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Austin History


World War II pilot, now 97, left for dead after plane shot down

On April 22, 1944, Col. Teague “Bucky” Harris was flying back from a bombing mission over Germany. While in a landing pattern about 1,000 feet over his British base, the American pilot’s outfit came under intense fire, a desperate, behind-the-lines attack by German forces that was dubbed by author Ian McLachlan “the night of the intruders.” “It was dark by this...
A bright new day ahead for Austin area child advocates?

A bright new day ahead for Austin area child advocates?

Recently while on Austin’s buoyant social circuit, we learned more about child advocates, saluted some cultural heroes, savored an opera, lingered over a humanities exhibit, mingled at a block party, toasted a nonagenarian and shared an Austin history book with the masses. CASAblanca for CASA of Travis County The takeaway from this large gala: CASA of Travis County is on track to become the...
The secrets behind two old train stations on Springdale Road

The secrets behind two old train stations on Springdale Road

Driving by the 900 block of Springdale Road, one could easily miss them: Two old train stations, set far back behind a large parking lot. One is now called Springdale Station, the other Pine Street Station. They sit on an industrial spur next to a beehive of activity in the transformed Frostex Foods plant, which now includes two breweries, a rock climbing facility and an art gallery. Moya McIntyre...
Audit: Documentation makes historic landmark process ineffective

Audit: Documentation makes historic landmark process ineffective

Austin’s Planning and Zoning Department does not effectively oversee the city’s historic preservation program, an audit found this week, largely due to lack of documentation and confusion. The department either failed to collect or failed to document 58 percent of required fees auditors sampled — making the money vulnerable to theft, the report found. Officials don’t document...
Austin, this is not our first rodeo

Austin, this is not our first rodeo

Round ‘em up. Move ‘em out. Rodeo Austin’s big show returns March 11-25 to the Travis County Expo Center. There was a time when the rodeo was as central to Austin’s social life as, say, South by Southwest or the Austin City Limits Music Festival are today. Only the University of Texas Longhorns games — and perhaps, for a while, Austin Aqua Festival — outranked this...
Zach Theatre grapples with LBJ play ‘The Great Society’

Zach Theatre grapples with LBJ play ‘The Great Society’

It is clear that no couple has made a greater impact on Central Texas over the long run than Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson. From his role in taming in the Colorado River to his scores of national triumphs and tragedies — that reverberated back home — LBJ looms large in local memory. From her environmentalism to her wide-ranging philanthropy, Lady Bird also helped shape this city and its...
What’s the next role for the historic Hirshfeld-Moore House?

What’s the next role for the historic Hirshfeld-Moore House?

A few weeks ago, Texas A&M University System workers moved out of the Hirshfeld-Moore House (1885) and Cottage (1873), a dandy Victorian compound on West Ninth Street between Lavaca and Guadalupe streets. Occupying half of an urban block, it needs work. It isn’t in danger of demolition, so don’t ring the preservation alarms. But we are talking to experts about its past, present and possible...
Six Square group working to preserve Austin’s black cultural district

Six Square group working to preserve Austin’s black cultural district

Robert B. and Mary F. Smith rest together in Bethany Cemetery, both born when Texas supported slavery. The couple shares the hallowed ground with farmers, laborers, ministers and veterans from as far back as the Civil War — African-Americans whose contributions to East Austin have since been nearly forgotten. Bethany’s uneven landscape, dotted with sinking, broken and toppled-over monuments...
Austin couple, once everywhere around town, stay busy into their 90s

Austin couple, once everywhere around town, stay busy into their 90s

They have been under the influence of each other for 80 years. Both accomplished dancers, Sam and Bertha Shanblum met in 1936 at Paschal High School in Fort Worth. They dated, although not exclusively at first. Sam went off to college, while Bertha, a bit older, entered the Depression-era workforce. “Then along came a little fracas called World War II,” recalls Sam, 96, later a stalwart...
‘Miles and Miles of Texas’ takes readers on a 100-year roadtrip with

‘Miles and Miles of Texas’ takes readers on a 100-year roadtrip with

This week in “Texas Titles,” we take a very long road trip, scan Depression-era murals at Texas post offices, seek answers to the Yogurt Shop Murders, take in — oh, yes — more football and dive into a museum’s loaned artifacts. “Miles and Miles of Texas: 100 Years of the Texas Highway Department.” Carol Dawson, with Roger Allen Polson. Texas A&M University...
How often did Austin high schools make it to state in football?

