Trees Before Numbers

Trees Before Digits, 1839

Last time, we learned the origins of Austin’s north-south street names. Here’s a narrative of the grid’s other half, the numbered east-west streets.

When Edwin Waller and his merry crew began to build the Texas Republic’s new capital in 1839, the Colorado River was lined with an almost impenetrable thicket. Spanish explorers had avoided this scary area in their explorations 100-plus years earlier. For Waller, however, the trees presented an abundant resource almost as valuable as the river’s water and the ground’s rocks: lumber.

Again, as in other cities, streets got the names of important trees. North Avenue (an exception, 15th Street) was at the top. Then came Walnut (14th), a tree that yields some of the prettiest furniture material anywhere. The stout bottomland hardwood also gives nuts.

Peach (13th) isn’t, strictly speaking, a Texas native: it was carried from Persia to Europe by the Romans. The ornamental cherry laurel is sometimes called a wild peach, but the two aren’t related. Settlers would bring peach trees with them to plant in their gardens.

College Avenue (12th) is another exception to the naming convention. Austin was to host an institution of higher education, but the early plans placed the campus west of Capitol Square. Later, the university was moved north of the old city, but UT still owns properties to the west.

Mesquit (spelled without the ending e on the map, 11th) is a thorny legume that grows extensively on the Texas plains. It can be a nuisance, but the bean pods are edible, and the trunks make fair fence posts. Nothing beats mesquite blossom honey in the spring, and many barbecue cooks swear by it for smoking meats.

The Mulberry (10th) grows in wet and dry areas, and its fruit becomes a tasty jam. Ash (9th), another bottomland hardwood, is prized for making baseball bats. Hickory (8th), cousin to walnut and pecan, makes a stout tool handle.

Bois d’Arc (7th), also in the mulberry family, is known as Osage orange for its bark’s color and horse-apple for the globular fruit that’s supposed to repel roaches. Does a great job on elephants, too. Wonderfully durable, its name refers to the making of bows for arrows.

Pecan is the State Tree of Texas, a marvelous shade tree for our lawns and an important agricultural crop. In wet years, the nuts come due in mid-November, just in time for the pies and pralines of the festive season. Even before Austin’s second building boom of the 1870s and 80s, Pecan Street (6th), standing as it does above the high-water mark of the Colorado River and a straight-shot in from civilization, became the main commercial strip. Today, the seven blocks of historic structures between Congress and the former East Avenue (now IH-35) serve as Party Central for the Live Music Capital.

The Pine (5th) grows in East Texas, formerly near Bastrop, and in the mountainous Trans-Pecos. Its workable wood goes into flooring, furniture, and framing. Cedar (4th) is what many locals call native juniper. True cedars exist only in the Middle East and Western Himalayas. Both the red juniper (east) and Ashe juniper (west) logs make excellent fence posts, and the resin repels moths. Juniper berries (their cones) flavor gin and add spice to venison and pheasant.

Cypress (3rd) loves to hug the water’s edge. Its lumber is soft like pine but with a tan color. These trees, like their redwood and sequoia cousins, can live immensely long lives—almost 2,000 years. They drop their needles in winter, which is unusual for conifers.

The stately Live Oak (2nd) differs from most of its deciduous relatives in that it stays green throughout winter. It sheds its leaves in the spring just before blooming and sprouting new foliage. Also blessed with long life, at least three Texas specimens are more than a millennium in age.

Our final exception, Water Avenue (César Chávez) referred to its paralleling the Texas Colorado, the longest river entirely inside the state.

In about 1890, the tree streets were changed to numbered ones. This was to facilitate navigation and postal delivery. One can see the former botanical designations on historic signs along Congress Avenue and East Sixth. Honoring the original titles, Austinites enjoy the Old Pecan Street Festival spring and fall, look at glass art in Pine Street Station, and enjoy cocktails at Cedar Street Courtyard.

6th at Neches

6th at Neches

Streets Named for Rivers

Plan of Austin, 1839

Among the many reasons Austin is a unique city, its street-naming pattern seems especially remarkable. Laid out by Edwin Waller in 1839, the new capital of the Texas Republic edged the largely unknown frontier. Residents understood the region’s basic layout well enough by its rivers, most of which had had titles since the days of Spanish exploration.

