Friday, December 31, 2010

Guy Town



Between 1870 and 1913, roughly the years which now represent the Old West, there was a certain section of Austin, Texas which was referred to as “Guy Town.” Its southern edge ran along the old banks of the Colorado River northward to what is now 4th or 5th Street, and ran east to west from Congress Avenue to Guadalupe. The old city thought of the area as its First Ward, but folks at the time merely called it the “jungles,” or just plain “Guy Town.” If people called the neighborhood by different names, they all knew what went on there. It was, in fact, Austin’s red-light district.

The community was populated with saloons, gambling houses, dance halls, and of course, brothels, where the “ladies of the evening,” of several different ethnic groups, went about their work. To be sure, the world’s oldest profession was alive and well in Austin in those days, buoyed by the steady influx of rural workers who came into town from the farms and cattle ranches to “kick up their heels.” But, the farm boys and young ranch hands weren’t the only ones sowing their wild oats. Austin was then, and is now, where the Texas State Capitol is located. When the state legislature was in session, Austin became a destination point for office seekers, businessmen, and others seeking favors or special privileges from the elected officials of Texas. Despite the illegality of it all, some legislators, lawyers, and businessmen, seemed to find their way to Guy Town in the evenings to compete for the affections of the ladies. It is not known what the regular patrons thought - those being the ranch hands, farm boys, soldiers, laborers, and drifters - about this additional competition, but it probably is a good guess that they weren’t too pleased. It’s just conjecture on my part, but I’m sure they didn’t have the same kind of money to throw around as the more “sophisticated” and wealthy clientele.

As time went on, Guy Town became Austin’s focal point for scandal, noise, loud music, fights, and disturbances of every sort imaginable. Murders were common, and during one period of time between 1884 and 1885, a serial killer, who has come to be called, the “Servant Girl Annihilator,” prowled the streets of Austin, including Guy Town, dispatching his 8 victims with his favorite weapon, an axe. As quickly as the killings had begun, they ended, and the killer disappeared. Some have speculated that he escaped and became the famous “Jack the Ripper,” who terrorized London in 1888. We’ll probably never know for sure, but it makes for an interesting theory.

It would be wrong to leave the impression that Guy Town was an area only devoted to vices, commotion, and criminal activity. Far from being the case, reputable businesses thrived in Guy Town throughout the period of its notoriety. One such business was owned by the Schneider Family, who operated a general store at the corner of Guadalupe and 2nd Streets. The store sold a wide range of items, including, clothing, wine, whiskey, meat, cheese, and other food. Remarkably, the building is still in existence today, and remains the only building left from the Guy Town era. Even more remarkable, is that it is still owned by the Schneider Family.

Eventually, all bad things, as well as good, come to an end, and Guy Town was no exception. In many ways, Guy Town is a symbol of the rise and fall of the Old West. Like the other famous red-light districts in Texas which thrived during nearly the same time frame – Houston’s “Hollow,” El Paso’s “Utah Street,” Fort Worth’s “Hell’s Half Acre,” Waco’s “Two Street,” and “Frogtown,” in Dallas – it fell victim to a rising tide of national sentiment against not only prostitution, but gambling and the abuse of alcohol as well. Led by religious leaders, and women’s groups, the end of the Old West, and all that went with it – the tacit acceptance of wanton violence in many places, the reluctance to charge or convict felons, corrupt law enforcement and judicial officials, overt prostitution, saloons, heavy drinking, legal gambling, and public hangings in and around county jails – soon disappeared from the scene.

The Old West, as we know it, was a relatively short period of time lasting from the end of the Civil War in 1865, until 1910 or so. In the grand scheme of the Mandate of Heaven, it didn’t really last that long. But the impact that this period has had upon the rest of the world’s perception of the United States, and, the perception we have of ourselves, will live on for a very long time indeed.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Great Texas Restaurant In Jonestown



Jonestown, Texas, calls itself the “Gateway to the Hill Country," and sits on the north shore of Lake Travis, northwest of Austin, between Cedar Park and Lago Vista, on Farm to Market Road 1431. Nestled in the scenic hill country on the eastern edge of the Balcones Escarpment, Jonestown was founded in the middle of the 1930’s, and was for many years thereafter, just a rustic fishing village.

The population of Jonestown has grown since its inception, but still is probably not more than 2,000. Nowadays, the old fishing cabins are starting to disappear, and taking their place are some very nice homes for those Austin commuters living on the north shore. In addition, Jonestown, like many communities in the Texas Hill Country, is becoming a haven for “snowbirds” from the north, looking for a mild winter climate. Despite its continuing growth, it is still one of those places where if “you blink, you’ll miss it.” And if you do blink, you’ll be missing out of some interesting things, like the several fishing tournaments Jonestown plays host to during the year, or, the annual Texas Chili Cook-off. One other thing you’ll miss is a mighty fine Texas restaurant.

There aren’t a lot of places to get something to eat in Jonestown, but even if there were, True Grits Texas Bar and Grill would still shine. Sitting right alongside FM 1431, it’s no problem to steer your pickup truck off the road in one easy motion and pull up right in front of the place. Don’t let the size of the building fool you. No matter how many vehicles appear to be parked in front, there is still plenty of room inside.

Walking into the restaurant is like walking back into a Texas time machine. Both the exterior and interior of the building are made of weathered wood panels, the roofing is metal, and immediately after you walk in the door, you’re greeted by the owner who loudly proclaims, “Hi Y’all,” in his thick Texas drawl. “Sit anywhere ya want to, but oh, here’s a nice booth right here.” The new owners took over the place a year or so ago, and, while I had no complaints about the previous owners, the new owners have done a great job sprucing the place up a bit, while still retaining its traditional Texas character. The tables are nicer, and diners no longer have to sit in booth seats with ripped fabric, but heck, I never really minded the old look. After all, I go to True Grits for the food, not to sit upon or dine from fine furniture.

True Grits is all about real home cooking. The menu is focused on long-established hill country fare like chicken fried steak, meatloaf, catfish, quesadillas, and steaks. But in keeping with the age Texas hill folk actually now live in, you can also order lemon pepper tuna and pan seared blackened salmon. To each his own I guess. I’m sure it is good, but those selections just don’t seem to fit in with a place like this. In my mind, if I want fancy flavored tuna or seared ocean fish, I’ll leave my beloved hill country behind and visit San Francisco. As for me, on my most recent trip to True Grits, I got the vegetable soup, and classic chicken fried steak with the sides of campfire pinto beans and the green beans with bacon. And speaking of sides, True Grits has an ample selection. In addition to what I ordered, you have a choice of buttermilk mashed potatoes, fried okra, rice and beans, and a lot of other stuff, including, Texas toast. My only argument with the place is that they consider Texas toast a side item instead of throwing it in along with the meal. But I’ll get over it. Life is far too short to worry about something, which in the long run, is as trivial as that.

While waiting for the food, I had time to reacquaint myself with the interior. Old knick-knacks still hang from the wall, and over the beer tub, along with a sign warning patrons that the tub is not self service, were two other signs. One read, “Time spent enjoying beer is not deducted from one’s lifespan,” while the other read “Damn good beer is served here.” My guess is that some people come here to enjoy something beyond the chicken fried steak. Imagine that.

When the food came out, to my delight, the “vegetable soup” was the most beefy concoction I have ever eaten. While there were overly generous portions of potatoes, onions, green beans and corn, the vegetables (or, as my Dad says, “vegebles”) were floating among a heavy, almost gravy-like beef broth, loaded with beef. If this is what it means to be a vegetarian, then count me in. It was so good that I almost wished I had ordered the bowl instead of a cup. My son, Billy, who had accompanied me for lunch, was a bit embarrassed when I kept spilling the soup down the front of my shirt. This seems to be a habit of mine. But, if I can get over not being served Texas toast with my meal, he can get over me embarrassing him (once again). As I noted earlier, life is short, indeed.

As in previous visits, I was delighted when the chicken fried steak arrived. What was served up was of darn good size, and the batter covering the Angus beef cutlet had an appropriate dose of black pepper. To be sure, it was fried up nice and crisp. The steak itself, was covered with delicious cream gravy, and was very tender. The pinto beans were larger than you get at most places, and when the menu said you’d get bacon with the green beans, it was not kidding.

Homemade pies are a big deal in the hill country, and despite the large selection of pies and cakes in the pie cooler, I passed on the opportunity to have any. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m really not a “dessert person,” but if you are, you won’t be disappointed. My friends tell me the pies are great. And, like most folks in the hill country, I trust my friends.

Around Austin, Lake Travis, and the Texas Hill Country, live music is readily available almost any night of the year, and Jonestown is no exception. Texas Grits offers live music many nights of the week throughout the year, featuring, many well-known musicians, including some amazing local talent living on the north shore of Lake Travis.

