In 1827, Dr. Thomas Jefferson Gazley arrived and set the pace of development. Near the current site of Independence Park, dedicated on March 2, 2014, Gazley built the first house and established the first store, which served incoming settlers and the friendly Lipan and Tonkawa Indians. He worked as Clerk and Secretary in the Mexican government and was granted a Mexican license to practice medicine. Gazley helped write the Texas Declaration of Independence and the Texas Constitution. During the Texas War for Independence, he fought as a citizen soldier-surgeon in the battles of Gonzales, Concepcion Mission, and San Jacinto. After the war he moved to Harrisburg, practiced Probate Law, and was elected to the Second Legislature of the Republic of Texas. Upon returning to Smithville in 1846, he established a riverboat landing to service the Kate Ward, which traveled from Matagorda to Austin. Following his death in 1853, he was buried in Smithville's Gazley Cemetery; in 1937 he was reinterred in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.
William Smith’s family arrived several years after Dr. Gazley. They owned a store and influenced the area early on, including the informal naming of Smithville. Later, that name was defended by a legendary coin toss with the Burlesons. About seventeen families lived on the south bank of the Colorado River, while successful entrepreneur John Fawcett and admired statesman Thomas Hardeman lived west of town. Local businessman Murray Burleson learned of the approach of the Taylor, Bastrop, and Houston railroad, and worked with partners to purchase land tracts in the Gazley and Loomis Surveys. A new town located adjacent to the railroad tracks was thereby platted. By negotiation and a gift of land, Burleson persuaded the railroad to construct a "terminus" (now called a "depot") at the new town site, and the TB&H steamed through in 1887. Almost overnight, the town flourished with new railroad workers, followed by commerce and service industries that supported the town's incoming residents.
The Missouri, Kansas & Texas took over the TB&H Railroad in 1891. In 1894, the MK&T established central shops in Smithville, giving rise to growth that resulted in Smithville becoming the largest city in Bastrop County for nearly fifty years. Soon the burgeoning population created markets for homes, stores, and other necessities. Numerous businessmen made valuable contributions to Smithville as it grew from a frontier village to a town. The Hill family moved retail marketing here and established the first bank. The need for infrastructure like electrical and water systems attracted the Buescher brothers to establish the first utilities. Partnerships of prominent, able families involved in land-based activities united the Bueschers, Powells, Cooks, Eaglestons, Turneys, Rabbs, Buntes and others to establish cotton gins, general stores, drugstores, lumber and brick yards and to develop churches and fraternal organizations such as the Masons and the Oddfellows.
This thriving community was officially incorporated as the City of Smithville in 1895. City leaders recognized the importance of education by creating the Smithville School District at the same time. At that time, Smithville was the largest city in Bastrop County. Census figures from 1900-1910 show 3,500 residents and 119 businesses, including two hotels, 14 grocery stores, five saloons, several medical practitioners and dentists, a bank, and a newspaper. It was a modern town with indoor plumbing, electricity, and telephone service. Many buildings constructed during the booming 1890s-1930s still stand and are a source of pride (and sometimes additional income through the flourishing film industry). Plays, concerts, art and films have had a long tradition here. The Smithville Opera House was built on Main Street in 1893 (it burned to the ground around 1928). Today, Playhouse Smithville (located at the old Charlie's BBQ at 110 Main) carries on the fine tradition of Community Theater.
Smithville's two historic districts (the residential district to the north of Loop 230 and the commercial district on Main Street), Independence Park (located on Dr. Gazley's historic homestead), and the "undertold stories" marker (located at West End Park to commemorate the Chitlin Trail musicians and the Negro Baseball League) celebrate the importance Smithville places on its history.
Smithville has been fortunate throughout its history to attract forward-thinking, stalwart, and industrious men and women who continue to pave the way to the fine city and enviable quality of life we are privileged to enjoy today.
With assets like the small-plane airport (first built as a private landing strip in 1947), the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center / Science Park Research Center (which moved just to the west of Smithville in 1977), the exceptional Smithville Independent School District, and the Colorado River, Smithville is in a terrific position to take charge of its future. Its rural nature, small town quality, and artistic and eclectic personalities are key aspects of Smithville’s character that residents value greatly.
People here work well together to continue to improve the quality of life for all. With the latest turn of the century, the Smithville Chamber of Commerce and the City Council began moving towards innovative partnerships with community groups, some of which include the Lost Pines Artisans Alliance, the Smithville Community Gardens, the Smithville Music and Film Commission, the Smithville Independent School District, the Smithville Heritage Society, the Masons, the Knights of Columbus, the Veterans groups, the Smithville Food Pantry, the Friends of the Smithville Public Library, and many others. In addition, using its broad base of volunteers and its tried and true “Friends of…” committee structure, Smithville is working towards an optimistic future through economic and community development proposals that both reach its residents and attract people from the region and the nation.
Smithville organizations host a multitude of cultural events, especially in the downtown area and at Riverbend Park. People flock to the many long-standing events, such as springtime Smithville Jamboree (which started in 1956) and the December Festival of Lights (which started in 1987). Visitors and residents alike are coming in growing numbers to newer traditions, such as the 8th annual Gingerbread Man 5K/3-mile Fun Run/Walk, which takes advantage of Smithville’s 2006 Guinness Book of World Records World’s Largest Gingerbread Man title and is held in conjunction with the Festival of Lights. The beautiful “Airing of the Quilts,” which began in 2009, draws people to the downtown area and historic residential district each fall. The annual Smithville Empty Bowl Project, which is intended to help the community become more aware of the food insecurity in this area, has enjoyed great community support since it began in 2011 -- the Smithville Food Pantry, the Smithville Community Gardens and the Lost Pines Artisans Alliance as well as the art students in Smithville schools who create the bowls work together to ensure that the event continues to be a great success.
The Smithville Veteran’s Memorial Park, built primarily through community donations of materials, labor, and funds, is a beautiful tribute to veterans connected to Bastrop County; it was dedicated with much fanfare and community support on Memorial Day, 2013. It features a 15-foot-tall statue of an angel titled “Homeward,” which was sculpted by Bill McGlaun, a nationally famous resident, and cast by Omega Bronze Foundry, owned and operated by Steven Zabel, who graduated from Smithville High School. The angel bears the dogtags of the soldiers from Bastrop County who were lost during the Afghanistan/Iraq conflict between 2006 and 2012, and the Park illustrates the sacrifice (in those lost soldiers), the service (represented by more than 4,000 names of veterans on walls throughout the park) and the freedom they fought for (seen in the children playing at the splash pad under the large pecan and oak trees).
Smithville’s leaders recognize the needs of the workforce and the residents. Several recent plans and studies (including the Comprehensive Plan of 2007 and its update in 2012; the Smithville Sustainability Plan, Feasibility Study, and Training Plan prepared through a grant from the State Energy Conservation Office in 2010; and the Smithville Economic Development Survey Report of 2014), are designed to implement programs and projects that will greatly benefit our workforce and create opportunities for economic development and job growth through sustainable industries and opportunities presented through the Cultural District, the Economic Development Committee, and in partnership with the many organizations in town that intend to continually enhance the quality of life for all in this small, Texas town.
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