Pay Dirt

April 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

“Rare earths” are vital components in the production of a range of high technology equipment. The elements are integral to modern life, and are used in everything from disc drives, hybrid cars, smartphones, catalytic converters, and sunglasses to lasers and aircraft used by the military.

Japan is celebrating the recent find of an “astronomically” high level of rare earth deposits at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, a discovery which will further undermine China’s failing attempts to control the global supply of the substances, Phil Muncaster wrote on March 25 in The Register’s (register.co.uk) science section.

China claims it holds less than a third of global rare earth reserves despite providing more than 90 per cent of the world’s supply.

Rare earth elements or rare earth metals, according to Wikipedia, are a set of seventeen chemical elements in the periodic table, specifically the fifteen lanthanides plus scandium and yttrium. Scandium and yttrium are considered rare earth elements since they tend to occur in the same ore deposits as the lanthanides and exhibit similar chemical properties.

Despite their name, rare earth elements (with the exception of the radioactive promethium) are relatively plentiful in the Earth’s crust, with cerium being the 25th most abundant element at 68 parts per million (similar to copper). However, because of their geochemical properties, rare earth elements are typically dispersed and not often found concentrated as rare earth minerals in economically exploitable ore deposits. It was the very scarcity of these minerals (previously called “earths”) that led to the term “rare earth”. The first such mineral discovered was gadolinite, a compound of cerium, yttrium, iron, silicon and other elements. This mineral was extracted from a mine in the village of Ytterby in Sweden; several of the rare earth elements bear names derived from this location.

All of which reminds me of Texas’ only rare earth deposits, those of Barringer Hill, now far below Lake Buchanan (the first of the Colorado River’s Highland Lakes chain), near the dam itself. Only a small mound of rock and dirt 34 feet taller than the surrounding country, Barringer Hill was not even remotely interesting in appearance, but in the words of the U.S. Geological Survey, “Few if any deposits in the world, and certainly no others in America, outside of the localities where monazite is found, have yielded such quantities of rare earth metals as that at Barringer Hill.”

The Japanese deposits, Muncaster’s article continues, were found around 5.8 km under the ocean surface near Minami Torishima island southeast of Tokyo.

“We detected an astronomically high level of rare earth minerals in the mud we sampled,” Tokyo University boffin Yasuhiro Kato told Reuters.

“When researchers brought back the data to me, I thought they must have made a mistake, the levels were so high. The fact is this discovery could help supply Japan with 60 per cent of its annual needs merely with the contents of a single vessel.”

The find follows a much larger discovery by Japanese marine researchers in the Pacific two years ago and if the rare earths can be extracted cheaply enough, it could crucially give Tokyo the tactical upper hand over China in the on-going cat-and-mouse game between the two over supplies.

Beijing halted exports to Japan in September 2010 after a maritime dispute and has actively restricted exports to all countries since in a bid to drive up prices and force manufacturing investment onto its shores.

However, despite being investigated by the WTO for such policies, China has suffered in recent months as a slowdown in global demand combined with other countries re-starting their own mining operations, has sent prices tumbling.

In October last year, its largest mining company for light rare earths, Inner Mongolia Baotou Steel Rare Earth Hi-Tech Company, was forced to suspend operations for a month to let demand pick up. Japan takes more than half of China’s supply but is thought to have imported just 10,000 tons in 2012 – its lowest volume in a decade.

While the recent undersea discovery will be well-received in Tokyo, it’s unlikely to have any big repercussions in the near term, short of forcing China to keep its prices low.

The U.S. Geological Survey has looked at all known national reserves of the elements as part of a larger assessment of the threat posed to defense by limited rare earth supplies.

It found that the domestic pipeline is “rather thin.” The U.S. boasts the third largest reserves (13 million tons) in the world after China and the nations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. But the only rare earths mines the US has ever operated, are currently inactive, with the exception of the mine at Mountain Pass, California, discovered in 1949. Once the largest and most profitable rare-earth mine in the world, rare-earth mining began there in the early 1950s, and by the mid-1980s the mine supplied 60 percent of global demand and 100 percent of U.S. needs. But as Chinese production increased, operations at Mountain Pass dwindled, until 2012, when production ramped up dramatically in the face of Chinese attempts to manipulate the world market to its advantage.

Now, back to Barringer Hill. Barringer Hill was named for John Barringer, a carpenter who acquired the land in 1886 when its owner was unable to pay Barringer $50 for a house he had built for the man. At that time, the Llano area was gripped with dreams of mineral wealth, especially iron. A few months later, Barringer, while out prospecting his newly acquired land, stumbled upon an outcropping of heavy, greenish-black ore. No one in the neighborhood knew what the mineral was and later that year, Professor N.J. Badu of Llano sent ore samples to Philadelphia and New York. Meanwhile Mr. Barringer had taken out a quantity of gadolinite estimated at 800 to 1,200 pounds, which was largely picked up and carried off by persons in the neighborhood as curiosities. Some of the choicer pieces, showing crystal form, found their way into various museums. Specimens were sent to a number of places before it was finally identified.

The samples were found to be composed primarily of a radioactive yttria mineral, known as gadolinite, that had previously only been found in small amounts in Russia and Norway. Yttria minerals were extremely valuable. In 1887, pure yttrium brought $144 an ounce, at a time when pure gold brought only $19 an ounce on the London exchange. The minerals from this deposit were so valuable that they were wrapped in tissue paper, packed in iron-bound boxes, and shipped by Wells Fargo express at 100 pounds a box. At best, obtaining each pound of ore cost $10.00.

The discovery of gadolinite at Barringer Hill attracted the interest of Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. William E. Hidden, a Newark, New Jersey, mineralogist with connections to both companies read a newspaper account about the discovery and obtained a piece. At that time, Edison and Westinghouse were looking for gadolinite to use in the creation of a filament for electric light bulbs but had found no accessible sources of the mineral. Hidden sent Dr. William Niven, a Scottish born Texan, to investigate Barringer Hill in 1889. Niven identified forty-seven minerals there, including five previously unknown rare earth elements.

Edison experimented with all 47 Barringer Hill minerals, but by 1903, the company could find no use for any of them. Meanwhile, German chemist Hermann Nernst, working for Westinghouse, had developed a street lamp that used raw gadolinite as a filament. Nernst had patented the lamp that bore his name in 1897, but his original design for the lamp was commercially useless, because the lamp had a life of only two hours. Another Westinghouse engineer, Marshall Hank, was able to increase this number to 700 hours. The improved lamp’s design featured a filament consisting of 25 percent yttria and 75 percent zirconia. These ingredients were made into a paste, squirted into strips, baked, and then cut into the proper lengths. When the mixture was cold, it was nonconductive, but after being heated, it became a conductor that gave off a brilliant light with wavelengths penetrating deep into the infrared.

