Despite the fact that the average daily temperature in Austin is more or less on a par with that of the surface of the sun, most Austinites have a perplexing love affair with being outdoors as much as they possibly can be. Give an Austinite a choice between, say, dining in the cool, dim elegance of a fine restaurant and scarfing down buffalo wings on a humid, fly-infested sun deck and he will always choose the latter, because heat and the outdoors are mother’s milk to him. And where else but Austin would you find a huge, monumental footbridge that gracefully stretches across a river not to a broad avenue, not to a minor street, not even to a cracked sidewalk–but to a dirt track for jogging?
Austin loves the outdoors so much it has between 191 and 208 parks (depending on which source you consult), covering over 27,748 acres, including parks, preserves, greenbelts, creeks, and canyons, as well as recreation centers, athletic fields, amphitheaters, tennis courts, and swimming pools, and other facilities.
Parks have been part of Austin from the beginning. When Edwin Waller laid out the basic grid plan of the city in 1839, he included four squares to be used as public parks. One, bordered by Trinity, Neches, East Ninth, and East Tenth Streets was called Hamilton Square, and is now the site of the First Baptist Church. Another, bordered by Guadalupe, San Antonio, West Ninth, and West Tenth, was called Bell Square, but is now known as Wooldridge. The park at Guadalupe, San Antonio, West Fourth, and West Fifth, was originally Hemphill Square, but is now Republic Square. And the park at Trinity, Neches, East Fourth, and East Fifth is called Brush Square.
Wooldridge Square Park
Alexander Penn Wooldridge was used to getting his own way. He started Austin’s public school system, brought a railroad here, dammed the Colorado River, helped build the Moonlight Towers, and, oh yeah, served as Mayor from 1909 to 1919. So was it asking too much for him to have a decent view from his house?
The old Wooldridge place sat where the Travis County Courthouse is located today. It looked out onto Bell Square, which by the turn of the century was a dump with a malarial lake at the bottom of a sinkhole. In 1900 the lake was drained, and in 1907 Wooldridge began campaigning for the land to be turned into a city park.
On June 18, 1909 the new park was opened and named in honor of now-Mayor Wooldridge. The ubiquitous Besserer’s Band performed classical music whenever there was a break in the extensive program of speeches.
The “Austin Statesman” reported, “As yet no signs of ‘keep off the grass’ have been placed, and no policeman has been assigned to duty there to prevent spooning and there are fifty great big comfortable seats ready for occupancy.” (FYI: “Spooning” was a turn-of-the-century custom wherein men and women did unspeakable things to one another with silverware.)
A month after the park was opened plans were made to improve it. There was talk of building a network of cascading lakes on the east side of the park, and cover them with ferns and lilies and fill them with fish, but nothing came of this. The City did, however, construct a neo-classical bandstand, designed by Page & Page Architects, and built at the cost of $550.
Wooldridge Square Park became a popular site for concerts. A report said of an idyllic 1914 concert, “Hundreds of young people promenaded the sidewalks that surround the park, while hundreds of merry children rolled and frolicked on the grassy slopes. Scores of automobiles stood in the streets while the concert was in progress. The program was one of the best so far heard, and the crowd manifested it appreciation.”
Four years later, near the end of the First World War, the park was scene of the city’s first “singing service.” Between 8,000 and 10,000 soldiers and civilians attended the program, which featured traditional and patriotic music.
The “Statesman” said, “It is certain that the sing-song has come to Austin to stay. It is sure to carry out the purpose for which the war service commission designed it–that service of patriotism and the bringing together of the civilian and soldier.”
The park became even better known as a place for political rallies. Every governor from Colquitt to Shivers campaigned there, as did LBJ.
Texas Governor Ross Sterling was to debate Louisiana Governor Huey Long there, but the Kingfish conducted his side of the debate via radio from his Baton Rouge office, and reportedly made Sterling look like a fool.
In the 1960s some rocket scientist proposed bulldozing the park and turning it into city and county offices, but the idea went nowhere. Nowadays the park and its bandstand serve mostly as nap areas for the local homeless population.
This park was named after early Austin merchant Seba Bogert Brush. (Does anyone have a clue what ethnicity that name might be? Swedish, perhaps?)
Brush Square was the site of the city’s first market. In the 1934 the old home of O. Henry was moved to the site and opened as a museum. Later an Art Deco fire station was built on the block, and an old steam locomotive was put on display there in the 1950s.