How often did Austin high schools make it to state in football?

Inspired by Lake Travis High School’s sixth UIL football championship, we recently filed images of winning Texas teams from the past, including a few choice shots of the Austin High Maroons. That was how we learned that our state’s craze for high school football includes a fascination with its distant history. Wouldn’t it be interesting, we thought, to salute all the Austin-area...
Remind me … Homer Thornberry?

Remind me … Homer Thornberry?

If you have lived in Austin, say, 30 or 40 years, you might have stumbled on the fact that a federal building downtown, originally built in 1965 as a post office, is named after Homer Thornberry. If you have lived here more than 50 years, you know exactly what part Thornberry played in our local history. You might have met the handsome, charismatic man who died in 1995. He grew up in South Austin...
Austin architect contributed modernist buildings to city’s landscape

Austin architect contributed modernist buildings to city’s landscape

Thomas “Tom” Shefelman, who helped design several of Austin’s outstanding modernist buildings, died Wednesday at 89. Seattle-born Shefelman, a graduate of the University of Texas School of Architecture and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, also illustrated children’s books and painted watercolor scenes from his travels, often in tandem with his wife, Janice Shefelman,...
Are you in this picture taken at an Austin movie theater in the 1950s?

Are you in this picture taken at an Austin movie theater in the 1950s?

Mike Miller, archivist and manager of the Austin History Center, has teamed with colleague Susan B. Rittereiser and the center’s staff to produce a lovely and useful small book, “Historic Movie Houses of Austin.” Chapters cover the earliest informal theaters, including nickelodeons; the era of movie palaces; the Dallas-based Interstate Theater Circuit, which for decades controlled...
How ballet won over hippies at the Armadillo World Headquarters

How ballet won over hippies at the Armadillo World Headquarters

If you didn’t see it with your own eyes, you would swear it couldn’t have happened. One of Austin’s major ballet companies performed at the Armadillo World Headquarters — the scruffy music venue where hippies mingled with rednecks in South Austin — not once, not twice, but virtually every month from Oct. 1, 1972, to Dec. 7, 1980. “You can’t really think about...
No-shows, ‘no’ votes hindering action at Austin’s landmark commission

No-shows, ‘no’ votes hindering action at Austin’s landmark commission

Critics of Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission say the panel has been paralyzed by a lack of attendance by its members and by ideological divisions — and city officials are taking note. East Austin resident and historian Fred McGhee believes the commission has “subverted its purpose” by failing to proactively identify and initiate historic preservation through zoning recommendations...
Collecting family artifacts to fight hate, generate kindness

Collecting family artifacts to fight hate, generate kindness

Some of their relatives perished in the Holocaust. Others hid for years from the Nazis. At least one died trying to liberate Jews from the camps. “We got a sort of double whammy,” Gregg Philipson says. “My family has been here for a long time. But everybody who was left in Lithuania was wiped out.” His uncle, Gerard M. Degenstein, was killed in action while serving with the...
How did German Texans live?

How did German Texans live?

An absolutely gorgeous new book, “The Material Culture of German Texans,” by former Austinite Ken Hafertepe, will be an enormous resource for collectors, designers, tourists and just plain history buffs. One problem, though. Potential readers might not know precisely what is meant by “material culture.” “It’s a very broad concept,” explains Hafertepe, who...
The priest who talked a man with a baby down from a moonlight tower

The priest who talked a man with a baby down from a moonlight tower

Recently, Jeff Kerr and Ray Spivey were hawking their documentary film “The Last of the Moonlight Towers” at a holiday bazaar when a man approached them and said, “Oh, yeah, the moontowers. My cousin talked a man down from one a long time ago.” What? “Turns out, his cousin is the Catholic priest, Antonio Gonzalez, that we mention in the film,” says Kerr, author...
Irene Thompson, 94, knew just about everybody in East Austin