With its technical problems solved, the Nernst Lamp Company decided to put the lamp into production and bought Barringer Hill through William E. Hidden.

George Westinghouse had developed and introduced the Nernst lamp to the commercial market in the United States, organizing the Nernst Lamp Company in 1901. Production took place in Pittsburg in a five-story factory building with a total floor area of 101,000 square feet. By 1904 a total of over 130,000 Nernst glowers had been placed in service throughout the country.

During the winter of 1902-03, the Nernst Lamp Company sent Hidden to begin excavation. In 1903, Marshall Hanks, the engineer who had improved the Nernst Lamp, arrived to run the mining operation.

A little gadolinite went a very long way in those days, and only sporadic mining was necessary. When large-scale mining began, it lasted only a year. The incandescent light bulb had been invented, and the need for gadolinite was fading, in the face of the much cheaper wire filament that would soon become the essential element in light bulbs for the next century. The Barringer Hill mine ceased large-scale operations in 1904. Only sporadic mining was done at Barringer Hill thereafter and it was one of the first areas to be covered by Lake Buchanan.

The demand for rare earth minerals lay rather fallow from that point until the 1950s and the opening of the Mountain Pass mine, when their current modern usages began.

The story of Barringer Hill is told at length in Hill Country, in the chapter, “Hermit of the Hills/The Highland Lakes.”

 

San Marcos Update for Hill Country book, February 26, 2013

February 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

Back in December 2011, I wrote the following:

“A thoroughly wretched drive to San Marcos today for a doctor’s appointment, but it gave me a chance to check on the progress of the old Hays County jail restoration (page 260). The outer walls’ stabilization appears largely completed and the old bastille looks nice and tight, not fixing to crumble and fall like before. The windows are all boarded up with what appears to be gun metal gray steel plates, but which are probably plywood. The jail is fenced off so closer examination was not possible. The lot on which it sits has also been cleaned up and is free of weeds.

“Unfortunately, there has been no progress on the future Eddie Durham Museum (pp. 260-61), and the sign proudly announcing its coming is fading into illegibility.”

I am happy to say that the jail stabilization work has been completed and it looks tight as a drum. Hopefully its interior will be restored and it will be open to visitors some day.

Restoration work has finally begun on the Eddie Durham Museum bungalow, and there has been substantial exterior progress.

I would have taken pictures, but my daughter absconded with the digicam last week to Mexico.

The Year of Turning 60

February 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

Last night was one of my favorite nights of the year, Gerald “Captain Daytripper” McLeod’s annual birthday party at the Roger’s Ranch 9-Pin Bowling Club out in the middle of nowhere, a few miles north of Lockhart and a few hundred yards east of FM 2001, AKA “The Farm Road Odyssey.”

setting pinsthe scoreboard

Nine-pin bowling (as opposed to 10-pin) is an old German game that once flourished ithroughout the Hill Country between Austin and San Antonio and still hangs on in hamlets like Fischer (See the “Riding the Fault” chapter in Central Texas. Instead of keeping individual scores you keep team scores. Whenever the pin with the red top or “the Kaiser” is the last pin standing, then the team scores extra points.


And like the good old days, there is no automated pin-setting machinery; “pin monkeys” worked as pinsetters during the night. My son, Andrew, used to love pin monkeying as a kiddo, but last night he graduated to team captain. We now have a new generation of eager pin monkeys to set up the pins and roll the balls back.

pin monkeysplease patronize our sponsorsclub history

As usual, there was way too much food and some interesting wines from Central Texas and the Hill Country to try. I wish I could say they were good; we’ll just leave it at “interesting.” Area wineries keep popping out like zits on a libidinous teenager, such as Three Dudes in San Marcos. Their “Texas White” was slightly on the sweet side, with no depth, reminiscent of Ste. Genevieve Texas White, an uninspired but inoffensive blend of grapes.
4 lanes of funball polisher

Much more interesting was the Blackberry Mead from Rohan Meadery in La Grange. According to Tom, a beekeeper of many years and something of an expert on mead, which is based, obviously, on honey, this was no mead. It was a decent blackberry wine, suitable for dessert, if you’re into sweet wines. There were other, weirder, fruit essence infused concoctions from Helotes, but since Helotes is off my beaten path, my poor tastebuds were spared.

Thusly full of Dutch courage, I hit the lanes with some success and our team won our game – although after 20 years I still don’t understand the scoring of this game.

 

So, happy 60th, Cap’n; I’m three short months behind you. And be sure to read the adventures of Captain Daytripper in the Austin Chronicle every week.

A Swingin’ Christmas Party: Texas Style

December 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

There’s something about the Christmas season that brings out the best – and worst – in mankind. Yesterday we celebrated Christmas Eve by recounting the great Austin bloodbath of 1885.

Today we observe the 1883 Christmas Eve “necktie party,” in nearby McDade, that refused to end. (Disclaimer: This is not the whole, true story, just what appeared in the newspapers of the time. Get the whole story by reading the “Wild West” Chapter of Central Texas.)

A BLOODY TIME. 

JUDGE LYNCH HOLDS A MATINEE AT MCDADE.

Three Men Swung Up and a Couple Shot Dead.

SEVERAL OTHERS WOUNDED AND THE END IS NOT YET.

Governor Ireland Hurrying Troops to the Scene and More Bloodshed Is Anticipated.

Special Telegram to the Post.

McDade, Tex., December 25 – Last night about 7:30 o’clock, Henry Pfeiffer, Wright McLemore and Thad McLemore were taken out of the saloon here by masked men and carried about a mile in the brush and hanged to a tree. Thad McLemore had been arrested late in the evening on a charge of burglary made by S.G. Walker, of McDade. He was under arrest at the time the masked men took him, while the other two parties happened to be present. Pfeiffer was charged with horse theft in this county. The party that did the hanging was about forty or fifty men, well armed. To-day a party of six men, friends and relatives of the men hanged, came in town and raised trouble with Tom Bishop and George Milton.

A Fight With Guns and Pistols

took place, in which Jack Bailey and Az Bailey were killed, and Hayward Bailey badly wounded, but who escaped. Willie Griffin, a very estimable young man of our town, was shot through the head and mortally wounded by Hayward Bailey, while assisting Milton and Bishop in defending themselves. The five dead bodies of the McLemores, Baileys and Pfeiffer are lying in the market-house, none of their friends having come for them, and it is thought the town will have serious trouble to-night when they do come. It will be several days before the jury of inquest will get through. No further particulars at this time.

————

The Brenham Grays

Special Telegram to the Post.

Brenham, Tex., December 25 – There is considerable excitement here to-night over a telegram from Governor Ireland, ordering the Brenham Grays to report to McDade, in full uniform and equipment, with ammunition, at once. They will leave here in full force on the 11 o’clock evening train. It is reported here by the Giddings operator that three men were hung there last evening by Judge Lynch, and that friends of the victims came to revenge their hanging, and two more were killed dead and one mortally wounded.

