Behind the Lines
On a warm March morning we went looking for the grave of my great-great-grandmother Nancy Daugherty. My mother had visited the grave more than 40 years before, and remembered only that it was near the capitol and that a small iron fence encircled the plot. We found the grave amid bluebonnets and ivy in Oakwood Cemetery. Nancy Daugherty had been 40 years old when she died in childbirth in 1867. Her parents had come here from Tennessee with Stephen F. Austin, and she had lived in Texas all her life. After her death her husband, as often happened in those days when women lived short, care-worn lives, married again and moved to the zinc mines of southern Missouri, where he raised another family. The burial plot is empty except for the grave of Nancy Daugherty and a small marker for the daughter who died with her. The iron fence my mother remembered is long since rusted and gone, and the plot is bordered only by a low limestone curb.
The Austin of Nancy Daugherty’s time is disappearing much more rapidly than did the iron fence of her grave, beset as it was only by the natural deterioration of atmosphere and time. That same afternoon we watched the destruction of the Hunnicutt House, a magnificent limestone mansion built in 1870, three years after Nancy Daugherty’s death. The Hunnicutt House was destroyed, as have been more than twenty historic Austin houses in the past ten years, by a breed of Texans unmindful of heritage or beauty, and untouched by any of the civilizing influences of the past or by any inspiration of the future.
Austin is being transformed, inexorably it seems, into just another tasteless 20th-century wasteland, fit only for the empty materialism of a single generation and worthy after such mediocrity only to be destroyed again. The perpetrators of such destruction are New Barbarians. In the case of the Hunnicutt House these barbarians, ironically enough, are the board members of the Central Christian Church, who watched century-old molding, glass, and cut limestone being razed to provide the church with a larger playground and a parking lot. In the case of other historic Austin dwellings destroyed by developers and speculators, mere greed is sufficient motive. Such a straightforward materialism cannot be ascribed to the church, which resisted all attempts to save the house, including offers by Austin’s Heritage Society to remodel it for a classroom building and to build a parking lot, both at no cost to the church. In the case of the Hunnicutt House, the motive was pure and simple Barbarism, the same mindless destruction that burned Rome, destroyed ancient Alexandria, and has leveled all the historic buildings in central London with the exception of Saint Paul’s Cathedral.
There are in history countless examples of new civilizations being built upon the ruins of old. Saint Paul’s itself was erected on the destruction of an older London, and excavations in other European cities like Barcelona have unearthed layer upon layer of previous structures underlying the current urban landscapes. But what are we installing as our monument upon the destruction of our past? Parking lots, mainly, but also tasteless office buildings, fast-food franchises, apartments, used car lots. I wonder what my great-great-grandson will find to remind him of my Austin, what structures will still stand as a link with my generation and its values. Will it be a McDonald’s? A parking lot? The Central Christian Church? I have no anger for people who can only destroy, who see progress in asphalt, whose souls reflect nothing of what Texas was or could be. I can only think with some sadness of Nancy Daugherty. Soon only her tombstone will be all that remains of her Austin. My tombstone will be all I want to remain of mine.
If the reader feels I rail too shrilly against “progress” and the pell-mell destruction of Texas heritage, I recommend he turn to “Living with the Land”, an excerpt from Hard Scrabble. Observations on a Patch of Land, a thoughtful, amusing, and moving book by John Graves to be published in mid-June. In Goodbye to a River, his deservedly-acclaimed earlier book, Graves used the impending destruction of a stretch of the Brazos River as the ominous backdrop for a canoe trip through a region of Texas suffused with its own history and traditions. Unlike the character and past of our cities, which can be observed through the structures man places in them, the human legacy of the land is not so accessible to the casual eye.
Hard Scrabble is many things on many levels, as good books usually are. The chapter we reproduce here is the final one, Graves’ musings on what he has wrought of the land and what the land has wrought of him. Elsewhere in the book he observes that a man truly owns something only if he owns it in his head. A nuclear reactor is scheduled for construction near Graves’ place, and the same inexorable rush of a dubious civilization that destroyed the Hunnicutt House may be oozing around the rough and inhospitable land that Graves has laboriously reclaimed from its prior extinction at the hands of cotton farmers and cattle ranchers. His book offers unique insight into how a man goes about owning something of the past and something of his own present, “in his head,” and will be of interest to anyone interested in Texas, in its heritage, and in the place of man amid nature and civilization.
In some circles it is considered bad form for the editor to write articles, there being no one above him to ruthlessly prune indulgences in prose and correct flights of fancy and poor reasoning. I must beg some dispensation from this unwritten rule of journalism, and draw if only briefly the reader’s attention to “How First National Passed Republic.” Coauthor of this article about the sweeping changes in the Texas economy and the people bringing it about is Alex Sheshunoff, head of Sheshunoff and Company, an Austin-based firm specializing in bank stocks. Alex has the investment consultant’s sense of the progress of institutions and was a willing and helpful collaborator.