By Lila Knight
The Hays County Historical Commission is currently being bombarded with letters and emails claiming that the Hays County Historical Commission has been underrepresented by minorities and has neglected the history of Hispanics and Indigenous Peoples. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Today, we live in turbulent times of protests demanding racial equality while enduring a pandemic. I have witnessed a tremendous politicization of history over the past year. I understand the concerns, but I personally believe it is not in the best interests of the Hays County Historical Commission to become involved in politics. Our primary mission is to document the history of Hays County as accurately as possible and ensure its preservation for future generations.
I understand people’s misconceptions as they are not familiar with the work accomplished by the Hays County Historical Commission over the years. The organization has been focused on documenting the history of Hays County. Meanwhile, the history of the organization itself has not been adequately recorded, resulting in many of its accomplishments forgotten.
The field of historic preservation, and the development of local county historical commissions, has changed remarkably through the years. Even before I became the chairman in 1991, the Hays County Historical Commission made enormous strides in undertaking projects that the vast majority of the 254 county historical commissions in Texas never even attempted.
The precursor to the Hays County Historical Commission was the Hays County Historical Survey Committee, established in 1955 with only seven members. The name was changed to Hays County Historical Commission in 1973 following legislation that established the Texas Historical Commission as a state agency. The Commission continued to be a small organization of volunteers appointed by the Hays County Commissioners Court. The original bylaws for the organization were first approved on December 21, 1987. It was not until 1987 that the Hays County Historical Commission expanded to 20 members, of which two were Hispanic (Sam Tenorio and Mrs. Joe Nicola Sr.), and one was African-American (Johnnie Armstead). Seven out of 29 members of the 2019-2020 Commission are Hispanic or African-American (Eric Casillas, Irma Gaitan, Jo Ann Lowe, July Moreno, Gina Rogers, Daphne Tenorio, and Vanessa Westbrook).
During the mid to late 1980s, the Cemetery Committee did an exhaustive inventory of all the cemeteries and transcribed each gravestone. These were placed into a database (no longer readable) and published in two volumes in 1990. This material is also now available on the Hays County Historical Commission’s website. They missed a few cemeteries, but their work was incredibly comprehensive. It provided essential information on the African-American and Hispanic individuals who once lived here and became the foundation for our future research. We are indebted to Dorothy Wimberley Kerbow and Jo Anne Hearne for their dedication and passion in providing such detailed information. Dorothy Kerbow later served as a mentor and inspiration to our Cemetery Committee Chair, Winton Porterfield. Subsequent Cemetery Committee chairs have continued their enthusiastic dedication.
None of this work could have been accomplished without the enthusiastic support of the Commissioners Court over many years. Hays County is truly blessed to have had so many men and women on the Court who genuinely care about our history. They have even moved roads to assure the continued preservation of the history of Hays County! The County Commissioners Court themselves received the “Award of Excellence in Preserving History” from the Texas Historical Commission in 1997.
I was appointed as a member of the Hays County Historical Commission in 1990, during which time Frances Stovall was chair. Johnnie Armstead, an African-American community leader, was already active on the Commission when I first joined. Johnnie, in cooperation with the Hays County Historical Commission and others, worked diligently to establish the Calaboose African-American Museum in the first jail building for Hays County. Although the building was owned by the City of San Marcos, the Commission supported the efforts to establish the museum and obtained a “Preservation Trust Fund” grant from Texas Historical Commission for its restoration. In addition, the Hays County Historical Commission submitted and received a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark marker to commemorate the building in 1990. In 1992 Johnnie Armstead was nominated by the Commission and received the George Christian Volunteer of the Year Award from the Texas Historical Commission. Finally, in May of 1997, the San Marcos City Council approved the use of the Calaboose as an African-American History Museum and appointed a board of citizens to oversee it. Johnnie Armstead served as the first president. Dr. Elvin Holt had joined the Hays County Historical Commission by 1999 and he is still on the Board of Directors of the Calaboose African-American Museum. I’m not certain when Johnnie left the Commission, but she was in ill health for several years before passing away in 2008.
