As one of Texas’ first public parks, Pease Park has a rich and storied history. From native civilizations evidenced as early as 11,400 years ago, to Edwin Waller's city map in 1839, to Governor Pease's donation of land in 1875, to Janet Fish constructing the nation's first hike-and-bike trail - Pease Park is an integral civic landmark in modern Austin. For a quick education in the park's history, check out this video done by PPC Board Member Dan VanTreeck.
Archaeologists have determined that the earliest ancestors of the Native Americans were in Central Texas 11,400 years ago, and they undoubtedly found the Shoal Creek Valley an attractive place to live. This was a time when the drought was ending and the great glaciers were retreating back across Canada. The Central Texas area was becoming green and luxuriant, and some of the now extinct ice age animals like giant bison were still here. Native American tribes wintered in Texas and in the summer followed the bison herds across the great plains.
In the early to mid 1800’s, as Austin’s population grew and the settlers pushed outward from the central city, the Natives resisted private land ownership around the Shoal Creek, wanting to maintain access to the pristine waters. In March of 1842, Mexican General Rafael Vasquez, invaded Texas and captured San Antonio. Many residents of Austin and the vicinity fled. Encounters between Native Americans and the settlers became more frequent and aggressive, resulting in numerous deaths.
As early as 1835, armed encounters between the new settlers and the Native Americans resulted often in a number of deaths. One such incident was the 1835 kidnapping of Sarah Hibbins, her husband, two children and mother, while traveling back home to Austin from Tennessee.
As they were crossing the Colorado river, near their home in what was called Dewitt’s Colony, a band of Native Americans captured the group and Hibbins’ husband, mother, and infant child were killed in the encounter. Hibbins escaped her captors the following night, and waded down Shoal Creek so as not to leave any tracks. She traveled about 10 miles east towrd the settlements on the Colorado river. Hibbin’s 6 year old son was later rescued and returned to his mother. By 1850, all vestiges of Native Americans living around Shoal Creek had disappeared.
Two Union Cavalry, the 2nd Wisconsin and the 7th Indiana, were encamped along Shoal Creek from November 3, 1865 to February 4, 1866. George Custer and his troops were sent to Texas under the Congressional Reconstruction Plan to “put down” robbery and bloodshed caused by a “rough element” of post war opportunists. Cholera swept through the camp, killing a reported 35 to 40 men, all of whom were buried along the west-side of Pease Park. All but seven bodies were located and re-interred in the 1880’s to the National Cemetery at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. The flood of 1900 washed the seven overlooked bodies out of the ground. They were then re-interred at Austin’s Oakwood Cemetery, where they lie in state today.
Shoal Creek was given its name by Edwin Waller, who used it as a the western boundary of Austin while laying out the original town-site (called Waterloo) in 1839. A shoal is a place in any body of water where the water is especially shallow. This nine-mile intermittent stream is fed by natural underground springs and carries rainwater south to the Colorado River, emptying into Town Lake.
The site of today’s Pease District Park was part of the 365-acre Woodlawn Plantation owned by former Texas Governor & Mrs. E.M. Pease and stands as part of their continuing legacy in Austin. Their gracious 1853 antebellum plantation house of the same name still sits a mere two blocks west of the park’s boundary today. Governor Pease and his wife acquired it in 1857. They raised both raised crops for their family on this beautiful property northwest of town.
Originally from Enfield, Connecticut, the twenty-three year old Pease moved to Texas in 1835. He was a bright and ambitious attorney and soon became active in the Texas Independence movement. He held several offices in the new Republic of Texas government, including serving as Texas Comptroller for a time. After Texas was annexed to the Union in 1845, he served in both the House and Senate of the Texas Legislature, representing Brazoria and Galveston counties. Pease went on to be elected Governor in 1853 and 1855. He is remembered both as a progressive, the father of Texas public education who laid the financial foundation for the state’s schools and colleges, and as fiscal conservative who paid off the state’s debts.
Although, he was a slave owner, Pease strongly supported the Union cause during the American Civil War. He and his wife remained in Austin for the duration of the conflict and kept a discreet low profile in civic affairs. After the war, he became a leader of the state Republican Party. Union General Philip H. Sheridan appointed Pease as the civilian Governor of Texas during Reconstruction in 1867. Pease tried to steer a middle course between the more radical policies of some Republicans and his unreconstructed ex-Confederate fellow Texans. This proved an impossible task given the heated temperament of the times and he resigned in 1869.
After leaving politics, he and his wife Lucadia looked to their legacy in their adopted state. Mrs. Pease had always enjoyed carriage rides along the banks of the Shoal Creek below their plantation house. She regarded it as the “prettiest part” of their property. The Pease family traveled back to the East frequently to visit relatives. They were certainly aware of the development of Central Park in New York City and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, designed by fellow Connecticut-born Frederick Law Olmsted. Public parks were being developed in cities all across the country after the Civil War as part of the nascent “City Beautiful” movement and the Pease’s wanted their adopted home of Austin to keep up with the times.
