Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sausage, And Nothing But The Whole Sausage In Elgin, Texas

Most states have a collection of “state things,” which the legislatures have determined are in one way or another representative of the state in some way, and Texas is no exception. Around the country, there are state birds, state trees, state insects, state flowers, state rocks, state soils, state reptiles, state fish, state beverages, state musical instruments, state songs, state dances, state colors, state clouds, state mollusks, state ships, state heroes, state dogs, state shells, state fruits, state dinosaurs, state crustaceans, state horses, state sports, state muffins, state desserts, state cookies, state grains, state crops, state vegetables, and even state prehistoric artifacts.

I know everyone is proud of the state in which they live, but would you agree with me that state legislatures meet too often and sometimes pass too many silly laws?

While I may have a bone to pick with a lot of the nonsense which comes from the state capitals from time to time, I do agree with the Texas House of Representatives resolution that Elgin, Texas is designated the “Sausage Capital of Texas.” If you disagree, you’ve never eaten any sausages produced in Elgin.

I’m well aware that there is a disagreement about which place has the “best” sausage in Elgin. I’m not going to settle that dispute today. The fact of the matter is, all the places making and serving up sausages in Elgin live up to that resolution passed by the legislators in the nearby state capital of Austin.

A couple of days ago, I had the pleasure of taking my youngest son, home for the holidays from college, for something to eat at Elgin’s oldest barbeque spot. Elgin was first settled as a town in the 1870’s, and the Southside Market & Barbeque has been in town since 1882. Although it moved from its original location in town many years ago (a move that some old-timers very much regret), it is still a popular fixture in Elgin with both the locals and those just passing through.

While it has changed ownership several times since it was first established, Southside has remained true to its original sausage making recipes, although, it does admit, that it toned down the pepper in its sausage in the 1970’s, to make it more palatable for modern tastes. All the better, I say. Businesses which don’t keep up with the times disappear. And Southside is a busy place, and has been, for well over 120 years.

Sausages are one thing, but they are not the only thing. Southside also serves up excellent brisket, baby back ribs, chicken, and mutton. Both the spicy “hot“ sauce and temperature “hot” barbeque sauce are a great compliment to the meat selections and the various sides, which include beans, potato salad, and slaw.

Unlike a lot of barbecue places in Texas, some of the Elgin eateries not only sell the cooked meats, but also the fresh uncooked meats which you can take home to prepare. No matter what kind of great cook you may fancy yourself, you’ll have to outdo yourself to fix the meat in a way which rivals the experts in Elgin. Good luck with that.

For the record, although we did not eat there the other day, Meyer’s Elgin Sausage, just down the road from Southside, is another excellent choice which serves up great sausage and barbecue in Elgin. Although not as old as Southside, with the sausage making operation beginning in 1949 (a respectable amount of time for sure), the Meyer family’s original sausage recipe was brought to Texas from Germany by a family member in the late 1800’s. Today, the sausages are still made by the Meyer family. For me, a person who very much regrets the demise of family run restaurants in this country, I am impressed with the longevity of the Meyer family business and the quality of food it still provides.

And, so you see, Elgin, Texas is indeed the “Sausage Capital of Texas,” and that’s truth, and nothing but the whole truth. And, while Elgin may be just a tad bit east of the hill country itself, it's close enough for me, especially when speaking about good food.

Monday, December 28, 2009

1883: A Bloody Christmas in McDade, Texas

The Yegua Knobs are a line of small hills running along the border of the Texas counties of Bastrop and Lee, and are very close to Williamson County as well. During the mid to late 1800’s, the underbrush, large stands of cedar trees, and the elevated terrain of the Knobs made it a perfect place for people to go who did not want to be found. As such, the Knobs provided a safe haven for violence-prone drifters, killers, petty thieves, Confederate deserters, and men who liked to steal cattle and horses.

The years following the Civil War were especially traumatic across the Southern states, Texas included. The South was devastated by the war, and many of its social institutions were destroyed. Confederate soldiers returning to Texas found a much different environment from the one they left. Resentment and bitterness between those who supported secession and those who did not resulted in violence, murder, and blood feuds across the state. To make matters even worse, Federal soldiers, who came to Texas to enforce Reconstruction, exacerbated the already unsettled situation. In many places in Texas, it was a very dangerous time for law-abiding citizens.

The McDade, Texas, area was first settled on the edge of the Knobs in the 1860’s, but did not become a town, as such, until the 1870’s. The building of the railroad through town greatly expanded the financial opportunities in the area, and, along with the more respectable businesses of the time, came the gambling dens and saloons. These attractions brought many of the less than desirable men out of the Knobs into McDade to “take advantage” of the money passing through town. The bitterness and anger of the Reconstruction era, fueled by survival instincts, alcohol, and guns, brought about an explosive combination in and around McDade, which culminated into a deadly Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in 1883.

Texas, in the late 1800’s, was hampered by a lack of fast and effective communication, slow travel conditions, and understaffed, biased, or corrupt law enforcement officials. Given those unique circumstances, jury members were often reluctant to convict those who broke the law, for fear that they or, members of their families would be harmed. It was not an irrational fear.

During the 1870’s, a gang of desperate men began to form in the Knobs. The “Notch-Cutters,” as they were called, was a gang which initially preyed upon the weak and defenseless, but later still on powerful ranchers and respected citizens of McDade. Citizens were often ambushed as they traveled through the area. People disappeared and mysterious graves were found from time to time. The citizens of McDade, eventually, endured enough of the killings and fear, and formed a vigilante group to enforce order and decency in the area.

As early as 1875, McDade vigilantes hung two trouble makers. The outlaws then attempted to square things by killing a couple of men who had participated in the lynching. The vigilantes, however, immediately struck back. The retribution came in the form of yet another outlaw hanging from a tree. The next year, a couple of cattle-rustlers were caught skinning cattle belonging to the nearby Olive Ranch. They were shot dead, and covered with the branded hides of the animals they had killed. In 1877, vigilantes stopped a dance not far from McDade, and took several suspects away. They were later found hanging from a tree. These incidents, along with others, were just a precursor to the bloody Christmas in McDade itself in 1883.

In December 1883, a deputy arrived in McDade to investigate a couple of murders which had taken place in nearby Fedor, Texas. He was shot and killed as he walked through McDade’s streets after dark. Despite all the violence which had taken place in and around McDade over the years, this was the incident, it seems, which crystallized the need for decisive action among the town’s citizens.

Christmas Eve 1883 found a celebration in progress inside the Rock Front Saloon in McDade. During the evening, many armed vigilantes arrived at the saloon, and took three men away into the dark night. They were found the next morning dangling from a tree about a mile outside of town.

