Visit the Texas Heritage Trail Regions and see where it all happened

Texas Heritage Trails at 50: Beginnings

By Barbara Brannon

Beginnings Texas Takes Action Planning the Trails Launching the Trails Travelers Take to the Trails New Directions Ongoing Travels

This is what tourists outside the Lone Star State thought of Texas more than half a century ago.

To those who care about preservation, travel, and local history, this phenomenal transformation has an interesting history of its own. If we can appreciate and show what set our state’s heritage tourism program apart, we stand a much stronger chance of persuading our leaders why it’s worth keeping.

Most followers of today’s Texas Heritage Trails Program know that the Trails were created as an engine of economic development, using Texas’s storied past as fuel. Texas governor John Connally, a savvy businessman, saw the trend of increasing leisure travel in the 1960s and a chance to bring more of those tourist dollars into the state’s far-flung counties. Insiders also know that this program has been vitally important to our state as a mechanism for historic preservation, education, and economic development.

Beyond those basics, however, few were aware of the details of the program’s origin. What motivated Governor Connally to pursue the idea to begin with in the 1960s? Where did the money come from? How were the regions and routes and names determined? How did the THC decide, thirty years later, to take over the trails and transform them into regions including all 254 counties? THC staffers and program volunteers could provide some of the answers, but it as vital to discover and record more.

Perhaps the most obvious place to hunt for information was Austin, at the THC itself. Although the agency’s archives and records yielded a great deal of recent data and lots of clues, explorations there didn’t reveal much about the Trails’ beginnings.

After a couple of days in the THC library I trudged back home to Lubbock with my notes and photocopies. And there, in a visit to Texas Tech University’s Southwest Collection, I bemoaned to a librarian friend the gulf I’d encountered in my searches for background on the Texas Heritage Trails, a.k.a. Texas Travel Trails. That phrase rang a bell to him, and he phoned the university archivist. In short order she brought me three fat boxes of seldom-consulted papers. The faculty member whose vision had guided the original 1960s study was deceased, as it happened; the records of his project had been filed under an earlier version of its name; and the academic department that housed it had ceased to exist. Thus, hidden away in an apparently unrelated archive in an apparently unrelated institution was the key that would unlock the entire story.

President John F. Kenndy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, and Texas Governor John Connally in the Dallas motorcade.
Photo: UPI Archives

But let’s go back, first, to the middle of the twentieth century. Texas had finally begun to see the economic and political potential of travel in the boom years following the second World War. With a forward-thinking young chief executive in the White House and a Texan as his vice president, Texas leaders were poised to drive tourist dollars to the state’s coffers. John B. Connally, elected to the governor’s office in 1962, was in the midst of his first, trying legislative session. Texas was still viewed as a parochial backwater of the Solid South. President Kennedy, anxious to cultivate support here, by 1963 was urging vice president Lyndon Johnson to arrange a visit [1] — an occasion we all remember for its ultimate result in tragedy.

With the establishment of the Texas State Historical Survey Committee (predecessor of the THC) and the county historical commissions in the 1950s, Texas had begun to examine its own history with greater scrutiny than it had brought to bear back in its Centennial year in 1936, when the Texas Highway Department had been given charge of all tourism promotion. The state was keenly aware of the boom in postwar leisure travel by car, and the importance of roadside attractions and historic sites in tourism. Americans had the means to travel again: they had great new cars, they had growing families, they had brand-new Interstates. And they had a pent-up desire to get out on the road and see the USA.

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[1] Talk given by Julian Read, Texas Downtown Association, Bastrop, TX, Nov. 7, 2013. See also Read’s book JFK's Final Hours in Texas: An Eyewitness Remembers the Tragedy and Its Aftermath (Austin: Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin, 2013).