The Society works to protect the Swenson legacy & maintain it’s contents. It is making the Swenson House accessible to schools, univeristies civic groups & individuals for education, community events, partnerships with civic orgaizations, docent guided tours, volunteer opportunities, rentals & events. We ask you to join us & support us in keeping the Swenson House a vibrant cornerstone in the City of Abilene for many years to come!
This two-story brick home was designed by Abilene architect William Preston for the family of William Gray & Shirley (McCollum) Swenson and was completed 1910. William Gray & Shirley Swenson met as students at Southwestern University. They married & settled in Abilene, where he had grown up. Swenson was a first generation Swedish-American, & he was a lifelong entrepreneur & businessman in Abilene. His father Swante Johan, who died early, was a nephew of S.M. Swenson, who was the first Swedish person to come to Texas & was Secretary of State under Sam Houston.
The city first enjoyed 24 hour electrical service under his over-sight as Chief of Operations at the Abilene Light & Water Company (eventually West Texas Utilities Company) & another business associated with it, the Abilene Ice Company.
Swenson worked to establish and to serve on the governing boards for the Fort Worth & Denver Railway, the Abilene & Northern Railroad, the Rasco Snyder & Pacific Railroad.
His real estate projects included the Mims building in 1926 and the Hilton hotel in 1927, which was the very first hotel to have the name of Conrad Hilton!
Mr. Swenson had a gift for organizing businesses and was involved in many that helped Abilene grow, including Citizens National Bank, the Hilton (now Windsor) hotel & the Abilene Street Railway Company. He served 8 years on Abilene’s school board, president of the Abilene Improvement Company & president of the Chamber of Commerce. Two years prior to Guglielmo Marconi proclaiming his invention of wireless telegramming, W.G. & his college professor Robert Stewart Hyer had been chatting across town, via their wireless telegramming system. W.G. was a charter member & major financial contributor to Saint Paul Methodist Church, as well.
The Abilene Reporter News begins here a biography, the first complete one ever
compiled, of William Gray Swenson, 86, leader in Abilene business for more than six
Mr. Swenson is a director and was a co-founder of Citizens National Bank, director of
West Texas Utilities Co. and president of its predecessor company, director of the Roscoe,
Snyder and Pacific Railway, a trustee of the Fort Worth and Denver Railway, holder of
extensive properties in Abilene.
He was a leader in the efforts which brought into being the old Abilene streetcar
system, the hotel now known as the Windsor, The Mims building and many other business
With his first-hand knowledge of much of Abilene’s history, with his great intellect and
his keen sense of memory, he is the best of authorities on the birth and development of many
Now, despite his preference that he would avoid publicity, Mr. Swenson has agreed to
share much of this knowledge with the readers of the Reporter News.
He Granted to Assistant Editor Katharyn Duff many hours of interiew time and gave her
access to many files and papers pertinent to the history of Abilene.
The result is a wealth of local historical material, much of it not heretofore in public
The Lengthy interview will be presented in three parts, one each Sunday in this space.
The first part is primarily biographical. The second part wil deal mainly with the development
of banking and utilities in Abilene. The third will tell of milestones in Abilene’s growth into a
City and will give Mr. Swenson’s views on some present day leadership and efforts to make
this a better town.
The Reporter News is deeply indebted to Mr. Swenson for his graciousness and for his
cooperation in this extensive to tell the Abilene story
First of three parts:
Mr. Swenson: Part of Abilene Genesis
W. G. Swenson, a spare, reticent, precise-spoken Abilene businessman, has an
expression which drifts sometimes into the conversation.
“Now, in the beginning here, we. . .” he will say in response to inquiry on some facet of
Such a genesis phrase, “in the beginning,” is from Mr. Swenson’s lips accurate to a
degree it would be from no other living business personality. The pronoun “we,” is revealing
Mr. Swenson has lived almost all of Abilene’s history – and not merely as a spectator.
He helped bring about many of the city’s “beginnings.” He was a leader in that amazing
coterie, that “we,” which poured out the molds, five and six decades ago, for much of present
He continued in a formative force in the growth and development of the town, long after
his contemporaries were gone. And now, approaching his 86 th birthday – he is a year and a
half older than Abilene and has been a resident here since the town was age two – he is still a
major, if a quiet, influence on the business community.
Things have changed somewhat for Mr. Swenson,
His office, in Citizens Bank Building, now has the stillness of a private study and the
telephone rarely jangles. But he is at work here daily, working at the fine old roll-top desk that
has served commerce in princely amounts, business measured through by the years by the
He is unknown to some he might meet on the street as he goes about from this
director’s meeting to that board conference. But those who do greet him as friend are a
significant lot – today’s leaders in business and civic affairs, the white-haired sons and
middle-aged grandsons of the men who were Mr. Swenson’s associates in laying Abilene’s
HE EMBARKS NO MORE on the daring business ventures which once were for him
But let not that or the other facts of age 86 be misleading. He is still very much a part of
His questions in a director’s meeting at Citizens National Bank or West Texas Utilities
are as penetrating here in the electronic age as they were back when the electric motor was
new. He is as aware of today’s potentials as he was of the possibilities of wireless telegraph
back when he and a professor managed such a message two years before Marconi
announced his discovery.
He is yet, at 86, the complex man he has always been – an alert businessman
engrossed with the cold facts of business and an erudite man with the educated interests of
He can quote, if you wish, a Horace ode learned long ago. (“You ‘sing’ Horace’s Latin,
not say it,” he explains.)
He keeps a New Testament in his desk drawer – a New Testament in the original
Greek which he reads.
His is a business office there in the Citizens Building, with ledgers, with files crowded
with business papers.
But atop his desk stand magnificent pieces of art, gold aftabas, those tall, long-
spouted, urns from the Middle East which he collects.
And his ledger, too, is typically contradictory.
In it are penned the figures which represent his daily business operations, also, with
notations he makes on daily Abilene events and people, a sort of history of this town he
MR. SWENSON IS NOW the senior member of a Swedish clan identified with Texas
since a great-uncle, S. M. Swenson came here in the days of Sam Houston’s republic.
This Abilene branch, of which Mr. Swenson was the only child, was established here
by Swante Johan Swenson, father of the Abilenian.
S. J. Swenson was an engineer, educated at the Royal University of Sweden, who,
because of his health came to the United States in 1869 at the invitation of his uncle, S. M.
As a newcomer to America he worked in the S. M Swenson & Sons Bank, 52 Wall
Street, in New York, an institution still in operation, then moved to Louisiana to manage a
Swenson sugar plantation.
He was married in this country to Kizzie Chapman Browne, daughter of the George
William Gray Brownes.
(This Mr. Browne, incidentally was a college friend of a young poet named Henry
Wadsworth Longfellow. Through the years the poet sent his friend manuscript copies of much of his work.
