Before barbed wire, railroads and highways carved up Central Texas, prior to the overgrazing practices that diminished native plants and opened the path for invasive species to proliferate, back when native grasses blanketed the hills and valleys — an indigenous people thrived by living lightly on the land.

A living model of this pristine landscape has sprouted from the imagination and 10 years’ hard work of a small Central Texas community. The Texas Botanical Gardens in downtown Goldthwaite, a community of 1,900 in Mills County, celebrates the natural world and the history and culture of the hunter-gatherers who once roamed the banks of the Colorado River thousands of years ago.

Texas Botanical Gardens opened to the public last fall. For a modest fee, you can explore alone, or follow a tour guide as he points out native grasses, shrubs and trees, and explains how prehistoric people used the plants for food and shelter. A brook lined with native sandstone trickles near an amphitheater built for seminars and school children to climb on. A replica wickiup perched on a berm covered with buffalo grass brings to life how these early Americans kept warm and dry. Wayside panels with colorful illustrations explain how to grind nuts and seeds into sustenance and cook tubers in underground ovens called middens.

The gardens are just the first phase of a complex called Legacy Plaza, which covers an entire city block. Legacy Plaza is the brainchild of retired elementary and special education teacher Jan Fischer. Back in 2004, engineers said it was impossible to restore the abandoned, 100-year-old Saylor Hotel, so she called in a wrecking crew and had the concrete building hauled away in pieces. Fischer then assembled a board of directors and, working with volunteers and city, county and state agencies, led the community in transforming a forlorn, downtown city block into a destination that already draws visitors from across the state. Like taking an overgrazed pasture and bringing it back to life, an eyesore slowly grew into a garden spot the community now shares with great pride.

The adjacent Texas Department of Transportation Welcome Center complements the gardens with a friendly place to relax. The butterfly roof funnels rain water into a 40,000-gallon underground cistern. Water is pumped above ground and used to irrigate plants and replenish the brook during dry weather. An open-air pavilion and museum to be built within the next few years will be home to the Native American Interpretive Center. When it is finished, local volunteers say it will be a destination unlike any in the area.

“We decided we could fill a void and showcase the history of this area ... because these first people were really good stewards of the land,” Fischer said.

The gardens depict what it was like to inhabit the western edge of the county long before covered wagons rolled into the region.

“The plants are plants that were here a couple thousand years ago, utilized by the first people who walked across Texas — the hunters and gatherers,” Fischer said. “We wanted this to represent a real place and time with everything in it correct. Almost every plant in there in some way, shape, or form has been utilized by Native American culture.”

The Texas Botanical Gardens celebrated its grand opening in October with a visit from former first lady Laura Bush, founder of Taking Care of Texas, a nonprofit that promotes the “mutual benefits of economics and conservation.” The $750,000 project was financed with private donations.

Landscape designer Tab Ledbetter and his workers stacked 27 tractor-trailer loads of local moss boulders to build steps, walkways and a small canyon similar to one you can find near the Colorado River. Ledbetter said the board of directors has worked closely with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and is pursuing an affiliate relationship.

Standing among native plum and persimmon trees, thorny agarita bushes, and the Texas state grass — sideoats grama — Ledbetter points out this landscape is a microcosm of what we would find if we lived in the region 1,000 years ago. “It’s not your typical city park where workers mow, cast fertilizer, water, and mow again,” Ledbetter said. “We’re going to let nature run its course.”

As Texas continues to shift toward a more urban state, Legacy Plaza is dedicated to opening the eyes and ears of people who have had little interaction with rural landscapes.

”The whole purpose of Legacy Plaza and the original idea is to educate people on things that aren’t taught in school books,” Ledbetter said. “We’re trying to teach people about the first people who lived in Texas — the hunter-gatherers. They are pre-tribal Indians, so they are not known by Comanche or Cherokee names. These panels tell about how people survived on the land, about their food sources, medicines, tools, weapons and shelters that they lived in. This is to kind of give you a brief history.”

Legacy Plaza was also built with children in mind. It is a hands-on facility where students can grind seeds into flour, or sit cross-legged in a wickiup and pretend they were born centuries before the Internet, airplanes and automobiles. A playground with boulders and trees invites youngsters to climb and explore this piece of country in the city.

“That’s exactly what kids these days need,” said Hazel McCoy, a longtime rancher and Mills County resident who sits on the board of directors.

“I’m very pleased that it is not the bright plastic that you would find at McDonald’s,” McCoy said, referring to the playground. “There are trees that the kids can climb, and sand piles that they can play in — maybe find a dinosaur egg, or who knows what. There are too many children these days who do not have the opportunity to get out into the country and to see what really goes on.”

Legacy Plaza has also opened Mills County to eco-tourism. Visitors can work with the Legacy Plaza folks and gain access to area ranches with undisturbed archeological sites where they can camp out, cook out, and mix with landowners, archeologists, ornithologists and astronomers.

“It’s amazing the number of children — and adults too — who have no idea of the history of this part of the state,” McCoy said. “This certainly is an opportunity to further that education and make it interesting as well as informative, which is the best way to catch people’s ideas.”

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