Here and There


Austin has long been a haven for vagrants, who favor the mild winters and easygoing ways here. Today Austin has a number of programs and services to help the homeless.

Austin was already a well-known pariah's paradise when Will Porter wrote to a friend in 1885:

The Colorado has been on the biggest boom I have seen since '39. In the pyrotechnical and not strictly grammatical language of the Statesman--The cruel, devastating flood swept, on a dreadful holocaust of swollen, turbid waters, surging and dashing in mad fury which have never been equalled in human history. A pitiable sight was seen the morning after the flood. Six hundred men, out of employment, were seen standing on the banks of the river, gazing at the stream, laden with debris of every description. A wealthy New York Banker, who was present, noticing the forlorn appearance of these men, at once began to collect a subscription for them, appealing in eloquent terms for help for these poor sufferers by the flood. He collected one dollar and five horn buttons. The dollar he had given himself. He learned on inquiry that these men had not been at any employment for six years, and all they had lost by the flood was a few fishing poles. The Banker put his dollar in his pocket and stepped up to the Pearl Saloon.

In 1914, the Humane Society proposed creation of a municipal wood yard, where otherwise unemployed men could cut firewood by hand for a minimum wage. It was not a rousing success.

Back in 1918, Travis County Judge Pickle and the rest of the Commissioners' Court passed a resolution stating that it was every American's duty to contribute to the war effort, and that every vagrant brought in by law officers be engaged in useful occupation or suffer penalty of the law. Pickle decided that the perfect spot for unemployed vagrants was the county's corn and cotton fields, where there was a scarcity of labor.

In 1929, Austin police would pick up "Vags," take them in for ID, and if there were no outstanding warrants, drive them to the city limits and unload them, with the advice that "it is time to go on to other parts."

The Millet Opera House

(XXX St.)

Will Porter was a regular patron, and briefly reviewed the opera house's December 21, 1885, show in a letter to a friend:

The hack was to call for me at eight. At five minutes to eight I went upstairs and dressed in my usual fine bijou and operatic style, and rolled away to the opera. Emma sang finely. I applauded at the wrong times, and praised her rendering of the chromatic scale when she was performing on "c" flat andante pianissimo, but otherwise the occasion passed off without anything to mar the joyousness of the hour. Everybody was there. Isidor Moses and John Ireland, and Fritz Hartkopf and Professor Herzog and Bill Stacy and all the bong ton elight.

Radam, the Wallet Killer

One of Radam's customers was young Will Porter, who wrote in a letter to a friend in Denver dated April 21, 1885:

I carried out your parting injunction of a floral nature with all the solemnity and sacredness that I would have bestowed upon a dying man's last request. Promptly at half-past three I repaired to the robbers' den, commonly known as Radams Horticultural and Vegetable Emporium, and secured the high-priced offerings according to promise. I asked if the bouquets were ready, and the polite but piratical gentleman in charge pointed proudly to two objects on the counter reposing in a couple of vases, and said they were.

I then told him I feared there was some mistake, as no buttonhole bouquets had been ordered, but he insisted on his former declaration, and so I brought them away and sent them to their respective destinations.

Old General Land Office

(Capitol Complex Visitors Center, 112 E. 11th, on the Capitol grounds, open Tuesday through Saturday)

Conrad Stremme designed and supervised the construction of the German castle-like General Land Office during 1856 and 1857. It cost $19,700. Stremme was born in Hannover, Germany, in 1807, attended the University of Berlin, and became a distinguished architect and professor of architecture. For outstanding work in architecture that included designing an impressive railroad line and stations, Czar Nicholas I of Russia made Stremme a nobleman and court councilor. Rather than endure the political repression that followed the Revolution of 1848 in Germany, Stremme exiled himself to Texas in 1849, and became chief draftsman at the General Land Office in 1855. The building he designed housed the deeds, patents, maps, and other records of the state's General Land Office. William Sidney Porter (O. Henry) worked here as a cartographer from January 1887 to January 1891. The romantic, castle-like building became the setting for one of Porter's earliest short stories, "Bexar Scrip No. 2692," which ran on the front page of the March 5, 1894 edition of The Rolling Stone.

In 1917, the General Land Office moved to more spacious environs, and the Legislature gave Stremme's castle on the Colorado to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas and the Daughters of the Confederacy to use as museums, which they did for more than 70 years.

In 1989, after some controversy, the Daughters of the Confederacy moved the Texas Confederate Museum from the old Land Office to the more hospitable political clime of Waco.

Built of limestone rubble with an articulated stucco skin, the old Land Office was close to falling apart. Slapdash, minimal upkeep (a time-honored tradition of the Texas Legislature) over the years had robbed it of much of its original exterior detail and charm. After a fierce debate as to whether the building should be fixed or torn down, a complete renovation and restoration commenced. Two years and $4 million later, the old Land Office looked good as new, and even the hard-hearts who wanted the building torn down had to admit the restoration had been worth the effort.

In 1994, the old Land Office reopened to the public as the Capitol Complex Visitors Center. The first floor houses an information center, a theater that shows a Capitol complex orientation video (the old book and patent records room), a gift shop (the old School Lands Division office), souvenir penny machines, and a Capitol Preservation Project Exhibit that chronicles the recent massive Capitol renovation (inside a two-vault room where the records of the original Spanish land grants were stored). The night watchman's rom is now a staff office.

The second floor is given over to a variety of exhibits. An exhibit on the history of the Capitol is located in the old translation room, where materials from the Spanish archives were translated into English. The encaustic floor tile originally lined the Capitol's corridors; it was removed during the remodelling associated with the Texas Centennial of 1936 and installed here.

The old North Drafting Room (where Porter toiled) now houses exhibits relating to the Land Office, including a period setting with original Land Office furnishings; the construction, history and restoration of the Land Office; and changing presentations of historical materials from the Land Office Archives.

The old file room features changing exhibits on Texas history. Past exhibits have included O. Henry: A Capitol Fellow; Barbara Jordan: Freedom Medalist and Texas Treasure; and Celebrating 150 Years of Texas Statehood: 1845-1995.

The spiral stairs made famous in "Bexar Scrip No. 2692" are closed to the public for safety reasons unrelated to Porter's story. Truth of the matter is, Porter bent the truth about the stairs. The spiral staircase wasn't a Stremme blunder. It was the only way to get upstairs until the present majestic iron stairway was installed in 1882, as part of the remodelling that Porter ridiculed in "Bexar Scrip No. 2692." Will Porter never met Stremme, who retired from the Land Office in 1874 and died in 1877, 7 years before Porter moved to Austin.