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Remembering San Felipe de Austin

Monday 31 July 2017 at 03:01 am.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for July 27, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            A headline on the front page of the Wallis News-Review last Thursday caught my attention: “Kolkhorst Secures Additional $2M for Historic Site.” Historic sites always catch my attention!

            The news story was a report on the Eighty-fifth Texas Legislature, and included details about Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, local Austin County officials, and the Texas Historical Commission securing 2 million dollars for an expansion of the San Felipe de Austin State Historical Site near the town of San Felipe. I’m not sure they know the exact location of the original site since the town of three general stores, two taverns, a hotel, a blacksmith shop, and forty or fifty log cabins, was burned to the ground before the retreat of Santa Anna.

            Reading the article in the Wallis paper triggered some memories of the past, the first one being a Giddings High School field trip to Stephen F. Austin State Park, led by our history teacher. Actually, the only thing I remember about the trip was the tall live oak trees, with huge beards of Spanish moss hanging from the branches. I mean we had historical sites in Lee County, but no large, bearded live oak trees, -- just scrawny pin oaks.

            The second memory involved speeding tickets. In the early days of my ministry at Wallis, I made numerous trips to our sister church in Pattison, Christ Lutheran. Forgetting to slow down as I drove through the speed trap in the town of San Felipe, I was stopped by the local police three times. Two of the three times, I was let off the hook because I was a pastor, but the third time, I couldn’t convince the cop who stopped me that I was “Reverend” Spitzenberger, or that it mattered.

            As a history nerd (which I am now, but wasn’t in high school), I stopped more than once to read the historical marker, see the facsimile log buildings, the obelisk and bronze statue in the Park, and the historic old Methodist church. Stopping to observe historical sites did not undo the speeding tickets.

            With my “creative memory,” as my brother called it, and my whimsical nature, I would never make a true historian, -- that’s why “history nerd” is a better description of me.

            San Felipe de Austin during the 1820’s became the unofficial capital of the Anglo colonies in Mexican Texas. Thus conventions were held there in 1832 and 1833, with Stephen F. Austin presiding, so that colonists could express their gripes and suggestions for improvement, and later, even arguments for separate statehood (Sam Houston leading this idea). Two newspapers were published in San Felipe, one run by Gail Borden, the inventor of condensed milk.

            So why would a town be named San Felipe de Austin? The name was first suggested by Felipe de la Garza, the governor of the Eastern Interior Provinces. The “Austin” part, of course, paid homage to Stephen F. The governor came up with the rest of the name, because San Felipe de Jesus (Saint Phillip of Jesus) was the Patron Saint of Mexico City and Garza’s namesake. It seems odd that this name stuck since of the 55 delegates to the convention, not one was Tejano (all were Anglo). However, at the convention in 1835, the delegates decided against a declaration of independence.

            In 1828, there was a population of 200 at San Felipe, and in 1829, the first school was established in town. It was an “English school,” with an enrollment of 40 students, mostly boys. By the end of the next year, there were four schools in the community with a total enrollment of 77. By 1835, the population had grown from 200 to 600, second only to probably San Antonio. By October of that year, the War of Independence from Mexico began. San Felipe served as the capital of the provisional government until the Convention of 1836 met at Washington-on-the-Brazos.

            That little town has seen a lot of Texas history. For example, after the fall of the Alamo, Houston’s army retreated to San Felipe. The burning of the town was ordered as a way of keeping Santa Anna’s army from enjoying any of its benefits. Although San Felipe did not become the capital of independent Texas, it did become the first county seat of the newly established Austin County (the county seat later moved to Bellville). The 4,200 acres which make up Stephen F. Austin State Historical Park was donated to the State of Texas by the town of San Felipe in 1940.

            I am glad to have read that the Legislature has just agreed to provide additional funding to strengthen a very important historical site in our great State.

-0-

Ray Spitzenberger has retired after serving as pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, for 28 years, teaching in high school for 9 years and at Wharton County Junior College for 22.

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