So, similar to what other towns had done, Waller named the north-south streets here for major Texas rivers, but he did so geographically. West Avenue marked the western boundary of the 640 acres, and East Avenue (now IH-35) contained the other side. Between, except for Congress, the streets literally map the state’s great streams.

Flanking Congress are the two big Central Texas waterways, the Colorado and Brazos. Driving east or west offers a geography quiz: if you just crossed Trinity, what would be the next river? Notice one mistake: in reality, the Red River flows east of the Sabine.

Using minor streams, this naming convention continued into new areas as the city grew, but with only general geographic correlation. In East Austin, you’ll find Brushy, San Marcos, Medina, Waller, Onion, Attayak, Navasota, Angelina, Comal, Concho, Leona, and San Saba. West of Lamar is Blanco and Pecos. Shoal Creek gets a boulevard, and Bull Creek a road.

Whereas, after a big rain, streets seem to turn into rivers, this is how the opposite happened.

Next time, we’ll learn the secrets of Austin’s east-west streets.

Texas Scenic Regions Map

Mother Nature’s Self-Portrait

Texans are blessed with lots of scenery. Because of our position smack dab in the middle of North America, we enjoy proximity to an amazing variety of landscapes and climates. One way to get a handle on such diversity is to draw a picture. This I did in 1982, and here’s the story behind the map.

Each of the state’s dozen geographic zones claims its own characteristics and personality. The map shows each region’s general boundaries plus elements that make it distinctive: moisture, temperature, vegetation, geology, and soils. Some, such as the Piney Woods, Cross Timbers, and Post Oak Belt, acquired their names from the plants dominant there. Plains and prairies make up half of the regions—no surprise. One recalls a human name. The Trans-Pecos and Rio Grande Plains cozy up to important rivers. I purposefully deemphasized cities to draw more attention to the countryside. Each area will get its own well-deserved chapter in the book I’m writing.

It’s always a cause for celebration to trend from one territory to another, watching the indicators change. In some places, such as between the Edwards and the Llano, the shift is immediate. Others are more gradual, happening over several miles.

For folks to appreciate the Lone Star State’s variation, I give this map to every client who takes a tour or attends a class. It and others like it are useful for planning travel or study anywhere in Texas.

What’s your favorite part of Texas?

Because of the Earth’s elliptical orbit, winter is the shortest season in the northern hemisphere.

Texas Surf Museum entrance

Texas Surf Museum entrance

Corpus Christi, my hometown, plays host to an aircraft carrier you can explore, an aquarium to tour, boats to ride, and lots of other coastal activities. I met my three sisters there in our childhood home, where our dear mom still lives, for the end of 2011. It was a rare treat for us to all be together in the Sparkling City by the Sea for the holidays.

An outing was in order New Year’s Eve, so we piled into a van and headed downtown to a place none of us had ever visited. Next to the Executive Surf Club, the best night spot in town and the site of my recent 40-year high school reunion, stands the Texas Surf Museum. An artful woodie station wagon beckoned us inside. We marveled at the wooden surf board replicas, recreated board work bench, old 8-mm wave-rider films, and other memorabilia. On the north wall is a map of the Texas coast bedecked with grainy photographs of surf shops, boards stuck in the sands, and groups of surfers, many of whom my elder sister, Betty, knew and remembered. I only body-surfed in my time, but we idolized our twin cousins, Gary and Terry, who were and are still avid surfers in Southern California. Lina’s brothers all surfed, too, mainly around Oceanside, where exists the California Surf Museum.

Queen of the Sea

by Pompeo Coppini

We lingered a while in the well-stocked gift shop before strolling across the South Texas Music Walk of Fame to the Club for lunch. In the shadow of one of the oldest shellcrete walls in CC, we gobbled up fried shrimp, chicken wraps, and burgers. After, we drove around our old haunts downtown and uptown, marveling at the Queen of the Sea bas-relief on the famed bluff that separates the two elevations.

Corpus is a wonderful place to be from. Who wants a tour?

Tx HC O Co

Texas Hill Country Olive Company

Wine tasting ranks as one of my most popular touring activities. My clients know and appreciate Texas Hill Country wines a lot these days for their brilliant quality and regional connection. As of this past weekend, however, my patrons and I discovered a brand-new stop on our route at a must-see attraction. The Texas Hill Country Olive Company grandly opened December 10 at its beautiful facility on Fitzhugh Road north of Dripping Springs.

