Lake LBJ and the Rebirth of Kingsland: 1951-1970, Chapter One

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Tony Maples Photography


One of the reasons this book is called “Re-Birth” is that Kingsland had a rich history long before Lake LBJ was formed. Archaeological evidence shows that for thousands of years before Martin King bequeathed his name to the scenic valley, Native Americans had regularly visited the banks of the Llano and Colorado Rivers. A Spanish explorer named Bernardo de Miranda led a party of 23 treasure-hunters down the Llano River to “Kingsland” in 1756, and through the years intermittent attempts were made by miners to find gold, silver and iron in the Kingsland area.  Most of the miners found only Comanche warriors, and for more than a century the rugged hills and fierce inhabitants kept all but the most adventurous away from this remarkable place “where rivers flow and bluebonnets grow.”

The Texas Hill Country experienced a flood of pioneers in the 1850s and again, after the Civil War, in the 1870s. Small settlements sprang up quite close to the junction of the two rivers, including Hoover’s Valley to the north, Wolf’s Crossing to the east and Packsaddle (also called Gainesville or Buzzard’s Roost) to the west. After a famous battle with Comanches on Packsaddle Mountain in 1873, there were no major Indian depredations, but it was 1877 before the beautiful valley was claimed.

Lake LBJ and the Rebirth of Kingsland: 1951-1970, Chapter One

Photo: John Hallowell

In her book, “Families of Early Kingsland,” Muriel Barnett Jackson tells how Civil War veteran Martin Daniel King and his wife, Nancy Jane (Trussell) left Mississippi for Texas after the war with their three children and a herd of cattle. They eventually settled in Hoover’s Valley, but “when he spied the beautiful land in the cove where the Llano River meets the Colorado,” he dreamed of establishing a town there.

King and his brother-in-law, James Trussell, formed a partnership, bought the land, and began clearing in preparation for building a town. But King himself would not live to see his dream come true; he died in 1883 from injuries suffered two decades earlier during the war. His very capable wife, Nancy Jane, carried on her husband’s dream, forming Pacific Survey Company in 1884 to lay out streets for the town she called “Kingsville.” There were soon forty people living there in fifteen crude houses, served by a small store and a saloon. The first school was a rough log building. A post office was established in 1885, and a new two-story school was built that year. Sixteen-year-old Mary Margaret Loe was the first teacher at the new school.

Lake LBJ and the Rebirth of Kingsland: 1951-1970, Chapter One

Photo: The Antlers Hotel, completed in 1901

In 1886, a merchant named William Kenneth Murchison built a large rock building for his mercantile store. After it burned in 1890, it was rebuilt by newcomer John Franklin Banks, who ran a store of his own there for many years. Banks was an ambitious man who wanted the planned railroad to come through Kingsland. He is credited with purchasing the store, cotton gin and blacksmith’s shop which comprised the business district of rival Packsaddle, and moving them to Kingsville. W. H. Altman sold several lots to the Austin and North West Rail Road; a bridge and track (on its way to Llano) were built in 1892.

Banks’ foresightedness paid off enormously for the tiny town. Kingsville’s climate and scenery, along with its excellent hunting and fishing opportunities, turned it into a tourist mecca almost as soon as the railroad arrived. Excursion trains from Austin brought vacationers and cattlemen to the new “hot spot,” and soon the town was known for its live music, dancing, carnivals and shows. The town’s popularity drew attention from the postal service, since another town already had chosen that name. In 1893, Nancy Jane’s town became Kingsland.

With the arrival of the railroad, Kingsland rapidly became a center of commerce for a large surrounding area. Shipping pens were built near the tracks, serving hog and cattle raisers for miles around. A “lock” was built across the Colorado River near the railroad bridge, creating a small lake; a “boom” on the lock lifted cedar logs that were floated down the river for shipment to Austin. Many new businesses had arrived by the turn of the century; Campa Pajama was a popular resort, and the A&NWRR built a fine hotel called The Antlers, complete with annexes and riverside camping facilities. Kingsland had several stores, two barber shops, two blacksmith shops, two cotton gins – even two weekly newspapers, the Kodak and the Rustler. There was also a busy meat market and a flourishing “granite shed,” run by stonecutter Henry Benton. Four local churches were built, and the Baptists, Methodists, Christians and Pentecostals held joint two-week camp meetings each summer. The King family installed telephone lines in Kingsland shortly after the turn of the century. The town’s population had reached 750 by 1907; a plat filed at the Llano County courthouse shows eight named streets running north and south, and five named streets running east and west.

