Texas’ Swimming Holes Are Drying Up

My story about swimming holes in Texas, drought, and climate change in the 50th Anniversary issue of Texas Monthly magazine.

https://www.texasmonthly.com/travel/ode-to-texas-disappearing-swimming-holes/

swimming holes Blanco State Park
The Blanco River in Blanco State Park in September 2018. Photograph by Nick Simonite
Texas Icons

An Ode to Texas’s Disappearing Swimming Holes

I’ve spent the past half century immersing myself in Texas’s clear, cool waters. But if development and drought have their way, I may be the last of my kind.

This article is part of Texas Monthly’s special fiftieth-anniversary issue. Read about the other icons that have defined Texas since 1973.

I lived through the golden age of Texas swimming holes. Having spent my youth submerged in chlorinated pools in and around Fort Worth, I moved to Austin in 1973 and discovered Hippie Hollow before it was a county park and Barton Creek before a mining executive threatened to build a giant development along its banks.

Swimming in clear artesian spring water was a revelation to me. As a child, I’d seen San Marcos Springs when it was the Aquarena Springs theme park, but I didn’t associate the crystalline waters that Ralph the Swimming Pig frolicked in with something that was accessible to me. And yet, to my delight, I came to learn that they were.

The water in a Texas swimming hole is a pale blue or green or a hue somewhere in between that you can see through, often right to the bottom. Your eyes don’t sting when you open them underwater. There are creatures to observe—minnows, perch, crawfish, carp, catfish, bass, turtles, ducks, and maybe even, God help me, a water moccasin. A spring-fed swimming hole means cool-to-cold temperatures. The bottom is limestone, not squishy mud. Spoiled by such wonders, I quickly developed an aversion to cement ponds, as The Beverly Hillbillies’ Jethro Bodine called conventional swimming pools, and flinched at the scent of chlorine.

My then-girlfriend got me hooked on doing widths at Austin’s famous Barton Springs, and pretty soon I had worked up to swimming a round trip along the pool’s roughly one-eighth-mile length. Then it was a half mile and then a full mile. I was addicted. If I missed a day, I got cranky.

My search for clear, clean water turned into a treasure hunt. Hill Country rivers were prime targets: the Guadalupe, the Comal, the west fork of the Nueces, the Blanco, the San Marcos, the Llano, the Frio, the Medina. Creeks that fed the rivers sheltered hidden delights such as Jacob’s Well, Krause Springs, and several Blue Holes.

But I also found swimmable springs near Houston (swimmable but murky—it’s Houston!), near the Panhandle (Roaring Springs), and in the desert (Independence Creek). I became a regular at Balmorhea State Park, in far West Texas, swimming in the pool every month of the year. There are secret spots that I’ve been sworn never to reveal, at the risk of physical harm, and secret spots I can’t share because I trespassed. Having a gun pulled on you when you’re sopping wet is no fun.

Swimming-hole denizens are my tribe. We quietly exchange information about places worth checking out and share where the crowds aren’t. I’m fortunate to have friends who own ranches with secret holes to swim in and to have been invited to the Narrows, a typically off-limits miniature canyon in the Hill Country smack-dab between Blanco and Wimberley.

My obsession grew so fevered that thirty years ago my family and I left Austin for Wimberley to gain regular access to the Blanco River. I found an ideal swimming hole, and for years it has been part of my daily routine during the warm months.

Along the way, I’ve learned about karst topography and other unique features that make Texas swimming holes so abundant. I’ve also learned about the rule of capture, a Texas law that allows property owners to draw as much underground water as they wish, even at the risk of drying up a neighbor’s wells and springs. In the fifties, it effectively killed Fort Stockton’s Comanche Springs, once the largest in West Texas.

It wasn’t the first swimming hole to disappear, and it’s far from the last. In 2021, for the first time in my many summers in Wimberley, the Blanco ran so low that there wasn’t enough river to swim in. Extended drought, exploding population growth in the watershed, and aggressive groundwater pumping had reduced it to a trickling stream.

My bible, Gunnar Brune’s Springs of Texas, Volume 1, had warned me that this would happen. A technical volume published in 1981, it’s an expanded version of a 1975 report that Brune, a Fort Worth geologist, prepared for the Texas Water Development Board. He noted that the decline of Texas springs, in number and in volume, began with the first Spanish colonists and continued to the time of the book’s publication, largely as a result of agricultural, industrial, and municipal use of water, as well as the reduction in groundwater recharge.

That decline continues, primarily fueled by population growth. By 2005 only 17 of the 31 large springs once known in Texas remained. During the drought of 2022, Blue Hole, in Wimberley, and nearby Jacob’s Well were closed to swimming because of low or no flow. The Frio River at Concan went dry. Las Moras Springs, near Brackettville, stopped running. And this sad trend will likely only accelerate: we’re expecting a hotter, drier Hill Country in the future.

Some years back, I toured the Coal Mine Ranch in the isolated Trans-Pecos borderlands northwest of Candelaria. My host paused at a field of sun-bleached rubble. This was an ancient river delta, he said, leaning down and picking up a large rock to hand to me. Up close, I could make out the fossilized remnant of a very large turtle shell.

Will this be the fate of so many of the springs, creeks, rivers, and swimming holes that I love? Will the iconic image of our times be a minnow trapped in a shrinking puddle as the waters retreat? Or will the springs flow again and my beloved Blanco return when the rains come? So far in my lifetime, the water has always come back. But what about the next time?

Though the signs right now are dire, my faith remains strong enough that I recently ordered a new swimsuit, goggles, and earplugs. Perhaps I’m fooling myself. Perhaps hope is the only thing that springs eternal.

This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “C’mon in, the Water’s Finite.” Subscribe today.

Continue Reading

Triumphs @ East Bernard Riverside Hall and Swiss Alp: one last time

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/im-so-lonesome-i-could-cry-hitmakers-the-triumphs-call-it-quits-one-more-time/

by Joe Nick Patoski

After 63 years, The Triumphs are finally hanging it up. This time they mean it. Sure, there have been “last shows” before, but this time, after a few more live dates between New Year’s Eve and February, that’s going to be it.

“We’re retiring. For real,” says Don Drachenberg, one of the band’s vocalists who also plays saxophone. At 82, he is one of two members, along with Gary Koeppen, remaining from the band’s glory days in the early to mid-1960s. (A third original member, Tim Griffith, sadly passed away earlier this month.)

During its heyday, the band packed dance halls between Houston and San Antonio, engaged in storied battle of the bands with Roy Head’s band The Traits, and scored a hit record with a cover of the mournful Hank Williams ballad “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” sung by the group’s then lead vocalist, B.J. Thomas.

Formed in Rosenberg by Lamar Consolidated High School students, the band, named after the motorcycle, expanded over the years to include as many as seven to nine members. They first hung it up in 1980, but unable to quit the music, the group reformed in 1992. They called it quits a second time in 2020, with COVID-19 to blame.

“Our last performances were at East Bernard and Swiss Alp in January through February 2020, right before the pandemic hit,” Drachenberg says. “By the time May rolled around, all of our performing dates had been cancelled. By the middle of summer, we started yakking among ourselves. Live music and live dance halls may not be coming back for a few years. It looks like we’re done.”

That retirement lasted a year. A different tune was sung by the summer of 2021, when pandemic restrictions began to be lifted. “Three guys in the band started talking: we had a little gas left in the tank,” Drachenberg says. “A couple guys didn’t want to do it, seven of us did. We got back together in July to rehearse. In September, we started performing again.”

A year of gigs later and The Triumphs have reconsidered once again.

“We came to the conclusion we’re too old to be doing this. It’s too tiring, it’s too rough,” Drachenberg says, laughing. “You remember the good times, but you forget all the hours, lifting heavy equipment, all that. It was too much work and not enough fun.”

If ever there was a group who knew fun, it was The Triumphs. They built a following playing Top 40 and rock music in Texas dance halls between Houston and San Antonio. “East Bernard, Tate, Hilje, Hallettsville, Schulenberg, Moulton, LaGrange, El Campo KC Hall, Angleton Fairgrounds—we worked a circuit,” Drachenberg recalls. “We played those halls once a month, and worked in a party or a festival or reunion.”

Their repertoire included the popular songs of the day, from Motown and Jimmy Reed tunes to party songs like “Louie, Louie” and “(I’m A) Soul Man.” Very few original tunes were part of the setlist.

“My Girl,” made popular by the Temptations, remains one of the most requested songs at a Triumphs’ show. “Color My World” by Chicago became a band standard during the 1970s, as did “Midnight Hour,” “Red, Red Wine,” and “Cotton Eye Joe.” And, acknowledging the musical heritages of the dance halls where they played, the band performed polkas, including a medley of “Julida,” “Beer Barrel” (aka “Roll Out the Barrel”), “A Ja Sam,” and “In Heaven There Is No Beer.”

Two of their songs remain part of every Triumphs show today: their biggest hit, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and “Garner State Park,” which still is the last song played at Saturday night dances on the patio of the pavilion at Garner State Park north of Uvalde.

During the early 1960s, the Triumphs tried their hand at recording and realized some success, thanks to Houston Top 40 radio stations. Their first two 45 rpm singles, “I Know It’s Wrong” and “Lazy Man,” received airplay in 1962 on both KILT and KNUZ, with “Lazy Man” reaching No. 7 on KILT’s chart. Other hits included “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Billy and Sue” (reached No. 1 on KILT in 1964), and “Garner State Park.”

Then in December 1965, the band’s remake of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” broke out of Houston and went No. 1 nationally. Acknowledging the lead singer’s distinctive tenor voice, the band was promoted as B.J. Thomas and the Triumphs.

Things took a turn in March 1966 when the group was offered a slot on a national tour. Thomas eagerly signed on, but the rest of The Triumphs stayed behind. “Most of us were in college,” Drachenberg says. “We didn’t want to go. B.J. did. None of us had the aspirations he had.”

It’s a familiar showbiz story, only in this version the band that stayed behind never quit. “We’ve always been a local band,” Drachenberg explains. “We just wanted to enjoy what we do, and have our friends around us…We have so many fans that come out to see us. If we put something out on Facebook that we’re going to do something, we know several hundred people are going to turn out at that event. We recognize the faces, recognize the couples, even as they’ve gotten older. We have a hellacious fan base.”

Over the years, the band’s popularity could be seen at venues like Riverside Hall in East Bernard, which drew fans from Columbus, Eagle Lake, Bay City, Houston. The group was so popular there, Drachenberg says, “[w]hen it burned down in the late 1980s, they immediately built another hall.”

Playing Swiss Alp, a storied Texas dance hall between Schulenberg and LaGrange, is like going to a family reunion. “My wife’s family comes from Hallettsville,” he says. “Her grandparents danced at Swiss Alp, her parents danced at Swiss Alp, my wife and I danced there, my daughter in Schulenberg dances there. And now my granddaughter who lives in Houston dances at Swiss Alp.”

In 2010, 44 years after he left for biggest stages, Thomas performed with the Triumphs again. “Both of us were kicking ourselves for not having got back together earlier,” Drachenberg says. They continued doing special performances together until Thomas’ death in 2021.

Drachenberg admits he’s going to miss doing what he’s done his entire adult life. “Performing on the stage, you get a great feeling,” he says. “Having somebody applaud or go ‘Whoop!’ after you’ve done a song, that gives me chill bumps.”

And after the band gave so many people a good time with music, the fans are returning the favor. “People have been calling me, thanking me for giving their family so much fun and pleasure over the years,” Drachenberg says. “That feels really good.”

