By TOM LAWRENCE
Jun 25, 2009
It’s been 60 years since Terry Carpenter founded the small town that bears his name and more than 30 years since he died.
But the businessman, politician and colorful character continues to cast a long shadow in the area. Terry Carpenter, a.k.a. “Terrible Terry,” would like that.
Carpenter was a lot of things during his 78 years – a very successful capitalist, a frequent candidate for local, state and national office as both a Democrat and Republican, and a man who loved attention, didn’t shy from controversy and enjoyed making money.
Terrytown, which will celebrate its 60th anniversary as an incorporated community with a daylong celebration Saturday, is his most enduring landmark.
“He built the whole town,” said Jan Pierce, manager of Terry Carpenter Inc., which oversees a mobile home park, 12 commercial properties and three storage units in Terrytown.
She never met him, but her office is a virtual shrine to the man, complete with photos, oilcans that bear his name and image and other pieces of memorabilia.
“He was quite a Terry, that’s for sure,” said Terrytown Mayor Kent Greenwalt, 71, who knew Carpenter slightly.
“Terry was a maverick but he got a got a lot of things done,” said Don Overman, who served as mayor of Scottsbluff for 21 years and knew Carpenter well. “He was a very good politician.”
Pat Meyer of Gering, a volunteer at North Platte Valley Museum, also knew Carpenter a little bit and worked for his family after she graduated from high school in the mid-1960s. She had one encounter with him that left a lasting memory.
Meyer was working as a cook at The Gaslight, a restaurant the Carpenter family owned and managed. When she worked late one night, her boss, Carpenter’s daughter-in-law, said she could come to work at a family-owned store a bit late the next morning.
Meyer said she was stunned when she showed up the next day” at work. “I went in and there’s Terry cooking doughnuts and pizza,” she said.
He made a cutting remark about her being late to work and she was crushed and intimidated. But when she explained the situation he quickly apologized and treated her well, Meyer said.
Carpenter had a gruff exterior but he also had a soft heart, according to people who knew him. Chuck Davey, who knew Carpenter for many years, said his friend cared for the underdog.
“Terry came from a very poor background so he had a great empathy for people who were down on their luck and didn’t have anything to live on,” Davey said, according to a history compiled by Hazeldeane Carpenter, Terry’s wife, who survived him by more than 20 years. “He came from the wrong side of the tracks and didn’t want to go back. He also tried to help people so they didn’t have to go back either!”
Meyer agrees – to a degree.
“He always had a soft spot for the little guy,” she said. “And he made a fortune doing it.”
Darrell Bentley, 68, of Gering, met Carpenter a few times and still recalls the impact that made on him.
When Carpenter was in the Unicameral Legislature, Bentley said he sought “an audience” with him to discuss the need for a smoother process to license boats. It would often take up to two weeks for a license to get across the state and he said that was too long in an area with such short summers.
So he went to speak to “Terrible Terry.”
“I walked in and he said, ‘What do you want, boy'? Scared me to no end,’” Bentley recalled Tuesday.
Once he explained the issue, Carpenter vowed to take action to correct the situation. During the next session, he did just that.
“He did listen to the little people,” said Bentley, who grew up in Scottsbluff and recalls his father and others discussing Carpenter.
Carpenter, who made millions and wasn’t shy about discussing it, was typically wry about his devotion to poor and middle-class people.
“Sure, I want to help these people,” he said. “Come the revolution, they’ll go right for the biggest house in town – and I live there.”
Like another Nebraska legend, comedian Johnny Carson, Carpenter was an Iowa native. Terry McGovern Carpenter – named for a famed fighter – was born in Cedar Rapids on March 28, 1900. His father died when he was young and his mother took in boarders to make ends meet.
At times, she would rent out Terry’s room and he would sleep in the hallway of his own home, according to Pierce. He went to work at age 7, hawking newspapers and later selling candy. He brought in what money he could to help make ends meet.
Those early, painful lessons in finance made a deep mark on Carpenter, Pierce said. His lifelong struggle for fiscal success and security and the support and approval of others may have their roots in that small boy sleeping in the hall.
He attended Cedar Rapids schools before he and his family moved to Scottsbluff in 1916. He moved to Long Beach, Calif., in 1923 and was employed as manager of the municipal gas and water department but returned to Scottsbluff in 1927 and worked in the garage business and the retail coal business.
He sold gas for far less than his competitors and earned steady customers and powerful enemies. The land that his station sat on was sold and he was forced out of business.
But he relocated and reopened. When his fuel supply was cut off, he and his new bride, Hazeldeane, had a railroad spur built and shipped in gas from Wyoming.
Within a few years he had built the state’s only gasoline refinery, opened a cracking plant and other businesses, including a creamery and a grocery store. He sold the refinery for $1 million.
Carpenter served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and left the service with the rank of major.
He and Hazeldeane had three sons: Terry Jr., who died as young boy, and Gary and Michael. All are dead, but one daughter-in-law survives. The Carpenters lived in a luxurious home in Scottsbluff.
In the 1930s, Carpenter owned land near the Burlington Northern tracks and allowed poor people to park trailers there. He charged them little in rent and sold them milk from his creamery and food from his store.
He paid men $1 a day to haul gravel – if they had their own wheelbarrow. They were paid 75 cents a day if they used one of his.
Politics soon caught his attention and he ran for mayor of Scottsbluff as a Republican in 1931. He was defeated but not discouraged.
