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Texas Hill Country Guide
Hill Country Paradise - Georgetown
Georgetown -- All-American town on the edge of the Texas Hill Country
Georgetown combines Texas Hill Country history and small town charm with big city amenities and a first-class university to earn nationwide accolades as one of America's best places to live.
Georgetown’s location on the eastern edge of the Texas Hill Country has had a huge effect on its history, and Georgetown has, since the earliest settlement of the Hill Country, been a step ahead of most Hill Country towns. Yet despite explosive growth throughout Williamson County since the construction of Interstate Highway 35 in the 1960s, downtown Georgetown retains the feel of a town just slightly larger than the most isolated Hill Country county seats.
Williamson County (and in fact, the whole United States) is divided by the Balcones Escarpment, which, in separating the blackland plains from the Texas Hill Country, also separates the American South from the American West. The escarpment is a geologic fault line which rises several hundred feet from the eastern plains in a series of ridges and canyons which mark the beginnings of our Texas Hill Country. Interstate Highway 35 follows the edge of the escarpment, making a convenient eastern boundary for our Hill Country map.
Before Texas joined the United States in 1845, Georgetown was part of a vast, untamed region called Milam County. When Neil McLennan brought his family to the “Gabriel Valley” in late 1835 or early 1836, the nearest neighbor was said to be “75 miles away.” And while a few brave souls settled in what would later become the southeast corner of Williamson County, the pioneer who became most famous was Captain John Webster, who, with thirteen of his men, was massacred by Comanches in 1839.
Around that time, a visitor from Bastrop observed that the (future) Georgetown area was “the finest waterd part of Texas that I have seen.” Indeed, the Tonkawan name for the valley was “Takachue Pouetsu,” or “Land of Good Water.” The visitor’s name was George Washington Glasscock (a flatboating partner with Abraham Lincoln in 1832), and he had been deeded “four leagues” of land on the San Gabriel River. He resolved to re-settle there as soon as it was safe.
The military road from Austin to the Red River was used as a staging ground for Mirabeau Lamar’s ill-fated Santa Fe expedition in 1841, and journals recorded that some of the men amused themselves by shooting alligators in the San Gabriel River. Four prominent settlers were killed in 1844 by Indians while hunting buffalo in the future Williamson County. By 1845, a stagecoach line had been established, and surveyors were busy mapping, but Indians still posed a very real threat, and at least two surveyors were killed that year. Land was not expensive; a buffalo hunter named John Holland Jenkins traded 300 acres for a Derringer pistol.
But wild men and wild animals could not hold back the flood of settlers that was beginning to gather all around the Hill Country. Texas Rangers under Captain Shapley Prince Ross (father of future governor Sul Ross) set up a station on the riverbank in 1846. Colonel W.C. Dalrymple built a log cabin across the river shortly thereafter, and John Berry built a mill that winter. More settlers followed, and by 1848 a petition was presented to form a new county. It was named for Robert McAlpin Williamson, a former Texas Ranger who went on to serve as a newspaper editor, state legislator and supreme court justice. He was known as “Three-Legged Willie” because a crippling disease had frozen his right leg at a 90-degree angle, and he wore a wooden leg from the knee down for walking, while his foot protruded behind him.
After the county had been formed, the need arose for a county seat. The story is told how a group of leading citizens were under a live oak tree near the San Gabriel River when the aforementioned George W. Glasscock approached and offered 172 acres of land for a townsite; his only request was that the new county seat be named Georgetown in his honor. The first courthouse was a 16-foot-square log cabin; the first jail was an overturned wagon!
In 1850, the town of Georgetown was made up of about a dozen scattered log cabins connected by rutted lanes; it was one of the most densely populated places in the county, which claimed 230 dwellings and about 1,500 people in the 1850 census. There were eleven blacksmiths in the county that year, along with nine carpenters, seven doctors, five ministers and even an artist by the name of George R. Allen. Postmaster Frank Nash had a hotel in his log cabin; Andrew Mackay had a small store in his. During the next few years, hundreds of new settlers moved through Williamson County as a dozen or more new counties were organized to the west, and the permanent population grew to almost 4,000. Two lawyers, Thomas Proctor Hughes and Ed Vontress, arrived at Georgetown in 1851 and became prominent citizens; the San Gabriel Masonic Lodge was built that same year. Jack Ake bought the Nash Hotel and added a two-story rock building (known as the Ake Hotel for many years) in 1853. Fourteen school districts were formed across the county to educate nearly a thousand children and more than 22,000 acres were cleared and cultivated by 1858, as land values rose from just a few cents per acre to nearly five dollars.