These precious pieces were in Mr. Browne’s desk at an office he had as a land
official when the Texas Capital burned last century and the poems were destroyed.)
(This Mr. Browne’s son, George, was the father of Lloyd Browne and Mrs Lester
Gorsuch of Abilene and the late Gray Browne, making them and Mr. Swenson cousins.)
Mr. Swenson was born Dec 8, 1879 on the plantation in Saint Mary’s Parish, Louisiana.
He was named William Gray, a name which became to contemporaries, “Willie Gray.”
The family, because of the father’s health, came to Texas while Willie Gray was a baby
and to Austin where the father was in the banking business and where he helped build the old
Avenue Hotel. (Mr. Swenson was enumerated at Austin in the 1880 census, The Bureau of
Census found when it searched its records a few years ago n helping him obtain a birth
Already S. J. Swenson had an assignment from the family firm of S. M. Swenson &
sons, to locate land to redeem railroad script which Swenson interests held. There had been
controversy over the script for the railroad, the old BBB&C failed. But since the Swensons had
bought the paper in good faith, the Legislature passed a special act honoring it.
The first trips out into this country to locate land, by Swenson, a cousin, E. P., and a
surveyor named Martin Duval, were made before Abilene was founded.
The ranch land, some 500 sections at the time, was located in Jones, Throckmorton
and adjoining counties.
Mr. Swenson’s mother, Mrs. S. J. Swenson, named the new ranches – Mount Albin,
Noraland, Ellerslie and the like, taking names from the writings of a new author whose stories
she was reading in current publications, a writer named Sir Walter Scott.
S. J. SWENSON was put in charge of the ranch holdings and the family moved from
Austin to a home on the Ellerslie, about seven miles north of present day Anson.
The father’s health continued to deteriorate.
In early 1883 it was determined he must be nearer to medical help so the family,
parents and small son, Willie Gray, moved to the brand new town of Abilene, a community
born in March 1881.
The father bought Section 34, Blind Asylum Land Survey and built there the family
Mrs. Swenson named the ranch Ridgeland
The section was at the northeast fringe of Abilene north and East of the town’s
cemetery, One of its boundaries is now known as N. 10 th St., another as Treadaway, another
as the Albany Highway. The main Abilene Christian College campus is located in what was
Ridgeland’s “big pasture.”
The land was purchased for $10 an acre.
THE CHILD, WILLIE GRAY, attended Abilene private and public schools, graduating
from Abilene High, class of 1897. (His ‘97 diploma is one of his many keepsakes.)
As a boy he grew up with other youngsters whose names were to be well known in
He remembers, particularly, two youngsters who were almost the same age, about five
years junior to him.
One was the Baptist preacher’s boy, Bernard Hanks, who went on to go into the
newspaper business and be the long time publisher of this newspaper, which his family still
owns and to be a partner in the far-flung Harte-Hanks newspaper operation.
Another was a boy named Bill Fulwiler who went on to build a large business
organization which his heirs still own.
William Gray was briefly in Texas A&M College. (One of his teen-age pictures in A&M
uniform shows what great changes cadet garb has undergone through the years.)
But it was at Southwestern University, Georgetown, that he secured his higher
And quite an education it was.
He has kept grade reports from Southwestern and they show he took the stiffest of
courses, the classics, Greek, physics, logic, chemistry, philosophy and the like.
They also show he made the best of grades, a succession of near-perfect, some even
Those Swenson grades have become, in fact, something in Southwestern history. A
few years ago, his fraternity, Phi Delta Theta, borrowed Mr. Swenson’s copies of them and
had them reproduced, mounted and put in the Southwestern museum as proof the fraternity
holds the school’s all-time academic honors.
Mr. Swenson’s four-year average, between 97 and 98, is unequaled, hardly
approached, in the 120 years of the school, he was advised.
SOUTHWESTERN HAD lifetime influence on Mr. Swenson.
Some of the learning was for scholarship’s sake – he could have a New Testament in
English as easily as the Greek version. (and, he confesses, he never reached the level of
Greek his old professor wanted. This man believed you had to be able to “think in Greek”
before you knew the language and Mr. Swenson never did get that skill)
Some of his learning had practical application as well.
Electricity was newer then and so were some fo the other sciences. He became
interested in them.
He and a professor friend, R. S. Hyer, did a lot of experimenting with this new idea of
“wireless telegraph.” They rigged up equipment with which they sent such a message two
miles across Georgetown. And a couple of years later, Marconi, the Italian physicist,
announced his discoveries in the field.
This science interest formed a fine background later for his business interests in
utilities. For one major application – when he became manager and president of the local
electricity company – he wired the switchboard himself.
He picked up, also at Southwestern, knowledge of architecture so that he could draw
the plans and specifications for personal and business buildings.
It was out of his Southwestern friendship with Prof. Hyer that Mr. Swenson got his
interest in Southern Methodist University. Mr. Hyer went on to found SMU and Mr. Swenson,
by the gift to that effort, became one of the honored group known as “SMU Founders.”
(When World War I came along, Mr. Swenson was above age for combat but was
interested in civilian work in the war effort. One of his prized papers is a letter of
recommendation from SMU President Hyer in which he described Swenson as “The best
practical electrician in Texas.”
IT WAS AT Southwestern that Mr. Swenson met his wife, Shirley McCollum, whose
half brother was a professor of modern languages at the school.
Mr. Swenson’s father was dead, succoming here in May of 1884, a year or so after the
family moved to Abilene. Mrs. Swenson, the mother, died while Willie Gray was in college, in
June of 1898.
On his 21 st birthday Mr. Swenson went to New York to receive his estate, then valued
at around $40,000, from the family bank which had been executor.
He was graduated from college and on Feb. 1 st 1902, he was married to Miss
McCullom at the plantation home of the bride’s parents on the Colorado River in Fayette
The couple’s first home was a new one for which he had drawn the plans and specs,
complete with recessed windows such as some in Georgetown he admired. The house, cost
$4,300, was at the southwest corner of N. 2 nd and Mulberry.
This was home until 1910, when the Swensons moved into the rambling, two-story,
home they built in the 1700 block of the street which bears their name.
Mr. and Mrs. Swenson live still in this home, in recent years a quiet life with little
inolvement in social affairs. Two Children share the home with them, a daughter, Mrs Evalyn
S. Fields and a son, Earl Gray, retired after 30 years serice with the Library of Congress in
Dorothy, the Swenson’s other daughter is Mrs. Jarrell B. Crow of Houston. Her
husband, a longtime Houston businessman, was president of the Frazier Brick Co. which he
sold recently to Acme Brick.
Bill Jr., the other son, lives in Fort Worth and is an executive in the Cox dry goods
merchandising organization which his wife’s family owns, an organization which has several
There are five Swenson grandchildren, all girls, and six great-grandchildren.