The next morning, Christmas Day, found several members of the “Notch-Cutters” milling around town. The sequence of events and motivations of those involved is disputed, but what is not disputed is that a gunfight took place on a McDade street. The fight involved two respected McDade businessmen, Tom Bishop and George Milton, and several members of the gang. When the shooting stopped, two gang members were dead, and another, seriously wounded. Another person who came to the defense of Bishop and Milton was also killed in the melee. When all was said and done, the Christmas Eve hangings and Christmas Day shootings left six men dead. Needless to point out perhaps, but it was not a very Merry Christmas that year in McDade.

Although some violence in McDade lingered for many years thereafter, there was never anything again like that bloody Christmas in 1883. Today, McDade is a very small and extremely quiet place best known for its annual watermelon festivals. If one did not know the town’s history, there is nothing today to suggest its violent past. The old railroad track, which brought both prosperity and crime during the 1800’s, is now covered with grass and weeds. And the Rock Front Saloon, the scene of much of the turmoil in McDade’s history, is a museum.

The Yegua Knobs, of course, still rise above the surrounding area. And, although the infamous “Notch-Cutters” lost the natural protection the region afforded the gang long ago, the Knobs area itself has recently been in need of preservation from the threat of encroaching development. As a result, several hundred acres of the Knobs have been safely secured in recent years to ensure development does not destroy the natural beauty, flora, fauna, and history of the region.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas In The Hill Country

It’s another Christmas morning in the Texas Hill Country. Given the diverse blend of cultures in the area, people will be celebrating the day with different traditions, and eating different foods.

For many in Texas, the traditional Christmas Eve meal consists of tamales. The process of making homemade tamales is extremely time consuming, and is often done on Christmas Eve itself during an event called a tamalada. The making and eating of tamales during the holiday season, is handed down from Mexican tradition, and is now part of the rich heritage of Texas.

For the early German pioneers in the hill country, life was difficult, especially so during the winter months. Nevertheless, Weihnachten, or Christmas, was joyously celebrated. Baking, an important part of the season's traditions in the household, produced cakes, cookies, and Christmas bread. On Christmas Eve, a cedar tree, so common both then and now in the hill country, was chopped down, brought home, and decorated. The Christmas meal most often included a variety of sausages.

In Austin, the holiday season brings the usual contingent of revelers into 6th Street bars and clubs. But a few blocks away, at the Texas State Capital, the legislature honors Christmas in its own way.

In the chamber where the Texas House of Representatives meet, stands the Lone Star Celebration Christmas Tree. Decorated with ornaments unique to various areas around the state, the 20 foot pine tree adds a festive and peaceful atmosphere to a room where Texas laws are often contentiously debated.

Historically, Christmas has been celebrated in the hill country by people of different cultures who often spoke different languages. Despite the different traditions practiced, however, the meaning and importance of Christmas remained the same for all the faithful. And, the same holds true today.

On this special day, I wish each of you a safe and peaceful Christmas.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The “Live Music Capital Of The World” Greets Visitors With Some Very Large Guitars

Soon after visitors step off arriving airplanes at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, they are reminded in a very big way, as though they need any reminding at all, that Austin is indeed the “Live Music Capital of the World.”

While music lovers disembarking off planes will instantly recognize the distinctive shape of the Gibson Les Paul guitar sculptures displayed at the airport, they will be unfamiliar with the size of the guitars. The eight guitars, made from fiberglass, are each 10-foot tall and are decorated by different artists.

Austin businessman, Milton Verret, purchased the “Big Guitars” a couple of years ago at an auction to raise money for local Austin area charities, and then donated them to the city of Austin. Given Austin’s live music tradition, there probably could not be a more appropriate gift to the city.

Les Paul, the musical genius and inventor of a great guitar, died during this past year. Long before he passed, however, he was already a legend. It appears that the size of his guitars, like the music legend himself, will continue to grow with each passing year. And the contributions of Les Paul to the history of music, as now reflected by the “Big Guitars,” could not possibly have a better home than the “Live Music Capital of the World,” Austin, Texas.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Clash Of Cultures And The Webster Massacre

Historically, the Comanche did not make many friends, even among fellow Native Americans. The Comanche were a force to be reckoned with, however, for hundreds of years in what is now the American West and Mexico.

Skilled with horses, the Comanche were both proficient traders and brave warriors. The Comanche traded and fought with a host of diverse people and political powers from around 1700 until the late 1800’s, but were finally overwhelmed by the expansion of the United States as it pushed west.

One of the most famous and bloody clashes involving the Comanche occurred in Texas in 1839 (the exact date is disputed). The Webster family, along with some traveling companions, left Virginia for a new life in the West. While heading through Texas, they were attacked by Comanche warriors along Brushy Creek, in what is now Williamson County, just east of present day Leander, Texas.

The attack left all the men in John Webster’s party dead. Webster's wife and two children, one boy and one girl, were captured. The wife and daughter later escaped, and his son was safely ransomed. This was a happy ending, perhaps, to a not so happy confrontation between two very different cultures.

Although John Webster lost his life in the Comanche raid in 1839, his daughter, who survived the attack but was captured, lived until the age of 93, before passing away in California in 1927. The last Comanche warriors finally surrendered to authorities in the 1870’s.

While many pioneers continued to move west to eventually establish the western boundry of the United States in California, most of the remaining Comanche eventually settled in Oklahoma. During World War II, like the Navajo code talkers who befuddled the Japanese military, and made such an important contribution to this country in the Pacific, the Comanche code talkers were equally important in Europe confusing the German military.

The violent struggles in Texas of long ago, which helped produce events like the Webster Massacre, emanated from collisions of much different cultures. Today, the victims of the massacre lie peacefully in a common grave in a cemetery along the eastern edge of the hill country, a mile or so due east of Leander.

Monday, December 21, 2009

With Respect To Barbecue, You Can’t Always Trust What The Sign Says

Despite the fact that it markets itself on the restaurant signs as having the “Worst Bar-B-Q in Texas,” there is absolutely no doubt that Rudy’s “Country Store” and Bar-B-Q has anything but that. Rudy’s tongue in cheek marketing is, of course, playful and very much insincere. Rudy’s knows the quality of its food, and it’s darn good.

While Rudy’s has a few locations in Oklahoma and New Mexico, most of its places are in Texas. And, while some people may think that a chain restaurant could not possibly have the quality of barbecue that is found at a small family operation, at least with respect to Rudy’s, those people would be wrong.

Like eating at most great barbecue places, the experience begins before you even enter the door. The smell of the burning wood and smoking meat welcomes the visitor the minute the car door swings open in the parking lot. Unlike a lot of hill country barbecue joints, Rudy’s uses oak, and not mesquite, to cook its meat. Without debating the merits of what cooking wood is best, I will say that Rudy’s uses the oak to its advantage in producing high quality meats to serve. That point is not subject to debate at all.

