THE MAYOR’S WIFE
When Mattie Culpepper Pistole, 38, received the telegram that her brother was near death in Beaumont, Texas, she hurried to his bedside. The never-married schoolteacher lived 200 miles away in Calvert, a bustling cotton center and, fortunately, a stop on the Houston and Texas Central Railway.
It was July 1902. With school out of session, Mattie’s one concern about leaving Calvert was likely the welfare of her 75-year-old mother, Martha, the only parent Mattie ever knew. Her father, James Pistole, a farmer, had died before Mattie’s second birthday.
Jefferson Davis Pistole, the brother who lay badly injured in a Beaumont hospital, was the sibling closest in age to Mattie. Then 40, he had been working as a carpenter, contractor and bookkeeper in Galveston. In 1900, Davis was lodging with the family of Silas Bisbey, a British engineer, in Galveston’s 10th ward when, in late August, the Great Galveston Hurricane inundated the city, killing an estimated 8,000. It remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
Davis survived the storm. Just two years later, while driving his buggy near the Kirby Lumber Company in Beaumont, where he likely conducted business, Davis wasn’t so lucky. His horses spooked, and while trying to gain control, he became tangled in the lines and fell, striking his head.
The blow was so serious that he was rendered unconscious at once and carried to the hospital. At first, he grew better and it was thought he would recover, but later he grew worse. His sister was immediately telegraphed…and she came on and has been at his bedside since. (The Houston Post)
Davis died July 9, several days after the accident. Like his sister, he had never married. Mattie may well have accompanied her brother’s coffin back to Calvert on the same train that had brought her to him.
Weeks later, Mattie resumed her teaching duties, something she had done every fall since accepting her first position in 1884.
Mattie prepared for classroom teaching at Sam Houston Normal Institute in Huntsville. Her older sister, Mary Alice, had been the school’s valedictorian in the spring of 1883. That fall, Mattie and Davis both enrolled in what is now Sam Houston State University, while sister Mary Alice began her teaching career in Calvert.
Mattie followed her big sister’s lead and entered her own Calvert classroom in 1884. That first year, she also delivered a talk, An Exercise in Primary Teaching, to the area’s teachers. The Limestone County school board took note of Mattie and, in 1885, offered her a job teaching Mexia’s 5th and 6th graders. By then, Mary Alice was teaching 7th and 8th graders there.
Mexia school trustees persuaded Mattie to join their “corps of teachers” by offering more money than the Calvert school paid. Pleased with their hire, a trustee boasted in print that Miss Pistole of Calvert…brings the highest endorsements and certificates of qualification and the trustees have done well in securing her services. (Galveston Daily News)
By 1891, Mattie was ready to move on. She traveled north to Decatur in February to deliver a paper, Elizabeth and Her Suitors, at a Chautauqua Circle meeting. Weeks later, the Decatur school board invited her to join their ranks as a sixth-grade teacher. At the end of her first school year, the “hospitable people of Decatur” not only hosted a picnic in her honor, but they also sent her home for the summer with “a ball and supper.” (Wise County Messenger) In the fall, she advanced to the high-school level.
When an offer to teach in Cameron came along in 1895, Mattie accepted, perhaps to move closer to family. Decatur (140 miles north of Mexia) had taken Mattie a long way from Calvert.
The four oldest Pistole children were born in Marengo County, Alabama; the four youngest, including Mattie and Davis, came along after the family moved to Centerville, Texas in 1854. There, Mattie’s father and three of her siblings died before Mattie reached school age.
Calvert likely became the Pistole family’s home base in about 1880. Cora, the oldest of the remaining siblings, and her husband, Dr. George McLendon moved there from Centerville. Grandma Martha likely followed. With their college 84 miles away, Mattie, Mary Alice and Davis may have spent holidays in Calvert. The maverick sibling, James Washington, strayed farther: he found work as a farmhand in Milam before venturing out to Indian Territory.
When Davis’s telegram found Mattie in the summer of 1902, most of the Pistole siblings were gone. Mary Alice, a newlywed of six months, died in 1889, at age 34. Cora, 44, died in 1894. The loss of Davis left only Mattie and James Washington, who was living in the home of a Choctaw druggist while working as a cook in an Oklahoma hotel.
That fall, Mattie was back in a Calvert classroom, almost two decades after launching her career there. During her summer break in 1903, Mattie and friend Lucie Adoue** escaped the Texas heat with a visit to Vermont, where they stayed at the Castleton Hotel. She regularly played cards with the Merry Wives and Maidens’ Euchre Club and joined another group for rounds of “42,” her prize-winning scores dutifully reported in the local news.
Was it enough?
In 1904, Mattie turned 40. At a time when marriage and children ranked high among women’s ambitions, Mattie had dedicated herself to her own education and that of Texas schoolchildren. And, she had taken responsibility for her elderly mother’s well-being.
It was time to make a change. In 1905, without abandoning either her career or her parent, Mattie left Calvert for good. And, like so many Americans of her time — newly arrived and native-born alike — she headed West.
By the time Mattie arrived, San Angelo, Texas had grown from a dusty frontier town best known for its saloons, gambling and prostitutes into a thriving agricultural, ranching and shipping center. Situated in the center of Texas, it early on benefited from its proximity to Fort Concho, a military post established in 1867.
Mattie stepped off the Santa Fe Railroad to a town of about 10,000, with well-established telegraph and telephone service. Four years later, a second railroad boosted the town’s commercial enterprises. Wool growing, cattle ranching and rail service helped make San Angelo a leading cattle market in the state and the number-one sheep market in the country. (Handbook of Texas)
Among those who steered San Angelo toward success was Louis Lee Farr, a Greenville, Texas native who spent some time in college before bringing his skills as a surveyor to San Angelo in 1884. At 25, he became San Angelo’s first city engineer and served two terms as its tax assessor-collector. In 1905, Farr created the Fort Concho Realty Company and raised $50,000 to bring that previously mentioned second railroad to town. When wealthy Wisconsin lumberman Edgar P. Sawyer came to Texas looking for land, Farr helped him secure the 172,000 acres that became the Sawyer Cattle Company’s Bar S Ranch, which Farr and his heirs managed for decades.