The Kyle Pioneer Family Cemetery (formerly known simply as the “Slave Cemetery”) was rediscovered by Cemetery Committee Chairman Winton Porterfield in the 1990s. Under his chairmanship, this cemetery was cleaned of decades of brush and several feet of leaves in order to uncover graves. In December of 1993, Winton organized a massive effort to clean-up the long neglected Kyle Family Pioneer Cemetery. Over 100 volunteers from the Hill Country Chapter of the NAACP, the Boy Scouts, and fraternities and sororities from Texas State University cleaned up years of debris and uncovered numerous new gravestones. A restoration specialist was hired to map and restore gravestones, where possible. The cemetery was designated a Historic Texas Cemetery in 2015, and a Texas Historical subject marker was approved in 2017. Funding for the historical marker was provided by donations from several individuals, including Commissioner Ray Whisenant and Winton Porterfield. On September 20 of 2020, the Cemetery Committee worked with Preservation Texas and the “48-State Tour Program” to sponsor a free workshop on cemetery preservation at the Kyle Cemetery and the Kyle Family Pioneer Cemetery. Only one cemetery was selected in each state to participate in this program, and the Hays County Historical Commission was honored to be selected. Jonathan Appell, a cemetery restoration specialist, provided instruction and hands-on experience to volunteers in all phases of gravestone restoration. Approximately 40 people attended from all over Texas.
During the restoration of the Kyle Depot (now the Kyle Railroad Depot and Heritage Center), members were adamant that the former segregated waiting room be restored to its original place in the history of the Depot. This restoration was controversial at the time, and many citizens and local leaders did not want to be reminded of this past as Kyle had long since moved beyond segregation, even being one of the first towns in Texas to hold a vote to desegregate the schools in 1960. Nevertheless, their opinions changed after actually viewing the restored space, and agreed it was necessary to remember this past. Members of the Depot Committee installed exhibits in this space to explain the history of segregation in transportation and Jim Crow laws in effect during this period. Plans are underway to add to this exhibit by highlighting significant African-Americans from the community.
Other historical markers that have been placed to commemorate the African-American history of Hays County include:
- Dunbar School (1975) and listed in the National Register of Historic Places (1983)
- Ulysses Cephas (1989)
- Wesley Chapel, AME Church (1992)
- San Marcos-Blanco Cemetery (1997)
- Antioch Colony (2009)
- Eddie Durham (2013)
- First Baptist Church (2014)
- Antioch Cemetery (2018) designated a Historic Texas Cemetery
- Antioch Cemetery – Undertold Subject Marker application submitted 2020
By 1999, the Hispanic members of the Hays County Historical Commission included Richard Rodriguez, Solia Rodriguez, Dr. Yolanda Espinoza, and Ofelia Vasquez-Philo. The Hispanic History Committee was established at this time. In addition to the officially appointed members, Frank Saucedo, Angelita Tobias, Dr. Leonardo Cardenas, and Robert Cavazos also served as volunteers on the Hispanic History Committee.
Throughout the 1990s, many of the members of the Hays County Historical Commission worked diligently to preserve the early Hispanic history of Hays County. The Hispanic History Committee was established to research and document this history. This committee was chaired by Ofelia Vasquez-Philo.
Suenos y Recuerdos del pasado (Dreams and Memories of the Past: A Community History of Mexican Americans in San Marcos, Texas) was published in 2000 after years of research and oral histories conducted by the Hispanic History Committee of the Hays County Historical Commission. This publication was a sincere labor of love, and I am proud to have been a small portion of its work. The publication gives a distinct overview of Hispanics’ difficult history in Hays County and included summaries of numerous oral interviews by elderly members of the community. The original goal was to include all of Hays County, but that task would have taken years longer. The decision to include only San Marcos was a wise one. The authors included: Dr. Leonardo Cardenas, Robert Cavazos, Velia Cavazos, Steve Davis, Dr. Yolanda F. Espinoza, Lila Knight Ethridge, Ofelia Vasquez-Philo, Winton Porterfield, Richard Rodriguez, Soila Rodriguez, Frank Saucedo, and Angelita Tobias. Other than the Kyle Railroad Depot and Heritage Center, it is one of the few committees that reached out and sought volunteers from the community who were not official members of the Hays County Historical Commission. Funding for the publication was provided by a grant from the CLG/THC program.
