A building rich with history, fame and architecture, Steve Bolton bought the El Chico Club House in 1979. A single guy at the time, Bolton wanted a property he could work on himself. Starting in 1981, Bolton part-time remodeled the club house into a home to give it a new life. 44 years later, he and his family are a prominent part of the El Chico’s history.
“If I hadn't bought it, I don’t know what would have happened to the club house,” Bolton said. “It didn't have a life and did not have a life for at least 20 years.”
Originally a one-room building with a covered porch, it was built to its current size starting in 1935 and completed in 1936 by Fort Worth merchant W.K. Stripling and partners.
This expansion brought another great room to match the first, one bedroom, one bathroom, a commercial kitchen, a 600-foot lake, and a personal favorite of the Boltons, the art deco bar.
“The art deco bar is a Western scene and it is truly a piece of artwork, hand-carved art, hand-carved wood, that is a bar, complete with a brass rail and other Western scenes on the front of it,” Bolton said. “It's the most unique piece in the entire house.”
By 1984, it was a 4-bedroom home, with all history preserved and all new architecture matching its original western lodge style.
“It's very unique architecture outside and in, so in picking the color of the trims as it went through remodels and changes, I always tried to keep it where it was just a little bit bold," Bolton said. "And that's the way it was initially. Whoever had that design made it to where it was an exceptional piece out here on the ranch.”
The club house was built on the El Chico Ranch, which was subdivided into residential lots by previous owner O.P. Leonard beginning in 1955. To create a city out of the land, 32 resident voters petitioned for the City of Willow Park to be incorporated in 1963.
“Everything that you pretty much consider to be Willow Park used to be the El Chico, and this was the club house on the El Chico,” Bolton said. “So, it's very relevant to people that know that history, and if they don’t know it, then they need to know it.”
Since then, the area has grown rapidly and the role of the club house changed frequently to meet the community’s needs. Actually, the club house was used as city hall from 1963 to 1971, when the original Municipal Building opened where Cross Timbers Park is today.
“Tens of thousands of people have moved here since 1984 to enjoy the same reason that we like living here,” Bolton said. “And that is the East Parker County lifestyle.”
The ranch was made famous in the 1940s by popular Fort Worth businessman and petroleum pipeline contractor O.C. Whitaker, the owner of the club house at the time.
He bought the El Chico Ranch in 1942 and made it a destination for movie stars, singers, dancers, and Fort Worth movers and shakers. The club house featured a bathhouse, diving board, and sunning platform on the lake. Whitaker even had a landing strip built to fly in guests.
“Well, they had a good time,” Bolton said. “I can tell you from all the stories that the people told that used to come here whenever they were in their teens and 20s and 30s. It was a big party place. It was one big dance off, basically.”
During and after remodeling, the Boltons hosted three not-for-profit open houses, which opened up opportunities for them to meet people with a relationship to the club house. One such visitor was Bob Rothel, son of the old ranch foreman.
“One of our open houses, we were covered in the Weatherford Now magazine and he read that article, and so that motivated him to come out and knock on our door,” Bolton said. “That was really eye-opening because he confirmed many of the stories that I had heard from the guests that had come through here and had parties.”
Rothel provided the Boltons with old pictures of celebrities inside the club house. One such photo captured western actor and singer-songwriter Roy Rogers and heavyweight boxing champion of the world Jack Dempsey, among other celebrities, with Whitaker at the art deco bar.
Among the most famous to ever visit the El Chico, Rogers partnered with Whitaker to meet prospective horse buyers at the ranch and sell them a certain color of horse, Palomino.
“Some of the stories were just pretty much, they were unbelievable,” Bolton said. “But then you hear other people say, ‘Yeah, that really happened. And here's the picture.’”
Actually, Dempsey became a regular guest at the ranch. According to Kirby Mirike, an owner of the El Chico from 1955-1962, Dempsey probably began staying at the club house because of his relationship to Amon Carter, who produced a fight in Madison Square Garden during the 1920s and signed Dempsey to participate in it. Carter owned the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and other media outlets at the time.
“Amon Carter had some relationship with somebody that owned the ranch and that's why Jack Dempsey used to come here as a young boxer,” Bolton said. “And then after he stopped boxing, he came back numerous times just to visit the ranch.”
There are rumors that Whitaker had contacts at the Baker and Crazy Water hotels in Mineral Wells, a town known for its “healing” and mineral rich water. Mirike said Whitaker was alleged to show up to Mineral Wells and invite celebrities to his ranch.
“It became a real destination,” Bolton said. “A place that people wanted to come because you could hunt, fish, party, spend the night, and enjoy yourself.”
Although the El Chico Ranch and Club House have served many purposes over the years, it has been a home to the Boltons for the last 44 of them.
“It was a place to have a family, which I believe that's one place that home should be — a safe haven, and also a fun place to grow up,” Bolton said. “I think our two boys certainly enjoyed that. Hopefully after some point we'll sell it and someone else will get to enjoy living here.”
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