History of Bull Creek: An Overview
On Loop 360 near Bluffstone Drive is a history marker. Here’s a bit from that marker:
Balcones Fault Aids Colonization of Texas. Curving through the center of Texas from Hill County south and west to Uvalde County is the rugged escarpment-fault called Balcones. The abundance of natural resources associated with this geologic formation affected the pattern of colonization in Texas. The numerous springs and wooded hills of the escarpment and adjacent fertile prairies attracted Indian tribes and Spanish colonists before the area was permanently settled by Anglo-American pioneers.
Balcones Fault is a defining geologic feature of Austin, indeed one of the reasons it was selected as the capital of Texas. And arguably one of the most beautiful and unique features of the Balcones Fault in the Austin area is Bull Creek and the valley it has cut flowing to its mouth on the Colorado River. Many advertisements and postcards from the late 1800s touting Austin’s beauty feature photos of Bull Creek.
Native Americans in Prehistoric Times
Archeological investigations of the Bull Creek area show utilization by humans stretching back 9,000 years, maybe longer. The Wilson-Leonard site where “Leanderthal Lady” was found, only 8 miles northwest of the headwaters of Bull Creek, shows a succession of use from Paleoindian cultures 13,000 years ago to Late Prehistoric Toyah cultures. Some artifacts found in digs on Bull Creek are similar to those associated with the Wilson-Leonard site. The canyons of Bull Creek offered the criteria of favored campsites on the Edwards Plateau in prehistoric times: shelter in or near pecan groves (pecan fat content is comparable to bison) along perennial water sources, with proximity to quality flint.
Native Americans in Historic Times
At Austin’s founding, historically recorded tribes included Apache, Comanche, Tonkawa, and Waco (a branch of the Wichita). The Tonkawa were probably the oldest residents of the area at its founding. Earlier yet the Jumanos, perhaps linked to the archeology of the protohistoric Toyah culture, may have travelled the area as part of their extensive trade route.
The dominant tribe at Austin’s founding were the Comanche. Janet Long Fish, daughter of Walter E. Long, in 1952 pioneered work on a walking trail (today’s Shoal Creek Greenbelt Hike and Bike Trail) along what she called the “old Comanche Trail” that ran from the shoals in the Colorado River up along Shoal Creek to 34th Street where it crossed the creek and continued west and north into the hills. 34th Street at Shoal Creek Greenbelt is historically significant in that it is the location of Seiders Spring, a spot known to have been visited by Indians in early Austin. West of Seiders Springs 34th turns into 35th street and is the old road west to Mount Bonnell where another Indian trail into and out of Austin was located. In 2000 Janet Long Fish was interviewed about the general history of Bull Creek in which she elaborated on the connection between the Shoal Creek “Comanche Trail”, Mount Bonnell, and Bull Creek: “The Shoal Creek Trail tied into the Bull Creek setup. And the Shoal Creek Trail—it’s hard to look at the river now because the lake is covering a lot of what was bottom land, and we forget that you could come right below Mount Bonnell. And this is what the Indians did, they came up Shoal Creek, and they turned left at Thirty-fifth Street. They went below Mount Bonnell, and then they went below Mount Bonnell and on up. Now, how far up Bull Creek they went, I don’t know. I know the Comanche Trail out by Lake Travis is a continuation of the Shoal Creek Trail.”
That Bull Creek was on a Comanche trail from Mount Bonnell to Comanche Peak jives with oral traditions of some early settlers. Will Preece, wife Elizabeth Gideon, and sons Richard Lincoln Preece (also known as Dick Preece) and Will Jr., were early settlers to the Bull Creek area during the days of the Republic of Texas. Both Dick Preece and Will Jr. served as Texas Rangers before the Civil War. Preece family history records their cemetery along West Bull Creek was the “site of a Comanche hunting ground”. In his article, “My Grandfather, Dick Preece”, Harold Preece, grandson of Dick Preece, says “A few miles from the Preece ranch lay the southern terminus of the bloody Comanche Trail” and describes his grandfather’s days with the Republic era Texas Rangers combatting the Comanche in Texas.