In 1969 the Austin Parks and Recreation board voted down a proposal to convert Brush into a “fairly pleasing parking lot.” (Really, is there any other kind?) The site was landscaped and made more, well, park-like, and just a few years ago, the stone house of Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson was relocated there.
Republic Square Park
In 1839 the 301 lots of the newly laid-out City of Austin were auctioned off for $182,585 at Hemphill Square, under a grove of live oaks. The square was the hub of a rather rowdy, violent Hispanic neighborhood from the 1870s to the 1920s. The area later became a manufacturing zone and the square was used as a parking lot.
In honor of the American Bicentennial in 1976, the square was purchased, redeveloped, landscaped, and renamed “Republic Park.” It’s now a hub of the Warehouse District, and the site of a regular weekend farmer’s market.
This park, known mostly for its playground, is one of the older parks in town, and was laid out in North Campus, just behind the home of historian and folklorist J. Frank Dobie. The celebration of “Eeyore’s Birthday Party” was held here before it was moved to Pease Park.
One of Eastwoods’s curiosities is a tree stump, carved by lawyer David B. Brooks, to resemble the legendary Arthurian magician Merlin. Its roots are said to resemble a flowing beard.
In 1875 former Texas Governor Elisha M. Pease donated twenty-three acres of his plantation to the City of Austin with the intention that it be used as a public park. The city showed its gratitude by neglecting the property, allowing it to become a dumping ground for dead livestock. The park was finally landscaped and fitted out with light and water systems in the 1920s. A grandstand and dance pavilion were added a few years after that.
For years the Volunteer Fire Department celebrated at Pease every San Jacinto Day, holding sack races, beauty contests, and the like.
Swings, wading pools, and other child-friendly improvements were added eventually, and there was talk of putting in a zoo along Shoal Creek in the 1950s, but nothing came of that idea.
A few legends have attached themselves to the park. At one point General George Armstrong Custer and 200 soldiers camped on Shoal Creek while hunting for renegade Indians. A fever broke out in the camp, thirty-five men died, and they were buried near the campsite. In the 1890s a flood disinterred the corpses, and it is said they were eventually reburied at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
In the 1890s Pease Park became the site of a treasure hunt. Supposedly in the early days of Texas a group of surveyors from Mexico ran afoul of some Indians. The surveyors needed to make a fast exit, so they buried about $100,000 in gold bars in Shoal Creek.
The man who came to town telling this story reportedly had a map to the exact location of this treasure, and gave it to some friends here. Several prominent Austinites pooled their resources in order to finance a proper treasure hunt. They went so far as to hire a young man to woo the daughter of the family with the map.
Pease Park was dug up in an attempt to find the gold, and the County Treasurer even misappropriated some funds to use on the hunt. When he turned up nothing, he committed suicide.
O. Henry, never one to pass up an easy buck, also tried his hand at treasure hunting. He went out to Pease Park with an old black man. All night long they took turns digging and drinking, until they heard a blood-curdling scream and made tracks.
The next morning officials from the State Hospital found one of their inmates who had escaped in the night. He was sitting on the edge of O. Henry’s pit, holding a shovel and grinning. The officials couldn’t figure out how the man had dug such a deep hole in the short time he’d been missing.
Eilers Park/Deep Eddy Swimming Pool
Swedish immigrant Charles Johnson settled in Austin, on forty acres on the north side of the Colorado River. He built a large stone house in 1858, and there raised eleven children. (The Johnson house, now home to the American Legion, is the one with the columns on West First, just west of Mopac.)
Two of Johnson’s children opened up part of the family property in 1902 as the “Deep Eddy Resort.” There was a bathing beach, a deep hole in the river bed that was popular with swimmers, camp sites, picnic areas, and a big slide. The Johnsons sold the resort to A. J. Eilers and his partners, and a concrete swimming pool, the oldest outdoor pool in Texas, measuring 204 feet by 100 feet, and from ten inches to eight feet in depth, was constructed in 1916.
A 1925 ad describes many of the amenities that could be found at Deep Eddy in those days:
“Many New Attractions at Deep Eddy, Austin’s Ideal Pleasure Resort–Come Out and Take a Swim in the Big Concrete Pool, White As Snow, and Sparkling with Under-Water Illumination.–Refilled Daily.–Varying Depths.–Come Out and Enjoy the Merry-Go-Round, the Merry Mix-Up, the Shooting Gallery, the Ferris Wheel.–Come Out and Try The Eats and Drinks at the New Lunch Shop Overlooking the Water.–Easily Accessible by Street Car or Auto. Free Protected Parking Space. Free Tables, Chairs, and Dutch Ovens for Those Who Wish to Cook a Bite by the River’s Edge.”
