Tuesday, February 7, 2023

An Informal Look at Oak Hill History

December 6, 2011  

Ten flatcar loads of limestone a day were quarried by convicts and shipped to the Capitol in 1885 from (what is now called) Convict Hill in Oak Hill, then known as Oatmanville. – photo courtesy of Austin History Center.


By James Scott Bankston

Few Americans these days have any sense of place. We pick up and move to the latest hot spot for jobs with scarcely a thought, and each new place has the same identical houses, street signs, franchise restaurants, and big box stores. If we take the family to visit Grandma over the holidays we’re more likely to visit a soulless condo in an assisted living community than a white frame farmhouse house straight out of Currier and Ives.

And names mean nothing to us either. We live in subdivisions with silly Merrie Olde English names like “Chesterfield Place” and “Huntington Wood” that are almost totally barren of trees and are landscaped with cacti and limestone boulders, or else in places with names like “The Villas at Deer Run Creek” or “Oakwood Knoll,” that refer not to existing landmarks and conditions so much as to what was bulldozed in order to make way for that housing development.

And with the passing of a sense of name and place we also lose our sense of what came before us—names have no real meaning, places are identical one to another, so it naturally follows that the history of an area is meaningless as well. We whip through an intersection and see a curious name on a sign—“Armstrong Prairie” or “Indian Point Community,” just to make up a couple examples. We never really stop to think that that obscure name on a sign might have some real history connected to it. The community of Oak Hill is an excellent example of a place with a history that is all too often ignored.

One of the reasons so many historical old communities fade from the public perception is that homogeneity of appearance I mentioned earlier—if one part of town looks a lot like another, you really don’t get much of a feeling you’re in some place specific. On the other hand, if you’re in Los Angeles, for instance, you definitely know when you’re in Beverly Hills and when you’re in Compton.

One of the problems with Oak Hill is that it never actually incorporated, so its official boundary lines are a bit hazy. But according to the Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods (http://www.ohan.org), the Oak Hill area consists of the “neighborhoods bordering Brodie Lane down to the Travis/Hays County line, following the county line on the south up to Highway 290 West, and then neighborhoods bordering Circle Drive and Thomas Springs Road and finally along the Southwest Parkway.” This area includes the 78735, 78736, 78737, 78739, 78748, and 78749 zip codes and includes almost 100,000 people.

So yeah, that’s hardly just a “wide spot in the road.”

William Cannon (after whom the road is named) got a land grant in 1835 from the Mexican government. His land stretched from Williamson Creek to Slaughter Creek. Settlers began coming into the area shortly after the founding of the city of Austin and Travis County. The Oak Hill area was initially called “Live Oak Springs.”

In 1846 William D. Glasscock brought his family and slaves from Mississippi, settling just north of Williamson Creek. Two years later, Glasscock sold some of his land to Norwegian immigrant John Ernest Mowinkle, and the community, as such, was born.

There had been problems in the area with Comanche and Apache Indians back in the Spanish and Mexican days, but by the time the Anglos started moving in, the Indians in the Oak Hill area were pretty mellow.

Oak Hill’s Native American expert Ken Headrick has noted that up until the 18th Century there was about 78 Indian tribes in Central Texas alone. By the 19th Century there were only 22, and by the time the Glasscocks settled down there were no more than 200 and possibly as few as 30 individual Comanches in the area.

When John Mowinkle settled in the area, he found some Comanches camped near his home, so he politely went out and explained to them that more white people would be moving there. The Comanche packed up and headed west, and John Mowinkle no doubt patted himself on the back for buying that “Norwegian-to-Comanche” dictionary at the duty-free store.

The Indians that stayed around were friendly. They’d trade skins for sugar and salt and told the white people what foods could be grown in the area. The Indians tended to eat roots, acorns, cacti, and snails, (or to call them by their proper Comanche name, “escargot”).

John Mowinkle had been an international businessman before poor health forced him to move to a warmer climate and the life of a farmer. Mowinkle was an intelligent man who spoke seven languages, had an extensive library, and kept up on things by reading the “Baltimore Sun,” the “Austin Gazette,” and, God help him, the “Congressional Record.” He and his wife Mary lived until 1901.

By 1856 local settlers had started a school in a log cabin.  At the end of the Civil War, an attempt was made to rename the community “Shiloh,” after the famous battle, but neither that name nor the name “Live Oak” stuck, though “Oatmanville” did—for a few years, anyway. (B.F. Oatman was a major landowner in the area then.) An “Oak Hill” post office was established in 1870, but strangely enough, the town didn’t adopt that name until 1900.

By 1884 the town had four saloons, a store, and a population of about 75. Most of the locals dealt in cotton, wool, pecans, or animal hides. The population eventually reached 200 in 1904, six years before the post office was closed down.

