BCHC Citizen of Note: Virgil Eric Lewis



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The Burnet County Historical Commission will honor seven individuals for their contributions to Burnet County, at a Citizens of Note reception Tuesday, July 2 at 11 a.m. at the Burnet County AgriLife Extension Office, 607 North Vandeveer, Burnet. The community is invited to this special event and welcome to read each of the seven biographies in The Highlander and at highlandernews.com.

Burnet County Historical Commission

Citizen of Note

Virgil Eric Lewis

by Janet Lewis Crain

Virgil Lewis was born on June 13, 1896 to Francis Porter "Frank" and Florence (Stinnett) Lewis of Smithwick in Burnet County. He was their second son. Their first child, a daughter, Ferol Areta, lived only about four months. Then came four sons: Clarence Elmer, Virgil Eric, Andrew Theron and Henry Owen; and finally, a baby girl, Berniece Edith. Five more children followed: three more sons; Francis Carol, Lindsey Lemuel and Phillip Ammon, and two more daughters: Bernice Edith and Ruby Dell. Sadly, Bernice died at age six.

Virgil lived at Smithwick growing up and attended the country school there. He and his older brother, Clarence, then boarded in Burnet during the school term while attending the R.J. Richey Academy in Burnet. Superintendent Robert Richey was a renowned educator who later served as Secretary of the Texas State Board of Examiners. He had been educated by Robert E. Lee in Virginia following the Civil War. Much of this great gentleman's values was imparted to his pupil and he in turn imparted these qualities to his pupils at the Richey Academy.

Virgil was a very independent child. Because his mother worked at the general store the family owned, and was often busy with the younger children, he was often left to his own devices. He recalled older boys holding him down under the water in the Colorado River at age five. He thought for sure he was going to drown until with a super human strength he broke loose and came to the surface. Another time these same bullies swung him higher and higher on an old-fashioned school swing until finally he went so high he went all way the over. But he survived this boyhood and became stronger. He explored and learned the layout of the land and the river. And when he tired of their side of the river, he went across to his Grandfather, Henry Thomas Lewis’s house near Spicewood. There he listened intently to his Grandfather’s stories of the Civil War.

When Virgil decided to leave home at age 16 and traveled to South Texas where he found work picking cotton. Within a week his employer had discovered his calculator-like aptitude for math, and promoted him to the weight scale, where he figured amounts in his head. He boarded with a German family, learning some German words at night at the supper table, and then picking up Spanish words during his daytime work. One cannot imagine why he preferred this to attending school as he was an apt pupil. He looked back fondly on his school days, recalling an incident when he lit and stuck a long-fused, giant firecracker into a knothole outside just as the bell rang after recess. He proceeded to file calmly back into class and took his seat with an angelic look on his face. Although he was not caught that time, perhaps there were other times when such boyish mischief created too much for the teacher to tolerate.

But whatever the reason for his trip or trips to far south Texas, the lure of the Hill Country soon called him back where he met and married Estha "Easter" Maxey on Aug. 18, 1915. Two children were born to this union: Lessie Loretta on Sept. 29, 1916 and Virgil Elroy on Nov. 22, 1922. On March 3, 1925 Easter passed from this earth, leaving a grieving husband and two small children. The following year he met Avis Jackson, from the Oatmeal community in Burnet County. They courted about four months, going "kodaking" on Sunday afternoons. They were married on Sept. 11, 1926. To this union three children were born: Neola Joan on May 28, 1927, Donald Jay on Oct. 25, 1930, and Janet Elinor on Sept. 1, 1942.

Early during his first marriage he bought a "place" on the Colorado River very near the historic Smithwick Mill, built by Noah Smithwick. To make the yearly payments on his property, Virgil was obliged to turn his hand to many different skills. He sold cars in Liberty Hill and trapped furs on the Head Ranch, a huge holding, during the Winter, sometimes living in a little line shack, "batching" as he called it. He threshed pecans at Bastrop in the Fall for many years. This necessitated climbing to the top of 75 foot tall pecan trees and beating the limbs with a long cane pole, sending the harvest pelting to the ground where the pickers, including his family, gathered them. Both the pecan harvesting and fur trapping were lucrative endeavors compared to ordinary day labor. This allowed him to spend more time on his own land where he raised cattle, hogs and a huge garden. He also kept out trot lines for catfish which helped feed his growing family. Also, in those days it was still legal to take huge catfish by swimming under big rock shelves in the river and gigging them. One of these big rocks proved to be so successful it is called the "Virgil Lewis rock" to this day. Because there was no refrigeration, fish fries were held and the entire community benefitted from these feasts.

Virgil had done pretty well before the depression. His family lived in a comfortable, modest house right on the banks of the Colorado. In summer they went swimming twice a day. They had plenty of fruits and vegetables to eat and preserve for the winter months. They had milk cows for milk, cream and butter. They had draft animals for plowing the fields and garden plots. The children had horses to ride to school, which abruptly came to an end when it was learned that the boys were racing and six-year-old Joan was hanging on for dear life behind her older brother. The Depression hit all the Texas farmers hard and Virgil was no exception. He once hauled a wagon load of big Black Diamond watermelons all the way to Bertram and couldn't sell even one for ten cents because people had no money. He brought them home and fed them to his hogs.

