THE BLIND MAN’S TOWN

In 1854 Adam Rankin Johnson, a twenty-year-old from Kentucky settled in Burnet County on the edge of the western frontier. He fought Indians, which could be expected since he worked as a surveyor and Indians believed the surveyor’s compass was the instrument that

Adam Rankin Johnson (1834-1922)

was pushing them off the land. In 1854, Johnson stood on the banks of the Colorado River and a dream took shape as he viewed a waterfall cascading down fifty feet over a series of three limestone formations. He had found the spot for building an industrial city.

“Quaker Guns” made with a charred log and a stovepipe set between wagon wheels.

During the Civil War, Johnson went back to Kentucky to enlist as a scout. He rose in the ranks as his Rangers fought behind enemy lines, harassing Union supply centers. In July 1862, Johnson’s men were outnumbered by federal troops guarding supplies at Newburgh, Indiana. He had his men construct two “Quaker Guns,” using a stovepipe and a charred log which they anchored between wagon wheels. Placing the assemblage on a hillside, the Union troops believed they were looking down the barrel of two cannons. Johnson led his band of about thirty-five guerillas across the Ohio River and captured the Union supplies without firing a shot. From then on, his men called him “Stovepipe Johnson.”

His exploits during the war eventually earned him the rank of brigadier general by June 1864. However, two months later, in a battle in Kentucky, Johnson was accidentally shot by his own men, permanently blinded, captured by the federals, and imprisoned until the end of the war.

General Adam Johnson came home to his wife and family and set about fulfilling his dream. Although he could no longer see, he had not lost his vision. Some accounts say he directed from memory one his sons to drive his carriage about the county as he made land purchases.

In 1881, General Johnson’s land ownership suddenly took on new importance when the Texas state capitol burned. In the rush to rebuild, the planners discovered that the intended limestone for the capitol’s exterior was inferior. It so happened that Johnson’s land lay within a mile of Granite Mountain, and the owners of the 180-acre batholith that rose above the landscape offered to give the granite for the capitol if the state constructed a railroad from Austin. General Johnson immediately set about getting the land donated for the right of way.

Granite Mountain provided for Galveston’s seawall and many state buildings.

When the railroad arrived to begin hauling what was eventually 4,000 flatcars of granite for construction of the Texas capitol, General Johnson and his partners were ready to lay out their town. Within a week Johnson held a public sale of lots from a grandstand in the center the new town. Although many people called it “The Blind Man’s Town,” the official name of Marble Falls finally took root.

The Old Mill overlooking the limestone series of falls

Johnson’s dream of harnessing the Colorado River kept meeting setbacks until 1893 when The Ice, Light and Water Company provided power for the city and the nearby textile plant. But it was 1951 before The Blind Man’s Dream was fulfilled in a different form. The Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) completed a series of six dams beginning at a site on the river that General Johnson had marked in 1854 as the perfect site for industrial development. Buchanan Dam is the first in the chain of dams that create the Highland Lakes, known not for industry, but for hydroelectric power, flood control, and recreation.

Max Starcke Dam, the fourth in the chain, created Lake Marble Falls, which covers the old limestone outcropping that General Johnson gazed upon in 1854. The city he dreamed of building has become the center of a vast recreational region.

General Adam Johnson’s other legacies include one son, Rankin Johnson, Sr. who became a Major League pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals.  General Johnson died in 1922 and is buried at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin next to his wife Josephine and near his grandson, Judge George Christian Sr., and a great-grandson George Christian Jr., White House Press Secretary for President Lyndon Johnson.

Adam Johnson standing before the old mill.