In 1865, Thomas Kincheon formed the community of Kincheonville. The residents were mostly black, but there were some Hispanics and Anglos living there as well. This farming community was located between what is now Paisano Trail, Davis Lane, Brodie Lane, and Longview Road. Kincheon’s son, Thomas Kincheon II, successfully promoted a couple subdivisions of the community in the 1950s, before finally moving his family into East Austin in the 1960s.

Also, not long after the end of the war, Oatmanville became the home to a number of poor settlers from Appalachia. These people largely kept to themselves, and occupied their time cutting cedar, building stone walls and fences, and manufacturing charcoal and moonshine, thus earning the contemptuous nicknames “cedar choppers” and “charcoal burners” from their neighbors. (What? –“stone builders” wasn’t also considered an insult back then?!)

Cedar was a profitable business for seventy years, as there was quite a market for cedar fence posts, railroad ties, charcoal, and firewood. Indeed, between 1870 and 1890 there were several “Cedar Wars” over who owned which cedar brakes.

Oatmanville was home to a stand of pecan and live oak trees called “The Grove” or “The Beckett Grove,” located alongside Williamson Creek. This was traditionally the last stop for cattle drives heading through Austin, and farmers and ranchers would spend the night there on their way to and from Austin on buying and selling trips, so as to not have to shell out money for a hotel room. The Grove also proved a great site for 4th of July celebrations, picnics, and other community gatherings.

In 1870, Texas Ranger and Lockhart native James Andrew Patton moved to Oatmanville. He had been an Indian fighter, but having tired of that, he wanted to try his hand at farming and shop keeping. He opened his store in Oatmanville in 1879, rebuilt it out of stone in 1898, and kept it open for over thirty years.

The store eventually earned a State Historical marker. The building has served as a Masonic lodge, a dance hall, offices, several restaurants, a saloon, and now houses a pizza parlor.

Patton was the postmaster of Oak Hill, as well as its unofficial, unelected mayor, and a deputy sheriff. He was also the one who had the brainstorm that the name of the town (Oatmanville) should be changed to match the name of the post office (Oak Hill), because everyone’s mail was getting rerouted to a place called “Oatmeal.” That such a problem had remained unresolved for decades is beyond comprehension.

Patton was naturally involved in the Oak Hill school system, donating land for the site of a new school building. After the Oak Hill post office closed in 1910, Patton moved into Austin, dying there in 1944 in his 91st year. He was buried in the Oak Hill Cemetery, the land for which he had donated as well. In 1985 a new elementary school was opened in Oak Hill and was named in Patton’s honor.

J.A. Patton was also the great-grandfather of James Morris White, owner and proprietor of the venerable Austin honky-tonk, “The Broken Spoke.” As it turns out, James White also had a great-great-grandfather named John Eaton Campbell who was the Travis County surveyor and surveyed Oak Hill during the Oatmanville days.

(James White and his wife Annette have written “They Came to Texas,” a thick history of his family’s adventures.)

When the “Old Stone Capitol” in Austin burned down in 1881, plans were made to build a new capitol that somewhat resembled the one in Washington, D.C., but that had it own brand of Victorian swagger and flamboyance. A competition was held and Elijah E. Myers of Chicago was selected as architect. A Chicago firm also won the contracting bid, and was paid not in cash, but in three million acres of public land. This property spread over ten counties and became known as the XIT Ranch (the brand referring to “Ten in Texas”).

The plan was to construct the new building from white limestone, quarried at Oatmanville. For the cost of $1000, W.K. Beckett leased 1000 acres of his land to be used as the quarry. A narrow-gauge spur railroad was built from the Beckett place to the Capitol grounds.

This project promised great things for Oatmanville, and several businesses opened to serve those involved.

But it became quickly apparent once the limestone got into town that it contained large deposits of pyrite or “fool’s gold,” which, if left exposed to the elements, would streak and leave any building constructed of it colored yellow. Not only that, but the stone was found to be much too soft to bear the weight of such a massive structure. And budget concerns became so acute it was decided that the state couldn’t afford to pay any more men 17? whopping cents an hour to work the quarry—free convict labor had to be utilized instead.

This last move, coupled with Governor Ireland importing some stone cutters from Scotland, caused local union members, such as those of the International Association of Granite Cutters, to have a hissy fit and sue Capitol contractor Abner Taylor for labor violations.

Also in 1885 a transient hired on to work at the Capitol for a dollar a day less than the stone cutters made. The man, called “Brock,” wasn’t a member of the union and refused to join. What’s worse, he did more work than the union cutters did and generally made them look bad. Brock was asked to leave, and when he refused to, the cutters went on the first labor strike in Texas history.

Regardless of all this, black and white stripes were declared to be the “in” look in Oatmanville for Fall 1885, and 100 prisoners were transported to the little village, their ankles hobbled by heavy chains and iron balls, their every move watched by armed guards and trained dogs. By day they cut stone, by night they slept in a flimsy frame shelter. They were fed a ration of cornbread, bacon, and coffee. No doctor was available, and anyway, these poor slobs were considered expendable, right?

