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Friday, February 21, 2014

Past Perfect: Llano, Texas

The Llano County courthouse, built in 1893 and still in use.
By Kathleen Rice Adams

One of the reasons I write western historical fiction is a deep-seated fascination with the people, places, and events that have made the world what it is today. I can spend hours lost in reference books, libraries, museums, out-of-the-way internet sites ... and simply walking the streets of Small Town America, communing with the spirits of the past.

As big as Texas is, people like me can't swing a dead cat without hitting a thoroughly engaging historical tidbit. While researching locations for future stories, I stumble across all sorts of tiny Texas towns that by all rights should have disappeared, yet they soldier on. Llano, Texas, is one such place.

Llano (pronounced LAN-oh) is located in the Texas Hill Country about an hour north of Austin, very near the geographic center of Texas. Founded in response to a legislative act creating Llano County in February 1856, the town was established June 14 of the same year. A public vote under a live oak tree on the south side of the Llano River chose the town's location: a tract of 250 acres donated by a local rancher.

The area boomed from 1886-1893 after iron ore deposits were discovered in nearby Iron Mountain. With high hopes for the future, the Llano Improvement and Furnace Company embarked upon a mission to build an iron furnace and foundry. Land speculators from Dallas and northern states poured into the area with investment money, wanting to be part of "the Pittsburgh of the West." The population soared to 7,000 in 1890, encouraging the Austin and Northwestern Railroad to extend its line to a terminal on the north side of what promised to be a thriving metropolis. Increased access to transportation attracted granite quarrying and finishing companies intent on profiting from the abundance of granite in the surrounding hills.

Then the bubble burst: The iron ore deposits proved insufficient for commercial exploitation, and the Llano Improvement and Furnace Company abandoned its project. The company's withdrawal threw the town's big plans into disarray. Although charters had been sold to construct a dam, an electric power plant, a streetcar system, and electric streetlights, only a small dam and the streetlights were completed. Speculators and local businesses lost fortunes as a result.

A wagon hauls a slab of granite through the streets
of Llano in this undated postcard photo.
A series of fires in the early 1890s, probably set to collect insurance money, destroyed much of the town; consequently, insurance companies refused to provide any coverage in the area for a number of years.

The granite processors remained. Today, Llano's primary industries are farming, ranching, and granite quarrying and finishing. The town's population is roughly 3,000 people except during November and December, when the undisputed "Deer Capital of Texas" overflows with hunters.

Do y'all ever find yourselves swept away by the history of a place? Ever wish you could travel back in time for just a few hours to witness the glory days of a thriving Old West town? Tell us about your favorite spots in the comments!


  1. Llano certainly is interesting in that it should've died but didn't. Thanks for the interesting write-up.

    One of the intriguing places here in Washington is Whidbey Island. It was first mapped by George Vancouver in 1792, although the Spanish had visited a few years before. Langley is a quaint vintage town with the best onion rings at the Doghouse Cafe you'll ever find. It's an artsy-craftsy place and historic, too. Then there's Fort Casey built in the 1890s with huge guns to shoot down the Spanish vessels that might be inclined to attack during the Spanish-American War. It's now a 500-acre park and the kids love to go there.

    Actually, the whole island is interesting. We seriously considered buying property there when we first moved to the Seattle area. Hmmm, but now you have me thinking... I should write my next Prairie Rose blog on Silver City, Idaho. :)

    1. Yes, you SHOULD write your next PRP blog about Silver City, Idaho! I've been curious about that place ever since the post about stagecoaches, you tease. ;-)

      Whidbey Island has been on my list of places to visit for a long time. The whole island sounds charming from what I've heard and read. Old forts can be fun to poke around in, and artists villages are always inspiring. Thanks for bringing up Whidbey!

  2. Kathleen, I'd heard of Llano, but just in passing--didn't know anything about the history of it. Very interesting post--as always.

    Whidbey Island sounds fantabulous, too, Jacquie.

    You know, I can't really think of any ONE place I'd like to visit--what I'd like to do is take about a month and just go from one place to another--so many little ghost towns and out-of-the way places--one place I'd love to have seen in all its glory is the 101 Ranch. Nothing left of it today--it was destroyed completely. I've always been so glad for the pictures we have of the beautiful home that was once there, and the "Wild West Show". I'd also love to see the cathedral up by Hayes KS that was built back in the 1800's by the Catholic church. Well, the list goes on and on...LOL

    1. ACK! Sliding in way late here. Darn day job. :-D

      I would have loved to have visited the 101 back in its heyday, too, Okie. What a wondrous place that must have been! I so wish the house could have been saved.

      I remember taking family vacations by car as a kid, and Daddy always seemed to be pulling off at some out-of-the-way remnant of some long-gone something-or-another. We wandered through old mining caves, abandoned towns ... all sorts of places. It's a wonder we ever arrived at whatever destination we originally set out to reach! :-D Those were such fun excursions, though.

      You're right! That kind of road trip would be a dream come true, wouldn't it? :-)

  3. I enjoyed this little church of history, Kathleen. I think it's interesting and fun exploring little towns. Not only does it bring back bits of nostalgia with their old store fronts and quiet friendliness, but also the wonderment of how they managed to survive the years without a Wal-Mart or shopping mall. They do peak my curiosity and I want to know their history.
    This was such an interesting post, Kathleen. Makes me want to go on a little road trip.

    1. There's probably a Wal-Mart in Llano now, Sarah. :-\

      Tell you what: You, Cheryl, and I need to pack up the car and head out on one of those epic road trips! We could terrorize the entire West. ;-)

    2. Count me in on that road trip. I have my backpack packed and my Cheerwine and Moon pie ready to go.

  4. Fascinating as usual,. I'm surprised I haven't seen you ghosting around in those out of the way internet sites. The joke I tell on myself and Texas is when driving to San Antonio to visit a friend and attend a conference my car kept wanting to stop at all the historic markers. (I had nothing to do with my cars behavior I swear!). When driving Texas you go a mile and see a marker, go another mile and see cactus and on and on. Loved it. Doris

    1. Doris, you definitely have to come with us on the road trip! Of course, then we'll never get anywhere, with all of us yelling "STOP!" every few feet. :-D

  5. Sorry I'm hopping in late today. Very interesting post, as always, Tex! I'm with you there are some places I'd like to go back and see in their hayday. Two of these being: Virginia City, Montana and South Pass City, Wyoming. Both did a whole lotta living during their short existences and packed in a million years of memories in the short time they were given.

  6. Late getting here, but what a great post! You always craft the most interesting articles, Tex. Even Cap'n Scruffy liked this'n. We read it together. HUGS!!

    ~ Owl