Tom Eblen: Spindletop hopes to raise money, membership with anniversary celebrations

This is what the entry hall at Spindletop, with its curved staircases, looked like when the mansion was new in the late 1930s. In today's dollars, the 45,000-square-foot home was built for about $17 million.  Photo provided
This is what the entry hall at Spindletop, with its curved staircases, looked like when the mansion was new in the late 1930s. In today's dollars, the 45,000-square-foot home was built for about $17 million. Photo provided LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

Pansy Yount wanted only the best for herself and her daughter. So when Texas oilman Frank Yount's widow decided in 1935 to buy a Kentucky horse farm and build a mansion, the result was jaw-dropping.

This month, Spindletop Hall celebrates the 75th anniversary of its completion and the 50th anniversary of its conversion into a country club for University of Kentucky faculty, staff, alumni and friends.

The Club at Spindletop Hall is hosting three anniversary events: a Texas barbecue on Oct. 19, a gala dinner dance on Oct. 20 and a horse and carriage brunch on Oct. 21. (Some tickets are available to the public; call (859) 255-2777 for more information.)

The 1,050-member club hopes to use the celebration to attract a couple hundred new members and raise money to continue restoring the mansion and improving the club.

"She's a beautiful lady, but there are some things we need to address for the future," club manager Gerald Marvel said of Spindletop Hall.

Among those attending the events will be Kathryn Haider of suburban Chicago, who has her own name for Spindletop: Grandma's house. In a telephone interview, Haider recalled idyllic summers spent at Spindletop: fishing, riding ponies and spending time with her grandmother.

"She was an absolutely wonderful woman," Haider recalled. "I just adored her. She was a great mentor to me."

Spindletop is named for the salt dome near Beaumont, Texas, that became a fabulously rich oilfield after Anthony Lucas drilled the first "gusher" in 1901. Initial reserves played out within a few years. But Miles Franklin Yount, a mechanically inclined Arkansas farm boy who moved to Texas to seek his fortune, thought there was more oil to be had if only he could drill deep enough. In 1925, he did.

Yount died in 1933. When his Yount-Lee Oil Co. was sold in 1935, his widow and teenage daughter, Mildred, received a fortune that today would be worth about $208 million. Pansy Yount decided to move to Lexington and indulge her passion for American Standardbred horses.

She bought Shoshone Stud and several surrounding parcels off Ironworks Pike north of Lexington and renamed it Spindletop. As the centerpiece of the 1,066-acre farm, she built a 45,000-square-foot mansion that cost the equivalent of about $17 million today.

Durability was a priority: a massive foundation and steel beams supported the brick-and-stone building, which even had "fireproof" concrete decking in the attic and roof.

"It's almost built like a bomb shelter," said David Graham, a recent club president.

Yount imported craftsmen from Europe to carve woodwork, mold plaster and paint art on the walls. In the entrance hall, there were enormous curved staircases. The huge Gothic library had a hammerbeam roof and a mantel salvaged from an English castle. Yount built a music room for her talented daughter, whose instrument collection included a concert harp and two Stradivarius violins.

The music room also housed the console for a Kimball reproducing organ, which could be played manually or with paper rolls of "recorded" music. It sent music throughout the mansion, which was literally designed around it. The club has begun restoring the organ.

Pansy Yount was a strong-willed woman who could be both demanding and generous. Lexingtonians were shocked in October 1942 when she donated Frank's Duesenberg, one of the most expensive automobiles of the time, to a World War II scrap drive.

Haider recalled the time her grandmother went Christmas shopping at Woolworth's on Lexington's Main Street. She was especially well treated by the sales ladies, so she invited them all out for dinner at Spindletop.

"Grandma treated them just like royalty," she said.

Yount was too independent and egalitarian to get along with some of the wealthy elite of Beaumont and Lexington. Although she had little formal education, she developed excellent taste and a voracious appetite for books.

"She was extremely independent, and a very savvy business woman," Haider said. "She thought out everything she did. If some people didn't like it, she didn't care."

In 1949, Young married her farm manager, horse trainer William Capers "Cape" Grant. They divorced a decade later, and she had decided to move back to Texas.

When Yount decided to sell Spindletop, she called Lexington friend Fred Wachs, then publisher of the Herald and Leader, for advice. He suggested she donate it to the university. UK President Frank Dickey flew to Texas and negotiated the sale of the farm and mansion for the gift price of $850,000, payable over 10 years.

Yount died in 1962, the year UK converted her mansion and 50 surrounding acres into a private club with a dining room, tennis courts, swimming pools and other amenities. Over the years, other land has been used for offices and facilities for UK agriculture and energy research.

UK owns the mansion, which is operated by the club. They both contribute to maintenance and improvements. Haider said she is pleased with the interest they are now showing in preserving Spindletop Hall.

"Everyone is so devoted to the place," she said. "That home is truly a gift to Kentucky."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader