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Texas Trails: The Duke of Duval

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April 12, 2012 - George Parr was known as the Duke of Duvall, and for decades he ran Duval County in South Texas like it was his own private fiefdom, which it really was. He inherited the kingdom from his father, Archie Parr, who was the first Duke of Duval.

The elder Parr went from itinerant cowboy to powerful politician following the murder of Duval County tax collector and Democratic Party chairman John Cleary, in 1907. He stepped into the void left by Cleary's death and set about shaping the county in his image.

Archie became the provider of jobs, both real and imaginary, for the unemployed in Duval County. Contracts were let for exorbitant sums with princely payoffs to Archie figured into the contract. According to the employment rolls, a disproportionate number of people worked for country road and bridge crews. Whether they worked or not, the phantom employees were paid, and they remained eternally grateful to the Duke.

George Parr stepped into the role his father passed on to him and expanded the system of Boss Rule greatly. For more than 30 years he controlled elections and accessed as many public funds as it took for him to get what he wanted, whether it was good roads for the county (built by his very own road company) or a racetrack at his ranch. Occasionally, people who opposed Parr or who stood in the way of what he wanted ended up dead under suspicious circumstances. It seemed to be a family tradition.

Always willing to do his part to help the machine run smoothly, George Parr would pitch in and do a stint as county judge or sheriff when the need arose. That he was able to hold public office after serving time in 1934 for tax evasion was due to a presidential pardon from Harry Truman in 1946.

In 1948, when Lyndon Johnson found himself in a hotly contested primary race with Coke Stevenson for a seat in the U.S. Senate, Johnson eked out an 87-vote victory in an election that drew more than a million votes. Stevenson was initially declared the winner but a few days later officials in Wells County, one county over from Duval, were persuaded to "correct" their vote totals from Box 13 in Alice. The revised total gave Johnson 200 additional votes and set off a wave of controversy that haunts the Johnson legacy to this day.

In the investigation that followed, witnesses were hard to find. Voting lists went missing or up in smoke. Ballots might have been cast from the Great Beyond, and voters in the region showed an amazing propensity for showing up at the polls to vote in alphabetical order. Remarkably, charges in the case were dropped.

People compared the Duke of Duval to mesquite. In 1954, when he was being investigated for mail fraud and various other crimes, Time magazine ran a story suggesting that George Parr's South Texas empire was about to crumble, that the combined forces of a federal investigation and the rise of an opposition party in South Texas would put an end to Boss Rule in Duval County.

One local man interviewed for the story didn't jump to that conclusion. "Don't bet on it," he said. "This is mesquite country. You know how hard it is to kill a mesquite tree; you can chop it, you can burn it, but the roots go way down deep, and it'll keep coming up again."

By the 1960s, with his old pal Lyndon Johnson in the White House, Parr and his cronies were again riding high, unfettered by pesky federal agents and the annoyance of another investigation.

Government prosecutors came calling again following an otherwise routine audit of an Austin architect's taxes in 1971. One little curiosity about the architect's returns put the agents on a tangled trail that led straight to Duval County and George Parr. The government's case was elaborately prepared and prosecuted with precision.

This time Parr didn't skate. In March of 1974, Parr was convicted on all eight counts brought against him and sentenced to prison. Other targets of the investigation, including George's nephew, also had their day in court and lost.

Rather than go to prison at age 74, George Parr drove to a favorite part of his ranch and shot himself. Though there was talk and speculation that one man or another might step in to continue the tawdry tradition of Boss Rule in Duval County no one has.

The mesquite still thrives in South Texas but the Duke of Duval is long gone.

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