Best Texas books: ‘The Cedar Choppers’ by Ken Roberts

The best Texas book I’ve read of late was “The Cedar Choppers: Life on the Edge of Nothing” by Ken Roberts (Texas A&M Press). It doubles as one of the most instructive books about Austin’s history and culture.

Roberts, a former professor at Southwestern University in Georgetown, knows something about deep research. For this story about the people who once honeycombed the hills west and north of Austin, he talked to survivors and descendants. He scoured the internet for additional material and used Ancestry.com for more than just constructing family trees. He also consulted dozens of newspaper articles and books for historical context.

RELATED: Shooting heard “all over South Austin.”

Roberts grew up in Tarrytown and first encountered hard Hill Country boys on the low bridge over the Colorado River at Red Bud Trail just below Tom Miller Dam. That fraught meeting must have stuck with him. He later read feature stories and columns about “cedar choppers” — as the fiercely independent hill folk were called, not always kindly — by Mark Lisheron and John Kelso in the American-Statesman.

Roberts confirms that these mostly Scots-Irish clans, who arrived as early as the 1850s, migrated down through the Appalachian and the Ozark mountains. They grew small plots of corn for cornmeal that didn’t need milling, for corn whiskey distilled in the hollows, and to feed their roaming livestock. They hunted game and cut native ashe juniper (cedar) for use as fence posts and charcoal. Cedar remained their main cash crop for buying what they could not carve out the hills.

(You catch glimpses of this life in John Graves‘ “Goodbye to a River” and “Hard Scrabble.” And, as riparian expert Kevin Anderson reminds us, in Roy Bedichek‘s “Adventures of a Texas Naturalist.”)

In fact, during some periods, they thrived and fared better than those who tended cotton as tenant farmers on the prairies to the east. Old-growth cedar found in cool, deep canyons rose tall and straight. The red hearts were especially resistant to insects and rot. Hill Country cedar was shipped by rail all over the Southwest and towns such as Cedar Park supported multiple cedar yards, especially in the years after World War II.

The hill folk rarely took part in city activities. Some resisted the Confederate forces, others joined them.

Before Austin spread west and the life of the cedar choppers declined, the clans intermarried and helped each other out. Some also resorted to quick-tempered violence. Roberts does not stint on the crime reporting (see link above).

After reading Roberts’ book, I took a little trip to the Eanes History Center, which happened to throw an open house that weekend (it doesn’t post regular public hours). I learned much more among the old structures where the tiny, unincorporated town hosted a school that grew into the Eanes school district, long before the surrounding land became neighborhoods such as West Lake Hills, Rollingwood, Barton Creek, Rob Roy, Cuernavaca, etc.

I plan to interview Roberts later this summer. We’re not done with this subject by any means.