The big hair, thunderous voice, hot-pink fingernails, flashing eyes, and indomitable spirit remained steadfast to the end for Lynda Farr Arnold, better known as Texas Lil. She had weathered booms and busts for 78 years, teetering more toward the bust side in her last decade. You wouldn’t know it from talking to her. She remained upbeat and confident, still promoting her self-published biography, selling vintage collectibles, badgering the FBI about an old arson case, planning new ventures, including a movie adaptation of her book, and, well, being Texas Lil until her car was involved in a collision on U.S. 287 in northwest Fort Worth last week.
She was traveling southbound in the right lane and slowed to make a U-turn at an emergency vehicle crossover. The police report said she failed to yield right of way and was “struck by a vehicle traveling in the left southbound lane.” The other driver was not injured or cited, police reports show.
Arnold used 287 when driving between her Fort Worth apartment and her old stomping grounds near Justin, where she would go to stock her booth at an antique shop and dig through a storage unit filled with many of her belongings, said Tina Howard, one of her closest friends. In recent weeks, Arnold had been cataloguing boxes of old books she planned to sell online. Selling old possessions helped to pay her monthly rent.
She was pronounced dead at the scene.
“She went fast,” Howard said. “She would have hated to have been incapacitated in any way where she couldn’t get up and go.”
Arnold’s life played out across North Texas like a Western soap opera, as told in Trails, Trials, and Tears: The Life and Legacy of Texas Lil, released in 2013. She endured a rocky marriage and divorce. Lost a child. One of her brothers was killed in a car wreck. She became a successful entrepreneur as a single mother raising a daughter and son, Dana and Trace, in the 1970s. She made a success of Fun Factory, a children’s party business, and then founded Texas Lil’s Dude Ranch at the site of a former children’s camp not far from where Texas Motor Speedway would be built later.
One of Arnold’s brothers, Stan Farr, was among four shot and two killed at the Cullen Davis mansion in 1976. Davis was one of the richest men in town. Farr, a tall, handsome former TCU basketball star, was dating Davis’ estranged wife, Priscilla. The murder case shocked Fort Worth residents, created a national stir, and spurred books and a TV movie. A jury acquitted Davis in 1977.
That same year, Arnold bought 194 acres in north Tarrant County, near Northlake. She found herself in an immediate battle. A man who had been leasing the property claimed ownership, hired Denton attorney Bill Trantham, and sued Arnold for possession. Trantham faced off against Arnold in justice of the peace and district courts. Arnold prevailed.
“She beat me fair and square,” Trantham told me years ago, referring to Arnold as “a tough old bird.”
A dilapidated farmhouse was included in the land purchase. Arnold and her then-teenage kids moved in just as a snowstorm hit North Texas. They used handsaws to cut old bois d’arc fence posts for firewood and melted snow for water since the well pump had frozen. Meanwhile, a family of skunks was living underneath the pier-and-beam home and occasionally let loose with odorous reminders of who was living there first.
Arnold had a penchant for hiring itinerant ranch hands, gimpy cowboys, and roustabouts to work the spread, supplying them with room and board as long as they worked hard and followed basic rules about not being a pain in the ass. Trace described her as a “mom to hundreds and a friend to thousands.”
Tina and Bill Howard were among those living and working at the ranch.
“Lil always shot from the hip and told you what she meant, not what you wanted to hear,” Tina said. “She believed in giving everybody a chance. She had rules, and you had to follow them. It was a ranch family.”
Doyle “Bubba” Lawrence worked as a ranch wrangler from 1985 to 1990 and occasionally broke those rules, which included being in bed by 10 and “no fraternizing of the female kind in the bunkhouses.”
Lawrence was 18, fresh out of high school, and having a tough time trying to eke a living out of rodeo cowboying. He had visited the dude ranch as child and loved it, and he figured it would be a cool place to work.
“I just went out there one day and asked if she was doing any hiring,” he said. “I was basically homeless at the time, living with friends here and there. She is one of the best people I’ve ever worked for. People would come and want to work, she would put them to work and see what they had. She didn’t turn anybody away, even if it was just a helping hand to get someone further down the road. She would feed them or give them work to do.”
The dude ranch was being established back then, and Lawrence, who was in charge of caring for the animals, remembers the herd of horses grew from 15 to 30 during his tenure. He also cared for several longhorns, a buffalo, and a few donkeys.
