“Entrepreneur, Socialite & “Queen Of The Honky Tonk”
By Steve Coats & Rickey Carter
Mattie Miley Castlebury was born Mattie Sular Miley on October 31, 1890, in Corsicana, Texas to George Washington Miley and Ms. Martha Ward Miley. Her legacy will last for many years to come.
When searching for Ms. Mattie Castlebury, one quickly discovers her name listed among those who are considered to be the notable trailblazers and the elite of East Texas during a span of time when it wasn’t acceptable for women to fulfill certain roles. Some of the names surrounding Ms. Mattie’s are Ms. Dolly Northcutt, longtime Longview civic leader; Ms. Evelyn LeTourneau, innovator and wife of R.G. LeTourneau, founder of LeTourneau Industries; Ms. Armatha Barryer Banks, civil rights activist; Ms. Virginia Kelly, civic leader; Ms. Margaret Estes, publicist and civic leader, and several more.
Ms. Mattie had three granddaughters. Ms. Martha Josey, world champion barrel racer, of the Josey Ranch near Karnack, Texas was one of the granddaughters. Ms. Martha graciously shared the many dimensions of her grandmother’s life. Ms. Martha points out that Ms. Mattie had already gained notoriety in Oklahoma and Texas before women could even vote in 1920. Ms. Mattie is described as having an astute and strong business acumen. She was resourceful, practical, tough and yet a compassionate woman of faith. Her peers admired her as being honest to a fault and a person displaying high levels of integrity. Ms. Mattie was also known as the “Queen of the Honky Tonk.” Therein lies the diverseness of Ms. Mattie Castlebury.
It was 1901 when the oil boom occurred in an area called Red Fork near Tulsa, Okla. Tulsa immediately gained the reputation as a boomtown. The effects of the Tulsa oil boom were felt as far away as Borger, Texas. It is said there is nothing like an oil boom and the effects it causes. In Tulsa, railroads were increased and service improved. Fine new hotels were constructed. Existing hotels were updated. Fine stores originating in New York and Paris opened. The boom was exemplified by glitz, glamour, fashion and “oh” how the money did flow.
Hearing about the Tulsa oil boom, Ms. Mattie could not accept the thought of missing out on such an exciting experience. At the age of 16 she packed her bags and left Corsicana for Tulsa. She found work in a cigar and card shop inside one of the new upscale hotels. She saw firsthand the habits of businessmen; the big cars they drove; the fine dresses that adorned the ladies and the elegant way the women presented themselves. Ms. Mattie had found her niche.
Dancehalls became popular across the nation in the late 1800’s. In the beginning, a dancehall was not much more than a large room with a wooden floor that was leased or owned by the dancehall owner. The owner could charge a fee for folks to come in and dance to music played mostly by local bands. Until the Tulsa oil boom, it was a time when money was tight. The typical dancehall customer was a farmer or local laborer. But with the oil boom, they had money to spend and spend it they did. Prohibition started on Jan. 17, 1920, and ended on Dec. 5, 1933. Even in its wake dancehalls became newfound centers of entertainment and nightlife. Ms. Mattie was destined to follow that trend and excel in it.
The details surrounding the early dancehalls that were owned and managed by Ms. Mattie are few. However, her first was in Cromwell, Okla. It is thought that she owned or managed a dancehall in Borger, Texas named “The Whiteway Dance Hall” at about the same time. This was sometime shortly after 1920.
The men who followed the oil booms were mostly single and looking for a good time and relaxation following a week of truly hard work on the oil rigs.
Ms. Mattie had heard about Taxi Dancers in New York City, Chicago and San Francisco. Taxi dancers were ladies who were available to dance with the men at the ballroom. The men would purchase one ticket per dance for a dime. The dancer earned a nickel and Ms. Mattie kept a nickel. It is thought that there were two possible reasons that they acquired the name of taxi dancers. First, like taxi drivers, the dancers were paid based upon how long they were able to dance. This was one dance to one song per ticket. Second, some say that it was because the ballroom owner required the ladies to arrive and leave in taxi cabs. They were not allowed to accept rides from friends or boyfriends. The taxi dancers in Cromwell and Borger were country girls. Ms. Mattie, however, would see that they were dressed as women of high society, mirroring those she had observed while working in the cigar store in the upscale hotel in Tulsa. Legend has it that men would line up well before opening time on weekends to buy their string of tickets to dance with the ladies.
