The best Texas book I’ve read of late was “The Cedar Choppers: Life on the Edge of Nothing” by Ken Roberts (Texas A&M Press). It doubles as one of the most instructive books about Austin’s history and culture.
Roberts, a former professor at Southwestern University in Georgetown, knows something about deep research. For this story about the people who once honeycombed the hills west and north of Austin, he talked to survivors and descendants. He scoured the internet for additional material and used Ancestry.com for more than just constructing family trees. He also consulted dozens of newspaper articles and books for historical context.
Roberts grew up in Tarrytown and first encountered hard Hill Country boys on the low bridge over the Colorado River at Red Bud Trail just below Tom Miller Dam. That fraught meeting must have stuck with him. He later read feature stories and columns about “cedar choppers” — as the fiercely independent hill folk were called, not always kindly — by Mark Lisheron and John Kelso in the American-Statesman.
Roberts confirms that these mostly Scots-Irish clans, who arrived as early as the 1850s, migrated down through the Appalachian and the Ozark mountains. They grew small plots of corn for cornmeal that didn’t need milling, for corn whiskey distilled in the hollows, and to feed their roaming livestock. They hunted game and cut native ashe juniper (cedar) for use as fence posts and charcoal. Cedar remained their main cash crop for buying what they could not carve out the hills.
(You catch glimpses of this life in John Graves‘ “Goodbye to a River” and “Hard Scrabble.” And, as riparian expert Kevin Anderson reminds us, in Roy Bedichek‘s “Adventures of a Texas Naturalist.”)
In fact, during some periods, they thrived and fared better than those who tended cotton as tenant farmers on the prairies to the east. Old-growth cedar found in cool, deep canyons rose tall and straight. The red hearts were especially resistant to insects and rot. Hill Country cedar was shipped by rail all over the Southwest and towns such as Cedar Park supported multiple cedar yards, especially in the years after World War II.
The hill folk rarely took part in city activities. Some resisted the Confederate forces, others joined them.
Before Austin spread west and the life of the cedar choppers declined, the clans intermarried and helped each other out. Some also resorted to quick-tempered violence. Roberts does not stint on the crime reporting (see link above).
After reading Roberts’ book, I took a little trip to the Eanes History Center, which happened to throw an open house that weekend (it doesn’t post regular public hours). I learned much more among the old structures where the tiny, unincorporated town hosted a school that grew into the Eanes school district, long before the surrounding land became neighborhoods such as West Lake Hills, Rollingwood, Barton Creek, Rob Roy, Cuernavaca, etc.
I plan to interview Roberts later this summer. We’re not done with this subject by any means.
We cherish these memories of strolling through Aldridge Place and its sibling district, Hemphill Park.
Originally published Dec. 16, 2010.
Walking through an old Austin neighborhood with a sharp eye is like scrutinizing the tree rings of an ancient oak. One finds evidence of lean years and fat. Of rapid change and relative stasis. Of momentary crisis and long-term stability. The social trunk in the tiny, paired Aldridge Place and Hemphill Park neighborhoods – north of the University of Texas campus – is incredibly compact. Just two streets – 32nd and 33rd streets between Guadalupe Street and Speedway – make up Aldridge Place proper, according to some of its most ardent advocates.
Others, pointing to the original plat, insist on including Wheeler and Lipscomb streets, plus Hemphill Park, split down the middle by upper Waller Creek and its tree-pegged banks. A later strand – Laurel Lane – was added to the old subdivision. Notable families have lived here, behind deep, shaded front yards and a variety of provincial European and American-style façades. Golf guru Harvey Penick brought up his children here. Folklorist J. Frank Dobie owned a house at 3109 Wheeler St. The Rather clan, which produced broadcaster Dan Rather and political activist Robin Rather, lived down the way on Laurel Lane.
Late journalist and presidential press secretary George Christian Jr. was born and grew up here in the house of his father, an assistant attorney general and judge, George Christian Sr., on Wheeler Street. Regan Gammon, lifelong friend to former first lady Laura Bush, lives in a surprisingly modest house adjacent to a guest cottage. (Bush visits frequently. Follow Secret Service advice: Stay away.)
