Burnet County Historical Commission seeks new members, looks ahead to projects
Two new officers — but longtime members — of the Burnet County Historical Commission live on the ranches where they grew up: President Rachel Bryson in Joppa and Certified Local Government coordinator Lela Goar in the Sage-Bethel area. Amanda Seim, a new member of the group and a trained historian, has only lived in the county for about 18 months but has fallen in love with the area’s backstory. A resident of Burnet, she is also the new board president of The Falls on the Colorado Museum in Marble Falls.
All three are excited to get started on the commission’s new projects, including writing and publishing “Burnet County History Volume III.” For that, they need more new members with a vision for the future of Burnet County’s history.
“There were well over 100 people who gathered, researched, interviewed, and wrote an unbelievable amount of information that was submitted to (author Darrell) Debo,” Bryson said of the first two volumes, which were published in 1979. “They contributed their research and stories without pay. Now, it is 44 years later and time to write volume three.”
Debo, who died in 2019, took on the job of compiling and editing the first two volumes for $100 a month. All other work was done by volunteers.
Volume III will upgrade family histories from 1900 to 1950, picking up where Volume II left off in 1899. Just as before, families established in Burnet County between those dates will write their own stories and submit them to be edited and included in Volume III. The first volume contains the histories of businesses, churches, and other organizations.
Together, at more than 350 pages each, the meticulously indexed books took 10 years to complete. Publishing money came from the Burnet County Commissioners Court, which was persuaded by Bryson’s mother, Estelle, president of the historical commission for 20 years, and Willie Mae Price, then the head librarian at the Herman Brown Free Library in Burnet.
The Burnet County Historical Commission is an arm of the county government and the Texas Historical Commission. County commissioners renew the group, along with its roster of members and new officers, every other January in odd-numbered years, including this year.
The commission does not have an established line item in the county’s budget, so members have to go before commissioners with each new request. It does have its own fundraisers, but the money goes into the county budget, where it is set aside for the commission and dispensed by the county treasurer.
The 2021 commission roster listed 16 members compared to the 34 approved in 2017. In the past, it has had as many as 60-plus members. Bryson, Goar, and Seim hope to return to those glory days over the next two years.
“The pandemic hit us pretty hard,” Bryson said. “Considering how fast this region is growing now, we are looking for people interested in learning about their new area to join us. We open our arms to anybody who can help us.”
To see tangible evidence of what the historical commission has done for the community in the past, take a walk across the old iron-truss bridge in Johnson Park in Marble Falls. Members got it moved from private land when they learned it was being sold for scrap.
Or, visit two similar historic bridges in the Joppa area: the Russell Fork Bridge on CR 272 and the North Fork San Gabriel Bridge on CR 200 east of Burnet. When the bridges were slated to be replaced by concrete, steel, and asphalt, the federal government, which was providing most of the funding for the upgrade, stopped demolition plans after hearing from the Burnet County Historical Commission.
“We still have the letter from the federal government saying these bridges are national treasures and cannot be destroyed,” Bryson said. “To get the federal money, the bridges had to stay.”
You can also explore the 88 historical markers in the area, including those on each of the Joppa bridges, the Burnet County Courthouse, the Old Burnet County Jail, and Dead Man’s Hole.
Bryson, who wrote a book about the bridges titled “North of Joppa Volume I: The Iron Truss Bridges of Burnet County at Joppa,” is now working on a Burnet County history book of stories to be published by The History Press, a subsidiary of Arcadia, which has published several pictorial histories on communities in the county. Half of her per-book royalties will go to the historical commission for future projects.
For other money, the commission plans to step up its grant writing game, which is under the auspices of Lela Goar as CLG coordinator. Goar wants the commission to host a statewide CLG training in the county that focuses on local issues. A training held in Burnet three years ago centered on urban areas.
“Theirs is a whole different problem than what we have in small towns,” Goar said. “I want more emphasis on county projects.”
She is looking for help in conducting a historic survey of Burnet County to unveil new locations for historical markers.
“We know where our current markers are, but we don’t have a really good idea of things that could still use a marker,” Goar continued. “We need training on how to go about it, especially when you run into a landowner who is not real receptive. That kind of thing.”
Seim plans to use the skills she learned earning a master’s degree in public history and working as a program coordinator at the Compass Inn Museum outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to help with grant writing for the commission.
“Having funding is very important to getting things done,” Seim said. “I feel like it’s an honor to be able to work with this group and make the history of this place more accessible. It really is a special place. There’s a lot of history here.”
To learn more about the history of Burnet County, the first two volumes of “Burnet County History,” “Cemetery Records 1852-1953,” and “Cemetery Records 1983-1992” became available online in January. They can be found in the genealogy section of the Herman Brown Free Library’s website at hermanbrownlibrary.org. They are also linked from The Falls on the Colorado Museum website at fallsmuseum.org. Click on “Learn” in the navigation bar, then Resources and Links in the dropdown menu.
“It’s important to keep history alive, to let people know how the places they live became what they are today,” Seim said. “History fosters pride of place. With so much controversy during this time, one of the few things we can agree on is that we love where we live.”
Anyone interested in becoming a member of the Burnet County Historical Commission can email Blair Manning at firstname.lastname@example.org. Manning is another new member of the BCHC and director of Burnet County Tourism, which has offices in the Old Burnet County Jail. Now that’s history in the making!