The Triumphs’ final public shows take place New Year’s Eve at the Silos in Giddings, Jan. 28 at the band’s historic home base Riverside Hall in East Bernard, and Feb. 18 at Swiss Alp Hall. For more information, check the calendar on The Triumphs’ website

Continue Reading

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge – the Wild Rio Grande Valley

https://texashighways.com/things-to-do/on-the-water/explore-rio-grande-valley-wilderness-wildlife-at-laguna-atascosa-national-wildlife-refuge/

Explore the wilderness and wildlife of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge

Creature Comforts

By Joe Nick Patoski

A sunrise view of Laguna Madre from the Plover Point observation deck. Photo by Erich Schlegel; Illustration by Lin Jesse

An illustration of a swimming duck with a bright red head moving through tall grassy reeds

A redhead duck. Illustration by Lin Jesse

Beyond Laguna Madre,

on the ocean side of South Padre Island, a bank of cumulus clouds looms over the Gulf of Mexico. Morning light casts a palette of radiant oranges, yellows, pinks, and blues, minutes before the sun makes its debut above the clouds.

Sunrise in January is prime time at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in the Rio Grande Valley. The tropical humidity and heat, the norm from late March until November, abates, and the winter residents move in. From the Plover Point observation deck, the Laguna Madre —one of only four shallow, hypersaline bays in the world—shimmers with sublime views.

Living creatures are everywhere—in the water, on the land, in the sky. Songbirds flit out of the impenetrable thornscrub brush called the monte, while a pair of scissor-tailed flycatchers pirouette around a Spanish dagger yucca. A clutch of shockingly pink roseate spoonbills stands out among hundreds of white egrets, herons, and ducks congregating in a shallow pond. On the shore of the laguna, shorebirds gingerly step in the shallows in search of breakfast. Redfish, too, their tails extending above the water surface as they feed on shrimp. A brown pelican spies a tailing redfish and quickly scoops it up. On the road through the thornscrub, rabbits and roadrunners crisscross the path where a brilliantly dark indigo snake has just slithered. Coyotes, whitetail deer, and nilgai antelope roam undisturbed across the open savannah. Butterflies and dragonflies flutter around by the dozens.

A collection of palm trees and grasses with water and cloudy sky in the background

Redhead Ridge on the shore of Laguna Madre. Photo by Larry Ditto

Welcome to the wildest part of the wild Rio Grande Valley, which offers a glimpse into the natural world that flourished across deep South Texas before it was settled, farmed, and developed. Coastal, tropical, jungle, and desert all at once, the Valley is where the two major North American migratory bird flyways converge, and it’s a crucial wintering grounds for waterfowl. Laguna Atascosa is at the center of the action.

The rapidly developing region is also attractive to humans. From 2000 to 2020, the Rio Grande Valley population—including Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, and Willacy counties—grew 41% to 1.37 million people. According to the Texas Demographic Center at the University of Texas at San Antonio, the number is projected to grow another 15% to 1.58 million by 2050, depending on migration rates. But while habitat loss is the usual story in the booming RGV, Laguna Atascosa is all about rewilding.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service established the refuge in 1946, carving about 11,000 acres from a World War II gunnery range to protect wintering bird habitat, primarily the redhead duck on Laguna Atascosa. Over the past two decades, assistance from groups including The Nature Conservancy and The Conservation Fund, along with settlement funds from the 2010 BP Oil Spill, have allowed the refuge to add over 50,000 acres to expand to more than 120,000 acres across multiple units. The South Padre Island Unit protects land on the northern end of the island, and the Bahia Grande Unit protects wetlands between Laguna Vista and Brownsville. Ongoing purchases are creating a new coastal corridor for wildlife to travel between patches of their fragmented habitat, including via special highway underpasses.

“There’s not a more significant place for wildlife diversity in Texas, and maybe the country, than the Lower Rio Grande Valley, from songbirds to ocelots to waterfowl,” says Jeff Francell, director of land protection for The Nature Conservancy in Texas. “Most of the native brush in the Valley was converted to farmland decades ago, and so to enhance the native wildlife populations, it’s important to take some of that land and restore it for wildlife. For example, one of the pieces of property we were able to acquire was an old shrimp farm, and we were able to buy part of it to provide a corridor for ocelots between Laguna Atascosa and Bahia Grande.”

Laguna Atascosa astounds in its diversity: 417 bird species, 130 butterfly species, 45 mammal species, 44 reptile species, and 450 plant species. And the refuge is far enough from the border to avoid lighting, walls, and other disruptive issues that have negatively impacted some refuges along the Rio Grande. Outside of a visitor center, a couple of roads, and a handful of overlooks, the refuge has very little infrastructure. Wildlife conservation is the priority. This is by far the biggest chunk of wild in the Rio Grande Valley

Two people, one with binoculars and another with a camera, look for birds along a watery shore

Birding on the tidal flats at South Bay by the Brownsville Ship Channel. Photo by Larry Ditto

About 15 minutes before daybreak, I meet the refuge’s visitor services manager, Georgie Garcia, in the visitor center parking lot and jump into his high-clearance pickup. Garcia, a Brownsville native and Iraq War vet, drives the truck across Buena Vista Road and opens the gate at the trailhead to Granjeno Trail, the access to Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive. We continue to Plover Point to take in the sunrise before touring the heart of the refuge via roads, trails, and barely visible dirt tracks.

Garcia, one of seven employees, also maintains the trails with a brush cutter to keep the monte from encroaching, stocks the feeders and water features, conducts educational outreach, and coordinates the seasonal volunteers. The Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge group runs the bookshop in the visitor center, and volunteers help cover for Garcia whenever he is away from the service counter, which is the source of permits and information. Luckily, the service counter has a picture window that looks over a bird feeding station.

“Every day I bet my paycheck I’ll see a green jay,” Garcia says of the Neotropical bird rarely seen elsewhere in the United States. “There will be 20 on a feeder sometimes.”

The visitor center reopened in May after being closed for two years due to the pandemic. In 2019, the refuge restored its main thoroughfare, Buena Vista Road, from a potholed country road to a two-lane boulevard with bicycle lanes on both sides, along with eight large speed bumps to keep traffic under the 25-mph speed limit. The “Ocelot Crossing” signs are for real.

The park’s other road—Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive—closed to private motor vehicles in 2013 when a car hit and killed a lactating female ocelot. A 60-person tram operated on the loop seasonally in the 2010s until it broke down in 2018 and was declared beyond repair.

These days, hiking and cycling are the only ways to explore Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive and the 55 miles of other trails.

As we drive through two fallow fields lined with tree tubes containing seedlings and saplings of natives such as mesquite and hawthorn, Garcia says the refuge’s revegetation efforts have stepped up as more land has been added. “All that acquired property was ag fields,” he grins confidently. “Give it 10 years; it’ll be South Texas thornscrub.”

An illustration of a bird with dark brown wings, a white tuft, and small head with a beak sitting on a wooden branch

An Aplomado falcon. Illustration by Lin Jesse
A map of coastal Texas showing the Laguna Madre and Laguna Atacosa areas

Map illustration by Lin Jesse
A boat makes a wide white wake as it traverses a green channel

Boating the Stover Cove area on Laguna Madre. Photo by Erich Schlegel

The ocelot—a small, secretive spotted feline, about twice the size of a house cat—has become a symbol of the refuge. Laguna Atascosa is home to 30-35 ocelots, one of two breeding populations in the U.S.

In cooperation with the refuge, the Friends of LANWR group holds an annual Ocelot Conservation Day in March at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville—March 5 this year—with booths and presentations.

“We know the biggest problem is habitat loss,” Garcia says. “This past trapping season, they were able to trap six ocelots and put collars on them. The ocelot is an umbrella species; it’s at the top. If you restore their habitat, it’s going to help a lot of other South Texas species, some of them endangered or threatened.”

While making the rounds, Garcia chases off several cows that wandered in from a neighboring ranch, watches a gator snag an unsuspecting bird, and fetches the remnants of a mylar balloon snagged on a prickly pear.

We drive south to the 26,000-acre Bahia Grande Unit, an addition to the refuge that is west of State Highway 48 and the Brownsville Ship Channel.

An illustration of a large tortoise walking through green grasses and flowers

A Texas tortoise. Illustration by Lin Jesse

“This was a complete dust bowl,” Garcia says, gazing across rough vegetated lowlands spiked with yucca. “Now we’ve restored it to beautiful coastal prairie wetlands, with lomas, how it used to be.” Lomas are low vegetated hills that exist in only three places in the world. “We’re going to bring in some fresh water, which should balance out the salinity.” The Bahia Grande is hunting grounds for Aplomado falcons, which eat insects, lizards, birds, and small mammals.

We inspect a channel between two small inlets in the estuaries and watch a school of redfish forming a V as they move through. We stop near another small shallow lake, almost dry, and Garcia walks toward a sandy shelf, maybe 5 feet high. Beneath the shelf, dozens of perfectly circular beads no more than an eighth of an inch in diameter, each with a hole in the middle, are scattered in the sand around our feet.

“The thinking is this was on a trade route between the coast and the interior,” Garcia says. Once revegetation has taken hold and archeological work is complete in two to four years, Bahia Grande will have public access. For now, it is open to hunters on designated weekends in the winter.

A silhouette of a person riding a bicycle in front of a sunset

Cycling on Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive. Photo by Eric Schlegel

Visiting Laguna Atascosa

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge offers a look at why the Rio Grande Valley was slow to be civilized for large-scale human population. What’s great for the creatures and critters translates to rough country for people—it’s hot, humid, windy, and buggy.

Park staff members recommend bringing a wide-brimmed hat, bug repellent, sunblock, long pants, high socks, and sturdy footwear to ward off ticks, chiggers, and snakes—regardless of the time of year.

The refuge doesn’t have food or drink for sale, and fuel is 15 miles away at the intersection of SH 100 and FM 510 west of Port Isabel. The nearest hospital is in Harlingen, 28 miles from the visitor center.

Admission costs $3 per vehicle. An annual pass is $10. The refuge trails are open daily, dawn to dusk. The visitor center opens Wed-Fri 7 a.m.-2 p.m. 22817 Buena Vista Boulevard, Los Fresnos. 956-748-3607; fws.gov/refuge/laguna-atascosa

The Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge group maintains a calendar of events and activities on its website, flanwr.org.

We don’t see a soul on our five-hour tour, except for a lone cyclist cruising along the back side of Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive. He is clearly in the zone, steadily pedaling, lost in the rhythm and unaware of our truck inching up behind him. Garcia patiently keeps his distance for a few minutes, then gently taps his horn. The cyclist startles. He pulls over and grins as we pass.

The cyclist is Irv Downing, a 68-year-old former endurance racer who moved from South Padre to be closer to the refuge, which he cycles about “every other day.” Downing calls Laguna Atascosa his Serengeti. “The scenery, the setting, the laguna, it’s just spectacular,” he says. “My son was visiting from Seattle last week, and on our ride photographed 20 nilgai antelope.”

After talking to Downing, I figure I could bicycle this route too—if it wasn’t too windy, too hot, or too cold. “This is a difficult trail because of the distance and wind factor,” Garcia acknowledges. “The way to do this is on an electric bike.”

My ears perk up.

I couldn’t locate any e-bike rentals near the refuge, so I find one to borrow near my home in Wimberley and load it into my SUV. Back at the refuge, I meet photographer Erich Schlegel at the visitor center parking lot just before sunrise.

The narrow, paved route along Steve Thompson Scenic Drive is downright bucolic, especially with the rising sun casting a soft golden glow over the whole scene, straight out of a Van Gogh landscape. I pedal conventionally most of the way, twisting the accelerator handgrip whenever I lag behind Schlegel and whenever headwinds slow
my pace.

We cycle through the monte, up and down a loma, past prairies and estuaries, and along the shores of shallow lakes, bogs, mudholes, and wetlands. Wildlife stirs all along the way. Because we’re on bikes, the wildlife is more active, less oblivious to our presence, than when we were driving the route in a truck. We see several white-tailed deer scamper up from a creek bottom, followed by a herd of nilgai antelope cows who stroll across a grass prairie to meet up with a herd of nilgai bulls.