Ms. Mattie had become a strong and astute businesswoman. She was a force to be reckoned with, but she was also compassionate. While in Borger, a young boy of 16 knocked on her door. Ms. Mattie took the time to hear how he was down on his luck, homeless and penniless with no job. Mattie allowed him to sleep in the corner of a room that was used by the ladies as a bunkhouse. He was made to promise that he would not bother the ladies. That boy’s name was Noble Crawford. Ms. Mattie and Noble were destined to meet again as Ms. Mattie eventually relocated to East Texas and Crawford eventually became the sheriff of Gregg County, (Longview, Texas) from 1947 to 1972.
In 1926, Ms. Mattie began to sharpen her skills even further. She opened a ballroom named The Tokio Club near Tulsa which was a successful venture. She would never trust anyone with the money. She would always be the first person the men would see when entering the dance hall. The men purchased their dance tickets directly from Ms. Mattie. As the music started, each man would select a lady for that dance. As the pair moved around the floor the man would keep the dance ticket in his hand. During the dance, Ms. Mattie would step to the edge of the dance floor and yell, “Come see the doctor.” Each couple would make their way to the edge and the ticket was passed to Ms. Mattie. The lady would receive a nickel and Mattie would receive a nickel.
By 1930 the oil boom that had occurred at Red Fork had slowed down. The oil was still flowing and large amounts of money being made, but the momentum created by the boom had waned. The local economy and marketplace had adjusted to the dynamics created by the boom. They became an integral part of normal day-to-day business.
News Flash!!!! On Oct. 3, 1930, an oil boom occurred overnight when the Daisy Bradford #3 oil well came in just to the west of Henderson, Texas. Then on Dec. 28, 1930, the Lou Della Crim well blew in at Kilgore, Texas. And to top it all off, on Jan. 28, 1931, the Lathrop #1 well blew in near Longview, Texas. The most prolific oil boom in U.S. history took off overnight. Kilgore had been a sleepy little town of 500 to 700 residents. The population of Kilgore exploded to more than 8,000 in one week. A depression was raging nationwide at this time, “everywhere but East Texas.” There was work for men in East Texas when there was none anywhere else in the country. As before in other oil booms, many of the men were single. The work on the oil rigs meant long hours of hard and dirty work. But they had money when many others didn’t and were willing to spend it on a good time to relax from their labor. Of course, Ms. Mattie took notice of the new dynamics created by the East Texas Oil Boom. She had done well in Tulsa, Cromwell and Borger, but she could not overcome the temptation to be a part of the excitement, opportunity and history being played out in East Texas.
Ms. Mattie packed her belongings and pointed her Cadillac in the direction of East Texas. She arrived in Kilgore, Texas in early 1931. For her first location, she selected a building on Texas FM 2087 at FM 2011 between Kilgore and Longview, Texas. It is said that the rundown building was set back in the pines. The building had no air conditioning; however, the windows swung out to open so that cool air could come in on warm evenings. The interior of the building was no better, but Ms. Mattie went to great pains to spruce it up. She hung yellow and blue material on the ceiling, positioning it to give it an elegant appearance. She hung a mirrored ball on the ceiling in the middle of the dance floor that had pieces of copper material all around it so that it would reflect a spotlight and the look of glitter would appear on the dance floor. In the daytime, the building had the appearance of a rundown shack. Oh, but at night it looked as though paradise had come to East Texas.
Mattie’s Ballroom officially opened on April 22, 1931. In those days there were no laws that stipulated closing times for such establishments. So on Friday and Saturday nights, it became a “dance till dawn” environment, and a fine time was had by all. Ms. Mattie brought the idea of the taxi dancers with her to East Texas. As before, she made sure that the taxi dancers were dressed in beautiful dresses, used the latest trends in makeup and sported fresh hairstyles. She recruited as many as 20 young ladies at a time. It was not uncommon for oilfield workers to come to Mattie’s Ballroom, dance with a young lady and, in fairly short order, they were man and wife. This led to a constant stream of new ladies into and out of Mattie’s Ballroom.