THIS CENTURY WAS new when Mr. Swenson returned to Abilene to get himself
launched in business.
Abilene was a new town, about two decades old, a town roughly the size of present
day Rotan or Winters. (Population here, 1900, 3411)
He had no thought but to return to Abilene – just as he has had little thought but to
remain in Abilene when opportunities have come through the years to cast his lot with cities
Abilene was his home. Here were his friends.
And the list of those friends, business and personal, makes up quite a roll call.
One of the boyhood friends had moved, Clarence Dillon, whose family name had once
been Lapowski, gone east where the name Dillon came to be attached to New York big
business and, by current Dillons, to high government service. (Other Swenson papers dearly
prized are “Dear Willie Gray” personal letters from the late Financier Dillon.
One friend, a close personal one, was a newcomer –attorney Tom Davidson whom Mr.
Swenson had known in college and whom he had persuaded to move out to Abilene.
Many of the other friends had names long associated with Abilene.
All in all there was on hand a remarkable group of young and middle-aged
businessmen when Mr. Swenson came home to go to work, men eager and daring and able.
There were some “youngsters” in the group, Bernard Hanks and Bill Fulwiler and the
like. There were “oldtimers” still in their prime, J. H. Paramore, Clabe Merchant and the rest.
There were such fellows as J. M. Wagstaff, Ed S. Hughes, Col. Morgan Jones, George
L. Paxton Sr., Horace Wooten, Jim Radford, Abdon Holt, John Guitar Sr., Henry James, Will
Minter and so on and on.
No ordinary fellows, these. And no ordinary times, those early years of the century.
It was a time for action and these were ready for action.
With a handshake they would form companies, with a telephone call set up a new
enterprise. They might be competitors here and partners there. And they were energetic.
Through an amazing two decades and a half, an era in which modern industry and
commerce were being born, men such as these took a sleepy village and shaped it into a
bustling town, laying foundations on which their children and grandchildren could build a
And one of their leaders, the young man whose tasks seemed to be “to do the walking
and the talking” getting an idea started, was this one who kept his double game, Willie Gray.
ALONG WITH BUSINESS young Swenson took on civic duties as they came along.
He was school trustee eight years, 1917-1925, during which time there was a major
building program, Travis, College Heights and Lamar grade schools and a new high school
now known as Lincoln Junior. (During this time, too, Mr. Swenson notes, women were first
called on for trustee duty.)
He served his turn a a chamber of commerce worker, including presidency of the C-C
He served his church, First Methodist, then St. Paul after he and other Methodists met
at the old opera house to form that congregation. He was a major contributor to St. Paul’s first
building – paying his part in cash, declining, as always, to go on someone else’s note, even a
He was on the city’s first zoning board, the one which laid down the pattern for modern
zoning, a board on which he served with the late E. A. Ungren and the late Charles Motz.
Business was his prime interest and business for him was a broad term, encompassing
utilities, railroads, banking, ice manufacturing, residential and business real estate
He was so much a part of all this for so long that he is the most authoritative, and
incidentally, the most accurate, source of information on how Abilene business came to be
what it is.
He knows highlights of the history and delights in some of the tales.
There was this longtime business leader, for example, who was keen on commerce but
a bit week in education. He mangled the English language and in a fashion that got
sometimes on the nerves of Ed S. Hughes, A Princetonian.
They would be in a business conference and someone would ask this leader’s opinion,
Mr. Swenson recounts, and the fellow would say, “Oh, it’s imperial with me.”
That would set Mr. Hughes grammatical teeth on edge.
There was an expression of Mr. Radford’s which Mr Swenson enjoys using, “now to get
down to the pointplank of it. . .”
There was that Abilene businessman who did like to have a healthy highball of an
evening and one time. Mr. and Mrs. Swenson were visiting when he had had such a relaxing
The host got to talking about the hot weather.
“It’s not the heat, Willie Gray, it’s the humility. . .”
Then he tried it again a bit later.
“I tell you Willie Gray, it’s not the heat, it’s the timidity. . .”
Mr. Swenson knows too the serious stories of business development.
Two of these, of which he was a most important part, are the stories of utilities and
banking, particularly West Texas Utilities Co. and Citizens National Bank.
The stories of these, as Mr. Swenson has lived them, will be presented in next
Sunday’s edition of this newspaper.
2nd of Series
This is the second of a three-part informal “history” of Abilene business as revealed in
a lengthy interview granted the Abilene Reporter-News by W. G. Swenson, one of the
architects of community life. The third portion will be presented next Sunday.
Drama, Courage fill business History
W. G. Swenson, elder statesman of West Texas business who will be 86 next
Wednesday, has been an eyewitness to or a participant in all but the first few of the episodes
and epics which make up the history of are commerce.
As a child he saw the development of the tent village of Abilene into a bustling town of
budding enterprises – he has live here since he was age 4 and the town was age 2.
He became very much a part of that building and budding when he came home in
1901, equipped with a small inheritance from his father and with an education in which he set
acedemic records at Southwestern University, to begin a business career in Abilene.
During the six-plus decades since, he has engaged in various enterprises – banking,
utilities, railroading, residential and commercial real estate, ice manufacturing.
These are still his major interests – except ice. Earlier this year he sold his interests in
his last ice business.
He is director now of the Citizens National Bank he helped found.
He is a director of West Texas Utilities Co., whose predecessor company he helped
build and in whose parent company, Central and South west, He is a major figure.
He is a director of the Roscoe, Snyder and Pacific Railroad, which he helped build, and
a trustee of the Burlington-Fort Worth & Denver lines, a title inherited as founder-director in a
line now incorporated into that system.
Some of the buildings he helped bring about are now sold, the Windsor Hotel and the
Mims Building, to name a couple, but he still owns and manages others.
Mr. Swenson has, therefore, the position and the perspective to tell the history of local
As sample credentials: He co-signed the first money issued by Citizens National bank,
back when banks issued money; he put in the first 24-hour electricity service Abilene had; he
had the ceremonial duty of piloting Abilene’s first streetcar on it’s first run, and quite a tale that
was; he was one of the leaders in the fights for railroads and he suffered, along with other
Abilenians, some classic railroad defeats, at least one of which proved a blessing in diguise.
MR. SWENSON DID not know Abilene’s very first bank, the Cameron Bank, but he has
been personally acquainted with the others which have come and gone, which have come
In the first days after Abilene was opened in March of 1881 banking was highly
informal, Merchants simply did double duty by assuming responsibility of customer’s money.
Officially, Mr. Swenson says, the first Abilene bank was the Wm. Cameron Bank
located, according to his memory, at N 2 nd and Pine.
The first bank to assume an important role, and it was a large one, came about in 1884
when Otto W. Steffens, one of the key figures in Abilene’s history, founded here The First
“Notice that ‘The’ in its name,” Mr. Swenson says. Such articles and prepositions in the
name of a local bank are significant, he points out.