We cycle 13 miles in two hours including stops at Plover Point and Renee’s Overlook along the shore of the Laguna Madre. It’s a good workout, even with electric assistance. But it is nothing like the exhilaration I feel being there, passing the morning in that part of the Rio Grande Valley where the wild things are.

There is one caveat. No ocelot sighting. I reach out to Hilary Swarts, one of the refuge’s two wildlife biologists. Swarts is an ocelot specialist who has trapped and collared the cats on the refuge; she also documented the first ocelot kitten discovered on the refuge in about two decades.

Swarts, who has worked at the refuge for nine years, has spotted ocelots in the wild twice, one in July 2020 and one this past June, both near the visitor center. “Whenever I feel pessimistic, I remind myself they’re all over this refuge,” she says. “They’ve seen me more often than I’ve seen them. They could be staring at us right now.”

That’s the spirit of Laguna Atascosa.

“It’s that wild, that alive,” Swarts says. “And you don’t have to hike or bike to appreciatethat. Just plant yourself somewhere and watch.”

Laguna
Atascosa Wildlife

Birders are as hip to Laguna Atascosa as the birds are. The late Roger Tory Peterson, a pioneer of modern American bird-watching from New York, made six trips to the refuge in the 20th century in search of uncommon sightings. More than 400 bird species have been spotted at the refuge, including South Texas specialties such as green jays, Altamira orioles, and plain chachalacas.

Popular bird-watching sites include the visitor center, which is home to blinds, feeders, and water features; Kiskadee Trail, a paved, wheelchair-accessible path; and the Mesquite Trail loop and the Prairie Island viewing area.

Osprey Overlook, a covered platform with a sweeping vista of the 3,500-acre Laguna Atascosa, is a magnet for pelicans, herons, egrets, and, during winter, 85% of the redhead ducks in North America.

Endangered Aplomado falcons were introduced on the refuge in 1993 after being eradicated in most of the Southwest. Twenty-six pairs presently reside on the refuge, most around the Bahia Grande Unit.

Near Osprey Overlook is the trailhead to Alligator Pond, where alligators wallow in their element. And while you won’t likely see them, wild cats are out there too—bobcats, cougars, and ocelots.

Hunts, which take place on designated days between November and February, are managed to cull invasive hogs and nilgai antelope.

From the January 2023 issue
Continue Reading

The President’s Ranch Trail Drive – cruisin’ with LBJ

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/for-a-quick-road-trip-the-presidents-ranch-trail-takes-you-all-the-way-with-lbj/

from TexasHighways.com

The exterior of a white house with a green lawn and mature trees

Way back in 1967, local boosters in Gillespie, Blanco, and Hays counties got together and devised the President’s Ranch Trail, a 100-mile drive from Stonewall to San Marcos, tracing the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was in the last years of his term as president of the United States.

There were ceremonies and a map, but the trail never gained traction until after Johnson left office, when most of the significant sites went under the oversight of the National Park Service and Texas State Parks. Significant infrastructure to accommodate tourists has since been added. And it’s all free.

I was intrigued by Johnson, the 36th president of the United States and the first president from Texas. That lofty position assured a legacy, much of which is enshrined at the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum in Austin.

But to fully appreciate the person, you need to visit the place where he came from, where the land and water and structures vividly tell the story of Johnson’s life. More than any single person, LBJ transformed his beloved Hill Country, bringing electricity and dependable water to people who had neither, then putting the region on the map as president, spending so much time at his Stonewall ranch, it became known as the Texas White House.

Studying the original map and factoring in modern road conditions and population growth, I devise an amended President’s Ranch Trail, focusing on Stonewall and Johnson City, and leaving out the 38-mile leg from Blanco to San Marcos through Wimberley. The trail can be covered in a single day or broken up into a two-day adventure.

I start in Johnson City, just west of the junction of US 281 and US 290. At the corner of East Ladybird Lane and South Avenue G is the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Site Visitor Center, within eyesight of the family home Johnson lived in while growing up, and, nearby, the Johnson settlement, the root source of the LBJ saga.

At the visitor center, I watch the 15-minute introductory film LBJ The President, learn more about his legacy reading the exhibit panels, check out the Model T given to LBJ by the Henry Ford Museum, and visit with Joe Owens, the friendly host behind the counter.

“I was a social studies teacher and love history,” Owens tells me. “I get to meet people from all over the country, all over the world.”

The annual visitor count coming off pandemic closures is about 140,000, and would be higher, Owens says, if the Texas White House wasn’t closed for repairs. (After Ladybird Johnson died in 2007, the family home was given to the National Park Service and opened to visitors. Since 2018, however, structural and foundational issues plus needed improvements have forced its closure.)

When other folks drift into the visitor center, Owens pulls out three matching maps of the ranch district and the Johnson City district and goes into detail about what there is to see and do. I choose to begin at LBJ’s boyhood home—a white clapboard structure with green trim and high ceilings—the next block over.

A map of all the spots to visit on the President’s Ranch Trail.

The family moved into this house in 1913 and lived there until Lyndon left for college in San Marcos in 1927. The simple frame house on Elm Street is deceiving: The Johnsons were already well-connected, with cousin James Polk Johnson founding the town of Johnson City, and Lyndon’s father, Sam Ealy Johnson, serving five terms as a state legislator. Ten years after he left for college, Johnson stood on the home’s front porch to announce his candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Across the street from the visitor center, at Elm and Avenue F, is the headquarters of the Pedernales Electric Cooperative, which puts up Christmas lights that are as spectacular as those around the Blanco County courthouse four blocks north. The co-op, created through Johnson’s persistent lobbying as a congressman, brought electricity to the Hill Country.

Following Owens’ directions, I head to the Johnson settlement, two blocks by foot, or easily accessed from the Johnson Settlement Event Center parking lot, four blocks west on US 290, just across from a gas station.

A half-mile gravel loop leads to the settlement’s event center, and a collection of 19th-century cabins, a barn, and corrals with longhorns over the fence line. Lyndon’s grandfather, Sam Ealy Johnson Sr., and his great-uncle Tom Johnson based their cattle operation here from 1867 to 1872. Sending cattle to market up the Chisholm Trail, theirs was the biggest trail-driving outfit in Blanco and six adjoining counties.

From the settlement on the western edge of Johnson City, I continue west 10 miles on US 290 to the settlement in Hye, passing manicured estates of wineries, distilleries, meaderies, and cideries—the new ranches of the Hill Country. On the left, at the turnoff to Hye-Albert Road, is the storied Hye General Store and Post Office, where 4-year-old Lyndon mailed his first letter, according to the historical marker at the entrance. The storefront, built in 1904, was gussied up in a red, white, and blue motif for LBJ’s 1965 swearing-in of new U.S. postmaster general Lawrence O’Brien on the front steps. Today, the post office shares space with Farm Ale Brewing, which is opening a new tasting room soon.

Continue west 3 miles on US 290 to the visitor center for the LBJ State Park and Historical Site. Pick up a pass to drive the LBJ Ranch (no charge). The visitor center also features tchotchkes at the gift shop, a life-size Lyndon to pose next to for photos, and a theater showing films about LBJ.

Next stop is a few hundred feet east of the visitor center on Park Road 52: the living history homestead of Sauer-Beckmann Farm.

“We do everything as if it’s 1918,” says Mark Itz, a fifth-generation Fredericksburger dressed in buckskin who works at the farm as a state park ranger. He and volunteers guide visitors through the vegetable garden, canning room, blacksmith shop, and sewing room where Kathy Catlin shows off her seamstress skills. You can also watch demonstrations of how to feed the domestic stock, gather eggs, chop wood by hand, and keep the wagon wheels turning,

“We just cooked our lunch on the wood stove,” Itz says. “Ground meat, rice, onions, squash, sweet potato. We make our own blood sausage, liver sausage, and head cheese.”

Itz then answers a question about what he misses the most living in 1918. “Electricity would be the biggest thing,” he says. “We didn’t get that here until 1945.” He then explains how Congressman Johnson secured the largest loan for rural electrification ever to establish the Pedernales Electric Coop in 1942.

“And vehicles,” Itz adds to his answer, “although folks around here continued using wagons to haul stuff because the beds of early pickup trucks were so small.”

From the living history farm, it’s across the Pedernales River, the lifeline that nourishes this part of the Hill Country, to the LBJ Ranch, a 2,000-acre spread that Johnson purchased from his aunt in 1951 when he was a United States senator. LBJ’s message “All the world is welcome here” greets visitors beginning the loop around the ranch.

I glimpse inside the Junction School, the classic one-room school where little Lyndon first attended class, and where President Johnson initiated the Head Start education program for underprivileged children. This is followed by the small house marking LBJ’s birthplace (reconstructed in 1964), his grandparents’ house nearby, and the family cemetery.

Heading north, west, and south on the paved one-lane ranch loop (also popular with cyclists), you pass fallow fields, manicured grazing pastures, herds of whitetail deer, a massive irrigation pivot, the show barn with its pens and corrals where LBJ’s prized rust-colored Hereford cattle are housed (ranch hands will answer your questions), the airstrip, and other points of interest.

The drive leads to “Air Force One-Half,” as the small Lockheed jet was called by LBJ. Situated in the adjacent hangar is the National Historical Park Visitor Center for the Texas While House, the Johnson’s home away from Washington, D.C. An exhibit panel highlights the movie nights hosted at the Texas White House in this hangar, a Resistol hat and pair of Lucchese boots—signature presidential wear—a view of the storage room filled with gifts that LBJ bestowed on guests, and a Ladybird-centric room.

A brown old-timey car parked inside of a building next to a white vintage car

Historic Model T at the LBJ Ranch. Photo by Will van Overbeek.

A brown National Parks Service sign reading "Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park"

LBJ Ranch and Texas White House. Photo by Randall Maxwell

The star attraction, though, is the family home, which is currently off-limits. Lack of funds stalled repairs, but it is now on track to reopen within the next five years.

While that may have kept the visitor count down, according to Joe Owens, it’s still fun to check out the grounds where LBJ staged barbecues and walk past the small cottage identified as the United States Secret Service Command Post.

 

Trinity Lutheran Church across the Pedernales River from LBJ Ranch Trinity Lutheran Church, Stonewall. Photo by Will van Overbeek.

Side Trip: LBJ Museum of San Marcos

While the big LBJ Presidential Library in Austin is a destination unto itself, the little LBJ museum on the square in downtown San Marcos complements Johnson’s Hill Country. According to director Debby Butler, the small three-room museum is dedicated to Johnson’s time as a student seeking a history teacher’s certificate at Southwest Texas State Teachers College, now Texas State University, and the two years he spent teaching at the Welhausen School for Mexican children in the South Texas community of Cotulla.

The museum also functions as a small-scale version of the national and state park visitor centers’ exhibits, with the addition of text in Spanish as well as English. Listen to audio of LBJ speaking (and telling some pretty good jokes) while viewing panels that chronicle his initiatives including the Civil Rights Act, the Economic Opportunity Act, and the Wilderness Act, and the Space Race. You can also see Lyndon at leisure, including a photograph of the president dancing with his favorite actress, Carol Channing. Among the displays is an exhibit case featuring a colorful array of Johnson campaign buttons and a yellowed original front page of the San Marcos Record announcing Johnson’s death.

The San Marcos Museum informs visitors that Johnson wasn’t just class president, but he was also on the debate team and president of the college’s press club. A black-and-white photo series from 1957 shows him physically cajoling another senator, speaking volumes of LBJ’s persuasive powers. Upstairs is a re-creation of Ladybird’s whistle-stop campaigns by train, along with exhibit panels about her life. Three panels feature her powerful conservation speeches at the Padre Island National Seashore, Big Bend National Park, and Fort Davis National Historical Site. I appreciated reading the reprint of a homesick letter he wrote to his mother, also a school teacher, when he was teaching in Cotulla, in which he writes “Babtist” for Baptist—written like a true Texan.