Off for the Scene.

Special Telegram to the Post.

Hempstead, Tex., December 25 – The Johnston Guards, commanded by Captain B. E. Bedell, under Colonel A. T. Bedell, of the First Regiment Texas Volunteer Guards, left on the 9 o’clock train for McDade, under order from Governor Ireland, Commander. The Captain and fifteen men go.

DECEMBER 27, 1883

THE MCDADE TROUBLES.

ADDITIONAL DETAILS ABOUT THE BLOODY AFFRAY ON CHRISTMAS.

The Beatty Brothers Seek A Difficulty And Find It — A Furious Fusillade of One Hundred Shots.

Special Telegram to the Post.

McDade, Tex., December 26 – The examining trial of George Milton and Thomas Bishop, for the killing of Az Beatty and Jack Beatty on yesterday, is now progressing, the state being represented by the County Attorney and the defendants by Major Sayers.

THE FACTS ARE AS FOLLOWS:

Az Beatty, Jack Beatty, Charlie Goodman, Burt Hasley and Robert Stevens came into McDade yesterday morning. Az and Jack Beatty went to Milton’s store. Milton being engaged at his desk writing, and Bishop sitting in a chair on the gallery. Milton’s desk is at the rear end of the store. Jack Beatty went up to Milton and began a conversation in reference to what had been rumored as to his brother’s connection with the murder of Deputy Sheriff Heffington three weeks ago, in McDade. It appears that Az Beatty, who was not on good terms with Bishop, made the attack on him and succeeded in forcing Bishop off the gallery, Bishop falling upon the ground, and Beatty on top, both grasping a pistol.

IN THE SCUFFLE,

Beatty on top and Bishop under, the pistol was fired and Az Beatty fell back dead. In the meantime Jack Beatty, hearing the report of the pistol, rushed to the front door with knife in hand, Milton following him. Just then Hayward Beatty ran up and fired upon Bishop, the latter returning the fire with effect. Just at this moment, William Griffin, a kinsman of Bishop, came running up to the assistance of Bishop, when he (Griffin) was dangerously wounded in the head and will probably die to-night. When Milton reached the front he began firing, and

JACK BEATTY WAS KILLED.

It is said that it will be proved that Goodman Hasley and Stevens were shooting at Milton and Bishop from a distance. In all there were from sixty to one hundred shots fired. When the firing ceased it was found that Az Beatty and Jack Beatty were dead, Griffin mortally wounded, Hayward Beatty badly wounded, Stevens and Goodman slightly wounded. Hasley escaped but is supposed to be also wounded. The escape of Bishop from being killed may be considered almost

A MIRACLE.

The Beattys are brothers and Hasley and Stevens are connected with them by marriage. Public sympathy seems to be altogether with Bishop and Milton. Detachments from the Johnston Guards, Hempstead, and Brenham Grays, Brenham, came up this morning and returned the same morning as their services were not needed. County Attorney Maynard and Sheriff Jenkins are here.

DECEMBER 29, 1883

The McDade Rioters

McDade, Tex., December 28 – George Milton and Tom Bishop were placed under a bond of $1500 for the killing of the Beattys. Willie Griffin died this morning at 4 o’clock. Hayward Beatty, Robert Stevens and Charlie Goodman were arrested by Sheriff Jenkins and are in jail at Bastrop. The two former are wounded. The jury of inquest found that Willie Griffin came to his death by a pistol shot fired by Hayward Beatty.

The dam to our tank was cut to-day by our citizens to search for the dead body of a man supposed to be concealed there. The search has not been completed yet. The cause for this was that about six weeks ago a horse bridled and saddled were left hitched to a tree here and no one has ever come to claim him. On that night gambling was known to be going on here, and late the same night pistol shots were heard in town and it was thought the owner of the horse might be in the tank.

Fifty years later, dispute over the hangings and gun battle still simmered, and Jeptha Billingsley felt compelled to tell his version of the tragedy in an article titled “McDade Lynchings Fifty Years Ago Remembered,” published in the Elgin Courier, May 21, 1936.

There were a good many folks in town that Christmas Eve, doing their last minute trading, drinking, etc. As I was going home that night, a little past sundown, two men invited me to go with them to the Christmas Tree at Oak Hill [a nearby community located where Camp Swift is now], but I declined, saying I would have my Christmas at home. The men evidently didn’t get off as early as they planned because one of these men was among those hanged that night. Next day when I got to town I was told that a “Committee” of some 80 men or more had gone to Oscar Nash’s Saloon and had called out the three men they wanted. … victims and had trooped out of town with them to about a mile away; they stopped near a branch under a big tree — I believe it was a blackjack — and in a short time the lives of these three marked men were snuffed out. It was not until this Christmas Eve hanging that the Vigilance Committee finally “got” one of the men who had participated in the attack on Allen Wynn.

McDade, on that Christmas morning, presented a group of people with set faces. The action of the committee on the previous night began to be broadcast, and those who would dare arrived and came in to get particulars. The bodies were still hanging from the tree where they had been strung — waiting for the Sheriff from Bastrop to come and handle the matter. About the middle of the morning, Deputy Sheriff Sid Jenkins, Will Bell, and H. N. Bell arrived, and a large crowd of us went along to witness the proceedings, Sheriff Bill Jenkins arrived later in the day. I was in the crowd and helped cut the ropes the men were hung by — I knew all three of these men pretty well and the sight of them with their twisted faces and the nooses hanging at different angles about the victims’ necks was about the most gruesome thing I have ever witnessed — I don’t ever want to see anything like that again.

What Jeptha Billingsley neglected to say is that he was obligated to cut the ropes because he was friends of the people that were hanged and they wanted to teach him a lesson. Mr. Howery and Preacher Fleming also had to help or get shot. Preacher Frank Fleming, being a Baptist minister, was in between the two sides.

Deputy Sheriff Sid Jenkins and Will Bell returned to McDade to get a wagon to take the bodies of the hung men, while constable Scruggs, Deputy Sheriff H. N. Bell and Joe Simms stayed with the dead bodies. The wagon to carry the dead bodies arrived in about one hour. The wagon belonged to Jack Nash and was driven by Pat Murphy. At the arrival of the wagon, Pat Murphy viewed the bodies, exclaimed, “Bejesus, if Thad had been one foot higher, he would have been a living man yet.” The hands of the men hung were tied behind them, and a loop had been slipped around their necks — they were strangled to death.