Well, what do you think? If you are looking for a great place to eat as you are entering the “Gateway to the Hill Country,” with traditional hill country food, friendly Texas hospitality, local music, and that “beer thing,” you may want to slow down and not blink as you pass through Jonestown. You won’t be disappointed.

Monday, December 27, 2010

1877: Famous Cellmates In The Travis County Jail



Today, across the street from the Texas State Capitol Building in Austin, Texas, on the corner of 11th and Brazos, stands the Dwight C. Greer Building. The limestone building, erected in 1933, is the home of the Texas Department of Transportation. From this building, the activities of over 12,000 of the department’s employees are directed, many of whom are located in the Greer Building itself.

But in 1877, there was another building which stood on the corner of 11th and Brazos. And, unlike the 1930’s Art Deco style building which houses state transportation employees today, the building in 1877 was built of stone and looked like a castle. But this “castle” was not built to house kings, queens, or other members of a royal family; it was built to hold murderers, robbers, petty thieves, vagrants and others who broke the law around Austin. It was also a place of execution for those who had been sentenced to hang. The building was the Travis County Jail. And, in 1877, the jail was holding two men in the same cell that would become legends of what we now call the “Old West.” These two men were John Wesley Hardin and John Ringo.

The most infamous killer in the history of Texas, and arguably in the history of the Old West, was Texas-born John Wesley Hardin. Born in 1853 to a preacher, and entering his teens in the years immediately following the Civil War, he loathed what had happened to the South in the aftermath of the war. An angry youth, he was responsible for the deaths of several men by the time he was 15 years old, and, by the time he found himself locked up in the Travis County Jail in 1877, he had killed over 40 men, with several deaths taking place during the famous Taylor-Sutton feud in DeWitt County. But Hardin’s violence was not always triggered by a cause, and sometimes it was trivial. Hardin once shot a man to death in an adjoining hotel room for snoring. Obviously not a man to be trifled with, Hardin’s reputation as one very bad and dangerous man was well known during his lifetime and his nefarious reputation has only grown in the many decades since.

John Ringo was born in Indiana in 1850, and lived in Missouri before his family headed off as part of a wagon train to find a new life in California. Along the way, his father accidentally shot himself in the head with a shotgun while young John watched helplessly. The trauma of seeing his father’s violent death never left Ringo, and he became a troubled, brooding loner who increasingly found strength and solace in a liquor bottle. By the 1870’s, Ringo found himself in the Texas Hill Country. His first arrest was for discharging a firearm on the public square in Burnet on Christmas Day 1874. Later, he became embroiled in a famous feud called the “Mason County War” or, as it was better known in the hill country, the “Hoodoo War,” and was accused of murder. As a result, it was in 1877, that Ringo found himself locked up in the Travis County Jail alongside John Wesley Hardin.

Aside from his brief notoriety in the hill country feud, Ringo was not well known, and certainly did not have anything like the fearsome reputation of John Wesley Hardin. John Ringo’s criminal career had barely begun, while Hardin’s was in its prime. That is why it surprises some historians that Hardin reportedly complained to Travis County jailers that he should not be kept locked up with someone with the disagreeable disposition of John Ringo. As a result of this contrast of their reputations at the time, many contemporary historians have questioned whether Hardin really made such a complaint at all. And, while none of us were present back then to know for sure, I have a different take. In my opinion, it is quite plausible that Hardin made such a complaint. Many of the famous outlaws of that time period were very protective of their reputation, and whether the reputation was based on truth or fiction was meaningless, because either way it maintained their pride and helped keep them alive. Hardin is a good case in point, as he later wrote a book about his life in which he detailed his many killings. While I agree Hardin was probably not physically afraid of Ringo in the Travis County Jail, he might have been afraid of an “upstart” gunfighter upstaging his reputation. The complaint to the jailers, such as it was, might have been a way for Hardin to publicly dismiss the troublesome Ringo, in effect, saying, “Why do you have this nobody locked up in a cell with me?” In any event, both men soon left the jail and went their separate ways.

After being released from jail when all charges against him were dropped, Ringo hung around Texas for awhile, and, for a short period of time became a constable. He eventually moved to Arizona where he befriended the so-called “Cowboys,” a gang operating in and around Tombstone, Arizona, which included the Clanton and McLaury families as well as “Curly” Bill Brocius. Ringo’s legend as a gunfighter has been overplayed over the years, thanks in part to books and Hollywood movies. Ringo, for example, did not participate in the famous gunfight just outside of Tombstone’s O.K. Corral when the Clantons and McLaurys squared off with the Earp brothers and “Doc” Holliday. He was, however, well known to the Earps and Holliday, and had several heated arguments with them. This familiarity with the “Cowboys” and the Earps, some cattle rustling, and the killing of a few men from time to time earned him a place in the history of the Old West. When Wyatt Earp went on his famous “Vendetta Ride,” in which many of the “Cowboys” and Ringo’s friends were killed, Ringo became extremely depressed, and his drinking, which had always been a problem, got worse.

After weeks of drinking heavily, Ringo rode out into the mountains east of Tombstone, and in July 1882, he was found with a gunshot wound to his head, leaning against a tree along West Turkey Creek. Although there has been much speculation that he was killed by Wyatt Earp, “Doc” Holliday, or others, it is more likely that with many of his friends dead, and alienated from and ostracized by his remaining family in California, John Ringo saw nothing more to live for and took his own life.

Hardin spent 15 years in a prison in Huntsville, Texas before being pardoned by the governor in 1894. During the time he was behind bars, he studied legal matters, and upon his release moved to El Paso to practice law. El Paso at the time was still a violent place. It was one of the last cities in Texas that still maintained a wide open frontier atmosphere that had been so commonplace a few years earlier. As such, it remained a destination for gamblers, wanted men, drifters, and questionable women. One of Hardin’s first legal clients was a relative who had been charged with murder.

James Miller, who was better known as “Killing Jim” and “Deacon Jim,” was Hardin's cousin by marriage. Miller, like Hardin, began his murderous ways early, by killing his grandparents when he was not even 10 years old. As an adult, Miller preached every Sunday, and seemed to lead a good, clean life, refraining from the use of tobacco and alcohol. But behind this exterior, Miller was really a psychopathic hit man who enjoyed killing men with his "scattergun," which today we call a side-by-side double barrel shotgun. Miller was soon acquitted, but Hardin was not so lucky.

In 1895, after threatening the son of El Paso’s Constable, John Selman, Hardin was shooting dice in a saloon. With his back to the door, he never saw Selman walk up behind him and fire the bullet into his head that ended his violent life at the age of 42.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve 2010 In The Texas Hill Country




As it has a habit of doing from time to time during the winter months, a cold front blew into the Texas Hill Country today, just in time to get everyone into the Christmas spirit. Although the morning temperature today was still in the 50’s, the rain made it feel much colder. And, on a day like this, most everyone in the hill country should take on an even greater understanding and appreciation of the hardships the Native Americans, Spanish explorers, and early settlers of the hill country faced when the weather turned cold. Actually, one does not even have to go back that far in time, as hill country folk did not even begin to receive electricity until the 1930’s, when the hill country’s favorite son, Lyndon Johnson, made it a reality.

Christmas Eve in the Texas Hill Country is no different than a lot of places around the country I guess, given the ample supply of shopping and outlet malls which cater to the last minute Christmas shopping "insanity" which seems to strike so many people this time of year. But unlike a lot of places, the hill country provides an alternative, should you choose to seek it.

My dog and I headed out into the remote solitude of the hill country this morning in an attempt to distance ourselves from cash registers, blinking lights, wrapping paper, and frenzied people. The cold and rain did not deter us in our quest to avoid the very worst things the holiday season brings, those being, commercialization, greed, the exchange of money, and stressed-out families. Except for the ever-present deer and birds found in the hill country, we did not run into another living thing on our journey, and that, to me, made for a successful day. It was, as it should be.

The quiet solitude of the hill country, the cold rain, and the companionship of my dog, gave me time to slow down, and reflect on the meaning of Christmas one day in advance of the day itself. Instead of last minute scurrying about and standing in long lines waiting to purchase something for someone that will no doubt be forgotten by noon on Christmas; I did something far more important. I took a few hours on the day before Christmas to find a quiet place in these historic hills to truly think about why Christmas Day is celebrated, and what it means for all of us.

PEACE.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Here’s A Place That’s Definitely Worth Visiting



There are so many great places to eat in Austin and the Texas Hill Country that it is impossible to visit them all, however, that should not stop anyone from trying. Many of these places, especially outside of Austin, serve the traditional local fare associated with the area. That means barbecue, beef brisket, chicken fried steak, Mexican, Tex-Mex, catfish and German food. There is nothing wrong with any of those selections of course, but sometimes you might want something a little different.