“Big corporations would come out, and we would put on these elaborate Western-style parties,” Lawrence said. “They would bring their buses out, and we would be on horseback and stop and rob them and hoot and holler. We had blanks in our guns. We’d have an Old West robbery scene. Then the sheriff would come and start shooting at us, and some of us would die, and some of us would ride off.”
After the staged robberies, visitors would be taken to their quarters to settle in and then be treated to a night of brisket and beans, drinking, dancing, and listening to a country band. The next day, it was roping, riding, and herding. Rodeos and buckouts in the arena. Wild West shows. More dancing, dining, and drinking followed at the onsite saloon and restaurant.
“It was a lot of fun,” Lawrence said.
The fun kept going after a corporate party was finished, the visitors gone, and the grounds cleaned.
“We were up late nights drinking the leftover beer,” Lawrence said. “She didn’t mind us drinking what was left over because it was paid for, if there was any left.”
Lawrence, like a lot of folks, can’t believe someone with so much life in her is gone for good.
“She was a hell of a good woman,” he said.
Political decisions in nearby Northlake impacted her ranch, so Arnold dipped her pointy-toed boots into local politics, serving as justice of the peace, mayor, and chamber of commerce president over the years, earning political friends and foes.
She performed charitable deeds in her big way. She trucked thousands of pounds of meat to flood victims in North Dakota in 1997 and cooked it on a 57-foot rolling barbecue grill. She trucked three loads of bedding and household goods to Seguin after a flood in 1998. The Tarrant County-based Cowboy Santas nonprofit program would carry about 200 kids to the ranch each year. Santa was flown in on a helicopter to pass out presents.
“Lil took great pleasure in watching … all the children bounce off those buses and just play all day and eat all they could possibly take in,” said Arnold’s longtime friend Jennifer Villagran.
In 2000, Arnold established a foundation to provide books and to teach life management skills to underprivileged children in Como.
“I have never met anyone who willingly gave so much of their own time and money to other causes and individuals,” Villagran said. “I have never known anyone else with a heart or a shoulder to lean on as big as Texas Lil’s.”
At its peak in the early 2000s, the dude ranch was drawing a large number of out-of-state visitors and hosting concerts with local bands and the occasional big act such as Willie Nelson. The focus on corporate events prompted Arnold to take out a bank loan to build a large conference center and dance hall.
Then the twin towers fell in New York City, and the days of companies flying their employees to big weekend conferences dried up. Arnold hung on to the ranch for three more years, sometimes hitting up various friends for loans, often without success. Many of her friends didn’t have much money. Arnold was on the verge of a turnaround in 2004. Travel and tourism were rebounding, and natural gas drillers were eying the ranch as a potential source of mineral wealth. That is when the bank foreclosed, and new investors took over.
Arnold had anticipated earning enough royalties to solve her money woes. She accused the bank of unfair practices. Still, she accepted an offer to remain at the ranch as the Texas Lil figurehead under the new owners, one of whom described her as being the ranch’s “Mickey Mouse.” She would be able to live in her large, comfortable house at the ranch and draw a salary.
Somebody set fire to the ranch on Nov. 4, 2004, six days after the new owners had taken possession. Three of the ranch’s main buildings went up in flames amid questionable circumstances. One building was allegedly set afire an hour after emergency crews were on the scene. The fire was among the largest in North Texas history, with the glow visible 20 miles away in Fort Worth. Destroyed were the 38,500-square-foot conference center, 4,000-square-foot restaurant and bar, and 2,500-square-foot office.
Northlake police suspected Arnold and ranch foreman Bill Howard of arson. Arnold and Bill, Tina’s husband, declared their innocence.
Not long afterward, police charged Bill with arson and accused Arnold of tampering with evidence after she allegedly moved two boxes of personal belongings prior to the fire. Arnold said those boxes weren’t hers and characterized police as backwoods bullies without brains enough to handle the case. Police served her with an arrest warrant for felony tampering with evidence. She was fired as Mickey Mouse.
TV news programs were tipped off and showed Arnold being arrested and handcuffed. She lost her livelihood, house, and savings at an age when most people are looking to retire and with primetime news to capture it for all to see.
About that time, a mutual friend named A.C. “Ace” Cook wanted to introduce me to Arnold so I could write a story about her travails. Arnold was facing jail time. She had been in the news plenty but had not granted any interviews. She wanted to give the Fort Worth Weekly the scoop based solely on Cook’s advice. We arranged to meet at the Bull Ring, Cook’s ice cream and beer parlor in the Stockyards. Tina and Arnold were on their way there when they noticed a police car tailing them. Arnold was still suspect No. 1 in a high-profile arson case.
“We’d ducked that tail and had hidden the car in a parking garage,” Tina said.
It just so happened that the Stockyards was hosting a parade at the time. Somebody on a float recognized Arnold as she and Tina were walking to the Bull Ring.
“Here we are trying to sneak into Ace’s, and all of a sudden somebody in the parade says, ‘Hey, it’s Texas Lil! Come get in the parade!’ ”
Arnold climbed onto the float and waved her hands with a big smile on her face all the way down East Exchange Street. Afterward, inside the Bull Ring, she vowed to prove her innocence and get her ranch back despite being unable to afford high-dollar legal representation.
“We’re not to the end of the story,” she said. “That’s for sure.”
Police never proved an arson case or a tampering with evidence case. But Bill had grabbed a shotgun on the night of the fire, saying he was looking for the unknown arsonist. A felony larceny conviction in his youth meant Bill was prohibited from possessing a firearm, and he’d been seen with the shotgun that night. Bill was sentenced to six years in prison, but not for arson.
“They never proved anything about the fire,” Arnold told me years ago. “It was easier to nail him for that felon in possession, and all he used that gun for was to shoot snakes around the pond.”
Arnold developed a near-mantra from All the Kings Men: “Follow the money trail.”
Somebody capitalized on a multimillion-dollar insurance policy from the burned buildings and gas royalties from the ranch’s mineral rights, and it wasn’t Arnold or Bill. They cast their accusing eyes toward the new investors.
Bill was freed from prison in 2009. He worked as a truck driver, happened upon a car accident in Burleson in 2012, stopped to help a victim, and was struck and killed by a passing vehicle. Tina and Arnold became closer than ever, bonding through a shared grief, support, and survival. More often than not, it was Arnold providing inspiration on the low days.
“She’d say, ‘Buck up girl. We got things to accomplish,’ ” Tina recalled.
When words didn’t work, Arnold upped the ante by threatening to rouse Tina by way of a cattle prod.
Tina fought tears as we spoke in a phone conversation on the day following Arnold’s death
“I sat last night, and I thought of all the things she and I went through,” Tina said. “You know Lil. She has got to be the world’s greatest optimist. I kept thinking about Debbie Reynolds dying. She was the unsinkable Molly Brown, and that was the epitome of Lil – she never gave up, no matter what was thrown at her. She got up and shook herself off and kept going and took all of us along with her. She never left anybody behind. I don’t know what I’m going to do. She was so much a part of my life. She was like that for a lot of people.”
Arnold was confident and quick to laugh for the dozen years I knew her, beginning with our post-parade interview in the Stockyards. A couple of times she alluded to self-doubt and inner miseries. Once, she and I were driving back to Fort Worth after attending Bill’s hearing at the U.S. District Court in Sherman when Arnold leaned her head against the truck door and said, “I can’t believe the crap my life has turned into. I’ve always tried to have a good life.”
Those rare dour moments faded as quickly as they came, and Arnold would buck up, smile, and say something funny like, “Good thing I’m not the suicidal type.”
That attitude kept her going after she suffered health problems and went through physical rehabilitation a few years ago.
“She would never give up on anything,” Tina said. “She was still writing the FBI and wanting them to investigate that fire.”
In the eyes of her friends, Arnold led a great life, not because of the highs, but, in large part, because of the way she stayed strong and kept her faith despite facing accusations, gossip, health problems, and financial wipeout.
A status update on Arnold’s Facebook page sums up her spirit: “Life is too short to be anything but happy. So dare to take chances and leave no regrets. Forget about bad things from your past and start to live today!”
Arnold followed her own advice. She was self-made. Years ago, her brothers nicknamed her Lizard as a country gal growing up in Texarkana. “Lizard” got shortened to “Liz,” then “Lil.”
“Texas” got added later by Lil herself.
“She loved Texas,” Tina said. “Oh my God, she loved Texas. She always wanted Texas to be the premier state and was always promoting it. Texas lost one of their biggest supporters.”
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 28, at Cross Timbers Church, 1119 South US Hwy 377, in Argyle. 940-240-5100.