, go east on Northwest Highway, and turn left on West Lawther. Almost as soon as you make the turn, you’ll see the people, fishing poles in the water. Lots of people, and lots of poles. For a minute, it’s almost as if you’re not in Dallas, but in a Hemingway novel, with the sun blocked by the trees and an almost mystical sort of coolness in the air.

It really seems as if you’re not in the middle of the ninth-largest city in the country, and that it can’t possibly be White Rock Creek where these people are casting their lines with great success.

But it is. That part of the creek — where Lawther makes a loop east and turns into Lanshire in Lake Highlands — is known not just throughout the city for its fishing, but throughout the state, too. No less an authority than Texas Parks and Wildlife rates the white crappie fishing “excellent,” and says the creek is a sure bet in the spring. Crappie like cooler weather and run in late February and early March and November, which is when the anglers congregate.

And what do you do with crappie, some of which are as big as three or four pounds? Eat them, of course. They’re quite tasty, especially pan fried and finished with some fresh herbs and a touch of lemon juice.

 

Birth of a legend

The picture and headline in the newspaper is vintage 1960s — a man in a sport coat and narrow tie, looking quite uncomfortable, with the woman next to him in a stylish dress with well-coiffed hair.

“Sports stars to open East Dallas restaurant,” reads the headline.

The sports stars (and one-time neighborhood residents) in the photo were Norman Brinker, who had been an international caliber equestrian, and his wife, tennis player Maureen Connolly Brinker. The restaurant in question was Brink’s at Gaston and Peak, a couple of blocks north of the Baylor hospital complex.

It’s difficult to tell, looking at the coin laundry currently at the site, that Brink’s was an important part of not just Dallas history but of American cultural history, too. Almost everything Brinker has accomplished since that day in 1964 when Brink’s opened — first, the Steak & Ale chain, and later the Chili’s empire — revolves around what happened at Gaston and Peak. What happened was that Norman Brinker didn’t have huge success running a coffee shop.

In his book, “On the Brink,” he admits to being surprised by Brink’s moderate success — a lot of work for very little return.

“It was hard,” he said, “to get someone else to come in and work at 5:30 in the morning when they weren’t scheduled. So [on those days when someone didn’t show up for work], I was the breakfast cook, busboy and waiter.”

Hence his next venture, which turned a 17th century English-themed steak house at Lemmon and Oak Lawn into Steak & Ale, which became one of the first great restaurant franchises of the modern era that didn’t sell fast food.

Brinker sold Brink’s to the Burns family in 1968; they ran it until the late 1990s. After that, it was a Chinese restaurant, then a coffee shop again, and finally the laundry. Most of the building’s distinctive architecture also is gone, including the yellow Brink’s lettering over the front, and the sign on the street, which featured a horse silhouette and a jockey. The building, experts says, was a wonderful example of the mid-20th century Googie style common to coffee shops, bowling alleys and motels of the time.

 

Mass transit pioneer

Just after World War II, Dallas was one of the most densely-populated cities in the country. Its 400,000 people lived in a city that was quite small by today’s standards — nothing much east of the lake, even less north of Mockingbird, and just Oak Cliff south and west of downtown. Which means it shouldn’t be surprising that it had one of the most efficient mass transit systems in the country.

The city’s streetcars carried 50,000 people a day over 18 routes that covered almost 100 miles. Electric-powered trains, part of a system known as the Interurban that included service to Fort Worth and Waco, carried passengers every hour or so from downtown through the community of Vickery Park (the station was at Greenville and Meadow, where the Chili’s on upper Greenville is located) through Lake Highlands to Richardson en route to Sherman and Denison. In addition, the city was served by a variety of passenger trains that brought in commuters from suburbs such as Preston Hollow.

Service, say those who remember it, was pretty good, and all you had to do to catch a train was step off the sidewalk. The No. 1 streetcar line ran up Matilda, connecting with the Interurban at Vickery. The No. 3, Junius Heights, ran up Columbia to Tremont to Abrams to Gaston. There, it turned around and came back the same way. The Interurban took 35 minutes to get from downtown to Vickery. Another train, which ran to Denton in the 1920s, took an hour and 40 minutes.

By 1956, all of this was gone. Ridership had declined drastically as more people could afford cars and as the city expanded past its traditional boundaries. And since it was too expensive to extend the streetcar lines to keep pace, the city transit agency tore up the tracks, sold the cars for scrap and replaced them with buses.

The Interurban trains didn’t even last that long. Service was provided by private companies, most of which were continually short of cash.

The Texas Electric Railway, which ran the Sherman-Denison line, was the last to go. It went out of business in 1948 after 50 people were injured in a head-on crash involving north- and south-bound trains near Vickery.

 

Paving over the neighborhood

Read the report, and it seems to makes sense. Dallas’ population was not just growing, said the 1967 Texas Department of Transportation study, but was growing northward. And since the area had little mass transit, the only way to meet the demands of a population that was both increasing and spreading out was to build freeways to enable everyone to get where they needed to go. Two possible solutions: the $200 million East Dallas Freeway, running along Abrams and then Skillman to the Collin County line, and the $194 million Garland Freeway, more or less following Garland Road from I-45 to Collin County.

Needless to say, if these plans had come to fruition, most of us wouldn’t be here reading this. Lakewood and Lake Highlands would have been split in two by the East Dallas Freeway, and the Garland project would have done the same thing for Casa Linda, Forest Hills and the other half of Lake Highlands.

The consequence? The neighborhoods would have been ruined, following the pattern of post-war freeway construction throughout the country, which sacrificed close-in neighborhoods in order to get commuters from their homes in the suburbs to their jobs downtown.

To be fair, the social cost of all this construction was not completely understood 40 years ago. Yet the results are evident today in cities such as Cleveland and Chicago. When freeways bypass neighborhoods, homes and businesses are torn down, property values sink, and people move out.

Who wants to live in a community where a freeway is the dominant feature, other than people who can’t afford to live elsewhere? Freeways work best, as Dallas has shown with LBJ, when they’re built before the people get there.

Why weren’t the proposed highways built in 1967?

Primarily because they weren’t high priority items (18 and 16 on a list of 26 — finishing LBJ was first), and the federal money that paid for massive road projects had dried up, thanks to the Vietnam War.


WANT MORE?
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.