The Nebraskan who tipped his hat to Texas and built a city

When a heart attack killed Oscar Martin Carter in 1928, newspapers marked the millionaire’s passing with pronouncements of his wonder.

Finance Wizard. Banker. City Builder. Gold Miner. Inventor. Dakota Cattle King. Texas Money King.

It’s been nearly a century since the savvy Nebraska businessman who dreamed up a Lone Star State utopia died. Nearly a century since he disappeared from the pages of Nebraska’s newspapers so completely that he now scarcely earns a mention in the state’s history books.

But the novel suburb he envisioned, selling 10,000 lots on the installment plan — $5 down and $4.40 a month – lives on.

Houston Heights: Population 20,000, with a footprint just shy of 3 square miles. It’s a neighborhood the size of Valentine – but with 10 times the people – now tucked right near the heart of Houston, America’s fourth largest city. 

These days, “The Heights” is on a run. Money Magazine called it a “Top 10 Big City Neighborhood.” The New York Times recommended its Mexican food in its 36 Hours in Houston travel primer. National Geographic touted its opera house and antique shops, art galleries and eateries. 

“It’s just a very unique neighborhood to Houston that has a tremendous amount of character,” said Jordan Jones, one of a stampede of young professionals lured to the area. 

Locals and visitors alike know the Gothic mansions straight out of a Charlotte Bronte novel that dot The Heights’ fanciest blocks. 

But few know the story of the man who founded Houston Heights, a Nebraskan who lost two fingers, his company and his beloved son in pursuit of his dream.

***

In the years after the Civil War and Reconstruction, in the wide open spaces of the Republic of Texas, men of means came calling. 

Capitalists of commerce, the newspapers called them. 

One of the only known photos of Oscar Martin Carter. The businessman settled in Ashland, amassed a fortune in Omaha and then gambled big on the development of Houston Heights in what is now present-day Houston. Carter died in Houston Heights in 1928, after losing two fingers in an ambush and his beloved son in an accident. He also died with a fortune of $75 million in today’s dollars. Photo courtesy of the Houston Metropolitan Research Center

Nebraskan Oscar Martin Carter took his place in that narrative when he headed south with Daniel Denton Cooley, a cashier at the bank in Ashland, where Carter served as president.  

Born outside Boston, Carter had headed west in an ox-drawn wagon in 1864. He stopped in Colorado and staked a gold mine near Gunnison, he segued to the Dakotas and raised cattle. Eventually, he hitched his team in Plattsmouth and got hitched there, too, later settling in Ashland with his bride Cinderella – yes, that was her real name – and their children.

He would serve as Saunders County treasurer, run hardware stores and open banks. He would build his reputation from a turreted castle at 35th and Farnam in Omaha.

By 1890, Carter left his castle with a half-million dollar pot from investors in his South Omaha and Texas Land Company, and was ready to build streets and alleys, utilities, schools, businesses and parks on 1,765 elevated acres 4 miles from downtown Houston.

“He found enough investors to build up the streets in a community where he hadn’t built a single home,” said Mark Williamson, a director of the Houston Heights Association and longtime resident. “It must have been such a major undertaking.”

The land itself was a draw, 23 feet higher in elevation than the growing Houston proper, a city prone to floods and mosquitos and outbreaks of yellow fever.

Carter installed his son Arthur as the head of the electric and water plants.

He made Cooley his general manager and built him a six-bedroom cypress mansion with marble tubs and inlaid wood floors.

More grand Victorians followed and so did a fancy hotel to lure prospective residents. But Carter wanted to attract the middle and working classes, too.

Cyclists ride by one of the grand homes in the Heights neighborhood. Carter designed the neighborhood to lure some of the area’s richest residents, and also working-class residents who rode the electric streetcar to work in downtown Houston and lived in homes sold by Sears and Roebuck. Photo courtesy of Houston Heights Association. 

He ran ads in the Houston Chronicle with pencil drawings of his likeness in a bow tie and pin-striped suit, gesturing off the page as he made his pitch.

“The One Hundred Per Cent Man is the man whose mind is not clogged with home worries…Let us take you and your wife over (to) the Heights and show you these pretty homesites…You will want to live in such a delightful community and be surprised the way is so easy.”

And it was. 

Affordable bungalow and cottage kits from Sears and Roebuck arrived on the railroad. An electric street car took workers south to Houston to work and home again.

“Opinions differ, but it was probably the first streetcar suburb in Texas,” Williamson said. “And possibly the first west of the Mississippi.”

Bigger houses lined the wide, tree-lined Heights Boulevard, trailed by smaller homes as you moved away from the center. 

A commercial hub sprang up along 19th and Ashland Avenue. Ashland was joined by Waverly and Cortlandt, perhaps a misspelled nod to the Gage County village of Cortland.

“It is a fine place, fine boulevards and streets, cut in the solid timber, and the streetcars running,” gushed the editor of the Wahoo New Era after touring Carter’s community.

