BENTSEN, LLOYD MILLARD, SR.
BENTSEN, LLOYD MILLARD, SR. (1894–1989). Lloyd M. Bentsen, Sr., businessman, one of six children born in a 7½-year period to Niels Peter and Tena (Peterson) Bentsen, was born on November 24, 1894, in Argo Township, near White and Brookings, South Dakota, just west of the Minnesota state line. His father had immigrated from Denmark to farm. The family experienced many typical adversities of homesteading on the prairie frontier–fire, which destroyed their first dwelling and belongings, crop failure, harsh winters, sparse medical care, and hostility against Scandinavian immigrants. Lloyd Bentsen lived on the family homestead until World War I. He ceased schooling at thirteen years and worked for local farmers at harvesting and roping and taming mustangs. He also cultivated a youthful dedication to motorcycles and high-speed adventure thereon. He survived a cycle accident on a muddy farm road that left him with a partially severed foot and severe body lacerations, but sufficiently well to enlist at the beginning of World War I in the United States Signal Corps for aviator training at Kelly Field, San Antonio. His brother Elmer enlisted in the navy and went through the war on the second battleship Texasqv. In Texas during training Lloyd met and married Edna Ruth Colbath, known thereafter as Dolly. Bentsen and his wife joined his parents, who heeded medical advice and moved from South Dakota to Sharyland, Texas, an irrigated citrus and vegetable utopia envisioned by John H. Shary and developed by him near Mission. On November 5, 1918, the Bentsens left their homestead and began driving the 1,675 miles to the Rio Grande valley by car. They drove for seventeen days. The family arrived penniless. Peter Bentsen rented a place in Mission and began working as a land agent for John Shary. He also began a nursery-seedling business and sent out a call to the family for help. Lloyd, Sr., and Elmer mustered out of the military after the Armistice and responded to that message. A Bentsen beachhead was thus established in Texas. All saved diligently and invested in Valleyqv land as soon as they could.
Lloyd and Elmer Bentsen became the premier colonizers and developers of Hidalgo County, which led all counties of the United States in cotton production and raised a good part of the Valley's 1948 $100 million citrus and vegetable crop. In 1952 the county centennial program described the contribution of Lloyd and Elmer's stake in the county's economic development. The Pride O Texas citrus trademark contributed substantially to the fortune that the Bentsen family began amassing. Elmer and Lloyd were principals in the Elsa State Bank, Elmer a president and director and Lloyd on the board of directors. Lloyd was also a principal in the First National banks of McAllen, Mission, Edinburg, Raymondville, and Brownsville. He served as president of the Rio Grande Valley Chamber of Commerce from 1944 to 1946 and was instrumental in uniting and developing Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, and Willacy counties. Later in life he became sensitive to preserving the natural environment of the Valley and donated land that became the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Scenic Park.
Bentsen did not accumulate land and monetary fortunes without problems. In 1952–55 he had courtroom difficulties in Texas and Washington, D.C., over land sales. He was accused by five plaintiffs of conspiracy and fraud in the sale of Ramsmeyer Gardens, supposedly irrigated land fit for citrus, and one plaintiff wanted back acreage in Minnesota that he had traded to Bentsen for his share in the land venture. Bentsen himself testified that he had sold the land in question to Homer F. Ramsmeyer, and that all sales thereafter were not of his doing. Federal district judge James Allred ruled that the Bentsen Group, consisting of the Bentsen Brothers, G. F. Dorn, Bentsen Brothers, Incorporated, and the Rio Grande Development Company, having been cleared by jury of a conspiracy, were derivatively clear of fraud. In another land dispute, buyers of Valley lands from the Bentsen Group claimed that the sellers had failed to maintain and tend citrus plantings, as they were required to do by the original purchase transaction. In 1951 a severe freeze had wiped out many Valley orchards. "This freeze did produce a bumper crop of litigation," said Paul A. Porter, attorney for Bentsen before the Supreme Court of the United States. Bentsen later recalled that there were "15, 16, 17 suits altogether, a lot of them." No fraud was ever found, although damages of $5,000 to one plaintiff were later mandated by the court. Bentsen gradually moved out of Valley land development and invested $7 million in organizing an insurance and financial holding company in Houston. Lloyd Bentsen, Jr., was the chief executive of this Houston entity until he ran for the United States Senate in 1971, at which time it was sold for $22 million.
In 1959 Bentsen was promoted to major general in the Texas State Guard Reserve Corps by Governor Allan Shivers. If the Texas National Guard were called to duties outside the Texas borders, Bentsen's units were to replace the absent guardsmen.
The Bentsen family was a tightly knit group, as first-generation immigrant families tended to be. The men disdained publicity, especially personal publicity. They respected the past, particularly the sacrifices of the earliest Bentsens. In the Hidalgo County Centennial Historical Program a full-page tribute to Peter and Tena Bentsen read, "Like many others, they pioneered in another section and then came here to repeat a venture that began with a vision and demanded fortitude, self reliance and enterprise to complete." Bentsen and his wife had four children, one of whom, Lloyd Bentsen, Jr., was a congressman, a United States senator, a vice-presidential candidate, and secretary of the treasury. Lloyd Bentsen, Sr., died at the age of ninety-five on January 17, 1989, in an automobile accident in Edinburg.
Lloyd M. Bentsen Papers, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, February 27, 1952. Hidalgo County Centennial Corporation, The Centennial Celebration of the Organization of Hidalgo County in Texas (Mission, Texas: Times Publishing Company, 1952). Joan R. Sloan Johnson, The Bentsen Family: From Denmark to Texas (Austin: Hart Graphics, 1985). New York Times, January 18, 1989. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
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