A week in the Texas Hill Country.


Texas State Capitol

In our last entry we promised you another week of vacation and so are heading north from San Antonio into the Texas Hill Country. If you were visiting there today you would find no less than 13 major lakes from Medina in the southwest to Georgetown in the northeast to Brady in the northwest. None of these were there in the first decade of the 20th century and most were the “gift” of Lyndon Baines Johnson who, before he was known of as Landslide Lyndon for stealing the 1948 senate election, was known of as the “water boy” of the 10th district for getting the contracts for dams and water projects all over his congressional fiefdom – it may be his most beneficial legacy and we are fairly certain it is his only benevolent one.

One of the few things you would recognize from the time was the Texas State Capitol where you might have heard LBJ’s daddy, Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., holding forth on the populist views with such passion that his oratory gained him the reputation as the man who was so smart he could make anything – but a living. Our first Post Card is dated June 9, 1908 and has nothing but Edythe’s address on the obverse.

The building is a marvel in so many ways from its having been financed by a grant of 3 million acres of land in the Texas Panhandle which was valued at the time as being worth $1.5 million – and was valued 100 years later as being worth $7 billion – to the happy flaw of discoloring iron particles in the local limestone that resulted in its having been built of the red granite of Burnet county which gives it the unique coloration that it enjoys. From the cellar to the dome is 311 feet which makes it 22 feet taller than the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. – but you already knew we were better than them!

Although the building is easy to recognize what will give you pause is the city where it is located. Today Austin [actually the five counties it sprawls over] have an estimated

Austin, Texas 1908

population of nearly 1,700,000 people. In 1910 that same area had less than 163,000 people of whom less than half lived in the then defined limits of the city. Our second post card from November tells Edythe, “Did not go to San Antonio. Will be in Austin this week. How did you like Houston. Is this like the other postal I sent you? Am waiting for a letter, Dudley” and gives a bird’s-eye view of Austin looking northwest from the Courthouse in front of the Capitol. We do not know who Dudley was or if he ever got an answer and will draw a discreet curtain over any conjectures of that sort but we do know that the Austin of today bears no resemblance to the  sleepy town of 1908.

Edythe Young’s daughter would graduate from the University of Texas is 1937 which by then had become a major public school. In 1908 it was called the Texas State University, Austin, Texas having been finally established in 1881 – after having gone through all kinds of permutations since its original conception in 1839 during the Republic [but I guess 62 years really isn’t that long for a committee to accomplish anything – most NEVER do!] – and indeed Galveston played a key role having been selected as the site of the Medical Branch.

University of Texas 1908

Again friend Dudley writes to Edythe in November 1908, “How is it in Houston? Am still home sick. Leave for San Antonio. Received card a few minutes ago. Address Hearst Austin and if I am not there they will forward. The letter may be in Hearst Austin and may stay a few days.” Again we have a bird’s-eye view. The university’s first building, known as the Main Building and completed in 1899 and served all purposes. The university was formally opened in the this building on September 15, 1883, though classes were held in the temporary Capitol as late as January 1884. The “classic” parts of the campus that we know today, including the “new” Old Main, stem from Cass Gilbert of New York, who designed the first library building and Sutton Hall in the Spanish Renaissance architectural style that came to be used in most of the campus buildings. The school of 1908 was poor. It was, in many ways, a glorified teacher’s college and did not even have the benefit of offering the practical courses that it’s older sibling, Texas A&M University founded in 1876, was using to produce generations of leaders for Texas.

Because of the constitutional prohibition of the use of general revenue for buildings, temporary frame structures had to be erected to house the growing student body and the university became famous for its “Shackeresque” architecture. But as Texas was changing the university would change. When oil was discovered on university land in 1923 gushers of wealth began flowing in so that today it enjoys an endowment of $14.1 billion compared to a paltry $5.1 billion for A&M. But all of this was in the future in 1908 Texas was an agrarian state with one natural lake, plenty of rivers and an oil industry still in its infancy.