After a pause by Trinity Lutheran Church (where Lyndon and Ladybird attended Sunday services when they were on the ranch), I turn onto Lower Albert Road, crossing US 290 and continuing south 3 miles down a road past real farms that once dominated the area. Albert, a quick left on FM 1623, consists of a historic dance hall and adjacent icehouse/bar, surrounded by a spacious open picnic area with the Cowboy Cantina food truck.

Just beyond the dance hall is the turnoff to a gate and a sign identifying the building on the other side as the Williams Creek School House. This is where LBJ attended school for a year when he was 4 (clearly, a watershed year for the young fellow). The school is now the Albert Community Club and open for club events only.

Less than a half-mile farther east on Farm-to-Market Road 1623, take County Road 206 (Hye-Albert Road) 5 miles back to Hye, then go 5 miles back to 290. Johnson City, your starting point, is 10 miles east. Altogether the route is about 50 miles and can be done in a full day, or two-days if you prefer a more leisurely visit. There are plenty of quaint places in the area for an overnight stay.

The land, you will discover, shaped the man. And this particular man had enough prominence and clout to preserve and honor the places and people who made it that way. Everything’s OK on the LBJ.

LBJ served by BBQ caterer Walter Jetton
Continue Reading

Texas Music Hour of Power Sat nites 7-9 pm central KRTS Marfa KWVH Wimberley and anytime here

tmhoposterofficial

 

www.marfapublicradio.org

www.westtexaspublicradio.org

www.wimberleyvalleyradio.org

www.kwvh.org

Every Saturday nite, yours truly hosts the Texas Music Hour of Power, showcasing all kinds of Texas sounds created over the past century of recorded music. The show runs two hours because Texas spans two time zones and frankly, the music is too dang big to limit it to one hour.

Continue Reading

Joe Ely Looks Back on His 50-Year Career before ACL Induction

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/joe-ely-looks-back-on-his-50-year-career-ahead-of-austin-city-limits-hall-of-fame-induction/

A man in a denim jacket and sunglasses sits on conrete steps with a guitar on his lap and book open over the guitar

Still cool at age 75, Joe Ely continues to perform and make music. Photo by BarbaraFG, courtesy LC Media.

It has been quite a month for Joe Ely. The Flatlanders, the Lubbock trio he first played and recorded with in 1972, headlined the Back to the Basics Music Festival at Luckenbach in late September. It was their first performance in three and a half years, and many thought it would be their final gig. Flatland Lullaby, a musical Christmas gift back in 1985 to his then 3-year-old daughter, Maria Elena, was released on CD for the first time in early October. And on Oct. 27, he will be inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame, along with singer Sheryl Crow.

Is all this part of a long goodbye? I wondered. So I rang him up to ask.

Nah, it’s more like the grand reawakening, explained the 75-year-old Ely, who still keeps musician’s hours, rising “about 10, 10:30.”

“I’ve been taking a breather, healing from an operation I had a couple years ago, getting my strength back,” he said. “Luckenbach was the first one of a new run, if we do anything else. I’m just going to leave it open.”

As for juggling three things at once, that’s been his life, he said matter-of-factly. “This wasn’t planned out. They just happened to collide. So we just grabbed it by the horns.”

It’s a life worthy of hall of famer status in a number of institutions. The discography is impressive, 21 albums and counting. And when it comes to live performance, Joe Ely is without peer, as I discovered when I first saw him back in 1977 at a club in Lubbock called Fat Dawg’s.

MCA Records had just released his debut album, Joe Ely. At that time, the music scene in Austin had blown up to the point where anything coming out of the city was stirring up interest nationally, thanks to folks like Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Willis Alan Ramsey. But the country-rock hybrid being played around Austin had become tired and stereotypical.

Ely’s album was rock and country, too, but it came out of the city famous for producing ’50s rock ‘n’ roll icon Buddy Holly, and it sounded like it. His ensemble featured guitar, pedal steel, and accordion—instruments then not known for their compatibility—and packed a sonic wallop behind Ely’s singing that was simultaneously rockin’ and boot-scootin’ and so fresh and original, you couldn’t stick a label on it. The interplay between guitarist Jesse Taylor and steel guitarist Lloyd Maines was as powerful and unique to my ears as Duane Allman’s and Dickie Betts’ dueling guitar leads in the original Allman Brothers.

On that same visit to the Hub City, Joe took me to Buddy Holly’s grave at the city of Lubbock Cemetery to pay our respects, and we careened around the wide streets late into the night, ostensibly searching for a Black dwarf blues singer named Little Pete. We finally found Little Pete about 2 a.m., playing pool in TV’s, an after-hours joint located at the end of a cotton field east of town.

“TV was king of East Lubbock,” Ely said when I brought up the vivid memory. “He knew all the cool cats and ran a respectable bar that didn’t open ’til 1 or 2 in the morning. He got along well with the law because they knew the bad guys would be at TV’s; they’d all be in one spot. TV kept the herd on the dangerous side of Lubbock.”

Before that trip to Lubbock, I didn’t know much about Ely’s previous music adventure, The Flatlanders folk trio with Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. They had recorded an album and made a run at Nashville as country troubadours, without success. They fell apart in 1973. Hancock moved to Austin to open Lubbock Or Leave It, a downtown store that featured his photography. Gilmore followed his spiritual advisor to Colorado. Ely joined the Ringling Brothers circus for a short spell taking care of llamas and the World’s Smallest Horse (really), then settled in Lubbock where he put together a band and built up a local following, making original music that prompted MCA Records to offer a deal.

I thought I’d made a discovery. My instincts were validated a year after I saw Ely in Lubbock by The Clash, the punk rockers from Great Britain. That band caught Ely and company at the Venue Club in London, and a mutual admiration society was immediately established.

“[After that first gig, we] hit the clubs in the East End, staying up all night and having a good time,” Ely told Margaret Moser of the Austin Chronicle back in 2000. “It was like the West Texas hellraisers meet the London hellraisers. We were from different worlds, but it was like, ‘All right! Let’s hang out some more!’ We were playing three nights in a row at the Venue and hung out the whole time.

“They told me they were coming to America and I asked where they wanted to play. ‘Laredo, El Paso’—they were naming off all these gunfighter ballad towns from Marty Robbins’ songs. ‘Well, I don’t know about that,’ I said, ‘but we could play Lubbock together.’ And they were like, ‘Lubbock! All right!’ We played Houston, San Antonio, Laredo, Lubbock, and Juarez. It was a great Europe-meets-Texas meeting.”

Ely told me The Clash’s fantasy vision of the American West didn’t quite square with reality. “The first thing they said when they got to Lubbock was ‘Where are all the cars? Where are all the people?’ It was a normal day in Lubbock, maybe four cars on the street. But to the Clash it was ‘Where is everybody?’ ’Why did Buddy Holly come from here?’ ‘Why did Elvis play the Fair Park Coliseum eight times?’

“We saw a lot in each other. Imaginations were on fire and bands were extreme. Breaking the rules was the rule.”

A year after bonding with The Clash, Ely became stage sweethearts with Linda Ronstadt, the Queen of L.A. Rock. The Joe Ely Band opened a string of tour dates for Ronstadt, and she returned the favor playing the Tornado Jam in Lubbock in 1982.

Ely and the band split after five years of hardcore touring domestically and internationally. One by one, band members relocated to Austin. Guitarist Jesse Taylor and accordionist Ponty Bone started fronting their own bands, and pedal steel player Lloyd Maines established himself as the most prolific producer in Texas music history after developing his skills in Lubbock.

It was around this time that Ely began embracing technology, meeting and becoming friends with Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple Computer. He experimented with recording using an Apple II computer and the original recordings for B484, which Wozniak did the liner notes for, may be the first album ever recorded on an Apple. He followed that album up with Hi-Res, also recorded on an Apple II.

A few years later, Ely hired guitar-slinger David Grissom and welcomed fellow West Texan Bobby Keys, the saxophone player for the Rolling Stones, to join his new backing band whenever he could. Out of this came Lord of the Highway.

In 1993, Ely struck up a friendship with Bruce Springsteen, who saw him play in Dublin, Ireland, and became a fan, recording “All Just To Get To You” with Ely and performing together 17 times. Ely never shied away from taking risks. For a stretch, Ely added Dutch flamenco guitarist Teye who played on the 1995 album Letter to Laredo.

By the turn of the century, he had steered into solo and acoustic work, doing several songwriter tours with Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, and Guy Clark sitting in a semi-circle doing a guitar pull. He won a Grammy as part of the Tex-Mex supergroup Los Super Seven. The Flatlanders reunited when Robert Redford asked them to contribute a song to the soundtrack of the film The Horse Whisperer in 1998. Butch, Jimmie, and Joe proved far more popular this time around, recording a full album, Now Again, in 2002. The trio released Treasure of Love, their first new recording in 12 years, last year.

No matter what Joe Ely was doing, he always made time to put together a band for epic live shows at Gruene Hall, where he last performed on Feb. 19, 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.

As a writer, there have been plays (Chippy), books (Reverb: An Odyssey, Bonfire of Roadmaps), and induction into the Texas Institute of Letters in 2017. There’s also art (including sketches of beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti; prints and box sets are available on Ely’s website), and lifetime achievement awards and recognitions out the wazoo.

So between the pandemic pause and post-op rehab, it would be easy to conclude Ely has run his race. Rocking out isn’t effortless when you’re 75. But he begs to differ.

There’s the release of his “labor of love” to his daughter, Flatland Lullaby. “I was glad I didn’t let it slip away like so many other recordings that I’ve done over the years,” he said. “I hadn’t finished them and they just kinda go away if you don’t put them out. There are so many partial stories that lead to other stories, now it’s like a puzzle, piecing it all together. That’s the feeling I had with this Lullaby album.”

And that Flatlanders gig at Luckenbach? “That was the one and only Flatlanders gig in three and a half years. We’re talking about doing the New Orleans Jazz Festival [in April 2023] and talking about doing northern California at Rancho Nicasio [a storied club in rural Marin County, run by former fellow Lubbock native Angela Strehli]. I’ve played there many times. We just don’t have dates inked in.”

But no more three-week runs for the self-declared “Lord of the Highway.” “We not talking about making this a touring band,” he said, laughing. “We just want to have fun, and not get caught up in what it takes to keep a road band going with 10 people on the payroll.”

In other words, the road doesn’t go on forever, like Robert Earl Keen wrote, and Joe Ely doesn’t live on the road anymore. “No, I don’t,” he said, again laughing. “Thank goodness. I’ve done my time.”

He admitted feeling apprehensive about getting back onstage again with the Flatlanders. “It was scary thinking about it,” he said. “But once we got onstage and started playing together, it was like somebody had opened the door and we were back home.”

The next gig, his ACL induction, should feel more like comfortable shoes. Maines is leading the band, which includes David Grissom on guitar and Ely’s longtime rhythm section, drummer Davis McLarty and bassist Jimmy Pettit. Butch and Jimmie Dale will be on hand, along with Marcia Ball and Rodney Crowell.

As for the formal induction, Ely claimed he’ll be winging it. “I don’t know exactly what to do,” he said blithely. “I don’t know what to wear. I don’t know what drawer to look in to find the missing parts of my life.” By showtime, I’m betting he’ll have figured it out.

