The Road to Nowhere

Webberville Aims to Live Forever

So, what happened to the Milk Bottle Motel?

I know, I'm the reporter, but I can't exactly answer this question, since I'm not sure exactly where it was. It was somewhere on FM 969, probably on the Bastrop County side and thus past Webberville, maybe near the Zendik Farm, definitely before the Colorado River bridge where John "Squatty" Jenkins breathed his last. I doubt it was really a motel at all; was it the famous White Egret Farm, where the herdskeepers reportedly talk not to, but with, their goats?

But in front of whatever it was, there was an enormous -- like, say, 30 foot high -- milk bottle, advertising the eponymous lodging establishment. All I know is it was there not more than two months ago, but you can drive all the way from UT to Bastrop on FM969 today, and there ain't no milk bottle. Nor any listing in any relevant directory for a Milk Bottle Motel.

Maybe I just imagined it. That only seems right, since sometimes it feels like you've only imagined Webberville, that somewhere around the Travis State School is an invisible gate, and another near Hwy71 and the charms of the Bastrop highway strip. In between, you depart Central Texas and enter Wackyland, where every road sign points to a curious footnote, an unsolved riddle, or just a good story.

See that park? That's the one where they had the big kickback scandal and the contractors went to jail. See that bridge? That's where the world's foremost authority on Texana (that would be Jenkins) was mysteriously shot dead, or shot himself dead, in the river. See that granite marker? That's where Josiah Wilbarger, after being scalped by the Comanches, ceased his flight because his sister instructed him to in a vision -- whereupon Sarah Hornsby, wife of the patriarch of that multifarious clan, was awakened by a very similar vision and directed her husband to go fetch poor Wilbarger, who ended up living for many years. (This "legend of Hornsby's Bend" has been retold countless times and was even turned into a ballet.)

About 1,500 people, more or less, live in and along the "969 corridor" -- including both Webberville and Hornsby Bend, along with places without names, and those that once had names but are no longer populated places, like Fort Prairie and Dunlap and Hell's Half-Acre, later known simply as Half-Acre, and John's Town, earlier known simply as John. Many of the locals are working farmers, ranchers, or both, who manage to get by, not extravagantly, but well enough to pay the bills. Like most rural communities on the edge of urban sprawl, Webberville sends a number of its citizens to Austin every day for work.

Austin has returned the favor by sending its visionaries and eccentrics out toward Webberville. These Colorado River bottomlands have long attracted nonconformists like pins to a magnet, and today's Webberville strip is bookended by green-building avatar Pliny Fisk and his houses made of straw at one end, and the Zendiks on the other. In between lie organic farmers, herbal apothecaries, unreconstructed roadhouses with names like the Why Knot? Party House, houseless chimneys standing tall and erect in the middle of the sorghum fields, signs advertising non-existent subdivisions and plate lunches for sale somewhere deep in the woods, stretches of river that demands floatation upon a homemade wooden raft, clapboard churches with the crosses gone crooked, and, it goes without saying, ghosts.

And so it has always been. A friend and student of local history, whose people hailed from Fort Prairie, sent me a note that read, in part: "On the topic of Webberville, I have heard that the founding male was a Caucasian who had a Negro wife. I suppose the place has been hexed from thereafter."

This wasn't unprecedented in pre-annexation Texas, especially not under Mexican rule, where legal restrictions on free blacks and mixed marriages were minimal. But it was still pretty singular among the transplanted Southerners who became the "Texians." According to pioneer chronicler Noah Smithwick -- who served as both postmaster and judge in the community known as Webber's Prairie -- Dr. John F. Webber, like many Southern men, had gotten a slave girl in trouble, but being famously honest and decent, purchased mother and child from their owner, legitimized their union, and set out for the remotest reaches of Austin's Colony, arriving in today's Travis County in 1830. They may have been the first non-native settlers in the county; Webber's Prairie is the consensus choice for the first settlement.

Over the next 21 years, the Webbers caused consternation among both white society and the slave community, and "were constrained to keep to themselves," Smithwick wrote. "Still, there wasn't a white woman in the vicinity but knew and liked Puss, as Webber's dusky helpmeet was called, and... if there was need of help, [the family] was ever ready to render assistance without money and without price."

Eventually, after Webber et al. had stemmed the threat of Indian depredations -- recounted by pioneer chroniclers with much gusto and talk of scalps and entrails -- a new round of settlers, apparently uppity and nouveau-riche, turned up on the Prairie and made harassing the Webber family their main order of business. In 1851, Webber sold his lands to Col. John Banks and moved to Mexico -- following the lead of another group of early settlers of Webber's Prairie with unconventional attitudes toward marriage, Lyman Wright and his band of Mormons, who settled in the area in 1839, and built houses that until quite recently still stood, before heading for the border.