If you are in downtown Austin, or on South Congress or South Lamar in South Austin, that is not going to be a problem. There are plenty of eateries in those areas that will provide the eclectic culinary experience you may be looking to enjoy. That’s great for folks living or working close to those areas. But for those living or working in North Austin, or in the communities just north of Austin, that’s quite a drive.

They say that “necessity is the mother of invention.” When the owner of Leo’s Gyros & Beef moved down from Chicago not long ago, and opened his restaurant in Cedar Park, he was the “invention” filling the “need” of those living and working in the northern reaches of the Austin area that were looking for diverse food selections. And, if I might add, what an invention it is.

The challenge at Leo’s, is deciding what to order. It’s one of those places that have so many selections, that it’s hard to decide what to get. Yesterday, I had originally gone in to just get a Chicago Style Hot Dog. As it turned out, I got that Chicago dog, but also a Chicago Style Polish, a couple of falafels, and fries. If you are familiar with real “Chicago Street Food,” you will instantly appreciate this place, not only because it has all the familiar street selections under one roof, but also because they are all authentic and delicious.

Leo’s menu is so diverse that I will not be able to do it justice here, but it is very extensive. In addition to authentic Chicago style food, there is something for everyone. There is an unbelievably large selection of appetizers, sides, soups, salads, hamburgers, and other sandwiches, including Rubens, BLT’s, Philly Cheese Steak, and catfish. There are also offerings of shrimp, oysters, and chicken. As you would expect, kid’s meals are also available. But the real attractions at Leo’s are the Chicago dogs, pita sandwiches including gyros, falafel, and the shishkebab plates. This food is the real stuff, and it is delicious. Best of all, the owner warmly greets each and every customer, and makes sure that the food is to their liking.

Conveniently located on U.S. Route 183, just south of RM 1431 in Cedar Park, the restaurant provides those people living just north of Austin the same wide-ranging food choices more commonly found in Austin itself. No matter where you live in the Austin area, however, this is one place that’s definitely worth visiting.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Once Again, The Texas Wildflowers Are Blooming




Northern states are in the spotlight every fall, when the leaves on the trees turn bright and vivid colors. Springtime, however, is the time when the Texas Hill Country shines. For it is in this time of year when the famous hill country wildflowers bloom, and, once they are seen, they are never forgotten.

There are over 45 types of wildflowers found in the hill country. The species of flowers bloom at different times, but most bloom sometime between March and June. Of the most popular wildflowers, Bluebonnets and Texas Paintbrush are the early bloomers, as they usually show their best colors from March through April. Indian Blankets typically bloom a little later, with April and May being peak months. But, if you’re driving around the hill country anytime between March and June, or, perhaps a tad bit later, you’re going to see some type of wildflower, and plenty of them.

Last month, in February, there were a few early and sporadic sightings of Bluebonnets. A few weeks ago, the sightings began picking up significantly. Today, the fields of color are beginning to break out all over. Several days ago I drove down a road and didn’t see a single flower, but when I drove that same road today, I saw thousands of Bluebonnets, Indian Paintbrush, and other wildflowers.

The experts say that this is going to be a banner year for wildflowers in Texas, as it always is following a wet fall and winter. From early indications, they seem to be right. One thing is for sure, if you’ve always dreamed about seeing the colorful wildflowers in the hill country of Texas, this is a great year to make that dream come true.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Time To Celebrate: Lake Travis Is Full And The Current Drought Is Officially Over




Yesterday, the water level of Lake Travis rose above 681 feet above mean sea level (msl) for the first time since the fall of 2007, after dropping below 630 feet msl in late September of last year. The El Nino weather pattern is what normally brings Texas out of its recurring historical droughts, and the El Nino of the last 6 months was no exception, raising the level of Lake Travis over 51 feet since its lowest water level during the current drought.

The full pool of the lake, and the end of the drought, is great news and certainly cause for celebration in the Texas Hill Country. Last summer, the low lake level closed most, if not all, of the lake’s public boat ramps. This had a negative financial impact on businesses along the lake, including marinas, waterfront restaurants, music venues, hotels, and tourist rental properties. Equally bad, “sometimes islands” appeared on the lake, causing accidents and injuries, especially among boaters unfamiliar with the lake. And, residents across the hill country, dealt with the watering restrictions common in times of drought.

This year will be much different. Currently, the lake level is 10 feet above what the level would normally be during a typical March. Businesses along all of the Highland Lakes, including Lake Travis, will no doubt thrive this year, but, then again, this is Texas, the land of feast or famine. Texans in the hill country have learned how to adapt to fast changing weather and climate over the years. One year’s prosperity might bring something quite different the next year. We’ve seen it all before, and, many times.

But, given the current conditions, it is time to celebrate the “feast” of a full lake and the end of the current drought. I will enjoy it while I can, because Texas weather history tells me, it won’t last forever.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

As They Say In Texas, “I Told You That Story To Tell You This One”




Fess Parker passed away last week in Southern California. Although he was born and raised in Texas, and graduated from the University of Texas in Austin, he spent most of his adult life living in California. In his later years, he ran a resort and a winery, but it was his early years that the baby boomers remember most, when, as a television and movie actor, he played both Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. I remember both of my older brothers wearing the coonskin cap he made famous during those years. But, as they say here in Texas, I told you that story to tell you this one.

There are two movies that are similar, and which baby boomers watched countless times growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s. One movie was The Yearling, based on the book with the same name, written by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. The other movie was Old Yeller, based on the book with the same name, written by Fred Gipson.

The books, and the movies they spawned, are both about boys coming of age in the rural South in the years following the American Civil War. In the book and movie, The Yearling, a boy is growing up in rural Florida, and, in the book and movie, Old Yeller, a boy is growing up in the rural hill country of Texas. In both of the books and the movie renditions, the boy of the story becomes attached to an animal, and, in the end, due to unforeseen circumstances, he is forced to kill it. Both Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Fred Gipson wrote about what they knew. Rawlings grew up in rural Florida, and Gipson in the hill country of Texas. In both cases, these rural locations were central to their stories.

Fred Gipson was born in the Texas Hill Country’s Mason County in 1908, and grew up on a farm there. After graduating from high school, he briefly attended the University of Texas, but soon left to write for newspapers and magazines. Eventually, he began writing books. Among the many books he wrote, Old Yeller became a classic. Now, once again, I told you that story to tell you this one.

Fess Parker, the Texas-born actor I mentioned earlier, after graduating from the University of Texas, soon left the state to pursue an acting career. Over the years, he acted in many television and movie roles, including Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett. But one of the movies that helped make him a Hollywood Star was playing the part of the father in the Disney movie, Old Yeller, based on Fred Gipson’s novel. And, while he occasionally played characters with Texas themes, he never returned to live in Texas.

Fred Gipson, on the other hand, never really left Texas. He died in the hill country in 1973, not far from where he was born. Along the way, he wrote a string of books, several of which became movies, and which dealt with rural Texas themes and the animals he loved. Upon Gipson’s leaving us, his burial in the exclusive Texas State Cemetery in Austin was approved by a proclamation of the governor. And, as Paul Harvey used to say, “now you know the rest of the story.” The epitaph on his headstone sums up his life in the nicest and, most appropriate way.

“HIS BOOKS ARE HIS MONUMENT”

Friday, March 19, 2010

That One Particular Texas Road Sign




Like a lot of states, Texas has many wild critters that like to run across the roadways in front of passing automobile and truck traffic, including squirrels, skunks, turtles, possums, rabbits, and deer. Unlike a lot of states, however, Texas roadways are also sometimes visited by feral hogs and armadillos. As a motorist, dealing with wild animals darting across the road is always a problem, especially if it is something large like a deer or a hog. But, in many places in Texas, besides keeping a watchful eye for wild animals, the motorist needs to pay special attention to livestock on the road as well.

Texas is an open range state, which means that except along federal and main state highways, or where prohibited by local stock laws, livestock may roam at large. This results in livestock occasionally finding their way onto roadways where they endanger themselves as well as passing motorists.

Over the next several months, the roads of the hill country will be a little busier as folks head out to see the fields of Texas wildflowers. In addition to marveling at the colorful Bluebonnets, Indian Blankets, and other wildflowers, I, for one, will also be on the lookout for something else. While yellow and black, it is not a colorful flower, but a road sign with the words “Loose Livestock” on the front. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got enough challenges in my life without hitting a 2,000 pound Texas Longhorn while out driving around looking at pretty flowers.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Austin’s Underappreciated Attraction




With all the things to see and do in Austin, Texas, it is understandable that some attractions are a little more popular than others. The Texas State Capitol Building, Sixth Street, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Zilker Park, and Barton Springs Pool are but just a few of the many sites representative of the city. These great sites, along with hundreds of wonderful places to eat, command the attention of both visitors and locals alike all year long. There is one attraction however, which never seems to show up on any “Top 10 Things to See and Do in Austin” list. And, that’s unfortunate, because it truly is one of Austin’s best kept secrets.