Continue Reading

a brief history of the rise and rise of Texas skyscrapers

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/a-brief-history-of-the-rise-and-rise-of-texas-skyscrapers/

An artist rendering of the Austin skyline with the Waterline on the right of the photo. Soaring to 1,022 feet, Waterline will become the tallest tower in Texas when it opens in 2026. Source: Atchain

Soaring to 1,022 feet, the Waterline will become the tallest tower in Texas when it opens in 2026. Photo courtesy of Atchain.

The recent announcement that construction will soon begin on Texas’ tallest skyscraper came as a surprise to many. Not necessarily for the structure itself, but where it would be built—in Austin, not Houston or Dallas. It’s a sure sign the capital city has joined the civic competition to erect the tallest building, and therefore claim the title of tallest city in the Lone Star State.

That urge to be tallest has played out among civilizations since the pyramids rose in Egypt and Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize in the Americas.

Cathedrals in Europe and the United States competed to be the tallest for several hundred years until the late 19th century, when structures like the 548-foot-tall Philadelphia City Hall, the 555-foot-tall Washington Monument, and the 984-foot-tall Eiffel Tower vied over who could be the tallest in the world.

A black and white picture of a tall building with carriages out front

The Praetorian Building, from a 1908 postcard.

Texas got into the skyscraper game relatively quick, in 1908, with the opening of the 15-story, 190-foot-tall Praetorian Building in Dallas (which was torn down in 2013). Houston could already brag about the eight-story First National Bank Building (completed in 1905). Designed by Sanguinet and Staats, the architectural firm responsible for many of Texas’ tall buildings in the early 20th century, the structure later became the Lomas and Nettleton Building. (Located at Main Street and Franklin Avenue, it houses residential lofts today.) By 1910, Houston also had the 10-story, 124-foot-tall 711 Main Building and the 23-story, 302-foot-high Carter Building, allowing Houston to claim the title of Texas’ Tallest City.

Two years later, the honorific returned to Dallas with the opening of the 25-story Adolphus Hotel, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month with a gala on Oct. 29. In 1925, the Adolphus gave way to the Magnolia Building, as Dallas’ (and Texas’) tallest with the Magnolia Oil Company’s neon flying horse logo atop the 399-foot, 27-floor edifice. (It was recently announced the building will undergo a major renovation, including the addition of three floors.)

Houston regained the tallest title in 1927 with the completion of the 410-foot, 31-story, Italian Renaissance-styled Niels-Esperson Building, followed two years later by the 37-story, 428-foot art deco Gulf Building. Houston managed to hold on until 1943, when the Mercantile National Bank Building, a 31-story, 523-foot-tower with a distinctive clock spire opened in Dallas.

The back-and-forth rivalry between Dallas and Houston continued for another 40 years:

Dallas – Republic National Bank (1954; 36 stories, 602 feet)
Houston – Humble Building (1963; 44 stories, 606 feet)
Dallas – First National Bank Tower (1965; 52 stories, 628 feet)
Houston – One Shell Plaza (1970; 50 stories, 714 feet)

One Shell was still a tad taller than Dallas’ new tallest, the 56-story, 710-foot-tall First International Building, built in 1974. But by the time the 74-story, 921-foot Bank of America Plaza was completed in 1985—the tallest skyscraper in Dallas—Houston had one-upped its main competitor again with the 1,002-foot, 75-floor Texas Commerce Building, now named the JP Morgan Chase Tower, which has held the Texas’ Tallest title since it was built in 1982. Whew!

That honorary is about to change, and this time neither Dallas nor Houston is in the race. Enter Austin.

The capital city came late to the tall skyscraper game. Until 1974, the Texas State Capitol (standing at 302.64 feet “from the south front ground level to the tip of the star of the Goddess of Liberty”) reigned as Austin’s tallest building, mainly because the city enacted an ordinance to keep it the predominant building in the city’s skyline. It was complemented by the 29-story, 307-foot-tall University of Texas Main Building (aka The Tower), followed in 1972 by the Dobie Center, also on the UT campus and 307 feet. By the mid ’80s, Austin had more than a dozen skyscrapers, with 600 Congress leading the pack for tallest for 20 years before the 515-foot Frost Bank Tower arrived in 2004.

Meanwhile, construction pretty much came to a halt in Dallas and Houston. Big D stopped aspiring for higher heights, settling for new towers in the 30- to 40-story range until the 42-story Museum Tower broke through in 2013. And, after reaching its zenith in the 1980s, Houston experienced fallout from the Savings and Loan economic meltdown, followed by the Federal Aviation Authority’s mandate prohibiting construction of buildings taller than 75 floors in the central business district because it is in the takeoff and landing flight patterns for Hobby Airport. Outside of downtown, no significant towers have been built since the 64-story, 901-foot Transco Tower near the Galleria opened in 1982.

Fast-forward to Austin around 2010, when residential and tech started dominating the local skyscraper boom. More than 20 steel-and-glass towers have been built, topped by the current city champ, the Independent (aka the “Jenga tower“), at 58 floors and 690 feet, and the 56-floor, 683-foot Austonion, with its distinctive crescent top.

Why the sudden high-rise boom? “I would suggest the reason why they are taller in Austin is because it is so physically small and so dense,” says Mark Lamster, the architecture critic for the Dallas Morning News who teaches architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington and is a Loeb Fellow of architecture at Harvard. “That means the land is incredibly valuable, and that makes it financially desirable to build extremely tall.”

Also, skyscrapers in Houston and Dallas tend to focus more on style than height. “There isn’t an emphasis on being the ‘tallest’ because buildings are now developed by investment groups rather than individuals or companies, for whom the ‘tallest’ moniker might be appealing,” he says.

A black and glass building surrounded by other buildings in downtown Houston

Pennzoil Place. Photo by Agsftw, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Lamster cites Pennzoil Place in Houston, still one of the state’s most revered skyscrapers, as an example of style over stature. “[Then Pennzoil CEO] Hugh Liedtke, who commissioned the building specifically, did not go for ‘tallest’ because he knew that there would always be some other building to eclipse it,” he says. “So Pennzoil Place focused on quality and distinction [rather than height]. That worked.”

So, in Austin, the rise to the top goes on. Both of the city’s tallest buildings will be eclipsed next year by a residential and office tower being built at Sixth and Guadalupe streets and listed at 66 floors and 875 feet high. The building will have a primary tenant, the tech company Meta, parent of Facebook and Instagram. That’s plenty tall, but in a few years it will still not be Texas’ tallest.

That accolade will pass to the Waterline, a 73-story, 1,022-foot-tall residential-hotel-office tower at 98 Red River. Its scheduled completion date is mid-2026. I know the location well. The site was formerly occupied by a funky two-story white clapboard boarding house where I rented a cheap office for $80 a month back in the 1980s. That was Old Austin. The future occupant is New Texas all the way—shiny, bright, and rising to the skies.

Will this be the apex for Texas skyscrapers? Given its history, odds are taller towers are coming. And the short answer as to why is “money,” Lamster says. “Or, as Carol Willis, the historian and founder of the Skyscraper Museum puts it, ‘form follows finance.’”

Continue Reading

The Wild and Urban Brazos River

 https://texashighways.com/things-to-do/on-the-water/the-wild-and-urban-brazos-is-a-river-full-of-contradictions

 

The Brazos

is a river of contradictions. Flowing more than 800 miles on a diagonal course across the breadth of Texas, the Brazos starts as a Western river coming off the High Plains and ends as a Southern river lazily looping its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

An overhead view of Waco, with Baylor stadium on the right and the Brazos river separating two sides of the city

A view of the Brazos running through Waco with Interstate 35 splitting the picture

Over the course of two centuries, engineers have dammed, channeled, diverted, and fragmented the Brazos, partly to control deadly floods. But while the river has been moderated, it has not been tamed. It still runs wild every now and then, thwarting even the mightiest barriers. As recently as 2016, Brazos River flooding damaged 1,400 homes and killed six people in southeast Texas.

Understanding the Brazos is no easy feat, no matter how many miles you’ve paddled, how many hours you’ve sat on its banks, or how many times you’ve jumped into it. In search of a new perspective, I asked my friend George Farris, owner of Above and Beyond Aviation in Austin, to fly me over the river. On a clear day last fall, Farris took me along as he piloted his Cessna 172 to Haskell, north of Abilene, where we began to trace the Brazos River down to the coast.

With its watershed extending into New Mexico, draws and drainages grow into forks until the Brazos finally becomes a river where the Double Mountain and Salt forks converge in northeast Stonewall County, about 18 miles northwest of Haskell. Here the river carves a ribbon through low, lightly vegetated canyons, its rusty color mirroring the iron oxide-rich red clay soil of the surrounding Rolling Plains.

Seventy air miles east of Haskell, near Graham, the Clear Fork joins the main stem, now a river of substance with distinct bands of dark green vegetation covering its banks and occasional bankside clearings identifying sand-mining operations and crop fields. To the east, wrinkles on the horizon signal the Palo Pinto Mountains and Possum Kingdom Lake, the first major impoundment on the Brazos, dammed in 1941. Covering 17,000 acres, the lake is home to a state park and draws boaters, anglers, skiers, and vacationers.

Below Morris Sheppard Dam, the Brazos courses through tall limestone bluffs and steep cedar-covered slopes. This was Comanche territory 150 years ago, later immortalized in author John Graves’ Goodbye to a River. The book details Graves’ canoe trip with his dog in November 1957, motivated by the coming Lake Granbury impoundment.

“Most autumns, the water is low from the long dry summer, and you have to get out from time to time and wade, leading or dragging your boat through trickling shallows from one pool to the long channel-twisted pool below, hanging up occasionally on shuddering bars of quicksand, making 6 or 8 miles in a day’s lazy work,” Graves wrote, “but if you go to the river at all, you tend not to mind. You are not in a hurry there; you learned long since not to be.”

A man in a long-sleeve white shirt paddles a canoe

Canoeing the John Graves Scenic Riverway

After flying over the upper Brazos, I made plans to see it up-close with a return in late March to kayak a 19-mile section known as the John Graves Scenic Riverway. My paddling friend David Hollingsworth and I took a shuttle from Rochelle’s Canoe Rental in Graford to the put-in at the State Highway 16 bridge, where fishermen were also gearing up to hit the water, some by kayak and some in a shallow-drafting motorboat.

The land still wore its winter coat thanks to a late spring and extended drought. Amid the pools and riffles, I saw some huge carp and a teeny-tiny minnow. Perhaps it was one of two endangered shiner species that live in the Brazos—the sharpnose shiner and smalleye shiner.

A map showing major points on the Brazos river

.

Gene Wilde, a biologist who recently retired from Texas Tech University, compares the shiner’s reliance on free-flowing water to salmon of the Northwest. “They need 200 miles of free-flowing river to feed, grow, and spawn, completing their life cycle,” he said. “Dams on the Brazos prevent that.” The minnows were once so abundant that entrepreneurs seine-netted the river to scoop up schools of fish to sell for live bait. Now the little fish are hard to find.

Though the environment is changing, the scenery remains sublime. Long curving bends beneath cuesta slopes provide habitat for countless birds. I spotted over 100 great blue herons flapping their pterodactyl wings, white egrets and hawks by the dozens, and one juvenile golden eagle.

We camped on an island near Chick Bend, between SH 16 and Farm-to-Market Road 4. Hooting owls and howling coyotes serenaded us to sleep. At dawn, three Longhorn cattle awakened us as they lumbered across the island on their way to greener pastures.

Headwinds and low flow—water release from Sheppard Dam was a tepid 100 cubic feet per second—made it a difficult trip, one best saved for better conditions in the spring or fall. But the opportunity to see the same river embraced by Graves and Comanche chief Quanah Parker was worth the effort.