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TEXAS CAPITOL PAID FOR IN LAND

Goddess of Liberty Intended for the Capitol Dome

Goddess of Liberty Intended for the Capitol Dome

The first big land giveaway in Texas started in 1749 when the Spanish Colonial government began establishing villas along the Rio Grande. Mexico continued the practice of granting empresarial contracts to men eager to establish colonies in Texas. The Republic of Texas issued land grants to pay its debts, including payment to the army and volunteers for their service in the war for independence from Mexico. After Texas joined the Union and negotiated to keep its public land, the state offered land to encourage the development of farms and ranches, to attract new industry, to fund its public schools, and to entice railroad construction. Finally, the state Constitution of 1876 set aside three million acres of land in the Panhandle to fund construction of the state’s fourth capitol.

The third capitol burned on November 9, 1881, increasing the urgency to name a contractor for construction of the new building. By 1882 the State of Texas initiated one of the largest barter transactions in history to pay wealthy Chicago brothers, John V. and Senator C. B. Farwell, three million acres of Panhandle land in exchange for building the $3 million State Capitol at Austin.

Owners of Granite Mountain, a solid rock dome about fifty miles northwest of Austin, donated enough “sunset red” granite to construct a Renaissance Revival design modeled after the national Capitol in Washington. Convict labor hauled the huge blocks of granite to a newly built narrow-gauge railroad that carried 15,700 carloads of granite from the quarry to the building site in Austin. Upon completion of the 360,000 square foot capitol in 1888 and the placing of the statue of the Goddess of Liberty atop its dome, the building reached a height of 311 feet—almost fifteen feet taller that the National Capitol.

Since the land used to pay for the capitol stretched across the unsettled Texas Panhandle from present Lubbock to forty miles north of Dalhart, the capitol syndicate decided to establish a ranch until the land could be sold. Representatives went to England in 1884 to secure $5 million from British investors to finance the purchase of cattle, fencing, and the entire infrastructure for the huge enterprise.

Trail boss Abner Blocker drove the first herd to the ranch in 1885 only to discover that a brand had not been selected. Trying to create a design that could not be easily changed, Blocker drew “XIT” in the corral dust with the heel of his boot, and it stuck as the brand and ranch name. In later years the story spread that the brand stood for “ten (counties) in Texas” because the ranch spread into ten counties. Other folks speculated that it meant “biggest in Texas.”

The vastness of the operation required dividing the ranch into eight divisions with a manager over each. A 6,000-mile single-strand wire fence eventually enclosed the ranch, the largest in the world at that time. By 1890 the XIT herd averaged 150,000 head, and the cowboys branded 35,000 calves a year. Fences divided the ranch into ninety-four pastures; 325 windmills and 100 dams dotted the landscape. Cowhands received pay of twenty-five to thirty dollars a month. XIT men and their “hired guns” sometimes formed vigilante groups to combat problems of fence cutting and cattle rustling. Wolves and other wild animals took a heavy toll, especially during calving season. Lack of ample water, droughts, blizzards, prairie fires, and a declining market resulted in the XIT operating without a profit for most of it years.

The schoolteacher wife of one of the managers, Cordia Sloan Duke, kept a diary, writing notes on a pad she carried in her apron pocket while she “looked after” her own family and the 150 cowboys who worked the ranch. She successfully encouraged eighty-one cowboys and their families to keep diaries. Eventually, she and Dr. Joe B. Frantz published a book, 6,000 Miles of Fence: Life on the XIT Ranch of Texas. Through Mrs. Duke’s efforts, an authentic account of the work and lifestyle of that early phase of American life has been preserved in the cowboys’ own language.

With British creditors demanding a positive return, the syndicate began selling the land for small farms and ranches. All the cattle had been sold by 1912, but the last parcel of land was not sold until 1963. One hundred years after the land exchange, the tax value on the property reached almost $7 billion.

The XIT Ranch, built on land that served as payment for building the largest state capitol in North America, is remembered at the annual Dalhart XIT Reunion Parade where a horse with an empty saddle honors the range riders of the past.

Texas State Capitol

Texas State Capitol

Houston: The Second Choice

Houston reigns as the largest city in Texas and the fourth largest in the United States, but it hasn’t always enjoyed top billing.

