The many threads of Texas history weave together in Central Texas to form the rich fabric that makes Texas the place of legend. Diverse geography and settlement patterns have combined here to make this the most varied region of the state.
The Gulf Coastal Plain, Piney Woods, Post Oak Belt, Blackland Prairie, and the Texas Hill Country collide in the counties surrounding Austin. The heart of the Central Texas region is the Blackland Prairie located along the Brazos, Colorado, and San Bernard rivers, the final finger of the Midwest's Great Plains that extend as far south as San Antonio. The rich Brazos River bottoms attracted slave-owning plantation owners before the Civil War and Czech family farmers after. The prairie also provided the well-watered and grassed routes for the cattle trails from southern and coastal Texas heading north to the Kansas railheads during the 1870s. West of the Colorado River, the land rises into the Cross Timbers region and then into the rough, rocky limestone terrain of the Edwards Plateau and the Texas Hill Country.
The varied and often conflicting cultures of Native Americans, Spaniards, Mexicans, Germans, Czechs, and other Europeans have merged in Central Texas more than in any other region of the state.
Austin, the state capital and the largest city in Central Texas, is often thought of as the beginning of the Hill Country with its rolling hills. From Austin, the Central Texas region reaches north to Waco on the Brazos River and as far to the southeast as Prairie View in the Gulf Coastal Plain. The early towns in this region, such as Austin, San Felipe, Bastrop, Columbus, La Grange, and San Marcos, were sited on river fords, the crossroads of trade. The next generation of new towns, Bryan, Navasota, Calvert, and Schulenburg, were platted by the railroads and prospered as regional agricultural shipping centers.
On his epic trek (c. 1528–1536) across the lands that would become Texas and Mexico, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca became the first non–Native American to set foot in what became Texas. He encountered Coahuiltecan hunter-gatherers and the coastal Karankawas who had existed here for thousands of years. The coming of the Spanish brought drastic and swift changes to many Native American cultures: the introduction of the horse, the spread of disease, Christianity, new farming and irrigation technologies, and new immigrant groups.
It was also Cabeza de Vaca who reported seeing herds of large “cows” with small horns—bison—making him the first European to chronicle this American beast. He reported back to Spain about large cities and lands of abundant minerals and precious stones, luring subsequent Spanish expeditions, including that of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, deeper into Texas and Mexico. There were no treasures like those found in Aztec Mexico and Spanish interest in what would become Texas waned, only to be reignited once the French took an interest in the early seventeenth century.
Planning to use inhospitable Texas as a buffer zone against French and American expansion, the Spanish controlled immigration into Texas by allowing only Spaniards to settle and trade there until Moses Austin, Stephen F. Austin's father, was awarded the first Anglo grant to colonize the land. In 1821, Mexico won her independence from Spain. With this political upheaval and Moses's death, Austin's original Spanish land grant had to be transferred to his son and ratified by the new Mexican governor. Austin brought nearly 300 families, some with slaves, mostly settling the fertile plains of the Colorado and Brazos rivers extending from the coast into Central Texas. Each farming family received one labor (about 177 acres) and ranching families one sitio (about 4,428 acres). Sitioswere to have river access with a frontage of one-fourth of its length and labors were concentrated around San Felipe de Austin ( PF59), the colony's headquarters in present-day Austin County. The Blackland Prairie continues to be the most productive agricultural land in the state, and cotton, once the dominant crop, is still grown here.
European immigrants, mainly from Germany, Poland, Bohemia, and Moravia, soon followed and Texas's population rose from around 212,000 in 1850 to over 604,000 by 1860 (nearly one-third of them slaves), with the population centered in the eastern part of Central Texas.
Czechs and Germans were drawn to Texas by letters written home and published in newspapers and by private organizations, advertising abundant free land and describing rich farmland and mild winters. German immigrants were encouraged by published letters from Johann Frederich Ernst, whose land grant of 1831 in Austin County became the nucleus of the state's German Belt. German nobles, eager to propagate their wealth and power and relieve overcrowding in Germany, established the Adelsverein (The Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas) and brought tradesmen and middle-class farmers from northern Germany. The immigrants established New World versions of the social clubs popular in their homeland— Schuetzen Verein, Liedertafeln,and Turnverein—and most rural communities and towns had at least one wood-framed building used for these and other community activities. Many of these buildings are still in use as dance halls (see Texas Dance Halls,pp. 94–95), and their members still crown the annual Schuetzen Koenig.
The Reverend Josef Bergmann is known as the “father of Texas Czechs” and, beginning in the early 1850s, the majority of Czech immigrants passed through his operation headquarters at Cat Spring in Austin County. Czech immigrants largely settled in the Blackland Prairie region in Austin, Fayette, Lavaca, and Washington counties and worked small family farms. Fayette County became the center of Czech immigration in the state, largely encouraged by Father Josef Chromcík, who arrived in Fayetteville in 1872 and was instrumental in the organization of the Czech fraternal organization Slovanská podporující jednota statu Texas (SPJST), the Slavic Benevolent Order of the State of Texas, which is still in existence today. By the twentieth century, approximately 250 Czech communities had been settled in Central Texas, extending from Waco south to Victoria. Most of the Czechs were Catholic and their wood-framed, Carpenter Gothic churches form the core of the region's “painted churches.” Unlike the Germans whose social clubs were typically secular, many Czech dance halls were part of the churchyard that also included a barbeque pit and beer servery. Czech immigration increased steadily into the first decades of the twentieth century. Typically, communities developed a mix of immigrant groups, as seen in Fayetteville where the larger agricultural population was Czech, while Germans operated key businesses in town, such as Hugo Zapp's store ( PF28).