I’d conducted many tours past the impressive sandstone building before, pointing out the rows of young olive trees behind. This day featured much to enjoy. Holiday-hatted co-owner Rick Mensik greeted us as we walked through the door. I got his card and he mine with mutual promises to trade links. First stop inside was the oil-tasting bar. The company makes three oil blends plus several flavors of balsamic vinegar. Off to the left stood the art, several spaces sporting wild horse photographs, paintings, and ceramics. The pressing and bottling room is around back.

Texas olive orchard

Texas olive orchard

To the right of the entrance is the Bistro Café, an open kitchen with a big counter for cooking classes. An Italian chef was baking cookies. Around that were scattered tables and chairs for additional eating and seating. Two musicians and the beer-wine tasting area beckoned us out the north door. Offering samples were Real Ales from Blanco plus three wineries, including Bell Springs. My client purchased a sweet white. I led her to the high fence to see the trees. They kind of resemble nearby live oaks but for their lighter-hued green leaves. Five varieties planted here produce sundry flavors and textures.

Texpert Tours olives

Texpert Tours olives

No sign graces the façade as yet, but we got some pictures. The impressive structure stands a magnificent contrast to the goat ranches next door. Typical of this particular Wine Drive, our next destinations that day were Driftwood Estate Vineyards, Duchman Family Winery, and Trattoria Lisina for lunch. It’s a lovely time of year to sip Hill Country wines and now to also include genuine Texas olive oil.

Bastrop Blackened

Bastrop Blackened

We in Central Texas were witness to a historic conflagration just east of Austin over the Labor Day weekend. The trouble began sometime Sunday and spread rapidly through the Lost Pines, one of the most scenic areas nearby or anywhere. Because of the exceptional drought in this part of the world, humidity is exceedingly low. Ironically, tropical storm Lee that could have brought rain landed near New Orleans and instead caused brisk northeast winds. One small spark, one carelessly tossed cigarette butt, or any other heat source did this, and thousands of acres simply exploded like, well, wildfire.

Earlier that weekend, Lina and I had a marvelous experience at this year’s Kerrville Wine and Music Festival, enjoying the relatively cool nights that the northeast gusts provided. During the singing of the last song at the fest late Sunday, one of our friends said there was a fire in Bastrop. As I returned from Kerrville Monday afternoon, I could see several columns of smoke in the Hill Country and a huge wall of gray and black to the east. Firefighters all over were hampered by the breeze and the dry conditions and were not able to contain or control the situation for several days. Even as of this writing, a few areas still smolder.

I had just driven through that conifer forest late last month. The Lost Pines have always been special to me, being a cut-off remnant of the larger Piney Woods farther east. In addition to their beauty, the trees have provided lumber for scads of homes and businesses all over Austin for generations. The massive Doric columns supporting the Governor’s Mansion’s front porch are solid pine logs from 1856. More irony: those architectural elements almost burned when the house was vandalized in 2006.

The photo above, taken through the car window, shows what’s left of those woods. It was shot Saturday, September 10, just after Texas Highway 71 reopened. Lina and I were on our way to Columbus for her art opening, and we got to see the devastation for ourselves. Not one building, either business or residential, was left standing. The official count is somewhere around 1,400 homes gone. While most of the smaller junipers and pines were only charred stumps, I noticed that many of the taller pines still retained green tops. Given any rain, they might survive to help regrow this ravaged forest.

Until that happens, we seem to have lost the Lost Pines.

Grelle on Lake Travis

Grelle on Lake Travis

Note: Here’s an article from my friend and fellow blogger Katie Raver.

For the first hour I visited Grelle Recreation Area, I was less than enchanted.

It had been a rainy summer near Spicewood, Texas. Lake Travis was brimming with water. But the park itself was unkempt, void of all amenities save a pit toilet. An RV’s generator in the throes of death coughed and wheezed. Every three minutes, a mother at the next campsite shrieked another command of warning at her child, whose name was apparently Dustin. And an entire fraternity house had apparently decided that blasting Robert Early Keen, Jr. (The Road Goes on Forever) from one of their truck radios was great background to the serenity of fishing in the Texas Hill Country.

But I was there to hike the trails. At the time, I hadn’t met a single person who had hiked them and could report back about them. I wanted to know more.

The first quarter-mile of the trail was disturbing: worn, with beer cans—some recent, some quite vintage—glinting in the sunlight, and the carcasses of careless fire pits dotting the trail.

