Monday, 25 October 2010

A Little Texan History

I'm interested in the history of just about anywhere. A few facts can be a springboard, allowing the imagination to take flight. The way that facts are presented makes a difference though – the person or the book may hold the key to the excitement-box, lighting up ideas and associations that stem from the facts. The tour guide in Austin's State Capitol I found out later, is also a teacher and I'm sure he's a good one, for he wore his learning lightly, smiled a lot, made jokes and seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself.

He told us that the life-size marble statues of Stephen Austin and Sam Houston were created by the sculptor Elisabet Ney in 1903 and that the former statue was only 5' 4” because that was his height, although average for the time he said, eyes twinkling. Sam Houston [over 6 feet] had a blanket ove
r his shoulder, apparently given him by the Cherokees with whom he'd lived for several years and who called him The Raven. Someone who lived with the Cherokees and was given a blanket and a name by them is someone I'd like to know more about.

The impressive rotunda on the ground floor shows the seals of the six countries whose flags have flown over Texa
s – they include Spain, France, Mexico, independent Texas, confederate Texas, and USA. So I learned a bit about the history of the state, not having realised that it had ever been considered a part of France or Spain, although admittedly it was back in the 1500s that it was Spanish and the French colony was around Victoriaville, whose precise location in Texas I failed to note. I do remember though that it was a Frenchman, one Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar, who was connected, perhaps as a governor, with a small settlement named Waterloo. But a Frenchman, especially one with Bonaparte in his name could hardly eagerly embrace the unfortunate associations of such a name, grinned the tour guide, so it was renamed after Stephen Austin, he of the modest stature. Apparently there are still a few Waterloo references in Austin; I saw a block of buildings with the name, and a copy of the London underground sign in front of a store or a business of some kind.

Up in the Senate Chamber the walnut desks are over 100 years old and we are told the rules for the speakers. They can speak without interruption as long as they do not leave the room, have nothing to eat or drink, and do not touch anything at all, such as desk or handrail, while talking. I liked the last one as it seemed to guard against inebriation. The lights on the ceiling were apparently the first electric chandeliers to be made, and the groups of lights spelled out Texas [though this may not be clear in the photo.] We
Texans beamed the tour guide, relishing his pun, are not known for hiding our light under a bushel. We also have the biggest State Capitol in all of the United States – not the tallest though, since Baton Rouge added a tower to theirs, but that hardly counts.

I talked to the tour guide afterwards and he was delighted to know that I came from Scotland. I love the works of your writer Walter Scott, he said. And then – since you guys have been so nice to me I'm going to show you something special. And he beckoned to me and my son to come behind the desk, through another room where someone was sitting at a table – it's our break room now he says – up a step through another doorway, and then
he proudly shows us the old safe. It's a massive metal door, with a small room beyond it. Of course we don't keep anything of value here now, he smiles. But the safe door is exquisite, with coloured patterns and designs inlaid on its metal surface.

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