By Rebecca Canfield
When Melba Lackey asked her grandmother in 1965 if she could have an old trunk stored in the wash room, she was just looking to store some odds and ends. However, the contents of that old trunk has consumed the rest of Lackey’s life.
“I took it down and the whole Wilson family history was in that trunk in a steer hide valise,” said Lackey, whose maiden name was Wilson. “For years all of these papers were on the kitchen table while I tried to figure this all out.”
Like opening a time capsule, Lackey, 83, says the old suitcase held one secret treasure after another. Lackey’s great-grandmother, Harriett Waddell, kept absolutely everything, she explained. This included war tax receipts from 1842, receipts for cotton bales from 1908, a post Civil War Amnesty Oath from 1865, and an old bible with family births dating to the 1700s.
“Historians would be very interested in this stuff,” Lackey said. “I have more than what I need.”
Lackey even has land receipts from back when a section of Austin was called Hornsby Bend and when the community of Leander was called Bagdad. She has paperwork concerning the Texas State Troops back when Texas was a republic, and even has a few handwritten letters addressed to G.W. Baines, the grandfather of Lyndon B. Johnson, when Baines worked for Baylor University.
However, nothing prepared Lackey for the phone call from Linda Scarborough from Williamson County Sun who explained to her that she had seen a wagon train list from the 1850s that listed the name of Lackey’s great-great-great-grandfather, Lang Wilson, as a young passenger on that wagon train. This led to Lackey doing some genealogical research, which unveiled evidence that Lackey’s great-great-grandmother LaVina Hyland was actually a citizen of the Republic of Texas. Since this discovery, Lackey has been asked to join the exclusive group, Daughters of the Republic of Texas, a fact that makes her extremely proud. She is especially excited to meet Luci Baines Johnson, also a member, because she wishes to pass on to Johnson some historical documents that she says belong in the Johnson family.
The discovery of that valise, for Lackey, has been a life-altering event. It unearthed more than just history, but also a desire to know more about her family’s history.
Today, Lackey is a wealth of knowledge on all things Texas, with an emphasis on the history of Liberty Hill. However, some of the history Lackey has isn’t in the form of a document. It’s from her own personal experiences gained from a lifetime spent in Liberty Hill.
Lackey was born in Union Hall in 1934, back when it was its own community on the outskirts of town. She remembers when everyone in Liberty Hill was known by a nickname. Lackey was called Sissy Wilson back then. She recalls friends with names like Smut Smith, Runt Purcer, Fish Wells, Chigger Gardner, and Crow Conway. Lackey said that one day she wrote down all of the nicknames she could recall from Liberty Hill’s old days, and she came up with 150 different nicknames.
“Everybody had a name. My dad’s name was Beans or Beano,” laughed Lackey. “His brother was Snake.”
She also recalls when Liberty Hill was much larger than Round Rock. In fact, in Lackey’s senior year of high school, Round Rock was considering discontinuing the basketball team because they didn’t have enough boys to play. However, once World War II was over, families began leaving rural areas like Liberty Hill for bigger cities like Austin because there were better jobs available, she said.
Lackey also remembers back before her house had electricity, and when the ice man would drop off huge blocks of ice for the icebox, a precursor to the refrigerator. Furthermore, Lackey remembers party lines on the old crank telephones. According to Lackey, the same phone line was used for five or six different households when she was growing up, and if one of the families got a call, it would ring to everyone of those five or six households. The families differentiated who the call was for by the type of ring they had.
“Everybody’s phone rang whenever it rang,” said Lackey. “We all had a ring, whether it was three shorts, or a long a short and a long, or whether it was three longs. Everybody knew they weren’t supposed to pick it up if it wasn’t their ring, but you could hear the receiver pick up if they were listening in.”
Lackey also remembers that when she was growing up, that nobody had money. Back then, items were purchased mainly through bartering. Everyone had gardens, and everyone made their own lard from their own hogs, Lackey explained. They had their own beef, chicken and eggs. Lackey’s mother made butter and sold eggs or would trade them to the store in exchange for the items on the grocery list.
“Some people say, ‘how did you all make it through the depression days?’ The depression in this part of the country did not bother the farm people to speak of,” said Lackey. “We grew all our crops. Nobody had money even before the depression. We bartered. The only things we bought were sugar, salt, black pepper, baking powder, baking soda, and stuff like that.”
Today Lackey looks back with fondness on memories of when Liberty Hill was young. She is a wealth of historical information that could fill volumes. In fact, Lackey’s collection of historical documents is voluminous itself. As she is aging however, Lackey said she has been attempting to pass on some of Liberty Hill’s history to a new generation, so that all of the knowledge won’t be lost. Although Lackey says she was painfully shy in her younger years and had trouble speaking, today she is full of stories, some funny and some sad, of Liberty Hill’s past.
“It was a great place to grow up in, because everybody knew everybody,” she said.
Lackey still plays the piano for Union Hall Baptist Church.