In 1906, Farr was elected mayor of San Angelo. At that point, he and Ellen “Nellie” Elizabeth Osmer, daughter of a New Mexico merchant, had been married 19 years; they had three sons and a daughter. Nellie would not live long enough to enjoy fully her role as the mayor’s wife. In February 1907, at age 44, she died, fulfilling a legacy of early deaths in her family. Her father died at 40; her mother at 41.
How Mattie Pistole, an unmarried schoolteacher of 43, entered the orbit of San Angelo’s 41-year-old mayor, isn’t hard to imagine. And, it’s easy to see why Farr considered her a likely stepmother. After 23 years of instructing youngsters, who better than Mattie to take on a widower’s four children?
Six months after the first Mrs. Farr succumbed — and just before the school year began in 1907 — Mattie Pistole became Mattie Farr, the mayor’s wife.
Instead of unpacking her books in a classroom, Mattie and her mother moved into the Farr home on Oakes Street with Frank, 19; Louis Jr., 14; Lillian, 12; and James, 8. A year later, the new family moved into another, presumably larger house at 131 North Oakes Street.
North Oakes Street would continue to be the Farr children’s permanent address for many years. In 1915, the city directory shows all four in residence. Martha Pistole, however, was no longer with them. She died two years earlier, at age 85. With that loss, Mattie and her 53-year-old brother, a baker in Ringling, Oklahoma, were the last of the Pistoles.
As Mrs. Farr, however, Mattie became the center of an active household, married to a man with such high expectations for himself that he likely had the same for his wife and children. In 1920, Louis Jr., 26, and James, 20, remained on North Oakes Street, joined by Mattie’s nephew, Jack McLendon, 36. With four men to feed, and her husband’s business associates to entertain, it’s no wonder (the census shows) Mattie employed two cooks that year.
Louis Farr continued to have his hand in multiple enterprises: cattle and sheep, real estate, banking, and oil. He signed on as Ira Yates’ business manager after his old friend and business partner struck oil October 29, 1926. The Yates oilfield strike remains one of the nation’s largest, producing its billionth barrel in 1985.
Yates was with his old friend when, on June 9, 1930, Farr became ill while working at the Wool Grower’s Central Exchange Storage Company, which he had helped organize in 1909. Yates transported him to Scott &White Hospital in Temple, where Farr died early the next morning. An autopsy revealed stomach cancer. He was 64 years old.
Mattie, then 66, became a widow a few weeks before her 23rd wedding anniversary. In his will, Farr left $25,000 to each of his three children. (The oldest, Frank, had died in 1928 of a heart attack). Mattie received $32,408, almost a half million dollars today. The schoolteacher who earned her own living for so long would have no money worries at the end of her life.
With her husband’s death, Mattie’s adult life neatly fell into two 23-year periods, one devoted to career, the other to marriage. She was a woman who had it all, but not all at the same time.
She would not get another 23 years. Soon after Farr’s death, friends noticed Mattie’s active participation in the First Christian Church began to decline. She retreated to North Oakes Street, but she wasn’t alone there. Sometime after his father’s death, James, the youngest Farr, the one who had been only 8 when he lost his mother, moved in with Mattie and brought his new wife, Johnye, with him.
Mattie’s health — and undoubtedly her spirits — had been failing since her husband’s sudden death. So many losses. Two parents, six siblings. She also lost a career when she married Louis Lee Farr, trading it instead for a role. She was the wife of an exceptional man, one she didn’t find until middle age. And now, he was gone.
On November 27, 1934, two days before Thanksgiving, between 1:30 and 4:00 in the afternoon, Mattie picked up a large caliber revolver and took it into her bathroom. It wasn’t a lady’s small pistol, but a man’s large caliber revolver. Probably her husband’s.
When she pulled the trigger, no one heard the shot. Daughter-in-law Johnye had been home at some point in the afternoon, but she had been in another part of the house, she told authorities. James discovered his stepmother’s body at 6 p.m.
Justice of the Peace H.C. Daniel conducted an inquest, finding that Mattie died from a self-inflicted wound. Relatives and close friends expressed shock. They knew she had been ill, they said, but she had seemed to be enjoying life and was in better spirits than she had been for some time.
The funeral was held at First Christian Church approximately 24 hours after Mattie shot herself. She was 70 years old. Her survivors included the three Farr children, her brother James in Oklahoma, and seven step-grandchildren, according to the San Angelo Morning Times.
Three years after her death, a former student published an homage to his teachers, including Mattie, in the Wise County Messenger. Had he published it sooner, it would have made a fitting epitaph. He wrote: She was just as good as she could be.
- Cora’s daughter Fannie married Charles Williamson, whose company Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Co. (est. 1922), manufactures and sells work wear worldwide. Dickie’s pants recently made news as being a favorite of fashionable millennials.
2. Lucie was the daughter of Jacques Adoue who, as the owner of the Calvert Ice, Water and Electric Co, was an important figure throughout Central Texas for warehousing beer for Adolph Busch of St. Louis.
Acknowledgments: Photos of Louis and Nellie Farr courtesy of West Texas Collection, San Angelo State University.
Many thanks to Brittany Wollman at San Angelo State University; to Susan Ball, president of the San Angelo Genealogical and Historical Society; to Barbara Kievet-Mason at Sam Houston State University; and to Cox Crider with the Mexia Public Schools Museum.