An overhead view of green fields and gravel roads

A reconstruction of Fort Velasco at the site where the Brazos met the coastline before the river was channelized

Back in Farris’ Cessna, we followed the Brazos as it wound through low hills before widening into its second major impoundment, Lake Granbury, and about 50 miles later, Lake Whitney. Below Whitney Dam, the Brazos takes on an orderly appearance with houses clustered close to its banks. On the outskirts of Waco, the Bosque River joins the Brazos at the top of the 416-acre Cameron Park, the crown jewel of Waco with its 100-foot limestone cliffs and outdoor recreational opportunities.

Waco is known for its bridges, most of all the Waco Suspension Bridge, the granddaddy of Texas bridges. Constructed with cables made by John Roebling Co., the same contractor who would later build the Brooklyn Bridge, it was the longest single-span bridge west of the Mississippi when it opened in 1870 as a toll bridge. In later decades, the cable system was replaced and the bridge reinforced with steel. The city closed the bridge to vehicles and converted it into a pedestrian bridge in 1971. The 1902 Washington Avenue Bridge, just upstream from the pedestrian bridge, connects downtown to Waco’s east side, a historically Black neighborhood.

Below Interstate 35, the Brazos serves as a scenic backdrop for Baylor University’s football stadium and baseball park, the Mayborn Museum Complex, and the boathouse for the school’s rowing team.

Waco built a new low-water dam in 2007 to mitigate flooding and stabilize Lake Brazos in the downtown area. Todd Nafe, outdoors writer for the Waco Tribune-Herald, said the river has since blossomed as a recreational destination. “The riverfront has become a significant economic resource, with restaurants, parks, food trucks, art festivals, triathlons, fishing tournaments, and fundraising events bringing folks back to the banks,” he said.

A man in a white hat and wearing a PFD holds a large paddle on the banks of the Brazos

Bruce Bodson, executive director of Lower Brazos Riverwatch

Two people stand holding fishing rods on the rocky banks of the Brazos river

Nicole Nation and John Valyan, of Bryan, fish the lower Brazos near Somerville.

A dark bluish black sky with bright stars peeks through vents in the roof of a tent

A starry night as seen from a sandbank campsite on the upper Brazos River

Below Waco, the Brazos River runs through the cotton plantation country that seeded the Republic of Texas in the 1800s. As we flew south to refuel in College Station, we watched the Brazos cut through lush woodlands and wide-open prairies. Settlers who were part of Stephen F. Austin’s Old Three Hundred—the first colonists the empresario brought to Texas—developed farms in the Brazos bottomlands, some of them reliant on slave labor before the Civil War.

Robertson County towns like Hearne and Calvert remain primarily African American. Calvert was the hometown of Hall of Fame baseball player Rube Foster, who helped found and operate the National Negro League until his death in 1930. Another notable Foster, singer-songwriter Ruthie Foster—no relation to Rube—grew up in nearby Gause.

“Me and my cousins loved walking or riding in my Papa’s truck down to the river bank all summer long, with our fishing gear in tow,” recalled Foster, who now lives in Austin. “We smaller cousins always made too much noise for the older cousins to catch anything, but it was fun to just hang out, run around with our shoes off, and practice our fishing pole casting.”

To get a closer look at this section of the Brazos, I met six paddlers including Bruce Bodson, executive director of Lower Brazos Riverwatch, on a September morning for a 16-mile kayak trip starting at the SH 21 bridge, southwest of Bryan.

“I call this the free Brazos,” said Bodson, who founded the nonprofit Riverwatch in 2018 to protect the environment of the river’s 425 miles from Waco to the Gulf of Mexico. This is the least appreciated and most industrialized section of the river. “No dams exist below Waco,” he continued. “It is very much a Southern river—slow moving, looping and bending, with a gradient of less than 1%. The water quality is good, just silt-laden. There’s more variability than people realize.”

The river ran wide and muddy along our route, its sandy banks rising 10 to 20 feet high. Black willow, cottonwoods, and sycamores grew along the shorelines, where kingfishers alighted and skimmed the water. We saw three wild hogs swim across the river and a cottonmouth snake futilely chase a large frog out of the water and onto a beach. Along the way, we stopped to examine petrified wood and look for fossilized shark’s teeth and mussel shells.

Lower Brazos Riverwatch reports exposed pipelines and abandoned wells to state authorities, and their stewardship is getting results. “We’ve got legislative committees and landowners paying attention to the river as a potential asset now,” Bodson said.

We finished at the SH 60 bridge, 3 miles southwest of College Station, surrounded by rows of white cotton in every direction. “It’s wilderness down there,” Bodson said. “You get on that river, and there is nobody down there. You are absolutely alone.”

History of the Brazos

By the time 18th-century Spanish explorers gave it the name Los Brazos de Dios (The Arms of God), the Brazos River had been home to creatures and humans for tens of thousands of years. Learn more about this natural and cultural history at museums along the river’s course.

Waco Mammoth National Monument, Waco: About 15,000 years ago, the Brazos was prime habitat for the extinct Columbian mammoth. At this archeological site near the confluence of the Bosque and Brazos rivers, see the fossils of a nursery herd of Ice Age Columbian mammoths, along with fossils of a camel and juvenile saber-toothed cat. nps.gov/waco

Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History, Bryan: This museum features exhibits covering the Brazos Valley’s history back to the Ice Age, including exhibits on Native American artifacts, great Brazos floods, and cotton farming. brazosvalleymuseum.org

San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site, San Felipe: Founded in 1824 on a Brazos River bluff, San Felipe served as Empresario Stephen F. Austin’s colonial capital until it was burned in 1836 during the Runaway Scrape. The historic site includes a museum and replicas of some of the town’s original buildings. thc.texas.gov/historic-sites/san-felipe-de-austin-state-historic-site

Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site, Washington: Along with a living history farm and a museum covering the Texas Republic, this complex contains a replica of Independence Hall—where delegates signed the Texas Declaration of Independence—a riverside exhibit about the historic Robinson Ferry crossing, and exhibits mentioning various 19th-century efforts to navigate the Brazos in steamboats. thc.texas.gov/historic-sites/washington-brazos-state-historic-site

Brazos Bend State Park, Needville: Located 45 miles southwest of Houston, this park has 37 miles of trails to explore wetland lakes and sloughs in the Brazos River bottomlands. The park is known for its alligators and waterfowl. tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/brazos-bend

A man in a long-sleeved white shirt paddles between two rock outcroppings on a river

Canoeing through bluffs on a stretch of the upper Brazos known as the John Graves Scenic Riverway.

From my bird’s-eye view at 5,000 feet, I watched the landscape flatten as the Brazos cruised under US 290 and I-10 and through the Katy Prairie. This landscape looked similar to the Llano Estacado of the Panhandle, except everything was coated a verdant green. About 10 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, the Brazos’ graceful curves and loops straighten into a channel as the river enters Freeport, an industrial maze thick with refineries and tanker ships.

Unlike most Texas rivers, the Brazos empties directly into the Gulf, rather than filtering through bays or estuaries. But it doesn’t meet the ocean where it originally did at Surfside. In 1929, the Army Corps of Engineers diverted the Brazos just upstream by dredging a new channel that empties into the Gulf about 5 miles down the beach.

There, the Brazos ends undramatically. I later drove along the levee road that traces the channel for almost 4 miles, where locals fished for red drum, black drum, trout, and channel cat. After passing a cluster of storage tanks and buildings, I reached a gate with a “No Trespassing” sign. The waves of the Gulf were barely visible in the distance, but I couldn’t go any further.

A mile high up in the air offered a different perspective. Every man-made object I could see—from Possum Kingdom Lake to cotton fields, sand mines, historic bridges, the Houston skyline, and tankers in the Gulf—was tied to that green-brown ribbon I’d been following. As Farris banked his airplane west, I could see the mighty Brazos was really the most Texas river of them all.

Paddle the Brazos

There’s no better way to experience the natural qualities of the Brazos River than from the seat of a kayak or canoe. Outfitters operate at numerous locations on the Brazos, a river that offers a variety of paddling experiences throughout its course.

Rochelle’s Canoe Rental, Graford: provides rentals and shuttles for trips on the upper Brazos’ John Graves Scenic Riverway. rochellescanoeandkayakrental.com

Brazos Outdoor Center, Rainbow: the nearest wild river experience to DFW, includes campsites, equipment rentals, and shuttles. brazosoutdoorcenter.com

Dick’s Canoes, Aquilla: provides rentals and shuttles for trips on the Brazos below Whitney Dam. dickscanoe.com

Pura Vida Paddle, Waco: find kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals, as well as classes, across the Brazos from Cameron Park and on Lake Waco. puravidapaddle.com

Waco Paddle Company, Waco: canoe, kayak, and stand-up paddleboard rentals in downtown Waco on the bank of the Brazos. wacopaddlecompany.com

Hidalgo Falls, Navasota: The closest whitewater to Houston, this private paddlers park is owned by the Texas Rivers Protection Association. txrivers.org/discover-texas-rivers/brazos-river

From the July 2022 issue
Continue Reading

Behold the Bounty of the Blanco, Texas Highways magazine

https://texashighways.com/things-to-do/on-the-water/behold-the-bounty-of-the-blanco/

The July 2021 cover of Texas Highways Magazine, "Hill Country Oasis"

Behold the Bounty of the Blanco

The splendid and fragile beauty

of the Hill Country’s keystone river

 

Rivers in Texas run the gamut from bucolic babbling brooks to churning whitewater, from rocky dry channels to wide and muddy waterways. The Blanco River, which winds 87 miles through the eastern Hill Country, stands out for exhibiting all of those characteristics at one time or another. I should know. The Blanco is my river.

Twenty-eight years ago, our family moved to Wimberley to be near the Blanco. I’d been hooked on swimming at Barton Springs, Austin’s 68-degree spring-fed swimming pool. When it was time to move, we decided to jump ahead of the inevitable suburban sprawl while looking for another spring-fed place to swim.

I was sold on the house my wife had found the minute we drove over the Blanco on Bendigo Crossing, a low-water bridge also known as the Slime Bridge. Upstream, people were splashing around in the clear water, their laughs punctuated by shrieks of pure joy. Marco! Polo! Bright shafts of late afternoon sunlight shot through the branches of tall cypress trees hovering above the riverbank. Never mind what the house looked like.

An overhead view of the wide blue Blanco river with boats in the middle and trees on the side

Kayaking the Blanco near Wimberley
A watercolor illustration showing a map of the Blanco and San Marcos rivers between Austin and San Antonio

The vintage ’70s ranch-style home needed some love and care, but it would do just fine: It was a half-mile from the Blanco and gave us river access through a property owners’ park.

The first time I jumped in the Blanco, I was taken aback. The water tasted clean. The visibility underwater didn’t compare to Barton Springs’ clarity—the suspended limestone sediment in the Blanco clouds the water and gives the river its name, which translates to White River. But it tasted clean. Smelled clean too.

From April through October, I swim in the Blanco. It is one of the greatest pleasures I know. It’s a pleasure I share with growing crowds of both locals and visitors who converge on the river’s cypress-lined banks at places like Blanco State Park in Blanco; Blue Hole Regional Park on Cypress Creek, a tributary of the Blanco in Wimberley; and Five Mile Dam Park, a 34-acre Hays County park at the lower end of the river near San Marcos. On summer weekends, the parks routinely fill to capacity.

The crowds have grown as suburban sprawl has infiltrated Hays County. The county’s population grew nearly 50% from 2010 to 2019, making it the nation’s second fastest-growing county, according to the U.S. Census.

“The Blanco has always been a hidden gem with little access, fiercely hoarded and protected,” says Ryan McGillicuddy, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department conservation biologist who advises landowners on land management. “But the Hill Country continues to become carved up, and whether landowners like it or not, more people are coming to the river.”

Over the past year and a half of COVID-19, I’ve gotten to know my particular stretch of the Blanco even better. Swimming in the river almost every warm day has been a saving grace. Fallow season walks have opened my eyes to the subtle shift of the seasons. The bird and bat migrations, I now realize, aren’t a twice-a-year migration, but rather a constant, steady symphony of movement throughout the year.

