The Hill Country Offers a Historical Treasure Trove

As one drives up into the Texas Hill Country, the scenic views and the atmosphere throughout signal how special a place it is to Texans and visitors from around the world. And it’s been a fascinating locale since time immemorial.

Situated at what is considered the border between the American Southeast and Southwest, the area shows signs of human habitation going back 10,000 years. Its thousands of springs and naturally fertile land attracted Native Americans, who made good use of a local stone, Edwards Chert, aka flint, for arrowheads, knives, diggers and the like. That stone was also called “pedernales” – later a name given to a Hill Country river – by the Spanish who were the first Europeans to venture into the region searching for silver which they never found, though the legend of the “Lost San Saba Mine” still persists. In the 1700s they also established a mission near what is now the town of Menard, hoping to “civilize” the Apaches who lived thereabouts.

To no avail, as in the many years to follow the Apaches and Comanches rubbed up against settlement by whites even into the 20th Century. In the 1840s an influx of German immigrants and Southern American mountaineers began to pioneer the Hill Country. During the Civil War the local Germans were staunchly pro-Union holdouts to Texan secession into the Confederacy.

In many ways the area remained a frontier up through the 1930s, when the building of dams along the Colorado River began in ‘31 with the start of the construction of Buchanan Dam. The private company that began the project went bankrupt in the Great Depression, leaving the dam partway built. The State of Texas stepped in by starting the Lower Colorado River Authority in 1934 to complete it, aided by New Deal recovery funds from the Works Project Administration.

Inks Dam followed in ‘38 and then the Mansfield Dam three years later. All three generated hydroelectric power that brought electricity to the Hill Country and helped nudge the area into modernity. Three more later dams finalized the six Highland Lakes that are the region’s aquatic crown jewels.

The Hill Country community has also made its significant contributions to America’s national history. Our 36th president, Lyndon B. Johnson, was born in a small farmhouse near Stonewall on the Pedernales River and grew up in nearby Johnson City, named after his cousin, James Polk Johnson. Much of the rest of the nation got its first taste of Hill Country living on the TV news when his LBJ Ranch in Stonewall became known as the “Texas White House” he would retreat to from Washington. There’s likely no more eloquent description of the area than the opening of the book “The Path to Power,” the first edition of Robert A. Caro’s monumental four-part LBJ biography.

Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander-in-chief of the Pacific area theater in World War II, was born and raised in Fredericksburg, home today to the National Museum of the Pacific War. Within it is the Admiral Nimitz Museum, housed in what was the Nimitz Hotel, built by the famed naval officer’s grandfather, Charles Henry Nimitz, in 1852. It was locally known as the Steamboat Hotel, as part of the structure resembles the bow and upper decks of a ship.

The Hill Country also made its mark on country music history with the 1977 #1 hit, “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love),” which became a signature song of the “Outlaw” movement. Four years earlier, singer-songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker had recorded his ¡Viva Terlingua! album, a seminal record in the era’s Austin progressive country scene, at the Luckenbach dance hall. The tiny, privately-owned town southeast of Fredericksburg is today a popular tourist and music fan destination. Around its general store and bar – built sometime in the mid-to-late-1800s (the exact date is disputed) – one generally finds people enjoying such favorite Texas pastimes as playing dominos and pitching washers along with singers picking their guitars. On weekends the dancehall hosts concerts.

Most everywhere you look there’s rich nuggets of history and local lore to be discovered, explored and savored, even underneath the surface. The Hill Country boasts numerous caverns and more than 3,000 known caves. Longhorn Cavern, just south of Burnet, has alternately served as a Comanche haven and flint source, a gunpowder factory for Confederate munitions during the Civil War, outlaw Sam Bass’s hideout, dancehall, nightclub, theater and restaurant. Legend has it that at times it was a den for such illegal activities as a speakeasy during Prohibition and a gambling casino.

The above is just a few of the historical highlights among many. Today the area is the center of the booming Texas wine industry, the second-most popular retirement destination in the nation (behind Florida), and dotted with classic old-school small Texas towns redolent with the past, resorts, ranches, golf courses, parks, rivers and much more. You can live your whole life in the Hill Country and always find and learn about new historical facts and features that make it so distinctive.