Before these bodies were brought to town, however, three brothers belonging to the notch cutters gang arrived from their home in the country and went to Milton’s store. Tom Bishop sat on a bench outside on the store gallery, and one of the boys stopped to talk to him; the other two went inside where Milton was. The one outside said, “Some folks in this town are accusing some folks of things they didn’t do,” and kinda stepped closer to Bishop; the latter whipped out his gun, but the young man grabbed for it, and in the scuffle, the gun went off and struck him in the thigh of the leg. He ran; but in the meantime Milton had ordered the other two brothers out of the store because of remarks they made, and almost at the same time, the shot was heard outside. The boys rushed out to assist their brother, and Milton grabbed his ever-ready gun behind the door. Immediately, the bullets began to whiz, and shots were fired right and left. Two of the brothers were killed — one had his head shot off –and the third, though wounded, made his escape but was later captured and was taken into custody and was placed in the county jail by Sheriff Jenkins when he returned to Bastrop that day.

A third man was shot and killed that day. His name was Griffin and he was a brother of Mrs. Black, who lived in McDade. When he heard the shots fired that morning, he ran out of Milton’s saloon, and endeavoring to separate the combatants in the melee he was shot. He was immediately rushed to the home of Mrs. Black. His brother, upon hearing of the young man’s death, came to town and brandished a pistol in the air, declaring he was going to kill everybody in sight for the foul murder of his brother, but somehow friends subdued him and no further killings took place at that time.

The shooting of these two gangmen took place right there by Milton’s store, and after the smoke cleared the bodies were picked up and placed in one of the stores where they lay for some little time awaiting the arrival of relatives to claim their bodies. The bodies of the three hanged men were also later brought into town, and if I recollect correctly they were brought to the same store where the other two bodies were. I don’t recall that they stayed there any length of time; but certainly they and none of the five dead men were “lying on the depot platform.” The curious of course — and most of us are, stood around and viewed the bodies and talked over the previous night’s and the morning’s happenings. Nobody was anxious to have more killings, innocent or otherwise, in the little town when the friends of the deceased would come for their dead ones, so the bodies, all five of them, were moved some distance away from the stores, and there they remained until the relatives came to take away the remains. I happened to be present when the wife of one of the brothers arrived. They lived quite a piece out in the country, and it was some little time before she came. She knelt down sobbing beside the dead form of her husband and prayed one of the most beautiful prayers I have ever heard.

For some days thereafter the residents of McDade lived in a tension. Parents would not let their children out of their sight, and some folks deliberately left town, to be gone until matters had been cleared up. Louis Bassist, who lived in Elgin, was one of the latter. He had been in this country only three months, and the gruesome tales and things he heard tell of, and the constant sight of quickly whipped out guns and pistols filled him with a feeling that is indescribable. Such wild and “uncivilized” life was so new and strange to him after being accustomed to the strict military conduct of the citizens in the city he had lived in while in Germany, that he was at a loss as to what to do about it all. At any rate, he took the first train out of McDade that Christmas Day, and went to Elgin where he stayed a week before venturing back to resume his work in the P. Bassist Store.

People who were at all subject to superstition were sure a curse was on the town and its inhabitants, and that the ghosts of the dead men would be certain to put in their appearance. That night a lady living near the house in which the five dead bodies lay, became very sick, and her husband called to Sam Billingsley, who lived nearby and asked him to fetch the doctor — folks had no telephones there at that time. Sam lived until recently in McDade, and was always a man who was willing to aid a friend or a neighbor; so with some trepidation he agreed to go. It was necessary to pass the “death house” on that cold bitter night, and Sam’s heart involuntarily beat violently. Instinctively, he looked toward the house, and what should he see but a waith-like form enveloping the full height and width of the open doorway.

Needless to say, Sam’s footsteps quickened and later when returning with the doctor, he kept as far away from that building as he could. He wasn’t sure whether or not he had seen a departed spirit of any of the five desperados or the one innocent victim of the previous night-and-day’s melange. Next day however, the ghost visit was explained. A huge dog with broad white chin and breast was observed in town, and he was recognized as the animal belonging to one of the slain brothers. It was this dog who was keeping vigil the night before beside his dead master’s body.

The “necking party” quieted things down around McDade for several years and people could carry on business without fear of hold-ups. 

Well, I’ll be a Crawdaddy’s Uncle!

May 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

The first 2/3rds of this weekend was spent at Fredericksburg doing some day-job outreach work at the Jaycee’s annual Crawfish Fest at the Marktplatz. Now, anyone who has been to Fredericksburg knows that mudbugs and Zydeco music are things not normally associated with the Deutscher-Tex ambiance (or should we say “pretense”) of this still-charming town. The closest thing to crawfish that the early German settlers ate were orach mussels from the Llano River, and that because they were starving to death and cannibalism was not a viable option. The food had its ups and occasional downs. The home fried potato chips were worth coronary bypass surgery, and the shrimp and oyster po’boys and such were enjoyable enough. The ‘bugs were beer-relief spicy, although I have sucked juicier heads. The one clinker was a cup of etouffe that had never been within a mile of a proper roux. But enough of relatively minor quibbles. Overall, the grub was worth the reasonable (for festival food) prices. But the big value was beer. Where else can you get $3 Modelo Especials? Shiner Bock was $4 a can. But to my mind, the music was the spiciest dish of all: a baker’s half-dozen of imported Louisiana bands, plus Billy Mata and the Texas Tradition for the western swing crowd and Little Texas for the little folks. As a western swing fan, I cannot say enough about Billy Mata and the Texas Tradition. Billy can sing like Johnny Bush and Tommy Duncan reincarnated and the band swings as well as the Playboys ever did. Just google Billy Mata to find out more. There wasn’t a clinker of a note the whole set. Out Zydeco way, Mary Broussard and Creole La La, and T-Broussard and the Zydeco Steppers almost made me feel like I was back at Soap Creek Saloon and Antone’s sweating it out with Clifton and Cleveland, Buckwheat, Good Rocking Dopsie, et al.

Being stranded at the La Quinta on the Johnson City side of town, way out Fort Martin Scott way, we availed ourselves of all, at one time or another, of F’burg’s several reasonably priced taxi services. It is a small price to pay to avoid a tete-a-tete with one of F’burg’s finest. And if they don’t catch you from one of their Crown Vics, there is a fleet of nimble bicycle cops to attend to your indiscretions. So have your son-of-a-gun fun, and take the Stagecoach home (the name of one of the taxi services).

I started Saturday morning off with a bicycle ride out to Cain City and the beginning of “The Divide,” between the Pedernales and Guadalupe River watersheds. I did not have the time or legs to make it all the way out to the old tunnel/bat roost. I took Old San Antonio Road, whose roadsides were still awash with wildflowers, all the usual suspects for this time of year, plus some hold-over paintbrushes. Most of the original 1920s-era bridges and river crossings are still in service, except for the low water crossing at Barons creek, which is in the process of being replaced. perhaps they will leave the old one in place, if not in use.

