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Texas | Columns | Lone Star Diary

This family tree has...
Roots Made of Cedar

by Murray Montgomery

The early cedar choppers didn't really maintain a home - many lived out of a wagon, sleeping in tents and traveling from one cedar brake to another as they looked for fresh trees. Living off the land, they hunted their meat ....

Murray Montgomery
I guess most folks, as they get older, have a desire to find out where they came from. That is, they want to know their "roots."

In our family, my mother is the resident genealogist and it is from her extensive research that this branch of the Montgomery clan gets its information about our ancestors. And on her side of the family, you might say Momma's roots are made of cedar - the fact is, she was raised up in the hill country around Austin, Texas, and was part of a family that made their living chopping down cedar trees. That's right, they were what most folks called, "Red-neck cedar choppers."

Back in the old days, cedar choppers were not highly thought of. Some considered them to be lazy or just plain trashy. Not true! Though I'm sure some had a bad reputation, for the most part they were good, hard-working people. "Some of the kindest people you'd ever want to meet," says Momma.

And as for lazy…well, have you ever taken a double-bladed ax and spent a hot day in a cedar brake chopping trees and dodging rattlesnakes? Lazy? I think not! Heck, most of us today would probably just keel over with "Cedar Fever." Momma says that she never heard of Cedar Fever back then, I guess they didn't have anyone around to tell them they were supposed to get it.
family photo
L-R. Fannie Potter Ringstaff, Margaret Ringstaff, Richard Ringsraff, Murray Montgomery Jr., Jessie Potter Montgomery, with Linda Sue Montgomery in her arms.
My grandma's maiden name was Fannie Ringstaff, and her family was in the cedar chopping business. Working in the hills west of Austin, these hard-working people made their living off the land. And it was a tough way to live. They went to work early and stayed late while trying to support their kids off meager earnings.

The Ringstaffs and their fellow choppers spent most of their time in the area know today as Westlake Hills. Those familiar with this scenic part of Austin probably have no idea that these beautiful hills once were the domain of a people who worked extremely hard from dawn till dusk - and entertained themselves at the end of the week with a night of dancing to traditional fiddle and guitar music - drinking beer and moonshine, while picnicking on the banks of Bull Creek.

Heck, I can still remember swimming in Bull Creek when I was a kid back in the 1950s - the water was clear, unpolluted, and you could see fish with the naked eye. But, over the years, Bull Creek has been turned into a contaminated stream - the old cedar choppers would probably shed a tear if they saw the place today.

Cutting wood for a living was all they knew and they did it to survive. Many of them were virtually uneducated and they got by on the strength of their physical labor - and not much else. They scratched out a living from the land, as their ancestors had always done, while striving to make ends meet. Most of the cedar was sold as posts for fence building, while part of it was turned into charcoal. Many of the families would travel into Austin and trade the charcoal for food supplies.

The early cedar choppers didn't really maintain a home - many lived out of a wagon, sleeping in tents and traveling from one cedar brake to another as they looked for fresh trees. Living off the land, they hunted their meat, with most of the prey being deer, squirrel, and rabbit. These folks were proud and independent - they might have a fist fight over nothing on a Saturday night and be friends again when they attended church on Sunday morning.

My ancestors, the Ringstaffs, chopped cedar until the years caught up with them. My great grandparents, Richard and Margaret, followed in the footsteps of their family with the same strength and traditions. Richard (Grandpa Dick) was a fiddle player and would play at the dances on Saturday night, but Sunday's were sacred to him - he'd put the fiddle down and refuse to play past midnight on Saturday.

I'm proud of the "wood-chopping" side of my family tree - those folks lived a hard life and did the best they could under the circumstances. They had their pride and didn't ask for handouts - many of them sent their sons off to war - some died serving their country, while others returned to the hills with distinguished military records. That's good enough for me.

© Murray Montgomery
Lone Star Diary
August 2003 Column

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