If you’ve ever strolled the quaint downtown streets of Georgetown, you may have felt the city’s history radiating from the beautifully-restored storefronts around the ornate county courthouse.
But the city’s pristine looks these days belie its storied past. Born of a generous land donation to establish a county seat in Texas’ early settling days, Georgetown has grown in pulses as cattle routes, railroads and, more recently, an interstate highway ignited new ideas, new neighborhoods and some of the finest architecture in Central Texas.
Today, Georgetown is every town’s envy. It has grown rapidly, restored its downtown square to the highest level and keeps attracting more residential growth as the Austin area booms.
But, let’s look into the past to learn how we got there.
From Mammoth Hunting to Cowtown
For millenniums, American Indians passed through present-day Georgetown because the fertile San Gabriel River area provided easy hunting and a lush setting. Archeologists have found that Paleo-Indians traveled in small family groups and hunters ambushed and trapped mammoth, bison and other large mammals in the region about 10,000 years ago. The climate warmed and dried after the Ice Age, and American Indians trapped smaller mammals.
Tonkawa are the most recent Native American group to inhabit the area, dating back about 1,400 years when tribes were using bow and arrow to hunt. They served as guides for army campaigns against the Comanche Indians before being relocated to Tonkawa, Oklahoma.
“Pioneers were attracted by the abundance of timber and good, clear water, as were the Tonkawa Indians, who had a village there,” The Texas State Historical Association wrote. “In addition, the land was inexpensive and extremely fertile.”
It wasn’t until 1846 that an official town emerged when government workers convinced George Washington Glasscock and his business partner, Thomas B. Huling, to donate 172 acres in exchange for the new county seat to be named after George.
Glasscock had 10 kids. He later moved south to Travis County where he was a member of the legislature and managed the Lunatic Asylum at the edge of what would become Hyde Park.
Throughout the mid-1800s, Georgetown was a blend of small-scale farmers, cattlemen and a few merchants.
The 1850s saw an influx of Swedish immigrants, followed in Germans and Austrians the 1870s and families from Czech and Mexico near the start of the 1900s.
Though it’s now known for having one of the most beautiful historic downtowns in the country, the Georgetown of past was less pleasant.
“The streets were just plain black mud up to here when it rained a long spell,” Otha Horger Ullric told the Williamson County Historical Commission. “Somebody asked me how did you get around downtown when it rained? They had stepping stones, flat rocks from this corner to the next one and instead of having sidewalks in front of the stores like they have now, they were built up from the ground with planks, up even with the door and then all this in here was filled with gravel.”
Many well-known cattlemen rode through Georgetown on the Chisholm Trail, which was a primary trade route in post-Civil War America between San Antonio to Abilene, Kan.
Among them was John Wesley Snyder, who moved to Texas with his brother to partner in an apple orchard and horse-trading business between Round Rock and Georgetown. Snyder enlisted in the Confederate Army and assisted with cattle trading throughout. He built a home in Georgetown in the late 1800s, later selling his land to accommodate the new Southwestern University. His home is now the University’s fine-arts building.
He died in 1922, and he was buried in the family’s plot in Georgetown.
Early 1900s: Distinctive Architecture Emerges
Image Source: The Portal to Texas History
From all that dust and mud, a remarkable city rose. But the city owes much of its distinctive style to a man named Charles S. Belford, who moved to Georgetown from Newark, Ohio when he was 27 years old.
He married well. His wife, Mollie Carothers, was the daughter of a bank president. Soon, Belford sought to invest in one of the town’s two lumber yards.
Belford joined one of the lumber yard owners in buying out its competitor. Then Belford gathered other investors and bought out his partner in 1892, forming the Belford Lumber Co., according to the Williamson County Historical Commission.
Meanwhile, Belford began acquiring contracts to build homes for some of the city’s most prominent residents. Those included merchants J.A. McDougle, Henry W. Harrell and the pastor of the First Methodist Church.
The homes, built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, are now part of the National Register of Historic Places.
“This cohesive residential neighborhood, which lies four blocks south of the Williamson County Courthouse, contains the city’s greatest concentration of historic and architecturally significant dwellings,” The Williamson County Historical Commission wrote. “The Belford Historic District chronicles the evolution of architectural forms and development patterns in Georgetown from the 1870s to the 1930s. In the nineteenth century, residential neighborhoods developed somewhat sporadically…”
The Hodges House was likely the first home Belford built in the present-day historic district. It now houses the West Short and Associates law firm, which extensively renovated the property and pays tribute to Belford on its website.
“Mr. Belford insisted on exactness and high quality, and he supervised the construction himself. Wearing a suit and derby, he made his rounds carrying an umbrella, a piece of chalk and a plumb bob,” the firm writes. “His versatility and competence as a builder are evident in the varying styles, scales, and complexity of the well-crafted buildings which endure today.”
Belford built a home for himself in 1896, an “intricate Queen Anne composition of juxtaposed, multi-textured masses and open porches punctuated with turned and jigsawn ornament,” the historic commission wrote. (View the home here.)
You can take a short driving tour of all of Georgetown’s historic homes using the maps found here.
Outward Growth and Sun City
Though the Civil War stifled growth in the mid-1800s, the city kept reinventing itself with new industry. It built several courthouses, finally settling on one built in 1911.
But even that courthouse underwent extensive renovations before being restored to its historical appearance, which is now the centerpiece of Georgetown’s widely-recognized downtown splendor.
Extensive renovation and preservation programs from the 1970s to present day have elevated Georgetown’s downtown into the national spotlight. Fueled in part by Austin’s rapid growth, Georgetown’s population has skyrocketed.
The city had 9,468 residents in 1980. That grew to nearly 15,000 by 1990 and 28,339 by 2000. It now has more than 54,800 residents, according to Census estimates.
Among them is Major League Baseball Hall of Fame Pitcher Nolan Ryan, who lives in the exclusive gated community of Cimmaron Hills in Georgetown. A few people have even posted images of his home online.
Most recently, Georgetown owes its rapid growth to Sun City, a 4,100-acre retirement community that offers a wide variety of homes for residents age 55 and older. It’s consistently ranked as one of the top retirement communities in the nation, attracting residents internationally.
The community was established in 1995 by Del Webb Homes, which operates nationwide. Though it struggled during widespread economic downturns, the project has been massively successful and now has more than 6,200 homes. And it keeps growing.
Its growth and demographics make it one of the hottest real estate markets in the Austin area.
Get a taste of modern day Georgetown in this video from The Day Tripper TV show.