History

Uvalde: The Texas Hill Country City That Grew Out of Its Wild Oats

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A legendary “wild west” town in the Texas Hill Country, if there ever was one, is the town of Uvalde. Situated in the southwest corner of the region, the town was previously known for its outlaws in its early years, but turned itself around to become an upstanding, well-established locale, producing much more positive role models beginning in the 20th century. The area’s recorded history commenced around 1718, and the establishment of San Antonio. This marked the beginning of traders, prospectors, hunters, and Spanish soldiers frequently crossing through the region.

Uvalde: The Texas Hill Country City That Grew Out Of Its Wild Oats

Photo: Wikimedia

After a failed attempt at establishing a mission in the area, and a strategic defeat of an army of Apaches northeast of where present-day Uvalde now sits, it would be approximately another 50 years before the famous scout, Jose Pollicarpo “Polly” Rodriguez” would mark a trail through the area to El Paso, and Fort Inge would be built just one mile south of what would be modern-day Uvalde’s city center. Roughly four years later, a young man by the name of Reading W. Black purchased 4,650 acres and constructed his home approximately one mile north of the fort, and in 1855, to lay out what he foresaw as a city called Encina, he hired a surveyor from San Antonio, and plotted out his piece of this “wild west”. The surveyor did as he was asked, and surveyed four plazas together with streets as wide as 100 feet at what would be the city center. Following that, a few more settlers arrived, and eventually, a store, a gristmill, and a blacksmith shop were established. One year later, a new county was formed, and the town of Encina changed its name to Uvalde (a variation on “Ugalde,” in reference to Governor Juan de Ugalde, who led the defeat of the Apaches more than 50 years prior). It became the county seat, and a post office was established in 1857.

Uvalde: The Texas Hill Country City That Grew Out Of Its Wild Oats

Photo: Wikipedia

From this point on, for a period of approximately 30 years, Uvalde was recognized as one of the roughest and most unruly of any western town. Much of its early settlers were slain in Comanche attacks, and in its outlying areas, a safe haven for outlaws developed. Add to that, the threat of intermittent battles with Mexico as well as the abandonment of Fort Inge during the Civil War, and Uvalde’s dangers were quickly adding up. County voters had vehemently opposed secession and the bitterness between sympathizers from both sides of the Civil War continued well after it was over. Town founder, Reading Black, had become a representative in the Texas legislature and was assassinated in 1867. It was so bad (“How bad was it?!”), that the tax assessor and collector had to be protected by armed guards, and the county went without a sheriff for at least two years because of its reputation. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the punchline to a bad joke. For lack of anything better, the acting sheriff in 1873 was a murderous outlaw by the name of King Fisher.

Uvalde: The Texas Hill Country City That Grew Out Of Its Wild Oats

Photo: Wikimedia

What might have pulled Uvalde from this mire was a link to the outside world in 1881 when the Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railway made its way through, and a boom period hit. Within seven years, the town became incorporated, and by 1890, Uvalde had grown to 2,000 residents. It was then that John Nance Garner arrived in Uvalde and ran for the office of county judge in 1893. His opponent: one Mariette Rheiner, a rancher’s daughter, and the future Mrs. Garner. They married in 1895. With Garner came prosperity for Uvalde. He was elected to Congress in 1903 and became Speaker of the House in 1931. At the same time, Uvalde grew and became prosperous. New railways were constructed to Crystal City and Camp Wood, and by 1940, there were several churches, approximately 200 businesses, a population of more than 5,000, and wonderful neighborhoods, school systems, and a tourism support network of large hotels. A beautiful opera house was constructed, and a fairground facility featuring a race track and stables came next. Tourism had become one of the prime industries for Uvalde, and Garner State Park opened north of the city in 1941, while in the same year, Garner Army Air Field also opened. Now an established and respectable town, the local economy was mainly built on agriculture, producing pecans, mohair, and honey among others.

Uvalde: The Texas Hill Country City That Grew Out Of Its Wild Oats

Photo: Wikimedia

Continuing to grow through the last half of the 1900s, Uvalde had the guidance and support of Dolph Briscoe. Briscoe was a hometown boy. A Uvalde High School valedictorian, he went on to eventually become the governor of Texas from 1973 to 1979. An enormously successful rancher and businessman, Governor Briscoe became the largest single landowner in the Lone Star State and served on the board for the First State Band of Uvalde as chairman, while his numerous charitable duties included local projects such as the renovation of Uvalde’s Grand Opera House.

Uvalde: The Texas Hill Country City That Grew Out Of Its Wild Oats

Photo: Facebook/Vintage History

Today, Uvalde is a thriving community with over 15,000 inhabitants. It continues to produce some greats (such as Matthew McConaughey) and grow in its tourism and natural appeal. There’s a large variety of dining, accommodation, and shopping options together with numerous museums, as well as recreational opportunities to be had at Garner State Park, Kickapoo Caverns State Natural Area, and Lost Maples State Natural Area. Hunting, horseback riding, tubing, and birding are some great pastimes to be taken advantage of locally. Other features include the Janey Slaughter Briscoe Grand Opera House and the John Nance Garner Museum as well as the 18-hole Uvalde Memorial Golf Course. Coming a long way from its wild and wooly days, and growing into a responsible, upstanding Texas Hill Country city, Uvalde has a lot to offer in comparison to its lawless beginnings and trappings of the infamous “wild west.”