Governor Sam Houston was a frequent visitor at the home of postmaster Elias W. Talbot in Georgetown, and his daughter, Nancy Elizabeth (who later married Georgetown merchant Joseph Morrow) recalled speeches at San Gabriel Park, where the legendary Texas leader “told forth in thunderous tones his political beliefs and ideals.” Those ideals were evidently shared by many in Williamson County, including the postmaster. Talbot was removed from his job (as Houston was) when Texas seceded from the Union; when his house was torn down years later, a tunnel was discovered in the basement which may have been a part of the Underground Railroad.
The Civil War brought hard times to many in the Texas Hill Country, and Williamson County was not entirely spared. Eight local men who decided to go to Mexico rather than fight for the South were intercepted and hanged by Confederate soldiers from Camp Verde. Comanche warriors, emboldened by the absence of so many of the area men, stepped up their raids on Williamson County ranches; Wofford Johnson was murdered along with his wife and young daughter in August of 1863.
But the war brought industry to the town, as well, and Georgetown continued to grow during the troubled decade of the 1860s. By 1870, there were 320 people living in the town.
By then, the cattle industry was in full swing. Starting in 1867, cattle drives were a mainstay of the local economy. They also provided entertainment; local children would sit on fenceposts to watch as thousands of cattle passed through or near Georgetown on “feeder routes” to the Western and Chisolm trails. The cattle boom lasted just over a decade (most of Williamson County was fenced by the early 1880s), but several Williamson County residents made their fortunes during that legendary time. The most noted of these were the Snyder Brothers, the Olive family and future Nevada governor John Sparks.
In perhaps the most significant development of the early 1870s, the Methodist Church chose Georgetown as the location for its Texas University, opened in 1873 (the name was changed to Southwestern University when the Methodists had to relinquish the “Texas University” name to the state for the new University of Texas in Austin). Southwestern University helped Georgetown win a reputation as an educational center, and brought an impressive group of educators to live in the growing town. It has been a pillar of Georgetown’s society for more than 135 years. The sanctuary for the Presbyterian Church, now the oldest church building in Georgetown, was also built in 1873. The Williamson County Sun, still Georgetown’s primary newspaper, opened in 1877. The county’s fourth courthouse, a beautiful Victorian building designed by noted architects J.N. Preston and F.E. Ruffini, was completed in 1878.
Even more dramatic was the arrival of the railroad (also in 1878), a milestone which led to nearly three decades of spectacular growth and progress. The ease of shipping brought all manner of supplies, from pianos to advanced farm implements to plentiful lumber for building (telegraph lines and a few telephones also arrived in 1878). Williamson County became a major cotton-producing center, and Georgetown’s leading citizens built themselves beautiful homes, some of which remain today. Between 1870 and 1900, the population mushroomed to 2,790 (an increase of more than 800 percent) and dozens of new commercial and manufacturing enterprises were established. Roads were improved and bridges over the San Gabriel River were built beginning in 1881; the first library opened that year. An ice factory, a volunteer fire department and a city waterworks opened in the early 1880s. By 1887, the town boasted two flour mills, two woodworking mills, a mattress factory, a cotton gin, a candy factory, a bakery, a cigar factory, five blacksmith shops, three shoe shops and the S.T. Atkins Flue Manufacturing Co. By 1890, J.P. Ischy had opened a bottling works, and there was a knitting factory where 15 ladies turned out 800 pairs of socks every day. The Georgetown Chair Company produced 74 dozen chairs in one week, and a “Georgetown Oil Mill” opened in 1891. Crowds came into town for the horse trading day, held on the square the first Monday of each month during the 1890s.
Thirty-one new buildings were constructed in 1895, including a three-story schoolhouse; electricity came to downtown Georgetown that year. In 1899, the city installed streetlights in the downtown area.
The first automobile in town was owned by Booty’s Mercantile. It was a two-seat red convertible, used for deliveries; it is said that local women would order a spool of thread just to see the car. By 1909, there were 96 vehicles registered in Georgetown.
By 1912, when the present courthouse opened on the Georgetown square, the boom was over, and the town settled into a period of relative stability and slow growth. That’s not to say that nothing happened, but rather that the town’s appearance did not change dramatically for the next six or seven decades. One of the biggest events in Georgetown was Armistice Day in 1918, when World War I came to a close; locals poured into the streets, laughing, screaming and yelling as they celebrated the end of “the war to end all wars.”
A huge flood devastated Georgetown in 1921. The small town of Thrall, in eastern Williamson County, recorded 38.21 inches of rain in 24 hours, a national record that stood for 70 years; 92 county residents lost their lives. An article in a county newspaper hinted at trouble to come, announcing that the Ku Klux Klan had donated $500 to help victims of the flood.
