While signs of change all around us make it seem as though Liberty Hill is just another growing bedroom community of Austin, images of the past brought together on a recently-produced video offer a refreshing reminder that our hometown on the Shin Oak Ridge has a rich history.
Every Thursday morning, the “Old Pecker Gang” arrives at Ms. Shelly’s Bakery & Cafe downtown to drink coffee, have breakfast, and exchange stories of the old days in Liberty Hill.
“That’s how it all started,” said Shelly Armstrong, owner of the bakery. After months of listening to the stories of Gary Spivey, Billy Ray Guerin and others, she wanted to use the Old Pecker Gang in a commercial for the bakery.
“From there, the idea ballooned into a 28-minute compilation of old videos and still pictures that tell some of the history of Liberty Hill,” said Spivey, who enlisted the professional talent of Chuck Bigart to coordinate the project.
“Everyone thinks they know something about Liberty Hill…that is, until you set down with these guys and hear about the history of this place,” said Bigart.
After spending time listening to the stories over coffee, he volunteered to help Spivey tell them in a way that would interest young and old alike.
Spivey provided about 22 hours worth of video footage from his family and others, and it took Bigart more than 120 hours to mix it with still photos, music and some narration from Spivey and Guerin.
“For some, Liberty Hill is just a spot in the road, but this place is special,” Bigart said. “The reason I got involved was to help tell the story.”
Bigart, who is also a storyteller, enjoyed a successful career as a musician before suffering a stroke in recent years. His lifelong interest in video and audio technology led to the development of a production studio where he has worked with film professionals to produce training videos on surgical procedures, feature documentaries and concerts.
“Looking Back” was the name he gave to the film. It opens with a patriotic salute to America incorporating images of Liberty Hill, which Bigart said was meant to show its place in the bigger scheme of things.
During the years when Central Texas was thriving due to cotton production, Liberty Hill was the center of business and was for some time, the largest community in Williamson County, Spivey said.
“At one time, Liberty Hill was known for cotton prouction. We had three (cotton) gins here,” he said. At one time, Spivey’s family owned a storage facility for wool and mohair.
The video shows a vibrant downtown with every building occupied by restaurants, a theater, grocery, retail and hardware stores, cotton gins, a train depot, lumber yard, a mortuary, auto repair garages, an art studio and more. Liberty Hill was also an educational center — home to Liberty Hill Normal College.
Spivey said downtown Liberty Hill use to be on the only road from Leander to Burnet making it a bustling place. Things began to change after State Highway 29 moved to its current location and the road through downtown became part of what is now Loop 332. A downturn in the production of cotton in the area also changed Liberty Hill.
While rural Texans are accustomed to seeing a snake or two every summer, decades ago, rattlesnakes were in dangerous supply in Liberty Hill. On the video, residents can be seen hunting for rattlesnakes, which were then taken to a store downtown where they were put on display in the window. The snakes were kept alive then given to a research facility.
“That was before the days of fire ants,” said Spivey, who remembers as a young boy, viewing the reptiles from behind the glass. “Rattlesnake hunts were part of our culture.”
Bigart said a news clip included in “Looking Back” tells the story of the International Sculpture Symposium that took place in Liberty Hill in 1976. The Liberty Hill International Sculpture Park, which is now located on the grounds of Liberty Hill Junior High School, is home to 28 sculptures that were created in Liberty Hill by sculptors from around the world. The news clip features a song about Liberty Hill written by Arma Harper, which features Michele “Mike” Murphy, who is now Mayor of Liberty Hill, singing harmony.
The video also includes footage recorded by Spivey of a fire that burned half of downtown in 1974.
He said he had just purchased a new camera and ran outside toward the smoke and flames to record it. The fire started in the lumberyard and spread to neighboring buildings. Volunteers from the Liberty Hill Volunteer Fire Department worked together to douse the flames.
Clips of a devastating flood in 1957, and along with video from the fire are reminders that throughout history, Liberty Hill residents have been able to work together and overcome adversity, he said.
“Liberty Hill is always changing. That’s what makes us unique,” said Spivey.
He said the Lions Foundation Park Board will use the new video, which will be available on CD, to raise funds that will be used to help maintain the park.
The Liberty Hill Song
By Arma Harper
If you’re looking for a place to ease your mind and cure your ills
Come on down and find a place to live in Liberty Hill
The folks are downright friendly, and the dogs they seldom bite
And you can hear a whippoorwill from your porch most every night.
You don’t have to be a man with money in your jeans
All you need is a friendly smile and you’ll see what I mean
You can live out in the country, or you can locate here in town
And if you stay a little while, I’m sure you’ll stick around.
There’s a couple of stores and a Sweet Shoppe, and a PO to do your mail
From what I understand, the movie house is doing well
The Jet Age can just pass us by, cause we all take our time
Don’t just smell the roses, stop and pick one from the vine…
**Editor’s Note: Song lyrics above were provided to The Independent courtesy of Michele “Mike” Murphy, who sang harmony on the recording used in the “Eyes of Central Texas” news segment.