A year or so later The Abilene National Bank appeared, including in its makeup the old
Cameron and bringing to Abilene another key everyday figure, J. G. Lowden.
The banks, the First National and the Abilene National, came to be identified as the
“Steffens bank” and the “Lowden Bank” and both grew into large operations.
In 1898 the two joined, becoming a denationalized, private bank known as Steffens &
In the meantime, at the first of 1890, another bank had come into being, The Farmers
& Merchants National Bank established by Maj. Gen. F. W. James, a Civil War veteran who
already had a bank at Baird.
The F&M, in which Gen. James’ son Henry, and Abilene Businessman Ed S. Hughes
were interested, opened for business on the east side of Chestnut, next to the old Palace
Hotel, Mr. Swenson recalls.
(The F&M changed it’s name to “First National” – without the “The.”)
THE TWO BANKS, F&M and Steffens & Lowden were serving Abilene when Mr.
Swenson came home from college, ready to go into some sort of business.
He had opportunity shortly.
J. M. Wagstaff, then beginning to come into his prime as an Abilene lawyer after
moving here from Buffalo Gap where he had been Presbyterian College president, proposed
to young Willie Gray Swenson that they start a third bank here. Some others joined in on it,
Miles Cope, County Judge D. G. Hill, George Clayton, a merchant who had not heretofore
had much use for banks.
The idea matured. A charter was issued. The bank opened for business Nov. 2, 1902,
in a building at N. 1 st and Pine, a building which was a part of Mr. Swenson’s story of real
estate development, the first commercial structure which he helped build.
The bank was named, Citizens National of Abilene. (“Note the ‘of,’” Mr. Swenson says.)
Mr. Wagstaff was president, Mr. Swenson the Cashier and active manager.
These two signed the money, “national currency which the bank issued. The very first
five-dollar bill, the one marked “No. 1” has been preserved, mounted, it sits now on the desk
of Citizens Bank president Oliver Howard.
MR. SWENSON REMAINED cashier-manager until there appeared in the Citizen’s
story another name prominent in banking history, that of George Paxton Sr.
Paxton, who had been a merchant here in earlier days before he became a banker,
joined Citizens, acquiring controlling interest, became the chief operating officer.
After a time as cashier, Mr. Paxton became president in 1910.
Mr. Swenson kept his interest in the bank, continued a director, and was named vice-
president after Mr. Paxton became president.
He has continued a vice-president even though, he says, the title is now honorary in
The Citizens, under Mr. Paxton’s guidance. Grew and developed as Abilene did – and
then in time, there came the depression.
Banks were closing, right and left, and among the many noble battles fought by
bankers to keep instutions stable was the historic fight Mr. Paxton waged.
Mr. Paxton sold to J. M. Radford many personal holding to aid the bank, including the
Paxton building on Cypress and the Paxton interests in the Medical Arts Building and the
Mims Building, two in which he was associated with Mr. Swenson.
IN THE MIDST of all this hard work Mr. Paxton became ill, Mr. Swenson recalls.
But he had others who were in the fight with him to help the ban, Will Fulfiler Sr., Mr.
Wagstaff, Mr. Swenson and a Paxton son-in-law then wel known for his recent service as
governor of Texas, Dan Moody.
The bank went into voluntary liquidation to reorganize and a new bank was chartered,
named “The Citizens National bank in Abilene. (“Notice the ‘in,’” Mr. Swenson says. The
preposition, ‘in’ for the original ‘of’ was the only change in the name.)
There were some dramatic moments during all this, Mr. Swenson recalls.
At one stage there was an elaborate code system worked out with which to keep secret
conversations via long distance phone between the bank and Federal Reserve officials.
“I remember we would call Fulwiler ‘Bill’ and Wag (Mr. Wagstaff) was ‘Jack’ and we
would refer to loans as ‘merchandise,’” he says.
The reorganization was perfected and the bank came through it’s experience in
condition it could grow and prosper. Mr. Paxton became board chairman in 1934. He died in
1935. Malcolm Meek succeeded him as president and served until retirement when Howard
took over the post.
Mr. Swenson has officed, since selling the Mims Building, on the fifth floor of the
Citizens’ magnificent new building in the 400 block of Cypress.
THERE HAVE BEEN many other banks in Abilene, leading up to the present complex
There was a First State Bank in early years There were the Central State, Commercial
National, Guaranty State.
And there was the American National, one which had a dramatic, and unexpected,
effect on Mr. Swenson’s business career.
This all took place in the early part of this century.
The American National Bank was organized by the same interests which owned
Steffens and Lowden, Bankers, The private instution.
These same interests also owned three of the local utility firms, The Abilene power and
Light Co., which provided electricity, the Lytle Ice Co., which provided that then – essential
service and the Lytle Water Co., which had taken over municipal water system as the young
City of Abilene cided a water system was a big undertaking for local government and could
best be handled by private enterprise.
Then, in early 1905, The American National Bank became solvent and was placed into
The bank trouble had resultant effects on the power, ice, and water companies. (The
gas company was owned by another group, a Minter – Radford – Batjer combine, Mr.
Mr. Swenson, Mr. Wagstaff and Mr. Paxton among others, had great faith in the
distressed power, ice and water firms – and set out to salvage them.
A “creditors committee” was formed. Mr Swenson and Mr. Wagstaff went far and near
working up the deal, all the way from a Tombstone, Ariz., bank to Hanover National in New
At one stage of the effort Mr Swenson recalls, Hanover sent into Abilene under the
assumed name of “Mr. Elmer” an executive vice president named Elmer Whittaker to help
straighten out Hanover bank’s portion ot the matters.
Out of all this came a new combine, some known and some “behind the scenes” –
Swenson, Wagstaff, Paxton, Ed S.Hughes, Henry James and later, Col. Morgan Jones and
others – which became the “sole creditors” for the three troubled utility firms.
The three companies were organized into two, Abilene Light and Abilene Ice Co. –
With Mr. Swenson president of both.
“NOW, TO BEGIN AT the beginning,”to use a phrase which steals into Mr. Swenson’s
conversation, Abilene got it’s first electricity in the early 1890’s from a plant operated originally
by Walter Jennings and a Mr. Kelly who came here from Weatherford.
Various people were at one time or another interested in the production and sale of
electricity before the owners of American National had the company.
The first real power plant here, Mr Swenson recalls, was a “direct” current plant built on
the creek on the eastern edge of town. Wires strung to bring the low-voltage power into town
were big ones, an inch in diameter, he remembers.
Most homes and stores were wired for lights, he says, but the only appliances were a
few electric fans and a few electric irons.
Service, when Mr. Swenson went in as president – manager, was from dusk until
“When the Elks had their big Elks Ball or when there was some other big party or event
in town, those running it would have to telephone us to request we keep the lights burning
MR. SWENSON HAD from college training some technical background for his new job.