Early Families to Bull Creek
Geographic and cultural similarities between the valley of Bull Creek and Appalachia have been made, and the early families that settled the valley — like Boatright, Champion, Preece, Thurm, Venable, Waechter and Walden to name a few — formed a clan-like, close knit community. Early settlers to Bull Creek chose the area for the abundance of springs and rich farm land and perhaps in some cases because it reminded them of the mountains, hills and hollows from which they came. The isolation of Bull Creek from Austin bred a self-reliant, independent people. The isolation meant that old traditions persisted longer than in fast growing Austin. Marriages were often between families in the valley of Bull Creek further preserving the culture. These people often identified themselves as mountain people, a unique culture to the otherwise prairie like culture of Austin. Outsiders often derisively labeled them “hillbillies”.
Ruins from some of these early settlers are still visible along Bull Creek. William Thurm came from Germany in 1850 with his wife, Caroline, and two young daughters; a third soon born in Texas. Arriving in Galveston they were among the first settlers along Bull Creek in 1855 on land purchased from Josiah Fisk, namesake of Fiskville. The family lived in a log cabin at the base of “Thurm Hill”, the steep hill down which today’s Spicewood Springs Road descends east of 360. Additional land purchases from Fisk in 1873 and 1874 expanded holdings to 340 acres along Bull Creek.
The original Thurm homestead was probably located along today’s Old Spicewood Springs Road, east of Loop 360, in what is now Lower Bull Creek Greenbelt. Unfortunately, during construction of Loop 360 the historical significance of what was probably the Thurm homestead was not recognized and the property was razed. But remnants of his daughter and son in law’s homestead – Isaac and Tena Thurm Venable — are still visible on the hike and bike trails of Bull Creek Greenbelt Upper, with entry just off Old Spicewood Springs Road. These ruins date to the 1870s.
During the Civil War, Travis County was one of several counties in Central Texas to vote against secession from the Union, and the caves and hollows of Bull Creek were a base for what one might call Travis County’s own “Free State of Jones”, i.e. a base for Union loyalists resisting the Confederacy. Among Union loyalist fighting the Confederacy were the Preece family, members of what became known as the Mountain Eagles, a Unionist guerilla outfit fighting the Confederacy which culminated in the “Bull Creek Battle” with 40 of the Mountain Eagles holed up in a makeshift fort atop what came to be called “Dead Man’s Peak”.
The historic Preece cemetery off RM 2222 is the resting place for many of the Preece family, including Republic era Texas Rangers, Dick Preece and Will Jr. Other cemeteries that served Bull Creek were Oak Grove Cemetery on the upper end of Bull Creek East, on what is now Spicewood Springs Road (originally part of Bull Creek Road). Oak Grove Cemetery was said to have been started when five small children who died from an epidemic of some sort were buried in the Oak Grove churchyard.
Before Oak Grove Cemetery some residents of Bull Creek were buried in the nearby Pond Springs Cemetery near Jollyville. Inside the Pond Springs Cemetery there is a section for the Waldens, early pioneer settlers in Bull Creek. This section is often called the Walden Cemetery; a cemetery within a cemetery.
But there was yet another Walden Cemetery, this referred to as the Pleasant Valley / Walden / Bull Creek Cemetery. Pleasant Valley (not to be confused with the Pleasant Valley in South Austin) was a name often used for the Bull Creek area. This small cemetery is now located in a front yard of a house in the Lakewood housing development, on the west bank of Bull Creek, about 1/3 mile from what was the site of the Walden mill on Bull Creek.
Two schools served the valley of Bull Creek, one was Oak Grove School, originally located on what is today Old Lampasas Trail, then relocated near today’s Oak Grove cemetery. The original school at Oak Grove is said to have been started about 1864, a one room school house about 20’x20’, with one teacher. Another school was located near the intersection of today’s 2222 and Loop 360. That school began as a one room log cabin called Bull Creek School, then later replaced (probably in the 1940s) by a larger building and renamed Pleasant Valley School.
