By James Wear
The year was 1853. In Maryland, a 12-year-old boy by the name of John Wilkes Booth was baptized at St. Timothy’s Protestant Episcopal Church. In New York, George Crum unveiled a new snack food that would become known as the potato chip. Franklin Pierce became the 14th president of the United States, succeeding Millard Filmore. A young attorney was practicing law in Springfield, Illinois, where he was earning a nickname that would follow him throughout his lifetime — “Honest Abe.”
In Texas, a yellow fever epidemic claimed the lives of 523 persons in Galveston with more than half of the city’s population becoming sick. In Austin, a new capitol building was completed on Congress Avenue.
Some 35 miles north of Austin, an Illinois native, William Oliver Spencer, had purchased 553 acres of land. The Spencer family was just one of many settlers flowing into the area.
One evening, General Thomas Jefferson Rusk and a group of his men camped near the Spencer home, and Spencer invited Gen. Rusk for supper. After the meal, Spencer is said to have told the General of his dream to have a post office in the community. Gen. Rusk, a powerful political figure, also happened to be chairman of the Post Office Committee and agreed to draft a letter of recommendation for a post office that included Spencer being named as postmaster.
Historians report that Gen. Rusk asked Spencer what the post office should be named, and after a moment of thought, Spencer replied “Liberty Hill” as he cited the “free and easy” character of many of his fellow settlers.
The original location of the post office and community is said to have moved eastward twice over the next few years, and in 1882, when the railroad bypassed the town, it shifted once again.
More families were moving into the area, and the growth spurred a movement that led to the chartering of Liberty Normal and Business College. The school, which was located where the Liberty Hill ISD Administrative Building now stands on Forrest Street, came about after the community had built a new school building in 1882-83. According to the Texas State Historical Association, the college opened in 1895 and within just a few years had four teachers and 166 students. By 1910, the college closed and its facilities were given to the public school system.
Liberty Hill Normal produced a number of students who would go on to achieve success as adults, including John Edward Hickman. Hickman was born on a farm near Liberty Hill in 1883 and eventually was appointed Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, a position he held from 1948 until 1961.
Liberty Hill Normal was not the first school in the community; however, historians note that a one-room log cabin was built near Liberty Hill Cemetery back in 1854 that doubled as a Methodist church and school. A preacher by the name of Julius Cicero Landrum, who hailed from Atlanta, Georgia, was recruited by early pioneers John Bryson and Anthony Smith to serve in a dual role as teacher and preacher.
By 1913, Liberty Hill High School fielded its first football team, with the team playing two games that year — a loss to Marble Falls and a 40-0 win over Round Rock. Seven decades would pass before the Panthers would put together a team that qualified for the post-season playoffs. Eventually, Liberty Hill would become a dominant force on the gridiron, winning state titles in 2006 and 2007.
Students take the lead on water
For most of its existence, Liberty Hill was a community whose economy was based on farming and ranching, but the drought of the 1950’s led to many farmers being forced to find other work to support their families. The flood of 1957 also proved to be a setback for many, as high waters destroyed extensive property as well as many head of livestock.
Having an adequate water supply remains a daunting task today as city leaders seek sources to provide for the community. In 1963, the challenge of providing water was met head on by three Liberty Hill High School seniors who, as a class project, laid the groundwork for the Liberty Hill Water Supply Corporation. The late Nathan Wetzel, who would later be elected Liberty Hill’s first mayor, served as the students’ faculty advisor on the project. The students — Tony Miranda, James Myers and Margie Frazier — presented their plans to business owners who in turn offered financial support for the project, and later federal money was obtained to complete it.
With a water system in place, a group of citizens turned their attention to fire protection, and in 1967, the Liberty Hill Volunteer Fire Department was organized. Joe Ed Canady served as the department’s first chief. For the next four decades, the department developed into one of the most respected organizations in Williamson County. Led by James Pogue, the department expanded into providing first response for medical emergencies. In 2009, Williamson County Emergency Services District No. 4 assumed responsibility for providing fire protection.
Loss of school leads to new commitment
Perhaps one of the most pivotal occurrences in the community’s history occurred in 1969, when Liberty Hill High School lost its accreditation and high school students found themselves transferring to other schools, such as Leander and Georgetown, to complete their secondary education. Unwilling to continue without a high school, a group of concerned citizens met at a hair salon owned by Marjorie Bohanan where, led by Roy Williams, they formulated a plan to re-establish a high school. Williams, a member of the Bertram school board, had key contacts within the Texas Education Agency, and by 1976, Liberty Hill had regained its accreditation and a high school graduation was held with two students receiving their diplomas. By 1988, the number of graduates had grown to 69.