(Personally he wired the new switchboard which was installed.)
He went to work as president of the two-fold firm in the spring of 1906.
He recalls that the new company hired as bookkeeper young W. J. Fulwiler – who had
to go to court and have his “disabilities as a minor” removed so he could qualify as a notary
Mr. Swenson updated the plant to provide 24-hour electric service.
He put in diesel engines, the first ever installed in this part of the country, two of them
with a steam turbine as stand-by. He recalls the main shafts of the machines were from
Krupps works in Germany so that, in case of trouble, replacement was not simple.
Mr. Swenson set about to increase the use of electric power, to add to the limited
demands made by lights fans and irons. He began preaching to local businessmen that they
could add a belt to an electric motor and with it run meat grinders, printing presses and such.
Many listened and applied the new technique.
He worked, also, to better the service in the other utility fields under his direction.
Water distribution lines were extended, the water works was improved with new
machinery and a new standpipe, the big one on old “standpipe hill” in South Abilene, was
The town grew and the utility operations grew and as they did a new idea was growing
in American commerce generally.
“We had in this country a craze for developing “holding companies,” Mr. Swenson
And the holding company idea came to Abilene in 1912, brought here by one John R.
DAWSON WAS THE agent for eastern capitalists.
In Abilene he worked up a deal whereby those interests purchased the power and
water and ice companies held by the Swenson group and the gas company owned by the
The Package deal was effective Dec. 1, 1912, all local properties power, gas, water
and ice, delivered to the new owners on that date.
The name for the new company formed by the purchasing group was suggested by Mr.
Swenson: American Public Service Co.
This was the beginning, here in Abilene, of the company which became a giant.
At one time or another many big names in American finance were associated with
American Public Service, New York, Boston, Philadelphia names. And ther came to be with it
a family name which was, before many years, a household word around the country, Insull.
Samuel Insull, a Briton who came to this country to become private secretary to
Thomas A. Edison, and his brother, Martin, added American Public Service to the empire they
were building, an empire which became a $2-billion giant.
As Encyclopedia Britannica describes him, Samuel Insull was “a public utilities
executive known for his contributions to good utility operations and his mistakes in utility
That description is apt, Mr. Swenson says from his long association with the man.
With Samuel Insull Mr. Swenson’s dealings were business.
With Martin Insull it was a matter of friendship as well.
Among Mr. Swenson’s papers are warm personal correspondence with Martin Insull
including one letter written from a charity home for the aged in Ontario where Martin Insull
died in 1935 after the collapse in 1932 of the Insull empire.
In this letter Mr. Insull remarked to Mr Swenson, “if bad judgment be a crime. . .many
would be behind bars. . .”
AFTER THE ABILENE properties were delivered to American Public Service Mr.
Swenson continued for a time as local manager.
He acquired, in the transaction, stock in the new organization and he added to it
through the years.
Mr. Swenson, in association with col. Morgan Jones, became interested in several
other utility operating companies here in Texas.
He and Col. Jones in 1913 obtained the Childress and Memphis properties which they
operated for a time before selling to Houston interests. They bought the defunct Haskell ice
and electricity works, in 1915, revamped them, building transmission lines to Rule, Knox City,
Munday and Goree, among the first such lines in Texas, and later sold the property to Insull
interests for cash and common stock.
Mr. Swenson also handled some of the transactions for the Insulls. As an example of
his working relations with the utility financiers take the Fredericksburg case: One day there
came to Swenson in Abilene a telegram asking that he go purchase Fredericksburg – no
other instruction given. And he did, price and arrangements as he could work them out.
The most difficult such assignment, Mr. Swenson recalls, was the purchase of San
Angelo Utilities from the New York owner, A. E. Fitkin, after Insull envoys and Fitkin could not
This required the Abilenian four trips to New York and two to Chicago – plus the
assistance he could get from the S, M. Swenson & Sons New York connections serving as
MUCH OF THE story of the Insull drama can be read in Mr. Swenson’s files. He has a
stack of stock certificates representing various companies Insull formed in his effort to save
his intricate operation.
These worthless certificates do not mean, however, that Mr. Swenson lost heavily with
the Insull fall – on the contrary. When the smoke all cleared away he had profited.
From his firsthand knowledge of the working properties on which Insull built his holding
company operations Mr. Swenson knew there were good investments to be had.
After the Insull collapse a “salvage company” was organized to pick up these pieces.
And out of that there emerged the vast, and solid, Central and Southwest, the company which
owns the common stock of west Texas Utilities Company and of three other power companies
in the Southwest.
(To explain the scope of the Insull collapse and it’s effect, Me. Swenson gives this
example: In the fall of 1929 there was a 10 for 1 split of some stock. After the collapse there
was what he calls a “100 to 1 reverse split.” of the same stock.)
Mr. Swensn had great faith in the future of the utility operating company so during
those days of shifting organization he bought stock in various ones of them, often at what he
terms “ridiculously low” prices.
He became, as a result of these investments, a major stockholder of Central and
Southwest. He was approached at one time with the idea of serving on it’s board but he
declined for he did not like to fly and train trips to board meetings would be time consuming.
But he accepted a directorship of the Abilene – based West Texas Utilities Co. He was
named to the first board when WTU was organized by American Public Service in the early
‘20’s and has continued on the board as WTU has grown to be the great company it now is.
As director he has been closely associated with all the WTU presidents, George Fry,
the first one, Price Campbell, Cal Young, S. B. Phillips Jr. and since Phillips moved up
recently to the presidency of central and Southwest, Roff Hardy.
BANKING AND utilities, two industries in which Mr. Swenson had faith that has been
more than vindicated, are vital in the development of community commerce.
Other forms of business are, too.
The ice business was once a key one – and Mr. Swenson was for 59 consecutive
years an iceman.
He got into ice manufacturing here along with the power business and stayed in it until
He was interested at various times in ice plants at Sweetwater, Childress, Haskell,
Memphis and other towns. In 1924 he helped form, with his old Abilene Associate, Abdon
Holt, the Peoples Ice Co. of Lubbock. He sold the half interest he and his children owned in
Peoples last February to a Plainview investor.
Real estate and Railroads are two other bed – rock enterprises in a growing area and
they are two others in which Mr. Swenson has been deeply interested.
He helped build two short-line railroads, Abilene Northern and Roscoe, Snyder and
Pacific, the latter headed by Don Wooten, a grandson of Mr. Swenson’s old friend, Horace (H.
He was one of the trio that built the Mims Building, was president of a small group
which, through an agreement penciled on a piece of Citizens Bank stationary, built the
building now known as the Windsor Hotel.
He was involved in residential developments – which, in turn, got him into a streetcar
All of these were activities which helped bring about a city.