When the wind kicks up, you can’t see the Blanco’s bottom for the chop. When the flow is high and fast following a flood, there’s enough whitewater to haul out the kayak, and as soon as the muddy current clears up, go paddling. The river is never the same. And no matter how stressed out it might appear to get, it always comes back. The Blanco has never let me down. The question is: Can we hold up our end of the bargain?

A lone kayaker paddles under green trees and blue sky

A young woman in swim goggles stands on a wooden dock on the edge of the blue Blanco river water

Blue Hole Regional Park on Cypress Creek in Wimberley

The Blanco—locally pronounced “Blank-o,” rather than the Spanish “Blahn-ko”—is the bellwether river of the Hill Country. It’s notorious for its frequent flash floods, treasured for its semi-pristine water quality and quantity, and fretted over because of threats posed by rapid population growth. While human development encroaches the river now, it wasn’t always this way. Few written accounts exist of early European explorers in Texas visiting the Blanco. The topography was too rugged, and the river valley too defended by Native Americans, particularly Lipan Apache and Comanche, who were hostile to incursions by outsiders.

The Blanco begins as a cluster of springs in Kendall County, running shallow as it enters Blanco County and growing as it courses beyond the town of Blanco into the Wimberley Valley and Hays County. It joins the San Marcos River just downstream of the city of San Marcos. Along the way, the Blanco traverses a landscape of cliffs, steppes, canyons, tributaries, waterfalls, springs, and rapids.

The Blanco River bottom is mostly hard limestone and absent natural vegetation. Its water quality remains close to unsullied. On numerous occasions, people have told me the Blanco is the second-cleanest river in Texas. The Devils, the Frio, and the upper Nueces rivers have all been cited as the cleanest, depending on whom you’re talking to. As the self-declared “King of Texas Swimming Holes,” I’ve swum in all of these, and written about them in these pages, including stories about the Frio in 2019 and the Nueces in 2020. I’m not sure which is the cleanest, but they’re all less polluted than other rivers in the state. The Blanco is hardly pristine, though. More than 100 dams and low-water crossings span the river, according to the Nature Conservancy of Texas. Riverbank and riparian habitat are increasingly fragmented as ranches are cut into subdivisions.

I’ve lived by the river long enough to see the Blanco go hog wild on uncontrolled rampages, swallowing trucks and trees, and killing livestock and people—most notably during the destructive and deadly Memorial Day flood of 2015. There’s a reason the Blanco is the heart of what’s known as “Flash Flood Alley.” During extended droughts, and practically almost every August, I’ve watched the river slow to a trickle. My rule of thumb is the earlier in the summer, the better the swimming—as long as the spring and summer rains come. Late in the summer, if it’s been dry and there’s no apparent flow, I’ll skip my swim and go back to the house wondering if I’ll outlive the river, what with all these external pressures it faces, most of them human-related. Is the Blanco a relict, a river at the end of its run? With the local climate trending drier and hotter, is the Blanco destined to be a huge dry wash of bleached rubble, like the thousands of once-upon-a-time drainages threading through the Big Bend and the Chihuahuan Desert farther west?

The Blanco is that delicate—and that marvelous.

Bright green ferns grow along the banks of the Blanco River

Proper Respects

Responsible River Recreation

The Blanco has the reputation of being a fenced-off, no-access river. Even today, trespassers can still have a gun pulled on them if they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. Respect “No Trespassing” signs and purple paint markers on fences, trees, posts, and walls. (A Texas law passed in 1997 allows landowners to use purple paint in lieu of “No Trespassing” signs, with the same consequences.) Ignoring those warnings can lead to being arrested, jailed, and/or fined, which can pretty much ruin your river experience. Don’t fret. There are numerous parks where the public can access the Blanco River for swimming (see below). Always be mindful of the local environment and practice “leave no trace” principles, such as proper trash disposal, respecting wildlife, and not collecting what you find, including rocks, plants, and arrowheads.

Above: A fern grotto on the Blanco near Wimberley

A man in a gray shirt stands on a rock above bright blue water

David Baker at Jacob’s Well

 

David Baker came to the Wimberley Valley in 1988 and bought property on Mount Sharp Road that included a piece of Jacob’s Well. Here he started the Dancing Waters Inn.

If there is a steward of the Blanco watershed, it’s Baker. If you’ve seen Jacob’s Well, you’ll understand.

Located about 5 miles from Wimberley, the deep, heart-shaped underwater cave is the source of Cypress Creek. The well begins as a crack on the limestone surface before tunneling deep into Trinity Aquifer. The mouth of the cave makes an incredible swimming hole, and the sweet sensation of diving off the rocks into the hole’s cold, clear water is a rare thrill, even among other spring-fed pools.

Baker founded the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association and led the campaign for Hays County to purchase the well and its surroundings, replacing a trailer park and tennis courts with an educational and research center.

“My first impetus was to erect a fence and keep people out,” Baker says. “But thinking long term, if we don’t share these special places with people, they won’t care if they’re destroyed. They won’t know. We’ve got to do better connecting the community to these local resources.”

As the protections increase, so have the external challenges. Baker was involved in the successful four-year fight to stop a private company’s plans to pump and ship groundwater out of the county, which was finally resolved earlier this year. In 2019, working with Hays County and other interested parties, Baker helped stop the City of Blanco’s discharge of 1.6 million gallons daily of treated wastewater into the river. The treated water triggered algae blooms on the Blanco that extended far downstream. The town is now using the wastewater to irrigate alfalfa fields.

“These are some of the few clean rivers left in Texas, and even the most thoroughly treated wastewater contributes to their degradation,” Baker says.

It’s a race between conservation awareness and unfettered development in a booming region. In 2000, Jacob’s Well, which provides about 10% to 20% of the Blanco River’s baseflow via Cypress Creek, stopped flowing for the first time in recorded history. In 2008 and 2009, due to drought and groundwater pumping, the well stopped flowing again, and then again in 2011, 2013, and January of this year.

Despite these threats, Baker is an optimist. Last November, 70% of Hays County voters approved a $75 million parks bond for the county to secure land to protect natural resources and increase river access. And Jacob’s Well, he likes to point out, has become an economic engine through tourism. In recent years, overnight lodging has contributed $70 million annually to the economy in Wimberley.

“Last year, 35,000 visitors from 28 different countries came and visited the well. Twice that many visited Blue Hole,” Baker says. “When people see this, they begin to understand how this all fits together.”

Groups of people sit under tents or in the sun along the banks of a blue-green river

Five Mile Dam Park in San Marcos

I’ve grown to appreciate the Blanco’s nuances. Some mornings the surface is smooth as glass, sunlight painting shadowy ribbons on the rock bottom. Other mornings, wind ripples the surface, the wavelets sparkling like shimmering diamonds.

My thing is jumping in and swimming about a quarter-mile upstream to the big boulder and beyond, following the contours of the riverbed as I work a steady alternating stroke, stretching, kicking, my body and mind getting locked in a rhythmic, meditative zone. The sight of a snapping turtle moving slowly across the bottom may startle, interrupting the repast. I’ve had the same reaction spotting gar and snakes close by underwater.

A man in a collard shirt and

Hays County Commissioner Lon Shell

As a native of San Marcos, Hays County Commissioner Lon Shell has long known about the Blanco’s beauty—and dangers. But still, he says, the growing demands on this local treasure have presented a learning curve for the community. “When we first opened Jacob’s Well as a county park in 2011, we didn’t understand that people from all over the country, and eventually the world, wanted to see it,” he says. “That lesson has been learned.”

Shell has made protection of natural resources a priority. Conserving land around the Blanco improves the river’s water quality and can also mitigate the severity of flooding, he says, by directing development and impervious cover away from the river and encouraging the restoration of riparian habitat that naturally absorbs floodwaters and mitigates erosion.

“There are a lot of people in western Hays County who haven’t been here that long,” he says. “They see the Blanco as a river, but I don’t think they respect or understand the river and its value as much as old-timers. The [2015] flood brought that to the forefront: the importance of managing the resource, conserving it, and potentially reducing the likelihood of flooding.”

Shell is proudest of the Sentinel Peak Preserve, a new 535-acre park. When Shell caught wind of the pending sale of the old El Rancho Cima Boy Scout ranch, he strategized with area officials and the Nature Conservancy to secure some of the land. Located just below the rocky ridge known as Devil’s Backbone, the preserve covers a milelong stretch of the Blanco River, protecting prime habitat for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. Officials hope to have the preserve ready to open to the public by late 2022 or early 2023.

“The importance of getting people on the land and seeing the river is immeasurable,” Shell says. “Signal Peak is iconic. It’s the perfect spot for us to do this.”

The new preserve brings hope for McGillicuddy, of Texas Parks and Wildlife. I recently caught up with the biologist as he met with science students from St. Edward’s University. “With a property like Sentinel Peak, there is a rare opportunity to start with a blank slate and shape how the land can be managed for both conservation and recreation,” he says.

Pulling up grasses from the bank, McGillicuddy demonstrated how they help prevent erosion and soil loss during floods. The group discussed the importance of landowner stewardship; the restoration of the Guadalupe bass, the state fish; how the Blanco is connected to Barton Springs and San Marcos Springs; the impact of the 2015 flood; and how to manage for future floods.

Such challenges are enough to turn a river lover like me into a worrywart. But the uncertainty of what’s to come is balanced by experiences like an afternoon this spring. Swimming in the river, I raised my head every now and then to gaze at the line of majestic cypresses looming above the bank and to check for red-eared slider turtles sunbathing on the rocks. At moments like these, I can’t imagine a more splendid place on earth.

Two men relax of the water of the blanco under a green tree

A swimming area by the dam on the Blanco River at Blanco State Park; Five Mile Dam Park in San Marcos

Dive In

Recreating on the River

While private land borders the majority of the Blanco, there are numerous opportunities to swim and enjoy the river’s natural beauty.

Blanco

Blanco State Park: a mile of riverfront, campsites, and cabins. 830-833-4333; texasstateparks.org
Redbud Café: soups, salads, and sandwiches on the square. redbud-cafe.com

Wimberley

Blue Hole Regional Park: Online reservations are required for the swimming hole on Cypress Creek. cityofwimberley.com
Jacob’s Well Natural Area: Advance reservations are required for swimming, but not for the hiking trails. hayscountytx.com
Cypress Falls Swimming Hole: swimming and a hotel. thelodgeatcypressfalls.com
Creekside Cookers BBQ & Bar: great food and outdoor seating. creeksidecookers.com
Rio Bonito Resort: cabins and swimming on the Blanco. riobonito.com
7A Ranch Resort: cabins, a pioneer town, and swimming on the Blanco. 7Aranch.co

San Marcos

Five Mile Dam Park: riverfront with swimming and hiking. hayscountytx.com
Herbert’s Taco Hut: a longtime local Tex-Mex favorite, near the bank of the San Marcos River. 512-392-2993

From the July 2021 issue

Get the Magazine

Save up to 62% off the cover price

True Texas in Your Inbox

Sign up for magazine extras, upcoming events, Mercantile specials, subscription offers, and more.

 

Continue Reading

The Cajuns of the Golden Triangle

https://texashighways.com/culture/people/cajun-culture-flourishes-texas-golden-triangle/

from the. January 2021 issue of Texas Highways magazine

In Texas’ Golden Triangle, Cajun Culture Flourishes

A man plays an accordion in front of a sign reading 'Bon Temps Accordions Jude Moreau'Jude Moreau, a Cajun accordionist from Groves

Text: It's still dark

on a muggy August morning in southeast Texas. But inside the Neches River

Wheelhouse, a waterfront bar and restaurant in Port Neches, husband-and-wife duo Dana and Krissy Melancon are bright and chirpy as they settle in front of the microphones of their remote broadcasting studio. On cue, the airwaves crackle with the sound of a train whistle, followed by a loud accordion pushing a peppy rhythm with fiddle and guitar.