One day last week, I headed over to one of the oldest active military facilities in Texas, Camp Mabry, to see the BG John C.L. Scribner Texas Military Forces Museum. The camp was established in Austin in the 1890’s, and named for Brigadier General Woodford Mabry, who was then the Adjutant General of Texas. Soon after the camp was established, he left his post as Adjutant General, to fight in the Spanish-American War. And, although he died in Cuba in 1899, the camp he established in Austin, and the one which bears his name, is still an active military post, and remains the headquarters for the Texas Military Forces. These forces include the Texas Air National Guard, Texas Army National Guard, and Texas State Guard.

Upon arriving at Camp Mabry, visitors have to stop at the gate and present some form of photo identification to get in, and, in addition, they must consent to having the trunk of their automobile searched. All in all, the security stop at the gate only takes a minute or two, and is not much of an inconvenience, especially given the fact that there is no charge to enter the museum.

I have to admit that I really wasn’t expecting to be very impressed with the museum. I figured there must be a good reason for the relative lack of publicity and visitors it receives. But, I was very wrong. What I found, instead, was something that Austin should be proud of publicizing a little more than it does.

The museum itself consists of both indoor and outdoor displays. The museum was first opened in 1992, after years of careful planning. The museum exhibits thousands of military artifacts, and provides an interpretation of the history of the military forces of Texas. From the Texas War of Independence from Mexico, through a host of other wars throughout this country’s history, the military forces of Texas have played a prominent and important role. This historical role is proudly reflected in every part of the museum. The museum is named for Brigadier General John C.L. Scribner, who served in the Texas Military Forces, and was instrumental in making the museum a reality following his retirement.

The indoor portion of the museum is housed in a large building constructed in 1918, and which served as Camp Mabry’s mess hall for many years. The friendly volunteer docents told me that the mess hall, at one time, used steam in the kitchen. Apparently, at some point there was a steam related death, and, ever since, a ghost has been seen in and around the building, or, so the story goes.

As you would expect, the museum building is filled with uniforms, guns, maps, flags, and battle dioramas. However, since the old mess hall is so large, it also contains cavalry wagons, cannons, airplanes, helicopters, jeeps, tanks, armored vehicles, and communication vans. It even contains relatively obscure displays, like the immersion heater, which ensured that the mess kits of common foot soldiers were kept bacteria free. Additionally, there are numerous handouts which provide information on the military displays at the museum, important Texas battles, Texas Military Forces in World War II, wartime recipes, and a walking tour of the historic sites of Camp Mabry. There is also a small gift store, with books, postcards, and other small items you can purchase to both support the museum and to help remember your visit.

Outside, the military displays are impressive. There are several areas to visit: Armor Row, Artillery Park, and the Static Displays. Armor Row consists of tanks, self-propelled howitzers, armored personnel carriers, bulldozers, mortar carriers, tow vehicles, and many other armored vehicles. Artillery Park consists of American, French, German, and Soviet artillery pieces. The Static displays include both American fighter jets and helicopters. The outdoor display of military firepower and aircraft covers quite an area, so make sure you are wearing your walking shoes.

Sad to say, but the day and time I visited the museum, I was the only visitor there. The good news was, I had the whole place to myself. The bad news was, I had the whole place to myself. The volunteer docents were very accommodating, and eager to show me around. Given that I was the only visitor at the time, they asked me if I enjoyed the museum, and, if so, would I tell others to come visit? Given my positive experience, I told them I would definitely tell others, and, it is a pleasure to do so.

Why more people, both visitors and locals, don’t visit the museum is a mystery to me. Perhaps, it is because it does not fit in with the slogan which Austin brands itself with, that slogan being, “Keep Austin Weird.” There is certainly nothing "weird" about the many thousands of Texans who have served in the military forces of Texas from the 1830's to this present day. And, while the museum highlighting their service may be underappreciated, the historical service of these brave members of the Texas Military Forces is very much appreciated.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Man Of Two Centuries: The Hill Country Lawman Who Brought Down Bonnie And Clyde




As I pulled through the old stone entrance and drove into Austin Memorial Park, I immediately realized that the office was a part of the old stone entrance. I parked the car, walked up and pushed the office door open. Inside, in a very small room, a man was on the telephone. Listening to voice messages, and returning calls, he looked up and asked me how he could help me. Noticing how very busy he was, I quickly asked him where I could find the location of Frank A. Hamer’s grave. While still on the phone, he didn’t miss a beat as he swiveled in his chair, looked out the window, and pointed out a location a short distance away behind a crop of trees. From the time I entered the office, until the time I left, was no more than 20 seconds. Obviously, he had been asked this question many times before.

As I walked out to find the grave, it occurred to me that the man on the telephone, in the old stone building, was symbolic of Frank Hamer’s life. Using modern day technology, he was still seated in the past.

Frank Hamer was born in 1884, and grew up in San Saba County, in the Texas Hill Country. It is said, that in his early teens, he and one of his brothers began working for a local farmer. There are several stories as to why, but at some point, the farmer shot Frank with a shotgun. Helped to safety by his brother, he eventually recovered from his wounds. Then, at the age of 16, Frank went back to see the farmer who had shot him. When he left the farm, the farmer was dead. From that day forward, and for the rest of his life, Frank Hamer was uncompromising in his often violent pursuit of justice.

When he was 20 or 21, and working as a cowboy on a Texas ranch, he captured a horse thief. As a result, the local sheriff took note and encouraged him to join the Texas Rangers, which he did. Frank worked intermittently with the Texas Rangers over the years, leaving from time to time to pursue other positions in law enforcement, but then always coming back. His bravery was never questioned, and, in Sherman, Texas, in 1930, he almost singlehandedly tried to protect a prisoner from an angry lynch mob. Over the years he pursued horse thieves, killers, smugglers, bank robbers and bootleggers, but the people he despised the most were corrupt politicians, like the back-to-back husband and wife Texas governors, “Pa” and “Ma” Ferguson.

Hamer eventually retired from the Rangers in the early 1930’s, but was soon called back to serve Texas in leading the effort to track down and stop the Barrow Gang. Both Clyde Barrow, and Bonnie Parker, were both born and raised in Texas, and for a couple of years the gang killed lawmen, robbed banks, and outwitted law enforcement officials in several states, including Texas.

Forming a posse composed of law enforcement officials from a couple of states, Frank used his excellent tracking skills to locate Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker driving along a quiet rural road just outside Gibsland, Louisiana. Along with his posse, and with Frank wielding a .35 caliber Remington Model 8 semi-automatic rifle, Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed in May of 1934. Over 160 rounds were pumped into the car, and both Bonnie and Clyde were killed instantly in the hail of gunfire. In the aftermath of the ambush, Frank became a national hero, albeit, a humble one, refusing to ever tell the story of his participation in the downfall of Bonnie and Clyde. Even today, he is regarded by the Texas Rangers as one of the best the organization has ever produced.

Following the incident, Frank soon returned to private life and private industry, serving as a strike-breaker on behalf of companies in Texas. Following World War II, he was again called back to service with the Texas Rangers, in helping verify election returns in several Texas counties in 1948. After this brief interlude with his beloved Texas Rangers, Frank finally retired for the last time. Despite his violent career, he died peacefully in Austin in 1955.

Two of Frank’s brothers, including Harrison Hamer, the brother who dragged Frank to safety after he was shotgunned as a boy, went on to become Texas Rangers themselves. One of Frank’s sons, Billy Hamer, was killed in action on Iwo Jima as a young U.S. Marine in March 1945. Another son, Frank Hamer, Jr., also served in the Marine Corps as a pilot during World War II, and, after briefly serving in the Texas Rangers himself, spent most of the rest of his working career flying for the Texas Fish and Game Commission.Today, Frank rests quietly in Austin Memorial Park, next to his wife, Gladys, and his son, Billy, who died during the war. During his life, Frank took part in about 50 gunfights, killed many men, and was wounded many times. His life crossed the end of one century and passed into a new one, and while he began his career chasing criminals on a horse with a shotgun, by the end of his career he was pursuing them in a fast automobile with a high powered semi-automatic rifle.