Irene Thompson, 94, knew just about everybody in East Austin

When Irene Hill Thompson was just 4 years old, her brother Doxey Hill refused to go to school unless his little sister went along with him. “We attended Gregory School in Gregorytown,” says Thompson, referring to the old freedmen’s community that was beneath the hill near what is now Huston-Tillotson University. “I passed (that grade) at 4 years old and he didn’t at 6...
On Pearl Harbor Day, remembering Austin’s homefront during WWII

On Pearl Harbor Day, remembering Austin’s homefront during WWII

To Connie Douglass Vanzura, Dec. 7, 1941, was just another ordinary day in her 10th year. “Until my grandfather, Zene Foster, rushed into my grandmother’s rooming house, yelling: ‘Turn on the radio, turn on the radio. We’ve been attacked. This means war!’” Vanzura said. “I can still remember the shiver of fear that rushed through my body.” Seventy-five...
And the winner of the LBJ unlook-alike contest: Col. Tom Parker

And the winner of the LBJ unlook-alike contest: Col. Tom Parker

The vote has been counted, and it looks as if we have a winner. As you might recall, we posted a picture taken in 1959 during a barbecue at the LBJ Ranch. Nobody dissented that the central triad at the table were former President Harry. S. Truman, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and singer Eddy Arnold. But who is the mystery man in the Resistol Open Road hat standing behind Truman? A museum caption...
Southeast Austin residents rally to preserve Montopolis Negro School

Southeast Austin residents rally to preserve Montopolis Negro School

Southeast Austin residents demonstrated Friday to preserve what used to be the Montopolis Negro School, one of the last of 42 institutions that educated African-American children from 1935 to 1962 when the city’s schools refused to. About 15 members of the Montopolis Neighborhood Association and Montopolis Neighborhood Plan Contact Team called upon the city to buy the property from developer...
Landmark commission commends study of historic East Austin

Landmark commission commends study of historic East Austin

The formal action was not required. Yet on Monday, the Austin Historic Landmark Commission unanimously endorsed a study that would make it easier to set up historic districts — and for individual structures to acquire landmark status — in East Austin. “It’s cumbersome, time consuming and pretty daunting to apply for landmark status,” said Kalan Contreras, a city of Austin...
Memorial at Capitol honoring African-Americans unveiled Saturday

Memorial at Capitol honoring African-Americans unveiled Saturday

After two decades of efforts by state lawmakers to construct a memorial at the Capitol honoring African-Americans, the final product — a two-story-tall, 32-foot-wide, bronze and granite monument — was unveiled at a ceremony Saturday morning. State and local officials and several hundred others gathered on the south lawn of the Capitol to celebrate the milestone but also to honor the sacrifices...
SantaCruz: Textbooks should provide facts — not fiction — about history

SantaCruz: Textbooks should provide facts — not fiction — about history

Members of the State Board of Education took a unanimous preliminary vote on Wednesday to reject the adoption of a controversial Mexican-American studies textbook riddled with untruths. The final vote on Friday is not likely to be any different. The book in question — “Mexican American Heritage” which was meant to teach high school students about Mexican-American culture —...
Lighting up the Zilker Holiday Tree for the 50th time

Lighting up the Zilker Holiday Tree for the 50th time

In 1967, when the Zilker Holiday Tree — promoted as the “Tallest Man-Made Tree” — first lit up the Austin sky, longtime City Council Member and Mayor Pro Tem Emma Long pushed the start button. The next year, sporting a red-and-white Santa costume, Cathy Wettig, 8, pressed the button to light the 165-foot, 82,500-watt tree, built around a moonlight tower. The student at Lucy...
Shining a steady light on Austin’s moonlight towers

Shining a steady light on Austin’s moonlight towers

Moontowers? Moonlight towers? Electric light towers? It depends on when you got to know Austin. “A reader was very upset that I referred to them as ‘moontowers,’” says Jeff Kerr, a medical doctor and published historian who, with longtime friend Ray Spivey, has made a new documentary film, “The Last of the Moonlight Towers.” “They actually didn’t become...
Clyde Rabb Littlefield looks out on the sweep of UT’s history

