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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Thermopylae

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

In the late 1950s or early 1960s, a worker bulldozing a trench during construction of a new building at the Granite Mountain Quarry near Marble Falls made a discovery that created a mystery still unsolved.

Four feet down, the machine's heavy metal blade struck something hard. Climbing from his seat to see what he had hit, the operator found a chunk of concrete or plaster. Soon he found several other pieces. Brushing the dirt from the larger piece, he could make out one word indented on the smooth side of the object: "Thermopylae."

Someone took the jagged fragment stamped with that unusual word to Mrs. Marie Houy, librarian and keeper of a small museum in Marble Falls. About 10 inches long, it looked like a piece of some kind of monument or marker. But what did the artifact commemorate and what was it doing at the Burnet County granite quarry? Neither the librarian, a longtime area resident then in her early 70s, nor anyone else she contacted had any idea.

The only clue was that one word, "Thermopylae."

Checking the library's not-so-up-to-date encyclopedia set, Mrs. Houy read that in ancient times Thermopylae had been the only northern entrance to Greece. It had been defended bravely if unsuccessfully against invading Persians.

While Mrs. Houy had not heard of that Grecian city until she looked it up, in the 19th century educators stressed the classics much more than they would in the following century. In the 1800s, many well-schooled individuals knew the story of the 480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae.

Given the general similarity between the Grecian fight and the Alamo, the figurative ruins of Thermopylae lay ripe for use as metaphor. The Telegraph and Texas Register, in an editorial published March 24, 1836 -- only two weeks after the massacre in San Antonio -- called the battle "the Thermopylae of Texas." That comparison having been made, others picked up on it. Republic of Texas Vice President Edward Burleson later used the analogy in a speech said to have been ghost-written by General Thomas J. Green. In this talk, Burleson famously recited, "Thermopylae had her messenger of defeat; the Alamo had none."

In 1841, some stones from the ruins of the crumbling Spanish mission in San Antonio were removed and transformed into a monument honoring the dead defenders. Englishman William B. Nangle, a sculptor, fashioned the piece. A tapered shaft resting on an ornately carved base, the commemorative work rose 10 feet. Originally displayed in San Antonio as a commercial venture, but subsequently discarded, the monument later was purchased by the state following Texas' admission to the Union.

Most pertinent in regard to the mystery object found just west of Marble Falls, the Alamo monument bore Burleson/Green's words comparing the Alamo to Thermopylae.

The statue stood in the vestibule of the 1853-vintage limestone state house until fire gutted the building in 1881. Collapsing interior beams and walls, not to mention the intense heat, wrecked the monument.

After the fire, Judge John P. White, picking through the ashes and debris hoping to salvage what state property he could, found the portion of the shaft containing verbiage on each side. Even though the Alamo memorial was only 40 years old at the time, the judge appreciated its historical significance and kept it seven years. Then, in 1888, he conveyed it to L.L. Foster, state commissioner of insurance, statistics, history and agriculture.

The state retained the monument remnant until passing it on to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas for display in the museum the DRT maintained in the Old General Land Office building across from the current Capitol. Exactly when that transfer occurred has not been determined, but the Handbook of Texas has it there by 1950. It remained on display until September 1989, when the DRT returned the remnant to the state preparatory to moving its museum to a new location.

"How the pieces landed here we do not know, unless they hauled it off, after the fire, to get it out of the way at the time they were bringing granite blocks from here to Austin for the new Capitol," Mrs. Houy wrote of the Marble Falls artifacts in 1963.

The remnant held by the state includes the Thermopylae wording, which rules out any possibility that the pieces found near Marble Falls came from the original Alamo monument. What seems likely, though no documentation has been found, is that during construction of the new red granite Capitol the quarry may have been commissioned to make a granite replica of the monument. But for whatever reason, that did not happen and the quarry broke up and disposed of what might have been a concrete prototype or a casting from the original.

And now another mystery: The Marble Falls fragment with the word "Thermopylae" has since gone missing. Mrs. Houy died in 1989, just shy of her 100th birthday. The library she once ran in an old downtown building got a new home in the 1990s and the Marble Falls museum, now known as the Falls of the Colorado Museum, has its home in the old Marble Falls school house. While the puzzling artifacts Mrs. Houy curated presumably ended up in the Falls of the Colorado collection, no one there knows anything about a piece of concrete bearing the simple legend of "Thermopylae."



Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" September 7, 2016 column




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