Crying fowl

Wildlife activists claim that the managers at Samuell Farm Park are abusing the land, its animals, and anyone else who gets in their way

A terse declaration gave the park board control of Samuell Farm: "Real Estate to City Dallas Park Board for park purposes--not to be sold." Written on the back of a blank prescription form, these words were part of the will of prominent Dallas physician Dr. W.W. Samuell, who died in 1937. With this bequest, he gave the city 11 parcels of land, including Samuell Grand Park, Tenison Park, and Samuell Garland Park. But by far the largest property was the vast, tree-covered expanse east of the city that would become Samuell Farm.

Bought shortly before his death, the land in what was then the town of New Hope was his summer home. The road that would become Samuell Boulevard led to the house he built, surrounded by a series of lakes that stayed full partly because of a water-tower pumping system topped by a windmill. That windmill, visible from the road that is now Highway 80, would become the symbol of the Dallas park.

Dr. Samuell also left behind some money for the upkeep of his properties. He established a permanent foundation, administered by a bank, which would pay money into a trust fund administered by the city of Dallas. In 1941, the foundation was worth half a million dollars. By September 1998, it had grown to $7.4 million, which generates an average interest of $320,000 a year for the city trust.

When the court interpreted his will, it ruled that the park board could use the income from the trust only on parks established by Dr. Samuell and that "no part of said income shall be used on any other public parks in the city of Dallas."

For 40 years, the farm was just open green space for camping. But the board decided to turn it into something more worthwhile in 1981, when it went with a working-19th-century-farm concept. For a few dollars, kids could come see fields of corn and cotton, butter-churning, a syrup mill, and horse-drawn wagons.

By 1991, the recession-minded park board, like everyone else in Dallas, was desperate to generate revenue. To manage the farm, it brought in Doug Melton, a self-proclaimed "city boy" from St. Louis who had most recently headed the city's lawn-mowing department. He immediately began to trim the fat and draw in more schoolkids. After two years, the farm's revenue doubled to nearly $200,000. He raised the profile of the farm by adding special events such as an Easter egg hunt, a haunted Halloween barn, an antique tractor show, and the Civil War Weekend.

Samuell Farm, however, didn't get any of this money--or any money from the Samuell Trust, for that matter. Since at least 1980, the park board has taken the annual allocation from the foundation and the money from the trust interest and transferred most of it into the general fund, or the "black hole," as Samuell Farm employees call it. Department of Park and Recreation Director Paul Dyer defends this creative accounting: "Samuell properties get more money up front from the budget than they bring in, so in effect it's not violating the Samuell trust. When the money goes back into the general fund, it's paying back part of a loan."

But not all park board members agree. Rob Parks, who represents the White Rock Lake area, says, "I feel like Dr. Samuell didn't intend for his money to go to the general fund. He intended for it to go directly to his parks to help offset the expenses, and that's not happening." Also going into the general fund is most of the revenue generated on Samuell properties. For fiscal year 1996-'97, Samuell Farm brought in $246,000--more than double the revenue from all other Samuell properties combined.

In 1994, Melton began "Sons of the Old West," a cowboy comedy troupe consisting mostly of farm staff who staged gunfights for schoolkids and company picnics. The gunfighters, along with some volunteer firemen, helped staff the haunted barn for Halloween. But not all Sons of the Old West jobs were volunteer work. Its members put themselves out for hire at Old West shows and private gatherings. Rogers claims that Melton and his crew often left her in charge of the farm while the gunfighters went to their for-profit gigs--off the property but still on the clock. Melton denies that he ever participated in outside events. "It would be a conflict of interest," he says.

Also in 1994, the farm began holding another special event--the Civil War. That first year featured 50 re-enactors from the Parson's Dragoon, a group of Civil War enthusiasts and historians with whom Melton had come in contact through his work with the gunfighters. The annual Yankee vs. Rebel war game has since grown into the largest such event in Texas. The re-enactors loved Samuell Farm. It seemed an ideal space, and farm staff always seemed willing to help. If they needed a bridge over the creek, Melton built it. If they needed a clearer path through the woods, the staff cut down trees.

Re-creating the Civil War could sometimes cause trouble. Three summers ago, the event took place during an extreme drought. A statewide burning ban was in effect, but that didn't prevent the farm from providing firewood for dozens of campfires. A big blaze started when a tent full of gunpowder ignited. Flames spread to several other canvas tents, many of which also were stocked with gunpowder. Then the trees began to burn. Though the Mesquite and Dallas County Fire Departments threw a fit at farm management over the incident, the park board representatives never caught wind of the near-fiasco.

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