- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
On Oct. 14, a good many Montopolis eyes will be on the United Methodist Women. That is because this charitable mission of the United Methodist Church will celebrate 60 years of good works at the Montopolis Friendship Community Center with an open house from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
They are quite some group, as this reporter discovered while visiting with them at their bare-bones, three-part wooden center in Civitan Park on Vargas Road, not far from Allison Elementary School.
A simple sign over the entryway to the little complex, which includes a charity resale shop, classrooms and meeting rooms, suggests even more about the area’s complicated history.
It reads: “Colorado Hall.” More on that tantalizing clue later.
“The Austin area Methodist women in 1956-57 wanted a mission project in a needy area lacking community services,” writes Virginia Warrington in a short history of the group. “The Montopolis area was recommended by Police Chief Bob Miles as a place to help women and children.”
Warrington’s chronicle records that World War II-era barracks were purchased for $1 in 1957 and refashioned into three rooms on the east end of Civitan Park. The small complex had a kindergarten and a resale clothing shop. She notes that Colorado Hall was added in the 1960s, along with new programs. A mulberry tree was planted in 1979 in memory of a teacher’s brother who had been killed in a car wreck.
Leaders Velma Miles and Oliver Sponberg led a campaign in 1982 to add more space and plumbing. They spent all of $12,500. More and more groups met at the facility, and early-childhood development projects were expanded there. A logo that included the old Montopolis bridge was created by Jack Moncure of the United Methodist Men and husband of MFCC vice-chair Vernell Moncure. It was revised over the years.
The Well Child Clinic arrived in the 1960s to help with nursing and immunization before there were city or county clinics in the neighborhood. During the same decade, preteens from Allan Junior High School jolted the center with square dancing.
“They were led by Mr. and Mrs. Adams from Elgin for four Fridays in the month,” recalls Shirley White. “Mr. Adams was the caller. After the lessons and practicing, the group went to perform for the residents of a local nursing home. The girls wore skirts to add to the twirling around. After the planned practices, the dancers were able to dance as they liked with records they had brought from home.”
Lib Harris remembers speakers and crafts staged by a Mothers Group.
“A highlight was taking a bus to the mall, changing buses and eating downtown,” Harris says. “Making friends and having new experiences enriched the lives of these Montopolis women.”
Reading Is Fundamental, Planned Parenthood, English as a Second Language, and Extend-A-Care for Kids programs provided more services. Space, of course, was made available for charitable efforts from other faith groups. The Miles scholarships were created to support high school graduates in the area who were going to college.
Meanwhile, women and some men from all over the Austin area got to know the Montopolis community more intimately. And they never left.
Back to the historical mystery. What if the buildings that make up the center were indeed former barracks — they certainly look like military surplus — yet also had been part of the Colorado Common School District before Montopolis was annexed by Austin and its segregated country schools joined the Austin and Del Valle school districts?
READ MORE: Montopolis a tale of two towns
A county map from around 1900 shows a Colorado School on Ed Seeling’s land, close to what is now the interchange of U.S. 183 and Texas 71. A 1936 map of the Austin area shows two country schools, both on the west side of what is now U.S. 183; another shows both of them on the east side.
An American-Statesman article by Bill Brammer from 1954 states that because of the dangers to the Colorado White School, located near the Bergstrom Air Force Base runway, the “first three grades of the school were moved to another site about two miles away on Vargas Road.”
Could that be the Colorado Hall at the Friendship complex? A photograph of one structure being lifted for the move shows a similarly sized and shaped building, but the windows are different from the current ones.
The city of Austin annexed the Montopolis area in 1952. The land for Civitan Park was purchased by the Austin parks department in 1953. A U.S. Geological Survey topographical map dated 1955 shows the modern Allison Elementary School, so the transplanted Colorado School buildings would have been vacant by 1957, when the Friendship Center was founded.
An archaeological study of the Colorado White School and the nearby Greenwood Cemetery, done in 1994, suggests that both the black and white schools were originally linked to churches. It also places the White School near a grove of trees southeast of today’s big highway interchange.
The Defender yearbook for the Travis County Rural Schools from 1936 describes the Colorado White School’s evolution through three separate buildings. A short history in that yearbook states that the school went back to the 1830s and was updated with a small, handsome brick structure in 1921.
A school for African-Americans, according to the yearbook, came at the close of the Civil War, which would make sense — that was when Freedmen’s schools were established, often in conjunction with Methodist Episcopal and Baptist church denominations. A Mexican Colorado School was added in 1934, along with a new Negro school.
A recent city of Austin staff report, however, says that Montopolis Elementary School, created for African-American children, goes back only to 1891. The city report and the yearbook agree that the extant Montopolis Negro School, also former Army barracks, became its home around 1934-35.
There are remains of other rural common schools — White, Mexican and Negro in the parlance of the day — around Travis County. Some have been preserved and moved, such as the Esperanza School Building now in Zilker Park. Others, like the Montopolis Negro School, are actively being saved in place.
Perhaps the Montopolis Friendship Community Center, tended by the United Methodist Women for 60 years, is another candidate for closer historical inquiry?