I had my tastebuds set for BBQ from Cranky Frank’s for Saturday lunch, but found out from one of F’burg’s finest (firefighters, that is), that Frank’s cookhouse had suffered a structure fire just a few hours earlier; but they will be up and cranking out good ‘que again in the not too distant future.

I assuaged my thirst for smoky goodness at David’s Old Fashioned BBQ (nee the Peach Pit), 342 W. Main, open daily. My fire service colleague recommended it as an acceptable alternative to Frank’s. Except he referred to it as the peach Pit, which it ceased being over a year ago. Which brings me to another point. And the reason why I don’t make many specific shopping and dining recommendations in Hill Country about Fredericksburg. Places go out of business (or if they’re lucky enough to stay in business) or they move about as often as some people change their underwear.

Back to David’s. The name has changed, but the food hasn’t.  I splurged for a 3-meat plate of brisket, ribs, and po-ro (pork roast for those of you who don’t know me and my penchant for trivializing the English language). The brisket was good and fork tender, but had been off the pit too long, so it tasted like good roast beef. The pork roast had fared better, given its more generous fat content, and the ribs best of all (Fat, especially pig fat, is the prime smoky taste retainer). The mayonnaise-based potato salad was enjoyable, but the pintos need salt, pepper and pico de gallo to bring them up to snuff. The sauce, being sweet and thick, stayed in its crock. I opted for some Tabasco-type picante sauce I have never heard of and hope never to encounter again. Two spoiled bites of meat were enough to teach me my lesson. There were no crackers, and  passed on the bread, as I always do. To their credit, David’s uses Dutchman’s Market Sausage, which I prefer to the finely ground (almost hot dog consistency) Opa’s filling.

There I learned of Lobo Beer, F’burg’s newest brew, and available by the seis at local stores. Brewed by Pedernales Brewing, there are currently two flavors: a Lager and Negra. We chose Lager, which was hoppy pert near to an IPA. Very enjoyable on a hot Hill Country afternoon.

Now, normally, my idea of dessert is an extra pork rib or slice of brisket, but when I stopped to chat with Charley and Betty Wanner, I looked with unabashed lust upon their plate of David’s in-house peach cobbler. Charley does interesting things with antlers, horns and flint, including bottle stoppers that are available at Fredericksburg Winery at 247 W. Main. He speaks German, so if you sprechen ze deutsch, Charley (617 W. San Antonio, 830-997-4007) will be glad to accommodate you in some lively conversation.

Charley filled me in on the latest peach news. A rain storm several weeks ago, produced hail in some places that totally destroyed some orchards’ production, while blessing most of the rest with the rain necessary to plump out this year’s crop to perfection. The season is about two weeks earlier than normal this year, which means the semi-freestones are already in plentiful supply with the freestones close behind. We chose to stop at Berg’s Corner at Stonewall, our favorite, faithful old standby. Even if no one else has peaches, Berg’s will always have some, even if they are at platinum prices. I came home a hero, with 1/8 bushel.

Bottom line: There are far worse ways to spend the Memorial Day weekend than at the Crawfish Fest, and not too many better, if the Hill Country on Memorial Day weekend is your cup of meat, or gumbo.

My thanks to the Fredericksburg and San Marcos Fire Departments, the Jaycees, and Jeremy and his better half (Y’all know who you are) for making our work and weekend fun as pleasant as possible.  You keep the “Willkommen” in the Fredericksburg lingua franca.

In a (Central Texas) Stew

May 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

The weekend of April 21-22 was spent roaming around part of the territory covered in the Central Texas Stew chapter of Central Texas. Starting in Smithville, not much of note has changed, except that Charlie’s BBQ (RIP) is now the Playhouse Smithville Theater (110 Main), but the 1905 pit out back is still there and looking in reasonably good shape for its age. Huebel’s Beer Garden is still alive and shit-kicking, one of the last of the old beer bars still extant, besides Riley’s in Hunter, Cistern Country Store and Pavla’s in Moulton.

Which is not to say that booze is not live and well. The decline of my beloved beer joints has been paralleled by the rise of home-produced wines, beers and white lightning. We politely call the latter “vodka” nowadays. This phenomenon began is Austin with Tito’s, spread west to Dripping Springs and the eponymously named distillate (now orange-flavored) and has now flowed east to Smithville, where triple-filtered “Smith’s” is produced, from locally sourced grains. They point out at their website , www.smithsvodka.com, that they produce beverage-grade enthanol, as opposed to the commercial-grade ethanol used by mass producers. It is newly available in Austin, Bastrop and elsewhere at Spec’s and Twin Liquors. Several flavors of “white lightning” (their name), and other liquors All of this is not “busthead,” “bug juice” or “pop skull” stuff; at $18 or so a bottle, it could not afford to be. As happened too often during Prohibition, you will not die or get the jake leg from these clear successes. Enjoy them on the rocks, perhaps with a splash of lime and club soda. You don’t want to detract from the smooth flavor; something that many vodkas lack.

Quite a few of exterior walls of downtown Smithville’s commercial buildings are now marked by fading, faux-old, painted advertising, courtesy of the movies that have been filmed here. The south side of the Old Masonic Lodge (301 Main at Loop 230), a three-story red-brick building built in 1902, still bears fading, painted advertising that dates back to well before World War II. Downtown is increasingly given over to junque-teek shops and such. Not much has changed at the railroad museum/visitor center. You can keep up with the latest additions and developments at www.smithvillerailroadpark.org. While the LCRA’s coal-car maintenance shop means that railroading still contributes to the local economy, the lusciously gingerbreaded, two-story Victorian-era Missouri-Kansas-Texas (Katy) passenger depot is long gone, as are the old roundtable and maintenance shops.

Down in Cistern, the store enjoys a healthy weekend patronage and V&V is still churning out sausage, albeit of an inferior variety.

Changes are afoot in Flatonia. Train enthusiasts are still mourning the loss of the old SAAP freight depot, which had been moved to the railroad park a couple of years ago from its previous location on Hwy 95 just north of the Arnim Museum. A peek through the increasingly dusty windows of the old Arnim and Lane Store revealed pretty much all of the stock still on the shelves and in the display cases, but covered over with clear plastic sheeting and not an active element of the Arnim museum across the street. Across the tracks on S. Main, the old City Market, which had transitioned into a café by the same name several years ago, is now “The Red Velvet.” The Lyric Theater is showing movies on Friday nights and music on special occasions, and someone is in the process of restoring the old “Happy Hour Theater” painted advertising on the western exterior wall. One of the more notable newcomers to town is the Central Texas Rail History Museum (104 E. South Main, Open Saturday afternoon, or by appointment 361-865-3003), which contains a mix of model train layouts and Southern Pacific memorabilia. The Flatonia Argus still hangs on in its longtime location, but unfortunately, the Friendly Bar next door appears to have closed for good. While we’re on the subject of closed beer bars, let us toll the bells for all the deceased I can remember since the first edition of Hill Country appeared in 1983. RIP, in part: Jerry Simek Place in Engle; Lakeside Café, Schulenburg; Assman’s Café, New Ulm; Frank’s Place, La Grange, Tony Hanzelek’s, Gonzales; Two Brothers, Lockhart; Palace Café, Shiner; Dungan’s, McDade. And while I’m at it, New Ulm is pronounced “New UH-lum.”