But I was curious if this path had anything else to it—some hidden treasure or secret I could learn. The trail got steeper and more narrow. The beer cans and fire pits disappeared. I had to cross a wet creek bed. The temperature got cooler and the tree canopy thicker.

The landscape started to change.

I hiked through a small grotto covered in a carpet of lichen the shape of tiny Christmas trees. Water dripped, drop by drop, from the granite overhang into the pool below. A green lizard sunned itself. An adolescent hawk came to drink.

Further up the trail, a ridge gave a stunning vantage point of the entire peninsula. The oaks were thick and healthy. Small pieces of geodes of all different colors and shapes twinkled on the trail, glinting in the dappled sunlight. At trail’s end, I spotted a heron nesting. It watched me. I watched it. We shared a quiet moment.

Travel and new experiences do more than simply get us out of our own environment: they help us have experiences that can teach us new lessons and let us know what’s important in life. Answering the impulse to travel, to get outside, and to experience something new tells us again that we are capable of experiencing even more than paying bills, mowing the lawn, driving in traffic.

That day at Grelle, I was reminded that just beyond the beaten path, beauty blossoms.

Katie Raver

After a couple decades of mulling, I’ve finally begun writing what will become my first official publication. Entitled A Traveler’s Guide to Texas Geography, it will combine memoir with trip advice. New guidebooks about the Lone Star State appear every year, but few of them relate much about the landscape. Mine will do this, based on my more than 38 years of adventures around this fascinating region. The book will be based on my meticulously kept trip logs and will make good use of many maps. Using Austin as a starting place, journeys will radiate out in all four cardinal directions. I’ll include details about back roads, prominent peaks and ridges, creeks and rivers, and climate types plus historical hints. Stay tuned for progress reports, and please wish me luck.

Texas Senate Chamber

Texas Senate Chamber

The Texas Capitol Building remains the USA’s largest statehouse and stands 14 feet taller than its counterpart in Washington, D.C. Situated on a hill around which the city of Austin was designed, the impressive structure is a must-see for every visitor. The Capitol brims with marbles and canvases which together offer an inspiring overview of Texas heritage. Of the structure’s many rooms, the Senate Chamber contains perhaps the most elegant art collection.

Paintings line the chamber’s walls. Depicting influential individuals or significant events, these frames put human faces on facts of Texas’ momentous history. Almost all of these people got Texas cities, counties, or both named for them. Here’s a sampling:

Behind the Lieutenant Governor’s desk is one of the few known life portraits of Stephen F. Austin, the city’s namesake. In the early 1820s, Austin brought the first and greatest number of Americans to Mexican Texas to be colonists. As busy as he was attending to his people in the years before and during the Texas Revolution, he could spare little time for a formal portrait. Nonetheless, while in New Orleans in 1836 to raise support for the revolutionary cause, he sat for this image and gave it to his sister, Emily. Austin died later that year.

Not all who rebelled against Mexico during the Texas Revolution were Anglo-Americans. Prominent among revolutionary Tejanos was Lorenzo de Zavala, a physician, journalist, and scholar who was the fledgling republic’s first ad interim vice president. He was one of a few signatories to the Texas Declaration of Independence on March 2, 1836, who had had previous diplomatic, legislative, ministerial, and executive experience. Residing just across Buffalo Bayou from the San Jacinto Battlefield, de Zavala died in November of 1836. His granddaughter, Adina, gained fame in 1905 when she helped save the Alamo from demolition.

Although Texas stood alone in its struggle for independence, many bands of volunteers from the American South came to aid the Texians. One such group was the Georgia Battalion from the central reaches of that state, numbering some 220 men. With them, they carried a flag hand-made by 18-year-old Johanna Troutman of Knoxville. The single blue star stood on a white background with the words “Texas and Liberty” beneath. Miss Troutman lived, married, and died in Georgia, but her remains were brought to the State Cemetery in Austin in 1913. A Pompeo Coppini statue marks Troutman’s second grave. For her banner needling, she’s often called the “Betsy Ross of Texas.”

Two enormous works hang on the Chamber’s back wall. Both executed by Ireland-born H. A. McArdle, they depict the most memorable battles of the Texas Revolution. The artist spent several decades in painstaking research for the paintings, collecting artifacts, interviewing witnesses, and visiting sites.

