History

Lake LBJ and the Rebirth of Kingsland, Chapter 4: Shirley Williams

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The Shirley Williams ranch and its owner were not that much different than hundreds of other depression-era ranches and ranchers in the Texas Hill Country, but the ranch’s location and the rancher’s imagination gave something a little extra to both, and Shirley Williams became a major figure in Kingsland history.

Shirley Williams was born on November 11, 1896 (just four years after the railroad arrived in the frontier town of Kingsland), the third of nine children born to Albert and Mary Williams. They lived near the Gainesville community when Shirley was born but moved to a ranch on the east side of the Llano River (now Royal Oaks) before his next sister, Daisy, was born in 1898.

Shirley’s father, Albert Williams, was a land speculator who accumulated thousands of acres in and around Kingsland during his lifetime, but he was also an active rancher. While “downtown” Kingsland developed into a resort community, Shirley’s life on the ranch involved a lot of hard work, and Shirley himself (while known for his good humor) became a rough-and-tumble young cowboy, not far removed from pioneer days.

The railroad was Kingsland’s lifeline during Shirley’s teenage years, bringing tourists, supplies, and mail, while taking cattle and logs to market. The arrival of a train was announced by a huge plume of black smoke from the other side of Backbone Mountain (now usually called Lookout Mountain) even before the train came around the bend. There was a flag stop at the end of Backbone Mountain where travelers from Burnet County could board the train for a ride into Kingsland; otherwise, they would just tie their horses and wagons at the east end of the railroad bridge and walk across to Kingsland. Of course, that caused some moments of panic when a train arrived unexpectedly, and many old-timers recall sprinting for whichever end of the bridge was closer, or even climbing down onto the piers under the bridge and hanging on for dear life as the train passed overhead.

Lake LBJ and the Rebirth of Kingsland, Chapter 4: Shirley Williams

Photo: @Mehaniq via Twenty20

If you were traveling by horseback or wagon, there were no really good options for getting in and out of Kingsland. You could cross the Colorado River at the Fort Mason Crossing to Hoover’s Valley and up the steep hill to Burnet, or you could cross the Llano River at Harvey’s Crossing, near the present Slab, and take the winding dirt track to Llano. Sometime in the early 1900s, a “viaduct” was built near Harvey’s Crossing, wide enough for a buggy to cross.

With no radio, TV, or theater, young people in Kingsland got together as often as they could for entertainment. A pavilion in downtown Kingsland was the venue for many dances (with live music provided by local fiddlers or guitar-pickers), stage plays, oyster suppers (usually all you could eat for 25 cents), picnics, political meetings, and even revival meetings. Sometime before 1916, Shirley met an attractive “town” girl named Ellen Drace, and a courtship began.

Ellen lived on the property where the Drace Vacation Camp is located today, just east of the famous Antlers Hotel. As a teenager, she was a musician and singer; she was also very athletic and an expert rider who enjoyed racing horses. AND (even though she lived “in town”) she was accustomed to hard work.

When a new “wagon bridge” was built next to the railroad bridge in 1915 (or maybe 1916), it became a favorite place for horse racing. In an article called “Bits and Pieces,” written in 1982 (the source for much of this material), Ellen recalled an incident near the bridge where two untrained horses collided head-on, killing one of the horses and throwing both riders into the air. Both riders survived, but the collision, heard across downtown Kingsland, was the talk of the town for quite some time.

Shirley and Ellen were married on May 5, 1917, on a little hill just west of downtown Kingsland, in the original Kingsland Baptist Church (near the current River Oaks Lodge). They owned one of the first cars in Kingsland, a Model T Ford, and for their honeymoon they drove it to Bisbee, Arizona. There were only 22 miles of paved road (near El Paso) on the entire trip, and they had to take a detour near the end of their trip to avoid the threat of attack by Pancho Villa’s bandits. They stayed in Bisbee, where Shirley operated a “jitney” (taxi) business, for several years before moving back to Llano County in the 1920s.

Lake LBJ and the Rebirth of Kingsland, Chapter 4: Shirley Williams

Photo: Shirley Williams as a young Llano County cowboy, pictured with his favorite horse.

For a while, they lived and farmed west of the Llano River (near the current Highway 71, about 10 miles from Llano). Ellen recalls taking their dirty clothes, soap, blueing, and matches (along with a picnic lunch for the all-day event) down to the viaduct to meet her sister-in-law (who lived on the other side of the river) for “laundry day.” Shirley’s job was to gather the rub-boards, tubs, and washpot and light a fire to boil the water and sliced-up soap. The ladies would rub the clothes, boil them in the washpot, rinse them twice, then put them through the blueing water.