Most of Ms. Mattie’s Kilgore and Longview patrons were hardworking, honest and church-going folks. Kilgore, however, due to the oil boom, became the benefactor of unsavory types as well. It is said that Kilgore was truly a rough place to be on Friday and Saturday nights. Folks flocked to Mattie’s Ballroom as it represented a haven for those who simply wanted to relax and enjoy a night out instead of being in fear of gunplay or knife fights.
Ms. Mattie never smoked, drank or used foul language. She was a dark-haired blue-eyed “pure” lady who dressed to the hilt. She would not tolerate bad behavior, fighting, cursing, jealous quarrels or drunkenness in her establishment. On more than one occasion Ms. Mattie took the ear of one of the male patrons and escorted him out the door. Ms. Mattie also discouraged smoking inside her ballroom. As the men entered, she would say, “I hope you boys aren’t going to be smoking in here tonight.”
Ms. Mattie insisted on the best of entertainment at her ballroom. This was during the big band era. Due to the national depression, the most notable big bands were forced to look for opportunities where there was money. East Texas had money when no other area in the entire United States did. Bands led by Guy Lombardo, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Wayne King and Bob Wills along with many others entertained at Mattie’s Ballroom.
Ms. Mattie was very resourceful. Legend has it that on a particular Saturday afternoon she received word that the band scheduled to play that evening experienced a bus breakdown. They would not arrive in time to play for the dance. By the time this occurred, she literally knew everyone in the area. She was aware that a group of men that attended a nearby Baptist church had formed a small band. She contacted the group which agreed to play for the Saturday night crowd with one caveat: she was not to advertise in any way that they were to play for the dance. Ms. Mattie then took it upon herself to drive through the area in her vehicle with a bullhorn announcing that the “boys from the Baptist church” would be playing at the ballroom that evening. Those good old Baptist boys had a great time playing at Mattie’s Ballroom that night. However, the next morning when the band members arrived at the Baptist church for services, many of the men sported taxi dance tickets on the lapels of their jackets in fun.
Ms. Mattie became well known and well respected very quickly in East Texas. Rumor has it that many high-profile businessmen and politicians were patrons at her ballroom. Politicians would often go to Ms. Mattie when votes were needed for an office or ordinance election. She had a great influence on the outcome of local elections.
Ms. Mattie’s patrons wanted to indulge in spirits for further relaxation. It just so happened that the original Mattie’s Ballroom building had a cellar that was directly under the dancefloor. A trap door was installed on the edge of the dancefloor by the bandstand through which Ms. Mattie’s patrons could receive an extra bit of spirits for the evening. Ms. Mattie also supplied the setups. The ballroom was frequented by local and state law enforcement officers, but no mention of the spirits was ever made. When Prohibition ended, Ms. Mattie had a building constructed next to it to be used as a liquor store. State law prevented the addition from being connected directly to the dance hall. Ms. Mattie’s son, Robert Jonas Henry Arthur (Ms. Martha’s Josey’s father) operated the liquor store for her in those days.
On Sept. 12, 1935, a group of investors opened the Palm Isle dance club in Longview. It was a great venue that sported an 1,800 square-foot dancefloor. It was the largest in the state and the place to be on Friday and Saturday nights. It is said that dancehall owners from Houston, Dallas and San Antonio marveled at the new club. It represented a new phenomenon for dance clubs. In July 1937 Hugh Cooper, who managed the Palm Isle, purchased it from the investor group.
On Dec. 11, 1941, the United States formally entered World War II. Hugh Cooper was drafted into the army in 1942. In his absence, Cooper struck a deal with Mattie Castlebury to lease and manage the Palm Isle Dance Club. Ms. Mattie opted to close the original Mattie’s Ballroom on FM 2087 to focus solely on managing the Palm Isle in Longview. She did not bring the taxi dancers with her and traditionally managed the Palm Isle.
