Saturday, November 2, 2013

Blanco, Texas--an area rich in Texan history

According to Jean Cox Stanley in her stories of the rich History of Blanco County, by the end of the Mexican period of Texas history in 1836, the first known American land surveyors had entered the area that is now Blanco County surveying land grants lying along the Blanco River.  It can be said that the history of Blanco County had its real beginning when James H. Callahan, a Texas Ranger and surveyor, camped in the Blanco valley. As he entered the Hill Country, the air was cleaner and direr. The countryside was carpeted with wildflowers; such as the bluebonnets, Indian head and paint brush, and other flowering plants. The hills were full of game. In 1854 it was the undisputed domain of the Indian, the bear, the panther and the deer, as well as much small game. Wild turkeys strutted in grandeur along the ridges. Honey bees thrived and honey was in the trees for the taking. "It is paradise", wrote one of the early pioneers.

It is hard for the later generations to understand the hardships and inconveniences that the early pioneer had to contend with. The settlers first work was to build cabins for their families in order to keep themselves, food and gunpowder dry. After that, the pioneers prepared to defend themselves and their cattle from the Indians.  A number of Texas Rangers were stationed in Blanco County. Indians were much in evidence, especially the Comanche and several groups of Apaches. Many of the Lipan had died of smallpox brought in by the Europeans. The rough terrain of Blanco County provided an excellent point of rendezvous for raids and defense.  In spite of all the hardships, the settlers continued to come. Not long after Captain Callahan and E. C. Hines moved to the Blanco valley and built cabins on opposite sides of the river, others followed. There were so many that real estate entrepreneur, John Pitts laid out a town in about 1855. The name of the town was Pittsburg. In 1858, Blanco County was created and the county seat was located across the river from Pittsburg.

The court met for several years under a tree and later in a log schoolhouse. Later the name of the town was changed from Pittsburg to Blanco. The name Blanco means ‘white’. The town got its name from the river cliffs. The river was named by the Spanish Aguayo expedition which explored Texas in 1720. This expedition gave names to many natural objects. A few of the names survived.  It was not until 1855 that the town of Blanco was incorporated. Comal County included the land that is now Blanco City until Blanco County was organized in 1858. Soon after the establishment of Blanco, the Civil War broke out. This brought on very hard times for many people. Mail was brought in once a week and everyone met the mail wagon. This was a moment of much rejoicing or much sorrow. If there was mail from a loved one, it was a happy time. Bad news, or no news, were sad times indeed.

The early farmers living in the Blanco area took their grain to the New Braunfels mills. There they bought tobacco, sugar, gunpowder and other supplies needed but not grown or produced on the farm. During the Civil War, many cattle browsed the range with little or no care. When the soldiers returned, there were many unbranded cattle. The men who were the most expert with the rope and branding iron got more than their share of the cattle.  History books are full of talk of cattle drives as well as many other interesting life struggles. Animals other than cattle had to get to market. Less has been written about these drives. Turkeys were driven to market as were hogs. One hog drive that was of special …"In the 1880’s, there was a heavy acorn crop and hogs fattened early. Five or six hundred were gathered from the woods and driven from Llano to Blanco City, Fischer Store, and over the Devil’s Backbone to San Marcos. The hogs were led by a wagon loaded with corn. An old man sat in the back of the wagon, called to the hogs and scattered corn to keep them moving."  By 1870 cotton was being grown in Blanco County. Eli C. Hines was one of the very early settlers to raise sheep and cotton in Blanco County. The Cox brothers, my great-grandfather and his brother grew cotton by this time. The cotton had to be hauled in seed form to New Braunfels. There it was ginned. Some years later a number of cotton gins were built in and around the Blanco area. About 1900 a cotton gin was established on the site that would later become our home place. A book found in the Blanco library states that a gin valued at $1,200 was on Cox property.