In 1930, they moved into Kingsland, and Shirley ran for the office of county commissioner. He served three two-year terms, and his duties included campaigning for funds and then building the first Kingsland Slab after the viaduct had been washed away by a flood. Later on, he was involved in clearing the vegetation from the Inks Lake basin and purchasing (and then clearing) right-of-way for the new power lines of Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson’s Rural Electrification project. By then, the couple had five children.

In 1936, he decided not to run for re-election as commissioner and set his sights on the county judge’s job. He won his own precinct handily, but lost in the other three precincts and overall. His letter of thanks to the voters was a great example of his good humor; after thanking his supporters and complimenting his opponents in a good-natured way, he closed by saying: “One great pleasure in being defeated is that you can feel free to shake hands without the feeling that they think it’s just for a vote…If any of you people need a good cowhand or cotton chopper after January 1, give me a call. I will be looking for a job.”

The job search eventually took him to Llano, where he sold insurance for several years. He built a native-stone house there in 1939, and an article in The Llano News told of his request for “friendship rocks” to be included in the building. “Any kind of peculiar or odd stone, of any color, will be appreciated,” the article says.

Shirley and Ellen flourished in Llano, becoming very much involved in community activities. One of Shirley’s proudest achievements was surpassing all blood drive goals during World War II as blood donor chairman for the Red Cross. He was also (among many other things) the district commissioner for the Boy Scouts, the Secretary of the Llano Lions Club, the president of the Llano County Singing Convention, and an active member of the Llano Roping Club. He even won 2nd Prize in an all-male fashion show. Judging from newspaper reports, Ellen was involved in almost as many activities as her husband.

Lake LBJ and the Rebirth of Kingsland, Chapter 4: Shirley Williams

Photo: The old ranch house at Shirley Williams’ Colorado River ranch, later renovated as a family gathering place on the scenic property near the lake.

Sometime during their stay in Llano, Shirley inherited a large ranch along the west bank of the Colorado River, just north of Kingsland. He enjoyed ranching and working with his land and began to spend more and more time there. Eventually, he moved the family back to Kingsland.

And that is when “the ship came in” for Shirley and Ellen Williams.

In 1948, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) began construction on the new Granite Shoals Dam (now Alvin Wirtz Dam), and the Shirley Williams Ranch turned into three-and-a-half miles of prime lakefront property. Shirley didn’t quit working, but he never again had to worry about “chopping cotton” to earn his living. For the next 25 years, he indulged his active imagination, ran his business the way he wanted to, showed kindness to neighbors and strangers, and helped shape a burgeoning community around the tiny village where he had grown up.

One of his ideas may have been a little ahead of its time; way back in 1959, he built the Shirley Williams Airport on part of his ranch. He envisioned a place where airplane owners could live between the runway and the lake, enjoying easy access to his still-secluded lakeside paradise. An article in The Llano News said, “The landing strip has been so placed that a lot owner can land and taxi his plane directly onto his waterfront homesite.” It was years before he sold the first lot there, and it has been only recently that the idea has really seemed to catch on.

Shirley’s grandson, local contractor Danny Williams, recalled a firm but loving grandfather and a relaxed sort of businessman who sold lots for next-to-nothing down without any kind of contract. “His pickup was his office; he’d make a handshake deal for a lakefront lot, pound sticks into the ground to mark it, and write the terms in his ledger. Every month, he’d drive around and collect payments.”

Of course, not everything went exactly as planned. While moving dirt on a lakefront lot in 1960 with his Caterpillar D-6 bulldozer, he accidentally slid down an incline into the lake. He was able to extricate himself and swim to safety, but his bulldozer settled under 18 feet of water. The retrieval of the bulldozer made news all around Texas (and even in a national sporting magazine) as “the largest yellow cat ever pulled out of Granite Shoals Lake.”

According to another grandson, Dee Williams, “He was taxiing an airplane, and made a turn too close to a mesquite tree. He only dinged the wingtip, but when he attempted to get back on the airstrip, he hit the same tree with the rear (the elevator). The wings and empennage were only slightly damaged. I think it was enough to require an A&P mechanic and inspection, but the wings were intact.”

In 1961, Shirley Williams served as chairman of the North Colorado River Road Improvement Association, raising money to pave the road from FM 1431 to his ranch (it eventually became RR 2545, extending to the Lakewood Forest III subdivision).

In 1962, he donated land near the entrance of his ranch to build an American Legion hall, a building which became the venue for many community events and the headquarters for one of the largest American Legion chapters in the state. Throughout the ‘60s, he and Ellen remained very active in community affairs, even as he continued ranching and selling lots. His standard ad in The Llano News offered “Waterfront Lots on Granite Shoals Lake and Registered Angus Cattle.” He continued to refer to the lake as “Granite Shoals,” long after the name had been officially changed to “Lake Lyndon B. Johnson” in 1965. The ads ran consistently until the Fall of 1975.