On August 25, 1875 Governor & Mrs. Pease signed a deed to 23 acres of land along Shoal Creek to the citizens of Austin “for use as a public park.” However, improvements to the space were not immediately forthcoming. Governor Pease died in 1883 without seeing his dream of a developed park become a reality. Lucadia wrote a letter recounting that the family had opened a road through their pasture to the city but it has become a dumping ground for neighbors. She wrote “… dead horses, cows and pigs are brought and deposited there.”
Lucadia Pease lived on in Woodlawn until 1905, long enough to see the park fully appreciated and used by Austin residents if not quite fully developed yet. She and her daughter Julia attended the annual Volunteer Fireman’s picnic in the park on San Jacinto Day, April 21, 1903. A.P. Wooldridge, who later became Austin’s mayor, gave a speech on the occasion extolling the Pease’s generous gift in the long-winded fashion typical of the time. His prepared remarks were reported in the Austin Statesman:
“How grateful should our people be the noble founder of the park. In giving this spot, Governor Pease thought alone of their contentment and pleasure and happiness. He loved Austin and her people and took great pride in her beauty and progress…He had great faith in Austin… [I]s it not a duty for the health and happiness of our people that we should provide ample and appropriate places for their recreation and leisure?” He summed up by calling on the City to “… forever maintain a large and beautiful park [at Pease] for the health and happiness of our people.”
In 1926, the Austin Kiwanis Club committed to beautifying Pease Park. Club member Frank Rundell, who lived on Wooldridge Drive for many years, served as general contractor for the project. According to the Austin Statesman, $4,500 was appropriated for a rest room, $1,000 for the memorial entrance gates, $1,200 for the wading pool, and $1,600 for a low water dam.
After its 1926 beautification, Pease Park thrived with parties, concerts, Easter Egg Hunts, and many other public and private functions.
The old restroom, known as the Tudor Cottage, is widely believed to have been designed by noted architecture firm Giesecke & Harris. The Cottage is one of the earliest buildings constructed in Austin as a park facility. The restrooms were designed in the mid-1920s. Giesecke & Harris Austin High School Annex and Lee Elementary, as well as the Merchants and Manufacturers Building in Houston.
The bridge was built in July 1928 in only 28 days to bring potential buyers across Shoal Creek to new neighborhoods. It incorporates a difficult decorative concrete technique and was declared one of the most beautiful bridges in Texas. In 1939, the bridge was widened to four lanes and was a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project stemming from the Great Depression. In 1988, the city planned to demolish the bridge to widen Windsor Road to six lanes, but many citizens, including Senator Ralph Yarborough, lobbied to preserve the bridge and it was given protected historic landmark status that year.
In 1952, Janet Long Fish, daughter of Austin community leader, Walter E. Long had the idea that a walkthrough path along the roadbed of the old Comanche trail would help preserve the disappearing road, which ran from the shoal of the Colorado river up along Shoal Creek to 34th Street where it crossed the creek and continued west and north into the hills.
She persuaded the Austin City Council to approve the construction of the hike and bike trail from Pease Park to 39th street, spending her own money, time and effort in getting it done.
For four years, Fish led a bulldozer along the trail to grade it according to the City requirements. One day she disappeared into the six foot high ragweed. From then on, she threw her hat into the air every few steps so that the bulldozer driver could follow her.
Since 1961, the City of Austin has maintained and patrolled the trail. Many other individuals, serving as volunteers for community service organizations including the Junior League of Austin and the Austin Metro Trails and Greenways, have contributed time, effort and money towards the preservation of Shoal Creek.
Eeyore’s Birthday Party, started in the 1963 as a spring part for Department of English students at the University of Texas, has been hosted at Pease Park since the 1970's. The event was named for Eeyore, the chronically depressed donkey in A.A. Milne's "Winnie the Pooh" stories. Eeyore believes his friends have forgotten his birthday only to discover that they have planned a special celebration for him. etc.
The party became a much-loved Austin tradition. The photo to the left shows Lady Bird Johnson and her daughter at one of the first Eeyore's. The Birthday Party occurs annually on the last Saturday in April. The event draws folks from all different backgrounds, but provides everyone with an opportunity to let their guard down a bit and celebrate what's always a fun day!
Pease Park is a contributing element to the Old West Austin Historic District. Pease Park forms the eastern boundary of the historic district. Many of Pease's historic elements contribute to the designation; including the WPA picnic tables throughout the park, the stone walls along the Shoal Creek Trail and along Kingsbury, the West 24th Street Bridge, both the Upper and Lower Shoal Creek Bridges, and the West 29th Street Bridge.
Recently, Pease Park was recognized by the Texas Recreation & Park Society as a Lone Star Legacy Park. This prestigious honor recognizes the cultural significance of Pease Park.