Before we leave the hallowed halls with the hollowed walls and the lovely environs of Austin lets take a little side trip to San Marcos and look at the southwest view of the State

Normal school at San Marcos

Normal School there. In 1893 Twenty-third Legislature took  steps to  establish a teachers college at San Marcos by passing a law that the state superintendent of public instruction prescribe a course of study which teachers must complete before they could be eligible to teach in the public schools of Texas. Authorized by another session of the legislature in 1899 as the Southwest Texas Normal School, the citizens of San Marcos donated eleven acres of land on an elevation known as Chautauqua Hill as the site of the college and after the Twenty-seventh Legislature appropriated $25,000 for the erection of a building in 1901  the school opened in 1903 with a faculty of 17 and an enrollment of 303.  It was the alma mater of Lyndon Baines Johnson and eventually grew into the Southwest Texas State University.

Our Post Card from the school is dated April 8, 1912, postage was still a penny but the stamp is totally changed – Ben Franklin no longer looks right but instead is looking left. The message is from Anna and reads, “Haven’t forgotten you but haven’t had a chance to write. Have been on the go ever since I got here. Am going to Mineral Wells from here but don’t know exactly when. Has your beau ever gotten back from up north? The wedding was a very beautiful affair and just think I wasn’t the least bit nervous. Things will be a little quiet now as everyone has left. Harvey and Helen gone to see Fran and left. Sure had a terrible trip up here. Had to lay over in Houston all day and arrived here at the unusual hour of five a.m.”

Comal County Courthouse

Texas is hot. It has always been hot. It will always be hot. Global warming is for sissies. Consider General Phil Sheridan’s notorious comment which is better when explained by the General himself, “In all my life, gentlemen, I will never forget my first visit to the State of Texas. I had been bumped over its sterile plains for a week in an ambulance [coach]. I was tired, dusty and worn out. When I reached my destination I found some people there who wanted me to talk and be received and all that sort of thing, before I had a chance to get the sand out of my eyes and ears. One fellow was persistent. He asked me with pure American curiosity what I though of Texas. In a moment of worry and annoyance I said if I owned hell and Texas, I would live in the former and rent out the latter. The fellow who asked me the question proved to be a reporter. The next day, what I had said was in print and I never could stop it.” New Braunfels is someplace that Texans have long gone to escape the heat enjoying the cool waters of the Guadalupe and Comal rivers and the springs that feed them. Our first Post Card from fiend Helen in September 1908 [yes it is still HOT in September – fall arrives, if at all, for two days either side of Thanksgiving] shows the new courthouse and says, “Dear Edythe, haven’t heard from you in a long time. Guess I will be home before long. Had quite a cool spell up here. Love, Helen”

By the early 1880s, with a population estimated at 2,000, New Braunfels was linked by telegraph and rail lines with

Comal River Dam

Austin and San Antonio, and textile factories along the Comal River were shipping cotton and woolen products. The following decade saw the installation of electric streetlights and the first telephone line through New Braunfels. A permanent county courthouse adjacent to the town square in New Braunfels opened in 1898. By 1900 both the International-Great Northern and the Missouri, Kansas and Texas railroads provided freight and passenger service. Flour mills, textile factories, and processing plants for construction materials provided the basis for steady growth in and the population was  estimated at 3,165 in 1912. Our left Post Card shows the dam across the Comal River with the power house and pumping station and is from friend Helen, “Hello Edee, here I am in New Braunfels. Aren’t you surprised? Did not decide to go until Friday and surely had to rush around and get ready. Called you up on Sunday but couldn’t get a connection. Yours, Helen”

Cotton Mill and Power House

From the Comal and Guadalupe we will head northwest to the town of Marble Falls on the Colorado River. We are in 1908 and friend Dudley writes, “Friday, am in this place. Will be here until Sunday. Address the letter to Hearst, Austin. Dudley”. We don’t know if he ever got his letter and while there are limitations to a Post Card as a means of communication his style suggests that he may have been lacking equal parts of ardor and eloquence which may be why he falls off the stage at an early date. Although it would be a few years – 1917 to be exact – Marble Falls would do something of interest to Hearst and to Margaret Edythe Young – the all-male voting population elected Orphelia (Birdie) Crosby Harwood the first woman mayor in the United States.