Shirley Williams died, after a short illness, on March 4, 1976. His funeral was reportedly the largest in Kingsland’s history. He and Ellen left a rich legacy; many of their descendants live in and around Kingsland, their names are on area maps and street signs, and many of the effects of their hard work and imagination will live on through Kingsland’s history. Perhaps the most fitting tribute came from the American Legion in March of 1974, when Shirley and Ellen Williams were honored with a gold plaque. The report in The Llano News says, “They deserve the best for making this organization possible” and adds, “They are real examples of the TRUE AMERICAN TYPE OF PEOPLE.”

Lake LBJ and the Rebirth of Kingsland, Chapter 4: Shirley Williams

Photo: The old ranch house at Shirley Williams’ Colorado River ranch, later renovated as a family gathering place on the scenic property near the lake.

Sometime during their stay in Llano, Shirley inherited a large ranch along the west bank of the Colorado River, just north of Kingsland. He enjoyed ranching and working with his land and began to spend more and more time there. Eventually, he moved the family back to Kingsland.

And that is when “the ship came in” for Shirley and Ellen Williams.

In 1948, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) began construction on the new Granite Shoals Dam (now Alvin Wirtz Dam), and the Shirley Williams Ranch turned into three-and-a-half miles of prime lakefront property. Shirley didn’t quit working, but he never again had to worry about “chopping cotton” to earn his living. For the next 25 years, he indulged his active imagination, ran his business the way he wanted to, showed kindness to neighbors and strangers, and helped shape a burgeoning community around the tiny village where he had grown up.

One of his ideas may have been a little ahead of its time; way back in 1959, he built the Shirley Williams Airport on part of his ranch. He envisioned a place where airplane owners could live between the runway and the lake, enjoying easy access to his still-secluded lakeside paradise. An article in The Llano News said, “The landing strip has been so placed that a lot owner can land and taxi his plane directly onto his waterfront homesite.” It was years before he sold the first lot there, and it has been only recently that the idea has really seemed to catch on.

Shirley’s grandson, local contractor Danny Williams, recalled a firm but loving grandfather and a relaxed sort of businessman who sold lots for next-to-nothing down without any kind of contract. “His pickup was his office; he’d make a handshake deal for a lakefront lot, pound sticks into the ground to mark it, and write the terms in his ledger. Every month, he’d drive around and collect payments.”

Of course, not everything went exactly as planned. While moving dirt on a lakefront lot in 1960 with his Caterpillar D-6 bulldozer, he accidentally slid down an incline into the lake. He was able to extricate himself and swim to safety, but his bulldozer settled under 18 feet of water. The retrieval of the bulldozer made news all around Texas (and even in a national sporting magazine) as “the largest yellow cat ever pulled out of Granite Shoals Lake.”

According to another grandson, Dee Williams, “He was taxiing an airplane, and made a turn too close to a mesquite tree. He only dinged the wingtip, but when he attempted to get back on the airstrip, he hit the same tree with the rear (the elevator). The wings and empennage were only slightly damaged. I think it was enough to require an A&P mechanic and inspection, but the wings were intact.”

In 1961, Shirley Williams served as chairman of the North Colorado River Road Improvement Association, raising money to pave the road from FM 1431 to his ranch (it eventually became RR 2545, extending to the Lakewood Forest III subdivision).

In 1962, he donated land near the entrance of his ranch to build an American Legion hall, a building which became the venue for many community events and the headquarters for one of the largest American Legion chapters in the state. Throughout the ‘60s, he and Ellen remained very active in community affairs, even as he continued ranching and selling lots. His standard ad in The Llano News offered “Waterfront Lots on Granite Shoals Lake and Registered Angus Cattle.” He continued to refer to the lake as “Granite Shoals,” long after the name had been officially changed to “Lake Lyndon B. Johnson” in 1965. The ads ran consistently until the Fall of 1975.

Shirley Williams died, after a short illness, on March 4, 1976. His funeral was reportedly the largest in Kingsland’s history. He and Ellen left a rich legacy; many of their descendants live in and around Kingsland, their names are on area maps and street signs, and many of the effects of their hard work and imagination will live on through Kingsland’s history. Perhaps the most fitting tribute came from the American Legion in March of 1974, when Shirley and Ellen Williams were honored with a gold plaque. The report in The Llano News says, “They deserve the best for making this organization possible” and adds, “They are real examples of the TRUE AMERICAN TYPE OF PEOPLE.”

Read chapter one here, chapter two here, and chapter three here.