June 8, 1974, from the HWR Travel Log:
On that Saturday, I was exploring southwest of Austin. I remembered that my high school algebra teacher, Turner Ferguson, taught riflery at a camp called Friday Mountain Ranch during the summers, so I drove into that gate to look for him. This was only three years since I’d graduated from Corpus Christi’s W. B. Ray. Once inside, I asked a staff woman who told me that Mr. Ferguson hadn’t been there in a while. In my usual way, I inquired about the camp itself and read a historical marker near a venerable limestone building. Here’s what I learned:
The Johnson Institute was founded in 1852 by Professor Thomas Jefferson Johnson from Virginia. In 1868, he built the impressive two-storey, ten-room structure, which housed offices and students in residence. The school endured until 1872, after which the property changed hands several times. Another teacher, Dr. Walter Prescott Webb, purchased the 630 acres surrounding the Institute in 1942. It was Webb’s idea to start a youth camp at Friday Mountain Ranch, which admitted boys first and girls later. Surveyors had named the prominence for the day they discovered it.
I didn’t stay at Friday Mountain but about half an hour, then continued on my journey. It wasn’t until later, though, that other, more interesting facts presented themselves.
I minored in geography for my first degree at The University of Texas at Austin, then sought a bachelor’s in that discipline in 1977. I enrolled in every class I could find that contained the word Texas, especially history and geography, so before long I was reading books by the above-mentioned Webb and J. Frank Dobie and Roy Bedichek. They were each associated with UT and were also close friends who spent much time together debating great ideas. Schools in Austin are named in their honor, and a statue depicting them in lively conversation greets patrons of Barton Springs Pool, one of their favorite hangouts.
The three Gentlemen of Letters often stayed in the fortress-like structure at Webb’s ranch. It was there, on the second floor of the south wing, that Bedichek secluded himself during the entire year of 1946 to write his first book, Adventures with a Texas Naturalist. In it, “Bedi” skillfully weaves philosophy, art, and observations of the Texas landscape. The tome’s been a great influence on me, giving rise to the signature line below my tour company e-mails: “Adventures with a Texas Geographer.”
Friday Mountain hosted co-ed camps through the 1980s. In 1991, the International Society of Divine Love bought the land and wrought extensive changes. Today, it’s one of the largest temple/ashram complexes in the US and the oldest in Texas. The beautiful grounds and classic Hindu architecture form the setting for festivals, worship, dance, and yoga. I enjoy pointing it out on my Hill Country treks. Its current impressiveness, however, comes at a woeful price: the designers so altered the old Institute’s structure that no hint remains of its original function or heritage. New windows, doors, and roofs completely mask the vernacular stone. Even the nineteenth century founders’ graves are relocated. Consequently, in 1992, the Texas Historical Commission revoked the building’s official designation, its original integrity lost.
It seems tragic to me that historical marking coveys so little protection on old monuments such as this. Now, folks such as myself must tell the missing tales. What do you think?