History of Austin

History of Austin's Pease Park is a wild tale of buried treasure, Civil War troops, and Eeyore too

Uncover the wild and wonderful history of Austin's Pease Park

Pease Park
Is that buried treasure we see? Courtesy of Pease Park Conservancy

Located in the heart of Austin, Pease Park is an integral part of the city's fabric, hosting countless birthday parties, field trips, family barbecues, volleyball games, hikers and bikers, and more. Its current public art installation, Stickwork, has become a wild success while annual events like Eeyore's Birthday (attended by hundreds of costumed participants, bongo drummers, maypole dancers, bubble blowers, and more) make it an essential part of Austinites' lives.

But the history of the park is as lush as the land. Long before Pease Park became an official part of Austin, winding along the banks of Shoal Creek from West 15th to West 31st streets, the 42-acre parcel was home to Native American tribes. Over 11,000 years ago, these tribes spent winters in Texas before moving across the Great Plains following herds of buffalo traversing the land.

Both sides of the Civil War
During the Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, troops were sent to Texas to help stop robbery and prevent bloodshed. General Robert E. Lee and his troops are said to have camped along the banks of Shoal Creek.

After the war ended, Reconstruction was implemented to bring political, social, and economic restructuring to Southern states. Notably, General George Armstrong Custer was part of the plan, and he and his troops spent time in the Pease Park area helping to restore order.

During Custer's time in Austin, cholera spread through the park, ultimately killing 35 to 40 of his men. At the time, they were buried in the western section of Pease Park though their bodies were later removed and reinterred in the Oakwood Cemetery in East Austin and the National Cemetery in San Antonio. 

Pease Park origins
Pease Park was originally part of the 365-acre Woodlawn Plantation property acquired by Texas Governor Elisha Pease and his wife, Lucadia, in 1857. Less than two decades later in 1875, the section now known as Pease Park was donated to the city for use as parkland to be enjoyed by residents. Pease died in 1883 before the park was in use by local citizens, and Mrs. Pease later complained in a letter that the property was used by neighbors to dump livestock carcasses.

The Pease's historic 1853 home, which sits just west of the park, was originally part of the Woodlawn division in the Old Enfield neighborhood, north of Clarksville and west of the University of Texas campus. Four generations of the Pease family lived in the home before Governor Allan Shivers and his family purchased the home in 1957. The Shivers family eventually gave the home to UT, which later sold the mansion to the State of Texas.

Searching for Mexican gold
As if the presence of Civil War troops along the banks of Shoal Creek wasn't enough, the mid-to-late 1800s brought another round of excitement to the area: fortune seekers mining for gold. It was rumored that Mexican gold was buried in the Pease Park territory, attracting treasure seekers from all over. (According to newspaper accounts at the time even psychics and diviners joined the crowds in seeking riches.) Though many sought their fortune by furiously digging the grounds for years, alas gold was never discovered.

Part of Austin's cultural fabric
A number of Austin neighbors, benefactors, and philanthropic groups have long been involved in preserving the historic legacy of Pease Park while promoting its recreational uses as well. Starting with the local Kiwanis Club, park improvements were first implemented in 1926, which then included spending $4,500 on a park bathroom, $1,000 toward entrance gates, $1,200 to build a wading pool, and $1,600 to build a dam.

Perhaps the park's most famous event, Eeyore's Birthday Party was started by a group of UT students and faculty in 1963 to herald the beginning of spring and celebrate the birthday of the depressed donkey from Winnie the Pooh. The bash was originally held in Eastwoods Park, near the UT law school, but moved in 1974 to Pease Park to accommodate the growing number of festivalgoers. The next party will be this spring on April 27, 2019. The event is free and open to the public and shuttles to the event are available.

Protecting the park's future
In 2008, a committed group of park volunteers banded together to form Trees for Pease. Volunteers mobilized to protect existing trees from drought conditions, hired certified arborists to prune where required, and planted saplings to form an urban canopy providing shade in the park's interior.

The formation of the group led to the establishment of Pease Park Conservancy, a nonprofit "dedicated to the rehabilitation, beautification and support of Austin's central city park for the enjoyment of Austin and future generations."

Last year, the conservancy received an astounding $9.7 million grant from the Moody Foundation and it was announced that this funding will be utilized toward the implementation of the first phase of the master plan. The grant also ensures that locals and visitors alike will enjoy the Pease Park grounds for generations to come — and maybe find that buried treasure.