Standing seven by 12 feet in size, Dawn at the Alamo is a visual allegory of one of history’s most valiant defeats. Though architecturally accurate with respect to the fort’s general layout, the scene takes liberties in showing the main heroes, David Crockett, James Bowie, and William B. Travis, together in the same frame at the same moment in the early hours of March 6, 1836. In truth, these defenders were not near each other during the battle, but they certainly died fighting for the same grand ideals. The point here is to tell a symbolic story, conveying timeless principles of bravery and sacrifice. A single star peeping though the dense clouds above the chaos, along with the first rays of sunrise, portend eventual victory.

The slightly larger Battle of San Jacinto offers a broad landscape of the 18-minute mêlée on the afternoon of April 21, only six weeks after the Alamo’s fall. Clearly visible in the foreground are both Mexican and Texian warriors, including officers Filisola, Castrillón, and Almonte with Houston, Lamar, and Rusk. Towards the rear, General-President Santa Anna, disguised in civilian attire, is fleeing on horseback. Subtitled “Retributive Justice,” the painting implies the comeuppance of good over evil. The artist completed this work before Dawn at the Alamo so that the few yet-living veterans of the battle could enjoy the painting.

Alas, though an excellent artist, McArdle lacked self-promotional skills and was never paid for these canvasses. His heirs received a small check from the state 19 years after his death.

In baggy trousers and a white vest is Mirabeau B. Lamar, second of but four presidents of the Republic of Texas. The Texas Congress had decided that the new capital city would be named for Austin, but it was Lamar’s influence that fixed the location in the hamlet of Waterloo. He had visited the area in 1838 while still vice president and, like so many more folks to come, had fallen in love with the locale. During his administration, the new Republic began its educational system. When Lamar wasn’t riding his horse or founding colleges of his own, he was a romantic painter and poet, which activities presaged the city of Austin’s reputation as an artistic community. He designed the full-legged pants he wears in the painting to give more freedom and comfort while riding, a fashion he expected would spread. It didn’t, but probably gave the city its first weird slant.

Thomas Jefferson Rusk came to Texas in 1834 in hot pursuit of his embezzling Georgia business partners. He never caught them, but instead got caught up in the Texas Revolution. Rusk served as the Republic’s inspector general, San Jacinto commander, secretary of war, congressman, and supreme court chief justice. When Texas became a state, Rusk and Sam Houston were elected to the US Senate.

Yet another veteran of San Jacinto was Robert McAlpin Williamson, the legendary Three-Legged Willie. An attack of “white fever” in his teens left Willie’s right leg bent at the knee and unusable, so he got around on a wooden peg leg, which became his third. In addition to his soldiery, Williamson was supreme court judge, representative, senator, and author.

Two portraits claim their subjects to be last the survivors of San Jacinto. Alfonzo Steele (1817 – 1911) fought and was wounded in the battle, and Sam Houston rode Steele’s horse after Houston’s own had been killed. William P. Zuber (1820 – 1913) had been in the rear guard during the engagement. As an elderly man, Zuber served as a tour guide in the Senate Chamber.

Albert Sidney Johnston, a West Point graduate who enlisted in the Texas army as a private, went on to become adjutant general and Secretary of War for the Texas Republic. He also served distinguishably in the Mexican War and was offered a commission in the US Army in 1861. He, however, chose for fellow Southerners and was perhaps the Confederacy’s greatest general. His death during the battle of Shiloh was a severe blow to the Lost Cause.

The portrait of Jefferson Davis hangs to the left of the central podium. He had been Secretary of War for the US just prior to the Civil War. The only Confederate president, Davis narrowly missed hanging for treason after the war, but was highly revered in the South throughout his life.

Lyndon B. Johnson never served in the Texas Senate, getting elected first to the US Congress in 1937, then as vice-president and president. His grandfather, however, was an unsuccessful political candidate in the turn-of-the-20th-century Populist Party, and his father served in the Texas House.

Barbara Jordan was the first black woman to be Senator in Texas, 1967. Her main issues were voter registration and wage law. In 1972, she became the first Southern black woman elected to the US House of Representatives. Jordan’s fame expanded during the Watergate hearings for her staunch support of the US Constitution. The city’s airport terminal and several schools are named for the esteemed orator.

Other paintings show more modern figures, such as Henry B. González and A. M. Aiken, but their stories will be told elsewhere.