A history without a sense of place is like a cookbook without a sense of taste. Vital ingredients go missing.
Happily, Joseph Jones' "Life on Waller Creek" is awash with place. The late professor spent more than 40 years observing and tending the silvery waterway that snakes through the University of Texas campus. He spent 10 years writing this, his most famous book, a paean to the flora, fauna and folks on the creek's banks.
Jones, who moved to Austin in 1935, died here in 1999. "Life," published in 1982, is again cited in smart circles because the Waller Creek Conservancy, led by social lions Tom Meredith, Melanie Barnes and Melba Whatley, seeks civic improvements to the lower portions of the creek that runs from the UT campus to its mouth at Lady Bird Lake.
A thoughtful man, Jones took idyllic breaks along Waller almost every day. He recorded its wildlife. He cleared alien, invasive or just plain irritating plants (like poison ivy, thank you).
His story starts, rightly, with geology. He recounts Austin's founding on the lower creek in 1839, its Gilded Age in the late 19th century, also its modern evolution in the 20th century.
Three chapters deal directly with university history, which returns predictably to Texas governors or their agents trying to dictate campus life. Jones fleshes out the catalytic 1969 protests against Frank Erwin, when the imperial UT regent pushed to demolish old oaks along the creek to make way for a stadium expansion.
A good deal of the book is given over to songlike poems and inventories of ephemera fished out of the creekbed. Today's reader might be more drawn to the chapter titled "Drainage Ditch or Garden Park?" It should astonish some Austinites to discover that leaders periodically suggested turning Waller Creek into a concrete canal, especially after bad floods.
And yet, that's close to what happened to the uppermost stretches of the creek (see photo). Jones opposed such efforts and his words would hearten the backers of the current conservancy.
"Waller Creek is a test case," he writes, "tested now through almost 150 years of use and abuse. It is both a broad symbol and a tangible opportunity to move towards a new promise by redeeming an old promise — the one made by nature herself in 1839, which in far too many ways, we have prevented her from keeping."
Reader Sarah Franklin pointed us to the real source of Waller Creek. It lies in the Highland neighborhood north of Highland Mall. Sarah and her daughter, Mary Franklin, walked it with me.
The bookkeeper for MF Plumbing Co., a family business shared with her husband, Michael Franklin, lives near the source with four intimidating dogs, multiple ducks, chickens and other livestock attached to what she calls the "Franklin Funny Farm."
An old neighbor told Franklin that their tall-ceilinged wood house, once part of a rural enclave, was constructed by German prisoners of war at Camp Swift and moved to its current location near Guadalupe Street. Before the mall opened in 1971, this area was most often associated with an African American orphanage and farm called St. John's. (If you have any personal memories of this orphanage, please contact me.)
Running a fairly straight course through the district is Waller Creek, sometimes lined with limestone, sometimes overgrown with willows and other creek-loving plants. Near the intersection of St. John's Avenue and Northcrest Boulevard, this stream — just puddles at this point — emerges from an open drain pipe. Sarah and I suspect springs or a high aquifer because of tall, thirsty cottonwoods nearby.
From there, Upper Upper Waller Creek meets a tiny tributary at a community baseball field, which looks lifted from a small Texas town. It sneaks under Airport Boulevard near Huntland Drive and then zig-zags unnaturally over to a line parallel to Chesterfield Avenue, where I picked it up again, running with clear water after rains, at a pedestrian bridge attached to a tiny picnic area.
At West 55th Street, I spied a woman weeding the high banks of the creek. She instantly recognized me. Reader Jan Seward is part of a volunteer group that is reclaiming little portions of the tame creek in her neighborhood. From there, the water heads to state lands aside Epoch Coffee and the Austin State Hospital Cemetery. It grows a bit wilder as it meets the University of Texas Intramural Fields.
By the time it reaches Rowena Street in the Hyde Park Annex, it's downright pretty. At 45th — where I once assumed it began — it crosses Shipe Park and the grounds of the Elisabet Ney Museum. Then the Waller watershed becomes quite wooded as it approaches the Perry Estate and Hancock Golf Course. It eases through some graceful, upscale neighborhoods before going more public on the UT campus. At last, it emerges through the medical, entertainment and hotel/residential districts of downtown Austin.
Thanks to the Franklins, it's good to know the creek's humble and authentically Austin origins.
Contact Michael Barnes at firstname.lastname@example.org