With respect to the meats offered, Rudy’s seemingly has all the correct choices for a barbecue restaurant in the hill country. Offering brisket, chicken, chopped beef, pork loin, pork ribs, sausage, and turkey, Rudy’s covers it all. The meats are complimented with excellent sides, which, like the meats, are always fresh. Beans, cole slaw, cream corn, and potatoes are just but a few of them. And, of course, for dessert lovers, there are many choices, including, banana pudding.

Eating at Rudy’s, however, is not just about the good barbecue and sides. Equally important, is the experience of dining at a Rudy’s. Ordering the food, and eating it on the premises, is as delightful as savoring the delicious food.

After moving through an extremely fast moving line which wraps around ice chests filled with ice, beer, soft drinks and water, you come face to face with a refrigerated display case with little packets of cheese, servings of cole slaw, and desserts. If you want any of those, you need to grab them quick, because what comes next is the row of ordering and paying stations. “Next in line, please,” is what you’ll hear, and that is quickly followed by a “have you ever been to Rudy’s before?” If not, your personal cashier will explain to you how the ordering process works, and, of course, will patiently answer any questions you may have.

The ordering station is the place to order your meats and hot sides. With respect to the brisket, for example, you order it by the half pound. So you need to determine the appetite of your eating companions before you order. If in doubt, the cashier will help you sort it all out. During the ordering process, your cashier will throw in a half a loaf, or whole loaf of bread, depending upon the size of your party and a sheet of white butcher paper for each person. There are no plates at Rudy’s, so, in traditional fashion, you eat everything off the paper, sides included.

Once you’ve collected your order and paid for it, you visit the condiment station for onions, pickles, mustard, and plastic table service. Then, you head to either an indoor or outdoor picnic table to enjoy your meal. On the table is the “Bar-B-Q Sause,” as it is called at Rudy’s. All that’s left after sitting down at a table is spreading the butcher paper out, shoveling the food onto it, then devouring it. It’s always a lot of fun, especially when bringing guests who have never visited a Rudy’s before.

If you happen to be passing by a Rudy’s in Texas, Oklahoma or New Mexico, and see that sign which reads, “Worst Bar-B-Q in Texas,” don’t believe a word of it. As Rudy’s loyal employees and everyone else who has ever eaten there know full well, it’s exactly the opposite.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Flat Creek Estate And The Texas Wine Country

There is no shortage of wineries in the Texas Hill Country, which is fast becoming known for its wines. As of the latest count, there are at least 24 wineries in the region, and ORBITZ recently named the hill country the 2nd fastest growing wine destination in the country, just behind California’s Napa Valley.

Many vineyards in the hill country are still experimenting with the best variety of grapes to grow. Because some have likened the hill country climate to being similar to that found around the Mediterranean, many varieties of grapes grown in that region are being tried.

The Flat Creek Estate Vineyard & Winery, located on the north shore of Lake Travis, is an excellent example of a hill country winery which produces some very fine wines. Sitting on 80 acres a few miles west of Lago Vista, the estate boasts a tasting room, a bistro, and an outdoor pavilion.

Along with a considerable portfolio of wines, the architectural design of the buildings, both inside and out, make Flat Creek a wonderful place to come for a wine tasting, lunch, or just a visit. The wines of Flat Creek have won numerous awards and, like wines produced at other spots around the hill country, are getting more popular every year.

Recently, I took my brother, visiting from out of state, on a quick sightseeing trip through the hill country. Our last stop was the Flat Creek Estate. The people at the estate are always friendly, knowledgeable, and have a couple of reasonably priced tasting options available. Sitting in the relaxed atmosphere of the tasting room, we spent an hour or so sampling wines. It was a wonderful way to conclude the day after visiting various spots around the scenic hill country.

One of my favorite wines from Flat Creek is an Orange Muscat wine called, Burnt Orange. With an image of the head of a Texas Longhorn and the words, “Born To Be A Texas Longhorn,” etched in orange on the bottle, it makes a great gift for University of Texas fans, or a unique gift for visitors.

The wineries of the Texas hill country, along with all the other historic and scenic locations, are just one more reason that this unique part of the Lone Star State is so special, and why people enjoy visiting the area so much.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Barbara Jordan

Visitors waiting for their luggage on the bottom floor of the passenger terminal of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport will see a bronze statue of a person after whom the terminal is named. That person is Barbara Jordan.

Barbara Jordan was born in Houston, Texas, the daughter of a Baptist minister. Excelling in school studies and debate while growing up, she attended Texas Southern University, and later the law school at Boston University. Upon returning to Texas, she opened up a law practice in Houston.

Jordan became involved in politics soon after her return to Texas. An active volunteer in support of the Kennedy-Johnson ticket during the 1960 election, she went on to run for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives in both 1962 and 1964. While she lost both times, she did not give up, and finally gained a seat in the Texas Senate, representing the area around her native Houston. The election victory was viewed as historic at the time, given that she was both an African-American and a woman.

During her years working as a state senator in Austin, she impressed her colleagues with her hard work and dedication to the causes in which she believed. After her successful career as a state senator, she ran for the United States House of Representatives in 1972, and was elected. It was during her tenure in Washington that she first came to national prominence.

Tirelessly supporting legislation designed to help the poor and disenfranchised, Jordan became an important voice in the impeachment proceedings of Richard Nixon. Despite her important impact in Washington, her health began to decline, and so she chose to return to Texas in the late 1970’s.

Jordan’s political career had a positive impact in both Texas, and the United States as a whole. As an African-American, and a woman, she was elected to political bodies, which at the time, had few representatives of either.

Jordan’s relationship with Austin began when she first served as a state senator, and this relationship was renewed upon her return to her home state, when she started teaching at the University of Texas. Upon her life’s passing, in 1996, she was buried in the exclusive Texas State Cemetery in Austin, and honor reserved only for those who have made important contributions to the State of Texas.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Old Williamson County Jail

One of the things Georgetown, Texas is known for today is “Sun City Texas,” the large retirement community.

But for many in Georgetown between the hundred year period between 1889 and 1989, there was a place where the sun did not shine. That place, was the Williamson County Jail.

The jail was built to replace an older more insecure facility which was located right next to the courthouse. With construction finished in 1888, prisoners began inhabiting the new jail early the following year. Even today, one hundred-twenty years after it first housed prisoners, and twenty years since it closed, the building, although architecturally interesting, is a haunting place to look at from the outside. I cannot even begin to imagine the place on the inside. The old jail is historically noteworthy for a couple of reasons, beyond the fact that it is very old.