Musicians Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison raise their children here. James Galbraith of the famed scholarly family lives not far away in a multifaceted house. Add to that Texas French Bread founder Judy Willcott and arts leader Laurence Miller, along with “house whisperer” Kim Renner, academic Terri Givens, actress and musician Chris Humphrey, and Silicon Laboratories’ David Welland and his wife, Isabel, both prolific contributors to the Glimmer of Hope, Miracle and Sooch foundations. Nearby live Rick and Nancy Iverson in a 19th-century stone structure that reportedly served as a stagecoach stop. Among the gay couples are Austin social all-stars Steven Tomlinson and Eugene Sepulveda, along with Web designer Bob Atchison and oenological consultant Rob Moshein, known as the “Austin Wine Guy” – and my guide on this fine fall day.
But let’s start with the land. As with almost all Austin neighborhoods, this one is defined by higher elevations roosted above waterways. Upper Waller Creek is sometimes merely damp, thanks to this area’s many springs. Yet it drains a huge amount of land to the north and becomes a raging stream after any storm. “It takes on a crazy amount of surface water, ” says house rescuer Renner, who lives just to the creek’s east. “The rise is amazingly rapid.” The creek is also famous for its tunnels, which lead to the Texas State Hospital grounds a mile to the north. Brave neighborhood children crawled up these tunnels to what was once called the “insane asylum.” A metal floodgate now bars passage.
The ascent on both sides of the creek is not steep, but it’s unmistakable. On Wheeler, it forms a gentle curve for houses on a ridge whose properties back onto Guadalupe near Wheatsville Co-op. On the eastern side of the creek, the rise merely makes for a healthy cardio workout. Pecans, oaks and elms dominate the canopy, myrtles and other ornamentals the lower strata. The area hosts an unusual number of magnolias, trees that don’t usually thrive in Austin’s alkaline soil without help. “We almost lost that one during the last drought, ” says Renner, pointing to a double-trunked magnolia outside her spacious bungalow overlooking the park. “We nursed it back to health.”
According to neighborhood historians, the region north of what became the UT campus was first settled under a land grant to Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar in 1840. The bluff above today’s dual neighborhood, where the Kirby Hall and the Scottish Rite Dormitory now sit, saw the first houses. Exposed to Comanche attacks during the mid-19th century, the land later supported dairy farms, general stores, schools and, eventually, residential subdivisions such as Harris Park, Hyde Park and the lesser known Grooms, Lakeview and Buddington.
On May 15, 1912, Lewis Hancock, developer of the Austin Country Club and namesake for Hancock Center, began selling tracts in Aldridge Place. Deed restrictions included a minimum sale price, no apartments, and, in line with growing segregation, no sales or rentals to African Americans unless they were live-in servants. Located so near the campus, churches, trolley lines and retail development along Guadalupe Street, Aldridge Place and Hemphill Park grew rapidly during the 1920s. “It’s residential but urban, ” says Willcott, who started Texas French Bread in the basement of her former house on 33rd Street, then opened her first store in a converted bowling alley at Guadalupe and 34th streets.
This day, our walk started on Laurel Lane at Speedway. “Aldridge Place looks down on us, ” Moshein jokes. “We’re on the wrong side of the tracks.” A pair of fanciful houses, designed by UT’s first architecture dean, Hugo Kuehne, flank the lane’s entrance. Carol McKay’s is notable for its steep, curling roofline and hidden gardens. On the other corner, Moshein and Atchison live in the old Rather house, best described as “Hollywood Spanish Colonial.” The surprise inside is a treasure trove of Czarist art, antiques and artifacts that the couple have collected for decades. It’s more than a little disconcerting to attend a party here, where Russian royalty stares down at the folks dressed in the usual casual Austin wear sipping exceptional wines.
None of the houses in this neighborhood are what one would call grand, more akin to ones found near almost any American university campus. These proud structures housed large families, until the kids grew up and the parents grew old. Then, college students moved into rentals – a point of contention for some residents – until new families, not all of them with children, fixed up the homes, now deemed historical by the so inclined. Renovators are transforming houses that had “gone hippie” during the 1960s and ’70s. “We are under huge pressure from the university, ” says former museum director Miller, who shares his current house on 33rd Street with Willcott. “To keep the neighborhood intact, you must be constantly vigilant.”