The restoration of Cementerio del Rio began with the efforts of Ofelia Vasquez-Philo in 1995. It is one of the oldest and largest Hispanic cemeteries in the county. It was deeded to Hays County in 1893. Commissioner Ingalsbe proposed in 1999 to add Cementerio del Rio to the list of cemeteries to be maintained by the county. Although it would cost an additional $1,200 to maintain, Winton Porterfield (chair of the Cemetery Committee) responded that the Hays County Historical Commission would reduce their annual request by $1,200 the following year to compensate for the increase. Commissioner Ingalsbe also provided funding from her office to build a dirt road to the land-locked cemetery, making the cemetery once again accessible. Cementerio del Rio was designated a Historic Texas Cemetery in 2010 through the Cemetery Committee of the Hays County Historical Commission’s efforts.
The Hays County Historical Commission’s Cemetery Committee was also involved in the preservation of the San Pedro Cemetery. This project revitalized the cemetery and involved members of the community and the Texas Historical Commission in preparing a Preservation Plan for the cemetery. The Hays County Historical Commission designated this cemetery a Historic Texas Cemetery in 2006.
Ofelia Vasquez-Philo’s dream was to establish a cultural center in San Marcos. Her work resulted in the opening of Centro Cultural Hispano de San Marcos in the Southside School in 2010. This school originally served the Hispanic community of San Marcos. Although the founding of Centro was not an official project of the Hays County Historical Commission, our members supported her efforts and helped search for several years for an appropriate site. The Hays County Historical Commission applied for a Recorded Texas Historical Marker for the Southside Community School, which was received in 2011. In October of 2020, Kate Johnson, current chair was awarded the “2020 Centro Diamante Award” by Centro Cultural Hispano de San Marcos for her ongoing and continuous support of the cultural center Ofelia helped establish. It was awarded at the 10th anniversary of Centro and stated: “In appreciation for being an early believer in our mission, vision and helping the ‘Centro Dream’ become a reality.”
San Marcos de Neve has never been forgotten by the Hays County Historical Commission, as some have claimed. The first effort to commemorate the site of San Marcos de Neve was during the Texas Centennial celebration of 1936. A small granite marker with scant information was placed at the site. It was not until 1976, during the Bicentennial of the U.S., that a marker for Don Felipe Roque de la Portilla was dedicated. During the Tricentennial Celebration of the Camino Real in 1991, the Hays County Historical Commission actively participated in the celebration. As a caravan of state officials drove the entire route from Mexico to Louisiana, we were an official “stop” along the way. This event took place on the road adjacent to the site of San Marcos de Neve. In partnership with Preservation Associates, the Hays County Historical Commission also produced a video on the Camino Real, which features the site of San Marcos de Neve in 1991.
As San Marcos de Neve was purposely sited on Camino Real de los Tejas (near a water source), the two projects have always been connected. This early settlement (1808-1812) is unrelated to the later founding of the town of San Marcos (mid-1840s). It was one of a handful of civil settlements during the Spanish Colonial period and the only one whose actual site has ever been found. Following the Louisiana Purchase, civic settlements were founded at the crossings of major rivers along the Camino Real de los Tejas (including the San Marcos, Brazos and Trinity rivers).
The Hays County Historical Commission played a key role in discovering the exact location of the site of San Marcos de Neve in October of 1995 (the site was discovered on October 31). With plans underway for the construction of FM 110 along the existing alignment of CR 266 (also known as the Camino Real de los Tejas, or Old San Antonio Road), members of the Hays County Historical Commission worked with professional archeologists from both the Texas Historical Commission and the Texas Department of Transportation to find its exact location and prevent its destruction from road construction. It has been recorded as an archeological site, and the Texas Historical Commission determined the site eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. It deserves notice that Commissioner Ingalsbe, along with the entire Commissioners Court, played an essential role in this project. It could not have been accomplished without their support.