Every Sunday morning, The Cajun Express radio show mixes four hours of swamp pop, zydeco, and most of all, Cajun music with community news, dedications, and requests. Loose and familiar, the broadcast serves as a meeting point for Cajuns from across the Golden Triangle, that geographic zone in Texas’ southeast corner defined by Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange.

“This show is a responsibility,” Dana Melancon says. “I don’t want to let anybody down. The people listening are willing to share stories and make connections for you. It’s not anything I’m doing. I’m just putting the music out there.”

Accordionist Bridget D’Lane Roberts

“I don’t think southeast Texas Cajuns consider themselves separate, although it’s one of these pride things,” Melancon says, nodding toward the dozens of fans on hand for the live remote broadcast. “In southwest Louisiana, you might get, ‘You’re not really Cajun. You weren’t born here, you’re not living here.’ But it’s tongue-in-cheek teasing.”

As The Cajun Express opens its second hour, daylight reveals a waterfront setting by the Neches River where massive barges and oil tankers rumble past, headed upstream to refineries and the Port of Beaumont, or downstream to Sabine Lake and the Gulf of Mexico. The setting, adjacent to Riverfront Park, might not be confused for Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin. But for Golden Triangle Cajuns who show up for the broadcast, it’ll do just fine.

The tale of the Acadians, the French-Canadians who were exiled from Nova Scotia in the 18th century, has been much told, most famously by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie,” published in 1847. The epic poem recounts love lost during Le Grand Dérangement, when the British kicked French immigrants out of the Maritime Provinces of eastern Canada during the French and Indian War of 1754-63. Roughly 3,000 refugees found their way to southwestern Louisiana—present-day Acadiana.

The Acadians—or Cajuns, as they became known—were an insular bunch, isolated from the rest of the world by swamps and rivers until Louisiana Gov. Huey P. Long’s bridge-building frenzy in the 1930s. Unlike most assimilated American cultures, Cajuns have been able to hold on to their customs, folkways, and, at least in the heart of Cajun country, their French dialect.

The story of the next Cajun diaspora, from southwest Louisiana to southeast Texas, is less celebrated. The first Cajuns began moving across the Sabine River in the early 19th century, among them the Hébert family who established a farm on Taylor Bayou in Jefferson County in 1842. The 1850 U.S. census documented 600 “Franco-Louisianans” in southeast Texas. Cajun relocation to Texas grew in the early 1900s with the expansion of the Southern Pacific railroad and then the rapid growth of petroleum and chemical refineries around Port Arthur. Faced with a choice between scraping by as a sharecropper or making a middle-class income at a refinery, many Cajuns headed west to Texas.

A blue sky over blue water and tall grass in a marsh

A Port Arthur marsh

The inside of a wood-paneled home with rocking chairs and a brick fireplace

La Maison Beausoleil in Port Neches

 

The easiest way to understand and appreciate a culture that isn’t your own is through its food and music. The Cajuns stand out on both fronts.

Cajun cuisine is everywhere and anywhere in southeast Texas, from crawfish farms to destination restaurants and boudin joints. The stalwarts of Cajun cuisine are well known: gumbo, étouffée, blackened redfish, and delicacies like boudin (spicy pork and rice sausage) and cracklins (crunchy fried chunks of pork skin, fat, and meat). At the Pine Tree Lodge in La Belle, just outside Beaumont, you can order alligator from the menu while watching their wild cousins in Taylor Bayou from the outside deck. In the Golden Triangle, you’ll find boudin balls alongside hot dogs at the concession stand of a high school football game—and gumbo on the menu of a Mexican restaurant.

Larry Judice, 71, is a third-generation Texas Cajun whose father and grandfather operated groceries and meat markets in the Golden Triangle. In 1978, he opened Larry’s French Market, a grocery and deli in Groves, just outside of Port Arthur, serving lunch plates to refinery workers.

“By trade I was a butcher, and we sold lots of seafood,” says Judice, now retired. “We were one of the first to sell crawfish live. We started getting rid of shelves and putting more tables in. Then we put in a dance floor. It just boomed after that.”

Larry’s evolved into a full-blown entertainment venue with an all-you-can-eat Cajun seafood buffet and live bands on weekends. In many respects, Larry’s functions like a community center. “There are so many Cajuns that live around here,” Judice says. “We love the music, the food, friendship, family getting together to have a fais do-do—a dance—having a good time.”

Stewart Gordon, manager of Larry’s French Market, insists there’s a method to les bon temps madness: “They eat till they’re stuffed, then they dance it off.”

A man throws a large net over a body of water

Netting bait fish near Groves

Indeed, music is perhaps the strongest cultural bond uniting Cajuns in the Golden Triangle, attracting the community for dances and parties.

“I’ve had this music in my heart since I was a little kid,” says Jude Moreau, a Groves bandleader who spent summers as a kid at the family farm near Opelousas, Louisiana, where he experienced rural Cajun life firsthand. Moreau learned to dance and play accordion after being immersed in Cajun music at the old Rodair Club, an influential but now-defunct Cajun institution on the outskirts of Port Arthur.

“I don’t know how to explain this—we’re huggers. OK?” Moreau says, reflecting on Cajun music’s infectious groove. “We love to be up close and personal. So even when we’re dancing a two-step, we’re close to each other, like we’re hugging; it’s the same way when we dance the waltz. What we play makes you want to dance—it moves you, it draws you in.”

Moreau has played stages in Texas and beyond with Ed Poullard, a Creole accordionist from Beaumont. In a workshop behind his home, Poullard repairs, tunes, and builds Cajun accordions from scratch—a craft he learned from Moreau. Pausing from his work on a single-row button accordion, Poullard unpacks the dynamic between Cajuns and Creoles, i.e. Cajuns with African, Caribbean, and/or American Indian ancestry.

Creoles play zydeco music, accordion-driven dance music infused with rhythm and blues and hip-hop elements, which is very different from contemporary Cajun music. But when Poullard, a Creole, and Moreau, a Cajun, play old-style music together, they’re “married,” Poullard says.

“Cajun and Creole are wedded together,” he says. “You can listen to somebody born in the early 1900s, and be they Creole or Cajun or beast, the sound of the accordion is very similar. As the years progressed, Cajun style became more intricate, more note-y, and the Creole style remained simple and pure. That’s it. That’s the only way to explain it.”

While Moreau and Poullard are in their 60s, younger Cajuns from the Golden Triangle are coninuing the musical
tradition. Donovan Bourque, a gregarious 19-year-old from Beaumont, is among those up-and-comers as the accordionist for the band Cajun Strong.

Bourque works at Big Doobie’s Boudin & Cracklins food truck in Port Arthur, where he sometimes leads multi-hour jams outside the shack. His playing precedes him. “Grown men have texted me asking for accordion tab sheets, if I could write it out for them, or send them a video,” Bourque says with a tinge of incredulity. “I try to help as much as I can because this is something you don’t want to let die.”

Text: We love the music, the food, friendship, family getting toegher to have a fais do-do

A man in a red hat holds a rope of sausage

Joshua Rodrigues of Big Doobie’s Boudin & Cracklins in Port Arthur

A sign reads "No Swimming" next to a dock along brown water and tall trees

Alligators discourage swimming in Taylor Bayou.

With Cajuns residing in southeast Texas for more than a century, their culture is intertwined with the Golden Triangle mainstream, says Tom Neal, director of the Museum of the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur.

“To us, the Cajun people and their culture is our culture,” Neal says. “It’s a standing joke that I hear from time to time that Port Arthur ought to be part of Louisiana. We’ve blended so much that we don’t hardly think about it.”

The museum explores Cajun heritage with artifacts including a vintage pirogue, the type of dugout canoe Cajuns used to navigate bayous and swamps. It also chronicles the history of the discovery of oil at Spindletop and the ensuing development of the Texaco and Gulf Oil refineries in Port Arthur, both magnets for Cajun workers.

Cajun and Creole musicians are also prominent in the museum’s Music Hall of Fame, among them Choates and Clifton Chenier, “the King of Zydeco,” who moved to Port Arthur in 1946 to work in the Gulf Oil Refinery.

The most visible landmark testifying to the Cajun presence in the Golden Triangle is La Maison Beausoleil in Port Neches’ Riverfront Park. The cypress house harkens to the Cajun settler lifestyle. The Broussard family built the house in Louisiana’s Vermilion Parish in 1810, and it was moved to Port Neches to serve as a museum in 1985, says Karen Mills, president of Les Acadiens du Texas, the group that maintains the home. Each year, on the second Sunday of October, La Maison Beausoleil hosts a Cajun French mass. Sweets, gumbo, and boudin sold at the event help fund the house’s upkeep.

“The Broussard family gave the house to us to open as a museum because of all the Cajuns who had moved from Louisiana when the men came to work in the refineries,” Mills explains.

The Museum of the Gulf Coast and La Maison Beausoleil have been part of tour schedules during Port Arthur’s annual Cajun Heritage Festival in April. Though festival plans have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic, events like the Cajun Heritage Festival and Cajun Night at the Texas Rice Festival in Winnie offer visitors the immersive, full-tilt Cajun experience—down to the dance contests and crawfish races.

Gloria Pate, the promoter of the Cajun Heritage Festival, sees Cajun culture’s wide appeal through her work with the festival and her online radio show, which airs on Cajun Sounds Internet Radio.

“I got a message last week from a guy in Dubai,” she says. “It’s worldwide. They love the music. They become enthralled with the music, the energy, our joie de vivre. We see it time and time again with hurricanes and plant explosions. People think of the music and they think of the food, but it’s so much more. It’s hard to put into words, other than neighbors helping neighbors.”

Back at the Neches River Wheelhouse, Melancon says he’s noticed a surge of interest in Cajun culture, especially among young musicians like Bourque.

“Back when I was young, it was not cool,” he says. “I’m 61 now, and the Cajun stuff is cool to the younger people. They’re starting bands, getting together to learn Cajun language. It’s riding on their shoulders now. The culture and the feel for the Cajun way of life is as strong as it’s ever been. It’s second nature now, like wanting to learn to cook a gumbo.”

A man in a gray shirt and black hat stands next to an accordion

Accordionist Ed Poullard, in Beaumont

Texas-Cajun Touchpoints

As Cajun people have crossed the border to southeast Texas from Louisiana, they’ve brought their culture and customs along with them.

The Cajun Express radio show broadcasts 6-10 a.m. Sundays on Beaumont radio station 105.3 FM and online at thecajunexpress.com. On the second Sunday of the month, the Melancons broadcast live from the Neches River Wheelhouse in Port Neches.

Neches River Wheelhouse, 720 Lee Ave., Port Neches. 409-853-1249;
nechesriverwheelhouse.com

Larry’s French Market, 3701 Pure Atlantic Road, Groves. 409-962-3381;
larrysfrenchmarket.com

Big Doobie’s Boudin & Cracklins, 6247 W. Port Arthur Road, Port Arthur. 409-548-1335.
facebook.com/doobiescajunmeats

Museum of the Gulf Coast, 700 Procter St., Port Arthur. 409-982-7000;
museumofthegulfcoast.org

La Maison Beausoleil, Riverfront Park, 600 Grigsby Ave., Port Neches. 409-989-9211

The Cajun Heritage Festival is set for April 17 at Port Arthur’s Carl A. Parker Multipurpose Center.
For updates on the event’s schedule and status, visit cajunheritagefest.com.

Cajun Sounds Internet Radio streams music 24-7 at cajunsoundsinternetradio.com.

Continue Reading
1 2 3 6