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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Frederick Law Olmsted

by Clay Coppedge
One of the most important people from American history that most people have never heard of was Frederick Law Olmsted, who was a very good writer but was much more famous as a landscape architect. He designed New York City’s Central Park and also the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, the Boston Commons and dozens if not hundreds of others parks and public places.
Before he tried his hand at writing he spent time as a farmer. He took a scientific approach and combined his interest in farming with interests in travel and writing in his book “Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England.” By the time he was through he determined that he preferred traveling and writing to farming. That decision eventually led him to Texas, where he compiled the material for his classic account of the state in 1850: “A Journey Through Texas.” Published in 1857, the book is a solid and mostly objective look at Texas society in the middle part of the 19th Century. The New York Daily Times published his accounts under the byline Yeoman.
The pseudonym was useful, especially in a previous book that covered the Deep South and its slave economy. Dead set against slavery, Olmsted was remarkably clear-eyed and fair in his assessments of the people and conditions he met on his journey. His arguments against slavery rested partly on moral grounds but he focused more in his books on the economics of slavery. Did slavery make sense from an economic standpoint? Olmsted’s conclusion based on his observations coupled with his knowledge of agriculture: No, it did not.

In Olmsted’s view, an economic system based on the backs of highly unmotivated workers who are kept in a perpetual state of ignorance degrades both the slave and the master, depending as it does on threats and actual violence. The slaves were costly to obtain and costly to maintain, which prevented money from being spent on public improvements, and since no wages were paid, money did not circulate and further improve the economy.

In an irony for today’s times, the porous border with Mexico was also an issue but the opposite of the hot-button political issue of today. Slavery had been abolished in Mexico, and slaves who ran away, especially in Texas, usually headed for Mexico. Olmsted looked for an economic reason to support slavery not related to the moral objections, but he found the opposite.

Olmsted also found food along the way, some of it to his liking and some of it not so much. Olmsted, who was from comfortable circumstances back east, emerges today as something akin to Texas’ first food critic. Despite the generally gentle and non-judgmental tone of his books, it’s startling the way he often barges in on people, regardless of their circumstances or condition, and expects not only to be fed but to be fed well.

At an East Texas cabin, Olmsted was served cold salt fat pork, cornbread that he found to be “micaceous,” (I think it means he didn’t much like it) molasses and milk. Olmsted drank the milk and refused the rest, which reminds me of a story that might be based on truth and could have applied to Olmsted at certain points on his journey. In the story, a hungry traveler from the East accepts humble hospitality at a remote cabin but takes a look at the salt pork on his plate and declares, “I can’t eat this meat.”

The host replies “Help yourself to the mustard.” The same story along with the same retort is also told in relation to, uh, Son-of-A-Gun Stew served at a chuck wagon.

In Austin, Olmsted sat down to a restaurant meal deemed worse than the one he couldn’t bring himself to eat. He described the meal as being comprised of “burnt flesh of bulls and swine, decaying vegetables sour and mouldy like farinaceous glue, drowned in rancid butter.” Translation: He didn’t like it.

Fortunately for him and his stomach, in New Braunfels, he had a German meal that transported him back to the Rhine Valley. In South Texas he delighted in tortillas, tamales and refried beans. He found the meal “wholesome, nourishing and extremely cheap.” Olmsted made it sound like he discovered Taco Bell in the wilderness.
Still, his book on Texas is a work to be valued rather than derided. His descriptions of the Texas landscape and the natural world are sometimes fanciful but also insightful and reverent, which matches the overall tone of the book.

Olmsted comes across today as someone we would love to have a conversation with, but maybe not over a plate of bacon, beans and cornbread.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
April 13, 2012 Column

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