The back roads of northeastern Travis County snake around enough to make a Sunday drive seem like a journey.
In 1899, Texas was beginning to fill up. As the new century arrived the Wild West was being tamed by craftsmen, bookkeepers, and lawyers that came to build towns. New technology was transforming people's lives even then.
Phone service began trickling out of Austin to New Sweden by New Year's Day, 1900. In the preceding years hundreds of towns had cropped up anywhere a store could convince the post office to deliver the mail. In the next few years the telephone and other technological advances would sharply alter the landscape.
The farming community of New Sweden, five miles north of Manor, sat on a hill overlooking the rolling hills off of FM 973. The settlement supported a cotton gin, a post office, two stores, and a population of 104 in 1900. The tall steeple of the New Sweden Evangelical Lutheran Church marks the area where the hopes of a town faded into the cotton fields.
The back roads of northeastern Travis County snake around enough to make a Sunday drive seem like a journey. A sign in the Cele General Store says "Population 92," but in 1899 they lost their post office due to lack of interest. Delicious barbecue from noon Friday until it sells out around noon on Saturday keeps the community name and the General Store alive. About a mile or so northwest of New Sweden, the former gas station, bar and convenience store is on Cameron Road, the next north-south county road west of FM 973. For directions, call 512/251-3562.
All over the state the old ways were dying and the population was becoming more urban. William (Bigfoot) Wallace, the last of the great folk heroes of the Texas Republic, died in 1899. A museum at TX 173 and FM 472, six miles southeast of Devine, tells the stories that he once loved to share. The museum is open one Saturday a month, 830/665-5054.
The Indian wars were a memory and the great cattle drives across Texas ended in 1895. The Colorado County Feud turned the streets of Columbus in a war zone that erupted six times between 1899 and 1907. The ghosts of the participants walk the same streets. Stop by the 1883 Stafford Opera House at 425 Spring St. for information on the "talking houses" tour that plays on a car radio.
At the turn of the century farmers began losing their control of the state house as lawyers and businessmen were elected. The railroad was beginning to make inroads into the interior of the state. The construction of irrigation canals made large farms profitable. In West Texas, Comanche Springs was flowing at 1,900 liters a second. By 1961, one of the largest natural springs in Texas had dried up and was replace by an Olympic-sized swimming pool in Fort Stockton.
In Corsicana there is still evidence of the oil boom that began in 1893 and peaked in 1900. Spindletop and the transformation of the Texas economy to oil wouldn't happen for another year. The first oil boom in the state had such a lack of infrastructure that excess oil was dumped on the ground. The oil field has yielded more than 44 million barrels of oil in 100 years.
In the Big Bend area of West Texas, Terlingua received its first post office in 1899. At the time, California Hill between Terlingua and Lajitas was the biggest quicksilver mine in the U.S. It was tapped out by 1910.
Radio hadn't caught on yet, vaudeville was the pop art of the day, and a young man from Texarkana was one of the most popular composers of his time. Scott Joplin's publication of "Maple Leaf Rag" in 1899 was one of his biggest hits.
During the 19th century Texas had its share of natural disasters, and the last two years of the century were no exception. Yellow fever still wiped out substantial percentages of the population. In 1899, smallpox spread through Laredo. When a contingent of Texas Rangers and health officials tried to force immunizations on the predominately Mexican-American population, a riot broke out. The Rangers retreated to the plaza that once was the center of town and still attracts visitors at Zaragosa and San Augustin streets.
In February, 1899, a northern covered much of Texas with freezing temperatures. Called "The Big Freeze," more than 40,000 cattle died of exposure. Flood waters rushed down the Brazos River in June, causing $9 million in damages and taking 284 lives. The next year the Colorado River broke through the Austin Dam, and Lake McDonald inundated Austin. Tom Miller Dam and Lake Austin were completed on the site 12 years later.
In 1900, Galveston was the largest city in the state, but on Sept. 7 Texas' primary port was hit by a hurricane that devastated half of the city. An estimated 6,000 persons lost their lives. One of the few buildings left standing was the Bishop's Palace at 1402 Broadway. This is the state's only structure on the list of the nation's 100 outstanding buildings by the American Institute of Architects and is open to the public.
A hundred years ago Texans were no less innovative than they are today. Only a crystal ball will tell us which edifices built in 1999 and 2000 will have the same endurance as some of the enterprises of our forefathers.
Coming up ...
"Frida Kahlo Unmasked," an exhibit of 55 photos of the artist, continues at the San Antonio Museum of Art through Mar. 24. 210/978-8100 or http://www.sa-museum.org.
Virtual Tour of Bayou Bend takes visitors via the Internet through selected rooms and gardens of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's center for American decorative arts. The former residence of Ima Hogg, the collection consists of 5,000 objects, many displayed at http://www.historichouston.org.
Mardi Gras! Galveston was selected as one of the Top 100 Events in North America by Destinations magazine. Scheduled for Feb. 25-Mar. 7, reservations should be made early and tickets for many of the events go on sale beginning Jan. 6. 888/425-4753 or http://www.mardigrasgalveston.com.