When all is said and done, it seems that while Frank may have adapted to the changing times with respect to transportation and firearms, he never wavered in his single minded “Old West” focus to rid the world of those who committed crimes. He was shrewd and clever, and was completely intolerant of people who broke the law. Until the day he died, he never regretted killing a single person, because, in his view, the extreme violence was always justified in bringing criminals to some form of justice.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Rolling Doubles: Double Digit Temperatures In The 80’s, Along With Double Meat And Double Cheese




Today was a fine and beautiful day, with clear and very bright blue skies, and temperatures in the low 80’s. A fine and beautiful day is one thing, but a perfect day is something altogether different. A beautiful day is exclusively defined by the weather, but the perfect day is defined by things over and above the weather. Today was, at least for me, a perfect day. And, in my case, the perfection was defined by double meat and double cheese.

Some days, when you wake up, you realize that it is going to be a great day. After a few thunderstorms last night, I woke up to a warm, but foggy morning, which soon burned off into light blue skies. In other words, it was the start of a great day, created by someone or something much more important and larger than me. But, taking a great day, and making it perfect, is all up to individual initiative.

In my case, hunger was my “individual initiative,” and I when studied the day, all I could think about was double meat and double cheese. Double meat and double cheese is found at Little Red Wagon Hamburgers, and Little Red Wagon Hamburgers is found in Round Rock, Texas. And, so, guided by my individual initiative, I got in the car and drove to Round Rock. At the end of “my Texas trail,” I pulled into the parking lot, and circled the place a time or two before finding a parking spot, in fact, the “perfect” parking spot right in front of the place.

Things move fast once you walk in the door. If you’ve not been at the Red Wagon before, it’s best to study up on the menu before you get there, because the minute you walk in, the friendly folks will be asking you what you want. In a pinch, even if you don’t have a clue what to say, just say, “Double meat, double cheese.”

The relatively small place is paneled with corrugated metal siding on the bottom half of the interior walls, but what it lacks in inside ambience, it more than makes up for in the quality of its food. The double meat, double cheese hamburger, served at the Red Wagon is beyond great, it is perfect, or nearly so. Topped off with mustard, mayonnaise, lots of tomato slices, sliced pickles, and shredded lettuce on a toasted bun, it is accompanied with a side of hot and salted fries. As you can imagine, this delicious burger is a little messy, and, thankfully, there is a fresh roll of paper towels on each table.

Along with the great double digit 80 degree day, came perfection in the form of a double meat and double cheese creation on a toasted bun, with all the trimmings. I’m glad I keep rolling doubles!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Remembering The Alamo Survivors: Susanna Dickinson And “The Babe of the Alamo”




When I was growing up, everybody I knew believed a common myth that there were no survivors among the defenders of the Alamo mission. This myth has been perpetuated over the years for various reasons, but whatever the reasons, it is not true. While it is accurate, perhaps, that all combatant defenders perished in the fighting, there were, in fact, survivors. Among the survivors of the battle were Susanna Dickinson and her infant daughter, the one they called “The Babe of the Alamo.”

This past Saturday was the anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo. On March 6, 1836, General Santa Anna, commanding Mexican military forces at the time, attacked the Texans holed up inside the mission. The attack came after a brief siege, and in the ensuing battle, hundreds of attackers and defenders were killed, including, Jim Bowie and Davy Crocket. For reasons still unknown today, General Santa Anna spared the life of Susanna Dickinson and her baby daughter, Angelina, and they were released.

Susanna Wilkerson was born in Tennessee in 1814, and was married at the age of 15 to Almaron Dickinson. Shortly thereafter, they moved to Texas. Caught up in the turbulent times during the push for Texas independence from Mexico, her husband volunteered to help defend what is now San Antonio, Texas. It wasn’t long before Susanna, and their daughter Angelina, joined him in the Alamo Mission. And, while Almaron died in the famous battle, his wife and daughter were spared.

In the aftermath of the battle, and because of the subsequent release granted by General Santa Anna, Susanna was able to inform the rebellious Texans about the catastrophic loss at the Alamo Mission. It was, in part, due to her eyewitness testimony of the battle, that angry Texans rallied and successfully completed their quest for independence at the Battle of San Jacinto the following month, when Santa Anna surrendered his army.

Angelina, “The Babe of the Alamo,” married several times before passing away sometime around 1870, in either Galveston or New Orleans. And her mother, Susanna, widowed at such an early age, went through a slew of husbands over the years. With her fifth and last husband, Joseph Hannig, she eventually moved to Austin, Texas, where she died in 1883. Upon her death, she was buried in Austin’s Oakland Cemetery, where she rests today. With her passing, went the last of the remaining Anglo defenders of the Alamo.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Texas Independence Day




March 2nd of every year is a very special day for Texans. For it is on this day, that citizens of Texas annually celebrate something which cannot be celebrated by citizens around the rest of the country, Texas Independence Day. Unlike any other state, Texas was once an independent and sovereign nation.

It was on March 2, 1836, in Washington-on-the-Brazos, that an assembly of representatives from various small villages and settlements throughout Texas voted to approve the Declaration of Independence from Mexico. In the words of the document itself, the signers declared “that the people of Texas do now constitute a free, Sovereign, and independent republic.” Through the actions of this assembly of delegates, the Republic of Texas was formed.

The move toward independence was precipitated by Mexico’s decision to create a centralized form of government, which greatly diluted the power of the individual Mexican states, including the state of Coahuila y Tejas, which now includes parts of present day Texas.

It was an official Texas State Holiday today, and in Austin, the capital of Texas, there was an observance at the Texas State Cemetery, where fifteen signers of the “The Unanimous Declaration of Independence made by the Delegates of the People of Texas,” on that day long ago, are buried.

Declaring independence is one thing, securing the independence declared is something else altogether. On March 6, 1836, less than a week after independence was declared, the upstart Texans were dealt a bloody setback at the Alamo Mission in San Antonio, by the Mexican military leader, Santa Anna.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Chicago Hot Dogs ... Texas Style




There is really no true substitute for having a “Chicago Style Hot Dog” anywhere else but the city which gave it the name. There are, of course, times, when it seems, you have to settle for the next best thing.

First of all, let’s define what makes a regular hot dog a Chicago Style Hot Dog. It consists of an all beef hot dog, bright green sweet pickle relish (not the stuff most of us find on the grocery shelf), plain yellow mustard, pickles, onions, tomato wedges, sport peppers, and, celery salt on a steamed poppy seed bun. I’m not expert enough to describe the correct order of assembly, but those are the basic ingredients.

Since most of us around the country don’t live in Chicago, or get to visit there all that often, we have to settle for the next best thing, at least with respect to a Chicago hot dog. And, the next best thing down here in Texas, while perhaps a little different than in Chicago, is a great Chicago style dog.

Dog Almighty, located on South Lamar in Austin, is the local Texas purveyor of Chicago style hot dogs. True to the Chicago original, it serves grilled beef hot dogs, with tomatoes, pickles, bright green relish, onions, plain yellow mustard, and celery salt. But, there are a few differences. The bun, rather than being steamed, is toasted, and there are no poppy seeds. And while I don’t miss the poppy seeds all that much, I rather enjoy the toasted bun. While toasted buns are not traditionally a part of Chicago style hot dogs, they are definitely a part of the history of the American hot dog.

If for some really strange reason you are not enamored with Chicago style hot dogs, you have plenty of other choices at Dog Almighty, including veggie and turkey dogs. There are a lot of locally created Texas hot dogs on the menu, and, if none of those suit you, you can order “The Slacker Dog.” If you order this hot dog, you can pretty much create the hot dog of your dreams. You start from scratch with the hot dog itself, and then add one or more of the many available ingredients and condiments Dog Almighty has to offer. I’ve never ordered a “Slacker,” because if I did, I would get it with exactly the same ingredients as the Chicago style hot dog, which, of course, would be pointless.

Eating Chicago style hot dogs on South Lamar in Austin may be a little different than eating one on West Ontario Street, West Grand Avenue, or one of the countless other locations in Chicago, but it’s the next best thing. And, in my opinion, the “Chicago Dog” at Dog Almighty, is an excellent choice for those of us living in and around the Texas Hill Country, who need to enjoy a little bit of Chicago from time to time.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sheriff James Henry Franks Of Caldwell County, Texas




James Henry Franks was born in Arkansas in 1876 and moved with his family to Texas in 1888 in a covered wagon. The family settled in Caldwell County, at that time, less than a day’s horseback ride south of Austin. Upon his reaching adulthood, Henry, the name he went by while growing up, became a farmer and a blacksmith. Shortly after the turn of the century, he married Daisy Abbott.

In 1908, Franks was elected Sheriff of Caldwell County, and soon thereafter moved with his wife and young daughter into the bottom floor of the newly built jail in Lockhart, the county seat. Less than 7 years later, he was dead, murdered by a shotgun blast from an unknown gunman.

