Davis, William D. (1867–1942)

By: Ray F. Lucas

Type: Biography

Published: August 30, 2021

Updated: August 30, 2021

William D. “Bill” Davis, cattleman, oil entrepreneur, and multi-term Democratic mayor of North Fort Worth and Fort Worth, known for securing the creation of Lake Worth, was born on October 30, 1867, in Neshoba County, Mississippi. He was the eldest son of Moses Davis and Cynthia (Threatt) Davis. The family emigrated to Glen Rose, Texas, in December 1869.

By 1880 the family was living on and farming land in Limestone County.  In the 1890s Davis lived in Galveston, where he was a major wheat trader. He was bankrupted by the loss of a large shipment of wheat in a flood. By 1900 he had relocated to Denton where he bought and sold cattle. He was bankrupted again in the Panic of 1907. By then he was living in North Fort Worth where he had been one of the incorporators of the municipality. Within a few years of his second bankruptcy, Davis acquired a large cattle ranch near Waurika, Oklahoma, on which he also raised wheat.

In January 1906 Davis entered politics with the organization of a “Davis Club” in North Fort Worth to campaign for his mayoral election. A member of the Democratic party, he was elected mayor of North Fort Worth in 1908 and served as that municipality’s third mayor. He played an instrumental role in the 1909 annexation of North Fort Worth into the greater city of Fort Worth. That same year, after the resignation of Fort Worth mayor William D. Williams to take a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission, Davis ran against R. H. McNatt in the Democratic primary to fill Williams’s unexpired term. Davis won the May 1909 primary, and in the special election on May 29, 1909, he ran unopposed and was elected mayor. He received all 339 votes cast in the low-turnout election. Two days later he was sworn in. He was re-elected in 1911 but was defeated in the 1912 Democratic primary by Robert F. Milam. He left office on April 15, 1913. In 1914 he made another unsuccessful campaign for Fort Worth mayor but lost the primary to Milam by 333 votes.

In the 1916 Democratic primary, Davis defeated Robert Harrison for mayor and won the 1917 general election and defeated the Socialist party candidate, R. A. McFarland, 2,549 to 194. Davis, labeled a progressive, served as mayor until 1921, after he lost the 1920 Democratic primary to E. R. Cockrell. Davis ran as an independent for mayor in the 1923 municipal general election. He claimed that the Democratic primary, at which Cockrell had been renominated, had been conducted illegally. Davis lost 11,147 to 7,280.

Davis could point to several achievements as mayor of Fort Worth. He oversaw the paving of several miles of city streets, including North Main Street, during his tenure. In 1910 he welcomed Texas Christian University back to Fort Worth. In March of that year he successfully organized the building of two gravel railroad crossings to connect roads bisected by the tracks. The work was done at night without the consent of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway, which had repeatedly delayed construction of the crossings.

Davis successfully advocated the construction of Lake Worth. The massive dam and reservoir project, owned by the city of Fort Worth, began in 1912 and was completed in October 1914. Supporters of the project lauded the availability of water Lake Worth would supply Fort Worth for future growth and fire protection. Opponents balked at the cost, and the project was a source of controversy for Davis for years thereafter.

Davis was involved in the oil business and as mayor was a proponent of oil exploration in West Texas and increased oil production in North Texas. Fort Worth, as the nearest large city to these oilfields, would greatly benefit from increased drilling, and Davis himself stood to profit through the Bill Davis Oil Association, a private company that he founded to develop his privately-owned oil leases.

In addition to running his oil business, Davis served as the president of the Texas Mayors’ Association in 1910 and was a director of the American League of Municipalities. Despite never serving in the military, in 1917 he was a civilian supervisor of three U. S. Army training camps in the western United States. In 1918 he led the Third Liberty Loan drive in Fort Worth. In 1924 the former mayor fruitlessly spoke out against the city adopting a council-manager form of government. He was an active member of the Weatherford Street Methodist Church; a member of the Ancient and Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, a Masonic society; and a member of the Mystic Order of the Knights of Bovinia, in which he held the title of “Ranch Boss.”

In 1933 Davis served as the foreman of the Tarrant County grand jury. He was a proponent of the Twenty-first Amendment to repeal federal prohibition and was the delegate to the November 1933 Texas ratification convention in Austin. He opposed a movement for a county-level home rule charter, and in early 1934 he was elected chairman of the Tarrant County Home Rule Charter Convention that selected members for a drafting commission, to which he was also elected. Davis’s opponents charged that such a commission would produce an unsuitable charter that was certain to be rejected, which it was. Later that year, Davis ran for Tarrant County judge under the Democratic party banner. He lost in the primary. The next year, he filed a lawsuit against the Fort Worth Press and alleged that the newspaper had libeled him during the primary campaign. Among other criticisms, the newspaper asserted that Davis had wasted $80,000 of taxpayer money on the aborted construction of a settling basin at Lake Worth. In truth only $17,575.94 was spent. The court sided with the Press on every claim except that concerning the settling basin, awarding $1,000 in damages to Davis. The newspaper appealed the decision, and the appellate court overturned it, finding that the misstated amount was not malicious and that the underlying statements of the paper—that any amounts spent on the project were wasted—were substantially true. Davis also sued his opponent, County Judge Emmett Moore, who counter sued. Those suits were ultimately dismissed by both parties.

Davis ran for county judge again in 1936 but narrowly lost to Dave T. Miller by a count of 13,432 to 13,343. Lake Worth again was an issue used to attack Davis, some twenty-two years after its completion. Former rival R. F. Milam defended Davis’s actions in the construction of the reservoir. In 1939 Davis ran for Fort Worth city council as part of a slate of candidates known as the “Citizens’ Ticket,” with the intention that he would then be appointed city manager. His detractors decried this roundabout tactic as an illegitimate “plot.” He lost the race and became neither council member nor city manager. Davis’s career in local politics came to an unremarkable end when he received one write-in vote for a seat on the Tarrant County Water Control and Improvement District No. 1 board of directors in 1940.

Bill Davis married Ella P. Reynolds in Denton, Texas, on December 18, 1890. They had one child, Marvin Lester Davis. Ella died in August 1908 and Marvin died of respiratory failure in Arizona in December 1927. In 1909 Davis married Malissa “Ola” DeOlar (Henderson) Price, with whom he had a daughter in late August 1910. By 1920 Davis was divorced and his widowed sister, Emma V. Yancy, and four nephews and three nieces lived with him. One of his nieces from another sister, Frances Eileen Hutt, married Thomas E. Dewey, the governor of New York and the 1944 and 1948 Republican nominee for president of the United States.

William D. “Bill” Davis suffered a heart attack on July 31, 1942, and was hospitalized at All Saint’s Hospital in Fort Worth. He died on August 2, 1942, and was buried at West Hill Cemetery in Sherman, Texas.

Fort Worth Press Co. v. Davis, 96 S.W.2d 416 (Tex. App. 1936). Fort Worth Record, November 4, 1916; December 15, 1918; January 29, 1919; April 1, 1923. Fort Worth Record and Register, March 22, 1910. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, August 3, 1942; August 4, 1942.

  • Agriculture
  • Oil and Gas Industry
  • Oil Entrepreneurs and Wildcatters
  • Politics and Government
  • Government Officials
  • Ranching and Cowboys
  • Ranchers and Cattlemen
Time Periods:
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Progressive Era
  • Great Depression
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Fort Worth

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ray F. Lucas, “Davis, William D.,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 22, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/davis-william-d.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

August 30, 2021
August 30, 2021

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: