Back in 1943, the Austin Chamber of Commerce filmed dozens of locations across the Texan capital city. It’s a chance to look back to 1940s Austin, Texas. Things were very different, and not always as ideal as the film suggested.
Austin The Friendly City (1943)
Posted to YouTube by the Austin History Center
Who Made The Film – And Why?
The Austin Chamber of Commerce made this 31 minute film back in 1943, during World War II.
Luckily, a newspaper clipping from 4th October 1942 in the Austin American-Statement explains the reason for the production. Newcomers enjoyed their Chamber of Commerce lantern show so much that the organisation decided to make a full colour film of key city locations.
It was also to be included in rural community programmes. Plus, the World War II wartime conditions prevented children from across the state making their usual educational trips to the state capitol. So they could be shown the sights on film instead.
In 2006 the rights transferred to the Austin History Centre. Thanks to a Partnership Grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation in 2008, this film was preserved and digitised to protect this important record of the past.
Who Are The Smith Family?
The film claims to be about new arrivals Mr & Mrs Smith, and their children Betty and Billy. However, each member of the family is actually played by an unrelated residents of 1940s Austin Texas.
Mr John Smith is played by Captain Everett G. Smith. Mrs Horton Smith plays the role of his wife Mrs John Smith.
High School student Betty is in fact Peggy Bargsley. Was she the same person as Peggy Lee Bargsley (1927-2014) who married Charles Lowday Farrow Jr. and set up Austin’s first pizza restaurant?
Young Billy is played by Dan Grieder, Junior. Was he related to performer Dr. Dan Grieder who was known in the mid 20th century Austin music scene?
The Opening Titles
The film opens with “Hello, Neighbor!” on screen, as a brass band plays rousing music. This is quickly followed by the title card “Austin, Texas…’The Friendly City’ Greets You!”
The next title card headed ‘Yesterday’ tells us
“A hundred years ago five horsemen mounted on hardy Texas mustangs, searched for the most beautiful spot in Texas. When they saw the fertile Colorado River Valley, the rushing waters of that stream with its potential water power, the abundance of limestone and building materials in the hills, and the natural beauty of the landscape, they agreed that this should be Austin, the Capital of Texas.”
Now we move on to ‘Today’, which is shown in capital letters:
“AUSTIN IS ONE OF THE LOVELIEST AND MOST ADVANCED CITIES IN THE NATION. SO OUTSTANDING, INDEED, THAT EACH YEAR, HUNDREDS OF FAMILIES MOVE HERE IN ORDER TO BENEFIT FROM HER FINE SCHOOLS, HER EXCELLENT BUSINESS CONDITIONS, HER FRIENDLY ATMOSPHERE AND TO ENJOY THE SPELL OF BEAUTY WHICH THE ENCHANTING TOWER LIGHTS CAST OVER THE TOWERING OAKS AND MOSS-COVERED WALLS OF A CITY RICH IN HISTORICAL HERITAGE. SUCH A FAMILY IS MR & MRS JOHN SMITH, BILLY & BETTY, WHO ARE EAGER IN THEIR ANTICIPATION OF MAKING AUSTIN THEIR NEW HOME.”
Thankfully, the narrator isn’t shouting too!
Austin’s Population in 1943 was 87,878
We follow the Smiths in their black car slowly driving towards the city. Next, the family stand talking and laughing next to the Austin city limits sign. It states “Austin City Limit, Pop. 87878, State Maintenance Begins”. In 2019, Austin’s population was more than tenfold the 1943 figure, at 950,807.
Apparently Betty can’t wait to start High School, while Billy and his dad look forward to fishing together.
At the house, the family appears to unload only three suitcases for their new life in the city!
Newcomers Welcome Event
The family now attends a special event for new residents, called the Newcomers’ Lantern Show. They also receive a big sack of local Austin products for their pantry.
The (sadly unnamed) chairman of the Austin Chamber of Commerce welcomes them and starts a picture trip around the city.
Key Government Sites in 1940s Austin Texas
The family visit the Texas State Capitol building, located in downtown Austin. The building was completed in 1888 & paid for with 3 million acres of public land.
The Smiths are greeted by the Governor himself, who places his 10 gallon hat on Billy’s head.
Looking south across central Austin, we see Congress Avenue, the central business thoroughfare.
Now we’re at the Governor’s mansion. It’s built in the style of the southern colonial home. Every Texas governor lived there from 1853.
The home is packed with historic items, including a bed slept in by Sam Houston. Billy clubs on it, so Betty pulls him off and he falls heavily to the floor!
The State Highway building is next. It’s the nervecentre of the construction and maintenance of the Texas highways.
Then we see the Walton building, once the county courthouse. By 1943 it housed several state departments. More departments are at the State Office Building.
Austin’s 1943 Health Services
The Texas State Department of Health building had recently moved into spacious new headquarters. Outside is a mobile dental unit, attached to a van, ready to serve people living too far from dental offices.
Young Billy now stands in a rabies laboratory, helping the female laboratory worker access one of the rabbits in the cage rack. The animals are somehow used to make rabies serum.
Betty then helps the female laboratory worker prepare an analysis of a sample sent to the lab. Apparently the lab would receive thousands of samples to test from across the state each year.
1940s Austin Government Locations
Next we’re at the Federal Building, home to Internal Revenue, the Federal Court, and other federal departments.
The Austin Municipal Building is the city hall. The City government had operated on a cash basis since 1928.
The municipally owned and operated hospital is apparently “equipped with the finest materials”.
The County Courthouse has its jail located at the top of the building. Billy and Betty take an interest in the fossils embedded in the building’s stone.
Outside the large and elegant Post Office is a Courtesy Box, allowing customers to post letters from their car!
Cultural Sites In 1940s Austin Texas
Next the family visit the Elizabeth Ney Museum. The celebrated German sculptor Elizabet Ney (1833-1907) moved to Texas in the 1880s, at the invitation of Governor Oran M. Roberts. She’d had an adventurous life but she and her husband remained in the city for the rest of their lives.
Home of the Austin Women’s Club, Chateau Bellevue, has an extraordinary architectural style. It was designed by San Antonio architect Alfred Giles (1853-1920) in 1874. Unfortunately, the cameras did not go inside.
The Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs occupied a pretty colonial building at 24th and San Gabriel Streets.
The children now wander through a museum looking at flags. One curious flag shows a severed hand holding a bloody sword. They stop to use the desk of O.Henry, the short story author William Sydney Porter.
Now it’s time for the family to visit the State Cemetery! There’s a memorial to Stephen F. Austin, after whom the city is named. In 1825 he led the second, and ultimately, successful colonization of the region, bringing 300 families from the United States to the region.
The French Legation was built by France in 1841, to house the French Ambassador to the old Republic of Texas. The building was furnished by European goods and furniture brought across the ocean.
Climbing Austin’s Treaty Oak
Betty is lifted onto the branch of the Treaty Oak. Over 500 years old, its branches spread 126 feet from side to side. After photos and a dance around the tree trunk, Billy and his dad also clamber over the ancient tree branches.
Treaty Oak is apparently the last surviving member of the Council Oaks, a grove of 14 trees that served as a sacred meeting place for Comanche and Tonkawa tribes prior to European settlement of the area. The film completely ignores this. Instead, Christopher Columbus is mentioned.
In 1937, the City of Austin purchased the land that Treaty Oak stands on for $1,000. A plaque honoring the tree’s role in Texas history was erected in the same year. The Treaty Oak scene in this film was made less than six years later.
Thankfully, and somewhat surprisingly, in 1989 the ancient tree survived a deliberate and severe herbicide poisoning. The perpetrator was handed a nine year prison sentence. Sadly, almost two thirds of the Treaty Oak died and more than half its crown was pruned.
Therefore, the tree today has a very different appearance to the mighty oak the Smith family clambered about in back in 1943.
In the O. Henry Museum, William Sydney Porter’s dictionary may well be dropping to bits but staff and visitors happily handle the pages and loose sheets, along with an original copy of The Rolling Stone newspaper.
The Texas Memorial Museum is located on the university campus. The camera goes inside to capture the artifacts, but a ridiculous bowed hat worn by Mrs Smith takes centre stage. The children pretend to be interested in Vice President John Nance Garner’s collection of gavels, pointed out by their suited and sombre father.
A Look At The Schools Of 1943
The Austin Senior High School has nearly 3,000 students! The Austin Chamber of Commerce arranged safety patrols, preventing any major traffic accidents near schools in the city.
The University Junior High School is operated in conjunction with the University of Texas.
St Edwards University, a Roman Catholic college for men, is now introduced. A priest inspects two uniformed boys holding rifles. We are told that during the war the college not only maintains its academic curriculum, but also devotes a lot of time to military instruction.
St Mary’s Academy was a Catholic school for girls. Its location was originally the home of Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, second President of the Republic of Texas.
Concordia College prepared young men for Lutheran ministry. We also see the Chapel of the Presbyterian Theological Seminsary.
It’s worth noting that this was an era of school segregation. We didn’t get to see the schools for children of color.
Handling the Plymouth Bible at the University of Texas
“The Tower” is the library and centre of the University of Texas. Here the family not only looks at a Plymouth Bible, with its notes in the margins, but touches it with their bare hands!
300 feet in the air at the top of the tower, the family views the huge clock up close. They also admire the panoramic views of the city.
There are 29 tower lights structures, each 150 feet high. They were erected 50 years previously, when Austin was still emerging from pioneer settlement to twentieth century city.
Christian Churches & Values
Now the narrator emphasises the Christian values of the city, and the large number of churches present.
Unfortunately, that appears to be 94 churches for caucasians, and 44 for people of color. Suddenly, it’s clear the African Amercian and Latino communities are present in the city, but are entirely absent from the film.
It would be another 11 years until the Board of Education’s decision to declare school segregation unconstitutional. This is the ONLY point that the film conceeds there are citizens of color living in Austin.
Without a hint of irony, the narrator now states “there is equal opportunity for old and young, rich and poor, to worship with that freedom on which our country was founded”.
Huge, Empty Roads of 1940s Austin Texas
Now we see East Avenue, turned from cow pasture to a major north-south thoroughfare. People run through the grassed areas.
Next we are told that “Austria is grateful for the privilege of having here the State Eleemosynary Institutions”.
Schools for Children Living with Disability
The Austin State hospital cares for adults with ‘mental deficiencies’.
85% of Texas children with sight impairment are taught at the Texas School For the Blind. It provides services from kindergarten through to High School. The main focus was providing employment skills so individuals could earn their own living as blind adults. It appears typewriting and weaving were on the curriculum for girls, along with cooking.
The boys have more fun, roller skating outside. Two of the boys appear to be albino twins.
Now we visit the state school for ‘mentally deficient’ children, where the spacious grounds are silent and empty.
Treelined West 50th street is well maintained – and almost deserted.
The Texas School for the Deaf was one of the largest in the country. It specialises in teaching the latest methods to its students. It’s not clear what those were, since we don’t see sign language or lip reading in action. Instead, children put a label on matching pictures, and no one talks.
Parks & Recreation In 1943
We now see the public library, which along with the university library and state library, is one of the city’s literature resources. Mr Smith picks ‘You’re only young twice’ from the shelf, while Mrs Smith selects ‘Why is it a dress?’ by Hawes. Betty reaches for Leo C. Rosten’s ‘Hollywood’ tome, while Billy opens the illustrated ‘Fighting Ships USA’.
Next the family are at a lido, located in one of the 13 parks and playgrounds scattered across the city. Along with building healthy bodies, these facilities will apparently reduce ‘juvenile delinquency’.
The Municipal golf course was one of three golf courses in the city. The weather in Texas meant it was a good sport all year round.
Texas Memorial Stadium is packed with spectators to watch the university team play other leading teams of the south west. The Texas Cowboys university organisation adds ‘entertainment’.
At the Austin Athletic Club, a game of baseball is in progress.
340 acres of parks and river walks are available, including picnic tables and barbeque pits, scouts huts and a police target range and lily pond. So the Smiths enjoy a bicycle ride.
After looking at the springs, we’re at another busy outside swimming pool, packed with children and teenagers. Mr & Mrs Smith look awkward and formal, sitting fully dressed watching on. The group of young men in naval costumes look young and left out.
Apparently up to 5,000 people could gather at the hillside to enjoy public events such as concerts.
Day Trips Outside Austin
The family now heads out to the west of the town to enjoy sightseeing along the Colorado river, including Cannon Lake, Marble Falls Lake, Mansfield Dam and Lake Austin.
A Final Look At 1940s Austin, Texas
Finally, the family views 1940s Austin Texas from a panoramic vista. Young Billy vigorously throws stones at the city as his family looks on. Meanwhile, the narrator reminds us it is ‘the friendly city’.
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