With a school board in place that was determined to provide Liberty Hill children with the best education possible, the trustees brought in a superintendent they believed could implement their goals. Bill Burden took the position, and as a testament to the success he brought to the school district, a Liberty Hill school campus today bears his name.
Burden, who passed away in 2009, remained active in the community even after his retirement, and was among a group of citizens who formed the Liberty Hill Development Foundation in the early 1990’s.
After receiving a donation of property from Featherlite Corporation, the Liberty Hill Development Foundation quickly set about converting the property on Loop 332 into a community park. Burden, along with Jimmy Waterston, Sam Blair and Bob Harris, donated countless hours and within a couple of years, the foursome — who had come to be known as the “Codger Construction Crew” — received their gratification as Liberty Hill youngsters played baseball on two new fields located in what today is known as Lions Foundation Park.
The Foundation also donated two acres of the property it received from Featherlite to the Liberty Hill Fire Department, which built a new station adjacent to the park. In the years since the station was built, it has been remodeled and an addition built to house an ambulance provided by Williamson County.
Paving the way for the formation of the Foundation was the Liberty Hill Chamber of Commerce, which provided seed money so that the Foundation could obtain its 501 (c) (3) status and become eligible for grants.
The current Chamber traces its roots back to 1989 when a group of Liberty Hill citizens, seeing a need for the community to have a central organization to promote businesses and the efforts of various civic clubs, organized. Within its first couple of years, the Chamber gave birth to a number of activities, including a barbecue cook-off that would grow from a tiny event into one of the premier events of its kind in the state. The Chamber also created a festival, the first of which in 1990 featured country music entertainer Johnny Bush. Bush, during remarks on stage that night, mentioned his first appearance in Liberty Hill — he was among a group of entertainers to appear at Willie Nelson’s third annual Fourth of July Picnic.
That picnic, held in 1975 in a pasture west of Liberty Hill off RR 1869, was among the most memorable events ever to have occurred in the community. Thousands flocked from all over the country to see Nelson and and a group of his friends perform on an outdoor stage. The list of performers included the Charlie Daniels Band, Kris Kristofferson and the Pointer Sisters. The late Jim Boutwell, sheriff of Williamson County at the time, later remarked to a reporter, “If I had arrested everyone that was naked or high that day, I would have filled up every jail between here and Waco.”
Fowler, other artists bring talents to Liberty Hill
But while Willie’s picnic left many memories, it was an event held a year later that would prove to have a more lasting impact on the community. Mel Fowler, a world renowned sculptor who had opened a studio in Liberty Hill, organized an international symposium that in 1976 attracted 23 artists from six countries. The result was a collection of works of art valued at more than $1 million that were given to the community. The sculptures, originally located in downtown Liberty Hill in Veterans Park, would eventually be relocated to the grounds of the new high school (where Liberty Hill Intermediate School is located today).
Fowler and Nelson dominated the headlines in the 1970’s, but just a few years later, many individuals began expressing their belief that, based on the steady growth the community was beginning to experience, the time had come for the village of Liberty Hill to become the City of Liberty Hill.
An incorporation attempt in August 1984 failed and another 15 years would pass before voters agreed to form a city government. Nathan Wetzel was elected the city’s first mayor. Council members, from the start, agreed that developing a centralized sewer system was key to economic growth in Liberty Hill, and within a few years the dream was accomplished. By 2012, the city had taken another step forward when it finalized the purchase of a sewer treatment plant from the Lower Colorado River Authority.
Women have strong influence in community
Women from all walks of life have carved their name into Liberty Hill history. Since its incorporation, the City of Liberty Hill has elected three different women to serve as mayor and numerous women have served on the school board and city council. The list of highly respected women includes professionals such as Louine Noble, who gained the love and respect of a generation of Liberty Hill students; to blue-collar women such as cafe owner Wanda Lane and flower shop owner Gloria Myers, whose love for the community was reflected in their generosity to their customers.
Today, as the rapid clip growth continues in Liberty Hill, many have recognized the importance of remembering the community’s past. Gary Spivey and Faye Canady are among that group, as both have large collections of photos and documents and other items that illustrate the early years of a community which has proven, over the years, to live up to the ideals of its early settlers.