Gumption Keeps Texas Lil’ Swimming Upstream


She lived in style in a 4,000-square-foot house on 194 picturesque acres. Now home is a one-bedroom apartment. Lynda Arnold -- big hair, big eyes, big bright smile -- had money, once upon a time and her Texas Lil's Dude Ranch in Northlake, southwest of Denton, was a popular and successful enterprise.

Arnold hosted lavish corporate parties and welcomed tourists who wanted to spend a day experiencing the Old West. Visitors went on trail rides and ate barbecue and sat in the glow of a campfire as Alan Dryman strummed his guitar and crooned The Yellow Rose of Texas under a vast star-jeweled sky.

Charlton Heston attended a Republican fundraiser at the spread.

Willie Nelson performed in concert.

Arnold's business was so good that in the late 1990s she borrowed $2 million to build a huge special event and conference center.

"Lil had it all out there," recalled Dryman, a longtime friend.

Then terrorists slammed airplanes into those New York skyscrapers and, as Arnold put it, "Everything went to Hell in a handbasket."

Corporate bookings were canceled. Revenue dried up like a creek bed.

In late 2004, Arnold lost the land she owned and loved for 27 years during bankruptcy.

Six days after new owners took possession of the ranch, an arsonist torched three buildings on the property and Arnold was arrested -- "twice!" she said -- and taken to county jail in handcuffs.

The Northwest school district recently bought the ranch and plans to use the land for an outdoor science classroom.

Arnold works at Chicks Dig It, a shop in Flower Mound.

She sells cowhide rugs and scented candles and a variety of rustic knickknacks.

"Then I go home and fall in bed," Arnold said with a laugh.

The 71-year-old divorced grandmother and former Denton County justice of the peace also supplements her Social Security benefits as a wedding officiant. For $200, Arnold will don a black robe, or, if the bride and groom wish, she will dress in her signature Western hat, full-length fringed leather vest and cowboy boots.

That life-altering turn of events six years ago left Arnold flat broke.

And, she acknowledges, depressed.

"Lil was devastated," Dryman said. "The ranch was her baby. Her whole life."

When she finally quit crying and looked in the mirror, she saw the core of who she is -- a get-back-up-and-do-something survivor.

The fire didn't destroy her gumption. Or her love for the Lone Star State and its heritage.

"After all that happened, my kids told me, 'Dye your hair back dark. You're Lynda Arnold."'

A smile lit the painted face of this plain-spoken, truck-driving bodacious blonde.

"I'll always be Texas Lil," she proudly declared. "That's me. It's who I am."

On Nov. 4, 2004, Lil, still living at the ranch, was watching "CSI" on television.

Her son and daughter, she remembers, were driving back from Austin, and had stopped for dinner at a restaurant prophetically called Up in Smoke.

That night, the ranch erupted in flames.

One of the burning structures was the handsome 38,000-square-foot conference center with a stage, three bars, meeting rooms and a white aspen ceiling. Fire damage was estimated at $2 million.

Police arrested a ranch employee, Billy Gene Howard, near one of the torched buildings.

Two weeks after the fire, Arnold was arrested on a felony charge of tampering with evidence. According to the warrant, she told police that she had lost all her personal memorabilia, including news articles, awards, trophies and photographs in the blaze. Police said they recovered two plastic bins containing many of these items during a search of a storage trailer the next day.

Arnold said the items had belonged to her former public relations director.

"People were saying I was behind it," Arnold said, her blue eyes widening.

"That would be like settin' fire to your own child," said Arnold, who moved to the ranch with her two children in 1977. "I used to tell people it wasn't my place. It was God's place, and I was the caretaker. I really felt that way."

Arnold was arrested again Dec. 6 for misdemeanor theft of $63.50 in quarters, which she had taken from two laundry machines at the ranch.

The former Northlake mayor and chamber of commerce president spent the night on a concrete bench behind bars.

The next morning, Arnold posted $5,000 bail.

A TV news crew was waiting.

Arnold remembers hiding her face, out of vanity. Yes, she agreed, it probably made her appear guilty.

"But, my Lord," she said, "I looked terrible!"

A grand jury declined to indict Arnold on the evidence-tampering charge, and the misdemeanor charge was dropped.

Howard pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm by a felon to avoid an arson trial.

Arnold said her friend was recently released from federal prison.

"Bill was a scapegoat," she said flatly. "There was no reason for him to do it. He loved that place as much as I did."

Texas Lil isn't seeking publicity. But if a newspaper wants to revisit what happened to her and tell readers where she is now, she welcomes the update.

"Some people think I'm in jail," she said.

"People ask me, 'Is Lil still alive?"' Dryman said. "They think that all she went through might have killed her."

In November 2006, desperate for money, Arnold agreed to auction off about 300 items from her ranch. The inventory included a 6-foot wooden Indian, a slot machine, a buffalo head and two vintage barber chairs covered in plush red velour. Arnold expected to pocket $50,000. She cleared only $13,000.

The Texarkana, Texas, native lived for a year on her parent's 300-acre ranch in Meridian.

That move, too, ended in heartache.

"Basically, the banker sold it out from under me," she said, declining to elaborate.

Arnold is accustomed to those bruises to the heart that life delivers.

Her third child died in infancy. One brother was killed in a car wreck. Another, Stan Farr, was murdered in 1976 at the Cullen Davis mansion.

"Life can be hard," she said. "But I have something in me that won't let me give up."

So she drives her red truck from her apartment in Lewisville to her new job. Arnold politely directs shoppers to a collection of hair-on-hide furniture and Western accessories, items like those she enjoyed buying for her ranch when she was flush and times were good.

Friends tell Arnold that she has the personality to host her own TV show.

"Lil, you should run for governor!" others say.

"Pul-ease," she laughingly replies. "With what?"

In a pinch she could always sell her watch and her jewelry -- and there's her leopard coat.

Arnold produced the animal-skin garment, which she had fringed in mink. One day she was visiting Priscilla Davis and spotted a matching pair of leopard coats in a closet.

"How come you have two of 'em?" Arnold asked.

Cullen Davis and Priscilla had the coats made for them while traveling in Africa.

"Want one?" Priscilla asked.

Davis' ex-wife tossed the spotted coat to her friend.

Arnold has had her fill of politics, but she would love a job as an ambassador of Texas, traveling to conventions and trade shows promoting Texas tourism. She would also welcome working for the school district at the ranch.

For now, she puts in her hours at the shop and sees her grandkids whenever she can.

"I've got to quit going to bed early," Arnold said, "and start typing again."

She has been working on a book, off and on, a memoir.

Arnold doesn't have an ending -- yet.

How about a title?

Texas Lil tapped her manicured nails against a desktop and pursed her bright red lips.

"I'm thinking about 'Swimmin' Upstream, All The Way."'

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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