The Post Card is much more interesting for what it shows that might not have been there. The potential of the Colorado River falls as a source of power was seen as early as 1854, but it was many years before the idea was actually realized. Plans were made to harness the river at the Marble Falls site in 1871; the legislature authorized the building of a dam near Marble Falls to power a milling and manufacturing establishment, but nothing came of the project. The Marble Falls Cotton and Woolen Mills Company built a factory in 1895, but was unable to raise capital to purchase necessary machinery. A dam project was begun on the Colorado River below Marble Falls in 1910, but was not completed. Finally, in 1925 a dam was built to supply electrical power to the Marble Falls Textile Mills Company. In other words a mill may have been there – we are by no means certain that a building that substantial would have been – and it may have had a water wheel but we suspect the picture was more a representation for the company’s stock prospectus than of an existing facility.

Drifting down to the Southwest – actually probably going back through Austin, then down to San Antonio and finally over to Kerrville on the  San Antonio and Aransas Pass

The Old Mill Dam

Railroad taking the better part of two days to travel what today takes less than 2 hours over 80 miles on well paved roads – we arrive in the town of Kerrville. Our Post Card from there is dated 1911 and reads, “Dear Eddie, We walked down to the dam and tried to find a picture to paint. Rilla started on one but there is more poetry than pleasure in sitting on a hard rock with spiders and brown bugs peeking at you. We are having a lovely time. That book is a marvelous one. Lillian” The card is labeled “The old milldam at Kerrville, Tex.” and we suppose the building in the background is the old damn mill.

This one we know was there because  in 1857, German master miller Christian Dietert and millwright Balthasar Lich started a large grist and saw mill on the bluff at Kerrville. This mill, with a permanent source of power from the river and protection from floods because of its elevation, became the most extensive operation of its kind in the Hill Country west of New Braunfels and San Antonio. The Kerrville Water Works Company began to provide water for town dwellers in 1894, telephone service was introduced in 1896, and the city began to pave streets in 1912 putting it far ahead of most of the towns of it size for that time.

Riparian Scene at Comfort, Texas

Just southeast of Kervvile is Comfort. Once bitter rivals to be the seat of Kerr county the problem was resolved by putting Comfort in Kendall county. What they have in common is rivers and the need for water power for mills. Our first Post Card is from sister, Florence, in 1908 and has the very timely message, “Please send me my watch. I never know what time to get up and coming up I certainly will need it. Send it by express or registered mail – I don’t care which. With love, Florence” Possibly the most remarkable thing about this is how quickly she would have gotten her watch. When the trains ran, and this was true of both passenger and freight, they all had mail cars. These were not only for carrying sacks of mail and packages but were fully functional sorting offices – you could even write a letter while on board, mail it and, if it was sorted and made a connection with a fast freight, it might well arrive before you did.

Edythe, being a loving and dutiful sister, would have mailed the watch. Assuming a well packaged parcel weighing a pound the postage would have been the fabulous sum of $1.60. For an additional 8 cents, foreign or domestic, she would have been able to register the parcel with safe transit and proper delivery assured. She would have even received a signed receipt from her sister, Florence, without additional charge and the package would have been insured for ten dollars – also without additional charge. Of course this was all before we had all the advantages of our current system.