Mary Margaret Loe was still teaching school in 1910, but by that time she had married Albert Williams, and five of the approximately 60 students at the Kingsland school were her own children. One of her sons, Shirley Williams, would play an important part in Kingsland’s history from 1930 to 1975. Some of her great grandchildren live in the Kingsland area today.

Lake LBJ and the Rebirth of Kingsland: 1951-1970, Chapter One

Photo: The fatal train wreck of 1919 symbolized the end of Kingsland’s railroad-based heyday

It was the advent of the automobile that ended Kingsland’s golden era; by 1913, cars had replaced the train as America’s favorite way to travel (although the first car didn’t arrive in Kingsland until 1915), and the Antlers Hotel was sold. A one-lane “wagon bridge” was built next to the railroad bridge across the Colorado River in 1914, and a new “Kingsland High School” (serving grades 1 through 11) was built in 1917, but Kingsland’s tourist industry faded away. As if signaling the beginning of the end for Kingsland’s railroads, a train came off the tracks at “Harwell Shoals, across the river at the rock quarry” in 1919. The ensuing wreck killed the engineer and shocked the town.

While the nation’s economy boomed through the 1920s, Kingsland’s economy nearly shut down. The hills and rivers that made Kingsland such an attractive place also made it almost inaccessible by road; rough, steep and winding one-lane dirt roads, interrupted by numerous gates, were the only ways in or out of Kingsland, and the road west to Llano was often made impassable by rising water in the Llano River. To get supplies, most Kingsland residents had to take the old “Fort Mason Crossing” (named for the military route from Burnet’s Fort Croghan to Fort Mason around 1850) north of town and travel the rough road across Backbone Ridge to Burnet. Tourists found it easier to reach other towns, located on the major highways. Most of Kingsland’s businesses, including Campa Pajama and the Antlers Hotel, were closed, and a fire destroyed most of the old buildings in 1922. The Antlers Hotel was purchased by Thomas Barrow in 1923 for use as a family retreat, and Kingsland’s population dropped to just 150 in 1925.

Muriel Barnett Jackson, who was born in Kingsland in 1910 and spent summers at her grandparents’ home there during her growing-up years, recalls hard times but good lives during those years. “People were poor, but didn’t know it,” she wrote decades later. “The whole town was like one big family. Most everyone owned their home and a little plot of land. Everybody had a cow and chickens and a hog to butcher in the winter; everybody had a garden and a few fruit trees. The rivers were full of fish, and the woods were full of deer, cotton tail rabbits, dove, quail and wild turkeys. Everyone shared, and nobody went hungry. Our entertainment was simple, but fun; Sunday School and church on Sundays, community singings, box suppers, play parties and an occasional dance at someone’s house who wasn’t a regular church-goer. We had picnics on the slab, we had ice cream suppers and watermelon parties; we went swimming and rode horses out at the Murchison Ranch. We often ran races and sometimes we had goat ropings.”

And it wasn’t all bad news; Mrs. Myrtle Wood, who was principal of Kingsland High School from 1923 to 1925, made it one of the best schools around, and brought cooking utensils and woodworking tools from home to teach home economics and shop classes. According to a letter published in the Burnet Bulletin in 1928, Kingsland still boasted “two business houses, a telephone office, three filling stations, two barber shops, a dance hall, a blacksmith shop and a ‘patent medicine’ drug store.” A road to Marble Falls had been built with donations from business owners in the two towns, and the letter reported that “several wagonloads of chickens from this community were shipped to Marble Falls last Wednesday.” Also, 200 railcar loads of gravel had been shipped by rail from a local gravel pit in the previous month. A 14-member 4-H Club was formed in Kingsland in 1933. County Commissioner Shirley Williams built the first “slab” across the Llano River after a flood washed the old “viaduct” away, making transportation to Llano a lot more predictable (but still interrupted regularly by high water). The construction of Buchanan Dam and Inks Dam provided work during the mid-thirties, and Kingsland enjoyed a brief period of prosperity; school enrollment grew with the arrival of itinerant workers and their families.

