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Richard Fenner Burges: Renaissance Man
By Isaac Maldonado
Burges was born on January 7, 1873, in Seguin, Texas, south of Austin. Richard’s mother died just six days later. Having never known his mother, Richard and his brothers and sisters were not without the love and devotion of family. His mother’s sister, Nannie, and his grandmother raised the children, along with his father William Burges, Sr. When Nannie married Dr. W. M. Yandell, they continued this care, and after the Yandells moved to El Paso, they would provide a home for the Burges brothers when, one by one, they too moved west to the border city.
Image caption: Richard Fenner Burges practiced law and became a World war I hero. Photo taken on January 2, 1895. Photo courtesy of the El Paso County Historical Society .
Their Aunt Laura (Tenie) was a private school teacher for all of the eight grades in Seguin. Richard was privately tutored up to the eighth grade and then studied with a German professor. In 1890, he attended the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, now Texas A&M University, where he excelled in rhetoric and oration. In Burges’ extensive collection of personal papers, one researcher found a “complete script on his oration entitled ‘On Ambition.’”
After a year at the college, Richard, still too young to be admitted to the bar, studied law privately in El Paso and worked part-time. By 1894, Richard Burges was accepted into the El Paso bar before Judge C. N. Buckler. Richard entered a short-lived law partnership with his older brother, William , a city attorney. After a year, Richard began a solo career to establish his reputation. When his brother Alfred Rust Burges moved to El Paso, the two practiced law together until Alfred’s death in 1924.
Richard Burges served as city attorney from 1905 to 1907 under Mayor Charles Davis and worked with his brother William and others to ban open gambling, control prostitution and end political corruption . Some of his best legal work, however, had to do with accessing and acquiring sufficient water for El Paso and this part of the Southwest. He supported and helped write water legislation for a growing El Paso on local, state and national levels. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt called a National Irrigation Congress to which Richard was a representative for Texas. In 1910-1911, he served as counsel for the United States in its arbitration with Mexico over the Chamizal Zone .
Burges married Ethel Petrie Shelton in 1898, and the couple had one daughter, Jane. The Burges brothers and their families were part of the lively social scene in early El Paso. Richard and Ethel watched as El Paso developed and they purchased building lots in the new Sunset Heights addition. In 1912, they began construction of their dream home, high on a hill with excellent views in all directions. Just a few months later on April 26, Ethel died. Their daughter, Jane Burges Perrenot, said in a 1971 interview with Mary Patricia Roderick that the joy her father initially had in the house’s construction left him after losing his wife. The house was finished, and Burges and his daughter lived and entertained in it for many decades.
Burges devoted the rest of his life to his daughter and his work. Having been immersed in politics with his brother for over 15 years, Richard Burges decided to run for the state legislature in 1912. Although many considered state government unimportant, Burges believed that “making laws for four million people was never a small task unless a legislator made it so.” He won the election in 1913 and served in the house of the 33rd and 34th state legislatures. This position allowed him to exert his influence over a wide body of lawmakers, and his work helped produce the Burges-Glasscock Act in his first year as a legislator.
The Act included three major changes to the existing water code in Texas. According to the Texas Tech Law Review online, the new revisions said: “all unappropriated waters in the state, not simply those in arid West Texas, were the property of the state.” The changes also included the establishment of a Board of Water Engineers to plan for water development and carry out a water permitting system and a way for the state to maintain a history of all water rights permits. The Act also made clear that water rights would be revoked “if not beneficially used or if willfully abandoned.”
In 1915, Burges became the president of the International Irrigation Congress and general counsel for the El Paso County Water Improvement District. Owen White wrote that “in every important piece of litigation that has ever risen in connection with the Elephant Butte Irrigation project he has acted as the representative of the El Paso Water Users’ Association both here and in Washington.” After four years of planning, Elephant Butte Dam began construction in 1912 and was completed in 1916, the success of which White attributed to the determination of Richard Burges.
When America joined World War I, Richard Burges answered the call of duty. In 1917, Burges organized a National Guard Cavalry Unit and combined these men with that of Company A, 141st Infantry of the famous 36th Division, training at Camp Bowie , Texas. Under command of Captain Richard Burges, the unit left New York on July 26, 1918, and landed in France on August 6, 1918.
Burges was promoted to major on the battlefield, on October 8, 1918, during the battle of Medeah Farm in which he demonstrated heroism and was awarded the French Croix de Guerre. He also recommended that his first sergeant, Sam Dreben, receive the Distinguished Service Cross, after the two made a dash into enemy territory and captured six machine guns and killed 21 German soldiers. Burges never forgot his men, the living or the dead, and honored survivors in 1934 at a dinner in his own home.
The war hero, known as Major Burges throughout the rest of his life, returned to his home on 603 West Yandell Drive to spend time with his daughter, Jane, and practice law with his brother, Alfred. When Alfred died in 1924, Richard was on his own until 1938 when he joined his brother William’s law firm.
Owen White remarked that Burges was very versatile in his interests, with knowledge of literature, history, and law. “In short he is a man whom Nature has blessed, who has known how to take advantage of the blessing bestowed and who has lived to see his efforts recognized and rewarded by his fellow townsmen.” Burges used his influence to promote one of nature’s wonders. He was the 28th person to enter Carlsbad Caverns, discovered in 1898 and explored for years by the cowboy Jim White . After his tour into the majestic underground, Burges published an article in the El Paso Times on August 26, 1923. In “Rare Beauties to be Found in the Wonderful Carlsbad Caverns,” he addressed the need for easier access to the caverns for future visitors.
His campaign did not stop there. He went on to write to the United States Geological Survey, the National Geographic Society, the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce, New Mexico congressmen and the National Park Service. His proposal involved building a new tunnel system, estimated to cost $30,000. Although the initial proposal failed, he did get a donation from the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce to build a wooden staircase at the natural cave entrance. Burges also worked with the federal government to declare the site a national monument, which President Calvin Coolidge did on October 25, 1923.
At the time of his death on January 13, 1945, Richard Burges was a member of the law firm Burges, Burges, Scott, Rasberry and Hulse. He had authored the city charter of El Paso, the Texas Forestry Act, a married woman’s property act, a compulsory education act and had co-authored the Texas Irrigation Code. He was an authority on trees, having planted some of the first pecan trees in the area. He also left behind a massive library of state and local history materials, along with his own personal memorabilia.
Today his memory lives on in his house at 603 West Yandell, which his only child, Jane Burges Perrenot, donated to the El Paso County Historical Society in 1986. There, researchers may use the voluminous collection of books, correspondence, photographs, scrapbooks, articles, historical papers and other documents that Burges preserved during his lifetime. The home remains one of the most elegant in Sunset Heights, and along with the grounds, can be used for private occasions
A branch of the El Paso Public Library in the northeast part of the city is named for Richard Fenner Burges – scholar, lawyer, public servant, war hero, gentleman. He was a man of integrity and wisdom, writing in his journal: “Length is life’s least important dimension.”