In Schulenburg, not much has changed in the last couple of years, except for the opening of the Texas Polka Museum (625 North Main, http://www.texaspolkamuseum.com) next door to the Schulenburg Museum (in the old Wolter’s Store), which has an 1873, hand-pulled fire engine among its display highlights. Being a Sunday, City Market was closed, so we didn’t get a chance to pick up any of their sausages or smoked meats from the market, or our pick of meat from the pit. Sorry, Joe Nick, City Market is top tier; if you have gotten bad meat there, maybe you need to brush up on your meat picking skills. Harlan’s Supermarket was open, but only does barbecue on Saturdays; if you’re in Schulenburg before noon on Saturdays, be sure to stop; they sell out early.

Just after you turn left onto FM 1383 to Dubina, you will see on your right a sign that says “Lee School.” This is the location of Greater Dubina’s long vanished “colored” school. With all the emphasis on the area’s Czech culture, it’s easy to forget the area’s considerable black population.

At Dubina, we found the locked, jail-style doors still in place in the vestibule inside the Saints Cyril And Methodius Church’s front doors, which deny you entrance, but allow you to at least view the interior. Luckily for us, we found the church hall to be open, allowing me my first walk-around inside since my last visit to the annual parish picnic and Feast Day (held the first Sunday in July), a good 15 years ago. Nothing has changed in here, from the wall of advertising signs for Weimar and Schulenburg businesses, dating back to the “123” phone number days and Ford crest last seen on cars about 1953, to the exposed-rafter wooden ceiling/roof and original wiring with its ceramic insulators. Most of the businesses are no longer in business. Two walls bear interesting collections of old photos and narratives depicting the histories of the church and area schools, respectively.

The old outdoor, outhouse toilets marked “Muzke” and “Zenske” still stand, and I was able to relieve myself in the men’s one-holer (shades of Boy Scouts camp going on 50 years ago), but the women’s “room” was closed off. A quick trip over to the “piano wire” bridge showed it to be freshly painted and worthy of a Dvorak concerto.

On to Ammansville, where there is now another club/bar in a converted shotgun house on the western outskirts of town, with no sign or name, but full of people, but we did not have time to stop. The sign on the door of St. John the Baptist Church says the doors are locked at 5:30, but not on this particular day. We were able to stroll in and wander about, unlike at Dubina. A dab of Holy Water and the sign of the Cross upon the forehead and breast for good luck, which you need plenty of when driving a PT Cruiser – What an unfaithful car! Andrew wanted to light a votive candle as well for added protection (35 small; $1 King-of-Kings size), and although several King-sizers were burning, I said a most emphatic “No!” One of the first commandments of fire safety is not to leave burning candles unattended. God works in mysterious ways (The church was destroyed by a storm in 1909 and rebuilt. Not long thereafter it was destroyed by fire and again rebuilt), and I did not care to have the smoking embers of another perished church burning a hole in my conscience. The bulletin board in the vestibule here, as well as at Dubina, for that matter, bore a poster for the upcoming Hostyn Parish feast, featuring smoked pork and sausage. This show of mutual support is comforting in more than one way. There’s nothing like a bellyful of Tex-Czech holiday food and beer, and some Tex-Czech music from the Red Ravens or Djuka Brothers to dance it off, or the more traditional, Old-World sounds of Kovanda’s Czech Band (Gee-tars and drum sets need not apply here). One detail I had not previously noted was the date of the current church’s construction and dedication, “1919,” set in little white and gray tiles in one corner of the highest concrete front steps.

If you like Polka music and dancing, check out The Texas Polka News, a monthly tabloid dedicated to you-know-what (jlrivard123@sbcglobal.net); or dancing and old-time dance halls generally: Texas Dance Hall Preservation, texasdancehall.org.

I am now recommending the old Dubina-Weimar Road (a little over a mile south of the church and Piano Bridge Rd.) as an alternative, even preferred, route to reach Weimar from Dubina, both for its rural beauty, and the resurrected Gladys’ Bakery, at 3239 Dubina-Weimar Road, (800) 725-5254, (979) 263-5940 originally located just east of Cistern, and highly recommended in earlier editions of Hill Country for its gourmet fruitcake (forget your previous prejudices about fruitcake) and cookies.Once in Colorado County, Dubina-Weimar Road is also known as County Road 20, and Sedan Street in Weimar. Once in town, it dead-ends into Water Street; turn south (right) on Water and proceed 2 blocks to W. Post Office Street, or 3 blocks to US Hwy 90. Kaspar’s Meat market is 4.5 blocks east on Post Office Street.

In Weimar, the old Kaspar’s Meat Market sign was tucked under the awning, off its former perch. Weimar has no railroad museum as such, but the 1925 Southern Pacific depot survives as the Weimar City Library (with 1970s vintage caboose outside) and the Weimar Museum has railroad items in its collection.

The Borden Store and the house next door have for sale signs in their yards, which does not bode well for the store’s future. It being a Sunday, the place was closed, as has been the custom for several decades. Back in the 1980s, it was another good Shiner stop. We turned onto County Rd. 217, which parallels the SP tracks and offered better wildflower displays than Hwy 90 or IH 10, which was pretty much a parking lot from Sealy to well past Columbus. Well, people who live in Houston and go west for the weekend pretty much deserve what they get for living there, although we don’t need any more expats from Houston or anywhere else in Austin, thank you.

We got to La Grange at 11:30 on Saturday, which gave us just enough time to hit Prause’s Market for what little brisket and sausage remained. The pork ribs had long since sold out. We got mostly “moist” (a polite term for “fatty”) brisket, which is usually repulsive elsewhere, but having been properly and sufficiently cooked, most of the fat had been rendered out the connective tissue forced into submission, the result being a most flavorful, albeit messy treat, definitely a cut above the saltine-cracker dry, lean brisket you get so often now-a-day. Anthony Bourdain would have been very happy, even though it wasn’t pig fat. I had forgotten how wonderful the plump little all-beef links are; juicy, with that coarse grind that I personally prefer. Easily the equivalent of Luling City Market’s rings or the Elgin rope sausage. And you better not waste too many years in getting here, because, after four generations of faithful service to the taste buds of Texans, there is no fifth generation of Prauses to continue the tradition.

