San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas
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July 6th, 2011
Historic trees of Hays County featured in photography exhibit


Every old tree tells a story.

To see one in Kyle, travel down Sledge Street, a couple of blocks south of Center, and take a look at the giant live oak that grows there. Auctioneers stood in this tree’s shade on Oct. 14, 1880 and sold town lots for a grid of new businesses and residences that laid the foundation for the new city of Kyle.

Well more than a century later, that tree is still known as the Kyle Auction Oak.

Stories and photos of two trees in Hays County – as well as 19 other historic trees from around the state of Texas – are on display this summer at the Texas Capitol Visitors Center in Austin. The free exhibit is titled “Living Witness: Historic Trees of Texas” and runs through Sept. 5.

“It’s a natural story and a human story all mixed together,” said Kyle Schlafer, a program supervisor at the visitors center. “The trees themselves, and some of these photographs of these trees, are really amazing. But there are also really interesting human stories relating to these trees.”

Austin-based photographer Ralph Yznaga has spent the past four years traveling the state and documenting the historic trees with vintage cameras. He grew up in Texas but said he didn’t become interested in the state’s trees until he moved away for several years, then moved back.

“I was struck by the unique character of the trees here,” he said. Many of Texas’ trees are beautiful, he added, but “it was less about the beauty than the fact that they’re survivors.”

The mammoth Goose Island Oak on the Texas Gulf Coast, for example, is believed to be at least 1,000 years old. The first tree that Yznaga photographed was in Kyle – the Kyle Hanging Tree. So the story goes, cowhands found a man hanging from a live oak in the late 1840s. They cut him down and buried him at the base of the oak. Over the years other people were buried nearby, creating what is now Kyle Cemetery on Old Post Road.

“Texas has such a rich and evocative history,” Yznaga said. “These trees witnessed that history, and they’re still with us.”

A book of Yznaga’s work, also titled “Living Witness: Historic Trees of Texas,” will be published by Texas A&M University Press in spring 2012. Both the Kyle Auction Oak and Kyle Hanging Tree will be included in the book.

Another live oak tree featured in the visitors center exhibit marks the spot in San Marcos where Sam Houston gave one of his more than 60 speeches during the gubernatorial campaign of 1857. When he had finished his speech, Houston shook hands with the crowd and kissed each of the ladies who had presented him with a handmade Texas flag.

Houston lost the election, but the tree – near the River House on the banks of the San Marcos River – is still standing. It is called the Kissing Oak.

Notable local trees

Log Cabin Oaks | San Marcos

Under these remnants of a live oak grove, situated near the west bank of the San Marcos River, early settlers built a log cabin which served as the first school and as a community center in San Marcos for more than a quarter century.

When Hays County was created and organized in 1848, the cabin served still another purpose—as the county’s first courthouse. The first district court was held in the cabin in 1850.

Much of the early history of Hays County was enacted in the shade of these historic oaks, many of which were damaged when the cabin was destroyed by fire in 1874.

Under this historic oak, which stands on the west bank of the San Marcos River in San Marcos, Senator Sam Houston made one of his more than 60 campaign addresses in an unsuccessful gubernatorial race against Hardin R. Runnels.

The date of his gala visit was July 24, 1857. A number of young ladies in the community pooled their talents and made a Texas flag which they presented to their hero.

When he had finished his address, Houston went into the crowd to shake hands with his listeners, and when he reached the ladies who had presented him the flag, he gallantly kissed each to show his added appreciation.

The tree under which Houston had spoken became known as the Kissing Oak.

Auction Oak | Kyle

Between 1870 and 1880, the International and Great Northern Railroad planned to construct a line between Austin and San Antonio. However, when the planners found that no towns lay on the route between San Marcos and Austin, they decided to establish a station town at some point along their route.

Several offers of land in northern Hays County were received, but the offer by the Ferguson Kyle and D. R. Moore families was accepted. All of the land, excepting a depot site and track right-of-way, was then deeded to the Texas Land Company for development as a town.

In less than a week, the town was surveyed and a plat recorded with the county clerk. Streets and alleys were deeded to the town, officially designated as Kyle, Texas, in honor of one of the men who donated the land. Captain Kyle was a native of Mississippi and had served as a captain with Terry’s Rangers in the War Between the States.

In the shade of this mammoth live oak, all of the business lots and most of Kyle’s residential lots were sold at auction. As an added inducement, the railroad offered free train rides to participants in the sale.

The land on which this historic tree stands was donated by the railroad in June 1881 for the construction of the town’s first school, Kyle Academy.

Hanging Tree | Kyle

Sometime in the late 1840s, cowboys from the Kyle Ranch were rounding up strays when they discovered a man hanging from a limb of a live oak about a quarter mile from Col. Claiborne Kyle’s home.

Not knowing the man’s identity or why he had been hanged, they cut the body down and buried it beside this tree in an unmarked grave. In 1849, Willie Parks, an orphan boy whom the Kyles had befriended, was also buried near the tree. Later Col. Kyle donated as a community cemetery the 15-acre plot of ground in which lie these graves.

Others buried here include Colonel John Bunton, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence; Major Edward Burleson, veteran of the Mexican War; and Col. Kyle’s son, Capt. Ferguson Kyle.

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