Florence Fenley, writer, editor, historian, and state legislator, was born in Uvalde, Texas, on December 19, 1898, to Constance James Fenley and Daisy May (Davenport) Fenley, a ranching couple. Her mother died when she was young, and her father was killed when she was fourteen, leaving Florence and her sister Belle to be raised by their father’s parents, Joel and Margaret Fenley. Florence’s relationship with her grandparents seems to have instilled in her a deep respect for her elders, as she later wrote stories about “old-timers” and even credited older voters with her election to the Texas House of Representatives. She went to local schools in Uvalde County and then studied art at the College of Industrial Arts (now Texas Woman’s University).
In 1916 Florence Fenley married Arthur Burns Wilson, a local rancher. They had a child, James Fenley Wilson, born in March 1918. In December 1918 a pregnant Florence witnessed the murder of her husband, Arthur, who was shot in a range feud. She named their daughter Arthur Burns Wilson and raised her and her young son on her own until she married Sam Warren Lewis a few years after 1920. She and Sam had three children: Sam Warren Jr., Jack Lowrey, and Florence Patricia. By 1930 they had divorced, and Florence married William Riley Angermiller, whom she divorced by 1940, after they had two children together, Billy Joe and Belle. Her oldest three sons—James, Sam, and Jack—served in World War II. Belle and Billy Joe joined her in Austin when she was elected to the Texas House of Representatives.
In addition to her political career, Fenley (who went by her maiden name) supported herself and her children as a teacher and feature editor for the Uvalde Leader-News for forty years. She also wrote for The Cattleman, True West, and Frontier Times. She spoke fluent Spanish, and she loved stories and writing. From 1936 to 1940, under the name Florence Angermiller (sometimes Florence Fenley Angermiller, taking the name of her husband at the time), she collected pioneer interviews as a part of the Folklore Project under the Federal Writers' Project for the Work Projects Administration (WPA). The interviews she conducted included the life histories of American Indians including that of Johanna July, those involved in ranching and agriculture like her then husband William Riley Angermiller, and more. In 1939, using the interviews she had collected with the WPA, Fenley published a book called Oldtimers: Their Own Stories (1939), which proved very popular. She tapped into a revival of interest in the “Wild West” and gained recognition from such influential Texas writers as J. Frank Dobie. She contributed to a Texas folklore collection he edited, Mustangs and Cow Horses (1940), with a short story called “The Mustanger Who Turned Mustang.”
In 1940 Fenley made a statement when, accompanied by a photographer from the Uvalde Leader-News, she rode from Uvalde to San Antonio on horseback to register for the Old Trail Drivers Association convention in the Gunter Hotel. This widely-publicized ride earned her the title of “Sweetheart” of the Old Trail Drivers and International Cowboy Association. She highly valued the livestock industry as the lifeblood of her hometown and surrounding area and the aging population that helped created it. Her familial and personal ties to ranching inspired her interest in the preservation of the Texas ranching culture in which she was raised.
In June 1942 Fenley announced her candidacy for the Democratic party’s nomination to the Texas House in response “to the solicitation of many friends.” Women rarely ran for public office in that era, and those who did often did so as surrogates for their husbands; a twice-divorced single mother running would have been an extreme rarity. In her announcement, Fenley emphasized her status as a mother and her deep family roots in Uvalde County. Her platform reflected typical conservative Democratic themes. She criticized reckless spending, and she proposed to put the state on a “business basis”; each state program, she wrote, should have a corresponding source of tax income. She also focused on World War II issues and emphasized her personal stake in the war effort because she had members of her own family in the military. She claimed to be independent of any corporate affiliations—independence that she said would allow her to work for the best interests of the regular people of the District 77. She particularly voiced an appeal to older voters of the district, who knew her well from her writings about “old-timers.” “I mean to work in their behalf,” she declared, “to give them the honor and glory that belongs to them, as long as it is in my power to do so.”
As the campaign progressed, she appealed to farmers and stock raisers by promising to limit license fees on trucks. She claimed that her principal opponent in the three-person race, incumbent Charles P. Spangler, wanted to increase the fee by two-and-a-half times. In the initial balloting, no candidate received a majority, and Fenley and Spangler faced off in a runoff election. On August 22, 1942, Fenley won a surprise victory and defeated Spangler by approximately 275 votes. She became the first woman to represent District 77, which was composed of Uvalde, Zavala, Dimmit, and Medina counties. One newspaper (the Texas Mohair Weekly) said that, upon her taking her seat as one of three female legislators, she was as out of place as “a flour salesman in the governor's chair,” a nod to W. Lee O’Daniel, governor of Texas from 1938 to 1941. However, this same article had to acknowledge that she “made good in no uncertain terms.”
Upon her election to the House of the Forty-eighth Texas Legislature, Fenley focused on rural and agricultural issues. By mid-1943 she had three sons serving in the armed forces, and in a rare tribute, her fellow representatives paid her honor by passing a formal House resolution in her honor. She served on several standing committees, including Stock and Stock Raising, Liquor Regulation, and Motor Transportation, during both of her terms. She served on a committee to investigate reformatory institutions during her first term and on the Penitentiary Committee during her second term. In her first term, she was also appointed to a special committee to investigate the safety of meat in Texas. She and her colleagues found diseased meat was being sold in the state, and their report urged lawmakers to make inspection laws that would prevent this.
Fenley ran unopposed in her second term and easily won her seat in the House of the Forty-ninth legislature. In those years, she and another lawmaker, Benjamin Sharpe, focused on propositions to acquire additional appropriations to old-age assistance programs in an effort to keep her promise to work for the older generations. On the whole, her proposed bills were mostly concerned with local affairs, especially wildlife laws that would affect local farmers, ranchers, and hunters in her home district. She moved to make the hunting of destructive javelinas legal year-round and to reform fishing laws to create a closed season in Uvalde County. She also worked with two other female representatives, Elizabeth Suiter and Rae Files, to propose a bill that would relax conveyance rules for married women with property apart from their husbands.
Fenley ran for a third term in 1946 but this time drew two primary opponents. One opponent, Jordan T. Lawler, called for the electorate to vote her out on the basis that she had served long enough. He claimed that she had advocated life appointments to the legislature and implied that she was power-hungry. The charge was apparently baseless, but mudslinging such as this may have contributed to her loss. The eventual winner, Britton T. Edwards, was also a former serviceman with a platform that included reform of old-age assistance and “government for all the people instead of for organized groups.”
After her time in the legislature, Fenley went back to writing. She edited a book about range life with Frank S. Gray and served as the president, auditor, and recorder of the Texas Woman’s Press Association (see TEXAS PRESS WOMEN). She was also a regional officer of the National Press Association. She continued her career in politics and public service as president of the Texas Women Legislators Association, and she was appointed by Governor Price Daniel to the Civil War Centennial Commission in recognition of her legislative service and efforts as a historian.
Florence Fenley died of a pulmonary embolism after experiencing health complications for some time on May 27, 1971, in Uvalde. She was buried in the Uvalde Cemetery. In 1975 a book of folklore she had been working on was published posthumously as Heart Full of Horses by her daughter Belle.