The Texas Department of Transportation published: A Texas Legacy – The Old San Antonio Road and The Caminos Reales: A Tricentennial History, 1691-1991, edited by A, Joachim McGraw, John W. Clarke Jr. and Elizabeth A. Robbins (Austin: Texas Department of Transportation, 1998). The history of San Marcos de Neve is well documented in Appendix 3: San Marcos de Neve (pages 375-396 in this publication). In addition, an entire chapter was devoted to San Marcos de Neve in the publication, Clear Springs and Limestone Ledges: A History of San Marcos and Hays County (published by the Hays County Historical Commission in 1986).
Chapter 2, entitled “The Settlement of Villa San Marcos de Neve” (pages 9-19), was written before the actual site was discovered and other information was discovered. While it probably contains some mistakes, it still provides evidence of the continuing work to document this site over two decades by the Hays County Historical Commission.
On March 4, 1998, Preservation Associates, in cooperation with the Hays County Historical Commission, dedicated seven historical markers (not “official” Texas Historical Markers) to commemorate events along El Camino Real (Old San Antonio Road along CR 266 and SH 21). Approximately 50 people and local officials (including Hays County Judge Eddy Etheredge and San Marcos City Councilman Rick Hernandez) attended the dedication ceremony.
County Judge Etheredge made the opening remarks: “Many rural areas are being replaced with subdivisions. Hays County is in danger of losing its historical heritage. The placement of these markers is a positive step.” Funding for the markers was provided by Preservation Associates, Hays County Historical Commission, Heritage Association of San Marcos, San Marcos Convention and Visitors Bureau, Tanger Outlet Mall, Terry Gilmore, Al Lowman, Don Leggitt and Hill Rylander.
Two of these markers were authored by John Clark, a historical archeologist in TxDOT’s Environmental Affairs Division (Archeological Studies Branch). Al Lowman authored 5 of the markers.
- El Camino de Nacogdoches (by John Clark)
- El Camino de Tejas (by John Clark)
- Mexican General Gaona’s 1836 Texas Revolution Campaign
- Zebulon M. Pike
- Colonel Elizondo’s 1813 Mexican War of Independence Campaign
- Comanche Raid in 1840
- Ham White, a stagecoach robber along the road
On August 19, 1998, the Hays County Commissioners Court designated El Camino Real de Los Tejas a “historic trail’ upon the request of the Hays County Historical Commission. Al Lowman, a member of the county historical commission who was a well known Texas historian and President of the Texas State Historical Association, authored the resolution from the Hays County Commissioners Court for the designation of El Camino Real De Los Tejas as part of the National Historic Trail system on August 10, 1999:
Resolution of the Hays County Commissioners Court Regarding Designation of the Camino Real de Los Tejas as Part of the National Historic Trails System
“WHEREAS, El Camino Real, the King’s Highway, had its origins in prehistoric American trade routes and emerged in the 1740s as a royal road connecting Cuerrero, Coahuila and Los Adaes in Louisiana Territory; and WHEREAS, This celebrated pathway traverses the southern portion of Hays County from one county boundary to the other; and
WHEREAS, This vital traffic artery has, over time, assumed various routes and names as it extends across Texas and its importance highlighted by twentieth-century efforts to place markers, monuments and signposts indicating the route; and
WHEREAS, This historic route was a favorite of explorers, would-be conquerors, tourists, and renegades, some of whom stayed behind to establish communities; and
WHEREAS, Numerous Texans, in concert with various public and local government entities, have demonstrated interest in cultivating better understanding and appreciation of the state’s Spanish and Mexican colonial history through the promotion of the Camino Real as a National Historic Trail; now, therefore, be it
RESOLVED, that the Hays County Commissioners Court supports the inclusion of the Camino Real de los Tejas in the National Historic Trails system and strongly recommends that the Texas delegation to the 106th United States Congress support legislation to that effect.
El Camino Real de Los Tejas received Congressional approval as a National Historic Trail in 2004 after an arduous series of studies and environmental reviews. Members of the Hays County Historical Commission participated in all phases of this project and hosted scholars from the National Park Service on a tour of the road’s alignments in Hays County.
The site of San Marcos de Neve is included in all of the National Park Service studies as a significant site along the historic road.