Progress continued in Blanco County. The courthouse was erected in Blanco City in 1885. It was designed by noted architect, F. M. Ruffini, who crowned its relatively unadorned square limestone body with an elaborate mansard roof. The courthouse was Blanco’s pride and joy. It served its intended function for only five years. Three elections were held in the county and it was voted that a new county seat would be at Johnson City, a town fourteen miles north of Blanco. This move caused many hard feelings between the two towns, including a killing.  A great uncle, Aaron Cox, known as "Judge", was sheriff of Blanco County at this time. Blanco citizens schemed for years after the Johnson City move to reestablish Blanco as the county seat, but all efforts failed.  The old courthouse has served many a purpose. It has served as a bank, newspaper office, hospital, opera house, school, union hall, museum, restaurant, etc. Few T towns can claim a vacant courthouse which became so useful for so long. There is a continual effort by the Blanco Preservation Society to save it.

The first school in Blanco County was a log house in Pittsburg, near the present town of  Blanco. Shortly after this, a number of other schools were opened in the county. One student described her early schooling in this way; "I sat on a split log with my feet on a dirt floor. The windows were constructed so that when the tops were opened they could be used as desks. When the windows were closed, logs the length of the building held the shutters in place as a protection against the Indians."  One of the earliest news sources was a Blanco County weekly, The Stinging Bee. It was hand printed between the years 1860 and 1870 by a man named Harrison. In it he told "…the truth and nothing but the truth." He read this paper to a crowd who gathered on the square on Saturday mornings. After the reading, some men were afraid to go home because their excesses were exposed.

The first automobile came to Blanco around 1912. Flat tires were a common thing. Car owners had to carry a cold patch kit along in order to fix the tires. The cars had to be cranked to start them. This meant getting in front of the car, putting the crank into the crankshaft end and turning the crank until the motor started.  Another thing remembered is that cars had no direction indicators. To let another driver know what you were going to do, it was necessary to hold your hand and arm out the window. Then you put your arm up, down or straight to give your signal. This was a common practice up through the early or middle 1950’s.  The horse and wagon or buggy were still being used in our area as a means of transportation until about 1935. As children, we used a wagon team or walked to the places which we might go. We did have a car but were not old enough to drive. Our mother never learned to drive.

Electricity did not come to the rural Hill Country until 1939, and later than that in remote areas of Blanco and Comal Counties. It is hard to describe what a difference it made in the average person’s life. Now people had electric pumps for water wells and power for washing machines and radios. On the radio you could get hooked on Maw Perkins, an early day soap opera. They advertised soap—hence the name "soap opera".  Many men and boys lined up to apply for the jobs of extending electric lines, about one third of them were hired.  Many of the jobs were given to men who had wanted electricity but had been unable to raise the $5 deposit for connection. They paid this out of their wages. I do not know if this deposit was taken out of my brother’s wages or not. At any rate, he applied for a job, even though he was only seventeen and the minimum age for employment was eighteen. The employer said, "Let me feel your muscles." After doing so said, "You’ll do.’

Brown and Root, the well-known contractors in Texas were given the contract to construct the electric lines. They had to hire men who were known to be hard workers. The poles that carried the lines had to be sunk in rock. Brown and Root’s mechanical hole digger failed in the hard Hill Country rock. Men had to do it with manual labor. For this work, they were paid forty cents per hour, which was a good wage at that time. Franklin Roosevelt’s "New Deal" public projects helped to pull the nation out of the great economic depression.  Electricity brought easier times to the people of Blanco County. The depression years were coming to a close and electricity eased the work load a great deal, at least for the women. But just as the Hill Country people thought they were in for easier times, a catastrophic event took place—World War II started for the United States with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

At the present time, Blanco County is increasing in population, as is all of Texas. This is not necessarily for the better. People do not know their neighbors, nor have the concern for them that they once did. To quote Sam Johnson, President Lyndon Johnson’s father, "The Hill Country was a place where people knew when you were sick and cared when you died." This previous concern could have resulted from necessity. The early families had to depend on each other in times of illness or childbirth, as well as for a social life.

(You can check out my entire Texas Hill Country photo collections at:   Comments and feedback definitely welcome!)

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