Remnants of Austin’s rural past pop up everywhere. Walkers know the signs: larger than usual lots, bigger trees, structures predating all the others in the area.
The most visible vestige of that past in the Duval Springs area of North Austin is Switch Willo Stables, a wooded wonderland of equestrian culture that would look at home in Old Virginia or even Old England.
Although it dates back at least to the 1960s, the bewitchingly named Switch Willo (spelled without the expected final "w") was hardly the first settlement in the area. During the 19th century, a sizable farming community called Duval thrived here on the International and Great Northern Railroad near Big Walnut Creek.
So what happened? Nowadays, Duval Road between MoPac Boulevard and U.S. 183 — just northwest of the Domain — is lined with office buildings, large apartment complexes and handsomely maintained neighborhoods. Yet here once stood a full town with school, churches and stores.
"My dad would use a stick and poke around in the dirt where a store sat," says reader Anna Kemp Galloway, who lived on this land in the 1940s and again in the 1960s. "We’d dig up old molten glass."
Turns out, the glass remnants came from a big fire that destroyed most of the town of Duval around 1900. The store that burned 60 years before Galloway’s childhood stood on what is now Whispering Valley Road. Nearby, Duval Road formerly cut across the railroad.
Neither Galloway nor I — nor the folks at the Austin History Center — can date the conflagration precisely. Galloway remembers a features story about the fire published in the American-Statesman during the 1960s or ’70s. We are still looking for it.
Here’s what the Handbook of Texas says about Duval — not to be confused with fabled Duval County in South Texas or Duval Street, which heads north from the University of Texas campus through the Hyde Park neighborhood:
"The site was settled in 1875 and was named for local store owner Douglas Duval. A post office moved there in 1877 from Mount Juliet, and James A. Wright served as postmaster. By the mid-1880s the community had a district school, three churches, three stores and 75 residents. Stone and cedar were the principal commodities shipped from the area. The population of Duval was estimated at 50 in 1890 and at 35 in 1899. The Duval post office was discontinued in 1902, and mail for the community was sent to McNeil. The area that made up the Duval community was annexed by the city of Austin in the mid-1970s."
No mention of the fire. Yet the entry does explain the large quarry lakes nearby in the Balcones Woods neighborhood. (The Handbook cites John J. Germann and Myron Janzen’s 1986 "Texas Post Offices by County" as its source.)
Galloway’s family moved to a farm here in 1933. She kept records of the families — Duvals, Kemps, McDonalds, Pilands — who bought and sold this land. She and her brother sold it in 1973.
"I got with Marce Morrow who was a young man when the last of the town just dried up and left," Galloway recalls. "He said his grandmother lived there after the fire in a tent and he was taken there to be with her when his youngest sister was born."
On what occasions did her father dig for molten glass?
"We would sit near the county road waiting for either the mail carrier or the milk carrier," Galloway says. "We would place cans of milk by the county road and get cans of whey from the Round Rock Cheese Factory truck. Can you believe that some times they would put the check paying for our milk on the top of a return can with a rock to hold it down?"
We know that Duval was completely gone by 1938, when the highway department published a map of Travis County that can be found at UT’s Perry Castañeda Library and is easily accessible as part of the library’s invaluable online collection.
The map shows Austin’s northern city limits at about 51st Street. But all the little towns above it have faded away, towns whose names were recycled for thoroughfares like Duval are here — Fiskville, McNeil, Dessau — as well as bergs new to me, such as Abercrombie, Fromme and Water’s Park (which should be spelled "Watter’s Park," according to Galloway).
But no Duval or, alternately, Duval Station, by 1938. Now, folks, the last of this town and other rural remnants like it exist within living memory. In 25 years, that memory will be gone.
Which is why it so important to keep asking friends who lived here back then: What do you recall from 60, 70, 80 or 90 years ago?