Clyde Rabb Littlefield looks out on the sweep of UT’s history

Clyde Rabb Littlefield started his deep plunge into early University of Texas history by studying his fraternity. “I knew that the local Kappa Alpha chapter started at the same time of the university,” says the son of the famous UT track coach Clyde Littlefield. “So I zeroed in on that. I got to know the individuals and how they fit into the university. And I was intrigued about...
A gold mine of historical postcards from Austin, Texas

A gold mine of historical postcards from Austin, Texas

The inimitable Eddie Wilson (World Armadillo Headquarters, Threadgill’s) and author Richard Zelade (“Guy Town by Gaslight,” “Austin in the Jazz Age”) turned us on to a glorious website, austinpostcard.com. Casey M. Weaver, who put together the site, owns more than 1,000 Austin postcards, plus 200 to 300 more related historical images of our city. “I really enjoy...
Briscoe Center’s red-letter history exhibit puts spotlight on Texas

Briscoe Center’s red-letter history exhibit puts spotlight on Texas

A sturdy witness to history, the marble, classically inspired rostrum stood in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1857 to 1950. From this podium in 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt demanded a declaration of war against the Japanese. When the U.S. Capitol was remodeled in 1950, it was given to Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, who served his North Texas district in Congress from 1912 until 1961...
Muny named one of nation’s ‘most endangered historic places’

Muny named one of nation’s ‘most endangered historic places’

The National Trust for Historic Preservation named Lions Municipal Golf Course on Wednesday to its list of America’s most endangered historic places, calling the course a “civil rights landmark” with an uncertain future. The National Trust, a private, nonprofit organization based in Washington, also included El Paso’s Chihuahuita and El Segundo Barrio Neighborhoods on its annual...
All hail the fallen Pig Bellmont!

All hail the fallen Pig Bellmont!

Recently, Bevo XV, a handsome longhorn, made his debut at the Notre Dame game. Good time to be reminded that the University of Texas mascot was not always of the bovine kind. Pig Bellmont (1914-1923), a tan and white dog of indeterminate breed, was the longtime pet of athletic director L. Theo Bellmont (1881-1967), namesake for UT’s Bellmont Hall, HQ for UT athletics. This canine rival to Texas...
Herman: A Texas hero who took things into his own hands

Herman: A Texas hero who took things into his own hands

Here in Texas, we honor our heroes, even those with flaws. Castrating a preacher and another man would be considered a flaw, right? A handful of folks showed up Wednesday at the Texas State Cemetery honor Robert Potter, a long-ago Texas hero who, despite his better traits and place in Texas history, had issues that once led him to take things into his own hands. Other men’s things. The ceremony...
Postcards were the email, Facebook and Instagram of the early 1900s

Postcards were the email, Facebook and Instagram of the early 1900s

Ken Wilson takes a startling view of the way people used postcards 100 years ago. “Postcards were the email of the day,” says Wilson, who collects historical cards. “Also the Facebook and Instagram of that era. People sent a picture with a note. It was quick and easy.” Between 1900 and 1908, according to Wilson, Americans sent 700 million postcards a year at a time when the...

Rodeo Austin picks new leader

Rob Golding, new CEO of Rodeo Austin. Rodeo Austin,  one of Austin’s signature events, has a new leader.
Part 2: Where did Austin’s railroads go?

Part 2: Where did Austin’s railroads go?

Last week in this space, we discussed Austin’s first two main rail lines, the Houston & Texas Central, which arrived from the east in 1871, and the International & Great Northern, whose tracks entered town from the north in 1876 and proceeded south. “Besides the H&TC (later Southern Pacific) and the I&GN (later Missouri Pacific), Austin had a third railroad, the Missouri-Kansas-Texas,...
Three more potent parties that altered Austin forever

Three more potent parties that altered Austin forever

Recently, we detailed 17 parties that altered Austin. The story and the video were hits. Here we offer three affairs that didn’t make the first list — and probably should have. March 27, 1925: Texas Relays. Coach Clyde Littlefield and athletic director Theo Bellmont founded the Texas Relays — now named after Littlefield — to compete with the Kansas Relays. The event moved from...
What’s left of Austin’s lost Blind, Deaf and Orphan School?

What’s left of Austin’s lost Blind, Deaf and Orphan School?

