Life in the middle of Zilker Park

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Life in the middle of Zilker Park

Before the advent of weather radar, when Barton Creek flooded, advance word came to Zilker Park from the Johnson trading post in Bee Cave.

"Mr. Johnson lived up there on Barton Creek," says former Zilker Park caretaker Jack Robinson, whose dad also served in that role for almost 30 years. "And any time he had a heavy rain, he'd call my father. He'd say: ‘Buster, you better pull the gates. That pool's going to flood.' "

The Robinsons, father and son, had plenty of chances to open those gates protecting Barton Springs Pool. Jack Robinson lived above the springs with his family in the Zilker Park Caretaker's Cottage fairly steadily from the 1930s until the early 1970s. At least two other families later raised children there.

You didn't know about a residential cottage deep inside Zilker Park? You're not alone. For years, it has been hidden behind fences and bamboo near the playground above Barton Springs next to the Zilker Zephyr tracks. In 2010, the last resident park manager locked the door behind him, and Austin parks leaders tossed around ideas about its future use.

"I'm a native Austinite, and I never heard of it," says Kim McKnight, who is surveying historical structures for the city's park system. "I had been coming to the park my whole life, and I didn't know this little cottage was here."

Soon, the house will reopen as the Park Rangers Headquarters. In advance, however, former Zilker Park caretakers Jim Rodgers and Sarah Macias joined Robinson and various relatives at the Austin History Center for a reunion of those who had lived in the cottage, including several who had grown up in the middle of Zilker Park.

As Macias says: "It's always a family affair when you live in that house."

 

Many structures — a few that date back to mid-19th century — are hidden in the 351 acres of Zilker Park straddling MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1). Some have almost disappeared, others are in partial ruin, while still others, like the hilltop Zilker Clubhouse — formerly the Boy Scout Hut — are popular but not well-known to newer Austinites.

In the early 1930s, Hugo Kuehne, the architect responsible for the Austin History Center, Norwood Tower and Ritz Theater, designed the Caretaker's Cottage. The Robinson family didn't move into the tiny home until 1935. Earlier, Buster Robinson, Jack's father, had been hired to equip the farmers who grew free vegetables on the Great Lawn and then transported them to the open-sided concrete City Market House at East Avenue (now Interstate 35) and East Seventh Street.

"There were five of us children in a two-bedroom house," Robinson says. "It was really quite simple: There was a little office area on the northwest side of the house that my two older brothers took as a bedroom. My two sisters were in a bedroom on the east side of the house, and my parents were in a bedroom on the west side of the house. I slept wherever it was convenient. I was the youngest."

It's a good thing Robinson enjoyed a large family. There were no neighbor children to befriend.

Trees have grown in since then, and Barton Springs Road was pushed through to the west. A 19th-century stone bridge upstream of the pool is gone, except for abutments. The old twice-flooded, two-story wooden bathhouse and windmill concession stand are gone — replaced in 1947 by the current bathhouse — as are a tall barn at the garden center and a boat launch at the confluence of Barton Creek and the Colorado River.

Though a few other people lived on the margins of the park, the Rabb family purchased all the land upstream of Barton Springs — what is now Barton Hills — in the 1860s. Their descendants, Mamie and Walter Rabb, lived there and allowed no hikers or swimmers into what is now the Barton Creek Greenbelt.

"Mr. Walter Rabb used to always patrol that area with his shotgun," Robinson says. "Made sure nobody would go up there."

Robinson's family had lived in the cottage from 1935 to 1962. Then Robinson returned to raise three sons there. He worked for Austin parks from 1964 to 1978, becoming its director before taking on a parallel program in Dallas.

Rodgers worked for Austin parks for 25 years, then moved on to direct Cedar Park and Williamson County parks departments. His family took over the cottage in March 1974. Both his sons grew up in the park.

"When Will was young, in the old days, you could let kids go play," Rodgers says. "As a 5- or 6-year-old, we let him run in the playscape. One day, I went to get him because dinner was ready. He wasn't there. Thoughts kinda enter your head."

As he turned back to the house in panic, he saw William Barton Rodgers sitting in the lap of the Zilker Zephyr's engineer as the train came around the bend.