While I mourn the loss of most all of my beer bars, I welcome the surge of railroad tourism and preservation that has developed over the last decade or so. Flatonia has its railroad park, train museum and viewing platform where two Union Pacific lines cross, while La Grange has its Railroad Depot Museum (located at the intersection of North Washington and Lafayette streets, in its original location, a couple of blocks north of the Courthouse Square), which, unfortunately, is only open on Saturdays from 10-4. If you can make it on a Saturday, you can at least peak through the windows. The depot was built in the fall of 1897 by the Taylor, Bastrop and Houston Railway Co., to replace the original depot (built in 1880), which had burned down six months earlier. The TB&H was absorbed soon thereafter by the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT) Railroad. Passenger service ceased in the 1950s, and freight service in the 1970s. It entered service as a museum in 2006. The MKT was acquired by Union Pacific in 1988, and seven trains a day, on the average, still rumble past the depot, including a couple of coal trains from Wyoming that supply the LCRA’s massive coal-fired Fayette power plant between La Grange and Columbus (it burns about two trainloads [about 250-270 cars] of coal per day), two or three gravel trains headed for the Houston area, several general freights and trains of empty going back west. While we were there, one of the gravel trains rumbled through. Standing so close to the track, it is quite impressive. We regretted not seeing one of the coal trains; as they use pusher locomotives at the back, which is rare outside of the mountains. The Burlington Northern uses two locomotives in the front and two at the back; Union Pacific, which held the coal hauling contract until recently, used only one pusher.

The station’s most famous visitor was ex-President Teddy Roosevelt, who stopped here for a few minutes in 1911 and addressed the gathered crowd, as the photo on the office wall indicates.

With the help of donations and grants, the depot has been restored to its original condition, configuration and appearance: an office, two waiting rooms, and freight room. Original fittings include the pot-belly stove (found in a pigpen nearby and brought back to the depot), safe, and a bench in the main waiting room. The stationmaster’s desk came from the nearby Fayetteville depot. A display case in the main waiting room contains a gold cane presented to James Converse in 1880 for his efforts in bringing this “tap” line to La Grange. In the north bay window is the dispatcher’s desk, which offers a view of the track both ways, are the semaphore control levers and the telegraph operator’s set. The office, “white” and “colored” waiting rooms, and freight room look they did during the depot’s heyday, and a vintage Railway Express truck stands trackside, along with a caboose out in the parking lot. The depot also has numerous photographs, maps, display cases full of artifacts, several operating model trains, and hands-on displays for adults and kids. The time clock is not original to the station, but you can take a time card and stamp it with the time of your visit, as a souvenir. Kids can play with the wooden trains in the freight room.

The Walking Tour of Downtown La Grange” is great new booklet now available, free of charge, at the Old County Jail/Visitors Center. I will be cribbing from it in the next edition of Central Texas, for those who wish to do their “homework” prior to a visit to La Grange.

The recently restored County Courthouse is a gem and a joy to behold, inside and out. The three-story atrium that forms the center of the interior is unique among Central Texas and Hill Country courthouses, with its skylight roof, fountain, plants and benches. Truly delightful. The courtroom is a gem, easily the equal, in its own way, of the Caldwell County Courthouse courtroom, but I would not relish sitting in one of its folding seat, theatre-style, unpadded wood spectator seats or benches. All the doors to the various county officials’ and department offices have hand-painted lettering on the glass transoms. The bottom two floors are finished in alternating, polished black and white marble squares in a diamond pattern, while the third-story floor is covered in period-correct linoleum. And since I am in the fire service, I enjoyed the original standpipes that run up opposite corners of the atrium walls, complete with the original hose hook-ups.

Going Up Windy

March 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Like all 3-year-olds, nephew Jonas loves trains. So yesterday afternoon (Friday) we boarded the CapMetro Redline at MLK Jr. Station for a round trip dash to Lakeline station. I would have preferred to go all the way to the northern terminus at Leander, but at this point in time, you can only do this round trip in the morning, boarding the 7:17 downtown, arriving Leander 8:19; leaving Leander 8;30, returning downtown at 9:32.

As some of you may know, the Redline follows the original Austin and Northwestern route, which was originally built as a narrow-gauge line, 1881-82, to Burnet. It went bankrupt barely more than a year later. But the reorganized line’s fortunes were revived when the decision was made to build our present state capitol with pink granite (16,000 carloads) from Granite Mountain, near Marble Falls. Dozens of huge blocks of granite that spilled from the train during wrecks and derailments lay scattered picturesquely all along the line. Accordingly, the ANW was extended to Granite Mountain, Marble Falls, and eventually to Llano in 1892. The line was acquired by the Southern Pacific system in 1891 and the line was converted to standard gauge the same year.

According to the grand Texas tradition of “cheapness,” the ANW was built on the cheap; narrow gauge roads cost a lot less to build and promoters touted that they could carry almost as much freight as the more expensive standard gauge railroad. The ANW was just one among many narrow gauge lines built across the country in the 1880s, as “cheapness” swept the nation. Narrow gauge roads have their proper place in the world of railroading, principally in mountainous regions where tight turns are necessary; narrow-gauge trains are ideally suited for this.

The phrase, “Going Up Windy,” (“Windy” as in “winding,” not as in lots of wind) came from the road’s tortuous path. In order to minimize building costs, the route followed the contours of the countryside as closely as possible, minimizing the number of expensive bridges to be built and grading to be. In fact, the line runs due east for well over a mile before it finally turns north and eventually veers northwest, as its name implies. This anomaly earned it a spot the O. Henry short story, “Friends at San Rosario.”

In 1986, the Southern Pacific sold the ANW line to the City of Austin and Capital Metro. The Austin Steam Train Association began running a weekend excursion train a couple of years later between Cedar Park and Burnet. SP steam engine 786, which sat in a tiny downtown Austin park for more than 30 years, was resuscitated to pull a string of vintage passenger cars along that stretch of the line. The better part of 10 years ago, No. 786’s boiler was discovered to be in dangerous condition, the result of a serious wreck during its working years and a half-assed repair job. It was yanked from service and has been in the shop ever since, hopefully to run again someday. In the meantime, the tourist train chugs on, pulled by a vintage diesel locomotive.

At $5.75 for the round trip to Leander, the Redline is an entertaining way to pass a couple of hours and change. From downtown, be sure to pick a seat on the left (west) side of the train. Once you are out of Austin, the scenery on that side is much more pastoral. the bluebonnets are just coming now, and for the next 6 weeks or so, the wildflower viewing should be topnotch.

I am now working on a new chapter for the next edition of Hill Country about the ANW, called “Going Up Windy,” of course. The trip route will run from downtown Austin up to Llano, and will involve rides on the CapMetro Redline, the ASTA weekend excursion train, and some auto driving. Rail enthusiasts in Llano are trying to get tourist train service from Llano to Burnet, but that has yet to translate into reality. But in anticipation, Llano now has a railroad district with a reconstruction of the old ANW station, the last of the old railroad hotels, and an old rail car or two.