The last man hanged in Williamson County was escorted out of the jail just before his appointment with the gallows in 1906. Tom Young, a dirt poor cotton chopper, had beaten his niece to death during the previous year. In March 1906, the scales of justice weighed in, and Young was escorted out of town and hung in front of a large crowd.

Much later, in the years just before the jail closed, the facility confined the alleged serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas. Although sentenced to death for a Williamson County murder, his sentenced was reduced to life in prison by the governor, given the fact that the evidence was less than reliable, as Lucas had a habit of confessing to crimes he could not have possibly committed. But, he was, of course, guilty of many heinous crimes, and died in a Texas prison in 2001.

If a drive past the old jail in Georgetown at 3rd and Main doesn’t scare someone out of a life in crime, I don’t know what will. While today’s penal facilities are called “correctional facilities,” one hundred years ago in Georgetown and for long thereafter, it was more about punishment than correction.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Word Of Mouth

With the overwhelming number of Mexican restaurants in the Texas Hill Country, it would be impossible to anoint one of them as the best. In the first place, it would be an insurmountable task to visit them all. But even if you could, picking the best one is simply not doable. The choices range from places with fancy atmospheres to small trailers. A common denominator, however, with respect to most, is that the food is very good.

At nearly the same point in time several years ago, both my wife and I got the same recommendation from two very different sources. Her friends, on the one hand, and my friends, on the other, both said that Jardin Corona, in Cedar Park, was the place to go for Mexican food.

Hidden way in the back of a strip mall, which itself is not too visible from the street, is Jardin Corona. But what the restaurant may lack in visibility, it makes up for in tasty food. Noon hour is very busy, not so much that you won’t get served promptly, but you’ll definitely notice the crowd, especially since the place is not all that big. As such, we started going around 3:00 in the afternoon for a really late lunch. That helped a little, but not as much as we expected. Jardin Corona is busy because it is popular, and it is popular, because the food is great.

Unlike a lot of restaurants I frequently visit, Mexican or otherwise, I tend to order the same menu selection, because I am familiar with it, like it, and know I won’t be disappointed. But at Jardin Corona, I order something different every time, because I am that confident that whatever I order, will be outstanding. My random methodology has not yet proven to be a mistake. I must admit though, I am obsessed with the queso at Jardin Corona. And, no matter what I order, you can be sure I’ve got some queso coming with the meal. Usually, I just ask them to dump some queso on whatever I order.

Given what I’ve just said, I can’t recommend a favorite at Jardin Corona, because they are all my favorites. I can tell you, however, what I ate during my last visit a couple of days ago. It was a chimichanga, stuffed with chicken and cheese, and, of course, covered, at my request, with queso.

I’m not saying that Jardin Corona has the best Mexican food in the hill country, or, I’m not saying that it does not. But, what I will tell you is that, in my opinion, it serves really good Mexican food. My opinion is supported by, what I consider to be very reliable source when considering whether to visit any restaurant, and that source is “word of mouth.”

Monday, December 14, 2009

Round Rock, Texas, And The Chisholm Trail

Extending along the eastern edge of the Texas Hill Country was the famous Chisholm Trail. Although some purists insist that the Texas portions of the trail were merely feeder routes, and the “official” Chisholm Trail only began in Oklahoma, the purist view, taking into account the broad view of history, makes little sense.

The historical significance of the trail, by whatever name, comes from the fact that Texas Longhorn cattle were driven by the millions up specific stretches of land to the railheads in Kansas. Without the cattle coming up out of Texas into the Oklahoma Territory, Jesse Chisholm’s Oklahoma trading trail would have become but a very small footnote in history. The historical meaning of the trail in the history of our country is not about its name, but about the fact that Texas cattle came from the southern regions of Texas to be sold in the north, and the cowboy legends, folklore, and myths it inspired. The cattle did not magically appear on the Oklahoma border, but walked up trails in Texas to get there.

The ranching of cattle in Texas began prior to the American Civil War, but ebbed during the war itself, as Texans went off to fight, and the markets were disrupted. After the war’s conclusion, however, ranching began in earnest. Texas Longhorn cattle were originally driven north, and east, through Arkansas and Missouri, but eventually it was discovered that the Texas Longhorns, who were immune to its effects, carried a tick which caused “Texas Fever,” that decimated local cattle. As a result, laws were passed in those states to prevent the passage of Texas cattle. In addition, the cattle bosses and their herds were often met with armed citizens to prevent access through their land.

Given these setbacks, the cattle were driven further west away from onerous laws and hostile landowners. But the movement west, was not without a price, where, drier conditions, and unwelcoming Native-Americans, caused different problems. Nevertheless, the cattle drives continued up the Chisholm Trail until the late 1880’s, when a combination of factors (laws in Kansas, farmers, barbed wire, and railroads in Texas) brought it all to an end.

The Chisholm Trail, and the cowboy lore it created, has captured the imagination of many generations since the time it was relevant, but, it really only lasted twenty years or so. It was an important part of the “Old West,” because it created the cowboy. In this country, because of movies, television, and myth, the cowboy best represents this period of history in the American West, and in some places around the world, the cowboy represents our country itself. In our thoughts today, the time period of the "Old West" was long-lasting, but, in reality, it only took place from just before the beginning of the American Civil War until the early 1900’s.

Round Rock, Texas, which lies along the eastern boundary of the hill country, was right on the Chisholm Trail, and gets its name from a round rock in the middle of Brushy Creek, where Native-Americans and the cattle drivers alike, knew, marked a spot of low water where passage for people and cattle was safe.

Today, Round Rock’s Chisholm Trail Road crosses Brushy Creek. On the west side of the road is Chisholm Trail Crossing Park, which commemorates the historic trail drives with sculptures of Texas Longhorns and early Texas pioneers. And, in the creek itself, just east of the bridge, is the round flat rock which was such an important marker during the trail drives, and which gave the city its name.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Austin Is Still Waiting For The Golden Spike

The Texas Hill Country is a positive place, so, my observations and commentary are most nearly always positive. But, as a historian, there are times when I have to “pull back on the reins,” and call things as I see them.

It was in 2004, when the voters of Austin, Texas, approved spending money to authorize a short thirty mile rail line to carry commuters from Leander south to downtown Austin. I won’t even get into the money spent, and the fact that the hours the train will run are basically just during rush times and nothing more. And, despite the fact the train is not even running yet, there has already been a fare increase. In my humble opinion, something is “asleep at the switch.”

As an observer, and commentator, here is what I have to offer on the matter. With apologies to the mysterious author Watty Piper, if he, she, or it really ever existed, the Austin rail project is The Little Engine That Could Not. Despite the fact that the actual rail was already in place, given that it is an existing freight line, it is now December 2009, coming up on two years since the original scheduled opening, and nearly six years after the vote, and still no train is running.