In fact, one neighborhood constant has been the number of people who have never left the area, or returned after a few years. Retired psychologist Mary Gay Maxwell has lived in three nearby houses; Clayton Sloan lived down the street from her current residence when she was a student. “I thought I was the luckiest person in the world, ” new mom Sloan says. “Living on this pretty street, walking distance to everything. Trees arched over. It’s an urban environment, but it’s very safe.” Maxwell agrees: “People never go away.” This loyalty fits neatly with the stories I heard up and down the streets from people walking their dogs, or working in their yards, or just passing by. (There seem to be as many canines as humans here, and at least one feline doesn’t seem to mind. Whirley, a dark, mottled cat, follows pedestrians up and down the streets, far away from his home on 32nd Street.)
Givens, who teaches at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, and her high-tech husband, Mike Scott, moved to Aldridge Place from the West Coast. Before they purchased their house on 32nd Street, the previous owners interviewed them carefully, and when tests were passed, gave them a party. “We realized we were not buying a house, ” Givens says. “We were buying a neighborhood.”
One reason residents might act so neighborly is the subdivision plan: All houses must face the inner streets or the park; alleys are forbidden and sidewalks are mandatory, making it a front-porch society. “We all know each other, ” Renner says, recalling regular holiday parties and a July 4 parade. “I would say (the urban plan) completely fulfills its original intentions.” The residents so treasure this life, they fought tooth and nail, as part of the larger North Campus Neighborhood Association, against the so-called “super-duplexes” and other concentrations of sometimes rowdy students who did not share their web of seemingly constant social connection. Student parking was also a sore point, until the City of Austin nixed nonresident parking during weekdays. “You couldn’t get down the street during the day, ” Moshein says. “You’d try to come home for lunch and couldn’t make it down the narrow streets for all the parked cars.”
Here, preservation is less about tax breaks and more about enduring social bonds, an argument one hears from East Austin to Old West Austin. “It was important to keep this neighborhood as it is, ” says Maxwell, who ran herd on the planning commission and Austin City Council to solve some of the destabilizing development. “This street was in decline, but it’s come back.” Gentrification and higher land prices might actually contribute to stability – at the potential price of diversity, Moshein points out – but neighborhood leaders won the battle to direct dense housing toward West Campus instead. That student-saturated neighborhood is now home to numerous midrises and ever-greater arrays of commercial life.
This leaves Aldridge Place-Hemphill Park almost completely protected. It can’t claim the same historical significance of Hyde Park, a few blocks to the north and a generation older. Yet its residents are, if anything, more intensely loyal and alert to historical distinctions (you’ll discover that if you ever mix up Hemphill Park or Aldridge Place!). “We’re not going anywhere, ” says Robert Marchant, as his children frolic on a shared swing aside his family’s humble home. “It’s paradise, ” says Scott Sloan, balancing an infant in the kitchen of his renovated bungalow. “And people are optimistic about the neighborhood. That makes it a good investment.”
As Maxwell says: “It’s a little enclave of real neighborhood experience.”
We’ve learned more about the Nueces River, Texas birding, a standout West Texas Congressman, the King Ranch and Texas swimming holes.
“The Nueces River: Rio Escondido.” Margie Crisp with artwork by William B. Montgomery. Texas A&M Press. Much admired Texas artist and naturalist Margie Crisp made quite a splash with her award-winning “River of Contrasts: The Texas Colorado,” a gorgeously written and illustrated look at the long, ever-changing waterway that runs through Austin. Now she turns her attention to the Nueces River, which she calls “Rio Escondido,” apt since this stream that falls off the southern edge of the Edwards Plateau goes underground during dry seasons until it reemerges at Choke Canyon Reservoir near Three Rivers. A team project with William B. Montgomery, this book represents an ideal marriage of words and images. One only wishes that Crisp were given several lifetimes so she could do the same for 48 more Texas rivers.
“One More Warbler: A Life with Birds” Victor Emanuel with S. Kirk Walsh. University of Texas Press. To say that Victor Emanuel is a god among naturalists is almost an understatement. The owner and operator of one of the world’s most prominent nature tour groups grew up in Houston and has lived in Austin for decades. This memoir, written in close collaboration with S. Kirk Walsh, tells not just about birding adventures, but also looks deeply into the way that habitual observation of nature changes the way we perceive the world around us. Bonus: Emanuel employs a natural literary touch, which Walsh clearly amplifies. You might have read our own profile of Emanuel. We promise a big feature interview about this book before long.