The story of them will be the conclusion of this three-part series on Mr. Swenson next
3RD IN A SERIES
Of Rails, Hotels and a ‘Wild’ Trolley
The two “in the beginning” stories which younger Abilenians ask him about most
frequently, says longtime Abilenian W G. Swenson, are the tale of the Thomas Flyer and the
tale of the streetcar’s maiden voyage.
These are two of the many stories which crowd the memory of the Quiet Mr. Swenson,
86 last Wednesday, resident of Abilene since the town was age two and he was age 4, a
leader in the select combine which laid Abilene’s financial foundations.
Some of these tales which he reviewed for the Reporter-news readers in a rare, and
lengthy, interview granted the newspaper, are.
The railroad battles won – particularly, the founding of the Abilene Northern and the
Roscoe, Snyder and Pacific.
The railroad battles lost by Abilenians – particularly the one lost with the Santa Fe and
the “blessed failure” of the line to Cross Plains.
The building of the Mims Building – a three-man project set up by long distance phone.
And along with these major stories, vignettes which reflect the courage, imagination
and cooperation which marked the efforts of Abilene’s builders.
THE THOMAS FLYER, about which Mr. Swenson is often asked, was the most famous
automobile ever to be on the Abilene scene.
It was the most famous simply because it was the very first gasoline car on the Abilene
John Guitar Sr. bought it originally and it was believed at the time to be the first auto
sold in Texas west of Fort Worth.
It came to town in 1903.
After about six weeks as a motorist Mr. Guitar decided that mode of transportation was
not for him and he sold the car to the daring young Willie gray Swenson, then a budding
banker latey graduated from Southwestern University.
The Flyer and Mr. Sweson were well identified, each with the other.
The motorcar was a beauty, a two-seater with a gasoline engine, chain drive, lever
steering, no top and kerosene lamps.
You cranked it up from the side and entered it from the rear and it was quite a thing, a
minority of one motor amid the horse-drawn traffic which then crowded Abilene’s dusty
It sputtered and popped and snorted a bit but it would certainly move, living up to its
name, Thomas Flyer. Scaring horses as it went, trailing streams of children screaming with
delight at the sight and sound, the Flyer would hit, everything working right, 20 miles an hour!
But there were problems with it, Mr. Swenson recalls.
One was fuel.
To feed the Flyer, he would take a five-gallon can into the back of the grocery store
where there would be, if luck held, a supply of gasoline. (One time a fellow filled the car for
him and by mistake, put in kerosene. It was quite a job, cleaning it all out.)
But, before long the Thomas Flyer had sputtering companions on the streets and it
wasn’t long before “filling stations” began to appear.
THE STREETCAR TALE was described in a newspaper the day after it happened, in
an account printed in the Nov. 30, 1908 Abilene Daily Reporter, as “positively the funniest
thing that has happened in Abilene history.”
Now the street railway had just come to Abilene and the story behind it’s coming is one
Mr. Swenson now reveals.
The streetcar project was not designed to be a profitable venture in itself.
Rather, it was planned to help real estate development.
Mr. Swenson was developing into a residential area this 87-acre pasture he had out to
the north of town, a pasture stretching from the edge of the Simmons campus southwest to
some property owned by his friend and business associate, Attorney J. M. Wagstaff.
Mr. Swenson called his new addition “College Heights.”
He was then president of the locally owned Abilene Light and Water Co. (among other
enterprises he headed,) and he had these utility facilities stalled into his new development
and he had the streets for it graded.
This first College Heights project was followed right away by a second one.
Mr. Swenson, Mr. Wagstaff and J. H. Parramore, one of the area’s pioneer ranchers,
pooled some of their land and got some from Clabe Merchant and developed a 130-acre
stretch just west of the original development.
They sold this one off in full blocks – “estate type” residential locations. Mr. Wagstaff
had one block, site of the longtime Wagstaff home at N. 14 th and Grape. Mr. Swenson built on
the block he reserved the house which is still home for him and his wife and their family.
And in the meantime, over on the southwest edge of Abilene, the Sayles family, also
prominent in Abilene’s history, was cutting up another pasture to be a residential area, a part
of town which came to be known as “Fair Park.”
The Swenson – Wagstaff – Parramore efforts and the other ones were going well, but
the new home sites were certainly far from town.
So this idea of building a street railway to connect with downtown, a line which would
stretch from Simmons College all the way to Fair Park, or at least the new boulevard which
bore the Sayles name.
MR. SWENSON WAS principal organizer, and was named president of, The Abilene
Street Railway Co. which was formed to build and operate the line. (This presidency added to
his other ones.)
The first run of the first car was set on a Sunday (so there would be fewer horses on
the streets to be frightened by the thing) and a gala occasion it was.
Thirty-six community leaders, the Who’s Who of Abilene ‘08, rode that first car. George
Paxton was the honorary conductor. Mr. Swenson, as president of the company, had the
honor of being the motorman.
The car made it’s triumphant trip, the six miles, car barn to Simmons to S. 7 th and
Sayles, Mr. Swenson at the controls.
Then it got to the end of the line and something happened. In the words of the current
“Out by the Sayles residence…the brakes of the car refused to work and the pesky
critter ran clear off the end of the track, into a telephone pole, barbed wire fence and a muddy
ditch…W.G. Swenson was at the throttle and when he saw his brakes were refusing to work,
he whisted frantically for air, which, when it did not come, proved the car’s undoing. But,
engineer Swenson gamely stuk to his post, refusing to jump.
None of the passengers was hurt, but for some scratches and cuts, but they were
certainly a dirty lot when it was over. To continue the ‘08 Reporter account:
“The party of citizens thronged on the platform, did Brodie stunts in various directions,
landing promiscously in the mud on either side of the car. Swenson, however, swung to the
emergency brake and finally got his engine under control.”
The street railway system, dubbed by Simmons students as “Galloping Goose,”
continued to operate, breaking even or better, and became a part of the American Public
Service Co. when other Abilene utilities were sold by Mr. Swenson and other owners to the
newly formed holding company.
Mr. and Coke Mingus, another longtime Abilenian, are the last surviving of the 36
business leaders who made that initial, and exciting, streetcar ride.
DURING THE FIRST quarter of this century Mr. Swenson was associated in many
business enterprises with Col. Morgan Jones, an Englishmen who came to this country as a
youth and who came to be an outstanding railroad-builder. (He was an uncle of three brothers
famed in the Abilene story, Morgan Jones Sr., Percy Jones and Roland Jones. The Colonel’s
grandnephews include two prominent present – day Abilenians, school board president
Morgan Jr. and State Rep. Grant Jones)
Mr. Swenson and Mr. Jones were associates in several utility developments,projects in
which they bought local properties, developed and expanded them, then sold them, in major
instances, to the Insull-controlled holding companies for cash and common stock in larger
And Mr. Swenson was associated with Col. Jones in the development of the Abilene
The Abilene Northern was a segment of a line which was put together to run north –
south to connect, eventually, Wichita Falls with the Ballinger area.
