Preserving the Soul of Austin
Burgers, Comanches, and the Inevitability of Change
Dirty’s might finally have to close their doors. The iconic hamburger joint in Austin, Texas, which has been the source of countless greasy, delicious patties since 1926, is under threat of shutting down thanks to a new city bus lane proposal. My dad (Bob Peck III) is a thoroughly entertaining writer who shared these stories with his close friends via email in response to the latest news.
Just a few blocks north of Dirty’s on Guadalupe was a nightclub where my dad was playing saxophone with his band. Dad’s roommate at the time was a UT basketball player named Richard “Dickie” Harris, who became friends with your dad and your uncle. Cecil Morgan lived in the apartment next door.
Mr. Harris’ parents had been close friends with my mother’s parents when both couples lived in the Rio Grande Valley, so mother had known Mr. Harris since childhood. It was Mr. Harris who escorted my mother to that nightclub on Guadalupe one night and introduced his childhood friend to his roommate.
Dad and Cecil were both hamburger aficionados, and they both considered a Dirty’s burger to be the best example of this culinary category. When I was a kid, I remember both of them, at various times, discussing some burger joint they had discovered somewhere, and the metric always was, “Is it better than Dirty’s?”
Driving around Austin I often think about how much it has changed in my lifetime. When I drive by the UT football practice field, I can still see the Villa Capri Motor Hotel. At Koenig and Burnet I can still see the drive-in theater where Chris and I saw King Kong vs. Godzilla. Just down the street, I can still see the Stallion. Of course, I could go on, and I bet you could, too. And then I think about a book I once read called, Indian Depredations in Texas.
Among the depredations were a couple of Comanche attacks which took place in the mid-19th century, both in Austin. One took place at a homestead located on the banks of Shoal Creek just south of what is now 35th Street. The parents were killed and both the daughter and son were captured. The little girl was killed soon after, and her body was discovered near what is now Spicewood Springs Rd. There is no record of what happened to the boy.
The other attack took place at what is now Bartholomew Park. Five members of a scouting party were ambushed by approximately 50 braves. Two died instantly. Another member, Josiah Wilbarger, was severely wounded trying to escape and was immediately set upon by the attackers. Wilbarger’s wounds included an arrow in each leg and a musket ball which hit him in the neck and exited from his cheek. This wound temporarily paralyzed him, and the Comanches, thinking he was dead, took his scalp. Amazingly, Wilbarger survived. In fact, upon regaining consciousness, he was able to walk about 600 yards in a southeasterly direction, where he took refuge under a very large oak tree.
That night an apparition of his sister, who, unbeknownst to him, had died in Illinois the previous day, appeared to him as he lay beneath the tree. She told him not to worry, that help would be forthcoming. Then the apparition disappeared. That same night, the wife of the leader of a settlement near Bastrop, which is where the ill-fated scouting party had originated, awoke and began to shake her husband awake. “Wilbarger is alive,” she told him. A brief argument ensued in which the husband strongly asserted to his wife that the two survivors had assured him Wilbarger was dead. But the wife was insistent. “Wilbarger is alive,” she repeated.
Finally, the husband, his sleep now thoroughly interrupted, set out with a small party towards the location of the Comanche attack. Under the oak tree they found Wilbarger and returned with him to the settlement where he recovered from his wounds. only to die of them eleven years later — but not before his incredible tale made him somewhat of a local celebrity. Wilbarger’s story was later commemorated by the State of Texas in the form of a historical marker which stood for many years on 51st Street, just above the creek adjacent to the attack site.
As it happens, the Shoal Creek attack took place just a few blocks from our family’s first Austin house on Sinclair Ave. The Bartholomew Park attack took place just a few blocks from our second house on Westmoor Drive. The kids Chris and I used to hang out with in our third neighborhood on Coventry Lane considered what I believe to be the Wilbarger tree as our clubhouse.
This tree was located just west of Manor Rd. on a bluff above Tannehill/Boggy Creek. It was an old growth tree with a trunk approximately 8 feet in diameter featuring many large limbs that encircled the tree near the ground. It was easily the largest tree in the area and stood approximately 600 yards southeast of the attack location. Whether it was indeed the Wilbarger tree doesn’t really matter, though. My point is only that Austin was once an exceptionally dangerous place on the frontier before the inevitable changes, including a rapidly growing population, transformed it into the seat of our state government and the home of our revered university.
Change is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean that some things shouldn’t be preserved. If Dirty’s is torn down, Barton Springs is filled in, Lions Municipal is converted to townhouses, we will have lost some of the very things that have made Austin such a wonderful place. The Wilbarger tree has been cut down, there are no more drive-in theaters here, and the Stallion, the Villa Capri, Armadillo World Headquarters, Soap Creek Saloon, Mother Earth and numerous other iconic places I could name are gone. We have to draw the line somewhere. I think our parents, if they could speak to us, would agree.
If you’re interested in more writing from my dad, Bob Peck III, follow my account and I will post an update when his next book is available.