Williamson County had been one of the few Texas counties to vote against secession in 1861, and many of its citizens were strongly anti-slavery, but Williamson County was definitely part of the segregated “Old South,” and many residents were open racists. When the “new” KKK came to Texas in 1920, it found thousands of eager recruits, including quite a few in Williamson County. At least 52 acts of Klan violence marred Texas history in the summer of 1921. After several KKK members were acquitted by a jury after murdering an Austin anti-Klan activist in 1921, the district attorney resigned in disgust; his replacement was a young Williamson County attorney named Dan Moody.
Dan Moody refused to be intimidated by the KKK, even though many in authority were members, and their power seemed almost overwhelming. When a salesman was beaten and tarred for defying the Klan, Dan Moody set out to show the KKK that it was not above the law. Despite the fear that the secretive terror group inspired, Moody was able to find witnesses and build a strong case against five members. After months of legal wrangling, the first was put on trial in the Georgetown courtroom. When Murray Jackson was convicted on September 25, 1923, it marked the first successful prosecution of a Klan member in Texas.
The KKK responded defiantly, holding a mass initiation for 500 new members in Austin and attracting 75,000 sympathizers to Dallas for a “Ku Klux Klan Day” at the state fair in Dallas a month later. Dan Moody did not back down; the remaining four defendants were convicted, and anti-Klan candidates won in the 1924 elections. Moody himself was elected governor in 1926; the power of the Klan in Texas was broken.
During that time, progress continued in Georgetown; most of the streets were paved and gas lines were installed between 1923 and 1926 to heat homes inside the city limits.
The Great Depression marked the end of cotton’s agricultural predominance and brought hard times for the county as a whole; Georgetown’s population increased by less than 100 during the 1930s, but residents adapted, survived and diversified. World War II and the drought of the fifties hampered growth through the middle of the twentieth century (although the county’s centennial was celebrated exuberantly in 1948), and by the time Interstate Highway 35 helped restore growth in the mid-1960s, Georgetown found itself with a wealth of restorable history, remarkably unscathed by the previous fifty years.
During the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower (1956), the Interstate Highway System was begun to link the nation’s states and cities together. Planners had a choice of routes through central Texas: the old State Highway 81 from Waco to Austin came through Georgetown; Highway 2 went through Taylor, 15 miles to the east. The Georgetown route was chosen in the early 1960s, and Georgetown suddenly became a sort of suburb of Austin when the I-35 was completed in 1966, putting the town within easy commuting distance of the state capital.
Another unforeseen result of the highway’s construction was the discovery just south of town of a spectacularly beautiful cave, named Inner Space Caverns by the developers in a reference to the nation’s fascination with outer space during the decade of the 60s. Conveniently located on such a heavily-traveled route, Inner Space became one of the most-visited sites in Texas.
A dam that had been planned ever since the flood of 1921 finally was built on the north fork of the San Gabriel River, and Lake Georgetown was opened to the public for swimming, boating, fishing , camping, picnicking, etc. in 1979.
In the meantime, a group of civic-minded Georgetown residents formed the Georgetown Heritage Society in 1977; the movement grew rapidly. In 1982, Georgetown initiated one of the most successful Texas Main Street programs anywhere, eventually renovating 69 buildings and creating 300 new jobs in the downtown area. Sidewalks and lighting were redone in time for the Texas Sesquicentennial in 1986. Heritage Society membership was ten times its original number, and (with help from the city) they renovated an 1882 chapel on Main Street, which still serves as the society’s headquarters. Unique shops, quality restaurants and even museums and art galleries moved in to beautifully-renovated buildings around the square in Georgetown, giving the rapidly-expanding town a charming, downhome atmosphere and making it a tourist destination in its own right.
In the 1990s, Georgetown was chosen by the Del Webb Corporation as the site for its next “Sun City” development, the biggest of many residential communities around Georgetown. Within the last few years, the Wolf family ranch was turned into an upscale shopping center just west of the interstate highway.
Georgetown today combines the best attributes of a small historic town and a thriving modern city. It boasts an excellent new library, several golf courses and city parks, as well as a great variety of retail, dining and lodging establishments. The highly-rated Southwestern University still dominates the east side of town; there are an assortment of art galleries and theaters, and an active group of community volunteers sponsor all kinds of clubs and activities. The town’s big annual event is the Red Poppy Festival, held on the fourth weekend of April, but the calendar is filled with events celebrating history, music, the arts, etc. (visit http://visit.georgetown.org/ for specifics).
Georgetown is frequently honored by national groups and publications, and has been recently named “Best Place to Buy an Old House,” “Best Place to Retire” and “Best Place to Launch a Small Business.” With its convenient location on the highway, it’s also a great place to visit, and a wonderful introduction to the Texas Hill Country.
.By John Hallowell