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If it hadn’t been for “Baron” de Bastrop, namesake of the Colorado River town 30 miles east of Austin, there might not even be a Texas.
When Stephen F. Austin’s father, Moses Austin, petitioned Spanish authorities in San Antonio de Bexar to establish Texas’ first American colony in about 1820, he was refused. The self-styled baron, a Dutch immigrant named Philip Hendrik Nering Bögel, successfully interceded.
I learned about the colorful baron at the Museum & Visitor Center of the Bastrop County Historical Society, which opened in 2013 in a restored former city hall built in the 1930s. By Bastrop standards, that is considered recent construction.
The town was platted in 1832 where the Camino Real, or Old San Antonio Road, crossed the Colorado River. Davy Crockett, museum exhibits relate, spent the night here on his way to the Alamo in 1836.
Longleaf pine and other types of wood in the area created a thriving timber industry. A lattice screen, rescued from the charred mid-19th-century home of a Bastrop timber tycoon, was decorated by slaves in patterns similar to Adinkra textiles and Ashanti architecture of Ghana.
Much of the timber came from the Lost Pines, the nation’s westernmost stand of loblolly pines, at Bastrop State Park and adjacent areas. Museum exhibits chronicle the tragic Bastrop County Complex Fire of 2011. The worst wildfire in Texas history, it claimed two lives and burned more than 30,000 acres and nearly 1,700 homes. Three scorched pines and a torched saxophone testify to the conflagration’s wrath. Six solid 10-by-10-inch loblolly columns, cut from trees burned in the fire and donated by Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative, anchor the museum exhibits.
The Hidden Pines Fire of 2015 and recent floods further engaged the resilient spirit of Bastrop. Multimedia artist Maria Montoya-Hohenstein makes art from found objects damaged in the blaze. She calls the process “arteology.”
Montoya-Hohenstein is a member of the Lost Pines Art League, which in December opened the Lost Pines Art Center and Reflective Sculpture Garden, a 1.25-acre site that repurposed a 100-year-old cotton-seed mill.
A rainwater collection system provides water for the site’s sculpture garden “river” modeled on the lower Colorado River, with a plantscape that reflects the changing geography as the river flows to the sea.
Bluebonnet EC also contributed to the community with a recent $30,000 grant to help restore the 1889 Bastrop Opera House. Helmed by thespian Chester Eitze for 30 years, the playhouse offers a lively bill of drama, melodrama and musicals.
A kinder incarnation of fire forges artwork at Deep in the Heart Art Foundry, established in 1980 and owned and operated by artist Clint Howard since 1999. Visitors can tour the foundry by appointment Monday through Friday and watch its 43 employees immortalize artists’ clay, wax or stone sculptures in bronze.
First Friday Art Walk is a prime time to experience Bastrop. The sound of music wafting from Pickin’ on the Porch at LarryLand Music draws walkers to The Crossing, a rustic collection of shops and eateries between Main Street and the river. “We welcome anybody who wants to play, from beginners to pros,” says owner Larry Wilson. Wilson’s shop walls are covered with mementos like his 1930s Old Kraftsman guitar signed by Willie Nelson.
Back on Main Street, even Bastrop law offices become tourist attractions as visitors pose for photos beneath the old-timey hand-painted shingle of fifth-generation Bastropian Joe Grady Tuck.
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Gene Fowler is an Austin writer who specializes in history.