Deep Eddy also had silent movies, fireworks, a diving horse, human high divers, trapeze artists, musicians, dancing, and a performer called “The Human Fish,” who was notorious for his ability of eating bananas underwater. A gang of teenagers, known as the “Deep Eddy Rats,” was based out the park, but this was more of an Alfalfa-and-Spanky-type gang than a Crips and Bloods outfit.
A .J. Eilers sold Deep Eddy to the City two weeks before the Colorado flooded and took all the park’s buildings with it. The city and the WPA dredged the pool and rebuilt the facilities, adding a fancy limestone bath house. Another flood came through in 1938.
From the 1960s to the 1980s the Austin Nature Center was housed in portions of the old bath house. Currently the Friends of Deep Eddy (http://www.deepeddy.org) is trying to raise money to restore the bath house to its original swanky 1930s appearance.
Zilker Park/Barton Springs
Austin’s “Central Park” and its chief attraction bear the names of two Austin “types” of the sort we still see today: the eccentric (Uncle Billy Barton) and the civic-minded businessman (A. J. Zilker).
William “Uncle Billy” Barton was not what you’d call a “people person.” He just never could move far enough away from the civilized world to suit himself. He was born in South Carolina in 1782, moved to Alabama in 1816, then he moved to what is now La Grange, Texas in 1831.
In 1837, when neighbors moved within ten miles of him, he moved once more to a bluff over some springs he named after his three daughters, Eliza, Zenobia, and Parenthia, in an area that had once been home to some Spanish missions. We call this place Barton Springs today.
(For those keeping score, his nearest neighbors at this address we twelve miles away on the east and forty miles to the west.)
By the time Barton settled in our area he was known as “the Daniel Boone of Texas” and was, for the time, considered an old man. Sam Houston dispatched some troops to protect Barton and his family from the Indians, but Barton soon wrote Houston, threatening to turn the Indians onto the soldiers, because it was a lot easier to deal with the Indian menace than it was keeping the soldiers from prowling around his daughters.
One day Uncle Billy was waiting for his son to return from a trip to Bastrop, and went out onto the bluffs to see if he could spot the lad coming. An Indian took a pot shot at the old man. Barton ducked, and fired back, then turned tail and ran for his house, with now a dozen Indians in close pursuit.
Now Barton was too old to run up the hills very well, so he called his deer hounds and sicced them on the Indians. This idea worked brilliantly…until a deer broke through the woods, and the hounds, suffering no doubt from Attention Deficit Disorder, decided to go after the deer instead of the Indians.
Not to be outdone, Uncle Billy looked over his shoulder, shouted, “Here they are boys! Come quick!” The Indians decided he had lured them into an ambush, and beat a hasty retreat. (This story is a lot funnier if you, like me, picture Uncle Billy Barton as looking like Benny Hill, running around smirking and pinching women while silly music plays in the background.)
The land around Barton Springs went through various hands over the years, but the Springs themselves always were popular with swimmers.
Andrew Jackson Zilker grew up in Indiana. Zilker came to Austin at the age of eighteen, after reading about the town in Henderson Yoakum’s History of Texas. He came to town with fifty cents in his pocket, and with the luck and pluck typical of self-made men of the era, worked his way through a series of odd jobs until he owned a variety of businesses, including a brickyard, a wood and coal concern, a Coca-Cola bottling plant, the Austin electrical system, the water supply systems in Llano and Taylor, and most importantly, an ice plant.
In 1918 Zilker gave Barton Springs and some surrounding acreage to the city, and in 1931 he gave 300 acres more. These gifts became Zilker Park.
There is a story, no doubt apocryphal, that some time during the nineteenth century the widow of a sea captain lived somewhere over the Springs and was scandalized by the sight of men swimming in the nude there. She made a complaint to the Sheriff, who came out to investigate, and discovered the widow’s cabin was a quarter mile from the Springs.
He concluded, “Ma’am, You’ve got better eyes than I have, if you can tell this far away whether those men are naked.” The old lady reportedly said, “Oh, my eyes are not so good, but my dead husband’s telescope sure brings ‘em close.”
(CORRECTION: In my last column I incorrectly listed the wife of writer O. Henry as “Ethel,” when her name was in fact, “Athol.” I consulted a variety of sources for that article and I saw her name spelled both ways. You can understand my error: the former was a common female name in the Victorian era, while the latter name, if you use it on the wrong person, will get you a black eye.)
—March 31, 2005