It was in May of 1915, that he was assassinated in a crime which has never been solved. Before the days of sophisticated forensic science, DNA evidence, and 24 hour news channels, his death quickly became a footnote of history.

Speculation regarding the crime, however, continues until this day. Accounts from a family history of the sheriff suggest both political intrigue and revenge. According to the scant historical record, there was a struggle between the county’s political establishment and popular sentiment over who should be elected sheriff. Popular sentiment in the county won out, and Franks was elected Sheriff of Caldwell County. Unfortunately, as the story goes, the man he beat in the election, one John L. Smith, became bitter, and harassed Franks whenever he could.

On February 19, 1915, Smith walked into the Caldwell County Courthouse in Lockhart where the sheriff’s office was located, and threatened the life of Franks. As Smith left the sheriff’s office, and began walking the various hallways of the courthouse, Franks grabbed his double-barrel shotgun and followed him out. At some point, the two men met, and Smith began firing his pistol at Franks to no avail. It was at this point, apparently, that Franks shot Smith dead. Unfortunately, the violence inside the courthouse that day did not end the matter.

It was in the middle of May of 1915, not even 3 months after Sheriff Franks killed his rival, John Smith, that someone abruptly ended his life. It appears that the sheriff might have been called out to the railroad loading platform in Lockhart on a ruse, and then assassinated once he arrived there. Some claim the killing of Franks was committed by a member of Smith’s family, but, of course, no one really knows. To this day, his violent passing remains a mystery.

What is not a mystery, however, is the fact that both Franks, and his political adversary, John Smith, both lie in the Lockhart Cemetery. Their violent deaths, more likely than not, were caused by a dispute over who should be the Caldwell County Sheriff. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and so much for earthly things like a sheriff’s badge and the power that goes with it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Only Thing Predictable About Texas Weather Is Its Unpredictability




This past year has given the folks living in the Texas Hill Country quite a ride with respect to weather. During 2009, the area experienced a severe drought, 68 days at or above 100 degrees, and some of the lowest water levels on Lake Travis ever. Then, last fall, the rains started, followed by a dusting of snow in December. January of this year, along with a lot of places in the South, brought a couple of nights of unbelievably cold temperatures which turned many of the palm fronds in and around the hill country the color of brown cardboard.

This past Sunday, it was in the 70’s, and yesterday, just a bit cooler. The days were perfect for golfing and boating, and on both days golfers and boaters were out in force. Today, however, the bottom dropped out. It rained early this morning, followed by a little snow, then sleet, and then a complete changeover to all snow for most of the day. While there were no golfers or boaters out today, children around the area, who rarely if ever see measurable snow, were having lots of fun. The falling snow covered flowers, grass, and trees.

The weather in the hill country this past year was unusual, but only because of its extremes. The area usually enjoys a semi-tropical climate with sunny days, hot summers, and mild winters. Precipitation is normally spread evenly throughout the year, with the wettest months being in May and October. What made this past year a little different was the higher than normal numbers of extremely hot days, the lack of rain, the very bitter cold snap, lower than average temperatures during this winter, and measurable snow. And, while this does not happen in most years, it has all happened before, and many times. This is Texas, after all.

The hill country is used to “feast or famine” weather, and it gives rise to the old expression down here, “if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.” Since before recorded time, inhabitants of the region have been accustomed to what is now called a “Blue Norther.” In the fall, cold fronts can come in fast, and temperatures can often drop 20 or 40 degrees, or even more, in a matter of minutes.

I’m not big fan of the cold, snow, or winter weather, which is one of the reasons I moved to the hill country after living all my life up North. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the nostalgic novelty of the snow today. Tomorrow it is forecasted to be in the upper 50’s, and later in the week, back into the middle to upper 60’s.

The only thing predictable about Texas weather, I guess, is its unpredictability.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Hankering For Some Catfish




I don’t think about eating catfish all that often, but, every month or so, I do get a certain hankering for it. And, if I don’t immediately feed my hunger for the fish, it gnaws at me until I do.

The nagging craving for catfish appears suddenly, and without warning, and when it does, I immediately start thinking about all of the places nearby where I can go to get my fried catfish “fix.” I avoid the chain restaurants at all costs, unless, of course, I’m really desperate. Fortunately, there are quite a few places in the hill country which make a living off the fish, and know how to prepare it correctly.

When the catfish mood hit me this past week, I jumped into the car and headed over to Marble Falls. As I drove over the winding road through the hill country of Texas, I knew that at the end of my journey there would be fried catfish filets with my name on them. My destination, of course, was Ken’s Catfish & BBQ.

The restaurant is a small white concrete block building right on Marble Fall’s main drag. When I arrived, as is usual at the noon hour, the parking lot in front of the place was crowded with oversized pickup trucks. Despite the clutter of trucks outside, I knew that there would be a seat for me inside. There always is, as the locals will gladly seat you at their table if you have no other place to sit.

The kind folk at Ken’s, like nearly everywhere else in the hill country, are friendly and sincerely appreciate your business. They say “thank you” with a special emphasis after you order, and they really mean it. But, once the catfish is delivered to the table, it’s time to say “thank you” back to them.

The thin catfish filets, breaded in cornmeal, were hot and delicious. A choice of sides was available, including fries, beets, slaw, green beans and potato salad. I went with the coleslaw and green beans. In addition to the catfish and the sides, my order was also served with hush puppies. On top of the great food, I have to tell you, the ice tea was something special.

While I was enjoying the catfish, I looked over to the table next to me, and saw two good old boys eating a couple of impressive-looking overstuffed barbecue sandwiches. Under normal circumstances, I might have regretted my decision to get the catfish, but not that day. I was on a mission to satisfy my catfish craving, and not even those delicious looking beef sandwiches could deter me.

After having devoured those wonderful fried catfish filets at Ken’s Catfish & BBQ, with the accompanying sides, I felt so much better and headed home. It will be a month or so before I get a hankering for catfish again, but, when I do, I know that I will be able to find respite in one of the many places in the Texas Hill Country that know how to fry them up properly.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Keeping History Alive On The North Shore Of Lake Travis




It’s often been said that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” And, I might also add, that hundreds of pictures are worth many more thousands of words. But I’ll leave it to you to calculate the exact number.

For the longest time, as a resident living on the North Shore of Lake Travis, I’ve been trying to locate old photographs of the area, with little success. It’s not that old photographs of the area don’t exist, because they do, it’s just that they have been held in private family collections and have never been published. All that changed this year when The North Shore Heritage and Cultural Society, through Arcadia Publishing, published a new image book, The North Shore of Lake Travis.

Last week, in the local newspaper, I read where the society was going to promote the new book in Lago Vista, with those responsible for its creation on hand for a book signing. As you can imagine, I was excited as a school boy on the last day of class before summer break.

The day of the book sale, it could not have had a better day. Arriving shortly after things got underway, I was warmly greeted by members of the society. After purchasing my book, I watched as it was signed, not only by those people most responsible for the book, but also by others who, just like those who had made the book happen, were a genuine part of the history of the north shore. Notable among these folks were Marge Richards, the only living daughter of a Civil War veteran in Texas, Vernon Hollingsworth, an honored veteran of WWII, and Betty Jo Carter, who grew up around Lake Travis.

People like John and Charlene Vohs, Janice (Hollingsworth) McGrew, Genny (Rodgers) Kercheville, Gloria Van Cleve, and Shirley Davis, who have lived many years on the north shore of the lake, contributed so much, and spent several years pulling the book together, were kind enough to spend several minutes speaking with me. In those few minutes, I learned much about the local history of the north shore. But, perhaps, more important, I learned that they were extremely proud of the north shore’s history, and passionate about preserving its past, by keeping its history alive.

As I was walking out, I noticed that a few more books about the north shore were being offered for sale. Genny Kercheville’s, Nameless, Its History and Its People, and Lago Vista, Its Story And Its People, edited by Bruce Vernier and JoAnn Siefken, were also available. Of course, I thought I had hit the jackpot, and bought those as well. In just a few short days since the signing, I've read all the books. Each of them offers a fascinating insight into the history of the lake's north shore. The photographs in all three books are priceless, and will be appreciated by anyone who is familiar with the area.

It’s now quite apparent to me, that there are a lot of folks on the north shore who are very passionate about its history. And, as they are truly the ones keeping the history of the area alive, I was just glad to be a small part of it the other day, as I met them and purchased their important historical contribution to the area.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dead Man’s Hole: Civil War And Reconstruction Violence In The Texas Hill Country



When the guns of the American Civil War finally fell silent in 1865, the violence in the South did not end.