“The Swimming Holes of Texas.” Julie Wernersbach and Carolyn Tracy. University of Texas Press. Like our much more adventurous colleague, Pam LeBlanc, we love this guide book. We had to add our tributes. It’s crucial, first, because this information was previously not readily available in such a user-friendly, physical format. Arranged by region — the Austin area counts as its own region — it fully lists addresses, phone number, websites, hours, entrance fees, park rules, camping options, amenities, and swimming opportunities, along with sharp descriptions that could only be acquired through sustained personal reporting. Funny thing: Writing this capsule, my thumb led me to the entry for Choke Canyon Reservoir (see above). Oh no you don’t! Last time we were there, alligators floated just offshore. No swimming for us. Pam, don’t take that as a challenge!
“A Witness to History: George H. Mahon, West Texas Congressman.” Janet M. Neugebauer. Texas Tech University Press. We must admit up front we have not made a big dent into this biography that runs almost to 600 pages with notes and index. But what we’ve read so far has impressed us enough to place it here. Mahon, a country lawyer, went to Congress in 1935 and served on the House Committee on Appropriations almost he his entire tenure of 44 years. Along the way, he acquired enormous power, which, if this book is any evidence, he used judiciously. A specialist in defense spending, his career spanned World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, and almost the entire Cold War. We look forward to digging deeper into this crisp volume when we have more time. A lot more time.
“Bob and Helen Kleberg of King Ranch.” Helen Kleberg Groves. Trinity University Press. Not as many books have been published about the King Ranch as have been about Texas football, rangers, tacos or politics. But it sometimes seems that the vast, daunting South Texas empire of cattle and thorn brush holds writers in an unbreakable spell. This time, the motivation is personal, since this volume was written by Helen King Kleberg Alexander-Groves. It constitutes the memoirs of the only child of the celebrated Bob and Helen Kleberg. At first, it feels like a picture book with historical and contemporary photographs that take you directly into the world of ranching past and present. Yet don’t overlook the words, because Bill Benson has helped Groves thoroughly research and confirm the history, genealogy and other aspects of this quintessentially Texas family tale.
On Monday, June 19, folks will gather at Élan South Park Meadows to toast Reuel John Perdue Cron, who turns 100.
“Reuel says he enjoys meeting new people,” says Ann Kolacki, community relations counselor at the assisted living home, “because most people never get to meet someone 100 years old.”
Cron lived in Austin from 1965-1971 and again 2001-present. Most of the rest of his life was spent in New Orleans. He served in the Army as a Master Sargeant in the Pacific Theater during World War II and is retired from the Internal Revenue Service. He also worked for the Jefferson Parish Water Board in New Orleans.
“He is very much into exercise and physical fitness,” Kolacki says, “and his favorite song is Willie Nelson‘s “ON the Road Again.”
The secret to his longevity: “Education, observation and moderation!”
Chamber music demands it. You will be rewarded beyond measure.
I’ve been away from live chamber music for a while. I’m back. Never going away again.
The Blue Bash, which benefits the estimable Austin Chamber Music Center,took place this year at the Rennaisance Austin Hotel. Not in the ballroom, but rather the smaller space with a forest view and high, arched ceilings. A little tinny for chat over dinner, but well suited for quiet music.
About 150 enraptured guests gathered to hear Michelle Schumann, the center’s artistic director and an immaculate pianist, play the arboreal “Walderauschen” by Franz Liszt. She was joined by gifted clarinetist Håkan Rosengren for a dynamic “Fantasiestucke” by Robert Schumann.
After Robert Duke, the brainy University of Texas music professor from “Two Guys on Your Head” NPR radio show, spoke about the real merits of music eduction — hint: it doesn’t improve your academics as is so often claimed — Schumann and Rosengren were joined by a young clarinetist, Julius Calvert, whom the center has groomed and is headed to Indiana University. They played the frolicking Concert Piece No. 1 for Two Clarinets by Felix Mendelssohn.
It could not have been more gratifying.