Go on now, and “Go Up Windy,” while the flowers are out. If you like trains, you’ll love the ride.

Happy Birthday, Georgetown Fire Department!

January 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Happy birthday to the Georgetown Fire Department! The first records of the organization have been lost, but the January 26, 1882, Williamson County Sun reported that Hook and Ladder Company 1 of the Fire Department was organized and the following officers were elected: John H. Leavell, president; W.F. Steele, vice president; J.C. Cameron, secretary; Emzy Taylor, treasurer; J. W. Kincaid, foreman; S.T. Atkin, first assistant foreman; and W.C. Pfaeffle, second assistant foreman. According to the Georgetown Fire Department, Emzy Taylor also serves as first department chief.

About the same time the Hook and Ladder Company was founded, a second company, the Rescue Hose Company 1, also organized. All personnel of those early years were volunteers.

The truck was pulled by manpower to the fire, and then a bucket brigade sent water from the hose wagon to the fire. This may have primitive, but it saved many a home and building in Georgetown.

The Georgetown Fire Department was organized in part to avoid conflagrations like the great fire that destroyed almost all of the business section of nearby Taylorsville (now Taylor) on February 25, 1879. That fire, exacerbated by the strong winds of a norther that had blown through, destroyed 29 buildings, leaving 16 families homeless and 34 businessmen unemployed. Only 4 business houses were left standing.

Captain Emzy Taylor of Georgetown was also a railroad magnate, founder of the 15.5-mile Georgetown and Granger railroad, which was meant to connect with other lines that crisscrossed the state. Emzy’s prominent merchant father Josiah had built the county’s first two-story house in Georgetown. Josiah opened a bank in 1882 in Georgetown, helped organize both the Georgetown–Round Rock and the Georgetown–Granger railroad lines and started the town’s waterworks. Financial problems resulted from expansion attempts, however, and Emzy Taylor committed suicide in Georgetown in 1895. The MKT finally bought the line and finished the tracks from Granger to Austin via Georgetown in 1904.

Three years after the Georgetown Hook and Ladder Company was formed, the Sun announced on January 5, 1885, that a new fire house was being built north of the standpipe for the truck and hose carts.  That fire station still stands at the corner of Main and 9th, a few yards south of the courthouse square. The restored 2-story limestone building was built to house Georgetown’s volunteer fire department and municipal operations. The building was constructed in an L-plan around a metal standpipe that stood 100 ft. tall (15 ft. in diameter) and held the city’s water supply (234,000 gallon capacity). The perimeter of the standpipe can still be seen in the pavement. The fire department no longer occupies the building, and unfortunately the Firefighting Museum inside the station that displayed firefighting memorabilia and equipment from the past had to be closed as well a couple of years ago to make space for other operations.

Hello world! from Richard Zelade

September 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

Welcome to my blog. I will be writing about just about everything Central Texas, the Texas Hill Country and more. Sometimes it will be updates to my books, Hill Country and Central Texas. Sometimes about Austin, sometimes about anywhere else in Texas. BBQ and meat markets, beer joints, stagecoach robberies, jokes, tall tales, long ago, here and now.

For now, we’ll start with a perspective on Hill Country and Central Texas, the sixth editions of which were published on May 16, 2011.

Thirty years ago, I signed a contract with Texas Monthly Press to do a travelogue about Central Texas and the Hill Country. For marketing reasons, it came to be called Hill Country, although half the book is dedicated to the rolling prairies east of the Balcones Escarpment, i.e., Central Texas. I have been called to task many times about this deception, to which I have always responded, well, a hill is a hill, no matter where it is located. Besides, in the olden days folks used to refer to the Hill Country as the mountains of west Texas, as in Bandera, the Switzerland of Texas, so I scarcely think that Texas Monthly Press was alone in stretching the truth. Stretching the truth to its limits is just part of the Texas way.  Just as are violence and cheapness.

The fifth edition of Hill Country came out the first year Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France, 1999. Twelve years later, Lance is now in his dotage, but Hill Country is back with a renewed vengeance, literally. there are so many tales of violence and retribution that it, and its new companion volume, Central Texas, drip black blood in places.

There a several reasons for this publishing gap, but to paraphrase the great Frank Zappa, Hill Country was never dead, it just smelled funny. Among other reasons, I had been fussing with the publisher for years to split Hill Country into Central Texas and Hill Country proper, in order to put an end to the grand deception, but they could see no compelling reason, at least until I came up with enough new and good stories to make a one-volume treatment impossible.

I have never been satisfied with Hill Country as a book and I never will be. Because what I’ve been trying to produce all along are not just guides to pretty places and yummy food, but  explorations into the Hill Country and Central Texas psyche.

To selectively borrow from the Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime:

And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go?
And you may ask yourself-Well…How did I get here?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right?…Am I wrong?
And you may tell yourself
MY GOD!…WHAT HAVE I DONE?

So, Hill Country and Central Texas tell you what you are going to see when you go traveling today, who you might meet, what you might choose to eat and buy, but they also try to explain, how in the hell did this patch of Texas get to be this way?

Why is Texas like no other place on earth?

For starts, Texas was founded on cheapness and violence. It was not born with a silver spoon in its mouth. The early Anglo settlers were lucky to have hand-carved wooden spoons. Most of them got by with sharp knives and their grubby hands. Land and livestock were the only thing Texas was rich in until Spindletop blew in and changed the equation.  And that’s where the violence came in. If the closest thing you had to money was your land and your livestock, you didn’t take too kindly to whomever might elect to deprive you of it. A horse or a cow was more valuable than a human life in those days. You were far more likely to win a Huntsville vacation or Texas necktie party for rustling in those days than for killing a man. Usually, unless it was a case of domestic violence, murder was deemed a public service because there was one less hard character to plague the community, and if you were lucky, one or more of that hard character’s pals were only too happy to return the favor, and in a couple of years you could get shed of the whole lot.

It has also bothered me that the book has been too Anglo-centric, so I have been broadening the scope of the books from that perspective.

Like Frank Dobie said, I don’t presume to be a great writer, but I do know a good story when I hear one, and since my goal is to pass on good stories, even those that stretch the bounds of credibility, to future generations, stories that explain why Texas is the way it is, Hill Country and Central Texas are full of the same old stories plus a lot of new ones.

If you’ve noticed, the book’s chapters are themed tours, that variously explore geography, cultures, religious groups, historical periods, transportation. This time around, we just parsed the 10 existing tours into two volumes. Next go ’round, it’s my goal to add one new tour to each book.

Chow for now, Richard

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Hill Country and Central Texas book notes category at The Blunderbuss.