Pflugerville wasn’t always a suburb of Austin. In fact, before 1965, it wasn’t even a formally incorporated town.
Yet folks settled in the fertile farming area as early as the 1840s. And, in 1904, George Pfluger laid out a railroad center that grouped together cotton gins, churches, homes and mercantile structures into a 16-block grid.
Still, Pflugerville was pretty isolated out there on the sometimes dusty, sometimes muddy blackland prairie.
“People were self-sufficient,” says Vernagene H. Mott, 71, born and raised in Pflugerville. “They butchered pork, beef, poultry. They grew orchards of peaches, plums, pears, figs. They planted potatoes, sugar cane, corn. They had vegetable gardens, smokehouses, butter. And, of course, the cheese factory was in Round Rock.”
Adding to her personal experience, plenty of archival material was available to Mott and her two co-authors, Audrey T. Dearing and Pamela A. Stephenson, who put together the recently published “Pflugerville” for Arcadia’s “Images of America” history series.
Authors of two previous books on the town, the trio will sign the slender picture book — with its limited but highly revealing text blocks — at the Round Rock Barnes & Noble on Feb. 15.
Recently, they gathered to share their stories at the Heritage Home Museum, built in 1913 as the Bohls House. (Yes, that Bohls family. Among the descendants is American-Statesman sports columnist Kirk Bohls.)
While the book offers some 250 indelible black-and-white images, the writerly threesome have plenty of historical tales about Pflugerville to spare.
“We had to edit (each item) down to 70 words or 120 words,” Mott says. “That makes it very difficult. We wanted to go a little deeper but couldn’t.”
Three as one
Always interested in education and history, Dearing, 84, grew up in in San Antonio but has lived in the area since 1959. She worked as Frank McBee’s corporate secretary at the breakthrough tech company Tracor.
“We had lived in Austin,” she says. “But we wanted our children to grow up in a smaller environment. We checked with the Texas Education Agency about the best rural school districts in the area.”
Outside her day job, Dearing helped organize Pflugerville’s first civic library, which opened in 1981.
Canada-born Stephenson, 67, grew up in Houston and Austin, where she graduated from high school. The former vice president of finance for a higher education consortium brought to the current project a passion for genealogy.
“After I retired, I had to find something to fill 60 hours a week,” she says with a smile. “Also, this gave me the opportunity to learn the history of the community.”
Born in a farmhouse — not uncommon in those days — Mott taught math and chemistry in Pflugerville schools. Her great-grandfather was Conrad Pfluger, who settled here in 1849 at age 19 with his brother, George Pfluger, who was 14 when he arrived. The next year, their father, Henry Pfluger, relocated to the Wilbarger Creek basin from Germany at the urging of his sons.
Mott has lived in other places, but always returned to Pflugerville.
“You feel the connection,” Mott says. “And I wanted our three kids to grow up where there’s still a community connection.”
Making the book
The “Images of America” series, which has published hundreds of American local histories, is mostly about the pictures. So priority No. 1 for Stephenson, Mott and Dearing was to pry treasured family photos out of Pflugervillians.
“Vernagene had the trust of the locals,” Stephenson says. “They pulled out their scrapbooks and I brought along a portable scanner. The images never left their hands.”
The historical trio analyzed each theme — families, businesses, churches, schools, entertainment, etc. — from the town’s past, printed out all the pictures and matched them to the proper chapters.
It was essential to determine the earliest families, which, besides the Pflugers and Bohlses, included the Wards, Lissos, Wuthrichs and “you don’t want to misspell this” — the Fuchs. Cotton and corn served as the main cash crops.
“Cotton became king after the Civil War and lasted until the little neighborhoods popped up,” Mott says. “Now cotton is over because of the chemical nature of today’s farming.”
For the first 50 or so years, Pflugerville was a full day’s oxen drive from Austin, where locals would shop on Sixth Street. Then, in 1904, the town beat out nearby Dessau for a rail stop on the MKT line.
“That became the economic generator for the community,” Dearing says. “The first store opened in 1893, but downtown Pflugerville came after the railroad.”
The Farmer’s State Bank was founded in 1906 and filled out a wood frame building before it burned. A brick building replaced it. That structure was damaged by fire and was remodeled in 1917 to survive today.
Also standing is part of the Pflugerville Mercantile, a signature store built in the teens that was damaged in a 1971 conflagration that ate up half a downtown block.
Germans, Latinos and African-Americans poured into the area during the early 20th century. When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, about 500 people lived in and around Pflugerville.
Blacks, who worked in the cotton and ice-making industries, could not live in Pflugerville proper, but instead moved into the Colored Addition. Among the first settlers there were George and Kathryn Caldwell, along with Thomas Doxey, Will Smith and Peter McDade.
Like most of Texas at the time, the community was further segregated: African-Americans attended the Colored School; Latinos the Mexican School.
Increasingly, folks from Dessau, Three Points, Richland and other smaller spots on the prairie came into Pflugerville for banking, marketing and socializing needs.
German Lutherans were followed by Baptists, then Catholics, who planted a mission from Austin’s Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1919, to be followed by St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church in 1932. For African-Americans, St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church was formed in 1910.
By the mid-20th century, most Pflugervillians headed down the road to the Dessau Hall for a good time. Elvis Presley once performed at this great old dance hall.
Early on, the German settlers insisted on good schools — the first three graduates in 1911 were women because men were working the farms — and the rich farmland created a solid tax base.
As soon as desegregation in the 1960s made it possible, waves of East Austinites also moved here for the schools and inexpensive housing, as compared with suburbs to the west.
“The value of land goes up with trees and hills,” Stephenson says. “We don’t have that. We’re on blackland prairie, so the land is not as pricey.”
Nowadays, rapidly growing Pflugerville draws from dozens of immigrant groups and more than 72 dialects are spoken in the Pflugerville school district, the historians say.
Their project did not end with the “Images of America” edition. They continue to collect material that reminds this relatively young city of 50,000 that something preceded today’s spreading subdivisions and retail centers.
“There were still more out there,” Mott says. “Pictures that have never been seen outside the families. People saw these pictures and shared more.”
Michael Barnes writes about Austin’s people, places, culture and history