If you’re the type of motorist who doesn’t mind stopping every few miles to read a brief tidbit of history by the side of the road, you can put together a pretty fair sketchbook of Texas’ past just from the historical markers scattered all over the state.
For instance, you can follow Sam Houston from where he first splashed across the Red River into Texas to a number of places where he lived, fought, slept or speechified. Want to know where he went in the 1860s to bathe his lingering wounds from the Battle of San Jacinto? There’s a marker for that, at Sour Lake in Hardin County.
With more than 15,000 markers in the state, all placed by the Texas Historical Commission, there is a lot of noted history that most people have never heard of. Most people don’t live where the marker is located and wouldn’t otherwise know that the community of Fairy in Hamilton County was named for Fairy Fort, “the petite daughter of pioneer settlers Battle and Sallie Fort” or that a space alien (allegedly) crashed his, hers or its spacecraft near Aurora in 1897 and is (allegedly) buried in the Aurora Cemetery.
Some of the markers, like that one, have a Ripley’s Believe It or Not quality, partly because research for the markers is a bottom-up process, meaning that it usually starts with a local historian or historical society. Oral history is usually identified as such. The marker in the Aurora Cemetery, for instance, doesn’t say that a being from another planet is buried there—only that the story is told. Ditto the legend of the Marfa Lights in Presidio County.
The historical commission has a list of “Undertold Markers” that commemorates dozens of significant but otherwise forgotten events, sites or personages that don’t always get their historical due. These could be called the “Who knew?” markers. The list includes a marker in Shelby County recognizing the Choctaw tribe for its overlooked contributions to the state’s history and one in Taylor for cartoonist Tex Avery, who created Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck and had a lot to do with Porky Pig, too.
The curious traveler of a certain age who stops at some of these markers might also experience a moment of “I thought everybody knew …” because the marker might highlight an actual personal memory. We might not think of ourselves as part of the historical record, but we are.
Bob Brinkman, coordinator of the historical markers program for the commission, notes that the Cold War is turning 50, which makes some Texas sites prime prospects for markers. He says the Atlas ICBM Launch Facility in Taylor County, built in the heart of the Cold War in 1961, is the first 20th-century addition to the commission’s Texas Forts Trails.
“I think people are surprised when they find a marker commemorating something they actually witnessed or something that was part of their life, like the Texas International Pop Festival in Denton County,” Brinkman says. “It took place in 1969, just a couple of weeks after Woodstock, but it’s a powerful memory for a lot of people.”
The most adventurous way to encounter some of this undiscovered or rediscovered history is to simply get in your car, start driving and stop when you come to a historical marker. A more systematic approach could include a visit to the THC website, where the markers can be searched by county or keyword.
There’s also an app for that. Atomic Axis: The Texas Historical Landmark App for iOS devices is available for $3.99 in the iTunes store.
Clay Coppedge, a member of Bartlett EC, lives near Walburg.