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12 March . 2016

The History of Sweetwater

Stagecoach trail preserves part of Sweetwater’s rich history

Among the miles of trails already completed in Sweetwater, there is a preserved section of the old stagecoach route that used to run between Austin and Llano in the late 1800s. With its two gravel tracks, the old stagecoach route is easily distinguishable from the one-lane rustic trails that meander throughout Sweetwater, part of an overall community trail system that will ultimately extend for 10 miles. The old stagecoach trail meanders through some of the steepest topography in Sweetwater. Hiking along it today, it’s easy to imagine the sound of the horses’ hooves and the groan of the stagecoach. Sweetwater residents and visitors might also see two old windmills dating back to the land’s days as a working ranch.

They are located amid the 700+ acres of open natural space being preserved in the community. (We must confess, though, that the windmill at the Sweetwater Welcome Center is a recent addition, no matter how authentic it looks.) While the stagecoach route and windmills are some of the most visible signs of Sweetwater’s past, the land has a rich history that spans from the Wild West frontier to Austin’s early days as the Live Music Capital of the World. The land that is today Sweetwater, along with vast acreage in the surrounding Hill Country area, was once the territory of the fierce Comanche and Kiowa tribes, who subsisted off wildlife including abundant elk and buffalo. Inhabiting the area’s steep canyons and ridges, Native Americans skirmished with the earliest settlers, starting with the Tejanos, who were the first Spanish colonial settlers, and later with the Mexicans and citizens of the Republic of Texas. In the late 1800s, thousands of head of cattle every year were herded through this land as part of the famous Chisholm Trail, which drove cattle from Texas ranches to rail centers in Kansas.

The land began a new chapter in the 1950s, when Osceola Heard Davenport, the rich widow of a South Texas oil tycoon, assembled the 3,200-acre Lazy Nine Ranch and other properties in the surrounding area. The Lazy Nine acreage included the land that is today Sweetwater. It is said that Osceola was a colorful character who moved to the Austin area because she craved the social and cultural life of the Texas capital, and also because she wanted to live on a ranch that “didn’t stink of oil.” She chose wisely, because oil was never discovered on the Lazy Nine Ranch. Osceola was a direct descendent of James Power, one of the original Texas empresarios who came from Ireland in 1810. Empresarios – the word is Spanish for entrepreneur – were granted the right to settle on land in exchange for recruiting and taking responsibility for new settlers. She became a famous Austin socialite, entertaining legendary politicians like Lyndon Baines Johnson and Sam Rayburn at her ranch house. After she died in 1958, the childless Oceola left the property to a number of relatives, who maintained it as a working ranch until the late 1980s. As a tribute to Osceola and her refined taste, Davenport Summit, the most exclusive neighborhood in Sweetwater, is named after her.

In 1983, this land played a role in Austin’s rising status as a musical capital, when Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard filmed a music video for the Townes Van Zandt song, “Pancho and Lefty.” With its rugged and dramatic terrain, Sweetwater made the perfect setting for this tale of the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa and his enigmatic sidekick, Lefty. It is said that a prop for Pancho Villa’s fictional grave marker remains on the property. While it hasn’t been found yet, perhaps some day a Sweetwater resident will discover it while hiking.

The Texas Hill Country surrounding Sweetwater is also filled with history, not to mention recreational opportunities. For example, Hamilton Pool, a popular natural swimming hole only a few miles from Sweetwater, has cultural remains dating back more than 8,000 years. Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, about a half-hour drive from Sweetwater, has seen human activity for more than 12,000 years. Legend has it that the Tonkawa Indians captured a Spanish conquistador, who escaped by hiding in the rocks. They believed he was a “pale man swallowed by a rock and reborn as one of their own,” who wove enchantments on the area.

The history of the land is discovered everyday as residents explore the over 700 acres of trails throughout Sweetwater.  From pop top cans to old abandoned cars, you will never know what you mind run into on our Sweetwater trails