I was surprised that more was not said from the stage about the upcoming Austin Chamber Music Festival, but I suppose everybody in the room already knows about it and plans to attend.
In that case, I thank the center folks for not overselling it. How many hours have been chewed up at Austin benefits explaining again and again what a nonprofit does to people mostly already in the know.
“The 20th Annual Heart Ball of Austin was held Saturday, May 13th, at the JW Marriot in downtown. The event, presented by St. David’s HealthCare in support of the American Heart Association, broke records in attendance and fundraising. The success was thanks in part to headlining entertainment from Wynonna & The Big Noise, featuring legendary country musician Wynonna Judd. With more than 700 in attendance, the gala raised a whopping $1.09 million (gross) for cardiovascular and stroke research and outreach programs, and kept crowds dancing late into the night.”
From Julie Burch:
“Mental Health America of Texas commemorated the beginning of Mental Health Month with the 54th Annual Honoring Dinner: An Evening of Hope to recognize the significant contributions of Rep. Four Price (R-Amarillo) and Sharon Butterworth of El Paso, to mental health in Texas. MHA Texas’ highest honor, the Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth Butt Award for Mental Health, was presented to Rep. Price in recognition of his leadership in improving the lives of Texans affected by mental illness. Butterworth was recognized for her dedication and commitment to improving the mental health of El Pasoans with the Texas Impact Award. Nearly 300 guests joined the event, on Friday, May 5, 2017, at the Hyatt Regency Austin to celebrate the honorees.”
From Brenda Thompson:
“Emancipet’s 18th anniversary luncheon May 15 raised a record-breaking $447,000 for pets and the people who love them, thanks in part to Emancipet board member Angela Dorsey and her husband, Jason Rhode, who pledged to match donations up to $100,000. As a nonprofit organization, Emancipet relies on private funding to provide safe, affordable spay and neuter surgeries and prevent unwanted litters. Emancipet also provides lifesaving heartworm prevention at a price our clients can afford affordable microchipping, and tens of thousands of pets every year. The luncheon chair was Bonnie K. Mills and the her committee members were Shavonne Henderson, Kathy Katz, Tonia Lucio, and Kelly Topfer. KXAN’s meteorologist and animal lover Jim Spencer was the master of ceremonies for the event.”
We’ve been been away for a while, but our social spies have passed on some delicious updates from the past few weeks, edited for these pages. More contributed reports to come Tuesday and Wednesday.
From Darlene Fiske:
“The 19th annual Umlauf Garden Party welcomed 800+ guests for an evening “Under a Texas Sky.” Twenty-five restaurants served delicious bites while Twin Liquors showcased some of the season’s best bubbles and wines. The museum raised more than $300,000 in its biggest fundraiser of the year, under the direction of Nina Seely, executive director and Allyson Maxey, the 2017 Garden Party chair. All monies raised contribute to cultivating art, culture and community through educational programming and stimulating exhibitions at the Umlauf.”
From Andrea Perry:
“The Neill-Cochran House Museum hosted a benefit cocktail reception to honor Austin builder, contractor, and historic preservationist Joe Pinnelli with the Abner Cook Award. The event was held in the Centennial Garden. A capacity crowd celebrated Joe’s long career in historic preservation as well as his careful recent restoration of the Neill-Cochran House. Supporters enjoyed hors d’oeuvres from Word of Mouth Bakery, cocktails and wine while a jazz band played against the backdrop of the historic house. This year’s event, co-chaired by Liz Maxfield and Caroline Caven, raised over $40,000 in support of operations, programming, and preservation at the historic site, owned and operated by the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in Texas.”
From Amy Spiro:
“The Capital Area Dental Foundation celebrated its 10-year anniversary at its annual gala held at the JW Marriott Hotel in downtown Austin. The event was attended by more than 500 guests and raised more than $175,000 for charitable dentistry. One of the highlights of the evening was when the foundation honored Deloris Fields, a patient who was connected to CADF through the American-Statesman’s Season for Caring program. Deloris, who is undergoing treatment for Stage 4 breast cancer, received extensive dental care at no charge by volunteer and Access to Care chairman, Dr. Kent Macaulay. Comedian Pat Hazell served as the emcee for the gala, which included a seated dinner, casino games and a special musical performance by the Rockets Brothers Band.“