But when those dams were completed in 1937, most of the workers left; Kingsland was nearly a ghost town by the 1940s. Many of the young men who still lived here went off to fight in World War II; Llano County’s first casualty of the war was Roger Barnett of Kingsland (he had been aboard the U.S.S. Houston, which was sunk in a valiant attempt to stop the Japanese invasion of Java on February 28, 1942). Kingsland’s shrunken school system was consolidated with Llano’s in 1948; the once-proud “Kingsland High School” was torn down the following year. By then, the “business district” consisted mostly of a combination post office, store and filling station, and only about a dozen houses marked the location of the once-booming resort town.

Lake LBJ and the Rebirth of Kingsland: 1951-1970, Chapter One

Photo: This inset from a Llano County map (probably not precisely accurate) shows just a few remaining buildings in the late 1930s. The Colorado River is indicated at the top of the map; the Llano River is barely visible at the bottom.

Throughout those lean years, Kingsland was almost totally isolated from the outside world. Although the freight trains still came through Kingsland almost every day (the train would slow down and a crew member would throw a mail sack onto the street next to the depot), a trip to or from any other town was a long ordeal.

At the end of the 1940s construction began on a new dam across the Colorado River, and land speculators began to buy family ranches around the proposed lake. The creation of Granite Shoals Lake (now Lake LBJ) in 1951 marked a turning point for Kingsland. Euel Moore was elected county commissioner in 1950; he presided over the beginnings of Kingsland’s growth, and built one of Kingsland’s major streets (named “Euel Moore Drive”) along the lake’s Llano River arm. New fishing camps were built along the shore of the lake, followed soon by vacation cabins and retirement homes. Farm-to-Market Road 93 (now SH 71) provided access to the south side of the lake in 1954, and Farm-to-Market Road 1431 made access to the north side much easier in 1958.

As building activity increased in Kingsland, businesses from other towns began to take notice. Stein Lumber, from Fredericksburg, became the first major new business in Kingsland for decades when it opened a lumberyard a couple of miles west of “downtown” in 1958. Several business owners from Llano opened branches of their companies in Kingsland (or moved there completely) as the decade came to a close. About 40 business owners met in May of 1959 to form the “Kingsland Boosters.” Their stated goal was to “put Kingsland on the map;” one of their first actions was to put signs on the highways, pointing the way to Kingsland.

The Wood and Williams families developed parts of their ranches; other family ranches along the lake were sold and subdivided into lots. Ranch owner Shirley Williams, who developed his ranch piece-by-piece, built an air strip near the Colorado River Arm of the lake in 1959. A tireless promoter named Odie Ainsworth opened a real estate office in Kingsland in 1959 (he had previously lived in Kingsland while working in Buchanan Dam; he opened the “Granite Shoals Lakeshores” subdivision in 1956), offering lake lots at affordable prices to city folks and military personnel. Ainsworth was a partner in the new “Kingsland Estates” subdivision, which included another air strip on the Llano River Arm of the lake, and one of the first buyers was none other than Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson. Senator Johnson, who was then the Majority Leader in the U.S. Senate and a prospective candidate for president. LBJ had been very much involved in the building of the Highland Lakes dams and would become Kingsland’s “most notable neighbor.”

Up until 1958, there was very little news coverage of anything in Kingsland; the town was too small to support its own newspaper, and papers from the neighboring towns didn’t pay much attention – until Kingsland began to grow in the late 1950s. By 1960, there were regular reports from Kingsland in the Marble Falls Highlander and The Llano News; much of the information in this book is from the archives of those two newspapers. Interviews with Kingsland old-timers add a personal perspective here and there; we hope the combination will give you an accurate and interesting picture of an exciting decade in Kingsland’s history.

Read chapter two at this link!