A curious mind is to blame for Jim Barnes’ reputation as the Stevens Park Estates historian.
“I’d always thought that this neighborhood was very well planned, and somebody should do a little history about how things got to be this way,” Barnes says.
He decided to spend a couple of months and “do a little research”.
“That was nine years ago, and now I’m just absolutely buried,” Barnes says, jokingly remorseful.
He’s an architect by career, but Barnes jokes that he has “a PR problem” because most people in Stevens Park know him as a historian first. They’ve noticed the for sale sign in front of his mid-century modern house, the one his parents built in the ’50s, and know they may soon be losing one of their most valuable resources.
It’s Barnes’ own history in the neighborhood that gives him such a unique perspective, says Scott Jenke, president of the Stevens Park Estates Neighborhood Association.
“He can give you a visual for what the neighborhood was like before everyone had fences, when they ran from spot to spot through neighbors’ back yards,” Jenke says.
“Another thing that often gets overlooked about Jim is that every month for I don’t know how many years now, he has written the history column for our neighborhood newsletter. There’s always something he manages to come up with that catches you off guard.”
When Barnes began his quest, he decided to stay away from the 1920s, when the land was subdivided, and anything that came afterward. Instead, he’d focus on the days before subdivision going back to the 1840s, when the pioneers showed up. That would be much easier, he figured — until Barnes started falling into black hole after black hole.
To find out the history of a neighborhood, one of the first places to look is land deeds. The problem is that grantor-grantee deeds in Texas are indexed by name, so if land goes into probate, or a family goes into bankruptcy, or an heiress gets married and changes her name, any of these could lead to records that suddenly drop off.
“It is positively infuriating to try to follow the chain of title,” Barnes says.
Still, he has patiently stuck with it for nearly a decade now, even sitting around with old handwritten circuit court documents written in ink that faded before the documents were photographed and made into microfiche files, and using a magnifying glass to try to figure out what is happening, one word at a time.
“People ask, ‘What are you doing?’ and I say, “I’m transcribing written documents from the 1850s that no one has looked at since then,’” Barnes says.
Quite a bit of the research is accumulated in 10 forest green hardback-bound volumes, which are filled with scanned photos and documents printed on archival paper with archival ink. The volumes almost fill one of his shelves, and Barnes says he has twice that information in file folders, plus photographs, letters, relics, bricks, maps and other odds and ends that people have given him.
His research goes back to 1846 when the Myers family moved to what is now Stevens Park Estates. At the time, the Republic of Texas was promising one square mile to any man and woman who lived on the land for three years, and once the Myers family fulfilled their end of the bargain, the land was patented to William Myers. It stretched roughly from Hampton to Turner and Davis to Remond.
Later, the Stevens family, for whom the neighborhood is named, settled on the land. Mary Armstrong, the daughter of Methodist minister Samuel Armstrong, married Dr. John Stevens, who built a farmhouse at Marydale and Plymouth when there were no trees in sight; “Dr. Stevens calls it prairie,” Barnes says. The Stevenses had two children, Walter and Annie, and the brother-sister duo later became the developers of Stevens Park Estates.
“Annie and her brother lived together, and Annie never married,” Barnes says. “Their mother left everything to Annie, but Walter took all the public credit. People thought that Walter owned everything, but actually he didn’t own a thing.”
Barnes considers himself “really lucky” in his research timing because although no descendants of the Stevens family are still around, a few longtime neighbors knew whom to contact, and remaining relatives willingly helped Barnes, even sending him what was left of the Stevens family memorabilia.
It’s not that Barnes regrets his quest, but “the trouble with doing this kind of research is you answer one question, and you come up with two or three more,” he says.
One example is the more than 600 pages of handwritten notes on Dr. John Stevens’s probate case.
“I haven’t had time to start taking all of that apart,” Barnes says. “It’s just too much. I’m always sorry that I don’t have time to do more modern history.”
He’s not alone in the “neighborhood historian” classification. There are people like Joe Whitney in East Kessler; Steve Bonner in Kessler Park; Martin McCommas, who “is like a genealogy of early Dallas County” and is “the encyclopedia of Western Heights”; Tom Jones, a great-great-grandson of William Myers; and Elizabeth Deihl, who “wanted to do a history of her home and wound up doing history of the El Tivoli neighborhood,” Barnes says. These are the people he regularly chats with concerning the William Myers section of Oak Cliff.
“These little amateur historians, we’re exchanging photographs, trying to save pictures of the area,” he says, “and together we’re creating a fabric of Oak Cliff history.”
But Barnes is ready to close the chapter on his days as Stevens Park historian. Jenke says seeing the for sale sign in Barnes’s front yard “broke my heart.”
“Jim is a true gem of the neighborhood, no pun intended,” Jenke says. “I’ve spent many a time looking over neighborhood history with him, and some of my best days have been spent cooking on his outdoor fireplace in his back yard.”
Barnes made duplicate copies of the green volumes and gave them to the Dallas Historical Society. When he moves, he plans to leave the copies currently on his shelf with the Dallas Public Library, “that way if one burns down, it’s a fireproofing system,” Barnes says.
In the beginning, Barnes says, “I had hoped to write a coffee table-sized book complete with maps, and it has all become too complex.
“I’m hoping for someone else to pick up the torch and carry on.”