As a historian, here is what I have to offer on the matter. The Transcontinental Railroad, a span of over a thousand miles, was built in just six years between Iowa and California. There was no existing track, it was started in the midst of our momentous Civil War, and the engineering and logistical challenges across the frontier were enormous, especially over the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

As an observer, commentator, and historian, here is what I have to offer on the matter. Both the Austin Rail project and the Transcontinental Railroad took six years to complete. The Transcontinental Railroad was built from scratch and covered over a thousand miles. The Austin Rail project used an existing rail line and covered a little more than thirty miles. The Transcontinental Railroad spanned the Great Plains and mountain ranges. The Austin Rail project, well, to be kind, did not.

To sum it all up, in my humble opinion, if the Austin powers to be, were in charge of getting the Transcontinental Railroad built, we’d still be waiting, over 140 years later, for the golden spike to be driven into the rail bed in Promontory Summit, Utah. The circumstances speak for themselves.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the commuter rail. But, I would like to see the hours expanded, once this darn thing gets running, if it ever does. In any event, get that “golden spike” driven into the ground. In the meantime, we’re all waiting. The deserted passenger platforms, from Leander to downtown Austin, look a little sad at this point.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Lighter Side Of Hill Country Food

A lot of the food in the Texas Hill Country, while delicious, can be just a bit too much on some days. Especially during the hotter weather, some foods on the lighter side, often sound more appealing than beef brisket, gravy covered chicken fried steak, sausage, or refried beans.

In South Austin, you can walk away from a heavy meal, by literally getting on, not off, a beaten dirt path. Lulu B’s is a trailer, which sits on a shaded but undeveloped lot, on South Lamar. The menu is quite simple, consisting of inexpensive Vietnamese sandwiches, vermicelli bowls, and summer rolls. Meat offerings with respect to both the sandwiches and vermicelli bowls are chicken and pork, but vegetarian selections are also available.

After placing your order at the trailer window, you can sit at one of the portable tables set up under the trees, and wait for your name to be called. Once your food is ready, you can either eat right there in the great outdoors, or take your order with you.

The other day, like most folks do, I parked in front of the strip mall next door, and walked over to Lulu B’s. Even though it was well past the noon hour, there were still eight people who, having already ordered, were standing around and talking. I placed my order, and within a few minutes, was on my way.

My selection was a favorite of mine, the grilled chicken sandwich. The marinated grilled chicken is placed on a baguette, and served with carrots, chili, cilantro, cucumbers, and a type of Asian radish. The bread is soft, and the ingredients, with its mix of flavors, makes for a very nice, light and refreshing, sandwich.

Since enjoying my Lulu B’s grilled chicken sandwich the other day, I have since returned to eating the more traditional foods the hill country has to offer. But, every once in a while, it is nice to have a place to go to which provides something to eat on the lighter side. And, that place, for me, is Lulu B’s.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Horrell-Higgins Feud

Today, Lampasas County Texas is a rather quiet and sleepy place, but there was a time when such was not the case. During the 1870’s, Lampasas County was on the frontier, and the scene of violence and murder, which ultimately culminated in the Horrell-Higgins feud.

The five Horrell brothers, a wild and lawless bunch, were involved in shootouts and killings in both Lampasas and New Mexico (where one brother was killed) before the famous feud even began. One shootout in particular, which involved the Horrell brothers, left four State Policemen dead in Jerry Scott’s Saloon in the city of Lampasas.

When the brothers started stealing cattle, however, they took on an enemy who sealed their fate. John Calhoun Pinckney Higgins, the man with the big mustache who everyone called, “Pink,” was born in Georgia, but grew up in Texas after his family moved west. Pink Higgins grew up tough, participating in the tracking down of Comanche warriors and weathering difficult cattle drives while still in his teens.

Although the Horrell and Higgins families were at one time friendly Lampasas County neighbors, the Horrell brothers and Pink Higgins eventually took different directions in life. As the Horrell brothers began rustling cattle, Pink Higgins pushed back on their criminal activity. It is said he shot a Horrell family employee for killing one of his animals, then shoved the dead man inside its carcass, and rode to town to report that a cow had given birth to a human.

As the cattle rustling continued, Pink walked into a saloon in Lampasas in January 1877, and gunned down and killed one of the Horrell brothers. Several months later, he ambushed two other Horrell brothers several miles east of Lampasas, and while not killing them, did wound both of them. And, some months after this incident, a gunfight between the Horrell brothers, and their cohorts, and Pink Higgins, and his friends, took place in the Lampasas town square, with even more deaths.

With the escalating violence, the Texas Rangers rode in and negotiated a “peace treaty,” of sorts, between the Horrell clan and Pink Higgins. While the Horrell-Higgins feud had seemingly come to an end, violence involving the Horrell brothers and Pink Higgins did not.

Of the five Horrell brothers, only three were still alive at the end of the feud. And two of the three, were not long for the world. After having been arrested for even more crimes, including murder, they were shot dead in their jail cells by a mob in Meridian, Texas, while awaiting trial. Although no proof has ever been uncovered, many people suspect Pink was involved.

Pink Higgins, who, for some reason, is not well-known in the annals of the “Old West,” was a prolific killer; with some saying he dispatched at least fourteen people. His last killing, took place in 1902, when he killed a rival in the Panhandle of Texas. After he shot the man, Higgins notified the county sheriff, but was told to go back and check to see if the man was indeed dead, and if not, make sure that he finished what he started. What a different world it was in Texas, back in those days.

Pink eventually died of a heart attack in 1913, but was outlived by the last survivor of the Horrell-Higgins feud, Sam Horrell, who died in California in 1936.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Noise For Toys

One of the benefits of living in or around Austin, Texas, is the availability and easy access to excellent live music, any night of the year. Even some very small communities, like Point Venture, on the north shore of Lake Travis, have outstanding live music. In the case of Point Venture, Thursday is the night for “Open Mic,” and it showcases the very best of north shore music.

Every year, the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, sponsors a Toys for Tots Program to collect new toys. The toys collected are then distributed as Christmas gifts to needy children, who, if not for the effort of the Marines, might not have anything to open on Christmas morning.

This evening, during Thursday’s regular Open Mic, the community of Point Venture, bolstered the Toys for Tots Program with live music, in what was called, “Noise For Toys.” Each person attending, was required to bring a new, unwrapped toy, and after being admitted, was welcomed by two young and very proud Marines in their dress blues.

Folks not only brought toys, but as is customary on Open Mic evenings in Point Venture, food to share. My wife and I attended tonight, and we enjoyed the evening with our wonderful neighbors. The entertainment tonight was provided by north shore musicians, but, also, by musical talent from all over the Austin area. The Point Venture Club Room, where the event was held, was aptly decorated for the holiday season tonight. Among the festive decorations, was a large and brightly lit Christmas tree.