The first segment, south out of Wichita Falls, was the Wichita Valley line which reached
originally to Seymour.
Col. Jones, who was a key figure in just about every railroad venture in this area, was
in on this and, after some reorganization, brought the line on to Stamford.
The Abilene Northern ws formed by an Abilene group to take the line north from
Abilene to join the Stamford connection. (One version of this arrangement is that the
Abilenians took the lead because WV feared to “invade” T&P territory.)
Mr. Swenson, as on many other undertaking, did the walking and talking” which
brought the Abilene Northern about. His associates included Ed S. Hughes, George Paxton,
Abdon Holt and Henry James.
Mr. Swenson did the actual work of lining up rights-of-way. This finished, Col. Jones
directed the construction of the line.
Mr. Swenson continued a director of the Abilene Northern from 1906 until the line
became part of the Burlington system. He now carries the title of “trustee” of the parent
BANKER F. W. JAMES and his son, Henry, were prime movers in the establishment of
the RS&P, Mr. Swenson Recalls.
Mr. Swenson was involved, too. He and Ed S. Hughes signed the charter which formed
the RS&P company in 1906.
The line was built in 1907 and was in full operation in the next year. Eventually, the
Snyder – Fluvanna service was lopped off and it came to serve just the first two towns of it’s
Shortly after it was started Horace O. Wooten became interested in the RS&P and his
heirs are major holders of it, a grandson, Don, now the President.
Mr. Swenson, while not financially interested in the line, continues as a director of it
An unusual railroad the RS&P is, Mr. Swenson says, it was the first “all-diesel” line –
“It begins nowhere and it ends nowhere,” Mr. Swenson describes it’s round trip
Roscoe and Snyder.
But a profitable line it is hauling freight routed along it in the interchange between the
Santa Fe and the T&P.
And among the unusual aspects – it may run but a few miles but it has solicitors in 21
major shipping points of the nation selling its service.
THR RS&P WAS IN a way tied with one of the major railroad fights in Abilene’s history-
– a fight Abilene lost, a fight which left wounds decades in the healing.
Abilene was formed by the T&P, coming into existence as a “promotion” of that line as
it pushed west across Texas in the early 1880’s, Mr. Swenson reminds, setting the scene for
In the era between the Civil War and the auto age whih was born with World War I
railroads were the most important facility towns must have to prosper.
Abilene had the east – west service of the T&P. But, Abilene leaders wanted wider rail
They set out early this century to get the Santa Fe, then planning to run southeast-
northwest across West Texas through this town.
The Santa Fe had advanced to Brownwood and had a route surveyed through Abilene.
But the line was not built.
So restless Abilenians, led by Gen. Fleming James, decided to get together and build a
line to Brownwood.
The Santa Fe pointed to its Abilene plan and got Mr. James to give up his Beownwood
idea. (That’s when he built the RS&P instead, Mr. Swenson says.)
The Santa Fe was now committed, by oral statement and by a letter to Henry Sayles
Jr., to build its line to the plains through Abilene – at least Abilenians thought so, Mr. Swenson
But, when the projected line bean to be a reality in 1909, it was routed through
Sweetwater, and not Abilene.
The Abilene group, learning this, went into action fast. A delegation including Mr.
swenson rushed to Chicago for conference with Santa Fe officials. This accomplished nothing
for their cause.
Back home they enlisted the aid of Texas Gov. Campbell. He pressed Abilene’s cause.
Then Santa Fe President Ripley and a group came to Austin by private train to meet
with the governor. They soothed him somewhat. The line through Sweetwater began to take
Abilene businessmen were angered over the whole situation – so angry they were a
long, long time getting over it.
For many years Abilene Shippers requested their goods not travel by Santa Fe. They
had forms printed to that effect which they attached to all orders.
Some took satisfaction, years later, in the fact that the new towns which the Santa Fe
located along this new route which missed Abilene towns such as Blair and View and the like,
failed in many instances to grow.
And, when the line was coming into operation they had an opportunity for one retort to
The Santa Fe president had the courage, Mr. Swenson says, to make a proposition to
He offered to run a spur from View or some nearby point into Abilene – if Abilene would
furnish the right-of-way, depot and meet other requirements.
Mr. Swenson recalls he reply Abilenians made to this offer.
“we told him, simply, to go to hell.”
THE CROSS PLAINS railroad was one of the Abilene efforts and there were several, to
epand it’s rail facilities. It failed – “thank goodness,” Mr. Swenson says.
After the Santa Fe defeat abilenians, bent on revenge, set up the “Abilene central”
railroad firm to build a line – somewhere. There was talk of a line to Roby, of a line to
Henrietta via Albany, of a line to rising Star None of these materialized and a few years later,
in the mid and late ‘20’s there came this idea of the “Abilene Easter.”
They would build a line to Cross Plains to tie with the MKT.
Mr. Swenson was deep in this project and so were several others, including Frank Kell
of Wichita Falls a capitalist with railroad interests.
The company was organized, local businessmen putting up the money to build the new
line. The company applied to the Interstate Commerce Commission for a “certificate of
necessity and convenience” to build the railroad.
And about this time the T&P came unbuttoned.
It went to federal court in an effort to stop the new line.
The T&P argued, Mr. Swenson said, that it would be put in and unfair position, since
the Abilene businessmen were investing in the new line and thus tend to favor it with their
shipping, squeezing out T&P service.
The T&P won and Abilene – would – be railroad – builders were again angered – but
not for long.
This federal court injunctive proceedings were in 1929
Very shortly there came the stock market crash and the resulting Depression. And the
Abilene interests were just as happy not to have a new and struggling railroad on their hands.
MR. SWENSON’S first venture into real estate development in downtown Abilene was
made in 1902 when, fresh from college, he was joining in the founding of the Citizens National
He owned the corner property at N. 1 st and Pine and, with adjoining property owners,
J. M. Wagstaff and J. M. Radford, built the bank a new home.
(The bank building was later purchased by the bank.)
During the next years he was interested in utility developments, residential areas and
He got into the oil business in the early ‘20’s, joining Horace O. Wooten and Ed S.
Hughes in the Wooten – Hughes Co. as vice-president and general manager. The company
built into great successes some natural gasoline plants in Stephens and Eastland counties,
which they sold later to Philips Petroleum Co. And Mr. Swenson was one of the organizers of
the Hutch Oil Co., a pioneer Abilene oil firm.
Hi next major downtown building did not come until the mid-20’s when he built three
structures in the 200 block of Cypress, two of which he still owns.