Other historical markers that have been placed to commemorate the Hispanic history of Hays County include:
- Mission San Francisco Xavier de los Delores (1936 Texas Centennial Marker)
- Coronado Cemetery (2017)
- James-Duran-Alba Cemetery (2018) designated a Historic Texas Cemetery
- La Sociedad Mutualista Cuauhtemoc (2019)
- Veracruz Burial Ground (2020) designated a Historic Texas Cemetery
- Alba Ranch (2020)
Indigenous Peoples of Hays County
By 1991, the Commission included two well-known archeologists (Dr. Dee Ann Story and Mark Denton). With their expertise on the Commission, an “Archeology Committee” was established, with Dr. Story serving as chair. Many of the other members of this committee, along with members of the Hispanic History Committee, actively participated in helping to discover the site of San Marcos de Neve.
Dr. Dee Ann Story recently retired Director of the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory at The University of Texas, lived in Wimberley. Her scholarly work is so extensive that it is impossible to list all of her work here. However, she is noted in Texas for over two decades of work at Caddo Mounds State Historic Site, located among the Camino Real de los Tejas. As a result of her work, Dr. Story was made an honorary member of the Caddo Nation. This site was damaged in April of 2019 by a tornado that struck during the annual Caddo Culture Day. One was killed and 40 injured (20 were hospitalized, some critically injured). The tornado resulted in $2.5 million in damage. As a result, most of the staff of the Texas Historical Commission spent months at the site, the first delay in a series that resulted in the suspension of the historical marker program for about a year.
Mark Denton, a historic archeologist with the Texas Historical Commission, also joined at this time. He lived outside of Dripping Springs in Hays County. His expertise in rural architecture and structures, such as cisterns, contributed to the knowledge of the earliest history of Hays County.
In 1993 Dr. Story published Riddles of the Past: The Archeology of Hays County. This booklet described the history of Native Americans in Hays County and discouraged looting of archeological sites. The audience for this publication were middle school students, and each student throughout every school district in Hays County received a free copy. Precinct 4 County Commissioner Rippy’s wife, an educator, played an instrumental role in the distribution of this publication. The project was funded through a CLG/THC grant.
The Archeology Committee celebrated “Texas Archeology Month” each year with many different programs and activities held across the county. Speakers were brought in to discuss specific topics; demonstrations were held on flint knapping and prehistoric tools and weapons (always popular with children), and; field trips were taken to numerous archeological sites around the county.
Their expertise in the field of anthropology and archeology is sorely missed by the Hays County Historical Commission. Although attempts have been made to recruit archeologists from Texas State University, none have been willing to serve.
The Hays County Historical Commission held two different meetings in 2017 where tours were provided of critical archeological sites (located on private property). Sergio Ayala, an archeologist at Texas State University, presented his research findings at one of the meetings.
The Indigenous Cultures Institute of San Marcos requested a letter of support from us in 2020 for the repatriation of remains from The University of Texas. Although they did not provide us with this information, we discovered that two federally recognized tribes, the Caddo Nation and the Alabama-Coushatta of Texas, formally opposed this request for repatriation. We also consulted with archeologists at the Texas Historical Commission, who enthusiastically support the repatriation of remains. However, in this instance, they advised us not to become involved as it would be considered disrespectful by the two other tribes. Thus, we took no action on this request as we did not want to offend other Texas tribes.
Hays County and its citizens should never forget the thousands of hours volunteered by individuals dedicated to the preservation of the history of Hays County. I dedicate this entirely too brief of an essay to those who came before me and whom we have since lost. They were an inspiration to so many on the Hays County Historical Commission. Their legacy continues in the work of the Commission today:
- Johnnie Armstead
- Dorothy Wimberley Kerbow
- Al Lowman
- Solia Rodriguez
- Hill Rylander
- Dee Ann Story
- Frances Stovall
- Ofelia Vasquez-Philo
Knight, a professional historian, and Hays County resident, is the longest-serving member of the HCHC at 30 years and previously served as the commission’s third chair in the commission’s history. Last Tuesday, Knight was appointed as the commission’s Secretary.