Today, expensive homes dot the hills west of Austin, but there was a time not so long ago when the same rugged terrain was ruled by an infamous clan of rough characters known as the cedar choppers.
Austin native Ken Roberts was ten or eleven the first time he encountered the children of cedar choppers in the fifties, at a low-water crossing of the Colorado River below Tom Miller Dam. “I remember how different from us they looked,” he writes in the introduction to his book, The Cedar Choppers: On the Edge of Nothing. “They were barefoot, their pants were too short, their shirts ragged. These were not kids you would see in Austin.”
During Roberts’s childhood, respectable townspeople avoided the highlands west of town, where reclusive folks lived hard and free along the Balcones Escarpment, the geological fault zone marking the eastern fringe of the Hill Country. The boys who’d come down from the hills set Roberts on edge. When one of them confronted him with a club, he ran.
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“Who are these people?” he wondered.
Roberts, a retired economics professor from Southwestern University in Georgetown, aptly answers that question in The Cedar Choppers, released in paperback on August 20. The new edition follows three hardback printings from Texas A&M University Press. That’s an impressive run for a title from an academic press that came out less than a year and a half ago. Largely based on oral histories and newspaper archives, the book’s success perhaps attests to some Central Texans’ fascination with the people they replaced: a marginalized yet proudly independent band of Southern whites whose lineage Roberts traces to a Scots-Irish “warrior culture” from the British Isles.
The clan that would come to be known as the cedar choppers first settled in Appalachia before moving west through the Ozarks, then into Central Texas following the Civil War. Hill Country farmers quickly depleted the region’s thin topsoil, and most of them moved on to greener pastures as shrubby juniper replaced native grasses along the disturbed rocky slopes. But the cedar choppers didn’t have much to begin with, so they hunkered down. For generations, they eked out a meager existence hunting, fishing, distilling moonshine, and cutting cedar, some of which they burned to make and sell as charcoal.
As the cedar choppers further withdrew from society, they became ever more clannish. Folklorist Alan Lomax encountered cedar chopper families in the thirties and recorded them singing traditional English ballads like “The Romish Lady” and “Seven Long Years.” They had their own manner of speaking, distinct from their fellow Texans, and lived by a code that prized freedom and personal honor. “There was a lot of murder going on,” Roberts said during a recent interview, “but they wouldn’t steal.”
The cedar choppers’ fortunes turned as ranches began to replace farms in agrarian Texas. Unlike corn or cotton, cattle required fences to keep them from roaming free. Cedar was in high demand for fenceposts, which the hill people hauled into towns where they commanded top dollar. By the forties, Roberts said, the once-impoverished cedar choppers were flush with cash. “They were making more money than any working man in the city. That’s just astounding to me,” Roberts says. “They could make $25 a day when $25 a week would be your average wage.”
Cedar choppers didn’t use their riches to improve their lot in life, however. Living in big families, they often had little formal education and rarely owned much land. “They didn’t care about possessions,” Roberts says, “and they lived in housing fit for animals.”
They swung their axes throughout the Hill Country. Old-timers from Leakey to Wimberley still tell stories about the cedar choppers, many involving violence and booze. One descendant interviewed by Roberts recalled rowdy Saturday nights in Junction, where he saw three fights happening at once, his father in the middle of the melee. “Yeah, my daddy—hell, he’d get on a mule and ride ten miles to get in a fistfight,” the man told Roberts. Cedar choppers also played a starring role in one of Texas Monthly’s most outrageous stories, by the legendary Gary Cartwright, about a caper involving a dog fight.
But nowhere did the largely nineteenth-century world of the cedar choppers collide with proper society more forcefully than in Austin, where life revolved around the state Capitol and the University of Texas. When they arrived with cedar posts in tow and started drinking on Sixth Street in the forties and fifties, they shocked and threatened middle-class residents, according to Roberts. “I didn’t know what to make of them when they first came,” he says.
The men were filthy from tree sap that stuck to their skin and mingled with sweat and dust from the cedar bark. Chopping cedar was back-breaking work and also quite dangerous, which seemed to contribute to their devil-may-care attitude toward safety and personal hygiene. “They lived like hell and played like hell,” Roberts recalls. “They weren’t ashamed of it.” And if you looked down on them, he adds, they’d kick your butt.
Heading into the sixties, though, the term “cedar chopper” became a catch-all pejorative for the region’s hillbillies, not unlike Okies in California or crackers in Georgia. Today, the term would probably be “white trash” or “redneck.” Newspaper articles in Central Texas took to labeling cedar choppers in the same way they identified African Americans and Hispanics, as in “Cedar Chopper Pleads Guilty.” Austin’s elites—despite their fear, or perhaps because of it—responded to the undesirable presence of cedar choppers with derision and ridicule. One country club hosted a “Hill Country Cedar Chopper”-themed dance replete with hillbilly costumes and fake beards.
Of course, the cedar choppers’ heyday couldn’t last. When chainsaws replaced double-bladed axes, nearly anybody was able to cut down cedar with relative ease. Even more ruinous was the arrival of steel T-posts. Imported from Japan, the metal fenceposts quickly replaced cedar used to hold up most ranches’ barbed-wire fences.
Technology had put nearly all the cedar choppers out of business. Today, only a few live alongside the vacationers, retirees, and ranchette owners who predominate in the Hill Country.
During Roberts’s career at Southwestern University, he researched the effects of economic change on marginalized rural people in Mexico and then in China, so it makes sense that he would turn his attention to the marginalized folks closer to home in his retirement. Roberts still marvels at the hardy people who emerged from the hills when he was a boy.
“It’s like they were from another country, another language, another culture,” he says. “And only people who live along the Balcones Fault know who the hell they were. Nobody else does.”