Reconstruction brought about its own form of cruelty and bloodshed as the South sought to redefine itself, after having its institutions, economy, and the traditional lifestyle of its people destroyed. Many Southerners, resentful and bitter about the conditions which the war, and its conclusion, had brought about, lashed out.

Nowhere was this violent passion more evident than in Texas. The target of this violence was most often those Texans who had not supported the Confederate cause, occupying federal soldiers enforcing military rule, and the newly enfranchised freedmen. In Texas, during the Civil War and its aftermath, intimidation, fear, physical assaults, murder, and blood-feuds were common, and many famous killers and gunmen, like John Wesley Hardin, were able to ply their murderous trade against the backdrop of a sympathetic or intimidated local populace. In many cases, crimes against those who had not supported secession, federal soldiers, and freedmen were not taken seriously and were hidden, covered-up, ignored, or produced “Not Guilty” verdicts in counties throughout Texas.

Burnet County, in the Texas Hill Country, was no exception. But, extreme partisans of the South in this county had their own unique way of disposing of those with whom they disagreed. A few miles south of Marble Falls, on Shovel Mountain Road, is an opening in the earth’s surface. The hole, first discovered in 1821, has a depth of at least 155 feet.

During the Civil War, John R. Scott, Burnet County’s Chief Justice, and a Union supporter, was murdered and thrown into the hole. Before the war’s end, others accused of not being sympathetic to the Confederacy met the same fate, including a young worker named Adolph Hoppe. After the war, the hole continued filling up with bodies, as local government officials responsible for administering Reconstruction policies were targeted. One of the last men to enter the hole was a man named Ben McKeever. After a dispute with some freedmen, he was murdered and then dumped into the hole. It is thought that about 17 men ended up in the hole before the violence came to an end. At one time, an oak tree grew next to the opening, and its limbs were scarred with rope marks from hangings.

Exploration of the hole did not begin in any substantive way until the 1950’s, because of noxious gases found inside. The hole was later sealed with a grate, and in 1999, the land around it was given to the county by its owner for use as an historical park. The hole, located at the very end of a dirt road, is identified by a Texas Historical Commission marker. Not surprisingly, given the violent events which took place at the hole, it remains an eerie and haunting place, even in the daylight. It is also a grim reminder of a tragic and bloody time in the history of Texas.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sandra Bullock Is Having A Great Year, And I Had A Great Day



In today’s very busy world, multi-tasking is absolutely essential in order to get everything done, and so, I decided to accomplish two things over lunch a couple of days ago. First, have a great lunch. Second, pick up something for a special valentine, my wife, for this Valentine’s Day weekend. Thanks to Sandra Bullock, although unbeknownst to her, I was able to accomplish both things in one place, and it was in her place.

Her place, or more correctly, one of her places, is Walton’s Fancy and Staple on West 6th Street, in Austin, Texas. Actress Sandra Bullock has enjoyed a lot of success over the last year, as moviegoers have enjoyed both The Proposal, and The Blind Side. It is well known that Bullock has received numerous nominations and awards for these two films, including, a 2010 Oscar nomination for Actress in a Leading Role for The Blind Side. What is less known, at least outside of Austin, is that Sandra Bullock both lives in Austin and is quite an astute and successful businesswoman in the city.

Walton’s Fancy and Staple, which opened in 2009, joins Bullock’s other Austin restaurant, Bess Bistro, which was opened several years earlier. But Walton’s is more than just a mere eatery; rather, it is a bakery, delicatessen, coffee shop, floral mart, gift store, and caterer. In other words, you can get more than one thing done during a visit, which is why I headed down there in the first place.

After finding a place to park on 5th street, I walked the block over and went inside. Upon ordering a hot cheese and bacon sandwich, and a cup of the soup of the day, potato, I made my way over to a small table which faced the refrigerated floral cases. As I waited for my food, I watched several florists adding more floral arrangements to the cases. It wasn’t long before I spotted the Valentine flower arrangement I wanted, and kept my eye on it throughout lunch, hoping that no one else would buy it before I finished eating.

Quite soon, my sandwich arrived, served up in a wire basket lined with paper. I must admit, I’m partial to grilled cheese sandwiches. Grilled cheese sandwiches at so many places are often small, cold, soggy, and served on cheap bread, with a few dill pickle slices on the side. But, like any true grilled cheese aficionado, I even love eating those. In contrast, the sandwich at Walton’s was a hot delicacy, grilled on bakery bread, which was both crispy and buttery, with big pieces of smoked bacon poking out from the melted cheese. The sandwich was, in a word, outstanding.

The excellent sandwich aside, the service was extremely friendly, from the time I ordered until I walked out of the door. Late into my lunch, one of the employees came up to me and asked if I was serving in the U.S. Army, as I was wearing an army veteran baseball cap. I explained to her that I was not currently in the army, but was a military veteran. She thanked me for my service and we chatted for a moment or two. What a nice gesture on her part, and one which I did not expect. It only added to what was already a very favorable experience with the food.

Once I finished lunch, I walked over to the floral case and removed the Valentine flowers I had identified earlier. After the flowers had been paid for and carefully secured in a box, I left. As I walked back to the car, I reflected that all of my original goals in visiting Walton’s had been achieved, but the visit had turned out to be so much more. There is no doubt that Sandra Bullock is having a great year. But, indirectly, thanks to her, I had a great day. With Valentine flowers for my wife, the benefit of a very fine lunch, and the unexpected and kind thank you for military service performed long ago, it could not have been a better day.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Lessons Of Life, Like Rules, Are Meant To Be Broken: A Great Cuban Sandwich In Texas



One of the things which life has taught me, is that the farther away you get from the original of something, the less likely it is to be as good. But, the lessons of life, like rules, are sometimes meant to be broken.

An older brother of mine, Rick, introduced me to my first Cuban sandwich at a place in Tampa many years ago. That place was called Hugo’s Spanish Restaurant. And, although that was a mighty long time ago, it was a mighty fine sandwich, and I’ve never forgotten it.

Of course, like all historically popular foods, there is disagreement over what constitutes the “real” Cuban sandwich. To determine what was in the original sandwich, you need to look back to the geographical source. I’m not sure if anyone can legitimately determine whether the sandwich itself actually originated in Cuba, Tampa, or somewhere else in Florida. But, since Florida is less than 100 miles away from Cuba, I’m not going to spend a lot of time quibbling about it here.

I believe, right or wrong, that traditionally, a true Cuban sandwich consists of the basic components of Cuban bread (sometimes sliced at an angle), roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, very thinly sliced dill pickles, and mustard. In some cases, mayonnaise, tomato and lettuce are added. What Cuban sandwiches all have in common, is that they are heated and pressed in a hot iron press.

Over the years, as I have sought out other Cuban sandwiches around the country, I have often been disappointed. In many cases, while the sandwiches may have had the correct basic ingredients, they also had the very “life” squeezed out of them by some overzealous restaurant employee operating the hot press. The end result, were sandwiches with bread so hard it could crack a tooth, and meat absolutely devoid of any moisture whatsoever. To make matters worse, the sandwiches were often served with a side of potato chips. I don’t claim to be an expert on Cuban cuisine, but I can’t believe that potato chips are on the list. Like I mentioned earlier, the farther away you get from the original of something, the less likely it is to be as good. But, of course, there are exceptions.

It is not surprising that I found an excellent Cuban sandwich being served up out of a trailer in Austin, Texas. Austin is a town which prides itself on being different and weird, but it is also a town filled with both a lot of young entrepreneurs and a lot of trailer food. When entrepreneurs, trailers, and food combine, the results are often spectacular.

The Texas Cuban Sandwich trailer has been located on Austin’s South Lamar Boulevard since September of 2009. Relative newcomers to the trailer food offerings in South Austin, the two young entrepreneurial owners have quickly established themselves and have built quite a following. There is little wonder why. Whether you are eating a Cuban sandwich for the first time, or have eaten hundreds of them over the years, this sandwich is worthy of mention.

The menu is rather limited, but by no means is that an impediment. This is, after all, a small trailer, and not a sit down restaurant. The focus, as it should be, is on the sandwich. The “Texas Cuban,” as you would expect, is an oversized Cuban sandwich reflecting the size of Texas itself. The smaller, “El Cubano,” is what I ordered, and unless you are sharing the sandwich with someone, or have a Texas-sized appetite, it is big enough for one person. The sandwich has all the ingredients which you would expect in a traditional Cuban, including, pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and thinly sliced deli-style crunchy pickles. Mayo and mustard, however, are served on the side. But, there are some differences. The pressed Cuban bread, while correctly cut, is flavored with garlic, and, in addition to the Swiss cheese, provolone cheese is also added. Since I’m a fan of both, I liked this “twist” to the traditional sandwich. The best thing of all was how moist the sandwich was. While the bread was nicely pressed, the meats and pickles inside were unbelievably moist.