In 1832 brothers Augustus C. and John K. Allen came to Texas from New York and joined a group of land speculators.  During the 1836 Texas War for Independence from Mexico, the Allen brothers outfitted, at their own expense, a ship to guard the Texas coast and to deliver troops and supplies for the Texas army.  Their operation along the coast offered an opportunity to look for a good site for a protected deep-water port.

Some stories claim that after Texas won independence from Mexico in April 1836, the brothers tried to buy land at Texana, a thriving inland port at the headwaters of the Navidad River located between present Houston and Corpus Christi.  Despite a generous offer, the landowner countered with a demand for double the price.  One of the brothers reportedly became so angry that he climbed on a nearby stump and declared, “Never will this town amount to anything.  I curse it.  You people within the sound of my voice will live to see rabbits and other animals inhabiting its streets.”  (Today, Texana rests under an 11,000-acre lake, a recreational reservoir on the Navidad River that is part of Lake Texana State Park.)

Lake Texana State Park

Lake Texana State Park

Soon, the Allen brothers discovered a site on the west bank of Buffalo Bayou, a muddy stream that wound its way for fifty miles to Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.  They purchased about 6,500 acres for $9,500 and wisely named the new town for Sam Houston, the hero of the Texas War for Independence and the future president of the republic.  By August 1836 the brothers placed newspaper ads claiming the new town was destined to be the “great interior commercial emporium of Texas.”  The ads also said that ships from New York and New Orleans could sail to the door of Houston and that the site on the Buffalo Bayou offered a healthy, cool sea breeze.  They did not mention the heat and humidity and that Buffalo Bayou was choked with tree branches and logs.

The Allen brothers had the town laid out with wide streets on a grid pattern parallel to the bayou to accommodate their

Original Plan, 1869 map

Original Plan, 1869 map

future port, sold town lots at a brisk rate, and generously donated property for churches and other public institutions. The first small steamship arrived in January 1837 after a fifteen-mile journey that took three days during which passengers helped clear logs and snags from the channel.  The travelers found a “port city” of twelve inhabitants and one log cabin.

The Allen’s slickest advertising ploy turned out to be their bid to get the government of the new Republic of Texas to relocate in Houston by offering to construct, at their own expense, a capitol and to provide buildings for public officials at a modest rental of $75 a month. It worked.  By the time the government moved to Houston in May 1837, the town boasted a whopping population of 1,500 and 100 houses.

When travelers arriving in Houston found food and accommodations in short supply, the Allen brothers opened their large home, free of charge.  Their accountant estimated the hospitality cost the Allen brothers about $3,000 a year, but the expense brought rich returns.

The brother’s deal to provide the capitol and all the official office space carried the stipulation that if the government moved from Houston, the property reverted to the Allen brothers.  In 1839 the Texas government moved again from the bogs along the coastal prairie to Waterloo, a tiny wilderness town on the edge of Comanche country in Central Texas that was renamed Austin.

With the loss of the capital, Houston plunged into financial turmoil that threatened to bankrupt the city.  Multiple yellow fever epidemics hurt the town’s image along with a growing reputation for drunkenness, dueling, brawling, and prostitution.  In the midst of it all Houston welcomed the Masons, Presbyterians and Episcopalians organized churches, and the town became the seat of county government.   Businessmen invested in the cotton trade, small steamboats ferried supplies to and from the thriving seaport at Galveston and enterprising merchants used ox wagons to haul goods to settlers in the interior and to return with cotton and other farm commodities.jackson

Following years of regular dredging and widening of Buffalo Bayou to accommodate larger ships, the Houston Ship Channel finally opened in 1914, creating a world class waterway that helped Houston become the “great interior commercial emporium of Texas” just as the Allen brothers advertised in 1837.BuffaloBayouFile:Houston_Ship_Channel

Texas Capitol Paid For in Land

The Texas Constitution of 1876 set aside three million acres in the Panhandle to fund construction of the state’s fourth capitol.  Big land giveaways in Texas started in 1749 when the Spanish Colonial government began establishing villas along the Rio Grande.  Mexico continued the practice of granting empresarial contracts to establish colonies in Texas.  The Republic of Texas issued land grants to pay its debts, including payment to the army and volunteers for their service in the war for independence from Mexico.  After Texas joined the Union and negotiated to keep its public land, the state offered land to encourage development of farms and ranches, to attract new industry, to fund its public schools, and to entice railroad construction.  So, it makes sense to use land in payment for the state’s fourth capitol.

