The coast near
TE Photo May 2003
in a Seashell
Founded by Preston Rose Austin and Jesse C. McDowell in 1911, the
town's name is a combination of the two. Together, the two communities
make up the Refugio County Riviera - a small stretch of scenic beachfront
that gives Refugio Countians access to the water without entering
Aransas or Calhoun counties.
The town was once the terminus of a spur of the St. Louis, Brownsville
and Mexico Railway. Austin's far-sighted plans for both Tivoli
and Austwell connected the two cotton-growing communities with the
market in Victoria.
In 1912 Austwell was granted a post office. Although a wharf was built,
the bay was too shallow for the town to develop as a port. Austwell
was damaged by hurricanes in 1919 and 1942.
Phillip Sawyer, welder, shrimper, fisherman, boatwright and farmer
Photo May 2003
We first saw Mr. Sawyer standing near a mysterious bottle-shaped structure
that looks like a cross between a really large milk bottle and a tile
silo. We thought he might know what this structure was and indeed
- he did.
He also knew the location of at least five other of these structures
- in Moulton,
and a couple of other places we can't remember. He told us that these
were cotton boll incinerators from the 1940s. Before bolls were ground
into cattle feed or compost like they are today, they were disposed
of by dousing them with diesel fuel and setting them ablaze in these
brick chimneys.The flames heated water which generated steam which
in turn provided power for the gin.
The fire engine in the photo was declared surplus by the city when
they recently got a new engine. Phillip was offered the truck and
took them up on their offer. How many miles would a 1954 International
Harvester fire engine from coastal
Texas have on it after 50 years of service? A mere 800 miles.
That comes to about 15 miles per year - including parades.
The boat in the photo is a project of Mr. Sawyer who said he'll be
calling it quits on the shrimping business after he launches this
(his 14th) boat.
When we drove up, Mr. Sawyer was hunting squash and cucumbers from
a garden without benefit of rows. He explained the lack of order by
describing his planting method - which is to just throw the seeds
randomly about. The garden was remarkably productive considering that
the ground was just slightly harder than the granite crust that covers
Small World Stories - Coastal Texas Files
Phillip was drafted after finishing High School in Alice,
Texas in 1966. Sent to Vietnam and assigned to an engineer battalion,
one of his jobs was to keep the company's trucks rolling, despite
shortages and nightmarish backlogs of spare parts. Near his unit was
a graveyard of army vehicles that were damaged and placed in a compound
lined with concertina wire. The vehicles were also guarded. In a combat
zone this means armed guards. The guards were to prevent black-marketers
from stealing and selling the remaining functioning parts.
One day after crawling through the wire and liberating a battery and
tire for a 21/2 ton truck, he was surprised by a guard. Even more
surprising was the fact that the guard called him by name. "Sawyer,
where are you going with that?" The guard turned out to be an old
Alice High friend who Phillip had trouble recognizing at first due
to a 30-pound weight loss. After a brief reunion - Phillip left -
with two batteries and two tires - thanks to the guard putting down
his rifle and helping out.
It is indeed a small world - but like the comedian said - "I wouldn't
want to paint it."
Mrs. Sawyer comes from Hershey, Pennsylvania - a place that Mr. Sawyer
has never officially visited. He has, however, memorized some staggering
statistics on the company's milk and cacao bean stockpiles. Example:
It takes the daily milk production of 50,000 cows to make one day's
run of chocolate bars
Thanks to Mr. Sawyer's knowledge and hospitality we can now identify
boll-burning chimneys, and we've got some idea of fire engine mileage.
We continued on our way - loaded down with Refugio zucchini, yellow
squash and onions, all grown in the former yard of a cotton gin.
Personal note to Mr. Sawyer - You were right, the onions really
can be eaten like apples.
County 1920s Map showing Austwell
Courtesy Texas General Land Office
Escapes, in its purpose to preserve historic, endangered and vanishing
Texas, asks that anyone wishing to share their local history
and vintage/historic photos, please contact