Ruby McClain arrived at the Texas Blind, Deaf and Orphan School in 1952 when she was 9. “I was a shy little person,” McClain recently told freelance illustrator Aletha St. Romain. “Before that, I went for two years to public school. I did the best I could. I didn’t do very well with math or English or literature.” Once a month, while attending the Austin state school...
Following the tracks of Austin’s trains

Following the tracks of Austin’s trains

Inspired by Asher Price’s story and smart video on the Texas Railroad Commission, we offered charismatic Texas rail images on the Austin Found blog. So where did Austin’s historical railroads go? The first to arrive — on Christmas Day 1871 — was the Houston and Texas Central line from the east, which arrived on East Fifth Street. It was chartered in 1848 but had built only...
Five things you should know about the Zilker moonlight tower

Five things you should know about the Zilker moonlight tower

The Zilker Park moonlight tower, which most people recognize as the Zilker Tree when it’s decked out in Christmas lights, was taken down in April to be repaired and restored. Austin Energy contractors reassembled it Wednesday. Here are five things you should know: 1. The 16-story-high structure is one of the original 31 moontowers that made up Austin’s first urban lighting system in 1895...
Seeking Austin’s help in honoring Choctaw hero Joseph Oklahombi

Seeking Austin’s help in honoring Choctaw hero Joseph Oklahombi

Central Texans might be able to help an Oklahoma man earn a Congressional Medal of Honor. Boys originally in the eighth-grade class of Nellie Garone, who teaches at Mannsville Elementary in Mannsville, Okla., are lobbying for a World War I soldier named Joseph Oklahombi, a Choctaw Code Talker also known as Oklahoma’s most-decorated hero from that conflict. His outfit was a Texas/Oklahoma National...
17 parties that altered Austin

17 parties that altered Austin

The fall social season arrived — early — last week with the always warmhearted Ice Ball for Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Central Texas at the Hyatt Regency’s handy Zilker Banquet Room. As we look forward to autumn’s parade of public events — see box for a sampling — we look back at parties that altered our fair city. 1. Oct. 17, 1839: Grand entry of President...
Unlocking the mysteries of the Swisher family photos

Unlocking the mysteries of the Swisher family photos

We love a mystery! Reader Pam Kercheville asked us to help identify figures in photos found a very old Swisher family album. You can see more of these evocative images on the Austin Found blog. The Swishers, you will recall, operated the ferry across the Colorado River in the late 19th century. They owned a farm next to the Texas School for the Deaf. “James Gibson Swisher is my great-great-great-grandpa...
Why new school namesake Russell Lee is remembered

Why new school namesake Russell Lee is remembered

Recently, the city of Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission voted to grant Lee Elementary, built in 1939, landmark status. Still, as reported by Melissa B. Taboada, the Austin school district will go ahead with the planned name change from Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, to Russell Lee, the photographer and University of Texas teacher. Both sides on the naming issue appear to agree that...
When Texas Democrats were the state’s big operators

When Texas Democrats were the state’s big operators

Early on during the recent Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, a nasty fight broke out within the Texas delegation. Historically speaking, that isn’t anything new. In fact, it has been much worse, many times before. Following Reconstruction, the Democratic Party ruled Texas almost without meaningful Republican competition until the 1960s. By the 1990s, the Republicans had turned...
Rancheria Grande was the big city back in the 1700s

Rancheria Grande was the big city back in the 1700s

“Nobody will be out there,” Steven Gonzales predicted. “Still, because we don’t have specific permission from the property owner today, we won’t trespass on Sugarloaf Mountain. We’ll just drive by and then view it from the river.” So promised the director of El Camino Real de los Tejas National Trail Association during a day trip to Milam County, 80 miles...
A century of Lions Club life in Austin

A century of Lions Club life in Austin

On Jan. 18, 1916, at least 29 men were called to order in a “dingy, poorly lighted” hall at 704 Congress Ave., above Burt’s Shoe Company. During the meeting, the Austinites signed a charter for what became the oldest continually active chapter of Lions Clubs International. Mysteriously, the name of a 30th man, Thurlow B. Weed, of Weed Funeral Home, was found much later on a duplicate...
More Austin History Stories