These hardscrabble farmers weathered the Depression better than many, because they relied on and followed a sustenance lifestyle based on their heritage from their frontier-settler ancestors. When Roosevelt became president, measures were enacted to improve the lot of citizens. But those remedies were slow to be felt in the Texas Hill Country along the Colorado. By 1935 the family still had no radio, telephone or automobile. When a horrendous flood came barreling down the river, Virgil's father, Frank, had to walk down and warn them. They grabbed their most precious possessions and walked out through the rising water, herding a few cows with them. The water reached the attic of the house and it took four months to shovel out the mud and make it livable afterward. They lived with Virgil's parents during this time.

Changes were afoot in Washington, D.C. by this time and plans were enacted to tame the erratic Colorado, which could be a life-giving provider of food, water and recreation most of the time, but a dealer of deadly flood waters at other times. The Lower Colorado River Authority was formed, and a series of dams were planned to control this dangerous stretch of the River, supply electricity and furnish a steady water supply. These objectives cannot be overstated. It was the most important advancement needed by the people living anywhere within a huge area of this state.

Electricity would free men and especially women from the constant drudgery of carrying all the family’s water and the firewood needed to heat that water, cook, wash and bathe and bring luxuries such as refrigeration, radio and lighting at night to read and study by. Congressman Lyndon Johnson visited the homes of citizens and observed how much easier life would be when women did not have to spend one whole day every week washing and one whole day ironing the family’s clothes. The heavy metal irons they used were not called “sad irons” for nothing. And this was just one prong of the effort. The taming of the horrendously dangerous floods and the storage of vitally important water were equally important.

Their beloved home stood in the pathway of the progress the Lower Colorado River Authority had planned. They had no choice but to sell to the LCRA and buy another place at Fairland. They were only there for one year when they found a place they liked much better: 210 acres just outside Burnet with a historic rock house built in the 1870's. The rock house had been built by convict labor in 1873 for John and Emma (Vandeveer) Christian. Emma was the youngest of the Vandeveer children orphaned by the death of their well known father, Logan Vandeveer, in 1855. The historical aspect really suited Virgil who had loved history from an early age. By this time Lessie and Elroy had grown up and moved from home, but Joan and Donald really liked the new place. They were excited to have electricity for the first time and made endless batches of ice cream in the tiny freezer of their newly acquired refrigerator.

This peaceful, idyllic time in America was shattered by the patrician, high-pitched voice of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the radio Dec. 7, 1942 when he informed citizens that Pearl Harbor had been attacked and many of our planes and ships destroyed. Everyone knew this meant War and they dreaded the long dark days ahead. However, the period immediately following the war was another calm, peaceful time for Virgil and Avis. Soon only Janet remained at home. And then she was married and gone.

This time was a productive period for Virgil and Avis. They were active in the Church of Christ, Burnet County Historical Society, and the Masonic Lodge. They raised a huge garden and maintained a highly productive orchard. They had many friends and often they would sit out in the yard visiting and telling stories of the old times. These were the good times. Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren treasure the memory of the tree shaded lawn and eating homemade ice cream and homegrown watermelons there during summer visits.

Virgil began working with the Burnet County Historical Society to help save Fort Croghan. He served as president of the Society, encouraging the members to follow his lead to volunteer their time improving the grounds and establishing the museum. They spent an unknown amount of time running a thrift store just off the square as well as performing the maintenance on the newly acquired portion of Fort Croghan.

He mowed and did repairs on the old cabins which came in as donations. He often lead tours of the Fort for school and scout groups and visitors who stopped by. One young scout asked; “Mr. Lewis, how do you know so much about history in Burnet County?” and he replied,“Well, I lived a whole lot of it”. That was true, but he also had a very good memory for people, places and dates. He was a good speaker and everyone enjoyed his stories.

Virgil was always interested in progress and new inventions to make life better for everyone. He was born in the age of wagons or buggies drawn by horses or mules. Going to Austin on the train was a big deal. But as soon as he saw an automobile, he was determined to own one. A few years later he bought a new car with earnings he had saved. As new roads were built across the state he was very interested. New methods and new technology impressed him the most. The Space Age with the moon landings were the ultimate achievement he witnessed. But he felt that remembering and recording how things used to be were an equally valuable pursuit. He always wanted to teach these things to young people. As Virgil was drawn near the end of his time on this Earth, he was content and remarked he felt he had lived 150 years instead of 83, and he was ready to go.

Virgil Lewis was a faithful husband, father, and a mentor to young people. He endured hardships, but persevered and lead others by his example of a good and honorable life. For his unwavering contributions throughout his life to not only his family and church, but also for his successful preservation efforts in his community, Virgil Lewis is a true Citizen of Note.

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