Every Cuban sandwich from the trailer is served with fried plantain chips. The chips were thin, crispy, and salty, and provided a perfect complement to the sandwich. The sandwich aside, I could easily go back just for the plantain chips. If you want a beverage, you pull it out of an ice box which sits outside next to the ordering window.

What a great sandwich coming from a couple of guys operating out of a trailer. Despite the fact that Texas is across the Gulf of Mexico from both Cuba and Florida, the distance has not changed the quality of this Cuban sandwich one bit.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Price Of Progress: The Lost Opportunity To Preserve An Entire Commercial Airport


Commercial airliners, on their final maneuvers before landing in Austin, Texas, more often than not fly over or near a large airport control tower in the city. But these day, the airliners pass right by the old tower, just like time itself did many years ago.

The Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, named after an Austin city councilman, helped usher Austin into the commercial aviation age when it was first opened in 1930’s. Despite several attempts to modernize the airport through the years, one thing which could not be changed was its location. As time went on, the airport soon found itself surrounded by a growing and vibrant city. The airport, with its congestion, noise, and lack of room to expand eventually meant its days were numbered.

As ideas and proposals were put forth to build a new airport, the U.S. Government decided to close Bergstrom Air Force Base, which was conveniently located on the southeast edge of the city. The base was originally built as an army air field during World War II, and later became Bergstrom Air Force Base in the late 1940’s. Over the years, Bergstrom accommodated both strategic long-range bombers and tactical fighters for the U.S. Air Force, and the long runways and somewhat rural location were perfect for adapting itself into a commercial repurposing. With the closure of the military air base in 1993, the City of Austin, which actually owned the land on which Bergstrom Air Force Base sat and had reversion rights if the military ever left, was suddenly given an unexpected “gift” to solve its Mueller Airport problem.

It was 1999, before Bergstrom Air Force Base was finally converted into Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. As the new commercial airport opened, Robert Mueller Municipal Airport was closed forever. And, with the closure, nearly 70 years of commercial aviation history in Austin disappeared.

For many years after Mueller Municipal Airport was closed, it sat silent and empty like some old Texas “ghost town.” Its buildings, signs, and runways sat intact, seemingly suspended in time. Eventually, a Planned Unit Development, under the name of Mueller, was approved, with construction beginning in earnest in 2007. It is a well thought out project, which will no doubt be very successful when completed, comprising of homes, shopping, parks, and a medical center.

Today, the new homes abutting the main body of the old airport are very nice, but at least at this stage, in my opinion, seem to replicate a suburbia found in a thousand other cities across the country. To the north of the new homes, looms the main body of the old Robert Mueller Municipal Airport. Along with the old airport control tower, no longer in control of commercial airline traffic flying into Austin, are a few remaining artifacts of the past.

Americans always tend to look forward, not back. This is a good thing generally, and has propelled our country’s success over the last couple of hundred years. But, I wonder what the future importance and historical significance might have been to future generations if Austin had preserved the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, intact, as a museum along with music venues and shops. While Austin, as a city, prides itself as being different, I think it missed a great opportunity with respect to Mueller. While Austin citizens often decry and protest the destruction of a single pecan tree in the city, or the potential loss of a small music cafe on the University of Texas campus, it missed a chance to save something which was much more difficult to preserve, an entire commercial airport, representing nearly a three-quarters of a century of American history.

Money and development, it seems, nearly always trumps historical preservation. Sadly, this is the price of "progress."

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Being In The Wrong Place Can Sometimes Last Beyond Life Itself



The story of the outlaw Sam Bass is still very well known around Round Rock, Texas. After Sam and his famous gang rode into the city in July 1878, intending to rob a bank, his name and legend have grown in notoriety and have been synonymous with Round Rock itself. Books and songs have been written about Bass, and, while he did not leave Round Rock alive, his memory has remained alive, given all the things in town still named after him.

The same, however, cannot be said for the deputy sheriff Bass killed in Round Rock, who also died very young, and in contrast to Sam Bass, has remained in relative obscurity ever since.

Sam Bass, was born in Indiana in 1851, and like many from the eastern part of the United States during that era, he eventually headed west. While it seems he first tried to be a law abiding citizen, things did not work out and he soon began robbing trains and banks. Although an outlaw, he was viewed by many in his time, to be a “Robin Hood” like figure, in that he had a reputation of “taking” things only from the rich. There were many people in the poor and rural areas of Texas, and around the South, who hoped he would never be caught and actually mourned his death.

Ahijah W. (A.W.) Grimes was born in 1850, in Bastrop County Texas, to a well-known Texas family. His ancestors and relatives were early Texas pioneers, politicians, defenders of the Alamo, and were present at the Battle of San Jacinto. A.W. Grimes, upon reaching adulthood, first became the Bastrop City Marshal, later a member of the Texas Rangers, and finally, a Williamson County Deputy Sheriff. In was in his position of deputy sheriff that he met up with Sam Bass in Round Rock on that fateful day of July 19, 1878.

Bass and his gang were betrayed by a fellow gang member, and, therefore, law enforcement officials knew the gang was headed to Round Rock to rob a bank. While Bass and his cohorts were casing the town, they went into Koppel’s General Store to purchase tobacco. Unfortunately for them, they had been spotted, not for who they were, but for carrying firearms in Round Rock. This was in violation of a local ordinance, and most likely a misdemeanor at the time.

Once alerted, Deputy Grimes walked into Koppel’s and asked Bass and his companions from behind if they were carrying firearms. Bass, in the process of turning around said something like, “yes, of course,” or just “yes.” But while Bass turned around to face Grimes, he was not only talking, but shooting his pistol. Grimes died instantly in the discharge of gunfire from Bass and his accomplices. Grimes never had a chance. He didn’t even have time to pull his gun.

While Grimes died on the spot, Bass quickly made his way out of the store, but was mortally wounded as he tried to leave town. One of his companions, Seaborn Barnes, was shot in the head and killed while attempting to flee. Bass, was quickly found on the outskirts of town, captured, and died a few days later while in the custody of the law.

Both Bass and Grimes were nearly the same age. Bass turned 27 the day of his death, and Grimes had just turned 28, a few weeks earlier. Other than age, they shared few similarities in life. Bass was a bachelor, who came from the Midwest and who had traveled the country living a life of crime. Grimes, on the other hand, was a native Texan, and a local peace officer who had a wife and several children. Despite the differences, they shared one thing in common; they were both in the wrong place when they encountered each other in the store that day long ago. The story, however, does not end there.

Soon after the shootings, Sam Bass and his “right bower,” Seaborn Barnes, were both laid to rest next to each other in Round Rock Cemetery. A.W. Grimes, in one more similarity with Bass, was also buried in the same cemetery. But, as in life, the similarities in death were few and far between.

Bass, as noted earlier, became even more famous after the Round Rock incident. He became a legend, and part of the ongoing folklore of the Old West. After his death, he was featured in books, songs, and films. For many years after the shootout, Round Rock residents took pride in the events which took place in Koppel’s General Store, and their pride focused almost exclusively in Sam Bass. Over the years, souvenir hunters chipped away at Sam’s gravestone to such an extent to where there was almost nothing left. In time, a new and impressive gravestone was erected for Sam Bass, and, over the years, roads, markets, music stores, and theatres were all named in his honor.

The memory of A.W. Grimes has not fared as well as the memory of Sam Bass. While it is true that Grimes only has a place in history, perhaps, because he was killed by the Bass Gang, it is also true that he was a very important element in ending the criminal activities of the gang. Until quite recently, he was relatively unknown, even in Round Rock. In a long overdue and belated gesture, a road in Round Rock was finally named in his honor a few years ago, and, even more recently, a medical center was named after him. But, even in death, it seems, it is still important to not be caught in the wrong place.

While Sam Bass was buried in the so-called “bad part” of Round Rock Cemetery and A.W. Grimes in the so-called “good part,” whatever that means, time should be a great equalizer. But, such is not the case. Today, the polished grave stones of the outlaws of Sam Bass and Seaborn Graves stand tall, and are frequently visited by people who leave everything from flowers to bottles and cans of beer.

In contrast, the original and weathered gravestone of A.W. Grimes, with the engraved words “Gone But Not Forgotten,” has been hard to find and is seldom visited. Despite the words on the stone, Grimes is both long gone and has been largely forgotten since his death. And, to add insult to injury, a recent storm blew down limbs off a large tree which sheltered his grave. In the process, his old gravestone was snapped at the base, and the metal marker indicating his service with the Texas Rangers was bent.

Being in the wrong place, it seems, can sometimes even last beyond life itself.