For the record, the exceptional live music was performed by: Alan “Bones” Davis; Bobby Earl; Chad Alan; Dave Culbreth; Douglas Clyde Martin; Eric Carlson; Graham Weber; Greg Wietzel; Joe Nesheim; Jul Ewing & Brandon Jolly; Keith Bryson; Larry Cooper; Mark Hackett; North Shore All Stars; Roger Len Smith; The Dust Devils; Timo Gallegos; and Tom Gossett. The organizer of the event, Gary Brandenberger, did a great job pulling everything together, and it was enjoyed by all.

Judging by the applause, the biggest stars of the evening were not just the musicians, but, also, the two young Marines. What a difference since the Vietnam years, and it was nice to see, but, then again, this is Texas, where patriotism has never gone out of style.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Waterloo Records: A Store From Another Place And Time, But With A Big Difference

When I was growing up, record stores were a special place to visit. This was before the big-box chain record and electronic stores took over everything. Back in those days, with a little luck, a buck, and a few cents additional for tax, you could get the latest 45 rpm “hit” of your favorite singer or band. Those family operated record stores always had the Cash Box or Billboard charts posted on the wall, the 45’s in small shelves behind the counter, and albums stuffed in wood racks in crowded aisles. And, the owners were always knowledgeable about music they were selling.

Over the years, the technology changed, and record albums and 45’s were eventually replaced by 8-track tapes, then cassettes, and later still, by CD’s. And while CD’s are still around, they are slowly losing popularity as the ability to buy music off the internet increases.

The family record shops, for the most part, are long gone. So too, it seems, are the big box-chain record stores. Today, major electronic chain stores still sell CD’s of course, but it’s not the same. While they stock the most commercially popular music selections, they do not carry the music of local bands that have “cut” records, and are looking for a little exposure. In the old days, the small family-owned record shops would always carry several of these records, as a favor to the local musicians, their family, and friends. In most cases, they were vanity records which never amounted to anything, but, from time to time, some success came from them.

If I’ve got you at least a little bit nostalgic, then visit Waterloo Records in Austin, Texas. Started in 1982, it has the “look and feel” of the small record stores I remember when I was younger. There are crowded aisles, with employees who are knowledgeable about the music being sold, a large selection of commercially popular music, the not so popular music, and the music of local musical artists and bands trying to catch a break or two.

Waterloo Records, however, is far different from the small “Mom and Pop” record shops of the past. Like many bookstores that now have authors come in to speak about their books and sign autographs, Waterloo Records has musicians come in to perform and sign autographs. And quite often, these musicians are well-known. This year, Willie Nelson, as but just one example, sang at Waterloo. More recently, on December 5, 2009, Rosanne Cash performed at Waterloo.

But, the real difference that Waterloo Records has from the old family-owned record shops, in my opinion, is the fact that while it protects music’s past, it also embraces music’s future, utilizing the latest technology. While it still faithfully sells music on CD, and on long-playing vinyl albums, it also has in-store listening stations, and sells music online, including downloads. Waterloo Records, bridges the past with the present.

Perhaps, just perhaps, with its attention to the music technology of the past, and with an appreciation of local music, live music performances, and the latest music technology, Waterloo Records will not go the way of its predecessors. But, it still needs to do something about that tiny parking lot. That’s the one thing that hasn’t kept up with the times.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Bratwurst In Lampasas

Given the wonderful German heritage of the hill country of Texas, finding good German food is never a problem. Such was the case when my wife and I found ourselves in Lampasas, Texas, yesterday. It was a dreary, overcast, and foggy day, and we were looking to eat a small lunch.

Despite the gloomy weather, we found a bright and cheery spot to eat right on the town square, across from the county courthouse. Festooned with holiday lights and decorations, Eve’s Cafe on the Square, looked to be the perfect place to escape the less than perfect weather.

You could tell that Eve’s Cafe was serious about its German food, because just after we were seated, the waitress informed us that hamburgers were not available. Apparently, they are only sold on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. This left nothing but German selections to choose from, and this was just fine with us, as we were not looking to eat hamburgers anyway.

The restaurant is known for its schnitzel, and the schnitzel is served up, along with spatzle, in many different menu combinations. We finally decided on the bratwurst, covered in sautéed onions and gravy, and served with a small salad, a slice of buttered rye bread, brown mustard, and some fries. It was a delightfully delicious and inexpensive lunch, and it was served in the warm, cozy, casual, and friendly environment of the cafe.

We sat in the restaurant for quite some time after we had eaten our lunch, due to the fact that we enjoyed the atmosphere so much. And to top it all off, the restaurant staff was very gracious as we left. They sincerely thanked us for coming, and wished us well during the upcoming holiday season. It could not have been a better lunch for us. We enjoyed great food, and the German (and Texas) hospitality.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Sixty-Eight Years After Pearl Harbor: The Garden Of Peace

The National Museum of the Pacific War is located in the Texas Hill Country town of Fredericksburg. But not for the birthplace and boyhood home of Admiral Chester Nimitz, who led U.S. Naval Forces to victory in the Pacific during World War II, the museum’s location would seem out of place.

Today, December 7, 2009, it is exactly 68 years after that fateful day when bombs dropped on the U. S. fleet in Pearl Harbor. And, on this day, so many years after that tragic Sunday morning, former President George H.W. Bush visited Fredericksburg to reopen the George H.W. Bush Gallery at the museum, which has recently been under renovation. Bush, as a young naval aviator, flew combat missions in the Pacific during World War II, and, like my father, another young navy pilot in that theatre, flew Grumman Avenger torpedo bombers.

The museum and its grounds are divided up into different areas, with artifacts, photographs, and information detailing the Pacific Theatre of World War II. In addition to the military-oriented exhibits depicting the various stages of the war, the museum also has an outdoor plaza called the “Plaza of Presidents.” This impressive plaza has extensive information on each U.S. President who served during World War II.

Adjoining the plaza, is another area called the Memorial Courtyard, which contains a touching display of memorial wall plaques and paver bricks. These plaques and bricks are sponsored by family members, friends, and various organizations who wish to permanently recognize the specific contributions of veterans, ships, and military units.

The Japanese Garden of Peace, the most unusual part of the museum, is, arguably, one of the most important. Nimitz greatly respected Japanese Admiral, Togo Heihachiro. This Japanese Admiral, who had defeated a Russian fleet during the Russo-Japanese War, died in 1934, and his funeral was attended by the admiring Nimitz. Years later, long after World War II, Nimitz would donate money to help restore Togo’s flagship, Mikasa. This was the battleship on which Togo rose to greatness during the Russo-Japanese War, and which, at the time Nimitz pitched in to help, was in dire need of repair.