"Living in the park was wonderful," Rodgers says. "But the swimming pool opened at 7 in the morning. Early morning swimmers got there before that. Your staff came on at 7:45 a.m. The clubhouse stayed open until 10 at night and, on the weekends, until midnight. Then there was the extracurricular stuff."

All the families shared stories about folks who infiltrated the park at night.

"And that's why you were there," Macias says. "Once, a man told us his truck had been locked at the pool. It was full of snakes! He was a traveling snakeman."

Macias worked for Austin parks from 1983 to 2008 (and lived in the house for 11 years). Her two daughters were born while she and her husband, Rodney, lived in the Caretaker Cottage.

"It was all they knew until they were 5 or 6," she says. "If you wanted to take a Sunday afternoon nap, you had to drown out the sound of the train going right past your window."

Macias says growing up on a farm was good training for the caretaker — or park keeper — job.

"You don't punch a clock," she says. "It's your life."

 

The reunion of caretakers and their families revived memories of long-withered feuds, evolving social divisions, dramatic rescues — including one from Eliza Springs, which the resident families called the "polio pit" because it filled up regularly with scum amid cottonwood roots — and the eternal Central Texas cycle of devastating droughts followed by ravaging floods.

For instance, architect Charles Page, founder of today's influential PageSutherlandPage design firm, laid out the plan for park, designed many of its buildings and persuaded the Zilker family to donate additional uplands above Barton Creek. Accordingly, that area, around the current Girl Scout Cabin, was called Page Park. Yet Page fell out with powerful Austin Mayor Tom Miller, who ordered Robinson's father to take down the Page Park sign. (On what other mere whims has our local history changed?)

Jack Robinson recalled that, until the 1960s, Barton Springs was a pretty tony retreat.

"It was more of a country club environment," Robinson says. "You had community leaders that would come out there, as well as the general public. ... You had governors coming out there, right and left."

Barton Springs Pool was strictly segregated as part of systemic racism.

"I came from a Southern family," Robinson says. "We were what we'd now called racist. Not because we didn't have black friends. But you didn't have any blacks swimming at Barton Springs. No Hispanics, except on Easter. In the early '60s, the city repealed the segregation laws. This was the result of (civic leader) Bertha Means. I give Bertha Means credit."

 

Floods — sometimes walls of water raging down the Barton Creek canyon — affected all the caretaker families.

"One day when I was park manager, we had a beautiful Sunday," Robinson says. "We had that park full of people. The hill on the other side of the pool was covered with blankets. All the sudden, water started coming over the upper dam. We had to hustle around to get people across the lower dam and back over to the bathhouse before the water got too high to pass."

During the 1935 flood, water reached 5 feet 8 inches inside the cottage. Just two years later, it missed the house but poured through the playground. Rodgers was in charge during the 1981 Memorial Day flood.

"The '81 flood was a monster that I remember," Rodgers says. "My family had gone to Six Flags and come back home on Saturday in one of the worst lightning storms I'd ever been in. I worried about it. And Sunday morning, I checked above the dam, and there wasn't a drop of water in the creek. I felt good about it, but the ground was saturated.

"It rained again that Sunday night in what was also probably the biggest lighting storm I'd ever been in," he continues. "The park police woke me up that night. They had their sirens going. ... As I went to go to the door to go see what they wanted in the yard, I heard this roar where the creek was. It was loud enough that, instead of going over to the flashing emergency lights, I went directly to the fence to look at the water. It had another 10 or 15 feet to go to get to the railroad tracks. So yes, it was a tremendous flood."

Macias came on board during a drought.

"I kept hearing about these floods," Macias says. "It was so dramatic. It was something that every year you could count on. It was kind of cleansing, Mother Nature doing her thing. I just thought it was a bunch of hooey. It didn't seem to be a problem."

By this time, weather radars, not Mr. Johnson, warned of possible heavy flooding.

"Let me tell you, when it's about 9 o'clock at night and nobody else is there, when it's just you with the power of water," she says, "it's something you never forget."

Contact Michael Barnes at mbarnes@statesman.com.

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