History of the Kent Butler Ecological Reserve

In 2011, the Kent Butler Ecological Reserve was named in honor of Dr. Kent Butler, a prominent environmental advocate in Central Texas. The Reserve, 942 acres between 2222 and the top of Jester Boulevard in northwest Austin, has some of the best golden-cheeked warbler habitat within the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve system, due partly to the gentle use of the land since settlers came into the area that was to become Austin.

The recorded history of Austin began in 1837 when the village of Waterloo was founded on the banks of the Colorado River. In 1839, Waterloo became Austin, the capital of the Republic of Texas. At that time, only 850 people lived in Austin, and the area west of Austin, including where the Kent Butler Ecological Preserve is now, was a wooded wilderness known as a hiding place for Indians and outlaws.

After the Civil War (1865) permanent settlers began to move into the hill country northwest of the town, making a living mostly from the cedar. In 1870, Austin was named the permanent capital of Texas, and the population had grown to 4,428. Cedar logs were required for the foundation piers of homes, stove wood, and fence posts. Railroads were being built, requiring cedar logs for railroad ties. In 1875, 30,000 cedar trees were rafted down the Colorado River from the hills and shipped out via the railroad. By 1883, the population of Austin had grown to 17,000.

In 1886 one pioneer, J.W. Beard, bought 320 acres in what is now the canyon in the southern part of the Kent Butler Ecological Reserve, and his great granddaughter, Nancy Cochran, shared her family’s memories of life in “the hollow” at the turn of the 20th century. There were only a few families and the people who worked for them living in the hollow at that time. The men who owned land were called “Mister,” and the men who worked on the land but didn’t own it were called “Old Man.” There was a one-room schoolhouse at the top of the hill. The people living here mostly stayed in the hills and expected the city folk to come no farther than Bull Creek. The main entrance to the Beard family’s land was off Bull Creek Road (2222)—a wagon trail at that time—where the restored Beard family cabin stands today. The hill folk drank from the streams and swam in swimming holes, and when the creeks ran dry, they dug in the gravel to get the water they needed to fill cauldrons for washing clothes. One spring was named for Tanacio, a man who worked for Mister Beard. It was said that Tanacio was wanted for killing a man in Mexico.

The hill folk lived a self-sufficient lifestyle in the open air. They hunted rabbit, squirrel, quail, and sometimes deer. One family at the top of the hill had a peach orchard, and there were several stills in the hollow. The Beard cabin had a grape arbor, and the family had a vegetable garden where they grew corn, beans, and tomatoes. Nancy’s grandmother made cough syrup out of mullein and cherry bark. Nancy’s father was of somewhat poorly health as a boy, and his parents would send him down from Fort Worth on the train to spend the summers in the hills, to live in the fresh air, sleep under the stars, and grow strong.

The families raised chickens, had a few head of cattle, and used mules for transportation, but the only goats on the land were the ones that occasionally escaped from the gamekeepers’ place on the next hill over. To feed their animals, the families grew corn in several cleared fields in the hollow. The main source of income for the hill folk was the wood they chopped to sell to the city folk and ranchers for charcoal, stove wood, or fence posts. The land was generally clearer than it is now, though the property was never clear cut.

In the early 1920s the city of Austin continued to grow, and the number of people living in the hollow declined. As gas became available for cooking and heating throughout the city, there was less demand for charcoal and stove wood. As the automobile became a dominant mode of transportation, the railroad industry and the demand for railroad ties decreased. Many of the hill folk moved to town, and stayed in town during and after the Great Depression. The fields in the hollow were no longer cleared for crops. Bull Creek Road, now 2222, was paved in 1935. The families sold their land to commercial developers, and in 1997 the City of Austin bought the 942 acres for $4.5 million to be part of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. In the past 80 years the land that is now the Kent Butler Ecological Reserve has reestablished itself as undisturbed, old-growth, spring-fed juniper and oak forest in deep canyons, ideal habitat for golden-cheeked warblers.