In 1943, Cooper completed his service and returned to Longview. Ms. Mattie had managed the Palm Isle for nearly a year and a half. As before, her business senses were spot on. Under her guidance, the patronage at the dance hall had grown significantly along with company profits. Hugh Cooper was elated with the condition of the organization that he started and loved. By now, however, Ms. Mattie had come to love the Palm Isle club as well. She asked Cooper to sell the club to her. A deal was finally negotiated for a total of $5,570 for the land, building and business. Hugh Cooper trusted Ms. Mattie implicitly. He did not even require a contract of sale for the club. She made a down payment of $2,875 and promised to make monthly payments of $150 until the debt was paid in full. Mattie paid the debt off in full in only six months.
On Sept. 27, 1943, Mattie’s Palm Isle Ballroom opened. She continued to grow the business. Her ballroom gained national attention. Folks from all across the country made trips to visit the ballroom. The ballroom became a noted landmark and tourist attraction in the Greater East Texas area under her leadership.
Many stories about Mattie’s Ballroom and Mattie’s Palm Isle Ballroom have surfaced over the years. It is expected that some are true and some not so true, but they make for great entertainment. We think the accounts would have pleased Ms. Mattie.
One account is that a person familiar with Ms. Mattie’s clubs visited a famous French ballroom near the Eiffel Tower in Paris. This person returned to say that on the wall of the men’s restroom is written the words, “This sure ain’t Mattie’s.”
Another account occurred during WWII when American forces were fighting the Japanese army in Japanese held territory. To say the least, this was a tense situation. One soldier is said to have hollered out, “Who here has been to Mattie’s Ballroom?” Supposedly responses came back from several American troops and “even a couple of the Japanese enemy soldiers” saying, “I’ve been to Matties”.
In 1951, Mattie sold the Palm Isle dancehall to Jack and Neva Stearns and Glynn Keeling who renamed the club Reo Palm Isle and operated it for several years. Since that time, the club has been opened and closed several times. It recently reopened as the Reo Starplex which is an event center, restaurant and skating rink, located in the same building on the corner of Hwy. 31 and FM 1845 in Longview, Texas.
At the age of 58, Ms. Mattie developed cancer. When she became ill, she purchased a large block of land on Texas SH 43 between Marshall, Texas and Karnack, Texas. She had two barns constructed on the property. Her initial intent for the land was to raise horses and cattle. Along the way, the house that she had built for herself burned down before she was able to occupy it. Ms. Mattie was never able to fully enjoy her land.
Ms. Mattie earned and became an incredibly important person in the history and growth of East Texas. Her position among the highest-profile of women was rightfully earned. To a degree, her legacy can be seen in the Reo Palm Isle building that still stands in Longview, Texas. However, she has left all of us with a more valuable legacy than a building bearing the weight of a sign. Ms. Mattie’s greatest legacy is found in the character, integrity, honesty, strength, humility and creativeness found in her granddaughter, Ms. Martha Josey. Ms. Josey is an icon in her sport of barrel racing. Her barrel racing clinics are conducted at the Josey Ranch, but also nationwide. Ms. Josey and Mr. R.E. Josey along with their team have made a wonderful impact on the lives of thousands of young people. Learning from Ms. Mattie, her famous grandmother, Ms. Martha and Mr. Josey have had a wonderful and positive impact on the prosperity and growth of the Marshall, Texas area.
Ms. Mattie Castlebury left us on Aug. 23, 1954. She was an entrepreneur, socialite, and yes, the “Honky Tonk Queen.” She listened. She learned. She made Texas-sized history. Thanks, Ms. Mattie.
The East Texas Oil Museum at Kilgore College in Kilgore, Texas, is dedicated to preserving the history of the East Texas Oilfield and telling the story of the men and women who lived during the oil boom of the 1930s. the museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission prices and additional information is available at https://kilgore.edu/ETOM.
Docent-guided tours are available by reservation and for walk-in guests, if available.