The three buildings are in the center of the block, west side, between the old
“Montgomery Ward” building on the north end of the block, and the Paxton building, built by
George Paxton and later sold to J. M. Radford, on the south end of the block.
The first building, the one which now houses Grissom’s store but was built originally for
Waldrop Furniture, was built in 1923, the building next (to) it on the north in 1925 the next
building north in 1926. This third building Mr. Swenson sold in later years to Don Waddington.
Mr. Swenson drew the plans and specifications for the Medical Arts Building, a
structure he built in a two-way partnership with the late George Paxton in 1926.
(The Paxton interests in this one, too, along with Paxton’s third interest in the Mims
Building were sold by the banker to Radford in 1933 when Mr. Paxton was throwing his
personal holdings into his effort to stabilize the Citizens Bank he headed as President.)
Birth of Hilton, Mims Buildings
THE HILTON HOTEL, Mr. Swenson’s next building project, was in fact, a community
Abilene was very short in hotel accommodations in the mid-20’s, Mr Swenson recalls.
“We had instances when visitors to the city had to go out to private homes to get a
room – even cases where they had to get a room at the hospital to have a place to spend the
night,” Mr. Swenson says.
“So Bill Fulwiler, John Guitar, George Paxton and I originated this idea of a new hotel.
Another Abilene businessman, Reporter-News publisher M. B. Hanks, joined early in
A small group of community leaders, scribbling their pledges on a sheet of Citizens
Bank stationary, subscribed $250,000 common stock in the newly formed company – of which
Mr. Swenson became president.
The Chamber of Commerce sold $100,000 shares of 6 per cent preferred stock. A loan
was negotiated with First National Co. of St. Louis for the remainder.
The hotel was built, one story higher than originally planned on the suggestion of Mr.
Guitar, and a contract was made with a young man named “Connie” Hilton to run the
The hotel, one of the first to bear that famous name, was opened in late 1927 and a
festive event the opening was, Mr. Swenson says.
He did all the bookkeeping on the hotel roject and looked after many of the details of
the construction. Later, during the Depression, with this and other institutions suffering, he
was in on the reorganization of the hotel company (one Dallas session lasted until 3 a.m one
weary morning). He continued President until the hotel, renamed Windsor, was sold to the
Harrison interests in 1947.
The Abilene Improvement Co., same group which owned the common stock in the
hotel venture, built and owned some other property near the bank.
BEFORE THE HOTEL was finished, Mr. Swenson was deep into another building
This was a three-man deal which came about, he recalls, in this fashion.
George Paxton owned a lot, which had on it a small structure, at the corner of Cypress
N. 3 rd .
Paxton made a trade with Earnest Mims to build him a dry goods store on the corner
and name the building for his store, Mr. Swenson says.
One day we got to gabbing and Paxton asked me why I didn’t go in with him and we’d
go on up with the building, Then we decided to get Horace (Wooten) in on it, too,” Mr.
They called Mr. Wooten but he was out of town and difficult to locate. They finally
contacted him in California and the deal was fixed over the phone – each man to pay a third
of the cost and the building to be “one story taller than Dr. Jim Alexander’s.”
R. E. McKee, whom Mr. Swenson had known on the hotel project, built the Mims
building for the trio – and without any bond asked or made.
Mr. McKee, Mr Swenson says, was a superb builder and the trust he and the owners
had in each other was more than justified.
The eight-story structure was occupied on Feb. 1, 1928.
Mr. Swenson “did the walking and talking” getting the building underway and continued
active manager of it until it was sold in June of 1957 to members of the P. S. Hendrick family.
Mr. Swenson had continued his third interest, The Wooten third continued a part of
Wooten Properties and the Paxton interests, sold during the Depression, were at the time of
the Hendrick purchase owned by Radford Properties and James D. Radford.
WHEN HE SOLD his part of the Mims building Mr. Swenson moved his office from the
structure, where his business quarters had been since the building opened, to a new office on
the fifth floor of the Citizens Bank building.
“I came into this new office and, I closed the door behind me,” Mr. Swenson said.
Indeed, he has withdrawn to a great extent from his active participation in the daily
affairs of Abilene business development.
(“Not three people a week come into this office,” he says.)
But if not now as much the participant, if now more the counselor, he is very much yet
the keen observer.
This is his town. He was one of those who helped build it. (“No, he says, he has never
been seriously tempted to leave Abilene, even though he has had some attractive offers.)
He watches now the younger leaders in action – he has some notes on them and their
activities, notes he keeps as he pens in his ledger events which interest him each day.
He looks back on his own career with the objectivity he applies to other’ work.
He does not see his varied life and work as really unusual.
“No man could live 86 years and try to be at all active without having many
experiences,” he says.
He cites one thing about his work which may be extraordinary. He has been one of the
leaders in all his undertakings. He has never “worked for” anybody. But he as “worked with”
THAT IS MR. SWENSON at 86, a complex, reticent man, a scholarly industralist.
A couple of the accessories to be found in his office, two pieces of writing, are in a way
a summary of his personality.
His is a sparsely decorated office. It has a roll-top desk and a table and chairs, which
he bought for his first office, and filing cabinets and a huge safe in which he stores papers
On his desk are a few fine art pieces, tall, long-spouted pitchers which he collects. On
the wall there is a large portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Mr. Swenson is a student of Bonaparte’s life. (“There was never a greater human
intelligence than his,” he thinks.) And that accounts of one of those two accessoies.
He has at his desk a book based on Napoleon’s diary, “The Corsican”. (He quotes from
it a favorite line, Boneparte’s description of his conquest. “I did not usurp France – I found her
in the gutter and picked her up on the tip of my sword.”)
This boo shows one side of the man, the scholar.
That second accessory there on the desk by the book shows the other side, the
Hard by the very old book on Napoleon is a very new newspaper – today’s edition of
The Wall Street Journal.
Mr. Swenson’s literature may be of long ago.
But his business reading is today’s business news. In matters commercial he is not one
to live in the commercial past.
So the Names are Missing
W. G. Swenson, who has lived many of Abilene’s legends during his eight plus
decades here is something of a legendary figure himself.
His objective view of things, his knack of brushing away trivia to get to the heart of a
business matter, his reticence and other distinct personality traits have inspired many little
He voiced a bit of this pure Swensonana at the conclusion of the lengthy interview
granted Assistant Editor Katharyn Duff, the interview which resulted in this three-part history
He had dealt in facts, not personalities, and at the end of it Miss Duff found she was
still lacking in biographical data on Mr. Swenson himself.
“What are the names of your grandchildren?” she asked in the course of this “personal”
“Now, my dear young lady,” Mr. Swenson Replied. “I notice by your newspaper’s
reports that getting on now toward 70,000 paid subscribers.
“Tell me, just how many of these 70,000 do you think really care about what my
grandchildren are named?”
Which question, examined with Mr. Swenson’s objectivity, is a logical one.