Slavery was illegal in Texas under Spanish rule. Yet from the time of Mexico's freedom from Spain in 1821 until emancipation was proclaimed in the United States, Texas's rich soils and the expansion of slavery were intertwined. Stephen F. Austin's original 300 families brought slaves with them and among their population of 1,800 almost 25 percent were slaves. Despite Mexico's threats to eliminate slavery, the institution endured and was secured by the Republic of Texas's constitution of 1836. The institution grew rapidly after statehood in 1845, with the major slave populations located along the lower Brazos and Colorado rivers in the coastal counties and extending inland along the Brazos River bottoms of Brazos and Robertson counties. Plantation owners were among the wealthiest families in Texas with their large landholdings and cash crops of sugar cane and cotton. Economic strength brought political power.
These large landholdings differed radically from the small inland Czech and German family farms. Tensions between the Anglo planters and the German and Czech merchants and farmers had peaked by the time of the Civil War. Most small farmers had no economic ties to slavery and the majority did not support the institution on moral grounds. Nineteen counties, mostly in Central Texas with predominantly German populations, voted against secession in 1861. After the war, the small family farms were not affected by the loss of slave labor, but the plantation economy was destroyed, with many large landholders turning instead to cattle ranching.
Despite its historic possession by Spain and Mexico, the dominant cultures in Central Texas were American and European until the mid-twentieth century when Mexican immigration rose and surpassed these groups, adding yet another pattern to the state's cultural fabric.
By the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, there were nine railroad companies in Texas, though none of the state's tracks, which transported agricultural products, had yet to connect with the established rail networks of the East Coast and midwestern states. Between 1870 and 1890 the length of railroad track increased from six hundred miles to more than six thousand, extending through Central Texas to the far western and northern parts of the state and nation. The availability of rail transportation by the 1880s led to the decline of cattle drives.
Early frontier architecture melded European and Mexican technologies: logs, fachwerk,cut stone, and adobe, in both vernacular and high-style modes. Large timbers used in log construction were less available in Central Texas than in the pine forests of eastern Texas, forcing the early use of the soft local limestone, which was often incorporated as infill in the wood frames of fachwerk.The Greek Revival style of the 1840s–1850s in the wood houses of eastern Texas took a local twist in Austin in the work of Abner Cook, who built large, elegant homes in the style using rough-cut and plastered limestone. His Governor's Mansion ( AU4) in Austin remains Texas's most iconic example of the style.
After the Civil War, the railroads brought milled lumber, pattern books, and kit houses, spreading the wide range of Victorian styles popular across the nation: Italianate, Gothic Revival, Second Empire, and Queen Anne. Early log houses may still be found hidden beneath post-railroad, milled-lumber boards.
Together with San Antonio to the south, Central Texas is home to a contemporary regionalist architectural spirit. Building primarily in the German tradition of stone, varying between coarse rubble and finely dressed ashlar, buildings are often elegantly and minimally detailed to reflect the design trends of the late twentieth century.
Today, the region is dominated by the sprawl of Austin, spreading bedroom communities into neighboring Williamson, Bastrop, Caldwell, and Hays counties. Once dominated by small houses and established neighborhoods, Austin now feels the development pressure common to Houston and Dallas, with “McMansions” replacing small houses in older neighborhoods. Although these houses tend to relate to regional trends and materials—the use of limestone, metal, and exposed timber—new development litters the surrounding hilltops with faux castles in a sad competition to be king of the mountain. Second homes, retirement communities, and resorts started to develop along Central Texas's Highland Lakes in the 1970s and new communities such as Lago Vista and Lakeway have since evolved from weekend retreats to year-round communities. Texas continues to lure retirees with comparatively reasonable real estate costs and warm winters. The unfortunate impact is the continued sprawl into undeveloped Hill Country land. Small towns such as Sealy, Brenham, and Hempstead have suburbs completed within the past five years. Suburbs have completely transformed and overcome the once small towns of Pflugerville and Round Rock. Regrettably, these new planned communities rarely offer more than a nod to the rich cultural regionalism of the area with a gratuitous use of limestone stuck onto brick-gabled, neo-Tudor, and neo-Tuscan houses.
Tourism in Central Texas remains strong, and cultural and historic sites and natural areas offer a way to escape sprawl and to experience the rich heritage of the region. Within a short distance from Austin is a delightful mixture of state parks and historic sites, with tubing and canoeing down clear, cold rivers. Even the smallest of towns boasts historic markers and designated historic buildings and a good barbeque or meat market, another legacy of the state's German and Czech heritage.
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