Imagine Lady Bird Lake without a mantle of green wrapped around its shores.
Austinites whose memories reach back to the early 1960s — when the newly impounded body of water on the Colorado River was dubbed Town Lake by an American-Statesman reporter because nobody else bothered to name it — can envision such a treeless state.
“They removed all the trees in 1958 to reduce flooding,” remembers Leslie “Les” Gage, a former City Council member who co-chaired the 1970s committee to create a hike-and-bike trail around the lake. “They were taken away everywhere except the pecans by Zilker Park. Everything else was wiped out. A blank canvas.”
As Austinites celebrate more than 40 years of what is now called the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail as well as the 15th anniversary of the Trail Foundation, which looks out for the lakeside’s future, they can thank Gage and longtime friend Carolyn Curtis, who helped to helm the Citizens’ Committee for a More Beautiful Town Lake from 1971 to 1976.
These days, Lady Bird Johnson gets credit for inspiring the beautification projects around the lake. Late Mayor Roy Butler and his powerhouse widow, Ann Showers Butler, spearheaded the city’s formal efforts for the trail that now bears their names.
There were others. Crucial benefactor Roberta Reed Crenshaw committed her money, ranch hands and legal maneuvers to the early plans, while she chased off base commercial interests. The Austin chapter of Association of Women in Construction, too, headed up the Fannie Davis Town Lake Gazebo project near the Drake Bridge.
Yet without quiet, persistent leaders such as Gage, a member of the Gage Furniture family, and Curtis, a personal friend of the Johnson family, it’s quite possible that the trailblazing, landscaping, planting and erosion control would never have turned out so well.
Still, over coffee recently at Juan Pelota Cafe downtown, the duo continued to redirect credit elsewhere, especially to Lady Bird Johnson.
“It was a party at the LBJ Ranch in April 1973 — a big blowout — that helped us focus attention on the Town Lake Trail,” Curtis recalls. “For years after its completion, Mrs. Johnson would walk the trail with some of us and point out things that needed attention. She was always for ‘ease of use, ease of maintenance.’”
Two from Old Austin
Native Austinite Leslie “Les” Gage, 82, grew up at 4407 Marathon Blvd. in the Rosedale neighborhood.
“Sinclair was the last street,” he says. “Everything beyond it was woods. I kept a horse. We had chickens. I slept on a screen porch.”
Gage studied business at the University of Texas when its student body topped out at 10,000 — “I thought it was the biggest place I’d ever seen” — then he served seven years in the Marine Corps during the Korean War.
His father, Louie Gage, a former farmer, opened the family’s first furniture store on East Sixth Street across Brazos Street from the Driskill Hotel.
“Leon Stone lent him $500 to open it,” Gage says. “My dad used to say that you could have driven a truck through my store and not hit my inventory.”
For decades, Les contributed to the family’s business, which expanded to multiple locations. Their last outlet recently closed after a 75-year Gage Furniture run.
For her part, Curtis, 75, grew up in Clarksville and Tarrytown. She admits that as a child, she did not fully understand the racial politics of the day.
“The Sweet Home Baptist Church was our playground,” she says of the historically African-American institution in Clarksville. “We didn’t understand why the black kids didn’t go to our schools.”
Her father managed the Johnson family’s KTBC television station, anchored at the Driskill Hotel.
“We weren’t allowed to go farther east than Gage Furniture,” Curtis says. “My father had worked for Mrs. Johnson from the time they bought KTBC. They treated family like staff and staff like family. I grew up going on the ranch.”
Gage didn’t meet Curtis, however, until 1971 when she participated in the opening of the LBJ Presidential Library.
Gage: “She was in charge of things.”
Curtis: “No, I was in charge of Hardin House dorm, which became the free hotel for VIPs. (UT System Regent) Frank Erwin was definitely ‘in charge.’”
The task at hand
At a time when Austin’s business establishment virtually ran city government, Gage was elected to the City Council in 1969.
“After one term, I learned I could be more effective not being on council,” Gage says with a laugh, “doing other things.”
In 1971, Mayor Butler called on him to accomplish one of those things.
“He said: ‘Les, Mrs. Johnson wants to build a trail around the lake, and I want you to chair the committee,’” Gage says. “I thought: ‘She wants to do what? And who would use it? This was a new concept.’”
