On a single occasion about 50 years ago, I had an appointment with the lawyer in his two-room office pictured here.
I was there to get a document signed by James “Big Daddy” Knapp.
Seated at his desk, he occupied a great deal of the space behind it due to his considerable size. He was a very large man. I was amazed at the massive amount of newspapers, files, books, boxes, etc. that surrounded him – much of it on the floor.
After shaking hands, he motioned me to a small chair in front of his desk. He looked over the paperwork, placed his signature on it and passed it back to me.
I thanked him and, with no indication of further conversation, I left. The whole curious experience lasted less than 10 minutes.
It would be a while before I learned that I had made contact with someone who was a major figure in the development of Arlington beginning in the 1940’s and continuing beyond four decades.
Notice the historical marker left of the little building in the photo here. It tells a story that is not often included in lessons of Arlington’s history.
Six-year-old Knapp arrived in Arlington with his parents in 1920 when they acquired a home along the same block of West Front Street where this law office would later be established.
After receiving his law license in 1937, he spent the next 50 years practicing law and becoming a major landowner and real estate developer. His first residential subdivision opened in 1941.
Arlington’s population then was just over 4,000 persons.
Ten years later, General Motors began construction on the assembly plant that ushered in an era of Arlington’s economic development that continues today. Realizing the potential of explosive growth that was to come, Knapp was often in the forefront of it all.
Serving as Arlington’s City Attorney from 1938-1945 and then as Tarrant County Assistant District Attorney until 1949, he gained experience in local government where he remained engaged for most of the rest of his life.
He is credited with helping establish Midway Airport that ultimately became The Great Southwest Airport that served the region from 1953 until 1974.
Knowing that growth depended upon access via major transportation routes and serving on the Chamber of Commerce Roads and Highways Committee, he championed the development of Highway 360 in 1955 and the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike that opened in 1957.
Those thoroughfares would prove to be vital in providing access to the expansive Great Southwest Industrial District that would come along about ten years later.
Because he was a landowner in that area at the time, Knapp was interviewed in 1980 by UTA Professor Dr. Allan Saxe for his book on Arlington politics. Knapp identified all of that as the catalyst for future economic growth.
In 1960 he helped the founding of the Arlington Bar Association and served as its first president.
Perhaps as a result in his leadership in the legal community, an annual barbeque hosting Tarrant County’s judiciary became a must-do event for the business and political community. It was held among big crowds at Knapp’s ranch in Rendon where he was always present, occupying a central seat beneath one of the giant oak trees there.
Together with everyone else, I paid my respects to him during these events. That was the only time, other than that first 10-minute meeting described above, that I was ever with him.
James Knapp died at the age of 75 in 1989.
I wish I had known him better as a resource to the past that evolved in today’s Arlington. The stories he could share – way beyond what is described here – must have been truly remarkable.
In any event, anyone can drop by his former office and take a look around. It’s located as the anchor to the Knapp Heritage Park at the corner of West Front Street and North Pecan in the burgeoning revitalization of Downtown Arlington.
The land for the park there was donated by Knapp’s grandchildren.