In 1976, Japan, in an honor to Admiral Nimitz and his admiration of Admiral Togo, reconstructed a Japanese garden, and a reproduction of Admiral Togo’s study, on the grounds of the museum in Fredericksburg. Amid the museum’s historical and important displays of war in the Pacific, this is a place of peace and quiet meditation.

After surviving the horrors of war, working to secure a peaceful world is one thing I’m quite sure that President George H.W. Bush, my father, Captain Kenneth Glass, USNR (Ret), and all living veterans of World War II, would agree is key to our future. Please remember them on this day, as well as the deceased veterans of that war, who sacrificed so much to secure our freedoms in the dark days following December 7, 1941, the “date which will live in infamy.”

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Tree Of Remembrance

Growing tall on the south shore of Lady Bird Lake in Austin, is a tree like so many others, except for the fact that hanging from its limbs are paper swans with a name on each and every one, and a memorial plaque at its base. It is, the “Tree of Remembrance.”

And while the tree, planted in 1993 by House The Homeless, Inc., in remembrance of the homeless who have died on the streets of Austin continues to grow, unfortunately, so do the numbers of homeless deaths in the city since that time. Every November at the site of the tree, a memorial service is held. And while much has changed in the world since 1993, the homeless are still dying on the streets of Austin. So far this year, there have been over 150 homeless persons who never made it off the streets. While Austin is certainly not alone with this issue, it is a tragedy wherever it occurs in this world of ours.

Austin, Texas, along with the neighboring hill country, is blessed with great scenery, important history, wonderful food, outstanding music, exciting events, and interesting people. There are, therefore, a lot of things people living in or travelling through the region can see, but the Tree of Remembrance, is not only something which can be seen, it must be seen.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Cacahuates Or Barbacoa For Lunch?

As I pulled into just one more of those increasing number of Texas hill country gasoline stations with the very small covenience store or a market attached to it today, I really only intended to pick up a bag or two of cacahuates, or what y’all call peanuts. I’ve become a fan of the chili pepper flavored cacahuates lately, and thought I’d grab some small bags for lunch. Once I stepped out of the car, however, I smelled something which changed my mind. Inside, and at the back of the convenience store was a lady cooking some mighty fine looking Mexican food. Immediately, I forgot about the bags of nuts, and ordered the barbacoa plate.

Barbacoa is barbecued food originating in Mexico, and is popular in Texas, and other border states. Barbacoa can be either pork or beef, but beef is more prevalent here in Texas. And, barbacoa is not just prepared from any beef; it is prepared from the meat in the head of the cow. This meat is cooked slowly (traditionally, but rarely these days, in a pit) and can be flavored very simply, with garlic, salt, and pepper. Some people choose to add additional spices beyond the basic ingredients, and those spices usually include chili powder and oregano. Most barbacoa is not very spicy, and in my opinion, fewer spices are better.

Once the meat is cooked, it is served with onions, cilantro, and either corn or flour tortillas. In South Texas, along the Rio Grande, barbacoa is often eaten on Sunday mornings, but of course, is available on other days as well.

Once having picked up my take-out barbacoa plate, I walked up to the cashier at the front of the store to pay. Once I handed the cashier the check, I said, “Wait,” and then doubled back to an aisle to pick up a couple of bags of cacahuates. I’ve got barbacoa today, I reasoned, but tomorrow, well, that’s another day.

Friday, December 4, 2009

What Hath God Wrought: A Trace Of Snow And The Hill Country Shuffle

It all started yesterday, when I took my shirts to the cleaners. The laundry clerk informed me that my shirts would probably not be ready on Monday, as they normally would be, because of, what he quietly described as, the impending “snow storm.” Now, I’m originally from the north, and an avid weather checker, so I knew that the forecast called for only a trace of snow. I’m not a meteorologist, but I assume that a trace of snow means it's hardly worth mentioning. At any rate, a trace of snow does not constitute a snow storm anymore than a single hair on an upper lip, or a couple of hairs, constitutes any type of mustache.

Snow is rare in the hill country of Texas, as the winters are quite mild. Nevertheless, there was a little wintry precipitation falling from the sky this morning, and, as had been forecasted, it amounted to a trace. Nothing stuck, of course, because there wasn’t enough of anything falling to stick to anything. But, even if there had been, the ground and streets were far too warm for anything to accumulate. In the north, what happened today would not even rise to a “non-event,” in terms of snow. But down here, it was the talk of the town. It was something to behold though, I guess, especially given the fact that my oldest brother, living in Ohio, says it still has not yet snowed this winter where he lives.

The snow aside, there is something out here in the hill country called “The Hill Country Shuffle.” Sometimes it’s called the “Austin Shuffle,” but whatever the name, it means the same thing. On those relatively few winter nights when the temperatures approach or dip below the freezing mark, people grab the sensitive tropical potted plants off their patios and decks and shuffle them into the house. Then, they grab sheets and freeze blankets to cover sensitive plants in the yard. The next morning, when things warm up, the sheets and freeze blankets are pulled off the plants outside. The potted plants inside the house are then shuffled back out to the patios and decks.

As temperatures are supposed to fall below freezing tonight, I did the first part of the Hill Country Shuffle today. I brought the potted split leaf philodendron, hibiscus, and bougainvillea which sit out on my back deck inside the house. I then covered my small citrus trees, along with the hibiscus and bougainvillea plants outside in my garden, with freeze blankets. I was not alone. My neighbors, too, were doing the same thing with their plants. And since the weather forecast for tomorrow, and for at least the foreseeable future, does not indicate any more freezing temperatures, tomorrow my neighbors and I will perform the second part of the shuffle, as we take the plants from our houses back outside, and remove the freeze blankets from our yard plants.

When all is said and done, I do hope my shirts are ready on Monday. The laundry clerk will have a hard time convincing me that our “snow storm” today disrupted the usual and customary pattern of cleaning and adding heavy starch to my shirts.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

It’s A Dog’s World

It’s a dog’s world.

Anyone who doesn’t believe that is true has never been to Austin, Texas. The city has 12 places where dogs can be off-leash. One of the larger and more popular off-leash spots is at Auditorium Shores, along Lady Bird Lake. Dogs roaming with their canine buddies at Auditorium Shores have it all going for them.

First and foremost, for a dog, it’s the place to see and be seen in Austin. If you’re a dog, you must know you’ve arrived when your owner takes you there. Dogs can mingle and show off their athletic prowess chasing balls, sticks, flying discs, and whatever else can be thrown for them to retrieve.

