Written by Wayne Butler, Milwood Resident, (origin date unknown)
It is not unusual for “old Austinites” (if you don’t know what the Armadillo World Headquarters was, where it was, or what people did there, you don’t qualify) to lament Austin’s explosive growth. In reality, Austin started expanding north from the shores of the Colorado River in the 1840s with the city annexing more and more of northern Travis County. Unsettled open expanses have been bought, worked, and sold by farmers who broke the soil to cultivate cotton and corn, by ranchers who grazed their cattle, goats, and sheep, and by land speculators who plowed under live oak groves and cotton rows to cultivate a labyrinth of houses, shopping centers, and dot.com office buildings. So many of us are so new to Austin’s suburbs we can hardly begin to imagine what and who was here before we were.
Truth be known, the tracts of land on which most suburban Austinites now live were mostly rolling prairies and scrubby hills covered with mesquite, cedar and live oaks. While rich in geological, pre-historic, and Native American and Mexican history, for the most part Austin’s suburbs overgrew claimed but unsettled lands. If most Austin suburbanites asked, “What was here before the subdivision?” the answer would be, “Nothing.”
Milwood residents, as well as our neighbors in Walnut Crossing east of Amherst, might be surprised to learn that the land on which our houses stand is rich with history intimately tied to the growth of the nation, of the Republic and state of Texas, and of Austin. You can hear this history humming in the railroad tracks where trains rumble and whistle on the western and eastern boundaries of Milwood. You can see ghosts of this history in the place and street signs surrounding us.
Stephen F. Austin’s “Little Colony” and James Burleson Rogers
When the Spaniards arrived in the New World at the turn of the 15th century, they colonized what would become Mexico and continued pushing northward from the gulf coast and the interior setting up missions along the way into what is now modern Texas. In an attempt to populate the northern frontier, Spanish and then post-independence Mexican rulers empowered “empresarios” or land agents to entice citizens of the United States to settle the land. Heads of families were promised a league (4,428 acres) and a labor (177 acres), tax exemptions, and livestock. The most famous of these empresarios, Stephen F. Austin, the “Father of Texas,” came from Tennessee in the 1820s.
The group of colonists who gathered around him included James Burleson Rogers. Born in Hawkins County, Tennessee in 1805, Rogers was twenty-six years old when he arrived in Texas to be part of Austin’s “Little Colony.” In April of 1838, the newly formed Republic of Texas granted Rogers a league of land. One third of his grant included the area where Shoal Creek meets the Colorado; the other two thirds surrounded the headwaters of Walnut Creek, where Milwood stands today. Rogers’ home was where the MCC building stands today at the corner of Braker and Mopac.
The Railroads Come to Town: The Villages of Duval and Waters Park
In the 1870s, the railroads started coming to Austin. The International-Great Northern Railroad was pushing track south west from Round Rock to Austin. The tracks were eventually taken over by the Missouri-Pacific Railroad and locally referred to as the Mopac tracks, which mark the western border of Milwood. In 1876 the I&GN hired John C. Duval, a veteran of the Texas War for Independence and the Mexican and Civil Wars, to lay out a village about ten miles north of Austin to serve as a regional depot. On September 13, 1876, I&GN agent Ira H. Evans ran a notice in the Austin Democratic Statesman announcing lots for sale in the new village of Duval. See a copy of the original advertisement on The University of Texas’ Texas Beyond History website.
Few people attended the auction, and no lots were sold that day. Nonetheless, by the mid 1880s the community had a post office, a district school, three churches, three stores, and seventy-five residents. All remnants of Duval are gone today, but it existed roughly where Dorsett Road bends north at the Mopac tracks just west of Wycliff Lane.
What does remain is Duval Road. The route has not changed significantly over the years. The original Duval Road ran from the village of Duval and ran east along what today we call Dorsett Road. It continued across Aspendale to Amherst (where the collection pond area is today). Duval turned north along what today we call Amherst, and then turned east on today’s Adelphi. Duval terminated at the original Burnet Road, which today is Waters Park Road.
Waters Park, Texas
Waters Park, spreading out from the intersection of 1325 (Burnet Road), Loop 1 (Mopac), Walnut Creek, and the railroad tracks, owed its existence to The Austin and Northwestern Railroad (A&NW). These are the tracks Adelphi crosses just east of the Balcones Baseball complex. In the early 1880s, the A&NW built a narrow-gauge line to transport pink granite from Granite Mountain near Burnet to build the new State Capitol. If you travel the short stretch of Waters Park Road from Mopac up to where the road dead ends under Parmer, you will see large blocks of pink granite lying beside the tracks. Because of a bend in the tracks in the area, freight cars would occasionally derail. Instead of reloading the blocks, workers would leave the load on the side and right the cars.
In 1881 A&NW bought right of way from Silas B. and Parthenia A. Summers to begin laying track. The railroad, naming the town after one of its executives, began selling lots on June 21, 1882. In the June 14, 1882 edition of the Austin Daily Democratic Statesman, the railroad announced:
GRAND EXCURSION AND PICNIC
to the town of
Fifteen miles by rail from Austin, on the
NORTHWESTERN N.G. RAILWAY
on Wednesday, June 21, 1882
Lots will be Sold on that Day–Terms Cash.
Waters is on Walnut Creek, seven miles
from Round Rock, five from Pflugerville,
in one of the richest parts of Travis County.