Industry: from Mills to Moonshine
Industry of the Bull Creek valley included farming, but the water power of Bull Creek also fueled lumber and grist mills. Barkley’s The History of Travis County and Austin states “The Mormons are credited with construction, in 1846, of one of Travis County’s oldest roads to the northwest, the one that today is a scenic drive along Bull Creek to the Spicewood Springs Road, and which then led to a mill on Bull Creek used after the Mormon Mill washed away”. The Mormons were not the only ones to build lumber mills along Bull Creek. Another, the Walden Mill, may well have supplied the lumber for historic homes such as the Zimmerman Home near Fiskville (now part The Settlement Home for Children) and indeed Josiah Fisk of Fiskville bought large quantities of land along Bull Creek which he later sold to settlers, like the Thurms, moving to Bull Creek.
Cedar, abundant in the valley of Bull Creek, proved an important livelihood for many, leading to the derisive label used by outsiders: “cedar choppers”. From 1870 to 1940, cedar logs were in high demand in Austin and Travis County for railroad ties, foundation piers, stove wood, charcoal, and fence posts. And during prohibition the valley of Bull Creek provided the necessary ingredients to produce moonshine: an abundance of spring water, charcoal made from cedar to fuel stills, and the solitude of the hills, valleys and caves to hide production. Headlines from an article that ran in the American Statesman, 1923, proclaimed “Caves In Bull Creek Hills Furnish Safe Retreats For Moonshine Gangs; Officers Get Clue To Nest Of Stills”.
The Transition to Today
By the 1940s, and certainly by the 1960s, as access to the area improved, Bull Creek had begun its transition from from Austin’s version of Appalachia, to a place of recreation, and a highly sought place to live. In interviews on file at the Austin History Center, Janet Fish Long, daughter of Walter E. Long, recalls horseback rides, picnics, and camping in the Bull Creek area as a youth, and even relates its use for recreation for service men, including R.A.F. pilots, during World War II.
In the 1960s the Moore family opened Lakewood Park on land that had been in the Walden family since the 1850s. The pool on Walden land in Bull Creek that had been used by settlers for baptisms was now used as a swimming pool by Austinites escaping to the country.
A newspaper article from 1966 about Clementine Walden Jackson, one of the last of the generations of Walden family to reside in the valley of Bull Creek, recalls that where Tom Wooten Boy Scout Camp was located, the community of settlers of Bull Creek would gather for picnics, dancing and folk singing. Now Camp Tom Wooten itself is history, giving way to a housing development with street names that reflect its scouting past. And too the Moore’s Lakewood Park; in 1971 the City of Austin negotiated the purchase of that land to become the “Zilker Park” of the northwest; today’s Bull Creek District Park and Bull Creek Greenbelts. Families were now buying land for recreational use; land that had once been the homesteads of pioneer settlers.
Archeological Survey of the Stenis Tract Hike and Bike Trail, Bull Creek Watershed, Travis County, Texas, by Gemma Mehalchick, Douglas Kevin Boyd, Prewitt and Associates, and the Texas Antiquities Committee, published by Prewitt and Associates, 2004. The report which says the “historic farmstead that makes up [this site] is recommended as potentially eligible for listing in the National Register [of Historic Places]”. The report unfortunately did not push the history back to the farmstead back to the original settlers, Isaac and Tena Thurm Venable.
Austin Statesman, January, 14, 1923, p10. “Caves in Bull Creek Hills Furnish Safe Retreats for Moonshine Gangs; Officers Get Clue to Nest of Stills” (author unknown).
Barkley, Mary Starr (1963). History of Travis County and Austin, 1839-1899. Waco, TX: Texian Press. p. 266 discusses early construction of mills by Mormons on Bull Creek.
Cantell, Floyd (2017). Interview with Mr. Floyd Cantwell. Mr. Cantwell grew up in the Bull Creek area; his mother attended school there; he owned the salvage yard that used to be located at what is now Mesa and Spicewood Springs Road, and he lived on Spicewood Springs Road. The salvage yard was later located to Spicewood Spring Road north of what is now Loop 360. He currently owns Floyd Cantwell Used Cars and Parts, 9800 Ranch Rd 2243, Leander, TX 78641 where I interviewed him April 29th, 2017. Mr. Cantwell confirmed the location of the Venable home; also that Dorothy Duvall later bought the property.
