Author digs into the life of the Cedar Choppers



Ken Roberts made a living researching marginalized, rural people across the world, studying their migration from the rural lifestyle to the cities.

But it was an unusual people right here in Central Texas that chose not to surrender their lifestyle so easily that captured his imagination.

“There’s this interesting question that’s always sort of plagued me,” he said. “Who are these people that live just right across the Colorado River from West Austin?”

He first encountered them as a young boy, not knowing what to make of the people who were so close yet seemed so foreign because their lifestyle was so very different. That curiosity stuck, and decades later Roberts decided he wanted to tell their story.

In March, that story was published in The Cedar Choppers, Life on the Edge of Nothing. When he began doing interviews and putting together plans for the book, Roberts was unsure of how willing people would be to share those stories.

“They wanted to tell it,” he said. “I was leery that they may not want to talk about it. Here they were, Appalachian hillbillies for all practical purposes, but rather than being in the backwoods of West Virginia and moving to the eastern cities, they were butted right up against Austin, which was already very different than the rest of Texas.

“They seem to feel honored by the way I told it, and I think it is because they can see I was not there to put them down. I’m there to say these guys were hard working, they were living on the edge of nothing in more ways than one and they chose it and respected one another.”

Roberts, who is retired from Southwestern University, where he held the Cullen Chair of Economics, spent more than two decades doing research on the rural people of China and Mexico and their migrations.

It may sound like studying a rural culture in Central Texas would parallel those experiences, but Roberts found it to be very different.

“All my research has always been on these marginalized poor, rural people who generally deal with what’s happening in the farm economy by leaving,” he said. “They go to the cities and they work. Here were these people who didn’t leave. They hung on and hung on, so the story got to be more interesting the more I looked into it.”

Why they stayed seemed to be one of the most driving questions throughout Roberts’ work on the book.

“Why didn’t they leave? Why didn’t they leave the hills and leave the shacks, join the army or do something else in the 40s and 50s, you know, get a job doing almost anything else,” he said. “Why did they do that? I still don’t have a great answer for that. I think there is something magical about the hill country and part of the answer of why they didn’t leave – in addition to they were making good money and they could spend it freely and do what they wanted to with it – is they liked where they lived and didn’t want to leave.”

This book was different than the academic research in another way as well. This time, Roberts just wanted to tell the stories and believes that is a much better insight into these local people most in Central Texas know little about.

“I think people, in order to understand the phenomenon, whatever it is, need to hear their version of what it’s like to walk into a restaurant and be turned away because you’re barefooted because you’ve never worn shoes, or to be looked down upon and called names,” he said. “For me it was humbling, because I’m West Austin and it was humbling to see how kind and how understanding – or naïve even – they were.”

He recalled one discussion with a woman who just couldn’t understand why other people treated them differently.

“I don’t know why they looked down on us,” she told him. “I guess it was because we were dirty but that’s because we were always working. That’s pretty open and humbling to hear that in someone’s voice.”

The closeness of the Cedar Choppers to Austin might be the first surprise for a reader who is not familiar with the subject, as well as how successful they were financially in spite of the perceptions about their lifestyle.

“They chose to live like this,” Roberts said. “They actually made more money than anybody else. That was the most surprising thing to me. They said they could make more in a couple of days of cutting cedar than a whole week of another job in the city.”

While many stories told of the tough, sometimes violent nature of the Cedar Choppers, Roberts said that should not be used to characterize them as a people.

“Some resorted to violence very quickly in any sort of altercation and they were strong, so no one was ever going to back down. Put those together and you had a little recipe for some violence,” he said. “Those were the exception. Most of these people were just hard working, they raised their families, they had loving families.”

In talking to people since the book was published, Roberts is pleased that those wilder stories didn’t take away from the overall story.

“They actually are thanking me for telling their stories,” he said. “I was a little worried because it is hard not to tell some of the more violent stories because they are too interesting in themselves.”

There are no conclusions to the stories, no tidy ending that explains “why” when contemplating the lives and choices of the Cedar Choppers, but Roberts had a special take away from the experience for himself.

“It is something we don’t understand,” he said. “I don’t know if we can, that’s how far apart we are. That’s what I finally took away from it, don’t judge people by the way they look or by the way they act even. They are just very different and they had a subculture that was very unique.”

The chance to hear the stories and put them to paper was special for Roberts, as was the experience of writing a book like this one.

“It was really a blast,” he said. “I have always loved research so that is one thing, whether it is digging into motives for migration in China or doing oral interviews. But then writing, I was really scared because I never really thought of myself as a writer.”

The book is available for $28 from the Liberty Hill Cemetery Association and proceeds help preserve the cemetery. To purchase a copy, call the Association at (512) 778-6792.