There was some local precedent. In 1961, Mayor Lester Palmer had asked a group of experts to come up with a plan for the shores of the new lake. The City Council adopted a plan in 1965, and by 1968 Austin had applied for federal funds to put it into action.
The committee assembled by Butler in 1971 was directed to build a 10-mile trail, to plant trees and build rest stops, fishing points and picnic areas. Voters approved more than $1 million for the project, while private sources provided several hundred thousand dollars to flesh out the plan.
“Mrs. Johnson had been to many of the world’s great cities, and she could see the potential of older cities that kept their treasures or developed their treasures,” Curtis says. “My role was to do what Les or Mrs. Johnson wanted me to do. I was truly a youngster without a lot of experience. She thought she knew me well enough to say, ‘Why don’t you do this?’ I knew enough to say: ‘Yes, Ma’am.’”
Lady Bird Johnson hosted the group’s meetings at the Presidential Library. Spouses of the City Council members served alongside other appointees.
“We had an agenda. An itinerary. No surprises,” Curtis says. “Hallie Burns, wife of John Burns, president of City National Bank, was the co-chair. We were in and out, on time, sometimes with lunch.”
This was before Austin’s local banks, always on the forefront of historical philanthropy, were merged with regional, then national firms that held less personal investment in the city’s future.
The fundraiser at the LBJ Ranch was a breakthrough. The spread on the Pedernales River had never been opened to the general paying public in such a way.
“Roy (Butler) was always trying to figure out something special to do,” Gage says. “He suggested donors could fly down in their own planes and land at the ranch for a VIP ticket. Edith Royal was on the committee. At some point, somebody said: ‘Hey, we need a band. Does anybody know a band we can get for free?’ Edith says, ‘Darrell’s got a guy he likes: Willie Nelson.’”
As an extra lure, the former president promised to greet bigwigs in his bedroom, but he died on Jan. 22, 1973, before the party. Lady Bird insisted that they go on with the event.
Hollywood star Robert Redford, who has professed a lifelong devotion for Barton Springs, helped make sure that the 1975 premiere of his movie “The Great Waldo Pepper” happened at Austin’s Americana Theatre. That charity event raised $100,000 for the trail.
The toughest task for the committee was overcoming the Army Corps of Engineers’ decimation of trees and shrubs along the lake when it was impounded by the Longhorn Dam, itself meant to cool the controversial Holly Street Power Plant.
“In the 1970s, the feds helped with the landscaping and design,” Gage says. “By that time, they admitted, ‘We made a mistake in 1958.’”
The committee planted more than 3,600 trees of various species, including redbuds, which were meant to give Austin’s spring a splash of color, not unlike the cherry blossoms in D.C.
“Masses of color for the passing masses,” Curtis remembers. “Many of those trees didn’t survive. But whatever we needed, the city gave us. Jack Robinson and Beverly Sheffield over at parks helped every step of the way.”
The group’s work wrapped by July 1976 in time for the country’s bicentennial celebrations. Improvements also moved up from the lake to Barton, Johnson, Waller and Shoal creeks. Some of the stonework and paths on these creeks survive, but much has been washed out in subsequent floods or disintegrated from lack of attention and even deliberate abuse.
Although the committee had made the talk circuit of service groups and had recruited garden clubs to contribute their skills, all this activity over the course of five years was done without a lot of official public input.
“We didn’t hold any hearings,” Curtis says. “That was the magic wand that Mrs. Johnson waved. She had a wonderful way of asking pointed questions, gracious questions, but then she’d get it done.”
In 1976, the question remained as to what role the trail would play in the city. The modern jogging craze, born in the 1960s, had not yet taken root nationwide.
“That was an honest question,” Curtis says. “There were very few runners. Les was one.”
“When it was finished, we began to use it,” Gage says. “The first Cap City 10K, for instance, started at the state Capitol in 1978, then went down to the trail. Carole Keeton Rylander was mayor. She fired a cannon. She started a speech, and went on and on, then said, ‘Oh, you want me to start?’ It was very casual compared to today’s 10K.”
Few then realized that the project also would lead the way for the revival of an emptied and decaying downtown Austin, these days once again the city’s economic and cultural nerve center.
“The trail was the impetus for everything that followed downtown,” Gage says. “Older folks didn’t get it, but younger folks did.”