century and a half before anyone would think of producing a "Keep
Austin Weird" bumper sticker voters in the capital city did not
always model the rest of Texas.
Take the Civil War for instance.
When the Legislature
put the matter of secession up to the people of Texas on Feb. 23,
1861, most of the state's 122 organized counties voted to leave
the union. But not Travis
County and 17 others, where returns showed that voters stood
against leaving the Union.
After the war began, however, most Austin
residents pitched in for the Southern cause. Meanwhile, many of
those who had cast their ballot against secession found it expedient
to leave town if not the state.
On Jan. 11, 1862, the Legislature established a three-member body
known as the Texas Military Board. Its charge was overseeing the
provision of supplies and ordnance for the defense of the state,
including establishing a foundry to produce ordnance. The act left
it to the board to decide where such a facility should be located,
and they soon choose Austin.
But the capital city was still more town than city. The 1860 U.S.
Census had found only 3,460 residents. A summary of the federal
head count listed these occupations: "16 blacksmiths, 4 bakers,
2 brewers, 3 beer slingers, 4 barbers, 3 bookkeepers, 7 brick masons,
3 butchers, 64 carpenters, 107 clerks, 4 carriage makers, 1 Comanche
Indian, 5 dentists, 4 druggists, 3 editors, 7 engineers, 470 farmers,
12 gardeners, 6 gentlemen, 35 laborers, 4 land agents, 2 livery
keepers, 51 lawyers, 8 general mechanics, 53 merchants, 2 milliners,
3 millers, 17 ministers, 2 music teachers, 2 mail contractors, 25
physicians, 2 plasterers, 16 stone masons, 46 stock raisers, 14
saddlers, 6 silversmiths, 5 shoe makers, 6 seamstresses, 2 surveyors,
6 'sports,' 18 teamsters, 18 teachers, 8 traders, 3 tinkers, 8 tailers
[sic], 68 widows, 8 waggoners [sic], and a few others."
Clearly, Austin was far
from being a manufacturing center. Essentially the only industry
it had was a saddlery, a wagon factory, tin and sheet metal works
and other light, locally focused manufacturing. Not only would the
necessary heavy machinery have to be shipped to Austin, other than
the few local tradesmen who had not yet joined or been conscripted
into the military, the city lacked a skilled labor force.
The state selected a site between Trinity and Neches streets along
Waller Creek and began construction of a substantial frame building
for the foundry. As the building went up, the agent tasked with
finding needed equipment bought machinery and metal in Galveston
In addition to the not-yet-online foundry, the board was able to
get a percussion cap manufacturing operation up and running in the
six-year-old Land Office Building on the Capitol grounds. Percussion
caps were needed for the cap and ball revolvers and rifles of the
Meanwhile, by January 1863, the foundry had begun partial operation.
Initially producing metal fixtures and tools needed for the completion
of the plant, workers went on to manufacture everything from a machine
for loading percussion caps to wooden caissons, wagon carriages
and limbers to bronze and iron artillery pieces. But the growing
scarcity of raw material (thanks largely to the mostly successful
U.S. naval blockade of the South) and a chronic shortage of manpower
prevented the foundry from completing its ordnance in time for it
to have done any good for the Confederacy.
Still, despite the obstacles, the foundry did succeed in manufacturing
some cannon and their accessories. A correspondent for the Houston
Telegraph wrote from Austin
on Jan. 18, 1865 that he had "spent a day or two examining the State
factories in this city" and had been "agreeably surprised" at their
At the foundry, he reported, he saw two batteries of "splendid brass
guns-one… six-pounder-and four 12-pound howitzers." Indeed, he continued,
"They are models of beauty and perfection, equal to any I have seen
during the war, and are completed equipped for field service."
No matter their quality the Austin-made artillery could have no
impact unless they reached the Confederate military. And they never
did. By spring the Confederacy had been defeated and the field pieces
produced at the foundry still sat in the capital city.
Shortly after federal troops occupied Austin
in late July 1865, an inventory at the foundry found on hand two
12-pound howitzers, eight 6-pound guns, 12 caissons, 10 gun carriages
and 22 limbers. All, a 21st century scholar would later write, amounted
to "mute and defiant proof that the foundry did, in the end, accomplish
its purpose, albeit too late to affect the fighting."
The Austin foundry was
more successful in another effort to support the South's war effort.
Area farmers struggling to produce corn, wheat, vegetables and cotton
were able to get their implements and light machinery repaired there.
Not long after the war, fire destroyed the facility.