In 1932 he was the Democratic nominee for Nebraska’s Fifth Congressional District at the tender age of 32 and, in a year when Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s promise of a “New Deal” led a national Democratic sweep, he was elected.
He said he felt undeserving of the high office – until he met many of his fellow members of Congress.
“All the way to Washington, I wondered what I was doing there,” he said in 1933. “Then, after I got there, I wondered how the hell did these guys get here?”
Carpenter didn’t run for a second term to Congress, instead eyeing the governor’s chair. He sought the Democratic nomination in 1934 but was defeated in the primary and was — briefly — out of politics.
Although he tried many, many times, he would never win another race for state or national office. It wasn’t for a lack of effort.
After winning the U.S. House seat in 1932, he lost every other statewide race, always running as a Democrat. He ran for governor in 1934, 1940, 1950 and 1960, for the U.S. Senate in 1936, 1942, 1948, 1954 and 1972 and for lieutenant governor in 1938 and 1974.
“Politics is a dirty, double-crossing business,” he said. “That’s why I like it.”
Founding A Town
After leaving Congress, Carpenter focused on business – and building a town. He tried to incorporate Terrytown in 1937 but was defeated.
Carpenter opened a brick factory and dug sand from a nearby area, creating a large pit. He always saw opportunity, even in a hole in the ground, so he filled it with water and called it, unsurprisingly, Terry’s Lake. It remains a community centerpiece and most of the 60th anniversary celebration, including a fireworks show, will be centered around the lake.
The bricks, many of which he made himself, were used to build 48 affordable apartments in the area as well as houses and a giant arena. A drive-in theater, since torn down, was a popular addition.
The massive arena – guess what the name was – was a popular spot for rollerskating and shows. Big bands and country stars played there.
While his business endeavors were successful, politics still had a powerful pull on him.
Carpenter was elected mayor of Scottsbluff in 1947 but some said since he supplied materials to a firm that contracted with the city, he was violating state law. After less than six months in office, he resigned.
Carpenter turned his attention back to the low-lying, marshy ground near the river between Gering and Scottsbluff. The wily political veteran knew the ropes of incorporating a town and on June 2, 1949, Terrytown was officially recognized as a village.
He built a horse stable, which he converted into the Stable Club Café. The Copper Kettle restaurant was, for its time and place, a swanky restaurant. Terry’s Store sold liquor by the drink at a time when neighboring towns wouldn’t do so.
His one gas station was soon a chain with his name and nickname prominently displayed. He sold products bearing his name and face.
‘Joe Smith’ for VP
While Terrytown took its first small steps, its founder stayed interested in public office and the notoriety that came with it.
Although he was primarily a Democrat, Carpenter switched parties when the opportunity arose. He was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1956 and seized the opportunity to grab national attention.
Carpenter felt the convention was a staged event without any real drama or purpose. No fan of Vice President Richard Nixon, Carpenter nominated “Joe Smith” of Terrytown for vice president.
The nomination caused a stir in a convention that was supposed to simply renominate President Dwight Eisenhower and Nixon. The story grew to national proportions when it was revealed there was no “Joe Smith” – it was Carpenter’s protest against the staged political theater.
Carpenter loved media attention and went so far as to run his own newspaper, The Senator, for a while. He loved to give reporters colorful quotes.
“Take the press out of here and I’ll shut up,” he said once.
Carpenter’s greatest political success came in Lincoln; he served in the Legislature in 1953, 1957-59 and 1963-74, representing the Scottsbluff area.
Education issues were a hallmark and he helped create the Nebraska Mexican American Commission. “He really was an effective legislator,” Overman said, pointing to Carpenter’s efforts to create the Nebraska Educational TV Network.
In 1974, after losing a bid for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, he resigned from the Legislature and announced his retirement from politics.
It didn’t last long. Soon Carpenter was running as a write-in candidate for his old Senate seat and when the dust cleared on Election Night 1974 he had won by three votes.
But a recount was called for and, after several of Carpenter’s votes were tossed out for misspelling his name and other alleged improprieties, he was defeated.
It was the end of a wild, colorful and effective political career.
Many people who knew him recall him with a great deal of fondness – and they smile when talking about him.
Sherry Pottorff, 64, of Lake Minatare, grew up in Terrytown. Her father, Charles Schank, managed Terry’s Arena and also served as the town police chief.
She recalls going out to lunch with Terry and Hazeldeane Carpenter – they let her drink Shirley Temples, making her feel grown up – while her parents worked at the arena. Her father liked the Carpenters, she said.
“My dad really respected and admired Terry,” Pottorff said.
While he remained involved with his businesses, the old warrior was slowing down and some of his landmarks crumbled. The giant Terry’s Arena blew up when a fire broke out near a stockpile of fireworks in July 1968.
Carpenter was hospitalized in early 1978 and doctors finally diagnosed the source of his stomach pain: cancer.
The city of Scottsbluff named a park in his honor and Overman delivered the news to Carpenter’s hospital bed. He said while Carpenter was in a weakened condition, he was happy and Hazeldeane was especially pleased.
Like a lot of people, Overman has high praise for elegant, reserved Hazeldeane.
“She was quite a gal in her own right,” he said.
Terry Carpenter died on April 27, 1978. Newspapers produced extensive tributes, packed with stories, photos and the colorful quotes that were his hallmark. Carpenter was interred in Fairview Cemetery.
It took death to finally put “Terrible Terry” to rest.