We cannot allow 2012 to close without noting two significant milestones for Fayette County’s most magnificent structure. In 1937, Spindletop Hall opened as the private residence for Pansy Yount, one of the American Saddlebred’s most-storied figures. In 1962, Spindletop Hall became the alumni and faculty club of the University of Kentucky. In a single year, this historic building celebrated both a 75th anniversary and a 50th.
Pansy’s “rags to riches” story is surpassed only by Molly Brown – and only because Pansy’s story did not include the sinking of a famous ocean liner.
Pansy Bernadette Merritt Daley, born Feb. 21, 1887, married Miles Franklyn “Frank” Yount in 1915, after being divorced from another oil man just four months before. Her background is sketchy: one account holds she was a waitress in the boomtown of Sour Lake, Texas; Frank’s younger sister suspected Pansy of a somewhat lower profession. Be that as it may, Yount built an oil business after dabbling in real estate and automobile sales. The same year he married Pansy, he founded Yount-Lee Oil Company with four partners.
In 1917, the company drilled the first deep well in Sour Lake, the first of several in the field, and the capital stock rose to more than $2 million. The preceding year, the Younts began construction on a mansion in Sour Lake, naming it “Sunnyside.” The mansion still stands today.
Over the following five years, the company’s success soured, and Yount turned his unerring eye on the “played out” oil field at the Spindletop salt dome near Beaumont, Texas. The site of the 1901 Lucas Gusher, a “monster” that flowed out of control for eight days, was considered over by 1922. The following spring, Yount moved the company to Beaumont, and he and Pansy purchased a 1908 mansion for $90,000 (more than $1 million in today’s dollars), naming it “El Ocaso” (The Sunset). The mansion no longer stands.
Incredibly, just two houses away lived another oil man with a similar interest in exploring potential reserves at Spindletop. Marrs McLean had been intent on drilling at the flanks of the Spindletop, acquiring leases from 1915 – 19, a fairly simple task because almost no one had faith in any prospects for success. Through various agreements, by 1925 Yount and McLean had tied up the entire field.
On Sept. 15, the first attempt failed. But on the evening of Nov. 14, at about 5:25 p.m., the second well struck black gold. Yount called Pansy, who joined him at the wellhead in knee deep mud from recent rains, to watch as the capped well produced at a potential rate of 20,000 gallons a day. Further strikes in the dome led Yount-Lee to become the top oil producer on the Gulf coast.
Yount’s financial success led him back to his love of automobiles (he acquired quite a collection) as well as establishing Spindletop Stables for his prized Saddlebreds.
Truly, life for the Younts was not like most other Americans, even after the Crash of 1929. But for Frank Yount, the end came Nov. 13, 1933, when he was struck by a massive heart attack.
A few days later, Pansy announced to a shocked horse world that she would take up the reins at Spindletop Stables in an industry – much like oil – ruled by high-octane testosterone.
Exactly six months before his death, Frank had hired the well-known trainer William Capers “Cape” Grant, Jr., to manage the equine operation. The next year, Cape proved his worth when he dominated the American Royal Horse Show in Kansas City, the third “jewel” in the Saddlebred Triple Crown (Lexington and Louisville being the first two). A Pansy-favorite Lady Virginia, however, lost to Roxie Highland. Taking the time-honored tradition “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” Pansy purchased Roxie as a gift for her daughter Mildred. The stables dominated the next several show seasons.
In 1935, during a tour of breeding farms in five states including Kentucky, Pansy decided to make a break from stultifying Beaumont – where rumors abounded about her relationship with Cape – and relocate the stables to Lexington. Taking $400,000 of her share of the proceeds from the sale of Yount-Lee Oil, Pansy bought the 836-acre Shoshone Stud on Iron Works Pike. At the same time, Pansy again shocked the Saddelbred world by retiring Roxie Highland to serve as the foundation mare for Spindletop Farm, now expanded to 1,066 acres.
Spindletop Hall was completed in 1937, costing more than $1 million, excluding contents. The mansion was like no other in central Kentucky. On a European scale, the 45,000 sq. ft. house featured 40 rooms, twin winding main staircases, a built-in pipe organ, and a dance floor in the basement designed to represent an outdoor courtyard after dark. The grounds were landscaped in a grand style to suit the mansion.
Lexington, if not all Kentucky, had never seen anything like it.
The year before Spindletop Hall opened, Chief of Spindletop conquered the Saddlebred world, taking the World’s Championship Five-Gaited Tri-Color at Louisville. The low to that high came just three years later when Roxie Highland colicked and died. True to her style, Pansy buried the mare in a full coffin with a lavish funeral.
The folklore that Pansy was never accepted by Lexington society is just that. She entertained the Chamber of Commerce and six U.S. Senators, including Sen. Alben Barkley and Sen. Harry S. Truman. She also supported the nascent Lexington Junior League Horse Show and was a close friend of Fred B. Wachs.
Her life in Lexington was not all roses: she married Ed Minion, then divorced him after producing two children, then married Cape Grant. In 1952, Pansy’s equine enthusiasm waned and she dispersed her fine stock. On Feb. 21, 1959, the mansion and farmland were sold to the University of Kentucky for a bargain of $850,000.
A caravan of nine trucks bore her furnishings back to Beaumont, but she returned some $61,000 worth of furniture returned some $61,000 worth of furniture as contribution to the restoration of the house as U.K.’s faculty and alumni club.
Pansy and Cape’s marriaged ended in 1959. Pansy died in 1962 with her children and grandchildren at her bedside.