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"Letters from Central Texas"

Blind Man’s Town

by Clay Coppedge
They called the man who founded Marble Falls “Stovepipe” because of a sneaky trick he pulled off as a Confederate commander in the Civil War. The town he founded was called Blind Man’s Town because he was blind when he laid out the streets of the town by memory.
View of the lake near Marble Fall, Texas
Marble Falls
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Adam “Stovepipe” Rankin Johnson came to Texas from Kentucky in 1854, at age 20, and settled in Hamilton Valley in Burnet County but he rambled far and wide. A surveyor by trade, he surveyed much of West Texas before any vestiges of civilization had arrived there. He ranged from Buffalo Gap in today’s Taylor County and ventured west of the Pecos River long before Judge Roy Bean instituted his peculiar brand of law and order in the region. He transported goods and animals to isolated Butterfield Overland Mail stations.

Johnson first saw his future home in 1854 when he rode down the Colorado River from Fort Mason to see the “great falls” which were also called the “marble falls.” The falls, which are covered now by the waters of Lake Marble Falls, are located just upriver from the present U.S. Highway 281 bridge in Marble Falls and can occasionally still be seen when the Lower Colorado River Authority lowers the water level for repairs.

As Burnet County’s first surveyor, Johnson became intrigued by the idea of harnessing the power of the Colorado to power mills and factories. He thought Shirley Shoals, west of Burnet, was a perfect site but the Civil War started before Johnson could act on the notion. He married Josephine Eastland in 1861 then went back to Kentucky and signed up as a scout under General Nathan Bedford Forrest. He rose through the ranks to become a brigadier general.

He gained the nickname “Stovepipe” when his group of 12 captured Newburgh, Indiana from a much larger Union force by mounting two stovepipes on wagon wheels to make the Union troops think they would be going to be up against some heavy artillery. In 1864, Johnson led a charge against Union soldiers in Kentucky and was accidentally shot by one of his own men. Such was the nature of the Civil War that his soldiers decided to leave Johnson on the battlefield in hopes that Union surgeons would be able to save his life. They saved his life but not his vision. Several southern newspapers actually ran his obituary 58 years too soon.

Back in Marble Falls, Johnson opened a land office and a home he called Airy Mount that still stands today. He had his young son drive him in a buggy to various spots to conduct business, guided by memory and a private vision of what the new town would look like. He obtained financing for a cotton operation and laid out a water system and a hydraulic power plant; as was the case with most things built on Central Texas rivers in those days, it was washed away by a flood.

Johnson set about having the plant rebuilt, this time utilizing tapered granite walls, but the project was never completed. A dam was built in 1925 to supply electrical power to the Marble Falls Textile Mill Company. In 1951, The Max Starcke Dam was built to form Lake Marble Falls.

Johnson also founded the Texas Mining Improvement Company and by granting a seven-mile right-of-wayand $700 he obtained the railroad that hauled granite from Granite Mountain for the new State Capitol building in Austin. He died at Burnet in 1922. His funeral services were held in the Senate Chamber of the state capitol and he was buried in the State Cemetery.

One of Johnson’s son became known as Adam Rankin Johnson, Sr. but was called Tex Johnson when he pitched in baseball’s major leagues in 1914 and 1915 and again in 1918. He also played with the Chicago Whales and Baltimore Terrapins of the old Federal League.

Though technically he should have been called Adam Rankin Johnson, Jr., that name was given to his son, who was born in Arizona (probably during spring training) but spent most of his formative years in the Burnet and Marble Falls area. He made a career of baseball, eventually becoming president of the Eastern League.

As for Marble Falls, it grew and prospered and is today a popular Hill Country recreation spot. We have to think that the blind man would be proud of his town if he could see it now.

© Clay Coppedge

"Letters from Central Texas" July 21, 2010 Column

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