What wasn’t to love? Houston Heights was a modern wonder. Soon it would be a self-sustaining small town with its water and electric plants, iron works and oil mill, mattress factory and motor car company, saw mill and brickworks, library and opera house. 

Nebraskans kept up with Carter from afar.

When the Omaha and South Texas Land Company went bust in 1893, causing a run on a Carter-owned bank in Grafton, the Beatrice Daily Times called Houston Heights “his pet scheme.”

When Carter was ambushed by armed men in the office of his furniture factory in 1900, leaving him with a broken arm, scalp wounds and two missing fingers, the Ashland Gazette called it “an exciting experience with robbers.”

And when the Plattsmouth Journal reported on the accident that killed Carter’s son at the Houston Heights water works five years later, the paper conveyed the sadness. “His sudden death yesterday was a great shock to his father and he was almost prostrated with grief.”

But Carter went on. So did Houston Heights.

***

The Heights has had its lows.

It was annexed in 1918 by the city of Houston. It thrived through the 1930s, but faltered at the end of World War II. The street car disappeared. Cars and freeways lured workers away. Blight settled in.

And then came a serial killer, Dean Corll, whose mother had owned a candy store in the Heights. The 33-year-old kidnapped and murdered more than two dozen boys with the help of two accomplices in the early 1970s. 

The New York Times described the crime spree – and the Heights – of that era. “It is one of this new city’s older neighborhoods and though there are still shopping centers and big churches left, the side streets are run down, given over to the white laboring class. There are pickup trucks up on blocks in the driveways, and tires on frayed ropes in the weedy backyards.”

After the killings, business owners bonded together to form the Houston Heights Association, Williamson said. Residents joined the fledgling association and before long took it over.

They started saving houses and businesses, Queen Anne mansions and stylish Craftsman bungalows and cottages. Old tanks from the water works were transformed into restaurants and shops. They sought approval for three historic districts and landed more than 100 individual properties on the National Registry of Historic Places.

Lambert Hall, former sanctuary of Heights Christian Church, now houses Opera in the Heights and other organizations. Photo courtesy of Houston Heights Association. 

They started a renaissance that led a new generation of residents to the Heights. Residents like Jones love the quick commute downtown. They love the “crazy number” of one-of-a-kind restaurants and “great stretch of local bars,” the 35-year-old native Texan says. 

They are drawn by the old storefronts and vintage shops, the farmers markets and home tours and public art and music in the park. A refurbished running trail along the bayou.

The old library still stands, down the block from where Oscar Martin Carter lived his last years.

But his house? Long gone, Williamson said. Replaced by an apartment complex. 

The Texas Money King died a wealthy man in Houston on Jan. 6, 1928 – his estate estimated at $5 million; $75 million in today’s dollars.

“His death was sudden,” the Omaha Bee reported. “It cut short a career which has won him the title of ‘financial wizard’ and which made him one of the best known of cattle operators, bankers and realtors in the west and southwest.”

***

Jordan Jones visited Nebraska as a boy on a hunting trip with his dad.

“Honestly, I was young enough to where I don’t remember it.”

But, he has flown into Eppley a dozen times in the past year on work-related trips. He’s ventured to Dundee and the Old Market for dinner.

He had no idea the Houston Heights neighborhood he loves was started by a Nebraska man with a grand vision for a 20th century town.

All he knew about Carter?  His likeness on the sign for the Carter & Cooley Company Deli on Houston’s 19th Street.

Last year, Jones sold his second house in the Heights and is renting as he prepares for a job-related move to the Midwest.

Destination: Omaha.

By Cindy Lange-Kubick

Cindy Lange-Kubick began her writing career at the "Malcolm News," penned on her popo's Mobil Oil invoices in her grandparents' home in the small Lancaster County town. She returned to journalism years later as a harried mother of three, and happily spent the next 28 years writing columns at the Lincoln Journal Star. When she cleaned out her desk in August 2021, she carted home her three prized possessions: The Robert T. Morse Award for excellence in mental health reporting from the American Psychiatric Association, the Great Plains Journalism Award for column writing and a handmade plaque from her cribbage partner Stan, in honor of a once-in-a-lifetime feat: a perfect 29 hand.

4 Comments

Great article, Cindy! Engaging, informative, entertaining. My only Houston experiences have been enduring long layovers at IAH- your article makes me actually want to visit the city.

Love seeing the Cindy Lange Kubick byline in The Heights Life. Walked on that walking trail many times as our daughter lives in The Heights, next time it will be with Nebraska eyes to check things out. So interesting! Love Cindy’s articles from our Madonna Miracle daughter, Sidney to our little Heights neighborhood. It’s definitely a small world!

Heidi, This is amazing! What a small small world. I hope to make it down to see O.M. Carter’s dream one of these days. Hope your Madonna Miracle is doing well!