Texas State Capitol

The third capitol burned on November 9, 1881, increasing the urgency to name a contractor for construction of the new building.  By 1882 the State of Texas initiated one of the largest barter transactions in history to pay wealthy Chicago brothers, John V. and Senator C. B. Farwell, three million acres of Panhandle land in exchange for building the $3 million State Capitol at Austin.

Owners of Granite Mountain, a solid rock dome about fifty miles northeast of Austin, donated enough “sunset red” granite to construct a Renaissance Revival design modeled after the national Capitol in Washington.  Convict labor hauled the huge blocks of granite to a newly built narrow-gauge railroad that carried 15,700 carloads of granite from the quarry to the building site in Austin. Upon completion of the 360,000 square foot capitol in 1888 and the placing of the statue of the Goddess of Liberty atop its dome, the building reached a height of 311 feet—almost fifteen feet taller that the National Capitol.

Goddess of Liberty Intended for the Capitol Dome

Since the land used to pay for the capitol stretched across the unsettled Texas Panhandle from present Lubbock to forty miles north of Dalhart, the capitol syndicate decided to establish a ranch until the land could be sold.  Representatives went to England in 1884 to secure $5 million from British investors to finance the purchase of cattle, fencing, and the entire infrastructure for the huge enterprise.

Trail boss Abner Blocker drove the first herd to the ranch in 1885 only to discover that a brand had not been selected.  Trying to create a design that could not be easily changed, Blocker drew “XIT” in the corral dust with the heel of his boot, and it stuck as the brand and ranch name.  In later years the story spread that the brand stood for “ten (counties) in Texas” because the ranch spread into ten counties.  Other folks speculated that it meant “biggest in Texas.”

The vastness of the operation required dividing the ranch into eight divisions with a manager over each.  A 6,000-mile single-strand wire fence eventually enclosed the ranch, the largest in the world at that time.  By 1890 the XIT herd averaged 150,000 head, and the cowboys branded 35,000 calves a year.  Fences divided the ranch into ninety-four pastures; 325 windmills and 100 dams dotted the landscape. Cowhands received pay of twenty-five to thirty dollars a month.  XIT men and their “hired guns” sometimes formed vigilante groups to combat problems of fence cutting and cattle rustling.  Wolves and other wild animals took a heavy toll, especially during calving season.  Lack of ample water, droughts, blizzards, prairie fires, and a declining market resulted in the XIT operating without a profit for most of it years.

The schoolteacher wife of one of the managers, Cordia Sloan Duke, kept a diary, writing notes on a pad she carried in her apron pocket while she “looked after” her own family and the 150 cowboys who worked the ranch.  She successfully encouraged eighty-one cowboys and their families to keep diaries.  Eventually, she and Dr. Joe B. Frantz published a book, 6,000 Miles of Fence: Life on the XIT Ranch of Texas.  Through Mrs. Duke’s efforts, an authentic account of the work and lifestyle of that early phase of American life has been preserved in the cowboys’ own language.

With British creditors demanding a positive return, the syndicate began selling the land for small farms and ranches.  Although the cattle had been sold by 1912, the last parcel of land was not sold until 1963.  One hundred years after the land exchange, the tax value on the property reached almost $7 billion.

The XIT Ranch, built on land that served as payment for building the largest state capitol in North America, is remembered at the annual Dalhart XIT Reunion where a horse with an empty saddle honors the range riders of the past.

Horse With an Empty Saddle, Dalhart Reunion