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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

In Market: Amon Carter and the mystery entrepreneur

Texans love to brag and that’s not really hyperbole. We do.

And this week we’re bragging a bit about ourselves. This issue of the paper is devoted to entrepreneurs in association with our first annual Entrepreneur Summit.

We’re honoring some of the best and brightest from Fort Worth’s past, present and future. Standing front and center is our Pioneer Entrepreneur, Amon G. Carter, best known as owner of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, but truly the man who invented Fort Worth.

When we decided to honor him, it reminded me that Carter was spoken of so often with such reverence when I was a child that I was stunned to find out, probably in my teens, that he had died before I was born. Talk about leaving a legacy.

There are many classic Carter stories, but one of the best is his saving the 1936 Texas centennial celebration from being entombed by Dallas society matrons and do-gooders who wanted to put a whitewashed (pun intended) sheen on Texas history with their Fair Park celebration. All well and good, but was that really Texas?

Not that what Carter concocted via Broadway impresario Billy Rose could pass muster as a history lesson in anything other than a Deion Sanders Charter School. The square dance for one of the productions was choreographed by a former member of the Diaghilev Russian Ballet Company. Hardly a “Yee-haw” in sight, I’m sure.

And the dancers, courtesy of Sally Rand – she of the less-is-more school of feather fan dancing – promised more than they usually delivered. These near-nude dancers were featured on the billboards Carter had scattered in nine surrounding states, according to Jerry Flemmons’ outstanding biography of the man. One of the sign’s slogans, according to Flemmons, was aimed directly at Dallas: “Go elsewhere for education, come to Fort Worth for entertainment.”

And we’re talking some real cutting-edge entertainment for 1936. The birthday-suit empress Rand had her own very popular sideshow attraction, a Nude Ranch, with an X-ed out letter “D” replaced with an “N.” Her young female “ranch hands” were outfitted with 10-gallon hats, gunbelts and six-shooters, boots and strategically-placed bandanas. Dallas didn’t have that.

That’s not the only reason we’re honoring Carter, but it does prove that entrepreneurs can do more – much more – than just design apps for smartphones.

The mystery entrepreneur

There’s another Fort Worth entrepreneur that I’ve been doing some research on, but have not been able to get the full story on. Maybe some historians out there can help me.

I ran across this item several weeks back from the Census Bureau: “On April 18, 1934, the first laundromat (called a “Washateria”) was opened by John F. Cantrell in Fort Worth, Texas; four electric washing machines were rented to members of the public on an hourly basis.”

What? The first laundromat was birthed in Fort Worth? I had to know more. Alas, I haven’t found much more. According to the ever-unreliable Wikipedia, the laundromat was first conceived in Fort Worth, but it was by a man named Noah Brannen, not said Mr. Cantrell.

The laundromat fact is mentioned in one of Dan Jenkins’ novels and I asked him about it. He remembers it being on Fort Worth’s Southside, but not the exact location or the people involved.

So I’m putting a call out to you history entrepreneurs. We need to solve this mystery. Whoever it was, he or she deserves to be recognized.

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Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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