Our second Post Card is from Anna and is addressed to the now married Edythe as Mrs. T. Bettencourt [“Toney” to be anglicized to Anthony]. The postage is still a penny but Franklin has been replaced by Washington on the stamp – although he too is looking left.  It shows Comfort, Texas, as seen

Comfort Texas 1912

from nearby Mountains [sic] and her sister Anna [Laureene Anna] tells her, “Have been on the go. Haven’t had time to write before this. Nevertheless have thought of you. I’m very glad to be up here and enjoy the grand fresh air. How is your cooking progressing. Don’t you want me to come and help you cook another meal? Have almost forgotten how. Love from Anna”  It really isn’t much of a picture. Apparently by the time the photographer got high enough to get the panoramic view he wanted he had lost all detail. I haven’t been able to figure our which gives the least accurate view – the painted post cards that show things in the wrong places or leave out important details like the one of the Mission in San Antonio, the painted ones that show things that simply aren’t there like the one from Marble Falls or a photograph that is so indistinct that it could be showing anything. At least the painted ones may be considered art and the photographs may be excused as exercises in an emerging technology. Either way they both give us pictures for our mind’s eye of a world that we will never see.

Comfort itself was a strange town. Founded by the “freethinkers” who were a little too liberal for their German brethren throughout most of the hill country it was organized along cooperative lines and refused any formal government throughout the 19th century. A local school was built soon after its founding in 1852 but it was not until 1892 that the first church was built. It was the focus of northern sympathy during the Southern War for Independence and may well be the only place in Texas with a monument [Treue der Union on High Street] to the to its Union war dead – the many local young men lost at the Battle of Nueces]. A tradition of secular funerals was still widely observed in the twentieth century, and German Turnverein Movement activities and modern Volksmarsch celebrations continued until the First World War made them politically inadvisable – along with its Bolshevik hall!

Whatever its political peculiarities may have been when it came to business it was all business. Texas is so large that it has 10 climatic regions, 14 soil regions, and 11 distinct ecological regions and one of the most import of these is defined by the 98th meridian which runs near Austin. South an east of it you could grow cotton. North and west of it you could not. The grass wouldn’t even support cattle in huge numbers. What it would support, what it did support, what it does support is sheep and goats and hence the wool industry. I do not doubt the sincerity of the people of Comfort in siding with the Union but I do wonder how much of that sympathy was tainted by wool sales to the north before the conflict – just as Southern sympathy was tainted by cotton sales. All of the towns north and west of Austin that we have looked at this week were the heart and soul of Texas wool country at the beginning of the 20th century and later in that century Adolf Stieler of Comfort reigned as “Angora Goat King of the World.”

Sabinal River

Because cotton is so inextricably linked with Galveston we are going to end this week’s trip by dropping down to Sabinal. Again,  friend Dudley with his minimalist style writes, “I leave for Uvalde today. Hope you are fine. Dudley”, in March of 1909. Having dropped below 30 degrees latitude we are back in cotton country.  Starting out as a trading post and wagon freighting station it graduated from goats to cotton and was the first place to see widespread use of the “aer-motor water well windmill” available at John T. Wilson’s lumberyard to irrigate their crops. This, in addition to the six mills operated along the river helped create a town that in 1906 saw the Sabinal Telephone Company  granted a franchise, and city water and fire departments were organized. Our Post Card shows the railroad bridge over the Sabinal River which was part of the Southern Pacific line that had first come through the town in 1881. It is somehow a comment on just how mobile American society has always been that the entire town was moved from the west bank of the river to the east bank to be centered around the store and depot that served the railroad.

We started out talking about Austin and the University of Texas both of which would become increasingly dependent on oil throughout the 20th century. The Lucas gusher at Spindletop erupted in 1901 and the Texas oil boom was on but it was not until the 1920’s that oil began to overwhelm the cotton and cattle industries for primacy in the economy – even today more Texans get their incomes out of the dirt than from thousands of feet under the ground. Galveston was in first place in cotton exports, she was the second wheat exporting port in the United States and had grown to handle over a million tons of cargo with a value in excess of $100 million dollars a year and upwards of 700 ship calls a year. This week was a tour through the Hill Country for Edythe and her family and her friends but they probably traveled with her father, her brother and her cousins not only because no respectable female traveled alone but because these were business trip as well as pleasure excursions.

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