Trains leave Austin at 7:00 o’clock a.m.
returning in the afternoon
Round trip tickets 59 cents only
In July of 1882, the railroad opened a resort including a pool (created by damming Walnut Creek), picnic grounds, a gazebo, a baseball field, and concessions. Until World War I Waters Park was one of the four most popular day trip destinations along with McDonald Dam (one of Austin’s early and ill-fated attempts to dam the Colorado), Seiders Springs (near Shoal Creek Hospital on 38th), and the former lake at Hyde Park. The resort spurred growth. In 1883, Waters Park was granted a post office, which served the area until 1905. By 1885 the town had a church and a one-room school district. Andrew Payton ran a saloon, Ernest Mueller had a store, and his bother Carl owned a gin. T.B. Bradfield was the town doctor. The village peaked in the 1880s and as late as the turn of the century as many as fifty residents raised horses and mules, produced milk and cheese, and cultivated corn and cotton. World War I caused the slow decline of the village as tourism dropped off. The park continued to be used by local residents. The Waters Park school closed, and students transferred to the late 19th century version of Summitt School, about mile south on Burnet Road. During the Great Depression many residents moved to other villages, such as Dessau and Pflugerville, and into Austin. After World War II, homes and businesses were abandoned. By 1980 only one family descending from the original residents remained. Today, commercial developments and Loop 1 cover most of the remains of Waters Park. According to The Handbook of Texas Online, “Little remains today except Waters Park Road, the dam over the creek, and portions of the baseball field.” The North Austin hospital is built on the site of the Jay Barnes’, Sr. , the last resident of Waters Park to have descended from Silas and Parthenia Summers.
Drive slowly along Waters Park Road today and a couple of landmarks will help you imagine what might have been 120 years ago. Today’s Water’s Park Road actually follows an earlier configuration of Burnet Road, which in the 1800s was called Upper Georgetown Road and was the main route from Austin to Georgetown and points north. The building (one a 7-11, then a bar, and now abandoned) where Waters Park Road goes underneath Mopac marks the spot where the Bradfield house once stood. Andrew Peyton’s Tavern was north of the railroad tracks and on the left bank of Walnut Creek. The Waters Park dam, which formed the resort’s pool, lies in the creek bed west of Burnet and south west of the railroad tracks.
Hike north on the Walnut Creek nature trail in Balcones District Park. It terminates at the creek where you’ll find remnants of the original dam. Drive along Waters Park Road and keep your eyes open for the historical marker where the railroad tracks cross a creek. Stop your car at the corner of Waters Park Road and Adelphi and touch the pink granite blocks lost on the way to the Texas State Capitol.
The Rubin Hancock Homestead
The 1860s were especially historic times for the United States. The Civil War changed a nation. The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves. The stories of some landowners between Waters Park and Duval echo the narratives of the nation and the emancipated. The name “Hancock,” as in Hancock Golf Course and Hancock Road, should be familiar to Austinites. The Hancocks of north Travis County were the slaves of the family for which the roads and landmarks are named.
John Hancock, son of John Allen and Sara Ryan Hancock of Virginia, Alabama, and Tennessee, was born in 1824 and arrived in Texas in 1846 to join his brother George, who had come to Texas in 1835 to fight in the Texas war for independence from Mexico. John, already a lawyer when he arrived, became a farmer, landowner, and merchant, and was elected judge of the Second Judicial Court in 1851 at the age of 26. Judge John owned and farmed the land, which is present-day Rosedale near Burnet Road and 45th street (Hancock Road marked the north end of the farm,) as well as several thousand other acres north of the city. He also owned twenty-one slaves. Nonetheless, Hancock was a Unionist during the Civil War and opposed secession. Upon emancipation, Hancock’s freed slaves took his last name and through sharecropping and rugged entrepreneurism began buying small farms ten miles north of Austin’s 1860 border adjacent to Upper Georgetown Road (today’s Burnet Road).
Rubin Hancock and his brothers Peyton, Salem, and Orange were among the first emancipated slaves to become Travis County landowners and their combined holdings, along with those of fellow emancipated African Americans, comprised much of the area where Milwood exists today. The Rubin Hancock farmstead, where Rubin and his wife Elizabeth farmed and raised a family from the late 1870s to 1916 when Rubin died, existed where Parmer Lane crosses Mopac today just north of the Balcones baseball complex. Rubin’s heirs sold off the land in 1942. Rubin Hancock, along with many of his contemporaries, is buried in a small cemetery maintained by St. Paul’s Baptist Church tucked in an aging subdivision east of Burnet where the railroad tracks cross Ohlen Road just south of 183.
The two railroads bordering Milwood to the east and west, like railroads did all across America, spread the reach of commerce, sponsored the development of rural towns, and ignited the growth of Austin. After World War II, highways supplemented and then in many cases supplanted the railroads, thus ushering in the age of suburbia. As the cultural landscape shifted from war to war and through every economic boom and bust, area residents were bound together and sometimes separated by their religious and educational institutions. The St. Stephens Missionary Church on Amherst lies at the very center of regional African American history. Stop by the main entrance of the church and read the state historical marker about the church’s place in history.
It’s ironic, perhaps, that the very roadways that created suburbia are also allowing us to learn more about our history. As the bull dozers push through they often uncover the past. Much of what is known about the pre-suburban state of our area results from the Texas Department of Transportation’s (TXDoT) efforts to study sites of possible historical significance. Parmer Lane’s westward expansion uncovered the Rubin Hancock Farmstead. Waters Park was first studied when Mopac (Loop 1) pushed north of 183. Two separate reports of the Rubin Hancock Farmstead can be obtained from TXDoT’s publication office. One is an archeological study of pre-historic discoveries. The second reports on the farmstead’s archeological, historical, and anthropological significance between 1880 and 1916. The history of Waters Park has been documented thoroughly in TXDoT’s report Under Four Flags: History and Archeology of North Loop One, Travis County, Texas, which includes fascinating maps and oral histories. I am grateful to TXDoT and archeologist and Under Four Flags author John Clark for allowing me to peruse their archives. TXDoT’s efforts have deepened what is publicly known about the area.