History

Idylls of the Range: A Tale of Old Lago Vista, Texas

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Most of us have a notion of what a small town is like — a place with a population of around 2,000, like Mayberry, North Carolina for instance. But during the 1970s I knew a small town named Lago Vista… with a population of 900. A place where everyone truly knew your name and what you were up to. A place without a U.S. Post Office. A place where the “high school” was located in the Highland Lakes Country Club, with a graduating class of 3. But I’ve jumped ahead here. Let’s jump back a ways.

Somewhere in the ancient mists of the 1960s Hill Country, a large northern company named National Homes got the brilliant idea that if they built resorts, home-buyers would come. And they weren’t wrong, to an extent. Despite its eventual incorporation as a city, Lago Vista remains a somewhat open range even today.

Back then, a branch of this northern home builder that I personally worked for was called National Resort Communities (NRC), and “we built this city” as the lyric goes. I politely call them “northern” now because back then anyone north of Hwy. 183 was a “Yankee.” NRC swept into this bend of Lake Travis like Sherman conquering Georgia (who coincidentally was responsible for why many of the locals I met lived out there; their ancestors having fled Georgia after the Civil War). Only instead of burning everything down, these 20th century Yankees sought to build everything up.

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Idylls of the Range: A Tale of Old Lago Vista, Texas

Photo: Facebook/City of Lago Vista

The flash influx of corporate fat-cats, mixed with wealthy retirees, local blue collars, hippies, rock ‘n’ rollers escaping the big city, and full-blooded cedar choppers made for a true people-gumbo that demographers were hard-pressed to categorize. I met country folk whose bodies were fully saturated in the land—its rivers and creeks running through their veins. I befriended golf pros and retirees, ranchers and tractor masters, “long-hairs” (as we were called), and people who actually chopped cedar for a living. I met black and white families with lineages so ancient that both had the same, very European last names—the one having owned the other once upon a time.

So where should our historical tour of Lago begin? Imagine for a moment the intersection of FM 1431 and old Hwy. 183 (now North Bell Boulevard). There were no crossroads there at the time, only a t-boning of old Whitestone Boulevard from the west into the old Leander Highway. Set off slightly on the northwest corner of the intersection sat an old one-room schoolhouse made entirely out of local stone. Today it’s occupied by a McDonald’s franchise.

Back then a trip down 1431 from Cedar Park was a winding, hilly, two-lane country road leading all the way out to Marble Falls. In the late ’60s, Playboy magazine rated it one of the top sports car roads in the nation. Even today, although it’s been widened and flattened a lot, it can still provide motor thrills, starting with a flight down Hard Hill (the stretch just after Vista Rock Drive) at whatever speed you can tolerate. But watch out for the curve at the bottom unless you’re driving a Ferrari.

Idylls of the Range: A Tale of Old Lago Vista, Texas

Photo: Facebook/City of Lago Vista

As you motor along the old trail, there’s plenty of nice scenery, but your tour will eventually deliver you to a kind of open valley that they called South Jonestown Hills. It always had “Lots for Sale,” a pleasant little dell to settle in. But up in the hills near the Villa Antonia mansion of today was an old Quonset hut that gained a notorious reputation when a wily young Englishman named Barry established a “drug rehab” commune inside. For a couple of years, it was the site for many an over-the-top party and the kind of “recreating” best left out of the travel brochures.

Jonestown in those days was what the Old West writers used to call an “open” town. There was even a standoff gunfight one day between a biker and a local merchant in the middle of the road. Luckily no one drew first, and no one went down, other than in legend.

Once you reached the intersection of 1431 and Lohman’s Ford (named for a real water crossing at its terminus; now Point Venture), there was only Mr. Oski’s little strip center, and an old service garage to tell you that you were anywhere. The view otherwise held nothing for you but more hills, more shrubs, and the lake — if you stood on your toes, on top of your car. Welcome to Lago Vista.

Idylls of the Range: A Tale of Old Lago Vista, Texas

Photo: Pixabay.com

A notable, but unseen landmark back then was the air strip at the top of the high hill behind Oski’s convenience store that NRC built to accommodate their corporate big-wigs and assorted VIPs. Millennials now know it as a nexus for Katrina-relief going out, and for hurricane refugees coming in. We knew it as a great drag-strip for 4-barreled carburetors and a smuggler’s delight for shadier enterprises. Like I said, wide open.

We had a sheriff’s deputy, or at least a tan car and a brown uniform that people would say they’d spotted out on the range now and again. I never saw him personally. Eventually, someone was installed out there permanently… once the population broke 1000.

Downhill from the airstrip and over the slope was the Bar-K Golf Course, a 9-holer built in 1970. “The K” had some of the greatest Hill Country views and trickiest lies you might ever care to take on. The first fairway was a straight downhill drop from tee to green; steeper than Hard Hill. They closed the course in the early 2000s, but if you walk out on the old fairways, look for wide-open vistas, woody gorges, and a quaint troll bridge hidden along the course.

Idylls of the Range: A Tale of Old Lago Vista, Texas

Photo: Pixabay

Lago Vista developed three golf courses within their approximately 10,000 acres. NRC considered them the biggest attraction for the most people right from the start. Of the three, the Highland Lakes Country Club Golf Course was supposed to be the big-daddy, but it was the cozy, twisting, hilly Lago Vista Golf Course that became the crowd favorite. Situated opposite the Highland Lakes course on the far western edge of the peninsula, it was snuggled inside the most highly developed portion of the community but still felt like a world in itself once you began to play. The Highland Lakes course had its appeal, but it was spread out, mostly flat, and never seemed to be finished. Like the community as a whole, it was always “under development.” The Highland Lakes Country Club was the larger, fancier club, and as I mentioned earlier was the site of the makeshift high school. I knew fully well how many students were enrolled there because the drummer in my band was dating the only girl in the school.

Along the southern and southwestern edge of the community were “the coves.” Lots and lots of them. This area was even more isolated than the east side, and many a skinny-dipper haunted its shores in an attempt to get away from Austin’s famed Hippy Hollow located on the city side of the lake. Rope swings, cliff diving, scuba, and tubing—the seemingly endless little private fjords made this spot a perfect off-the-map playground for folks in the know.

Idylls of the Range: A Tale of Old Lago Vista, Texas

Photo: Pixabay

As you wind your way up the western edge of the peninsula, you come to The Island on Lake Travis. This spot began as an empty bump in the middle of the Colorado River portion of the lake. Rocky, craggy, weedy, and inhospitable even to water snakes, it took a very long time before someone thought to make it livable by building resort condos on top. I imagine you can still fish off of it, for a fee.

What set Lago Vista off from other community developments was the edgy frontier atmosphere that it had, and may still retain somewhat today. The “mountain men” at its birth were the cagey, anything-goes salesmen who worked hard and played harder, getting city folk to venture out and start a new life in what amounted to empty scrub-land. Although it now has a real high school and an honest-to-goodness bank (I was still living there when that happened), more shopping and more homes, it’s still “out there,” like a mythical island. And it still has the potential to attract the individual-minded, the rebellious, and skinny-dippers if you know just where to go.