Cash, Elizabeth A. and Suzanne B. Deaderick, Austin’s Pemberton Heights (Images of America), 2012. Discusses Janet Long Fish’s work in preserving the “Comanche Trail”, today’s Shoal Creek Greenbelt Trail.
Camp Tom Wooten on Bull Creek, 1934 – 1983. From an archival website, retrieved 03/01/2017: “Camp Tom Wooten, overlooking Bull Creek and Lake Austin, will be remembered by thousands of Scouts as their ‘summer camp.’ The land was purchased by Dr. Goodall H. Wooten, an Austin physician, for $5,000, and presented to the Capitol Area Council in 1934 for a Boy Scout Camp. The original purchase was for 125 acres but he later gave more land. The council constructed cabins, buildings and a water system. The camp was named Camp Tom Wooten after Dr. Wooten’s only son who had died at the age of 21. The camp was south of FM 2222 just across Bull Creek from the Bull Creek Lodge, a favorite watering hole for hamburgers, drinks, and renting canoes. Bull Creek Lodge is now known as ‘The County Line on the Lake.’
Collins, Karen Sikes, (2011), Rosedale Rambles 1993 through 1999, retrieved 03-16-2017 from http://rosedaleaustin.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Rosedale-Ramble-1999.pdf. Discusses Janet Long Fish’s work in preserving the “Comanche Trail”, today’s Shoal Creek Greenbelt Trail.
Cox, Mike. Bull Creek Battle (2005). Cox notes “Now covered with spacious, expensive houses, the cedar-studded canyons on the western edge of Austin used to be Central Texas’ version of Appalachia. Remote and hard to reach in the days of horse and wagon travel, the hills west of the Capital City were peopled by scattered families who came from the mountains of Tennessee and Kentucky and settled there because the terrain reminded them of home.” Cox reviews what has been called the Bull Creek Battle, Austin’s version of a “Free State of Jones” (my description) type resistance with Union supporters from Bull Creek fighting against the Confederacy. See also Harold Preece.
Cox, Mike. Rock Fences (2008). Retrieved 5/5/2017 from http://www.texasescapes.com/MikeCoxTexasTales/Rock-Fences.htm
Cullick, Robert, “Archeologists open Bull Creek ‘history book’”. Austin American Statesman, February 2, 1986, Section A, Page 1. Article about archeological surveys in and around Bull Creek sponsored by Nash Phillips and Clyde Copus in the mid-1980s ahead of planned development which included Schlumberger Oil Well Services research campus, now Concordia University.
Jackson, Clementine (Walden). The Walden home in the valley (book). 1966, Austin, Texas. Copy available in Austin History Center. A history of Bull Creek and the Walden family, early settlers there. See also related newspaper article: “Good Days on Bull Creek”, The American-Statesman, Sunday, April 28, 1963. Memories of Mrs. Clementine Walden Jackson marking the close of an era in the Bull Creek Valley. Also: “She Recalls Bull Creek, Oak Grove of Long Ago!”. The American-Statesman, Sunday, August 14, 1966.
Kerber, Lisa. Fiskville application to the Texas Historical Commission for a historical marker. https://austin.bibliocommons.com/item/show/810414067
Morris, A. R. (1873, Aug 10). REGISTRATION NOTICE. Daily Democratic Statesman (1873-1880) Retrieved from https://www.austinlibrary.com:8443/login?url=http://www.austinlibrary.com:2400/docview/1619645240?accountid=7451
Preece, Harold (1964). “My Grandfather, Dick Preece”. Real West. VII (38): 22. Story of Richard Lincoln Preece, AKA Dick Preece, as a Republic era Texas Ranger fighting Comanches. Later a member of the Mountain Eagles, a Unionist guerilla outfit fighting the Confederacy from Bull Creek. “Time and time again .. Confederate irregulars invaded the hills looking for boys to conscript .. and stock to be requisitioned for [the Confederacy]. Time and time again, Grandfather, the southern-born chieftain of Unionist irregulars, blocked him .. [the Confederates] never conquered that detached, un-surrendering patch of the United States which was Bull Creek”.
