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Legends of the Falls: History buff Charles Watkins brings Noah Smithwick to life

Noah Smithwick and Charles Watkins in portrayal

LEFT: Noah Smithwick’s memoir, 'The Evolution of a State: Recollections of Old Texas Days,' became a definitive record of how people lived in pioneer Texas. Smithwick took over the local mill when the Mormons who built it left Burnet County for Utah. He lived on a ranch east of town, an area now known as Smithwick. Courtesy photo RIGHT: Charles Watkins of Marble Falls portrays Noah Smithwick in the third Legends of the Falls theatrical hayride through history. Smithwick is a new edition to the popular one-day event, set for Nov. 4 in Cottonwood Shores. Watkins played the roll of Hermann Fuchs in the first two events. Staff photo by David Bean

Transforming his historical persona from Hermann Fuchs to Noah Smithwick was an act of reverence for Charles Watkins of Marble Falls, a history buff who has long venerated the Texas Ranger, gunsmith, blacksmith, miller, and memoirist who helped shape the history of the Lone Star State, including Burnet County. Watkins portrays Smithwick in the Legends of the Falls theatrical hayride through history, which is Nov. 4 in Cottonwood Shores. 

“I have always just adored Noah Smithwick,” Watkins said. “He’s always been one of my heroes.” 

Watkins portrayed Hermann Fuchs (rhymes with books) in the first two iterations of Legends of the Falls but always had his heart set on Smithwick.

“The first time I met him and approached him about being Hermann Fuchs, he said, ‘Can I be Noah Smithwick?’” said Debbie Holloway, a founder and organizer of the event.

This year, he gets his chance as Legends of the Falls expands its historical outreach. Sitting in a local coffee shop recently, Watkins held out a well-worn and marked-up copy of Smithwick’s memoir, “The Evolution of a State: Recollections of Old Texas Days.” Written in the pioneer’s final years, the book was first published in 1900 by Gammel Book Company. Watkins’ copy is a 2016 edition. “Evolution of a State” is in the public domain and can be found in various editions, including one by the University of Texas Press. 

Watkins studied the book and what little he could find online about Smithwick for his hayride script. A retired computer engineer with a Ph.D. in communications from the University of Texas, Watkins, like Smithwick, is a renaissance man, well versed in a variety of skills.

“When I was at UT, they didn’t have a computer science degree, computers were just getting started,” Watkins said. “I was self-taught as a computer consultant and teacher.” 

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, made air travel difficult, he retired from the company he built and went into business with friend Gandolf Burrus, who owns Gandolf Burrus Grant Development Services. 

Watkins is also a member of the Marble Falls Parks and Recreation Commission, which led to Holloway having a “legendary” epiphany.

“I sat in a Parks board meeting at the back row and watched Charles as the chairman and said, ‘Oh, my stars! He looks like Herman Fuchs,” Holloway said. “I needed a Hermann Fuchs, and he looks like Herman Fuchs.” 

After a failed bid to add Smithwick to the hayride lineup, Watkins readily agreed to don his leather fringe jacket and become a living legend for a day as Hermann Fuchs. 

“I’m kind of a ham,” Watkins said when asked why he agreed so quickly. “I’ve done a little amateur acting over the years, but I can’t remember my lines enough to do a whole play, so this is the perfect opportunity. I used to be a debater, so I’m not afraid to speak in front of a crowd.”

Watkins speaks in front of many crowds. In recent years, he opened an exhibit at The Falls on the Colorado Museum with a presentation on Granite Mountain and told the story of Marble Falls Mayor Birdie Harwood, who was elected to run the city before women even had the right to vote, to the Highland Lakes Democratic Women’s Club.  

Now, he will finally tell the story of Noah Smithwick to a moving crowd of history lovers on hay bales. Weeks out from the event, he can practically recite the book.

“Reading this book, I immediately became aware of what a great storyteller he was,” Watkins said of Smithwick. “It was amazing to me how well he did wherever he went.” 

Smithwick was born in Martin County, North Carolina, in 1808. His family, who were stone masons of Scottish descent, moved to Tennessee. In 1827, young Noah emigrated to Texas.