Banks then founded the prosperous river port that became Webberville, including the aforementioned Hell's Half-Acre, crossroads of the local liquor trade, overseen by storekeeper Joseph James Manor, whose name survives today attached to the Webberville cemetery. The upstart town of Manor -- founded by the brother, James Joseph Manor -- snagged the railroad after a Colorado River flood in 1857 and walloped Webberville, which at the time was half the size of Austin and had a hotel, furniture and broom factories, and two boarding schools. That was about it for the town's fortunes; by 1925, the last store and ferry terminal were gone.

One thing that remained was the Webberville Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, founded as a house of worship for free blacks in 1868 on land donated by the Duty family, among the original Webber's Prairie pioneers. The land was entrusted to the congregation "and its successors forever," which the Duty heirs interpret to mean that if one soul wishes to pray there, the church must remain open and its land not be sold. And so it's still there, rebuilt several times, though you'd probably not know this unless you looked very closely.

"We have members whose families came from out there years ago and now live in Austin," says Rev. W.B. Routt, Sr., pastor of the church. "The folks who still live out there are some of the children of the ancestors that founded the church." When Routt -- who earned his keep as a trucker and has never been paid for his Webberville ministry -- became pastor in 1975, the church had no indoor plumbing. Memories differ on whether it had electric lights. It has since much improved and even has stained glass windows, but is still about as textbook a country church as one could imagine.

Which is what they say about things like the Williamson County Courthouse, too, but no one's ever going to mistake its surroundings for pioneer Texas. Out here, you just might. There are trailer homes with propane tanks and barbecues aligned like cufflinks (and disconcertingly near to each other), Japanese pickups, and Ortho products for sale at the feed and seed. But these are feeble symbols of modernity compared with, say, a golf course, a strip center, a fast-food restaurant, a development of garden homes each with lanai and bonus room. There is one actual mid-Eighties subdivision, in the Decker Creek area, and naturally there's a story behind it too -- it was supposed to be a big ol' sprawling master-planned community thing a la Harris Branch, in anticipation of which the people living nearby all got annexed by the City of Austin, only to be de-annexed after the land deal went into the tank, leaving such amenities as clean water and road repair in limbo.

With its near-absence of exposed limestone and miles of black, plastic gumbo soil -- perfect for growing coastal hay, which is basically economy-size bermudagrass -- Webberville conveys a pastoral fecundity that's unusual to see less than 20 miles from the Capitol, in a landscape that's unusual to see anywhere in Texas. Over the years, too many chroniclers have written too many hokey lines about Webberville being untouched by time, but it's definitely been untouched by the boom, which seems to substantiate the notion that an active resource-based economy is the best deterrent to urban sprawl. Even with the inherent difficulty of modern farm life, no one along FM 969 seems itching to sell their lands to the first developer that comes along, unlike in Williamson County, where every loose acre seems up for grabs.

Or maybe they're just being ornery. "We're always trying to stimulate Webberville, but it's a sleepy town and there's only a few people who own most of the property, and they'll never sell as long as they're alive," says 20-year resident Thomas Trantham. "So that's not going to happen anytime soon."

Trantham, despite his vintage, is emblematic of the New Webberville -- after commuting for years to IBM, he got bought out, established himself as a carpenter and furniture maker, and then after suffering health problems he feels were solved with herbal medicinals, entered the herb-dealing business. His shop, the Olde Thyme Store, looks on passing like it'd be just another potpourri pit, but is something else entirely. "We're actually, more than anything, a herb wholesaler," says Trantham. "We grow some of our stock, and we have people in the community who grow herbs for us. Between people out here and all the commuters who use FM969 as their shortcut to and from Bastrop, business has been very good. In Webberville, Texas. Who would have thought?"

In Webberville, it seems less odd than it should to imagine grizzled Texas farmers raising up crops of comfrey and dong quai. Such changes "are definitely happening around here," Trantham says. "People, even the farmers, are getting more health-conscious; they use these herbs themselves, not just grow them as a cash crop. And they have to survive as farmers, too -- as the market changes they'll have to change. You have some diehards who'll stick to cattle until they die, but they're a dying breed, so to speak."

And Webberville, as a community and perhaps as a state of mind, seems intent on living forever. "This community is not dead; it's very much alive and growing," Rev. Routt says. "The ones who are there now are making sure it stays alive."

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More by Mike Clark-Madison
Austin At Large: For the Price of a Policeman
Austin At Large: For the Price of a Policeman
The cost of public safety, in different community currencies

Aug. 23, 2019

Cap Metro Creates New Way to Get to Campus
Cap Metro Creates New Way to Get to Campus
Streamlining the passage from Downtown to the Drag

Aug. 23, 2019

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Time to vote! Best of Austin 2019 balloting is underway   VOTE NOW