Some men died on the site, while others tried to escape and were shot dead. Eventually a legend grew up that these dead prisoners were buried under limestone cairns on what came be known as “Convict Hill.”

In the 1980s when real estate developers got interested in that area, they found they had to confront this question head-on. We’ve all seen enough scary movies to know that bad things happen to people who build on abandoned burial grounds.

Archaeologists, historians, and geologists were all brought out to see if they could literally find out where the bodies were buried. Soil tests and other methods concluded no one had been buried on Convict Hill, but a study of the historic record did offer another explanation to the mystery.

Derricks had been employed to move and haul stone at the quarry. They had been secured by guy wires and heavy timbers. Since the soil was so rocky that the timbers could not be buried in the ground, they had to be stabilized by heavy piles of rocks.

The timbers themselves were called “dead men,” so it’s easy to see how that spooky name, tomb-sized piles of stones, and notoriously cruel working conditions could form in the public mind this legend that convicts had been buried on Convict Hill.

Anyway, after it was determined that the limestone from Oak Hill wouldn’t work, the powers that be decided to construct the exterior of the Capitol from pink granite quarried at Marble Falls. The limestone was reserved for interior work.

As for Convict Hill? Well, nature and looters reclaimed whatever was left after operations finally shut down in 1888. All that remains now is a sinkhole and two iron bars driven into the ground, where prisoners were tied up at night, or held in place and beaten during the day whenever they slacked off.

In 1865, the log cabin “Shiloh School” was built to replace the old “Live Oak Springs” one, and that in turn was replaced in 1879 by a frame building on Williamson Creek. The Oak Hill Elementary School was opened in 1923, with additional rooms added in 1933, 1953, and 1958. The school was in the middle of a pasture and farm animals often blocked traffic to and from the building.

The Oak Hill School and Cedar Valley School consolidated in 1953. In 1961 Oak Hill and nearby Manchaca joined forces to form a rural high school district, but it all got annexed by Austin ISD in 1967.

In early days Oak Hill church congregations met in the school buildings, or outside under brush arbors when it got hot. Services were presided over by circuit riding preachers. The first Sunday School was held in Peter Thompson’s blacksmith shop, with the attendees sitting on nail kegs. A Baptist Church was finally built in 1937, after failed attempts in 1889 and 1903, and many other churches have been built in the area since then.

In 1935, Norwall Mowinkle, only surviving son of John Mowinkle, and his daughter Mary Mowinkle Johnson, formed the Oak Hill/Cedar Valley Pioneer Association, which was dedicated to the idea of preserving the history and heritage of the two neighboring communities. Meetings were originally held yearly on the Mowinkle place, but after several moves now take place on James White’s ranch.

Two or three pioneer families are honored at each meeting. Members get up and give oral histories of those families, people of the community who have died in the past year are memorialized, there’s a prayer, and then everything’s wrapped up with a meal and a general get-together.

In the 1940s Archie Patton opened a dirt racetrack called “Oak Hill Downs.” At first plow horses, donkeys, and mules raced there, but later buggies and roadsters were brought in. The land was later sold to Motorola.

Between 1957 and 1977, Oak Hill was the site of a rodeo, held every weekend at a ring owned by Cecil and Maxine Hill. In fact a newspaper from the 1950s referred to Oak Hill as a “rodeo and horse racing site in southwestern Travis County.”

The Oak Hill area has also been home to a variety of beer joints over the years: the Circleville Inn (still in existence under another name), Alexander’s (a barbeque place/gas station/blues joint that’s been replaced by a Sonic), the Blue Goose, the Little Wheel, I.V.’s, the Moosehead Tavern (once a showcase for the Light Crust Doughboys and Ernest Tubb), and of course, the Broken Spoke (long may she reign).

In 1983 the City of Austin started annexing parts of Oak Hill. This was not a big hit with many Oak Hill residents, because Austin failed to promptly live up to some of the promises it made to Oak Hill regarding various city services and other benefits.

In 1985 the Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods was formed. The areas of their purview include … “everything from radio towers, to libraries, pools, pipelines, parks, asphalt plants, roads, restrictive covenants and deed restrictions, city zoning, fund-raisers, signs, nuisances, crime, big-boxes and aquifers.”

Clearly, though most of the physical landmarks of Oak Hill exist only in faded tintypes or the memories of old-timers, the spirit of this scrappy little community is still very much alive and vibrant.

(Special thanks to the Handbook of Texas Online, the Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods, the Austin History Center, and various writers for the Oak Hill Gazette and Austin American Statesman, including Monica Leo, Betty MacNabb, Kevin Brown, Michael D. Brockway, and especially Rick Ruffin for his information-filled Oak Hill timeline, “A Symbol of Our Past,” without which this piece would’ve been impossible to put together.)


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