Richards, Cathryn. Valley of Cascade Creek. Written in 1961 but unpublished. Copy at Austin History Center. History of Bull Creek, AKA Cascade Creek, with emphasis on early families.
Sitton, Thad (a) Oral history transcript of interview with children of Matthew Irving Smith and Hazeline Ingram Smith. July 10, 2000. Austin History Center.
Sitton, Thad (b) Oral history transcript of interview with Janet Long Fish. July 20, 2000. Austin History Center.
Travis County Clerk Records: Road Book Precinct 2, book, 1898/1902. Tena Venable home is used as reference in defining Travis County roads. See “Bull Cr & Spicewood Spr Road”, p355; “Bull Creek Road”, p357.
Upton, Elsie. The Austin Hill Folk. Dobie, J. Frank (James Frank), 1888-1964. Texian Stomping Grounds, book, 1941; Dallas, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc67663/: accessed February 23, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting UNT Press. Upton uses the term “Hill Folks” and “Mountaineers” to describe the early settlers of locals such as Bull Creek: (p.1) In the past hundred years Austin has grown from a village of three or four hundred people into a modem city of 100,000; out in the Hills .. the people depend for their water supply on the natural springs or creeks, speak a mountain dialect, and depend for their education on a short term in a one-room school. Although there has been much interest in recent years in the folk-lore of the mountain folk of the South .. [e.g. Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas] .. these Americans of the oldest stock with their special culture and customs, are to be found also, an intact community, in the Texas hills near Austin. On moonshine, Upton (p.47) says During prohibition days moonshining became a profitable business in the Hills.
Vance, Linda. Eanes: Portrait of a Community, book, 1986; [Dallas,] Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth769391/: accessed February 23, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Westbank Community Library District. On moonshine, Vance notes (p.77) In 1923 one Austin newspaper printed the following news item which confirmed what went on in the hills west of Austin. “The capture of an alleged bootlegger and gallons of white lightning and the discovery of clues are expected to lead to the location of a veritable nest of illicit stills in the Bull Creek hills. It was the achievement of the sheriff’s department after an all day search through cedar-studded territory… The hill canyons and the caves honeycombing the limestone cliffs form ideal hiding places as favorable as the wild mountain fastnesses of Kentucky and Tennessee
Views in Austin, Texas. The Daily Graphic on Wednesday, June 30, 1880. Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin. The page features 10 printed sketches of various scenes touting Austin. Of the 10, two are from Bull Creek, illustrating the romance associated with Bull Creek from Austin’s founding.
West Travis County. Article on Austin History Center website. Discusses Union sympathizers known as “mountain eagles” who escaped from Confederate conscription by hiding out in the isolated hills; role of cedar as a means of livelihood; similarities to Appalachia. “Many of these settlers came from Appalachia and brought their mountain culture with them. They scraped a living from the rugged hill country by cutting cedar, building stone walls and fences, and making charcoal and moonshine. Derisively called “cedar choppers” or “charcoal burners,” they were a proud, independent, reclusive people who moved from place to place wherever there was work. From 1870 to 1940, the cedar brakes provided work because cedar logs were in high demand for railroad ties, foundation piers, stove wood, charcoal, and fence posts. In 1875 alone, over 30,000 cedar logs were shipped from Austin. Competition for the wood became so intense that between 1870 and 1890 several confrontations called the ‘Cedar Wars’ occurred in the hill country over conflicting territorial claims of cedar brakes.”
Zelade, Richard (2006). Lone Star Travel Guide to the Texas Hill Country, Sixth Edition. Taylor Trade Publishing. p. 163. Discusses Mormon construction of mills on Bull Creek.
Zimmerman Home, Historic Marker Application. Texas Historical Commission. September 21, 1967; (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth491775/: accessed February 24, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Commission. Edward E. Zimmerman came to Texas, 1844, from Germany. Zimmerman an Texas farmhouse, 1861, of “hand-hewn cream colored rock from nearby hills; lumber from Bull Creek mills.” The mill could well have been the Walden mill.