“What the discovery of gold was to California, the colonization act of 1825 was to Texas,” reads the very first line in Smithwick’s 26-chapter book. 

He described a promised land with woods that “abounded in bee trees, wild grapes, plums, cherries, persimmons, hews, and dewberries, while walnuts, hickory nuts, and pecans were abundant along the water courses.”

“The climate was so mild that houses were not essential,” he continued. “Neither was a superabundance of clothing or bedding; buffalo robes and bear skins supply all that was needed for the latter and buckskin the former.” 

Smithwick’s life covered many of Texas’ most historic moments. Davy Crockett recruited him to fight at the Alamo, but after a winter in the woods, he was ill and in a hospital near death. Crockett rode to San Antonio without him. 

He counted many of the state’s founding fathers as good friends, including Sam Houston, the first and third president of the Republic of Texas, and David G. Burnet, the interim president of Texas, vice president of the Republic of Texas, and secretary of state when Texas was accepted into the Union. 

Smithwick lived with Stephen F. Austin for a time and made Jim Bowie’s replacement knife after the famous fighter had his renowned and deadly weapon filigreed for posterity following the Sandbar Fight near Natchez, Mississippi, in 1827. 

As a blacksmith in San Felipe de Austin, Smithwick claims he created a duplicate of the knife at Bowie’s request. He was not the only person to make that claim, as the knife was popular. Smithwick began to mass produce Bowie knives and made quite a bit of money, according to his memoir.

“Smithwick made the one Bowie fought with at the Alamo,” Watkins said. 

As he polished his script through September for the early November event, Watkins marveled at how Smithwick’s experiences changed the man. He fought with the Texans and the Texas Rangers against Native Americans, mainly to reclaim property stolen from white settlers, he wrote. His views of these first Americans changed after he spent eight months with a Comanche tribe outside of the Bastrop area.

“He got to be the adopted son of the chief and became a part of their daily lives,” Watkins said when asked what inspired him most about Smithwick. “Up until then, he had been anti-Native American, but in Bastrop, he was sent to negotiate a peace treaty. But, of course, he came back and they (white settlers) pulled out of the treaty.” 

Smithwick moved to Fort Croghan, where he became armorer to the U.S. Army 2nd Dragoons. He also made friends with Logan Vandeveer, who sold meat to the soldiers. In fact, his nephew married one of Vandeveer’s daughters (more on that coming up).  

He also became friendly with Lyman Wight and a band of Mormon families who built a mill on Hamilton Creek. Smithwick helped pave the way for the group with other residents in the area who were skeptical of the religion and lifestyle. 

“Smithwick got to know them,” Watkins said. “He introduced them into the city (Marble Falls) and helped people get comfortable with the idea they were Mormons.” 

The Mormons were negotiating with state leaders to set up a community for their people, large groups of whom were steadily moving west, looking for a permanent home. As the Civil War approached, the abolitionist Mormons decided it would be best to leave the state and sold their mill to Smithwick. 

“If they had stayed, Marble Falls might have been a second Salt Lake City,” Watkins said with a mischievous grin. “How could they resist Granite Mountain as their temple?” 

Smithwick was also forced out of the area because of his abolitionist views. 

“As the son of a revolutionary soldier, I could not raise my hand against the Union he had fought to establish,” Smithwick said he told Houston. “I had fought to make Texas a member of the Union and I would not turn round and fight to undo my work.” 

When the Ordinance of Secession passed in Texas, Smithwick sold his farm and turned over his mill to nephew John Hubbard, who had decided to stay. Hubbard was married to Eliza Vandeveer and living in what is now known as the Bluebonnet House, which still stands on U.S. 281 north in Marble Falls. Death threats prompted Hubbard to leave, but Confederate loyalists intercepted and murdered him. His body was thrown into a watering hole at Cow Creek, which was subsequently named Hubbard Falls in remembrance.  

Smithwick lived out the rest of his life in the Golden State. He died in Southern California in 1899 at the age of 91. 

Watkins, with his long gray beard and imposing height, hopes to make his hero proud in the four minutes he has to deliver the story of a state during the Legends of the Falls.