Marble Falls, Burnet, Kingsland, Llano, Spicewood, Horseshoe Bay, and ALL of the Highland Lakes
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Vashti Tucker holds a photo of herself working the popcorn machine at the Uptown theater in Marble Falls, which her father, R.O. Smith, built and opened in 1942. Courtesy photo
With paper and pencil in hand, Vashti Tucker knocked on doors in Marble Falls to ask for the names and number of people living in each residence as of April 1, 1950. Now 91 and living in the Lake Marble Falls neighborhood of Los Escondidos, Tucker recalled her days as a census taker during a time when the population of the entire county was 10,333. (It is estimated at 46,654 today.)
“I had just gotten married, was out of university, and had nothing to do,” Tucker said. “The census came along, and I said, ‘I guess I can do that.'”
A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, she was 21 years old and living with her husband, Dale Tucker, in the Roper Hotel, which was owned and operated by her parents, R.O. and Hazel Brown Smith.
“They were building the dams at the time, and there was no place to live in Marble Falls, so we stayed home for awhile,” said Tucker, who grew up in the hotel.
Her grandfather Willis Smith purchased the property from Elizabeth and George C. Roper in 1926. The Ropers built the hotel in 1888. Tucker’s father inherited it when Willis Smith died in 1940. The Smiths owned it until 1963. The building still stands, now home to several businesses.
“It was busy and cozy,” Tucker continued. “I loved the hotel, living down there on the highway. People were always coming in for this or that.”
Many of her memories of what she calls “old-time Marble Falls” were recently stirred by the forced downtime of COVID-19 restrictions. Now homebound because of the pandemic, she has been remodeling her house and going through boxes of old photographs.
“Old-time Marble Falls did not have that many people,” she said. “Most lived out on ranches. They just came into town on Saturday. I guess that was why living in the hotel was so much fun. We had some real characters stay there.”
One such local character came most Saturday nights, climbing into a box of linens to sleep — with his boots on.
“Mom always said, ‘I wish he’d take a room so he’d only mess up one pair of sheets,” Tucker said.
Her father also built the Uptown Theater, and Tucker operated the popcorn machine there throughout her childhood. He named the theater after a similar operation in San Antonio, where the family briefly lived.
Tucker was born in 1928 in San Angelo, where her family ran a Mobil gas station. When the Great Depression hit, they left, moving seven times in 10 years before settling in Marble Falls, where Smith served three terms as mayor.
The city was on the cusp of doubling in size when the Smiths bought the Roper Hotel. Tucker was 11 years old and the population of Marble Falls was 1,021, according to the 1940 Census. It increased by 100.4 percent to 2,046 by the time Tucker donned her walking shoes to count heads.
Growing up in the hotel, Tucker recalled suppertime, when her mother would tell her to call her daddy at the theater to let him know it was time to eat.
“We had a crank phone and a town telephone operator named Ms. Birdie,” Tucker said. “I’d ring and the operator would answer. I’d tell her the number, and she’d say, ‘Oh, he’s not in his office. I’ll call, but I know he’s not there.’ It was kind of like having your own secretary.”
Her father’s years as mayor were especially fun, she said. He spent a lot of time at the Blue Bonnet Cafe, making deals and friends. A man from New York came to town to explore manufacturing opportunities at the old factory on the north shore of Lake Marble Falls. The concrete bones of that factory can still be seen just west of the bridge. The New Yorker got to know the family and sent the newly wed Tuckers an eight-piece silver serving set, although the factory deal fell through.
“As mayor, Dad got called for just about everything,” Tucker said. “One lady called and said, ‘You have to come get this cow out of Ms. So-and-So’s yard.’ So he did.”
A letter he ran in the Marble Falls Messenger in 1955 thanked his voters for their support and listed his accomplishments: “pavements, city water works, street lights and many many concrete culverts and graveled streets.”
“It’s a long, hard fight to build a town and community, and we are and have been glad to contribute our mite toward that end,” he continued in a copy of the article Tucker found in her keepsakes. “I wish to take this means of thanking you for your cooperation and support as Mayor for the past eight years. You have been swell and I appreciate it very much.”
Smith died five years later in 1960 of Parkinson’s disease,
Although working the popcorn stand at the Uptown was Tucker’s first job, she did not get paid for that gig since it was a family operation. She earned her first paycheck as a census taker, though she doesn’t recall how much she was paid. Her salary was certainly not the $16 to $20 an hour being offered now. On January 25, 1950, Congress raised the minimum wage to 75 cents an hour from 40 cents, so her pay was probably closer to that.
Tucker went door to door with a big notebook asking each household the same questions: Who lives here? How many children? What is your wife’s name?
“The most important thing, we were told, was to write it all down as neatly as possible,” she said. “You’re doing this all by hand, and we had to write legibly. Your work was judged by how hard it was to read your writing.”
What she remembers most about the job was dealing with dogs.
“I learned to watch out for the little dogs,” she said. “They are meaner than the devil. They just want to get at you. That’s when I first became afraid of little dogs. They just bark and bark.”
Tucker was pregnant with the first of their three children as she counted the 2,046 people recorded living in Marble Falls that year. After a year at the Roper, she and Dale bought a home that would be on the bottom of Lake Marble Falls if they had not moved it to a new location at the end of Second Street on the east side of U.S. 281. It stood until two years ago, when it was torn down.
“It was the only house down there, and it was really nice, but the sun beat in on an afternoon,” she said. “I told Dale, ‘Let’s go across the river so we don’t have the sun on us.'”
That marked their first foray into Los Escondidos, located on the shadier south side of the newly formed lake.
In 1963, Dale took a job with the Lower Colorado River Authority and moved the family to Austin, or, as Vashti puts it: “He drug us down there until he retired.”
A 1945 graduate of Burnet High School, Dale began his career as a concrete inspector on Max Starke Dam, which separates Lake Marble Falls from Lake Travis. Armed with an electrical engineering degree from UT Austin, he worked his way to executive director of the electrical division over his 40 years with the authority. They were married 65 years when he died in 2015.
Vashti (pronounced Vash-tie, as in the strong-willed, dethroned queen of the Book of Esther in the Bible) still lives in the home they built on their Los Escondidos property near the dam.
She was a homemaker most of her life, except for the four months a year for 17 years that she worked for the IRS. Throughout her time in Austin, she dreamed of returning to Marble Falls. Once back home, she became involved in the community again.
When the pandemic is over, she plans to continue her volunteer duties at the Visitor Center and as a docent and board member at the museum. She is also a member of the Highland Lakes Quilt Club and First United Methodist Church of Marble Falls.
She brought that same dedication to community to her job as census taker, she said.
“I had a sense of pride about my job,” she said, “and it was something to do.”
In operation since 1790, the Census Bureau’s decennial count of every person living in the United States has been delayed by the pandemic. While Tucker looks back 70 years to when she collected names and numbers by hand, today’s census managers are hoping most people volunteer their information by phone or computer.
If you have not already sent in your census data, you can do so by calling 844-330-2020 or visiting my2020census.gov.