Next, dogs at Auditorium Shores “strut their stuff” in full view of the Austin skyline. I’m sure they know, at some level, that residents of high rise condominiums across the lake, with telescopes and binoculars, are watching them shamelessly cavorting and frolicking.

And speaking of the lake, there is a beach, of sorts, where dogs can swim and cool off. I’ve seen bigger dogs swim almost the width of the lake to retrieve a ball an owner has thrown. Michael Phelps is a great swimmer, but I’ve never seen him swim way out into a lake and retrieve a ball with his mouth and bring it back. These dogs, showing off on their own miniature version of “Muscle Beach,” could certainly teach Mr. Phelps a thing or two.

Lastly, the dogs are happy knowing that Auditorium Shores has an ample supply of Mutt Mitt boxes, which provides the owners of the dogs running around without a leash, the high honor, and distinct privilege, of picking up their poop. There is even a Facebook site, called Scoop the Poop Austin, which has a call to action for the dogs of Austin: “Hey, Austin Pups! If YOUR owner picks up poop, have him/her submit a photo of you!”

Like I said, it’s a dog’s world.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A JalaQue Will Keep You Warm On A Cool Day

The first couple of days of December have brought very cool weather to the hill country. There are a lot of ways to stay warm when cooler weather hits I guess, but I prefer the JalaQue. It doesn’t require putting on warm clothing or turning on the heat. All that’s required is a quick visit to TUG’S BAR-B-QUE.

Tug’s got its start on a boat, plying the waters of Lake Travis and selling barbecue from its deck. And, while it still has the boat, it also has a spot on land, located in Lago Vista, Texas.

Tug’s shares a building with a gas station. Now, people from the north may be a little skeptical when they see a restaurant sharing space with a gas station, but as anyone from the south knows, at least with respect to barbecue, you’re better off focusing on the barbecue itself, and not the venue its served in. Folks, who don’t pay attention to this simple rule, will miss the best barbecue the south has to offer.

Tug’s, like many barbecue places in the hill country, offers a wide variety of meats. Brisket, chopped beef, sausage, turkey, ribs, and chicken are all available. They serve the obligatory breakfast tacos of course, and have some good cakes and banana pudding. I often order the chicken, which is very good. And, while I’ve never been a big fan of okra, I actually enjoy the fried okra at Tug’s.

But the big draw for me, especially on the days when the temperature is a little cool, is the JalaQue sandwich. To make the JalaQue sandwich, Tug’s takes its normal, extremely moist, chopped beef selection, and mixes it with a lot of chopped jalapeno peppers. A healthy portion of this fiery mix is added to a bun, and then topped off with raw onion rings and dill pickle slices. This sandwich is not for the faint of heart. It is warm when you take the first bite, warm as it goes down, and you will feel warm for hours after eating it. That is why it is so perfect for a day when the temperature falls. I’m not joking, or, overstating the case when I say it will keep you warm on a cool day.

A perfect companion to the JalaQue at Tug’s, are the beans. There are many days when I go to Tug’s to just order the beans. I’ll then bring them home and serve them with whatever food we’ve prepared that day. The beans are soupy, seasoned with black pepper, chunks of tomato, and who knows what else. Whatever spices are in there, the beans are unique, and delicious.

Since discovering Tug’s, I no longer worry about being caught outside without a jacket when a “blue norther” rolls into the hill country. I just make my way to Tug’s and order a JalaQue sandwich as quickly as I can.

The Importance Of Austin In The Life Of O. Henry

William Sydney Porter, who was later to become very famous writing short stories under the pen name, O. Henry, was neither born in Austin, Texas, nor became well known for his writing while living in the city, but there is no doubt that his years living in Austin shaped his life in an extraordinary way.

William Porter was born in North Carolina in 1862, and while he was still a teenager, became a licensed pharmacist. In a time period when the disease tuberculosis (then called consumption) took many lives, many people from the eastern part of the United States who were afflicted, or thought they were, travelled west thinking that the drier air would help their condition. Such was the case with Porter, who moved to Texas in 1882 after developing a cough.

For the first few years in the state, he worked on a ranch a considerable distance south of Austin. While on the ranch, he performed a host of odd jobs, but also spent considerable time reading. As with many good writers, Porter was first and foremost a reader.

In the mid-1880’s, he made his way to Austin. In the ensuing 16 years he lived in Austin, he held many jobs, including as a draftsman at the Government Land Office meticulously drawing maps, and as the publisher of a newspaper he started called The Rolling Stone. The shaping of his destiny, however, came from neither one of these jobs, but, from other events, which subsequently occurred in Austin.

Among the happiest events in Porter’s life were his marriage to Athol Estes, and then, the subsequent birth of his daughter, Margaret. The later events, and the most unpleasant, were the circumstances around him being charged and convicted of embezzlement from an Austin bank (many think the charges were without merit), where he worked as a teller, and, the death of his wife from tuberculosis.

Upon his embezzlement conviction, he was sentenced to several years in prison, and was transported to a penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio, to serve those years. Given his pharmacy license, and his knowledge of pharmaceuticals, he was assigned to the hospital ward of the dismal prison, where he had plenty of time to write. Ashamed of his conviction, Porter began writing in prison under the pen name, O. Henry.

His many stories, published while he was in prison, became quite popular. By the time he was released from prison in 1902, he was quite a successful author. He continued that success when he moved to New York City, where he published many more short stories, known for their plot twists and ironic endings. The most notable of these stories, are the “The Gift of the Magi,” and “The Ransom of Red Chief.”

His heavy drinking, which first became apparent during the Austin days, became even more pronounced after his release from prison. Despite his literary success, he died broke in 1910, when he was just 47 years old. His death came as the direct result of his heavy alcohol consumption.

His daughter, Margaret, also became a writer and a promoter of her father’s memory after his death. Unfortunately, she too, like her mother, died relatively early in life of tuberculosis, and was buried next to her father in O. Henry’s birth state of North Carolina.

O. Henry’s home in Austin is a well preserved museum, with many of the original furnishings still present. Managed by the City of Austin, it is located downtown on East Fifth Street, although its original location was a little over a block away on Fourth Street. Today, the land which was the site of the home on Fourth Street is taken up by a hotel. There is no charge to get into the museum, and the museum employee who took me through the house was unbelievably knowledgeable about O.Henry’s entire life (not just the Austin events), his family, the house, and his writings. She was very thorough in her answers to my questions, and I was extremely impressed. While you should expect this from any docent at a historical site, such is not always the case.

Thus, while Austin was the home to O. Henry for only a third of his life, the experiences which took place in the city were exceptionally important to him. These events, both good and bad, although transpiring over a relatively short period of time in his life, shaped who he became, and served as the catalyst for him being one of the great short story writers of all time. That’s an irony that O. Henry would have appreciated.